Social Conditions on Greenwich Marsh by Barbara Ludlow

Social Conditions on Greenwich Marsh 1837-1901


THE AREA known geographically as “Greenwich Marsh” formed in the early nineteenth century the extreme north-eastern part of the parish of St. Alfege, Greenwich. The low-lying ground, encompassed by a great northward bend of the Thames and varying from sea-level to twenty-five feet, is composed of alluvium and is separated by a strip of sand and chalk (“The Thanet Beds”) from the higher ground immediately to the south (“The Blackheath Pebble Beds”) which at that date comprised the estates of Westcombe and Woodlands. When Victoria came to the throne neither these estates nor Greenwich Marsh had been much affected by the spread of London’s suburbs. The Lower Woolwich Road separated the two areas and it was from this highway that the four principal lanes led: Conduit Lane and Combe Farm Lane went south to form the boundaries of Westcombe Park and Woodlands; Marsh Lane and Horn Lane went north towards the river.

At the meeting point of Marsh Lane and Lower Woolwich Road there was a group of cottages and small houses built around the Ship and Billet Inn. This hamlet continued eastward along Lower Woolwich Road as far as Wick Cottage, almost opposite where Annandale School now stands, and apart from Westcombe Cottages on the south side of the main road just to the west of the present Halstow Road, there were no other houses along this road until Coombe Farm, which lay on the level ground below Woodlands.

A short distance down Marsh Lane was the Rope Walk, part of Enderby’s Rope Works and eastward. Marsh Lane continued into Ceylon Place which led to the river bank at the New Pier. Greenwich Marsh had not been drained sufficiently for extensive market gardening and much land was used as pasture and Conduit Lane is now Vanbrugh Hill, Marsh Lane is Blackwall Lane and Coombe Farm Lane is Westcombe Hill. Horn Lane retains its original name.

In 1837 the market gardens were centred at the drier south end of Marsh Lane and in the fields bordering Lower Woolwich Road; this belt of cultivation corresponded with the strip of sand and chalk running through the district. In 1843 the approximate amount of land used for market gardening was fifty- six acres and that of marsh meadow and pasture was about five- hundred and twenty-five acres, and it seems, by comparing the Tithe Map of 1843 with Morris’s map of 1834, that there had been practically no change in the use of land between these years. In the years after 1843 Greenwich Marsh and Westcombe Park gradually changed and fields and country estates were replaced by factories and housing estates. The subject of this paper is the changes on the Marsh, the movement and settlement of population and the growth of those amenities essential to a community if it is to thrive—employment and housing.


Eighteen Forty-one. The extent of Greenwich Marsh was approximately 630 acres and the number of persons living in the area in 1841 was 514. There were 107 houses on and around the edge of the Marsh and of these 69, in which lived 350 men, women and children, were at the junction of Marsh Lane and Lower Woolwich Road or along the road between that point and Wick Cottage.

To the north-east by the river bank a terrace of 17 cottages had been erected in Ceylon Place in 1801. Some are still in use today; they have two rooms on the ground floor and two on the upper floor and they appear to have been well constructed. At the southern or main-road end of Marsh Lane were five houses, and a short distance down the lane was a group of twelve cottages which had been built for the rope workers.

The only other houses on the Marsh were four at Enderby’s Wharf on the river bank to the west of the lane, one of which was the home of Charles Enderby himself. Roughly three-quarters of the inhabitants of the Marsh were of Kentish origin and a large percentage of this group had been born in Greenwich, Deptford or Woolwich. The birth-places of the non-Kentish people included various Home Counties and there were also twelve Irish and one Scotsman. It is interesting that in 1843 the few Irish lived, without exception, in Lower Woolwich Road or in Marsh Lane and after 1851 this corner of the Marsh was to grow into a fairly large Irish colony. George Adamson, the one Scotsman, was a rope-maker who lived in one of the cottages attached to the Enderby works. It thus appears that in 1841 Greenwich Marsh was populated in the main by people from the surrounding neighbourhood and that movement from great distances had not yet affected the area. The land still held predominance over the factory at this time and more men were employed in agriculture than in any other occupation. There were four market gardeners cultivating small to medium-sized holdings, the largest of which was owned by William Miles who had four labourers “living in,” as was not uncommon with this type of small-holding during the nineteenth century. Of the thirty-five men employed on the land two were cowmen and thirty-three were agricultural labourers. As market gardening had not yet become extensive on the Marsh it is possible that some of the garden labourers worked in the surrounding districts.

At Ceylon Place, the small road which led directly from the New Pier on the east of the Marsh lived a group of people who depended on the Thames for a livelihood. In 1841 this riverside community of seventeen houses and one inn, “The Pilot,” included among its inhabitants two fishermen, five watermen, two lightermen, a river pilot and a seaman. There were in addition nine watermen living in various other places on Greenwich Marsh.

It is probable that even as early as 1841 the fishermen could no longer work off-shore at Greenwich but had to go down river in order to avoid pollution caused by sewers, estimated in the middle of the century as numbering 369 between Putney and Blackwall, all of which emptied their filth into the Thames.

Other occupations found on the Marsh in 1841 were typical of many communities and included a chair maker, a tailor, a baker, a butcher and a general chandler. Not so usual, however, was the one salesman—a person associated more with the twentieth than with the mid-nineteenth century.

Only a very few of the women were other than housewives and those who earned money followed the usual types of occupation available to working-class women at that time: in Lower Woolwich Road, where all the working women lived, were two laundresses, a charwoman and a stay-maker.

It is significant that in 1841 factory workers, although few in number, already lived on Greenwich Marsh and it appears that they did not travel out of the area to work but found employment in the few factories near their homes. The industrial workers numbered twenty-five, of whom nine were rope-makers living in cottages attached to the Enderby works. This firm also employed canvas weavers, three of whom lived in Lower Woolwich Road; these men worked mechanically-operated looms which were used in the manufacture of sail-cloth. Of the other factory workers nine were engineers—a term applied rather loosely in the nineteenth century—three were chemical factory labourers (Francis Hills had a chemical works by Bugsby’s Hole), and one a foundry worker. The coke, lime and coal works of Coles Child at River Bank on the west side of the Marsh employed six men from Lower Woolwich Road, three as lime burners, and three as coke burners—one of the former and all of the latter being of Irish extraction.

Greenwich Marsh in 1841 was very much a working-class community where most of the men were doing unskilled work, some on the land, some on the river and a few in the factories. The artisans and craftsmen had not yet arrived and the Marsh had never been a suburb from which the middle-class had moved as the workers came. The communities on the Marsh had none of the roots of an old village; it was a place to which families moved as work and houses became available.

Eighteen Fifty-one. After 1841 agriculture and industry began to expand and by 1851 the population of Greenwich Marsh had increased to approximately 820. The number of houses had risen to some 178 and growth had concentrated at the corner of Marsh Lane and Lower Woolwich Road where by 1847 a new road, Hatcliffe Street North had been created. This street, under construction as early as 1843, was built on land owned by the Hatcliffe Charity where previously there had been only cottages and gardens for several poor people.

Two new housing sites had been established on the Marsh by 1851 near to recently built factories. The larger was a group of cottages, ten in number, erected in the lane leading to a cement works at Portland Wharf on the west side. The land on which they were built being owned by Morden College, its name was given to both the lane and the cottages. Close to Bethell’s chemical factory, which was further north near to Blackwall Point, two small houses known as Bethell’s Cottages had been built and these and Morden Cottages were the first homes to be constructed on Greenwich Marsh close to the factories.

This unfortunate practice of mixing housing and industry was one of the causes of the bad living conditions which were to prevail, in the area in later years. The Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes was founded in1844 with Prince Albert as its President and its architect. Henry Roberts drew up designs for housing industrial and rural workers. It is probable that many of the dwellings built on the Marsh just before, and certainly after, 1851 were influenced by his plans for his recommendations were the basis of nearly all the later developments in housing during the nineteenth century.

Of the new-comers to the area most had been drawn from Kent while a smaller number had come in from Middlesex, Essex and Surrey. Probably advertisements concerning employment on the Marsh did not appear till after 1851 when industrial growth gathered momentum; this would explain why few people came into the district from the more distant counties. Although many Irish immigrants had settled in Deptford and Greenwich by 1851 very few of them had moved to Greenwich with the result of a small Irish population there.

Market gardeners on the Marsh did not employ many agricultural labourers until just before 1851 when Coombe Farm was developed as a large garden. At that time the factories in the area were still few and the local people needed the garden work. It is possible that it was not until later that many of the local agricultural worker left the land to go into the new factories in order to earn more money and that the Irishmen, who were used to working on the land and willing to take the lower paid occupations, were to find employment in the market gardens. Because of the increased cultivation the number of people who lived and worked on the Marsh had gone by 1851. Such developments enabled many displaced farm workers from the Home Counties to live and work in surroundings which were not too unlike their old homes.

By the middle of the nineteenth century it had become more difficult for watermen to earn a living on London’s river. Not only did the steamship take away their customers but it also made boating on the Thames hazardous. There were certainly fewer water- men living on the Marsh in 1851 than there had been ten years previously but, although men not connected with the rive/had come to live in Ceylon Place, it still had its nucleus of fishermen and other river folk.

Among the Marsh population the industrial worker was still not a dominant factor but there had been a slight increase in the number of factory workers; the engineers had been joined by two boilermakers, a pipe maker and a millwright. The number of skilled men to be found in industry during the first half of the nineteenth century was relatively small, however, and the largest single group of industrial workers on the Marsh in 1851 was still the factory labourers.

The environment of the new population was not very different from that of their former homes. Unlike many who had moved into the Metropolis or into the industrial towns of northern England, these country-bred people could still live and work in natural surroundings? However, between 1851 and 1861 another sixty-nine houses were erected on the Marsh, practically all of them around the factories on either side of Marsh Lane and Blackwall Lane. The number of houses in Marsh Lane itself increased to thirty-seven with another eighteen in Lower Marsh Lane. Bethell’s had built six more cottages and four new streets had been laid out—York Place, Providence Place, Sidmouth Place and East Place and between them they contained thirty-four new dwellings.


Eighteen Sixty-one. The Marsh population had by 1861 reached approximately 1,020 and although this was still a comparatively small number for the size of the district, the composition and occupations of the community were quite different from those of twenty years earlier. Easier travelling conditions, as well as the expansion of industry and housing, had brought people to the Marsh from counties far away from London and in 1861 the number of new families from the west and north of England almost equalled the number that had arrived from the areas round London.

The English migrants, however, accounted for only one half of the increase in the population for by 1861 one-hundred and eighty-seven persons of Irish origin were living on Greenwich Marsh. They were not spread over the whole area but lived almost without exception in Marsh Lane, Hatcliffe Street and Lower Woolwich Road, forming an Irish colony at the south-west corner. Many of these people had not come straight from Ireland to Greenwich for a large number of their children had been born in England. Many had been born in Greenwich and the proportion between seven and nine years of age indicated that these Irish families were not altogether strangers to the area.

As with other Irish immigrants the men who came to the Marsh formed a pool of unskilled labour and in 1861 most of them were absorbed on the market gardens or in the factories, the majority in the former occupation to which they were accustomed. By the nature of their work there were times when unemployment was inevitable and no doubt many were very poor. It was said that in 1863 there were a large number of Irish catholic inmates each week in the Union workhouse in Lower Woolwich Road, though these would not have come from the Marsh alone as the workhouse served Woolwich, Deptford and Greenwich.

In 1861 the Marsh itself had not lost its rural aspect but the occupations of a large number of men who lived there were connected with industry and building rather than with agriculture. The number of agricultural workers did increase very slightly between 1851 and 1861 but the upsurge in factory and building workers and in general labourers left the garden labourers in the minority. The decline of the Thames boatman was carried into the 1860’s and by 1861 only two watermen remained among the population on Greenwich Marsh. The fishermen had not disappeared completely—one still lived by the river at Ceylon Place and another in Hatcliffe Street. While the watermen and boat-builders of earlier centuries had practically gone, the river workers of the industrial era had arrived: boilermakers and dock-labourers began to make their appearance. The number of engineers had increased and individual tradesmen such as a lathe operator, a gas fitter, a hammer-man and a well-sinker had settled on the Marsh. There were more factory labourers still than skilled men. The increase in building construction is reflected in the number of bricklayers, painters and plumbers who were living in groups around the factory sites. These men, numbering about thirty, were probably employed on the construction of factories and of houses for the factory workers. However, general labourers were the largest single group of workers: possibly many of them had left market gardening for the higher paid jobs of trench-digging and excavating.

A number of shops had opened by 1861 and, apart from one butchers, they fell into the categories of grocer or greengrocer. No separate bakery seems to have existed but one of the grocers also sold bread. Perhaps many of the women still baked their own! A grocer and tea-dealer lived in Sidmouth Place but, due to its relatively high price, the amount of tea sold to the lower- paid workers was probably small. Beer, table ale and porter appeared in most household budgets around the middle of the century and the four inns and two beer-houses on the Marsh helped to provide the population with their traditional drink.

The years between 1851 and 1861 brought changes to the marsh community. In 1851 the inhabitants had for neighbours people who lived much in the same way as themselves but by 1861 immigrants from Ireland had introduced a standard of living often lower than that of the Englishman. The other important change was that older crafts were being replaced by occupations demanding technical ability.

In the 1851 census the buildings in Lower Woolwich Road were not shown with individual names but in 1861 various groups were called Hatcliffe Buildings, Talbot Buildings, another Providence Place—which must have proved confusing at times—Bassett’s Place and Brewster’s Buildings. A Hatcliffe Street East was also under construction in 1861 with only one house occupied at that time. The average number of people living in one unit of housing in 1841-1851 was between four and five and, even if the majority of dwellings had only two bedrooms, overcrowding does not seem to have been a problem during those years. Also, housing development seems to have kept pace with the new settlers as in 1851 no temporary housing for squatters is recorded on Greenwich Marsh. However, in 1861 Hatcliffe Street, Marsh Lane and Lower Woolwich Road, streets in which nearly all the Irish immigrants had settled, had an average of between six and eight persons in a house and lodgers were much more common than in earlier years. Perhaps accommodation was more difficult to acquire as one man and wife lived in a van by the river and two agricultural labourers. One from Hertfordshire and one from Middlesex, were to be found in a hut near Bethell’s chemical factory. As the main drainage system was not laid until 1863 the sanitary provisions on the Marsh must have been very inadequate in 1861.

Eighteen Seventy-five. Between 1861 and 1875 the Marsh population increased to about 1,875, the main settlement area during these years being on land near Blackwall Point. A compact housing estate was built in 1866 by the Blakeley Ordnance Company at the north end of Blackwall Lane. The company provided four-storey buildings for their workers, cottages for the foremen and houses for several managers. By 1875 an area south of Blakeley Buildings had been developed, not however by the Ordnance Company, and Wheaton Street, Ordnance Road and various “terraces” and “places” in Blackwall Lane had come into being. As time passed more Irish people arrived in Marsh Lane and in 1875 families called Murphy, Mahoney, Sheen, Hassett, Breen, Donovan, Sullivan, Riley, Gooney, Hurley, Hennessey, McGuire, McCarthy, Ryle, Moriarty and Gollogly lived practically next door to each other.

Eighteen Eighty—Eighteen Ninety-eight. The population seems to have remained roughly the same from 1875 until after 1880 when a new housing estate was built immediately north of Lower Woolwich Road. Hitherto this area had not been built upon but gradually streets leading out of the main road were constructed and between 1879 and 1898 houses for many thousands of people were erected. In 1880 the first houses were completed in Armitage Road, Collerston Road, Denford Street, Glenister Road and Selcroft Road—all new streets on the Hatcliffe estate. With these four streets added to the original group by 1898 this southern part of Greenwich Marsh became thickly populated. Many of the people who came to live there were from the older and over- crowded districts of Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich. By 1880 there were five public houses in the northern area of Greenwich Marsh: the Sea Witch Inn on the river bank to the west and The Mechanic’s Arms, The Star in the East, the Ordnance Arms and The Kenilworth Castle, all in Blackwall Lane. Market gardening was by now on the decline, much of the cultivated land having been taken for building, and the number of men employed on the land had decreased. Most of the men worked in the factories on the Marsh and in surrounding districts, or as general labourers. By 1891 when nearly all the nineteenth-century house building on the Marsh had been completed the population numbered approximately 7,300. Between 1890 and 1892 Teddington, Margaret, Spencer and Cromwell Terraces in Blackwall Lane, with the Ordnance Arms and the Kenilworth Castle public houses had to be demolished to make way for the Blackwall Tunnel approach road. In 1890 Marsh Lane was renamed Blackwall Lane and in 1897 the original Blackwall Lane became Tunnel Avenue and Dreadnought Street. By 1892 four more streets—Grenfell Street, Boord Street (named after Thomas Boord, M.P. for Greenwich from 1875 to 1880), Idenden Terrace and Sigismund Street had been constructed in this northern area of the Marsh. The pattern established by 1841 of working-class people settling in the district continued all through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth and by 1901 the population was about 8,600. After the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel in 1897 poor people displaced from Poplar came to live on Greenwich Marsh with the result that rents rose as accommodation became very difficult to find. By the end of the century the rent of a six-roomed house was about ten shillings and sixpence a week; lodgers paid between three shillings and five shillings and sixpence for one room. The railway between Greenwich and Charlton, completed in 1878, acted as a dividing line between the wealthy and middle-class families of Westcombe Park and the working-class families to the north. Many of the servants who worked in the houses of the former were drawn from the Marsh people. The day started early in the factories with the men arriving at about 6 a.m. Later, wives or children would often carry the mid-day meal in “dinner bundles” to the gates. By the end of the century there was comparatively little left on Greenwich Marsh to remind the people that it had once been a large expanse of meadow and pasture land. Much of the river-front had been taken up by factories and various unpleasant smells filled the air. However, some open space did remain and a market garden owned jointly by the Mason brothers was still in existence between the southern end of Tunnel Avenue and the Thames. The people of the Marsh could still walk in the countryside at Charlton and Kidbrooke but they were an industrial community living in overcrowded streets.


The Artisans and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875 gave the Metropolitan Board of Works power to force owners of insanitary property to improve their houses; at the same time the Act ensured that all future buildings had at least an adequate water supply and sanitation. From 1875 until it ceased to exist the Greenwich Division of the Board of Works issued many notices to the owners of houses on Greenwich Marsh “to provide a fit and proper water supply and water pipes, cisterns and apparatus to water closets.” Orders for the cleansing, lime washing and purifying of houses were also frequent and one householder in Glenister Road in 1889 was served with a notice to “abate the nuisance of keeping a horse on the premises.” Houses which proved to be beyond repair and those which were in the way of redevelopment schemes were demolished. Many of the houses built on Greenwich Marsh, especially those in the Lower Woolwich Road area, were of poor construction and unattractive design; these rows of terrace houses with no front gardens to relieve the monotony of bricks and mortar, were also liable to be flooded if there were a heavy rain- storm. Overcrowding certainly existed on the Marsh in the latter years of the nineteenth century, larger families being one of the causes. However, C. Hartt, Medical Officer of Health in Greenwich from 1883 to 1900, expressed the opinion that much of the lack of housing was caused by the large numbers of artisans and labourers who had come into Greenwich through Blackwall Tunnel after its opening in 1897 but C. Booth in his “Life and Labour of the London Poor” was more inclined to blame the bad conditions on the unsatisfactory character of the houses and the evils of a low marshy situation which he supposed it would be the work of years to redeem.

The above paper, which formed the basis of a lecture given by Mrs. Ludlow to members of the Society in November 1965, derives from a study which she carried out of the Census reports for East Greenwich for 1841, 1851 and 1861, the East Greenwich rate books for 1837 to 1900 and the Board of Works Greenwich Committee minute books 1857 to 1900. Other sources which the author wishes to acknowledge are the Schedule of Tithes of the Parish of Greenwich 1843, W. Morris’s Map of the Parish of Greenwich 1834 and Bags haw’s Directory of Kent 1837. The paper forms a natural sequel to that by W. V. Bartlett on the industrial development of Greenwich Marsh published in “Transactions” 1966.

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