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Setting up the free ferry

Ever wondered about the history of the Woolwich ferry?

Its origins can be traced back to the 1300s, when Woolwich was a fishing village and the town had the right to run a ferry. The ferry ran between Woolwich on the north shore and Warren Lane on the south shore.

  • The earliest references to the ferry can be found in the state papers of 1308, when the waterman who ran it, William de Wicton, sold his business and house to William atte Halle, for £10. In 1320 the ferry was sold again for 100 silver marks. There is no further mention of the ferry during the years that Woolwich rose to prominence as a royal dockyard under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

    Later, as London expanded, the movement of troops and supplies became a problem. In 1810 the army established its own ferry that ran from Woolwich Arsenal to Duvals Wharf.

    In 1811 an Act of Parliament was passed to establish a ferry across the Thames from Woolwich at the Old Ballast or Sand Wharf, opposite Chapel Street (now Chapel Hill) where the dockyard then terminated.

    The ferry became known as the western ferry and was run by a company that called itself The Woolwich Ferry Company. Shareholders included the Lady of the Manor, Dame Jane Wilson, her son Sir John Thomas Maryon Wilson, John Long and John Stride.

    The western ferry continued to operate until 1844, when the company was dissolved after a history of inept management.

  • The free Woolwich ferry was established in the late 1880s.

    In 1880 a public meeting was held in Woolwich to see whether the town could afford to set up its own steam ferry. The board featured 60 local residents. The cost of building the boats and landing piers was too great and the Metropolitan Board of Works was approached. This board was the forerunner to the London County Council.

    The people of Woolwich pointed out that, through their rates, they had helped pay for toll bridges in west London that the board had recently purchased and opened to free public use. They insisted that they, too, should be able to cross the Thames free of charge.

    In 1884, after conducting a survey, the Metropolitan Board of Works agreed to provide a free ferry.

    In September 1887, Messrs Mowlem and company were awarded contracts to build approaches, bridges and pontoons.

  • The free ferry opened on 23 March 1889.

    Woolwich was decorated with flags and bunting, and the streets were lined with volunteers from the local artillery.

    There was a huge procession, preceded by mounted police and followed by various local traders and associations with their emblems and bands.

    The official party of Lord Rosebery and other members of the newly formed London County Council, the local MP and other dignitaries travelled in open carriages.

    Lord Rosebery then declared to the thousands of people gathered "The free ferry is open to the public."

    There was only one boat, the Gordon, in service that weekend and the crowds poured on to take advantage of the first free trips across the river.

    That weekend alone, the Great Eastern Railway Company carried 25,000 people to its North Woolwich terminus, most of whom were intent on riding the ferry.

    The first two series of ferry ship were paddle steamers, but they were replaced by motor ships in 1963.

  • The third series of ferry ship are motor ships, and they replaced paddle steamers in 1963.

    While the original paddle steamer ferries were suitable for horse-drawn traffic, the introduction of the motor car made it difficult for the ferries to cope because of the increase in weight that they had to carry.

    The paddle steamers were designed for side loading, but this was a long and complicated process in the case of large motor vehicles. These vehicles were difficult to stow, fewer of them could be carried and there were longer delays at the terminals.

    A decision was made to replace the paddle steamers with diesel-propelled boats that loaded from the end. A new causeway was also built on either side of the river with hinged traffic bridges to make loading and offloading easier.

Find out more about the Woolwich ferry