The earliest references to the ferry can be found in the state papers of 1308, when the waterman who ran it, William de Wicton, sold his business and house to William Atte Halle, for £10. In 1320 the ferry was sold again for 100 silver marks. There is no further mention of the ferry during the years that Woolwich rose to prominence as a royal dockyard under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Later, as London expanded, the movement of troops and supplies became a problem. In 1810 the army established its own ferry that ran from Woolwich Arsenal to Duvals Wharf.
In 1811 an Act of Parliament was passed to establish a ferry across the Thames from Woolwich at the Old Ballast or Sand Wharf, opposite Chapel Street where the dockyard then terminated.
The ferry became known as the western ferry and was run by a company that called itself The Woolwich Ferry Company. Shareholders included the Lady of the Manor, Dame Jane Wilson, her son Sir John Thomas Maryon Wilson, John Long and John Stride.
The western ferry continued to operate until 1844, when the company was dissolved after a history of inept management.
The free Woolwich ferry was established in the late 1880s. In 1880 a public meeting was held in Woolwich to see whether the town could afford to set up its own steam ferry. The board featured 60 local residents. The cost of building the boats and landing piers was too great and the Metropolitan Board of Works was approached. This board was the forerunner to the London County Council.
The people of Woolwich pointed out that, through their rates, they had helped pay for toll bridges in west London that the board had recently purchased and opened to free public use. They insisted that they, too, should be able to cross the Thames free of charge.
In 1884, after conducting a survey, the Metropolitan Board of Works agreed to provide a free ferry.
In September 1887, Messrs Mowlem and company were awarded contracts to build approaches, bridges and pontoons.
The free ferry opened on 23rd March 1889. Initially there were two paddle steamers the Gordon and Duncan. They were capable of eight knots and were licensed to carry 1,000 passengers with room for 15 to 20 vehicles.
The 493grt Gordon (above) was built in 1889 by R. & H. Green at Blackwall. She was named after General Gordon of Khartoum (1833-1885) who was born in Woolwich and studied at the academy.
For the opening Woolwich was decorated with flags and bunting, and the streets were lined with volunteers from the local artillery. There was a huge procession, preceded by mounted police and followed by various local traders and associations with their emblems and bands. The official party of Lord Rosebery and other members of the newly formed London County Council, the local MP and other dignitaries travelled in open carriages. Lord Rosebery then declared to the people gathered, “The free ferry is open to the public.”
There was only one boat, the Gordon, in service that weekend and the crowds poured on to take advantage of the first free trips across the river.
That weekend alone, the Great Eastern Railway Company carried 25,000 people to its North Woolwich terminus, most of whom were intent on riding the ferry.
The 493grt Duncan (above) was built in 1889 by R. & H. Green at Blackwall. She was named after Colonel Francis Duncan (1836-1888) the author of a history on the Royal Artillery. Colonel Duncan was a soldier, and MP. He was director of the St. John Ambulance Brigade from 1877 until 1882. He died at Woolwich and is buried in Charlton.
The 554grt Hutton (above) joined the service in 1893. She was built by William Simons & Co. at Renfrew. She was named after Sir John Hutton DL, JP. Hutton was a Member of the London County Council from 1889 to 1901 and was its chairman from 1892 to 1895.
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