Above: At the centre of Woolwich is Beresford Square, in use most days of the week as a street market. The view above summarises the story of Woolwich – the historic old entrance to the Royal Arsenal (left), the Victorian shops lining the square (right). In the centre are some of the new apartment blocks rising on the old Arsenal land.
In 1965 the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich was combined with the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich to form the London Borough of Greenwich which, since 3 February 2012 was given the privilege of calling itself the ‘Royal Borough of Greenwich’. When the London Borough of Greenwich was formed, the old name of Woolwich was lost because the new London Borough only used the other name of Greenwich. It is always sad when a famous place name is lost due to a boundary reshuffle.
The Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich was the most easterly of all the Metropolitan Boroughs. Being on the south side of the Thames, it was much further east of the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar, which was on the north side. This meant that the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich looked north across the Thames to part of the County of Essex. Many people find this strange because the Royal Docks were considered to be ‘part of Metropolitan London’ but they were actually situated in the County of Essex.
Above: An outline map of the London Borough of Greenwich (now called the Royal Borough of Greenwich) with a YELLOW dotted line indicating where the old Metropolitan Borough boundary was until 1965 (Click on image to enlarge to 1280×800).
Woolwich derives its name from two Old English words – ‘wool’, meaning exactly what you would think it means and the Anglo Saxon word ‘wic’, pronounced ‘wich’, meaning a settlement. So the place name implied a ‘wool village’. Being beside the Thames, the location could have been used for the import or export of wool. In spite of the known connection with wool, no documentary evidence has ever been found. The name was first recorded in AD 918 when the ‘Manor of Woolwich’ was given by Elstrudis, daughter of King Alfred, to the Abbey of St Peter, at Ghent. The name is also recorded in the Domesday Book (1086).
In Tudor times Woolwich became the location for one of the two royal dockyards beside the Thames founded by Henry VIII. He established the Royal Naval Dockyard (at Deptford) and Woolwich Dockyard (just to the west of the village of Woolwich). The name of Woolwich is also closely linked with the Army. The Royal Arsenal (also known as Woolwich Arsenal) was at Woolwich, where there was a vast ordnance factory. In addition, there is the Royal Artillery Barracks, which remains on part of Woolwich Common. There was also the Royal Military Academy, a British Army military academy for the training of commissioned officers of the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, whose site at Woolwich was sold in 2008. By the way, the famous football club, now in North London, called Arsenal started as a football team made up of players from the Royal Arsenal but that is another story.
Until well into the 20th century the riverside was very much taken up with industrial sites related to Woolwich Dockyard and the Royal Arsenal. Most of those sites have been redeveloped, being mainly converted into apartments for the wealthy. Only a few of the original buildings remain from the 19th century. Woolwich has lost a vast number of jobs as a result of the Royal Arsenal closing down and the area has fallen into decline. However, Woolwich is connected to the Crossrail project with a new station on a new site, which should have opened in 1999. When it eventually opens, Woolwich will become gentrified and it will then lose touch with most of its illustrious past.
From the historical point of view, the centre of Woolwich presents the visitor with a declining street market and rather run-down shops. Between the shops and the river are large new apartment blocks which look anything but historic, built on part of the Royal Arsenal site. It is a matter of knowing where to look to find the buildings that tell the story of Woolwich over the last three hundred years.
Two other unusual items should be mentioned. The Woolwich Ferry still operates across the Thames – a free ferry for pedestrians, cars and lorries. Just upriver is the Thames Barrier – a river defence against London being flooded when there is a particularly high tide.
To the east of Woolwich was the inland Manor of Plumstead. All trace of the manor has gone but the village of Plumstead lives on. Its name derives from plum orchards in the area and the name means ‘plum homestead or farm’. The first recorded mention was in AD 960 when the owners were the Abbot and monks at the Abbey of St Augustine, at Canterbury, in Kent. Between Plumstead and the Thames was, until the middle of the 20th century, low lying land called Plumstead Marshes. It was little use for anything other than pasture but the land was extensive. From the mid-1960s onwards the marshland on the south bank of the River Thames (northeast of Woolwich and west of Belvedere) was developed into a large sprawling built-up area called Thamesmead. The housing design was poor – typical of 1960s architecture. At the time of writing, plans are being drawn up for new redevelopments with another 40,000 homes, taking the total in the area to 80,000 homes.
One of the high points – in every sense of the word – within the old Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich is Shooter’s Hill crossed by Shooters Hill Road. That road lies on the line of the old Roman road leading from Southwark via Deptford to Dartford. From there it ran via Rochester, Faversham and Canterbury to the English coast at Dover.
Just south of the Roman road was the Manor of Eltham. Its name first appeared in the Domesday Book (1086) when it was part of the lands of the Bishop of Bayeux (who was Earl of Kent). It was in turn held from him by Haimo (or Hamo) the Sheriff of the County of Kent. The name ‘Eltham’ comes from two syllables meaning ‘Eltha’s homestead or farm’. The Old English word ‘ham’ is where the modern word ‘home’ comes from and it is a very common ending for many village names throughout England. The old Manor House at Eltham was to become a royal residence. Henry III kept Christmas there in 1270 and those humble beginnings led to a large piece of land with a moat around it with Eltham Palace at its centre.
One last place name should be mentioned – Mottingham. Its first recorded mention was in AD 862 – the earliest date for any settlement in the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich and, indeed, within the London Borough of Greenwich. The name means ‘Moda’s homestead or farm’. It became a ‘lost settlement’ until its regeneration in Victorian times where it now has a railway station by that name and also a parish church of St Andrew, Court Road, erected 1897.
The ‘centre of gravity’ for history within the Metropolitan Borough is, as you would expect, the old village of Woolwich. That is by no means the only place to find important history. There are many other places of interest to be explored.