Woolwich Free Ferry

 A Pocket History of the Free Ferry

 The Duncan
Picture from a photograph album published by Pryce and Son. Ltd. printers of Woolwich c. 1920
According to W. T. Vincent in the Records of the Woolwich District there was an ancient ferry between North Woolwich and Warren Lane. In 1308 it was sold for £10. 

An Act of Parliament was passed in 1811 for the establishment of another ferry at Woolwich. There were various other ferries which operated between the two halves of Woolwich town. 

The idea for a steam ferry was first proposed in about 1850, nothing became of this. Then on 18 October 1880 a public meeting was held at the Town Hall Woolwich, to call for the establishment of a ferry from local resources. 

The Metropolitan Board were asked to provide a ferry by the inhabitants of the town to offset the cost that the town had contributed to building and maintaining bridges in the west end. 

The idea eventually prevailed and the Free Ferry was opened on Saturday 23 March 1889. It was opened by Lord Roseberry, Chairman of the L.C.C. amid much celebration. The town was arrayed with flags and bunting. A procession paraded through the streets.  Because of a problem with the hydraulic apparatus vehicular traffic didn't start until Friday 3 May 1889. The two steamers were named Gordon and Duncan, after two local military heroes. 

After all the hard work put in by the Metropolitan Board of Works it fell to the newly formed London County Council to open the ferry. The Metropolitan Board ceased to exist three days prior to the opening date. 

It is at this point that Vincent's history of the district ends. 

The John Burns

The John Burns heading for the Northern shore. 1970
Photo John King

Mr John Burns

The story is then taken up by E. E. F. Jefferson in The Woolwich Story. 
(from 1889 to 1965) 

In 1922 the two original boats were replaced by two new ones The Squires and a new Gordon. In 1930 two new boats were added The Will Crooks and John Benn.

As time went by and lorries got larger, the town centre of Woolwich was filling up with traffic waiting to cross the river, also pressure was put on the old boats carrying such heavy loads. In 1963 three new diesel boats started operating, first of all at the old piers, then at new terminal a little down the road, thus avoiding the centre of town. 

At first the traffic queued in John Wilson Street a new dual carriageway, the waiting traffic used one lane, and the other was used by through traffic. Sometime later a waiting area was built adjacent to the South terminal, so keeping the road clear. On the North side a lane was set aside in Pier Road, separated by a kerbstone from the rest of the road. 

The three new boats were the James Newman, John Burns and Ernest Bevin. The new piers came into use in 1966 

The running of the Ferry was handed over to the new Greater London Council in 1965, and after it's demise in 1986 to The London Borough of Greenwich. 

In foggy weather workers would often loose half or even a whole days pay when the ferries couldn't operate. sometimes this would result in them being dismissed. 

To alleviate this problem a foot tunnel was built, it was opened October 26 1912. 

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