Woolwich Ferry

By Robert Rogers

Nobody really knows when the first ferry was used to cross the River Thames at Woolwich reach, but it is believed that this may have been the crossing point for travellers from Colchester to Dover and as far back as the Iron Age. The first official record of a Ferry service was in the 14th century.

Their had been many attempts at a ferry service over the years, but these failed, not helped by the fact the there was very little on the northern side of the Thames at Woolwich. The most successful was one run by the Watermen of the Thames from Warren Lane on the south to Bargehouse on the north, but even this failed once big business begun to develop North Woolwich.

In 1847 the Eastern Counties railway was extended to North Woolwich and the area developed. As well as railways, a park was created in 1851 called `Royal Pavilion Gardens`, including a Dance Hall, Dinning Saloon, Theatre and Maze, which attracted people at Weekends and Bank Holidays. A Ferry Boat service was also introduced to encourage people from the South bank to use the Railway to travel.

Railway Ferry 

In June 1847 the Eastern Counties Railway extended the Railways to North Woolwich.

They introduced a Ferryboat service from the newly built Roff`s Pier at South Woolwich and their own railway pier at North Woolwich (remains of this northern pier can still be seen).

This pier was also used by the Paddle Steamers from the Pool of London on their way to Southend, Clacton and Margate, as it was ten miles down river from the Pool. It was to this pier that in September 1878, the Captain of the Princess Alice was trying to steer when she was hit and sunk by another vessel.

The price to cross the river was a penny (1d), with the ticket office being on the southern side, which not only sold ferry tickets, but tickets to various destinations on the Eastern Counties railways.

Originally a two-boat service, the `Essex` and the `Kent`, both built at Barking. They were described as Small tug like, open decked, paddle boats with wooden hulls and weighting 65 tons.

In 1879, a third ferry, the `Middlesex`, which was an open decked, iron hull, 103 tons paddle boat, built at the Thames Iron Works at Canning Town was added, all there craft had twin red funnels.

In 1891 a fourth ferry was introduced called the `Woolwich`, which both replaced the Essex & Kent (which were scrapped), plus had luxuries to try to bring back customers, which had gone to the now introduced `Free Ferry`.

The Woolwich, which was built by the Thames Iron Works, was described as having enclosed comfortable cabins fore and aft, with a Steel hull and weighed148 tons.

The idea was that the more `Upper` class customers would be still willing to pay to cross the river in comfort rather than to travel with the `Working` class on the free ferry. The ferry services continue until 1908.

The Middlesex was sold to Westcliff-on-Sea Yacht Club, beached and the hulk was used as a clubhouse until scrapped in 1936.

The Woolwich was sold to T.S. Wilson and converted to a vehicle ferry and used on the Queensferry passage across the Firth of Forth in Scotland until she was scrapped in 1923.

Although the railway ferry had taken the passengers away form the Watermen, they still continued a trade carrying animals and vehicles across the river, but this was all to come to a sudden end with the introduction of the `Free Ferry`.

The Woolwich Free Ferry  In 1885, a Parliamentary Act was passed to allow the Metropolitan Board of Works to ferry across the Thames at Woolwich, Passengers, Animals, Vehicles and Goods, free of all charges, rates and tolls.  

Work begun in 1887 to clear away the old Buildings etc on the site of the South landing stage.

On the 20th March 1889, the London County Council replaced the Metropolitan Board of Works.

On the 23rd of March 1889 Lord Rosebery, Chairman of the LCC, opened the Woolwich Free Ferry.

The ferry was the first of the `free` means of crossing the river in this area, designed to open up the area for industrial development, the others being, the Blackwall Tunnel in 1897, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel in 1902 and the Woolwich Foot Tunnel in 1912. Further up the river, the Rotherhithe tunnel opened in 1908. The next crossing after that was Tower Bridge by the Pool of London that had opened in 1894.  

The first ferries were `Gordon`, `Duncan` and later the `Hutton`, named after General Gordon of Khartoum, Colonel Francis Duncan (of the Royal Artillery) and Professor Charles Hutton.

The reason for three ferries was that two would be in operation at all times with the third being maintained or on `stand by` on the dry grid.  

The ferries were described as being Side Loading Paddle Steamers and the colour scheme was Black Hulls and Funnels with the reaming body work being deep Umber. 

They were powered by 100nhp (Nominal Horse Power) condensing engines by John Peen & Son of Greenwich.

Gordon & Duncan were built by RH Green, with Hutton being William Simons and Co Ltd.

Note, some books claim all three were built by Armstrong and Co

Whichever the Builders, they were of the same design specification,

Cost approx  £15,000

Length    154 feet

Breadth   60 feet

Draught   4 feet

Tonnage  490 tons

Engines   2 pairs coal fired Diagonal Surface-Condensing Engines

Speed      8 knots

Capacity  1000 passengers & 15-20 vehicles

On the first day of opening only one ferry, Gordon was used, as Duncan was still to arrive. Hutton Arrived in 1893. It is said these ferries from day one attracted many children to ride on the ferries as a day out, and I must admit in the 1960`s I was one of these. Although you were just supposed to travel from on side to the other and then alight, if you did not cause a problem nobody seemed to mind, and you could spend many a happy hour in summer watching the busy river life or go down to the engine room and watch at the door as the mighty engines powered the paddle wheels and chat to the Engineers.

If a large ship was coming either up or down the river, the ferry would stop to let it pass, so you would get off, watch this ship go past, then get the other ferry, again nobody seemed to notice you if you have not been on that ferry for a while. 

The next breed of ferries was introduced between 1922-30, and replaced the old ferries.  

They were in 1922 the (new) `Gordon` & `Squires` (named after William James Squires, twice Mayor of Woolwich and Chairman of the Woolwich Building Society), which were built by J. Samuel White & Co Ltd.

There specifications were,

Cost        approx £35,000

Length     172 feet

Breadth    62 feet

Draught    4 feet 6 inches

Tonnage   625 tons

Engines    2 pairs coke-fired Diagonal surface-Condensing engines

Speed       8½  Knots

Capacity   1000 passengers and 15-20 vehicles

In 1930 two more boats arrived, also built by J. Samuel White, `Will Crooks` (First Labour MP for Woolwich) and `John Benn`, a founder member of the London County Council in 1899 (and a relation of Tony Benn MP of Labour party fame).

There specifications were,

Cost        approx £37,00

Length     172 feet

Breadth    62 feet

Draught    4 feet 9 inches

Tonnage   625 tons

Engines    2 pairs coke-fired Diagonal surface-Condensing engines

Speed       8½  Knots

Capacity   1000 passengers and 15-20 vehicles

They were all Steam Driven Side Paddle ferries As these new boats arrived, the original 1889 ferries were withdrawn and scrapped.  

The ferries only stopped running three times for any length of times, although the Fog would stop them regular, a reason for the need of the Foot Tunnel otherwise those working on the opposite of the river to their homes would not be able to get to work. The three times were the General strike in 1926, when the South Pontoon was struck by an American ship also in 1926, and in 1949 when the Pontoons were removed for major repairs.

There is a myth that a Woolwich ferry was at Dunkirk to help with the evacuation of the troops in 1940. There are two reasons for this, a Mersey ferry called the `Perch Rock` which was very much like the Woolwich ferries was used at Dunkirk, the other was they were used in September 1940 to rescue people trapped on the north shore after bombing which set a lot of oil alight, and they had to face the peril of sailing through burning oil on the Thames.  

In 1963 the ferries were replaced by Diesel ferries, `James Newman`, who had been a Mayor of Woolwich in both the 1920`s and the 1950`s, `Ernest Bevin`, who was known as the Dockers KC (Kings Councillor) and `John Burns` named after John Elliot Burns who lead the 1889 Great Dock Strike. The ferries were powered by Voilth Schnider Diesel propulsion

As well as new ferries, the style of the ferry service changed after nearly 70 years, when in 1966 the ferries became End loading instead of Side loading, and new loading bays called Dolphins were built on both sides of the river.  With the demise of both the LCC and the GLC, the Ferries now come under the control of the Mayor of London’s Transport for London Scheme.

For anybody who is interested in the full History of the Woolwich Free Ferry, a book called `Free for All` can be purchased from London Borough of Greenwich Local History Library Service.

Woolwich Ferry