Bazalgette and the Woolwich Ferry

Woolwch Ferry

Woolwich and the Free Ferry –  Map: County Series 1:2500 1894

The Woolwich Ferry (sometimes also called the Woolwich Free Ferry) is a free vehicle ferry service across the River Thames in East London. There has been a connection between what is now Woolwich and North Woolwich across the Thames since the Norman Conquest. The area was mentioned in the Domesday Book as 63 acres belonging to Hamon, the steward. There is also evidence of a ferry service in the area since the early 14th century. In the first half of the nineteenth century a commercial ferry operated in Woolwich between 1811 and 1844, but the company failed and the service ended.

In 1880 local pressure began for a renewal of such a service provided by the town authorities, but costs were prohibitive, and eventually the Metropolitan Board of Works was brought in to manage the embryonic project.

Following the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had taken over toll bridges in west London and opened them to free public use, it was suggested that the Board should fund a free crossing of the Thames in east London. The service was instigated in September 1887 by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, famous for the significant impact he had both on London’s appearance and, through his design of an efficient sewage system, on the health of its inhabitants.

The service was officially opened on 23 March 1889, with the paddle steamer Gordon. Two days before the first service, the Metropolitan Board of Works was replaced by the London County Council (LCC), and the opening ceremony was conducted by Lord Rosebery instead of the expected Bazalgette.

The ferry typically attracts about two million passengers a year, although many cross-river foot passengers now take the foot tunnel beneath the river, alongside the ferry route. Further competition arrived in 2009 with the extension to Woolwich of the Docklands Light Railway, which crosses under the river to the east of the ferry route.

Sadly for history it seems inevitable that a bridge upstream of the ferry will be built, making crossing faster for the cars and lorries that use the service, with doubtless the demise of the ferry following the opening of that bridge.

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Map of the month – Euston Station

Euston Station
Euston Station, London (Town Plan 1:1,056)

Euston was the first inter-city railway station in central London, opened on 20 July 1837 as the terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway.

The site was selected in the early 1830s by George and Robert Stephenson, engineers of the London and Birmingham Railway. The area was then mostly farmland at the edge of the expanding city of London. The station was named after Euston Hall in Suffolk, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Grafton, who were the main landowners in the area.

Before Euston was built the trains from Birmingham had an unsatisfactory endpoint at Chalk Farm, built in 1833. It was George Stephenson who planned the original station at Euston Grove with just two platforms, one for arrivals, one departures, sheltered beneath a massive wrought-iron roof. The building was designed by Philip Hardwick, fronted by a 72’ high porticot. This portico acquired the name Euston Arch.

There was a notable engineering oddity about Euston from its opening on July 20 1837: because Lord Southampton, master of the Quorn Hunt, Conservative grandee, and a major landowner locally, objected to the potential noise and dirt, no locomotives were allowed between Euston and Camden Town. Instead trains were pulled from the terminus to Camden by a cable device until 1844, when engines were at last allowed.

The station grew rapidly over the following years as traffic increased. It was greatly expanded in the 1840s, with the opening in 1849 of the spectacular Great Hall, designed by Hardwick’s son Philip Charles Hardwick in classical style. It was 126 ft long, 61 ft wide and 64 ft high, with a coffered ceiling and a sweeping double flight of stairs leading to offices at its northern end.

The pioneers who established the railway network built Euston Arch, the massive Doric portico, outside the first terminus in London, Euston Station; in the 1960s their ancestors knocked it down in what many consider to be an act of cultural vandalism. Perhaps there is hope for this generation as a campaign now exists to have the Euston Arch restored.

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