The East Greenwich Peninsula – a history

THE EAST GREENWICH PENINSULA
A HISTORY

Greenwich peninsula has been the subject of development plans for the past two hundred years. It has been described as a miserable, smelly, place. This perception of it is not new – the same comments were made by those who built the gas works in the 1880s! Over the past two hundred years the area has seen a great deal of activity. Much of it has been innovative – and things invented and made there have affected the way in which all of us live today. It has been a working area, unpretentious, somewhere where people have got on with things and not minded about what they looked like. What follows is a, very abbreviated, history.

BEFORE 1800

Greenwich Marsh, as the peninsula is properly known, was once, probably malarial, bog. Walled and ditched at some time in the middle ages, much of the land was owned by charities and it was used for grazing. We can also assume some riverside trades – barging, fishermen – and perhaps some more covert activities. Greenwich itself was a flourishing town – the presence of the Tudor Royal Palace should not blind us to the fact that this was one of the larger industrial towns before 1800. There was arms manufacture, shipbuilding, chemicals, ironworking, milling and much else. Industry had been centred around Deptford Creek but was beginning to need space to expand. Manufacturers looked eastwards to undeveloped riverside land.

Before 1800 the marsh housed an Elizabethan watchtower and, from 1694, one large, and dangerous, building. This was the Government Powder magazine where gunpowder from various mills was delivered, tested, stored and distributed. So frightened were the inhabitants of Greenwich by it that they petitioned to have it removed. In the 1790s a new store was built at Purfleet and the Greenwich building was sold in 1802. From that time industry on the marsh began to expand around the riverside edge of the peninsula. The basic industry was based on barge traffic – coal, cement, tar, and general lighterage. For many years the central section remained to cows, market gardens, ditches, gypsies, passing watermen – and, probably smuggling and some explosives testing.

Even today the marsh can be divided into a number of areas.. The western shore, where many sites are still in use by industry, began to expand from around 1800. Much of this area is owned by the Morden College, the Blackheath charity, established in the sixteenth century. The College’s influence in the development of the marsh is an important, but unresearched, subject. The gas works site, to the north and east and little used before 1880, will be dealt with last. First, the east side and the lane to it, now called Riverway.

THE AREA AROUND RIVERWAY

On the east side, at the end of Riverway, is an area separate from the rest of the marsh. Here in 1800 a soap maker called George Russell built a large tide mill. Parts of his ‘New East Greenwich’- housing and a pub (named for William Pitt – ‘The Pilot who weathered the storm’) are still there. The mill was a large one, built on an industrial scale to grind corn.. During its building an accident, famous in the history of steam engine development took place – an explosion in the boiler of a steam engine designed by Richard Trevithick. It possibly changed the way in which steam power developed.

In the 1840s the mill buildings and adjoining sites were sold to Frank Hills. He was an industrial chemist hitherto based in Deptford. Over the next fifty years his chemical works expanded at East Greenwich. His story is a complicated one. Briefly, he developed chemicals based on gas industry waste products from which he made a large fortune and, with his brothers, owned works in Wales, Spain and elsewhere. He had also developed a steam car and patented an important piece of gearing. He went on to become a major London shipbuilder, perhaps involved with The Warrior.

In the 1890s the mill site was acquired by a local company for a power station. In 1947 this was replaced by another, demolished in the late 1980s. The site is now derelict.

To the south of Riverway, the ‘British Steel site’ was used from around 1900 for Redpath Brown’s structural steel works. Greenwich Yacht Club, whose clubhouse is on the site of Frank Hills’ riverside foreman’s house, now use Redpath Brown’s old jetty.

The area was served by sidings from the Angerstein Railway to the east. This was built in the 1850s as a private industrial railway – probably in connection with plans for docks on the peninsula. The line, which joins the main line from Blackheath to Charlton, has always been managed by the South East Railway and its successors. It is still in use today.

ENDERBY

To return to 1800 and the main industrial area of the marsh on the east side. By the time the gunpowder store was closed, industry was already creeping eastward down river. The site itself was sold and went on become one of the most important in Greenwich. In 1829 it was acquired by a family called Enderby. They had been Bermondsey tanners who had made money from a white lead manufacturing process and then married into the whaling trade. For them ‘Enderby Land’ in north eastern Antarctica was named. In Greenwich they built a rope walk (the line of which can be seen from the riverwalk when looking west through the buildings on the STC site). On the riverfront is Enderby House dating from the 1830s. In the 1850s the site was taken over by a Glass Elliott who were developing the new technologies of cable making which became a major Thamesside industry. Here the first Atlantic cable was made. There have been many subsequent innovations here and the site can well be described as one of the most important in the history of communications technology. It is still in use as STC Submarine Systems Ltd (Alcatel Submarine Networks).

ALONG THE RIVER FROM THE CUTTY SARK PUB TO STC

Riverside sites, back towards Greenwich have mainly been used for wharfage and building materials. The wharf recently vacated by Lovells, was from 1838 used by Coles Child. He is typical of Greenwich riverside manufacturers.. He was a Lambeth based coal merchant who made enough money to live in the old Bishops’ Palace at Bromley. At Greenwich he built up a complex site based on coal from the north east with local cement, lime and gravel. He developed the area of housing around Pelton Road. Street names in the area were taken from the North-east coal field (there was once both a Newcastle and a Northumberland Street here).
The site now used by Wimpey Roadstone was once Mowlem’s Yard where the Great Globe, now at Swanage was made. Look at the wall in Cadet Place for a selection of the stone they used. Continuing connections with the construction industry are obvious.

A more unusual factory here was the engineering works of Joshua Beale – among many innovations he probably made steam powered cars here in the 1840s.

FROM STC TO ORDINANCE DRAWDOCK

There are three jetties attached to the STC site. Between the first two is an old ’causeway’ in fact channel. The third jetty was used, before 1958, by the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich for tipping rubbish into barges.

Next is the Tunnel Refineries complex.. Tunnel Glucose is a Belgian company on site since the 1930s. They make specialised sugars from maize and, more recently, wheat. In the 1960s fathers who worked at the plant were in demand – for supplies of ‘ice pops’. Next to them are Hays Chemicals – successor of the many chemical works which have been and gone in this riverside area. Hays are on the site of Mollassine, a dog food factory famous for its bad smell. Their red stone office block can be seen from the northbound A102M

After Hays the riverside walk turns inland. On the riverfront is the area of the Horseshoe Breach where an inrush of water destroyed the river wall before 1600. Shipbuilders took advantage of the resulting bay to site their slips. Here, the innovative National Company for Boat Building by Machinery, tried and failed, to produce 6,000 boats a year, all to a standard pattern. They were succeeded by the ship building division of the great Maudslay engineering company. Here were built iron sailing clippers and huge complex steam engines were fitted into battleships. They were succeeded by barge builders and barge repairers. The present derelict concrete buildings covered barge building slips belonging to Humpheries and Grey.

After Horseshoe Breach, apart from a short stretch it is not possible to walk along the riverside. This area was, until recently, dominated by the huge blue ‘portainers’ of the Victoria Deep Water Wharf. This area has been home to many, many industries, and is still busy today. One of the most important was John Bethell who, in the last century, made tarred blocks for road building. There were lino works, Forbes ammonia factory, seed crushing, cement, ice, ammunition, wire rope, more barge building, more chemicals, more cables. Even Henry Bessemer, had a steel works here for a while. From 1905 until the 1980s the area was dominated by the Delta Bronze foundry

BLACKWALL POINT

At the end of Tunnel Avenue, by Draw Dock Road is a very typical SEGAS gate going into what was Ordnance Wharf. It is the first reminder of the once dominant gas works. This area was the gas company tar works – run as a separate site from the main works. Alongside it a drawdock – built by the gas company in the 1880s by order of Parliament – goes to the river. The air vents of the ‘old’ Blackwall Tunnel are adjacent.

Ordnance’ Wharf was so named because of the Blakey Ordnance Company which made ‘great guns’ here in the 1860s. Later there was the Bisulphated Guano Company – processing what was probably South American bird droppings. No wonder the gas company protested that their works could smell no worse than existing users of the site! They were forced by Parliament to buy the site out before the gas works could be built – but what is more important they also bought the enormous, and unsuccessful, dry dock which still lies somewhere under this area of Blackwall Point.

A COMMUNITY ON GREENWICH MARSH

There is still some housing in Tunnel Avenue – the sole reminder of what was once a large community. Several factories had their own, adjacent, workers housing. The London School Board School still stands, in use as a museum store, and nearby was a, listed, church, now demolished. There were several pubs – Tunnel Avenue was once Ship and Billet Lane (the pub is now the Frog and Radiator). The Mitre, which for while in the 1980s housed the notorious Tunnel Club, is now Dorringtons, the Star of India is now Radburns and the Sea Witch is somewhere on the Tunnel Glucose site.. A community of fairground operators now lives on the site of Blakey workers’ homes Housing was cleared in the 1960s and 1970s as Greenwich Council moved people away from the marshy area which was then designated for industry.

THE GAS WORKS

And so – to the gas works.

It must be stressed that, in terms of gas industry history, the South Metropolitan’s East Greenwich Gas Works was very late and very modern. Since it was built, it 1884, no other new gas works has been built in London. South Met was based at the Old Kent Road and, in the late 1870s, led by its charismatic Engineer and, later, Chairman, George Livesey, took over most of the other South London Gas Companies. In 1881 it set about building a ‘super’ works to rival Beckton across the river. South Met. thought that its’ East Greenwich gas work was the best in the world – and it would take someone very brave indeed to argue with that.

The two gas holders, the smaller of which still stands, were the biggest in Europe – only one holder in America ever surpassed them. They are very special holders built with great difficulty on the marshy subsoil. They are very plain because George Livesey didn’t believe in ornament. In the history of holder design, and because of the ethos by which they were built, they are much more important than other, ornate and listed, holders elsewhere.

In 1889 gas workers left work (strikes were illegal) to protest against Livesey’s profit sharing scheme. This is a complicated story but the outcome was a huge investment in social facilities by South Met. Opposite the present Port Greenwich offices stood the Institute and Theatre. Workers born in the company maternity scheme, could work, be housed and buried by them. In the First World War South Met. Was involved in chemical weapons research confined to a designated area. They also took over part of Frank Hills’ chemical works running it as separate plant, Phoenix Wharf. The amazing and dramatic pre-cast concrete parabolic sulphate house, too modern to list but much used by film companies, was demolished in the 1990s on the excuse that it was used for illicit rave parties.

THE TUNNEL AND THE MOTORWAY

The biggest feature of Greenwich marsh today is the A102 and the two Blackwall Tunnels. The earlier tunnel was built by the Metropolitan Board of Works in the 1880s – as a free crossing for East Londoners because they did not benefit from the abolition of tolls on upriver bridges. The tunnel was built for horse and cart – and was served by trams. Seventy years after it opened, the second, southbound, tunnel was built by the GLC and a motorway standard road joined it to the A2 at Blackheath.

Today, the traffic on the tunnel approach road grows and grows. But traffic is unlikely to be the end of the story of Greenwich marsh.

Mary Mills
June 1996

BIBLIOGRAPHY

General works on Greenwich Marsh are confined to two articles:
W.V.Bartlett, “The River & the Marsh at East Greenwich”, Trans. Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society Vol.7, No.2., 1964-5, pp.68-84.
Mrs. Barbara Ludlow, “Social Conditions on Greenwich Marsh 1837 1901”, Trans. Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society 1968, VII\3, pp.130-141.
There are numerous leaflets and articles about individual companies. In particular:
Michael Kerney, “The Development of an Early Victorian Artisan Estate in East Greenwich”, Trans. Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society 1984 IX\6, pp.299-309.
Sally Jenkinson Whaling, Rope Making and the Atlantic Telegraph. Enderby Wharf, Gordon Teachers’ Centre, nd
East Greenwich Gasworks has been reasonably well written up, but much of it is not very accessible. The most recent article is:
“East Greenwich Gasworks” Archive, Issue I, March 1994. Lightmoor Press

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