A Breach in the sea wall


The river is an ever-present reality around the Greenwich Peninsula. Sometimes, when floods seemed likely, that reality became a threat.

The Greenwich Peninsula’s real name is ‘Greenwich Marsh’ where a network of sluices was built, probably, in the Middle Ages. Flood defences along the riverbank are always referred to as the ‘sea wall’ – a term which reflects the potential dangers of the tides. It is difficult to know when the original embankments against the sea were built – since they are mentioned in a document dating back to 1290. In 1528 they are referred to as the banks ‘which had anciently been raised’. I would be very interested if any Bygone Kent reader could tell me anything about the age of the sea wall. Clearly it is a very important structure, and, as the remainder of this article will show, requires the very best of engineering expertise. Without it much of the landscape of Thameside would not exist, as we know it.

Most of the records about the sea walls refer to times when the river had broken through. One early instance is in 1297 when there was a ‘certain breach made in the bank betwixt Greenwich and Woolwich by the violence of the tides’. The problem usually was less a question of getting the breach mended than of persuading the locals to pay for the work.

From the 1620s the marshland was managed by the ‘Marsh Court’ or ‘Court of Sewers’ consisting of landholders and other interested parties who raised the ‘Wall Scot’ (the local rate) and employed a small staff.  A very full set of minutes for this body exists from 1625, which detail the care that had to be taken to maintain the marsh properly and keep the river out. This article is about one instance of a breach in the sea wall.

In October 1825 it became clear that a section of sea wall had become very unsafe and was threatening to give way. At the time two plans were drawn but they don’t give enough detail to be able to pinpoint the spot exactly. One appears to show it on the tip of the peninsula but, since the site was said to be ‘opposite the Folly House at Blackwall’, it may well have been on the western side of the peninsula at the southern end of the old Delta Works site. . It appears that the problem was caused by a slight projection which made an irregularity in the line of the sea wall and a breach was threatened.

The Marsh Court had immediate legal problems in dealing with this because, not only was the work urgent and expensive, but members were unsure of their powers to acquire the site and have the remedial work done. Could they go ahead and buy the three acres of land, which were affected? If so how should they raise the money? Or did they need to get a private Act of Parliament first, to give them the powers to do the work? That would be the proper way to proceed but it would take time and the work was urgent. First they looked at ‘Callis’. This was Robert Callis’ ‘Reading upon the Statute of Sewers’ originally published in 1685. It had been edited and reissued as recently as 1824 – but perhaps the Greenwich Commission did not have the new edition. They found that that authority was ‘full of doubt and contradiction’ and so they sought a legal opinion. Unfortunately the barrister who they consulted also gave an opinion that the matter was not clear and he told them to get another opinion.

The Court also began negotiations with the owners of the site – because there was an issue of land reclamation they felt it was important to acquire it. It was occupied by a Mr. Newman, a butcher who used the land for grazing, and the Commission had had the impression that he was the owner. This was not so. The land was actually owned by a Mr. Powis.

It was decided in due course that it would be simpler and quicker for all the landowners to sign an agreement allowing the commissioners to buy the land and that they would also agree for each of the landowners to pay a sum of money. It was suggested that the actual purchaser should be Morden College, the wealthy charity that already owned a great deal of land in this area.

An estimate for the work was sought from John Rennie. This is the younger Rennie whose more famous father had died four years previously. He was currently involved, among other things, in completing his father’s work on London Bridge. In the future he was to undertake many projects involving marshland reclamation in the fens but he had already been appointed as Chief Drainage Engineer for the Eau Brink so that drainage, and perhaps embankment, was already an interest of his.

Two months later Mr. Bicknell, solicitor to the Commissioners gave an update on information obtained to a meeting at the Green Man at the top of Blackheath Hill. This meeting was packed with representatives of local interests.

Rennie reported on what he thought was the cause of the problem. Rennie felt that the great variation in tides throughout the year ‘tends to carry the bank away’ and that previous remedial work – ‘a wooden framing consisting of poles and land ties’ together with ‘several hundred tons of Kentish ragstone’ was making it worse. The wall would have to be rebuilt. The Court was not impressed with the cost of Rennie’s estimate and asked if he could find an alternative, and cheaper, way to solve the problem. Rennie made a second site visit and reported a few days later. He said that the only other possible alternative scheme – to use piling would be even more expensive. He then sent in his bill for this second consultation.

Meanwhile the Court had asked if a report could be obtained from Thomas Telford. He was at, the age of seventy, nearing the end of his long career. He was the ‘undisputed head of the civil engineering profession in Britain’. He had considerable experience in the Fens and was soon to work with John Rennie Jnr. there. The meeting at the Green Man had, however, asked for the most prestigious engineer that they could.

Telford too made a site visit. He to pointed out that the exposed position of the portion of bank which had caused the problem. The river narrows slightly at this point and he also drew attention to the new West India docks and the number of vessels which were ‘frequently moored adjacent to their entrance’ constricting the flow of water. The river thus rose with ‘increased violence’ and was ‘continually grinding the soft matter from the bottom’. He felt that there was an imminent danger of a breach in the wall.

Neither engineer mentioned the Blackwall Rock which had been removed from the northern side of the river about twenty years previously.

Telford, Rennie and the members of the Court of Sewers all thought that the activities of lightermen employed by the City of London and Trinity House were not helping. It was alleged by everyone that material was being removed from the foreshore in this area for use as ballast. The Commission duly wrote to those authorities to point this out asking if this had been going on. Replies, from the Lord Mayor and the Elder Brethren, were, predictably, non-committal.

Telford was however asked to do the work. The archive includes his detailed specification. The work basically consisted of a new earth bank built in such a way as to make the line of the sea wall completely smooth. There was to be a drain at the bottom of the inner slope and the whole structure covered in turf. The work was to be supervised by the Commission’s Wall Reeve who received an enhanced salary for the job. Two contractors tendered for the work Thomas Cotsworth of Dover Road, Southwark submitted a price of £2,100 and Simmons of Bromley, Kent, who got the job, for under £900.

The work was finished by the summer of 1826, apparently without problems, Telford’s final inspection took place and his certificate of completion was issued in July. A dry dock was built in this part of the peninsula in the 1870s but otherwise it is likely that the line of the bank is much as Telford left it, although a considerable amount work must have been done to the wall itself in the intervening years.

A year later in July 1827 Telford wrote to remind the Commissioners that he still had not been paid for the job. It was around the same time that Telford, in the company of Rennie; working on the Nene outfall in the Fens was to catch a severe chill, the first sign that he was beginning to fail with age.

Telford was not alone in not having been paid his services – a series of letters had already been received from Rennie. These concerned his bill for £30 in respect of the second estimate, a sum that the Commissioners refused to pay. In October 1826 Rennie had written to say that he had been in Ireland but that his brother, George, had informed him of the outstanding bill. He wrote to them that he had ‘charged only what I conceive myself entitled to’ and in April 1827 that ‘nothing annoys me more than disputes about money matters’. The Commissioners recorded that they ‘did not find it necessary to alter their first determination’.

Within the next few months the Commissioners also received claims for compensation for late payment from the original landowners. This was a Mr.Richard Powis. The original owner had been his father who had just died – Powis wanted £50 as compensation for late payment.

There is just the suspicion that this archive might have survived because of the arguments over payment. The job must have been a relatively small one for Telford and Rennie, but very important in terms of Thames flood prevention. Few visitors to Greenwich will realise how the care and maintenance by the Marsh Court, its predecessors and successors, over many centuries has kept the land safe and made development of the area today possible.

This article has been prepared from archive material in the Greenwich Commission of Sewers archive plus some material on ‘imbanking and draining’ in the possession of Woodlands Local History Library. Biographies of Telford and Rennie have also been consulted.


Wharves report 1980s

Extract from report prepared by the London Rivers Association 1980s.

WIMPEY Asphalt
This operation largely caters for the building requirements of the parent company. All road stone is imported by ship – about arrival a week is currently required, other raw materials for asphalt production are brought in by road. There is considerable local sensitivity about the lorry movements that this operation produces. The firm is known to be currently negotiating about sites in the Charlton Riverside area. It is believed that they are interested in a somewhat larger site than they are currently occupying (two acres). They would need good river access rot no rail access.

This firm that has been in the Borough for more than four decades is on the point of departing. The last barge to have been repaired in this yard left in December 19~6. The workforce of five were laid off and the company owners are reluctantly looking round for potential buyers.

This is the longest standing public wharf in the Borough; yet it is not safeguarded in planning terms. There is a clear awareness that, partly as a result of this, the value of the site is as great as the value of the going business. This is a family business with close association with the Thames but the prospect of considerable capital gains is becoming increasingly attractive. 40,000 tons are currently being handled which is considerably less than that achieved a few years ago or that potentially obtainable. The Company is currently heavily dependent on two steel stockholders outside the London area. The long term

This firm which is engaged in producing sophisticated armaments for submarines has not used its wharf for over a decade and is unlikely to do so in future. Unfortunately there is no separate vehicle access to the wharf and for security reasons access through the site is unlikely to be granted. There should be some discussion about; the future use of this wharf which is in relatively good condition and has good depth of water.

Victoria Deep Water Terminal
This is the only wharf in the Borough that handles containers. Currently over 40,000 boxes a year passes through the 40 acre site. This is somewhat up on previous years but is nowhere near the full capacity of the site. The terminal has two modern gantry cranes and large 279 metre berths. In the past few years the company has given up operating a shift system and undertaking groupage on site. Employment has fallen from 75 dockworkers and 60 staff four years ago to 20 and 30 respectively today. Two shipping lines account for almost all of their traffic – Bell Lines and Seacon. Both these are currently expanding and are happy with the service provided. The management are worried that by going out to attract new traffic they could alienate their long-standing customers. The company’s biggest problem is the size of their site and their rate bill (over £200,000 per annum). They are looking for a compatible tenant for part of their site and are campaigning for all ports to be assessed for rates on the same basis.

This is the largest sea dredged aggregates firm to operate on the Thames. It has recently purchased the Delta Wharf site (aver 4 acres) with a view to using it to land and process sea dredged sand and gravel. At present it has a large plant and headquarters at Purfleet but feels that it needs a processing plant on the south side of the river. The company operates t\«) 5CXX) ten sand and gravel dredgers. If it can find new processing sites it will invest in further in vessels. It considers that increasingly building materials such as sand and gravel will have to be obtained from the sea bed because of environmental objections to the use of land derived sources. At present the economics are finely balanced. Marine dredged aggregates are more expensive to mine but cheaper to transport. This gives a premium to landing these aggregates as near as possible to the end use. The first planning application was turned down because of objections from the houses that are close by and because of a concern that the operation might not generate a significant amount of new employment. A second planning application has been recently presented which the applicants hope will be more acceptable as it involves a smaller site within the S8IOO employment levels and will free parts of the 5 acre site for other employment generating uses.

This old established barge and boat building firm is occupying a one and a half acre site on the above Civil and Marine freehold. They moved here three years ago after being ousted from their premises in the Royal Docks by the PLA. They have successfully moved into boat building and repair and employ 18 craftsmen and three apprentices. Their order books are full for the next two years having recently secured a large contract to build a 60 ton private cruiser. Their main problem is that they are currently occupying; their site on a licence and could be evicted at a moment notice. While it is understood that Civil and Marine are happy that this firm continues on the site, the lack of security affects the ability to plan for a long term future and the ability to secure finance from Banks.

Ordnance Wharf
This area is let on short term leases to five firms none of which use the river. There are two wharves on the site which could be used in future for cargo handling. They have good water and road access. All the existing users have leases up to 1995 from British Gas which has said that they are interested in disposing of the site. Consideration should be given to its development for river related uses in the longer term. The whole site is over six acres.

Blackwall Point Power Station 
This has recently been bought by Brown and Mason a demolition firm which is currently demolishing the Power station and want to develop the site for their own benefit. The site is about three acres but; may well be seriously contaminated. The firm wants to develop for the highest value which they appear to believe is a high class residential development but are Prepared to talk about; other possibilities. It is believed that they acquired the site at a considerable discount because they were prepared to take on the Problems of asbestos on the site and the risk of contamination.

GREENWICH SAILING CLUB. This is owned and (currently) run by the Borough.  A 20 person Community Programme scheme has been run from these premises for the last four years. The plan is that the borough will pull out and the area (about three acres of land and metres of tideway) will be let out at a peppercorn rent to the Greenwich Yacht Club. The Club has access to a narrow slipway (called the causeway) and recently the British Steel Wharf which they intend to use as additional moorings. At present they have over 100 moorings on the tideway and over an acre of hard standing. The club is currently used by an Association of disabled people but their future involvement is unclear

Future of the gas works site. 1980s.

This report is included with some reservations. The copy it was scanned from had no identifying marks as to authorship, origins or ownership. It appears to be a document commissioned, possibly by British Gas, on the history and future of the East Greenwich Gas Works site – and is thus of considerable interest.
If someone feels they own the copyright please get in touch and it will be removed with an apology, or an acknowledgement inserted.

1.1 The earliest name that we know of is Lee Ness, which is likely to be of Anglo- Saxon origin, and mean ‘thinly wooded headland’ or ‘headland [covered] low-lying meadow’; it could also have been named by attraction from the river Lee which run northwards from the opposite bank of the Thames, whose name appears to derive from an ancient British river-name from a root meaning ‘light’ or just possibly ‘the river of the god Lugus’. .

1.2 Before a system of embanking was in place (by C17, probably earlier, and perhaps as early as the Roman period), this was a place of marsh, water-meadow, and reed- beds, and almost always liable to flooding .On the other hand, it was an ideal place for hunting wildfowl, and Henry VIII certainly hawked here from his palace of Placentia at Greenwich. Indeed, there is no reason not to expect that the Roman period inhabitants of the area (whether officials or natives) would have done likewise: there were, after all settlements of that date at Charlton, Woolwich, and Greenwich, and the main London-Dover road (Watling Street) ran within 2km of the south end of the peninsula.

1.3 During the Anglo-Saxon period Lee Ness was part of a large estate which would have been called Lieveshamscire (Lewisham-shire) and included Lewisham, Greenwich, Woolwich, Mottingham, and Combe. This estate belonged in 918 to Elstrudis, youngest daughter of King Alfred, and in 1006 was the subject of the document reproduced. Vow of Edward the Confessor as heir apparent to the throne In the early years of the eleventh century, the Danish fleet wintered at Greenwich (and, incidentally, slew Bishop Alphege over non-payment of ransom; at that spot, it is said, the church of St Alphege was built, now represented by the monumental C18 fabric of the old church of Greenwich) and forced the Thames up to London.

1.4 In 1588, Robert Adams drew a descriptive plan of the Thames, showing its defences (and Queen Elizabeth’s route to her famous Tilbury speech), among which are shown a bastion at Lee Ness connected by a pontoon barrier to one of the north bank at Blackwall, clearly sited not only to form a final line of defence before the City, but also to command the mouth of the river Lee which was an important navigable channel. [It should be noted that there has been no search of the records for references to this defence line, so that at the moment this plan remains the sole evidence for its existence.] Its appearance would be not dissimilar the Italian engineer Gianibelli’s 1588 design for defences at Tilbury.

1.5 By 1695 when Samuel Travers, HM Surveyor General, compiled a plan of ‘the King’s Lordship or Manor of East Greenwich’, the peninsula was wholly protected from flooding and had been divided up into fields, with a Watch House in the centre of the northern part. The only other building shown is the New Magazine, which by 1760 was in such a dangerous condition that it was declared unsafe; it lasted however until 1802 before being demolished. [There were constant petitions to Parliament in the early C18 for its removal because of the danger of explosion.] The C18 also saw the removal of Execution Dock from Wapping to a point on the west side of the peninsula. This iron-caged gallows can be seen in a 1782 view from Blackwall (figure 6). Towards the end of that century a tide-mill was erected on the east side just north of the river end of the modern River Way. This was the site of a serious explosion of a high-pressure boiler installed by Trevithick, which led to improvements in boiler design, and thus a footnote in the history of steam engineering. When the early/mid-Victorian entrepreneurs needed to expand from their cramped quarters in and around the City, the peninsula offered an ideal greenfield site, and by 1874 the Thames Conservancy’s river plans show a whole series of such works. On the west side (running selectively northwards), were at Enderby’s Wharf [now owned by STC] and Morden Wharf. Tthe consortium trading as the Telegraph Construct; and Maintenance Co (manufacturers of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable laid on an epic voyage by BruneI’s leviathan the Great Eastern), Maudslay Sons & Field (who expanded to this site in 1865 and were builders of innovative marine steam engines for, among many other ships, BruneI’s Great Western of 1837 and also the Time Ball on top of the Old Observatory in Greenwich Park). [This is now the derelict site of Humphery & Grey’s Bay Wharf Construction Co Shipyard, Bessemer‘s Patent Steel Works then Bethell’s Chemical and Alum Works, Mockford & Co’s Chemical Manure Stores, and, right on the point, the graving dock managed by Lewis & Stockwell, which still survives, having been converted into a river water reservoir for the gas works, and is now backfilled although structurally complete. In 1874 the north east sector of the peninsula was still undeveloped, apart from F.C Hills & Co Chemical Manure Works and Bugsby’s Mill immediately north of River Way.

1.7 The South Metropolitan Gas Company (now part of British Gas) bought the vacant land between 1881 and 1885 and thereafter absorbed more to reach today’s total of 99ha. The last two major acts are, of course the construction of the two Blackwall Tunnels, the first opened in 1895 and the second built between 1960 and 1967.

2.0 Preservation

2.1 Within the British Gas site very few standing structures remain. Of these (and of virtually all the other buildings on the peninsula) one stands out as a pre-eminent candidate for preservation: the Ammonium Sulphate Storage Shed, built in 1956 by the Demolition & Construction Co Ltd to hold up to 10 000 tons of dry powder. [This was used in the scrubbing process to remove ammonia from the raw manufactured gas.] Its reinforced concrete parabolic roof is a remarkable and spectacular example of concrete engineering virtuosity. Attempts are being made by groups such as the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society to have it Listed as it is now over 30 years old (the cut-off point). An out- standing opportunity exists here to seed the regeneration process by creating a major cultural centre which could easily gain international status. There are already excellent communications by road, rail, air, and water. Ideally, sufficient land should be included to create a parkland atmosphere, thus producing a resource more akin to Glyndebourne than the Royal Albert Hall. [See Appendix for a musical assessment and further details.]

2.2 Also within the British Gas site (on the south side of River Way) are the earliest standing buildings on the peninsula: Ceylon Place (a row of two-storey cottages) and the Pilot Public House, on whose front wall is a plaque inscribed CEYLON PLACE New East Greenwich 1801. These are on the Local List and clearly merit preservation
2.3 To the west of the massive cast/wrought iron coal and coke jetty are two gasworks buildings of c 1900. Further from the river is the wash house and nearer is an engineering workshop. Although both buildings have been truncated in plan, neither is without a certain architectural charm: the wash house has a series of engaged piers with corniced capitals of brick on its south wall, and the workshop south wall is arcaded. Of the two, the workshop is probably more suitable for preservation.

2.4 Finally on the site, there are three structures, all of which have some claim to preservation and all of which present major problems not only of refurbishment but also of integration within the overall redevelopment scheme. These are the massive cast and wrought iron coal and coke jetty of 1886 (the southern arm of the T added soon after 1903), the remaining gasholder (no. 1 of 1886 by George Livesey, the world’s first four-lift gasholder) which is a major landscape feature at over 60m high in an otherwise relatively flat terrain and the dry dock at the north end of the peninsula (1871, lengthened before 1890)
3.0 Archaeology

3.1 For most of its documented history, the British Gas site has been low-lying meadows, reed beds, and marsh, constantly liable to flooding until systemic embanking perhaps as late as the early C17. Changes in the course of the Thames as yet largely unassessed for this area, will have altered the topography, possibly in a fairly drastic manner if we consider the whole period of human occupation of the middle and lower Thames catchment area.

3.2 Much of the peninsula is covered by a layer of peat (recorded in ground investigations) between about O.75m and 5.5m thick, whose upper surface is at about -1.5mOD. This peat band is likely to represent the Tilbury IV marine regression, which has been identified in archaeological contexts in London and dated to within the Middle Bronze Age (later 2nd millennium BC). Analysis of this type of deposit allows us to assess the topographic and vegetational environment in which prehistoric Thames-dwellers lived.

3.3 On the sites where it has been identified in London, the Tilbury IV peat sealed a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age landscape which produced evidence for cereal farming (including minor structures such as platforms). This opens up the exciting possibility that (apart from areas disturbed/destroyed by recent foundations) up to 99ha of early 2nd millennium BC landscape underlies the British Gas site!

3.4 The archaeological implications are drastic, not least because, unlike the better known types of prehistoric site that have an impact on the modern landscape, such as Stonehenge, hill forts, and barrows, the sort of occupation site that might be, found here is more likely to be the remains of a temporary shelter and/or a scatter of stone/flint tool fragments and food bones. It is therefore almost impossible to predict the locations of such sites, although a thorough analysis of the ground investigation data for the area should give some idea of the’ topography at that period and hence areas that might be more likely to be ‘settled or otherwise used in an archaeologically recoverable way. That said, the importance of investigating a broad spectrum of the landscape must not be minimised, and it should be noted that piling is just as destructive of these types of deposit as deep excavation: in other words almost any typical ‘brown land’ foundation method will result in a total loss of the archaeological deposits. 3.5 Furthermore, slight though such remains as discussed above are, they represent an important (and often much neglected through their difficulty of recovery) part of our heritage and, imaginatively interpreted and displayed, can add to the ‘sense of place’ that is so crucial to the successful establishment of a largely new residential area such as is planned here.

3.5 Without the detailed study of the early topography of the area mentioned above it is difficult to estimate accurately the archaeological potential of the later periods up to the seventeenth century (by which time the river wall seems to have been in place), particularly as virtually no stray finds have been recorded which might offer some clues. One which was recorded (in 1948) from the northern edge of the peninsula was a find of C4 Roman pottery (one complete and one broken ‘vase’ from a depth of 7.5m), which need not indicate more than a relatively casual loss, possibly from a passing ship.

3.6 We must now return to the Armada bastion. Because the original plan was drawn at such a small scale (1: 63 360) it is difficult to go further than a location to the nearest 6ha. It is, however, clear that English Heritage will object most strenuously to development within that area without at least a full-scale trial excavation, which is likely to cost about £20,000 and take between one and two months to complete. Once the site is found, a major excavation will be required, costing perhaps £0.25M and lasting possibly three months. Post-excavation processing can be expected to cost virtually as much again. [It is difficult to be more precise at this stage, but these figures give a reasonably accurate view of the likely financial and time costs involved. The bonus, of course, is a site of enormous heritage potential and with major promotional possibilities.] While the visible remains, when uncovered, will .be disappointing to those unfamiliar with excavated structures, it will be entirely possible to recreate an accurate replica either on the same site (which is now perhaps 70m back from the modern river wall) or on the present river edge.

3.7 The opportunity should be taken, while groundwork’s are proceeding, to carry out a series of fairly small-scale investigations of the early river wall(s): we do not know at present when embanking first took place in this area, or indeed whether or not it was systematic or piecemeal. All these questions are, in theory, answerable, but it is more likely that we will be able to recover only part of these answers. Nevertheless, that part will be very valuable for building the overall picture.

3.8 Finally, the one thing that can confidently be predicted is that during these investigations we will find something that is completely unexpected, and that is supremely difficult to build into a budget or timescale.

The Ammonium Sulphate Storage Shed: Performance Possibilities. Virtually every new performing arts structure, and especially those for music, has proved to be acoustically inadequate (eg the Royal Festival Hall). It is therefore exciting when a building becomes available that has excellent acoustics to start with and does not need expensive modifications. Here some combination of materials and three-dimensional geometry has offered an ideal venue for the performance of early music (for instance Monteverdi’s works could for almost the first time be performed in exactly the way they were designed (both tonally and locationally) for San Marco in Venice, where groups of musicians and vocalists were scattered around the galleries of the church), and also for modern ‘electronic music such as Stockhausen, Boulez, and the Paris-based Institut de recherche et de coordination accoustique/musique (IRCAM). The purity of the reverberation here should be stressed-unlike some halls it does not distort the sounds, which means that both early (including Mozart and modern (eg Berg’s Lulu) operas would perform well here. Indeed, there is very little that .is put on at Glyndebourne that could not be put on here. It is, however, easy to ruin acoustics-soft fabrics and carpets are particularly absorbent, as, indeed, are audiences. Therefore, while portable dampers may be required for some types of performance, every effort should be made to retain hard surfaces. In addition, as little as possible of the air volume should be occupied, so that while the audience seating platform will probably require a slight rake it should be no more than 2m from front to back. It would also be advantageous to have as few permanent structures as possible, including the seating; in this way the utilisability of the building.


Return to East Greenwich Gas Works



Based on lectures given before the Society by Mr. Bartlett in January 1960 and December 1963.

ANTIQUARIANS have always been interested in the remains of ancient trades and manufacturing activities but the factories railways, docks and other constructions which since the Industrial Revolution, have gradually replaced the small craft workshops and primitive industries of earlier days have long been regarded as the curse of archaeology and the destroyers of much of beauty and without historical interest. With the passage of 200 years however the earlier examples of industrialisation have themselves acquired an historical importance and “industrial Archaeology” as a special branch of study has been born. Greenwich has preserved much of traditional antiquarian interest among its ecclesiastical secular and domestic building and this is in some measure clue to the fact that, when wide-spread industrial development took place in the lower Thames in the 19th and 20th centuries there was within the Borough a large and almost inbuilt area with a long river frontage. in which it could take place. It is the changes which have occurred in that area known as East Greenwich Marsh and its waterside which are the subject of this paper.

In considering the development of the River Thames below bridges, and its trade, one must not lose sight of the fact that until a few hundred years ago the Lower River was for the most part a good deal shallower and,at high water, much wider than it is today. Its banks were generally low-lying and at each high tide the water spread itself for a considerable distance on either side thus rendering much of adjacent land unsuitable for the erection of buildings at least by methods then current except in the comparatively few places where there was a natural bank of firm ground. It was largely a marsh and so were Lambeth, part of Bermondsey, much of Rotherhithe, The Isle of Dogs, and most of what is now East Greenwich. And below down to the estuary, there were, and indeed still are, areas of unreclaimed marsh and saltings.

For the Lower Thames there are records from the 11th century onwards of Commissions appointed to survey and make repairs to the banks, but often early efforts in this direction were more or less isolated attempts by individuals to protect their property. Then in the 17th century came the importation of Dutch engineers, with plenty of experience, to carry out the building of walls and embankments at various places on the lower River and they did excellent and lasting work. Nevertheless as recently as 1770 there were no locks on the upper river and, though certain pound locks were afterwards constructed at Maidenhead and above, the large range of locks on the Thames upper reaches which we know were not built until 1815. The River’s earlier flow was thus virtually unregulated. The Thames Conservancy was not established until 1857 and up to that time, the authority over the River rested with the Crown. The setting up of the Port of London Authority to take control of the river below Teddington, where the tidal flow now ends took place only as recently as 1909. In the London area drainage of adjacent lands was for in the hands of Courts of Sewers which were annually elected. Later to form the Metropolitan Board of Sewers and this became the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855. That body was the direct forerunner of the London County Council formed in 1888.

The other matter to be borne in mind when considering trade on and near the River is the nature and rate of flow of the tide. On the lower Thames the current is at certain times strong but not so as to interfere seriously with navigation. The speed varies at different localities but somewhere about four knots on the full strength of the ebb is about the maximum. The rise and fall of the tide is about 20 feet at springs and I0 feet at neap and, so far from tidal conditions being a disadvantage London watermen have for generations saved much time and effort by making intelligent use of them. Nevertheless there have been proposals from time to time to construct barrages at a variety of places on the lower Thames to convert the reaches above into a tideless waterway. The first such scheme was put forward in the latter part of the 17th century and in 1793 there was plan to cut a new channel for the River across the Isle of Dogs.

Again in 1902 a Royal Commission examined a proposal to make a cut across East Greenwich Marsh from Angerstein Wharf to Pelton Road to connect the ends of Blackwall and Bugsbys Reaches and to convert these reaches into large docks, with a barrage and bridge across to Poplar, thus turning the Marsh into an island. There have also been schemes for barrages at Woolwich and, more recently, at Gravesend but none of these proposals has materialised


‘The “Marsh” was a broad tongue of low-lying land some 500 acres in extent. its southern base being approximately a mile long on the line of the present Woolwich Road and extending on the west to the eastern boundary of the old Royal Palace, and on the east to Lombard Wall, The boundary between East Greenwich and Charlton. Northward it extended about a mile and a quarter to Blackwall Point or Lea Ness as it was originally known in the 15th century.

Protection and Reclamation.
The first of a number of commissions “to overlook river walls and ditches” was set up in 1315- known to have been a year of heavy floods -and by the 15th and 16th centuries attempts -had been made to reclaim and protect some of the land by ditches and dykes furnished with sluices to draw the water away. Part of the area was thus made useable for grazing and farming. The two main drainage outlets were Bendish Sluice which discharged into the river on the west side towards the southern end and Arnold’s Sluice which was about 300 yards to the south-cast of the Point. There was another about 600 yards to the south-west of the Point and a fourth, King’s Sluice, near the eastern extremity of the Marsh, close to Horn Lane. In a document of 1375 to which incidentally Geoffrey Chaucer was a witness –this part of the Marsh is referred to as “Hornemarsh.’

A deed of Richard II (1398), which was described and illustrated by the late Mr. J. W. Kirby (Transactions Vol. IV No. 3), it records the transfer from John and Margaret Wreke to Stephen Shoreham of a rood of land in a field called “Thistle croft.’ This field covered an area of seven acres in the north- west of the Marsh between the River and a way known as “the Drove Wall.” which was probably a raised path for cattle-drovers. The “wall” was mentioned again as a boundary of the West Combe estate when John Lambarde bought the latter in 1544 and it was then referred to as “the common Droyffe way.” In a conveyance of 1567 the reference is to “the wall called the Drowall.”

William Lombard, John’s son and the antiquary, purchased Thistle croft in 1564 but exchanged it later for land further west in Greenwich where he built his almshouses. Kimball in his “Greenwich Charities” records that in the 37th year of the reign of Henry VIII (1545-6) an Act of Parliament was passed to enforce each and every land-owner of Combe Marsh in the parish of East Greenwich to pay and contribute from time to time towards the expense of repairing, maintaining and supporting the sea-wall, embankments, etc. At this period, too, there are references to the King and others hawking on the Marsh. Lambarde’s Wall (designated by that name in 1555 but now known, by a typical corruption as Lombard Wall) was an embankment constructed in the middle or the 16th century by William Lambarde, whose Manor of West Combe included some land in the east of the Marsh to prevent the flooding of his property. The “wall” may still be seen within the land belonging to G A Harvey & Co.

In 1597 Anthony Roper son of William and Margaret Roper of Well Hall, and grandson at Sir Thomas More, left land and tenements at East Greenwich for the benefit of the poor of Farningham and other places in Kent. Included in the land were 30 acres near Horn Lane, later known as the “Ashfield.” and about 12 acres near Arnolds Sluice of which a portion was reed beds outside the river wall.

At some time before 1600 the River broke its banks quite extensively at a point roughly half a mile south-westward of the Point and this is referred to in subsequent documents and maps as “The Great Breach.” or “Horse Shoe Breach.’ The bank was never repaired along its original line but a new river wall was later made in a large loop to the eastward and this is the line it follows today.

In the early 17th century a Court of Sewers for East Greenwich was set up to regulate the work of drainage or the Marsh and to apportion the liability for the work among the various owners and tenants. The minutes of this “Marsh Court” are still in existence from 1625 in the possession of the Greater London Council.

In 1620 a number of parcels of land bordering the north side of Woolwich Road between Marsh Lane and Horn Lane were left by William Hatcliffe for the benefit of the local poor and Kimball in 1816 records that the feoffees of Hatcliffe’s Charity were still subject to the payment of a rate or assessment called “the wall scot” as adjudged by the Commissioners of Sewers of Greenwich Level. The word “scot” was applied generally from very early times to a charge levied on a landowner or householder for local or national purposes and prior to the Reform Act of 1832 his payment entitled him to his vote. The origin of the saying “scot free’ can also be seen here.

Early Roads and Paths.
A lane existed prior to 1638, starting from a point opposite Conduit Lane (the present Vanbrugh Hill) and running north-eastward through the centre of the Marsh, as does its present-day successor, Blackwall Lane. It continued by a winding course to the riverside near the end of what is now River Way, where a mill later stood. From a point rather more than half way along this course a footpath, which eventually became a narrow lane, ran north-west- ward along the line of the present Dreadnought Road and then north towards the tip of the Marsh. This almost certainly followed, at least in part, the old “Drove Way.” At the end of the 17th century the southern portion of the road was referred to on Travers’ map as Green Lane and on Rocque’s map of 1746 it was shown as Marsh Lane. Indeed that name was used in a deed of the reign of Charles I. In 1789 the trustees of Hatcliffe’s Charity leased to John Andrews for 50 years two acres of “garden ground” at the corner of Marsh Lane and Woolwich Road and “two messuages standing thereon called the; Marsh House and Crooked Billet.” Later still the lane was called “Ship and Billet Lane” after the inn built, and since rebuilt, at the corner of Woolwich Road. The “Ship and Billet” tavern was, in the early part of the 19th century, a quite pretentious looking house with a tea-garden and a bowling green attached to it.

There was by the reign of James I, and no doubt earlier, about half a mile east of Marsh Lane a short track which ran northward from Woolwich Road for two or three hundred yards. It was about where Chilver Street now is and was known variously as Vicar’s Lane, Wiccars Lane or Vicarage Lane because it led to a field of glebe land called “the Vicar’s Acre.”

Rocque’s map shows a path by the River’s edge but the only other access deep into the Marsh was in the east where Horn Lane (referred to in 1555 as “Horne- wall”) ran and still runs, towards the River in a north-easterly direction from a point on Woolwich Road nearly opposite the site of the old farmhouse of East Combe.

Ownerships and Field Names.
Samuel Travers’ map of 1695 and his accompanying Survey show that at that date sixteen fields totalling 92 acres at the eastern side of the Marsh next to Lambarde’s Wall formed part of East Combe Farm and were designated by such names as “The Nineteen Acres” and “the Two Ten Acres.” Travers’ Commissioners in valuing this part of East Coomb Farm made the comment that the charges for repairing banks and sea-walls “were accounted very considerable.”

In the reign of Elizabeth I letters patent had been issued appointing a Steward of the Lordship or Manor of Pleasaunce in East Greenwich and the Manor then included eighty or more acres of “Marsh Lands.” These were on the western side of the Marsh and were part of the demesne of the Lordship, known as the Manor of Old Court, which from the time of Henry III was owned by the Crown.

In 1674 a reversionary lease of the Manor of Old Court was granted to Sir William Boreman and in 1698 his widow sold this to Sir John Morden. In the following year Sir John purchased the freehold from William and land on the Marsh still provides the Trustees with income which is devoted to the upkeep of Morden College.

A plan of 1734 described as “a particular of lands late of Sir William Boreman” still exists’,’ and it also shows some interesting and unusual field names: Pound Marsh. Foster’s Hole. Pond Meadow, Balsopps or Bishop’s Marsh, Hawk’s Marsh, Goose Pool. Dog Kennel Meadow, Crabtree Croft, Lady Marsh, The Pits and, most peculiar of all, Catt’s Brains: although this last was strictly outside the Marsh area as it was the land on which St. Alphege’s Hospital now stands. It is on a map made by Timothy Skynner in 1745 and adopted by the manuscript by the late J. M. Stone in Greenwich Borough Library and see the Library of the Drapers’ Company. In Buckinghamshire and adjoining counties where this name is common it attaches to land consisting of rough clay mixed with stones, i.e. in appearance somewhat like an animal’s brain.

The Court of Sewers in the following year shows the south-eastern portion of the area (known as Coomb Marsh) as “Singles’ and the rest of the peninsula (known as Land Marsh and New Marsh) as “Doubles.” The annual drainage rates levied on Doubles were twice those on Singles: for example in 1704, 12 shillings per acre and 6 shillings per acre respectively.

First Developments.
On Travers map the only buildings shown upon the Marsh are the “Watch House,” which stood in the centre of its northern part approximately equidistant from the eastern, northern and western edges, and the “New Magazine” which stood on the western shore just north of Bendish Sluice. There is a record in 1759 of a petition by the inhabitants of Greenwich concerning the state of the Powder Magazine “a quarter of a mile distant from their dwellings,” asking for its removal in view of its dangerous condition. It was however, still there in 1794 but probably not in use, as by then the practice was to store gunpowder, for greater safety, in hulks moored in the River. In 1802 the old buildings were purchased by Henry Vansittart and later demolished.

There does not seem to have been any similar protest regarding “Execution Dock” which in the 18th century was moved from Wapping to a site on the western side of the Marsh not far from the Magazine. It consisted of a gallows surrounded by an iron cage erected just below high-water mark and river pirates were hanged and their bodies hung in chains there “until three tides had passed over them.”

A part of the tideway about half-way along the eastern side of the Marsh carries tile name “Bugsby’s Hole” and the whole reach of the Thames between Blackwall Point and Charlton is known as “Bugsbys Reach.” Similarly. The adjacent part of the Marsh is found referred to as “Bugsby’s Marsh (es)” but no record seems to show who this Bugsby was. However. The term “Hole” has long been applied to a part of a tidal river or creek on the inner side of a bend where craft of moderate size could lie afloat at anchor in a sheltered position and out of the way of other traffic. There is a Church Hole at Erith and a Haven Hole at Canvey. It thus might be that the name derives from an early mariner or ship-owner who made habitual use of this part of the river to moor his vessels but who had no particular local connection otherwise. The Hole is still used to moor tiers of lighters.

Near here in River Way are what are probably the oldest buildings now existing on the Marsh, namely the “Pilot” tavern and the row of cottages beside it. A stone in the tavern wall bears the inscription “Ceylon Place. New Pier, Greenwich 1801,’ referring to the then name of the lane and probably to the replacement of some earlier landing stage. A public causeway existed here very much earlier, no doubt for the use of persons having business with vessels anchored in the “Hole.”.

The mill at the north-eastern side of the Marsh at this point, referred to above, first appears on the 1844 map but it definitely existed in 1837 and probably much earlier. It was known as Patrick’s Mill and was a windmill but it also had some kind of provision for working as a tide-mill for, on the landward side, there was a large impounding pond. Whether it was ever used as a drainage mill, as those in Holland, Norfolk and Lincolnshire is doubtful but the 1844 map shows it simply as “grinding mill.” It had disappeared by 1885.


By the early middle ages shipbuilding had become a very important industry on the Thames. Henry V is stated to have built here and in the 15th century large vessels of 500 to 1,000 tons for his Fleet but at that date almost all ships were armed for defence and were used also as trading vessels. It was not until 1513 that Henry VIII established the first Naval Dockyard at Deptford and, shortly after wards, another at Woolwich, both of which built merchant ships however as well as purely war vessels. Many of these ships carried elaborate figure-heads and an interesting ancillary industry, now quite extinct, which existed at Rotherhithe and Deptford from about 1600 for the next 250 years concerned the making, painting and gilding of these figures. Indeed there was a Guild of Carvers located at Rotherhithe who specialised in their production.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution wooden ship-building started to decline from the beginning of the 19th century, iron took its place and the trade gradually moved to the North of England nearer to the sources of material. However, in the meantime many iron ships were built and launched at Greenwich and at Deptford, Millwall and Blackwall. In the middle of last century a firm called “The National Company for Boat Building by Machinery” was building small vessels up to 100 tons at an East Greenwich yard opposite to where the Tunnel entrance now stands. This site was taken over in 1865 by Maudslay Son and Field which had been founded in 1810 by the distinguished engineer. Henry Maudslay, doing general and marine engineering at Lambeth. Maudslay’s continued building quite sizeable ships at East Greenwich until 1872. The building yard was then converted into a boiler works until rising costs in London obliged it to close down in 1900. Some general engineering was also done and parts of the original “Great Wheel” for the Earls Court Exhibition were manufactured there in the 1890s.

As sail gave way to steam, marine engine works, as well as boiler-making works were set up on Thames-side. John Penn & Co. at Deptford and Greenwich were one of these and this firm later became part of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co. who in 1911 launched “Thunderer,” the last battleship built all the London River, from their yard at Bow Creek opposite Blackwall Point very close to where Scott Russell & Co. had built “Great Eastern” sixty years before.

Before we leave shipbuilding we must mention the construction of specialised craft for use on London River itself. The Thames sailing barge was without doubt one of the most interesting types of craft in the history of shipping, but now rapidly becoming ex tinct. These beautiful vessels, for so long a characteristic feature of the Greenwich river scene, ranged in size from about 75 to 150 tons –up to 300 tons for coasting work-and so cunningly rigged that they could be handled by a man and a boy, with a third hand for the larger coasters. Starting about 1750 they were built in all kinds of places on Thames-side where a small piece of firm ground was available and Henry Shrubsall, Piper and Norton, all of Greenwich were among the well-known barge-building names.

The first iron barge was an experimental affair built in the 1850’s and nicknamed “The Old Iron Pot” but they did not come into wider use until James R. Piper built a 55-tonner called “City of London” in 18S0 at Piper’s Wharf. At Greenwich, just south of Enderby’s Wharf Pipers who later absorbed T. Scholey of Dawson’s Wharf built many stay-sail river barges between the two wars and in 1949 they still had five sailing barges in commission varying from 50 to 85 tons, though now there are none.”

Shrubsall’s yard was to the south-west of the Point and on the Ordnance Survey map of 1880 a barge builder named Edmunds occupied some sheds close by, just to the south of the present Drawdock Road. On the 1894 map he was still there and a portion of the road was known as “Boat Slip Road.” The yard was later taken over by Humphrey & Grey (Lighterage) Ltd., which in turn was absorbed by Hay’s Wharf Ltd., who maintained it as a barge repairing yard until about 1945 when the business was removed to Bay Wharf half-a-mile further up river. The original property at Point Wharf is now tenanted by Thos. W. Hughan & Co. Ltd., who still use it for barge repair work.

Norton’s barge-building yard was at Pear-tree Wharf on the eastern side.

In 1894 also there was a dry-dock at Blackwall Point owned by Jn. Stewart & Co., but it has since been closed and converted into a reservoir for the South Metropolitan Gas Co. Tar Works.

Thames barges carried all kinds of bulk cargoes cheaply and effectively. They were flat bottomed and drew only a few feet of water, they could thus berth in all manner of odd places and sit upright on a beach or on the mud without harm when the tide was away. Despite their bluff bows and fiat bottoms they could make a remarkable speed-up to 12 knots in favourable conditions . In summer they frequently carried hay and straw from the Essex fields to London: they could sail up a tiny creek to load and then come majestically home with an enormous ‘Stack built up on board and the skipper steering “blind” to the instructions of his mate or boy standing on top of the stack a dozen feet above him.

At one time there were about 8.000 Thames sailing barges registered but today there is only one-‘Cambria’ re-sheathed and re-fitted and kept by Everards of Greenhithe as an example of her type. The same firms which built the sailing barges often constructed another specialised craft, indigenous to London’s tideway, dumb barges or lighters, built originally of wood but, later, of iron and carrying up to 150 or 200 tons. They are towed by small tugs per mitted by River Regulations to take not more than six at time in two tiers of three, but they can also be manoeuvred singly by one man very skilfully using a long oar called a “sweep.” There are still 800 or more in service.

Fishing and Whaling.

In mediaeval times and earlier there were great quantities of fish in the Thames and there is a story of the apprentices of London complaining because they were given too much salmon. There were still plenty of fish in the River or in most parts of it, up to perhaps 150 years ago but with development of the riverside industry the water became progressively dirtier and the fishermen had to go further downstream to find even the whitebait for which Greenwich was long famous. A paper read before the Society in 1915 mentioned large fishing fleets based at Greenwich in earlier days and quoted Domesday Book as referring to Greenwich as a fishing port. I incline to think however that these fishing fleets worked to London for their market but owing to the congested state of the River, they then dropped down stream to anchor after discharging their’ cargoes. The first place where the River widened was Greenwich where there was more room to lie and here crews made their homes. Some of the earliest deep-sea fishermen certainly did; they went out to the North Sea and particularly to the Dogger Bank in Thames-built smacks and by 1840 Greenwich men were going as far afield as Iceland and the Faroes for their catches.

Not only did local fishermen go after small fish: they also sailed in pursuit of bigger creatures –whales in fact. Whale-catching was flourishing in the 13th century in the Bay of Biscay but as the quarry got scarcer English whalers were going north as far as Spitzbergen in the I6th century and to Newfound land in the 17th. A hundred years later Thames ships were bringing whale-blubber back from the coast of Greenland to Howland Dock, Rotherhithe. Then about 1840, when northern waters were starting to become denuded of whales the Enderby brothers fitted out their ships at Enderby Wharf at the south-western side of Greenwich Marsh, for expeditions to the South Polar Seas.

This enlightened local firm employed some of the most enterprising seamen of their day and encouraged and even instructed them to pursue discovery as well as profit by whaling and scaling. Among their skippers who left their own and their employers’ names permanently in the history of Antarctic exploration were James Weddell who in 1822-4 with two ships, the 60 ton Jane and the 65 ton Beaufoy, penetrated to latitude 74° 15′ S., further south than any ship went for many years afterwards. John Biscoe also with two ships -Tula a two-masted brig of 150 tons and Lively a single-masted cutter of a mere 50 tons-crossed the Antarctic Circle on the Greenwich Meridian in 1830 and was “rewarded at last on 28th February 1831 with a view of black mountain summits standing out above the ice-covered land and called it after his employers ‘Enderby Land’. John Balleny in 1839 was the first to discover land to the south of Australia and New Zealand.

The three brothers, Charles, Henry and George Enderby had also founded a rope and canvas factory in 1834 but this was burnt out in a large fire in 1845. Rope making was a natural riverside industry to meet the cable and cordage requirements of the ship-building and ship-repairing trades and many rope-walks were set up along the waterside. Cable Street (Stepney), Ropery Street (Limehouse) and Rope Yard Rails (Woolwich) still provide evidence, and there was a very extensive one in Henry VIII’s Deptford Dockyard, stated to be “replete with all the most up-to-date devices for spinning hemp and making ropes and cables for the service of the Navy.” By 1847 iron had become available drawn into the form of wire and a Camberwell firm, Wm. Kuper & Co., established a factory at Morden Wharf, Greenwich, to make wire ropes, much stronger than those made of hemp. Kupers were bought up in 1854 by Glass, Elliott & Co., who took over Enderby’s old premises.

Electric-cable making.
Making ropes led to making electric cables. By the middle of last century the electric telegraph was extensively used for land communication and in 1850 a wire, suitably insulated with gutta-percha, was laid from England to France. It did not prove strong enough and soon broke but an iron rope embodying a core of insulated wires was more successful and this was the start of a very extensive cable-making industry. A few years after the cable had been successfully laid to France came the much bigger project of laying one across the Atlantic. Much of the first cable was made at Greenwich and the Navy loaned a warship to lay it. The laying in 1857 proved a failure and another, laid successfully in the following year, broke in a few months, but in 1864 Glass, Elliott & Co., combined with the Gutta Percha Co. to form the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Co. and a new cable was made, also at Greenwich. This was successfully laid in 1866 by “Great Eastern,” the enormous steamship built on the opposite side of the River a dozen years earlier, which had not fulfilled its designers’ plans. Thereafter, the Telegraph Construction Co. had, over the years, a succession of cable ships at their home moorings off Greenwich opposite where the “Magazine” had formerly stood.

Arms and Explosives.
In 1867 a gun factory known as the Blakeley Ordnance Works stood at the point of the Marsh. It failed as a commercial venture and lasted only a few years but the area is still known as Ordnance Wharf. A few hundred yards to the south of their factory, however, the company erected a large block of four-storey dwellings for their work-people, together with a row of cottages for foremen and. facing the lane, a terrace of five houses for managers, all set in the form of a square. In this early example of industrial housing the five houses were cleared away during construction of the Blackwall Tunnel (1890) but Blakeley Cottages and the Buildings were demolished only in 1948.

In 1867 also there were, spread over the eastern side of the Marsh as far as Angerstein’s Wharf and Woolwich Road, a number of scattered sheds which were Robson‘s ammunition works. They remained in use until the latter part of the 19th century and there is record of an explosion in 1872 in one of the cartridge factories.

Gas and Chemicals.
From explosives we move to coal gas, the first recorded use which for lighting in London was in 1795. Soon a considerable number of small gas works, later succeeded by fewer but larger works, were set up on or near to the banks of the River. Between 1881 and 1885 the South Metropolitan Gas Co. bought a large portion of the eastern side of East Greenwich Marsh and they established vast new works where the industry grew to the enormous proportions that we know today. When the Silvertown explosion in 1917 caused widespread damage on the Marsh one of the large gas-holders in Tunnel Avenue collapsed causing a fire and other damage. The latest development is the importation from North Africa in huge tankers of liquid methane which is pumped ashore at Canvey and thence through pipe lines to East Greenwich and elsewhere, where it is blended and distributed into the domestic mains.

As early as 1844 there was, just north of the “grinding mill” mentioned earlier a chemical works with a small jetty, the occupier being named in the Tithe List as Francis Hills. The nucleus of his factory was an 18th century house which survived until the last war. This area was eventually incorporated in the gas works but it still carries the name of Phoenix Wharf and continues to be used for the manufacture of chemicals. Nearby the Government established in 1917 the Fuel Research Station of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

The Gas Company also took over the adjacent Tar Works previously owned by the firm of Forbes, Abbott & Lennard who then moved to Sussex Wharf, next to Bethell’s Wharf. They continued there for some year, making phenol and other chemicals and later became “The Standard Ammonia Co.” The site now houses a distribution depot of the National Benzol Co,

Building Materials.
An industry once flourishing on Thames- side which has virtually ceased was brick-making. From the early middle ages it thrived in localities where there were suitable supplies of day and there were numerous brickfields on both sides of the River. Most of these have been long since worked out and one of the last was on the western side of East Greenwich Marsh which was reputedly still operating in the latter part of last century. There was another sited near Pelton Road.

In the ’80’s of last century also a cement works was established at Hollick’s Wharf at the end of Morden Wharf Road. which was then called “Sea Witch Lane” from a riverside tavern, the “Sea Witch” which formerly stood at the river-ward end of it but was demolished about 1920. Hollicks Wharf is still used as a depot by the Cement Marketing Co.

There was also at East Greenwich for many years a factory making the creosoted wood blocks which formerly paved many London streets. Bethell’s Timber Preserving Works later became The Improved Wood Pavement Co., but, as new methods of road construction came, this business ceased. There is still a timber yard on the site however and it is still known as “Bethell’s Wharf.”

On the other side of the marsh, east of Angerstein Wharf, Christie & Co. have had a timber creosoting works for 70 or 80 years.

A firm making another form of construction material, The Improved Silicate Stone Company, made artificial stone at the beginning of the present century on land near Sussex Wharf which is now the timber yard of Greenwich Saw Mills.

Redpath Brown & Co. established a wharf and a riverside yard at the end of River Way in 1903 for the fabrication of structural steelwork and, incidentally, the Greenwich Yacht Club has also had moorings here since the turn of the century.

Other industries.
Another old established industry on the Thames was oil-seed crushing and oil refining, Mills on the river edge dealt with water-borne cargoes of foreign oil-bearing seed: they were at first wind-driven and later powered by steam or electricity. One such mill was shown on the 1867 map at Greigs Wharf near Blackwall Point. This was held in 1880 by the London Seed Crushing Co. and was in production until about 1900.

Oil leads thoughts to linoleum and the well-known Greenwich Inlaid Linoleum Co. operated from 1900 to 1935 on the site of Maudslay’s ship yard. It was then bought by Michael Nairn and Co. and manufacture transferred to Scotland, leaving only a store at Greenwich.

Soap and candles. oxygen and animal foodstuffs have all been manufactured on the Marsh at different periods, but perhaps our last reference like our first should be lo a metal industry. In 1905 Delta Metal Co. moved from New Cross and built their brass extrusion mill on the Marsh on a site which had been a market garden on the 1867 map and near which in 1894 there was a Thames Police Station on a floating pier.

The Delta Metal Co. now occupies a considerable area between the site of “Blakeley Cottages” and the River to the west. During its expansion this firm look over a site to the north-east on which an Ice Factory had operated during the first two decades of this century until refrigerators put it out of business, and also Shrubsall’s barge building yard and Greigs Wharf. With the incorporation of the ice factory its short approach road known as Fashoda Street was also extinguished.

It will be seen that until about the middle of last century the Marsh was devoted almost entirely to agriculture and grazing except for the small residential development at Ceylon Place and a few wharves on the riverside elsewhere. On the western approach. from Greenwich, however, building had gradually spread eastward along Woolwich Road to the end of the Ship and Billet Lane and this area was known for a time as “Tyler’s New Town” and there is still a Tyler Street in the vicinity.

In 1851 the first railway came to the Marsh. The North Kent Line was extended from New Cross to Woolwich by tunnelling between Blackheath and Charlton and the material excavated was used to construct an embankment running north over Woolwich Road to the riverside. The embankment, which was parallel with Lombard Wall and about a quarter mile to the west, carried a railway line to Angerstein Wharf. This was named after the owner of the land, John Angerstein, son of the builder of Woodlands and with part of the proceeds of its sale he built St John’s Church, Blackheath. The Wharf was intended originally for general goods traffic but has long been used almost exclusively for transhipping oil from lighters and to storage depots in Horn Lane. Part of it is now used as a scrap-iron yard and an asphalt company occupies adjacent land to the west of it. In the early 1900s a branch railway was built parallel with the River westward to serve the Gas Works.

The biggest development of the Marsh came with the construction of Blackwall Tunnel, built by S. Pearson & Son for the LCC in 1890-97. 1n the line of the Tunnel South Approach there originally stood a row of houses facing west known as Cornwall Terrace, Margaret Terrace, Spencer Terrace and Teddington Terrace. al! being part of Blackwall Lane. At the junction with Ordnance Road stood a public house called the “Ordnance Arms.” and another called the “Kenilworth Castle” was at the junction of the Lane with the southern end of Ordnance Road which was known as Teddington Place. All these buildings were demolished to make way for the approach cutting.

Up to 1890 an open watercourse. the third of the drainage channels mentioned earlier, rail northward along the western side of Blackwall Lane, past the factory frontages and the market garden. It turned sharply westward and discharged into the river just south of Greigs Wharf. When the riverside footpath, which originally ran as far as the draw dock, was diverted about 1938 it was brought out to join Blackwall Lane alongside the lower end of this ditch, the last trace of which was culverted in 1946.

When the Blackwall Tunnel was completed, the new road built to carry its traffic south-eastward was named “Tunnel Avenue” and the northern portion from its junction with the original “Marsh Lane” was incorporated with it and extended to Blackwall Point. At the same time Ship and Billet Lane (the old Marsh Lane) was renamed Blackwall Lane. A service of pair-horse omnibuses started soon afterwards. running from the “Noah’s Ark” at the northern end of Deptford High Street through the Tunnel to Poplar. This was the only public transport across the Marsh until 1906 when the LCC extended the electric tramway from Trafalgar Road to the Southern entrance of the Tunnel. The horse buses were replaced by single- decker motors about 1912 and later by modified double-deckers and the tram service ceased in 1953.

Plans for the duplication of Blackwall Tunnel was made and surveys begun before 1937 but work has started only recently. The second approach road will make necessary further demolition near Tunnel Avenue and will bring thousands more cars hurtling across the Marsh-a very different scene from the pastoral peace of little more than a century ago.

The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance he has received from many sources in preparing this paper and particularly from the Borough of Greenwich Libraries who have been especially helpful. Also some of the information of early land ownership and field names on the Marsh is from the Presidential address by the late Mr. A. E. Greene to the Society in February 1938 which has never been printed.

The map of East Greenwich Marsh at the end of the 17th. century is re-drawn from Samuel Travers’ map of 1695 with details from the Timothy Skinner’s map of 1745. Field names were mentioned in Travers’ Survey of the Manor of East Greenwich but were not shown in his map. The positions were identified by the late Mr. A 5. Greene with the aid of the Tithe maps. H appears that the only such name which has survived is Pear tree Field now transferred to a nearby wharf. The mid-20th century map of the Marsh is based on the 25 inch OS sheets. A comparison of the two maps, which are reproduced on the same scale, shows that in some places the shore-line has advanced riverwards, probably as a result of the reclamation of reed beds and mud flats and the extension of wharves. The road’ system of the 17th. century and earlier is still clearly to be seen in the roughly Y shaped pattern made by Blackwall Lane, River Way. Dreadnought Street and the north-western end of Tunnel Avenue. More modern roads sometimes follow the boundaries of earlier fields: for example Pelton Road along the line which divided The Great Meadow from Dog Kennel Meadow and Rayle Meadow. The modern map will soon be further altered by the works connected with the new Black wall Tunnel Approach.

The above paper is the first published by the Society in a relatively new field of historical survey and concerning a locality which has received scant attention in the past. It is hoped that this will create interest in further and more detailed study in this area

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Groundwork’s 2002 Riverside enhancement works

In 2002 Groundwork undertook a programme of environmental and artistic work on the riverside path – this involved partnership work with a variety of site owners, public bodies and individuals. £££££ was spent on jetties and riverside works. They produced a booklet some of which is copied below.
Most of their work has now been destroyed by new site owners and developers
(the whole booklet is not reproduced because it is full of pictures, and I do not know who owns the copyrights)

Groundwork said:


Groundwork Thames Gateway London South Building sustainable communities through joint environmental action

“Groundwork Thames Gateway London South is an environ-
mental regeneration charity operating across the boroughs
of Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley. Working in deprived
neighbourhoods, we deliver practical projects to improve
the local environment, engage people in their community
and provide training for employment.

We are part of the Groundwork Federation, comprised of 46
independent trusts working around the country. Established
21 years ago, Groundwork has become the UK’s leading
environmental regeneration charity.

The London Development Agency works for the Mayor,
investing in new jobs and skills for Londoners,supporting
businesses and bringing derelict land back into use.Wrth an
annual budget of £300 million and major land asse1s,we
work with business and other partners in order to provide
opportunities for all to benefit from London’s economy.

Alatel , Amylum U.K. Ltd Deptford Discovery Team Emergency Exit Arts Environment Agency Greenwich Arts Forum Greenwich Council Greenwich Development Society Greenwich Experience Greenwich Industrial History Society Greenwich Local History Library Greenwich Mural Workshop Groundwork Thames Gateway London South Inner London Probation Service James Garner Jonathan Cook Landscape Architects Jonathan Louth Associates
London Development Agency Peter Kent Richard Lawrence Roadways and Car Parks Ltd Robert West Consulting Engineers Thames 21

We have tried to acknowledge all the projects and their initators, developers and funders. We apologise if we’ve left anyone out.
Should you desire further information, please contact Groundwork Thames Gateway London South on 0208-694-5000.
September 2002

The East Greenwich Waterfront stretches from the historical Greenwich Town Centre and old Naval College to the Millennium Dome, and encompasses some of the borough’s largest industries, It is widely recognised as a site of
great historical, economic, ecological and aesthetic importance, and attracts visitors from far and wide, as well as the local community,
It is one of the few surviving stretches of industrial riverfront with working wharves in inner London, People using the riverside walk encounter a spectacular sequence of Thames views with a foreground of wharves, jetties, silos, chimneys, working industrial plants and boat building and repair activi
ties, The industrial heritage is immense and apparent in the remains of old barges, slipways, mooring dolphins and jetties, The old cable loading facilities at Enderby’s Wharf also remain and it was here where the world’s first transatlantic telegraph cable was loaded onto The Great Eastern in the 1860s,
Set against this industrial backdrop is a wealth of biodiversity. Over the last 20 years, the water quality of the River Thames has improved enormously and the river now supports 118 different species of fish. This has also enabled the Foreshore to grow in ecological value, and there are now saline tolerant plants such as the sea aster and accompanying freshwater species; invertebrates thrive in the river silt, while the industrial landscape forms an important habitat for the endangered bird; the black redstart The riverside is a prime location for arts events, attracting visitors from the local community and beyond. Recent projects have included ‘The Hysterical Walk” in 2000, the carved steps at Enderby’s Wharf (both by Greenwich Mural Workshop) and the mosaic tiles at Greenwich Power Station commissioned by Greenwich Council.

Such a unique site requires a sensitive approach in terms of environmental and access improvements, where the local distinctiveness of the riverside sites is celebrated and enhanced – rather than homogenised by a major masterplan.

This was recognised in the 1999 “Green Links Initiative Report” by the Deptford Discovery Team. The report was based on a partnership established with the two major riverside employers, Amylum U.K. Ltd and Alcatel, as well
as Groundwork. It set out a vision, rationale and programme for a strategic series of riverside enhancements between Lovell’s Wharf and Bay Wharf.

Further to that report, a diverse range of works have taken place and several are ongoing or in the pipeline, initiated and implemented by bodies including The Deptford Discovery Team, Groundwork Thames Gateway London South,
The Environment Agency, Thames 21, Greenwich Council and the landowners themselves. Funding for these has come from the London Development Agency, other public bodies and the local business community.

The purpose of this report is to bring together and summarise projects carried out to date and to describe those currently projected, between Lovell’s Wharf and Bay Wharf.

The next step envisaged is the establishment of an independent and accountable River Group including riverfront and riverwalk users, in order to lobby for and decide upon further improvements and alterations, and the conservation/preservation of existing features. We hope that this report will act as a catalyst for interested parties to become involved.

Industrial Heritage Information Panels
Etched stainless steel information panels have been located at both Primrose Jetty and Enderby’s Wharf, depicting in detail the industrial heritage of the East Greenwich waterfront between Greenwich Power Station and Bay Wharf. The panels were researched, designed and delivered by the Deptford Discovery Team with assistance from Mary Mills of The Greenwich Industrial History Society, the Greenwich Local History Library and the artist Peter Kent.

The Hysterical Walk
An arts event that took place on 4 occasions in the year 2000. A guided walk, led by actors telling the story of the life of a beachcomber, connected a series of sculptures, light installations and projections, picture frames producing “paintings” of river views, music, dance and theatre. The event was delivered by Greenwich Mural Workshop and funded by Greenwich Arts Forum and the Greenwich Development Agency. The artists involved were Emergency Exit Arts, Margaret Harrison, Richard Langford, Rib Davies, Carol Kenna, Johnny Goodwin, Louis Silcott, The Simba project and TIPP.

Works have been done on:
Lovells Wharf
Dead Dog Bay
Granite Wharf
Granite Wharf Sluice Inlet Site
Badcock Wharf Passage
Providence Wharf
Piper’s Wharf
Enderby’s Wharf
Bendish Sluice and Outlet
Alcatel Ferry Steps and Causeway
Alcatel Jetty
Former Jetty Remains
Amylum Oil Jetty
Amylum Garden
Amylum Silos
Morden Wharf
Primrose Wharf Habitat Enhancements
Primrose Jetty
Bay Wharf
Riverside Footpath

Morden College

Morden College
Morden College still own land on the Greenwich Peninsula, although not these plots. The charity was set up in 1680 by Sir John Morden endowing it with land, most of which had originally derived from Crown grants after the Civil War. Income from this land was used to fund the care of elderly and retired ‘Turkey Merchants’. Today the College continues to house the elderly in its eighteenth century almshouse on the far side of Blackheath, and in other, more modern accommodation. The Charity’s trustees are all ex-Lord Mayors of London.

They Owned:

Great Meadow and Dog Kennel Field

Part of Enderby Wharf. Site marked K1 on Skinner.  Acquired it as part of a land swap when the gunpowder magazine was built in the seventeenth century.  In the 1840s it was described as a paddock and meadow.  Some cottages had been built fronting on to Blackwall Lane.  Their lease expired in 1854 and it was then leased to a George Smith, and then to a Mr. Keiser.

Great and Little Pits

Sites Marked on Skinner in Morden College Ownership


MC1 – area to the immediate west of Pelton Road. No occupier listed.

MC2 – south of above, Occupied by Ambrose and John Crowley

MC3 – east of above. Same occupiers

MC4 – Great Meadow etc.  Same occupiers

MC5 – L  shaped plot south of Bendish Sluice, fronting on Marsh Lane. Occupied Thomas Jeffrey

MC 6 –

MC 7 – large riverside plot going from gunpowder works boundary to present Victoria Deep Water boundary.  Occupied Thomas Jeffrey

MC8 – plot north of Marsh Lane. Occupied as above.

MC9 – inland plot south of Blackwall Point. Part of Ordnance Wharf area. Occupied Thomas Moor,

MC10 – Inland plot east side of Arnold Sluice. Occupied Thomas Jeffrey

MC11 – Inalnd plot west side of Arnold Sluice.  Occupied as above

MC12 – small strip on site of today’s Victoria Deep Water Wharf. Occupied  as above.

MC13 – riverside west bank – Delta Wharf area,. Occupied Peter Huck

MC14-  south of  MC9. Occupied Thomas Moor.

MC15 – large riverside plot on the Point. Ordnance Wharf included. Occupied Peter Huck

MC16 – Plot south of Riverway  – occupied Peter Huck


Inland plot – rough steelworks area. Occupied Thomas Moor.


Script for riverside walk in the year 2000


The Port of London Wharf as part of a mid-nineteenth century scheme for monitoring coal supply ships from North East England. In this part of the river, and downstream, were ‘collier stands’ where the coal ships had to wait for a berth in the collier docks across the river or at special berths up river. The delivery of coal to this area is of supreme importance – coal, was the fuel which made industry function. The shipping which delivered it was a massive industry in itself.

At the end of Ballast Quay the path meets a junction with Pelton Road. Down the road can be seen Victorian cottages built for local workers by a developer, Coles Child, for the estate owners, Morden College. A few yards down the street can be seen the Pelton Arms pub. The street names in this area were originally taken from collieries in the Durham coalfield. The names of Pelton Road and the Pelton Arms relate to Pelton Main and Pelton West Collieries near Chester le Street, County Durham.

Pelton Road, follows the line of a watercourse. Willow Dyke, and latterly the road was a route for ballast brought from chalk and gravel pits to the south. Nearer the river note the granite setts in the road surface and the double kerb on the pavement.

Lovell’s Wharf was built for coal transhipment but from 1920s -1980s it handled the transhipment of metal by Shaw Lovell and Co. The ‘Scotch Derrick’ cranes which were a local landmark here were removed in 2001 by the site owners to the dismay of many local people. Redevelopment of this wharf is expected soon.

In Pelton Road note, on the long wall of the wharf a ‘Customs and Excise’ letter box. Look up on the buildings to see an unusual clock and the name ‘Lovell’s Wharf’ painted to be seen from the river. On the wall along the riverside ‘Lovell’s Wharf’ has been painted again.

From Ballast Quay continue along the riverside. From this point there is only one remaining way off the path – and there are absolutely no facilities! To return to Greenwich from here go up Pelton Road to the shops in Trafalgar Road where you can get a bus back to the Cutty Sark area.

Continue along the riverside path.

At the next corner note large concrete blocks used as bases for cranes which have now been removed.

The path turns sharp left around an inlet known locally as ‘Dead Dog Bay’ – perhaps it was where animals which had escaped from the Foreign Cattle Market at Deptford were washed up, drowned.

A pathway leads off the riverside path to local estates. It is called Cadet Place and it is the last chance to leave teh riverside and return to Greenwich.

The next wharf, Granite Wharf, was owned and operated by Tarmac until mid-2001 for the transhipment of aggregate. In the 1840s is was let to John Mowlem, the Victorian road building contractor. In the wall of Cadet Place is a jumble of random and miscellaneous stone – ‘the cyclopean wall’ – and it is a matter of speculation that some of this stone must have come from Mowlem’s Yard – there is Portland Stone, Bath Stone and some dressed granite..

Another Greenwich artefact can be found on a headland at Swanage, in Dorset. This is the The Great Globe – an enormous map of the world made of Portland Stone. It was made in Mowlem’s yard here and then taken to Swanage, where Mowlem lived. Perhaps some of the stone in the wall of Cadet Place are ‘offcuts’ of the Globe itself.

Since the spring of 2001 boats no longer call at this wharf and redevelopment is expected soon.

The next wharf is a jumble of boats. This is Pipers Wharf and is, in late 2001, still a working boatyard although no longer run by a Mr. Piper. You can still see all sorts of boats waiting for repair here – sometimes even large replica sailing ships used by film and TV companies can be seen. Remember that this is a working site and does not welcome visitors. It is however expected that the boat yard will close soon and the site be redeveloped.

James Piper rented this wharf in the late 1890s and soon began to build sailing barges here. One of the earlies was his prize winning racing barge ‘the famous’ Giralda’ – and many others including Surge, James Piper, Leonard Piper, Haughty Belle. Greenwich barges regularly won prizes. The barge races are still held today but no Greenwich built barge is still in sail to take part.

Sailing barges may look romantic but they were the heavy haulage carriers of London river – no different to any heavy lorry. They were built at a time when most vessels were steam driven because they were cheap to run with a crew of only two, could go inshore across shallows and up muddy creeks because of their flat bottoms but at the same time many of them could regularly cross the channel and go into European inland waters.

In later years all sorts of craft were built and repaired here by the Piper family. Inside the inland section of the wharf the name ‘J.R.Piper’ can be seen on the wall – but the site is busy and does not welcome visitors.

Note the jumble of disused equipment on the foreshore past the wharf.

Past Pipers there are a number of disused wharves – they include a site used by Joshua Taylor Beale and where the ‘exhauster’ was developed. This important piece of equipment was subsequently manufactured by Donkin in Chesterfield. Beale also made steam road locomotives on this site in the 1840s.

Eventually arrive at Enderby’s Wharf. This is an important and complex area with lot to see.

The first jetty – on which stands a large iron structure – is Enderby’s and a sign above the entrance marks it. There is then a gap, and another, shorter jetty. Inland is a large factory, now operated by Alcatel. There are some large double gates into the site, and, behind the fence, some riverside buildings including an old house.

Between the two jetties there is a causeway into the river – from underneath it a pipe emerges. This is Bendish Sluice – a Tudor drain which drew waterfrom the surrounding marshland. Until recently on the inland side of the path was some disused sluice gear.

At low tide, on the steps to the sluice can be seen a design recently undertaken by a group of artists – this illustrates some of the history of the Enderby’s wharf.

In 1680 this was the site of the Government Powder Depot where all gun powder for the forces was tested and distributed. The two jetties mark the sites of two massive seventeenth century two massive jetties where hundreds of ships laden with gunpowder called.

The gunpowder depot was closed in 1770 and a factory to make rope built here. Rope was made in long thin buildings called ‘rope walks’. The line of this can still be seen by peering through the double gates going into the Alcatel factory. Look right down the vista through the factory.

In the 1830s the factory was bought by the Enderby family. The Enderbys had whaling ships and fished in the Southern Oceans. ‘Enderby Land’ in the Antarctic is named after them.

The white painted old house behind fence is ‘Enderby House’ – built as a riverside home in the 1840s and now used as offices by Alcatel. The Enderbys built a large factory for rope and canvas manufacture here which was burnt down in the 1840s.

Before the Enderby family left Greenwich they were asked make the first telegraph cable which was laid as an experiment between Euston and Camden Town stations.

The site was eventually taken over by cable makers Glass Elliott. Many important international telegraph cables have been made on site here. See the office block inside the fence – on the door are carved gutta percha leaves (the plant which provided insulation material for early cables. Over the lintels are carved lengths of cable.

The first Atlantic Cable was made here int he 1860s and loaded onto Brunel’s Great Eastern via a ferry. All around the two jetties are the remains of structures which allowed the cable to pass safely into cable laying ships. On the large jetty is an iron structure for loading cable and some wooden gantries remain in the river.

Ever since the days of Glass Elliott and the Atlantic Cable cables has been made here. For a long time the factory was owned by the Telegraph Construction Co. – Telcon. Now Alacatel make repeaters for today’s submarine cables here.

The next section of the walk is dominated by Amylum’s Glucose refininery. Amylum make specialist sugars in a wheat derived process and much of their plant can be seen behind the wall of the path.

After Enderby Wharf the first jetty was built as rubbish tipping plant by the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich. Here dustcarts would tip Greenwich’s rubbish into barges for transhipment. It was closed in the late 1950s and is now owned by Amylum and is sometimes used.

Next are disused silos belonging to Amylum. Until recently this wharf was used for the delivery by ship of maize – which was stored in these silos. Recently, to cut down on smell, Amylum have begun to use wheat which arrives by road.

Up until the 1930s the Amylum site was used by Thames Soap and Candle Works who made – for instance – British Carbolic Soap. Inside the Amylum factory some buildings from the soap works remain. It was owned by the local Soames family – one of whose daughters was to become Olave Baden-Powell, the first Chief Guide.

Before the path bends to the left we pass the laboratory buildings of Amylum. This was the site of the Sea Witch Pub – probably named after an ‘opium clipper’ ship. The locked gate on the corner was once a road back to Blackwall Lane called ‘Morden Wharf Road’. ‘Morden’ of course reflecting the landowners of these sites, Morden College in Blackheath.

Follow the path round as it turns left, then right.

This area is known as Morden Wharf – named for the landowners, Morden College.

As the path turns it is easy to look back at the banks and the river walls. These walls are easily the most important structures in the area since they keep out the tidal force of the river. It is not known when they were first built – probably in medaevial times but they could be older. There nothing very old to see because, obviously, the wall is repaired and replaced continuously – any break would be a disaster!

It is here that Kuper, and then Glass Elliott, made the first telegraph cables – the start of the Thames cable making industry. The wharf was also the site of Hollick’s Cement Works and it is sometimes known as Hollick’s Wharf. There were a number of cement and artificial stone works along this stretch of the river.

At the end of Morden Wharf is Primrose Pier. This pier was opened to the public by Amylum some years ago. In 1999 it has been the subject of a resurfacing and partial restructuring by the Groundwork team.

Primrose Pier was used by Molassine – an animal foods manufacturer whose products were based on molasses stored in predecessors of the giant tanks seen inland. Molassine were the company most responsible for the smell which haunted this area for many years.

From Primrose Pier it is possible to look at a wide panorama on the other side of the river.

Look on the far bank of the river – this was the area in which in the nineteenth century many major ship builders had their yards – Dugeon, Samuda, Yarrow and Stewart. At that time this was the major shipbuilding area of the country – probably in the world.

Up river can be seen the area we have left – the Cutty Sark, Greenwich University and the Power Station – down river is the bend at the point of the Peninsula and Blackwall Reach.

After Primrose Pier the path continues a short distance before going inland. It is possible to follow this path to the Blackwall Tunnel approach – traffic pollution, and bus stops. Before leaving the riverside the path skirts an inlet with white stones on the foreshore:

This inlet is Horseshoe Breach which marks a point at which the river had broken through the sea wall at some time before 1626 – when the detailed records start.

The breach was developed in the early 1860s by the National Company for Boat Building by Machinery, founded by an American, Nathan Thompson, who aimed to make 5,000 identical boats a year – and was quickly bankrupted. It was taken over as a shipbuilding site by Maudslay Son and Field in the late 1860s. Their first ship was the Lady Derby and they subsequently built a number of ships including two iron hulled sailing vessels, Halloween and Blackadder – sister ships to Cutty Sark.

The derelict white buildings which remain on site are disused barge repair slips built by Humphrey and Grey.

Follow the path round.

Ahead, dominating the view, is the East Greenwich No.2. Gas Holder – the last remains of the East Greenwich Gas Works. The Works was opened in the early 1880s as a super efficient green field works for south London by the South Metropolitan Gas Company under its charismatic Chairman, George Livesey. The gas holder, which dates from 1886 was, and may now be again, the largest in the world and built to revolutionary engineering designs.

If you continue along the path towards the motorway at the end, before reaching the Tunnel Approach is the red stone office block of Molassine and, once on the motorway, to the left is the Art Nouveau gatehouse of the Blackwall Tunnel from the 1890s.

To continue along the river path – once you have left the river bank in the direction of the gas holder and the motorway, turn left through a gap in the fence to continue round the back of a group of the derelict concrete barge slips. The path is well signposted and continues round the building to return to the river on the far side.

At the riverside we are on the area of Victoria Deep Water Wharf.

This was until recently ‘Victoria Deep Water Wharf’ where two large derricks were situated. Previous users Henry Bessemer who had a small steel works here operated by his sons in the 1860s, and subsequently some of the site was used by an artificial stone works owned partly by Bessemer and partly by one of the Ransome engineering family from Ipswich. Some other parts of this site and the adjacent one were taken up by Appleby Engineers – who made a wide variety of engineering items, including marine engines, locomotives, etc. but probably concentrated on cranes and transporters. From the 1890s it was one of the sites used by Walton’s Greenwich Inlaid Linoleum Works – a revolutionary process for mosaic linoleum subsequently transferred to Nairn’s Works in Kirkaldy, Fifeshire.
Continue to walk along the riverfront

Further on a large site was large occupied from the 1830s by Bethel’s tar and chemical works. In due course this became a specialist factory for the production of tarred blocks for road paving. By the mid-twentieth century a very large area of these wharves was covered by Delta Metal’s bronze and brass foundry.

Further on was barge building and repair trade. This included Horace Shrubsall’s barge building works which expanded here from Ipswich and Limehouse and where many famous sailing barges, including Veronica were built.
In this area Hughan built Orinoco – the last Greenwich built sailing barge still active.

The Millennium Dome site starts at Ordnance Draw Dock – built by the Gas Company in the 1880s as compensation for closure of other traditional plying places. This is a public right of way despite its apparent closure. To north of here – inside the Dome area were a number of interesting sites.

In the late 1860s Blakeley’s gun foundry was built here, financed by Dent’s Chinese opium business, to build heavy ordnance for foreign customers. Blakeley had designed a new sort of ordnance and historians are currently discussing the relationship of his patents to the later ones of William Armstrong. Many Blakeley guns were used by the confederates in the American Civil War. Blakeley was bankrupted by Dent’s failure and died in mysterious circumstances in Peru.

Subsequently part of the site was taken over by Stockwell and Lewis who built a dry dock here – now under part of the Dome (no archaeological investigation was carried out!). One of Stockwell and Lewis’s ships, the Bulli, remains as a wreck in Tasmania. Another ship builder in this area was John Stewart,

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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