Free Ferry


Woolwich Ferry at Work - an Impressive Picture of London Life

The following is an extract from the "London" of 2nd April 1896

WOOLWICH FERRY is at its best and busiest on Bank Holidays. Thousands and thousands - reaching in fair weather fifty thousand in the day - come and go, and if there are fewer vehicles and horses, the upper deck is plentifully sprinkled with cyclists and cycles. Such a gay, merry mixed crowd it is, with its groups that must sing and shout for very gladness. All day long, to and fro, the ponderous boats are moving, and holiday seekers crowd the decks at every crossing. But the Ferry in normal times is always an impressive sight. There is life, varied, full and free, at the Ferry. There is a true picture of labouring London at the Ferry. There is something of the real workday earnest, toiling London --something of the London that rises early and retires late, and labours the hard day long through that it may live.

The two steam monsters of ferry-boats, with their slim, yawning funnels, snort and fret and churn up the water from the early morning hours nigh on to midnight, conveying from bank to bank - from north to south, and south to north - the men, women and children, and horses and carts of every kind in unending succession. The great boats, free to all comers, man and beast alike, move with steady confidence among the crowded craft that crosses their pathway to and from the landing stages. They dwarf every other moving thing upon the river. When they near their destiny they creep cautiously in, and despite the backing and sliding, and the loud clanging down in the engine-room, they get securely moored in a wondrously short space of time. Then the gangways are lowered - those for the passengers below, and for the horses above - and they all pour out with a rush and a roar, the children helter-skelter with a whoop, the lighter carts with a trot, and the heavy drays with a thunder over the upper deck and enclosed approach that drowns the hissing engines below. Every time the boats cross it is always with a group of passengers and a crowd of carts, and every time this load is deposited on the landing stages and the decks cleared, other groups and crowds are waiting to go back.

What a boon, indeed, the Ferry is to workmen! See them crowding the decks in the morning, chiefly from the north landing stage, and returning weary and greasy, with their empty tin cans, at all hours of the evening and the night. They find it cheaper, and more convenient in a dozen different ways, to work on one side and live on the other. They generally cross to and fro in friendly groups in silence, listening only to the pulsating of the ponderous engine - grim emblem of their own unending labours - panting and throbbing the same in the morning as in the night, the same yesterday as today, the same from week to week and month to month and year to year until, worn out, they are cast aside and forgotten, as will be the tired toilers they are taking across the river now.

The Ferry is the children's daily joy. It is evident many of the children think the Ferry exists for their own particular convenience and delight. And it is further evident the children exist for the worry and work of the constables on the boats. When the youthful spirits are at school the uniformed dignitaries breathe freely, and saunter about the great decks in freedom and indifference; but before nine in the morning, at mid-day, and after half-past four in the afternoon, their labours are the reverse of light.

Those of the youngsters from North Woolwich who go to school in Woolwich town convert the ferry boat into convenient romping grounds. Going home in the evening, gay and glad that school is over, they frisk and hop about, and chirp and chatter like sparrows. The boys, as a matter of course, are turbulent and, when not teasing the girls, either find mischief or invent it. If there is any place in the boat where they ought not to be, or anything on the boat that ought to be left untouched, the boys of a certainty will discover it. What is more, they have learned to dodge the constables. They can dart under the bridge, dash round the engine-house like a flash of lightning, scuttle down the opposite gangway, and turn up at the starting point with a look of humility and innocence, while the constable is searching for them at the other end of the vessel. They keep their eye on him in order to keep his eye off them for the rest of the journey across, and when he is aft they slip quietly to the fore, and when he comes to the fore they move cautiously down the other side to the stern again.

An ocean-going steamship coming down from the Pool or labouring up loaded from the sea, or a full-sailed barge passing near, is always the signal for a general rush of the youngsters to the side, calling for an extra amount of supervision from the constables. "We've had one of them overboard and don't want another" said one of the men by way of justifying his seeming harshness to the young enthusiasts.

Unlike the children horses never look happy on the Ferry. Get a dozen odd of them on the upper deck, harnessed to their respective burdens - drays, vans, trolleys, carts, and traps - and they always look like creatures losing courage. Rarely do they move or show the least resentment to their strange surroundings; they look sheepishly upon the passing water and receding back as though their doom were near.

The majority of the passengers of course, are workmen, but the general public cross and recross at all hours, seeming to find a never-ending source of wonder in the working of the engine. Women come and go the whole day long. They can live in Silvertown and do their shopping in the Woolwich-road.

The Ferry should be seen at night. From the river wall to North Woolwich, the blaze of gas jets on the landing stage opposite, across the great sweep of dark water, glare out the brightest spot in the long line of lights that skirt the foreshore. And that, despite the fact that at varying points the pale blue of the electric light puts the deep yellow of the gas to shame.

Behind the line of wharves and piers and sheds and miniature docks, all a seeming chaos in the light, a glow of quivering light above the roofs tells of crowded streets below, full of brilliantly illuminated shops. The rays reveal long lines of smoke from towering chimney shafts, tracing with measured movement weird outlines on the face of the night. On the river, barges and ships are moored in groups that mystify, and the red and green lights and the coal-black hulks of vessels moving in mid-stream lend sombre touches to a sombre scene. The lights of the ferry-boat itself are clear upon the waters as she ploughs across.

(Originally from local studies notes No 34, published by Newham library service)