Just before the start of the twentieth century the Blackwall Tunnel had opened on the Greenwich Peninsula. Built for horse and pedestrian transport, it transformed the area, making road access throughout the area easier. It connected north and south banks of the river in a dramatic way – a cultural shock to many South Londoners!
A start was also being made in the great changes which would come during the century and in particular in the way in which industry was powered. The small local power station was aimed at domestic lighting – but it was an omen for the future. Another sign of the revolution to come was the opening of the first garage for motor transport – nearby a slaughter house for horses.
The Blackwall Tunnel itself has been well described elsewhere – there is no need to add it here. It could be said that the new industry of the Greenwich Peninsula has become traffic! The tunnel and its construction mark a point of change in the area – and a long period of gradual decline.
(When I wrote the book, I was well aware that I could not spare the time to research in any detail a major subject like the Blackwall Tunnel(s) and come up with something new. At the same time the Greenwich Borough Museum in Plumstead Library had mounted an excellent exhibition on the Tunnel and had produced a very informative catalogue. There are numerous articles and chapters of books about the Tunnel and archive material both at The Greenwich Heritage Centre and at LMA).
Before the first world war some large companies moved to the Greenwich Peninsula – Molassine, Redpath Brown and Delta – to set a pattern for the next fifty years. The years of change were over and the Peninsula was settling down. If the following chapters are a rather boring list of sites it is because things had become rather boring – big companies, no doubt doing a good job but no excitement.
REDPATH BROWN – STRUCTURAL STEEL
“Early on, I was contacted by Andrew Turner whose father, Arthur, had already written a brief history of this Scottish company. Subsequently Arthur came to London and lectured to the new Greenwich Industrial History Society at their second meeting. The meeting was attended by many ex Redpath workers – the works had been known as Redpaths even after nationalisation. At that time there were considerable remains of Redpath’s Works being used as a trading estate and by Greenwich yacht club. The old jetty was in some sort of ownership/occupation by Kenny Hillbrown. Andrew decided that he would try and research as much as possible about Redpath’s and was initially helped by an interview with the original site engineer, Mr. Frye. As demolition proceeded, Andrew spent as much time as he could, often under the hostile eyes of English Partnerships staff, trying to photograph as much of the remains as he could. The last part of the old factory was demolished as late as December 1999 and Andrew discovered – after dark at 4 p.m. – that it was in fact one of the original Redpath buildings. The demolition men moved in the next day. I would not want to write anything that pre-empts Andrews eventual research findings. I think he did a heroic job under very difficult conditions – and still continues with it in 2013)
Redpath Brown was an Edinburgh based company dealing with structural steel. In 1903 they decided to open a London branch and moved to a hitherto unused site to the south of Riverway. Spoil from the Blackwall Tunnel had been dumped there and considerable work was needed to make the ground acceptable for a large works.
In 1929 the Company merged with Dorman Long and later a site known as ‘Dorman Long’ was added to the Greenwich works. This seems to have operated only as a depot and to have been a completely separate establishment. (Dorman Long. I have never quite managed to unravel the
relationship of this important engineering company with Redpath Brown – except that they owned the company. Workers on site tell me that ‘Dormans’ had a depot at the other end of the site and that they had nothing to do with each other. However in 2012 I made a casual visit to the Dorman Museum in Middlesborough and discovered an amazing amount of interest from staff and some archive material about Greenwich)
Redpath Brown provided the structural steel for many important buildings in London from the Greenwich works. This almost certainly included the Festival Hall, several power stations and other major buildings. A local example is the railway bridge built as an emergency after the St.John’s railway disaster of 1956. (I am assured in 2013 that this bridge – built in a couple of days after this terribe train crash from components quickly put together from several sources – is structurally sound and not going to be replaced). They also undertook an important role in the second World War in the construction of landing craft.The works was nationalised with the rest of the steel industry and was known as ‘Riverside Steel Works’.
DELTA METAL – BRONZE
The largest and best known metal producer on the Peninsula was the Delta Metal Company. Delta were, and are, a very important company which was still in business at their Greenwich site well into the 1980s, specialising in a range of bronzes. (Delta Metal. Once again I feel that what I have put here is very inadequate to the size and importance of Delta Metal. I looked through the large archive, which was kept by Delta at their 1 Kingsway HQ, but was not able to use any of it. It is a gold mine of information for anyone who has the time to work through the records of a major employer on the Greenwich peninsula. Sources used include R.G.Purnell, The Delta Story, Delta, nd. It should be noted that Bartlett (much quoted above) worked for Delta and undertook his research while in their employment. Other information comes from a commemorative booklet produced at the end of the Second World War by the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich)
Alexander Dick had come to England from Europe in the 1880s. He was of British descent, but born and educated in Germany and had worked in Spain and France. In England he established the Phosphor Bronze Company in New Cross and managed it until 1882. He formed similar companies in other European countries at around the same time. In 1883 he began to work on brass and other alloys and, in particular, added iron to brass. The resulting alloy was named ‘Delta Metal’ and this name was the registered trademark for other alloys made by the company. Dick also adapted an extrusion process for the production of brass rod. This process was first used at New Cross in the early 1890s and in 1905 the Greenwich site was opened as the Extruded Metals Company Ltd. During the next seventy years the works grew to take over much of the area along the north eastern riverfront as other works closed down.
The First World War brought Delta increased business and also competition. The Dick family continued to manage the company throughout consolidation up to 1940. In the Second World War metal manufactured at East Greenwich found its way into other works up and down the country. Delta boasted that ‘by the end of the war there was hardly even a repair garage of any size in the land which did not have lathes, drilling and milling machines installed and working day and night turning out metal parts for war uses…the parts were produced from Delta extruded bars’. Their products were used in ‘fuses and primers for shells, for parts and fittings of guns and torpedoes, for searchlights, and Radar apparatus, and all the other innumerable scientific instruments, telephone parts, aircraft fittings, ship construction angles, tee and channel bars, and other sections for ships’ fittings.. used in craft of all kinds from the largest battleships to the smallest launches; components of vehicles from tanks to lorries, of speedometers, lighting equipment and “Mulberry,” “Pluto” and “Fido”.
They boasted a 500 ft long jetty with 16 feet depth of water at high water. The dangers of river wharfage work had been demonstrated in 1935 when a 25 ton crane toppled into the river while undergoing special tests for an insurance company to see if it was safe. The crane driver was killed – his body could not be recovered until the 150 ton floating crane owned by the Port of London Authority had arrived. After the war, however, Delta were to use much of their huge site for warehousing but the company itself moved on from strength to strength, to become a successful multi-national. Experimental work on bronzes continued at Greenwich throughout the 1960s and 1970s but this works, where their large-scale manufacture started, was closed apparently unnoticed in the 1980s. Some work was undertaken in Greenwich on the old Johnson and Phillips site in Charlton, but in the 1990s Delta has left Greenwich altogether.
Tilbury Dredging and Contracting are a large and important Thames company with several depots up and down the river. In 1906 they opened a depot in Banning Street next to Pipers. Several other such companies were to find sites on the Greenwich Peninsula over the next sixty years and were essentially a service industry taking over from the manufacturing companies which had previously occupied these sites. When manufacturing industry and the port finally collapsed, they moved out – leaving behind them the dereliction which has continued ever since. There were many other such companies in this period – for example, Thames Export Packing is another. (I later discovered that this company was Hughes Barge Builders with a changed name. Greenwich Heritage Centre has a company history acquired since this was written. Again, this is a very inadequate report of a very important industry – and one which has overtaken and filled all those industrial sites still in use).
In the twentieth century the Greenwich waterfront became known as a place of very bad smells. In a history of the Molassine works written in the 1950s the company said how everyone who went past on the river knew them from the dramatic sight of their large molasses tanks – local people were more likely to know them by the dramatic smells which came from the works!
Molassine produced animal foods based on molasses. They operated from the red stone office block near the entrance to the Blackwall tunnel – a building of which they very proud. They were best known for the pet food ‘Vims – All dogs love them’ but they also made cattle and poultry food each with its own catchy t
(Since writing this I was approached by John Neads and as a result published an article about the company which he had written in Greenwich Industrial History October 1999, Vol.2. Issue 5. I was also referred to W.A.Meneight A History of the United Molasses Company Ltd. 1977).
Lovell’s, from Bristol, were yet another service industry. Lovell’s Wharf is very noticeable to anyone walking eastwards along the riverside from Ballast Quay. The company had been ships’ agents since 1869 and had developed a special relationship with some Bristol shipowners. They had been in Greenwich since before 1922 and after that date they began to consolidate here, eventually taking over the lease on their site and moving onto neighbouring wharves. They moved their head office to Greenwich after the Second World War and in the 1960s built the office block, which still stands there. In 1975 they brought a Butters Crane to Greenwich from the Dublin Custom House. Most of their business concerned the transfer of various metals from ship to lorry. The site had became too small for them by the 1970s and they were eventually forced to close.
(See my articles on Lovells. I also produced a collection of photographs of the remaining cranes on behalf of Deptford Discovery in late 1999. The cranes were removed, without notice, by Morden College in 2000. Reference books include Eric Jordan, The Story of Shaw Lovell Shipping, 1992. I would also like to thank Gordon Plamer at Bristol ICO (the current Lovell successor) and Harry Gale who was kind to talk to me about his time as Chairman of the Group while at Greenwich. The site is now entirely new housing)