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The Forgotten Highway


Reminiscence from an unknown source

For the first few days the rush to the ferry was tremendous and thousands of visitors made the trip. But at last the novelty wore off and the boats settled down to fulfil their utilitarian purpose. But not quite; for these, the original steamers, were the children's playtime paradise. Apart from the mere joy of being afloat, with the clang of bells, splash of paddle-wheel creating artificial soap suds, gleam and go and heat and oil-smell in the engine room, foam, wind and spray on deck, there were steps to climb, capstan and anchor, chain and rope to chase around, a nice long run from bow to stern and, best of all, a warm iron casing where the water boiled, so shaped as to provide a lovely slide some six foot from top to bottom. Then there was the possibility that a member of the crew would suddenly pop up from the secret, dark lower regions to put a stop to all pranks. He would turn you off, too, when the boat tied up; but he could not stop you running all the way up the steps, along and down the other side of the pontoon, to re-embark and sit quiet until the ropes were cast off, the paddles throbbed and the vessel got under way again.

Although the Free Ferry was rightly regarded by the populace as a most welcome amenity, it was looked upon with apprehension by the directors of the Great Eastern Railway Company. Since June, 1847, when the railway first came to North Woolwich, the Company had operated a ferry, the north landing place being at the pier still in existence, the southern lying just east of Bell Watergate on Market Head. Woolwich folk called it the "Penny Ferry" in reference to the toll, but its proper title was: "The Eastern Counties Ferry", served by the vessels "Kent", "Essex" and "Middlesex". The new ferry decided the fate of the Penny Ferry but, like Charles II, it was an inconscionable time dying.

It survived until 1908 when the Kentish Independent reporter recalls: "For just over 60 years captains and crews have carried on manfully, spring, summer, autumn and winter, bravely facing the dangers of cross­-river navigation, ever so cheery as the cricket that chirps on the kitchen hearth."

For the convenience of passengers its timetable coincided with that of the railway, but there were others who patronised the boats, including those who, in the evenings and at week-ends. went in crowds to visit the famous pleasure grounds opened in 1851 on the site of the present Victoria Gardens. Here was a resort after the fashion of Vauxhall and Rosherville with all the delights of al-fresco entertainment, even to the balloon ascents by the then famous Henry Coxwell. For recreation and relaxation at this delectable spot came the toilers of Woolwich to mingle with the crowds who arrived by steamboat or train. But in time the Gardens went out of fashion and in 1891 the L.C.C. took them over and so preserved an oasis of beauty in an area not renowned for its scenic charm.

He had to go down to the Ferry once more, as it was to him an im­portant part of Woolwich. It is time that we went there too, for we left it in 1908 just freed from its rival the "Penny Ferry". Its only enemy now is the fog.

As Capt. Driver said, on the occasion of his retirement in March, 1927:

"Even in clear weather you want your wits about you and about forty pairs of eyes. It's like an old lady getting from one side to the other of a busy highway in the heart of London with no policeman to help her."

It is understandable, therefore, that in foggy weather the ferry service must be suspended. In the earlier days it was possible to find a boatman who, if your business was urgent would lake a chance and "row you o'er the ferry". But those were the days before 1912 when the foot tunnel was opened.

The three original boats saw long service, for it was not until 1930 that the last of them was retired. In January, 1923, the Hutton made its last trip after thirty-two years afloat, to be replaced by the Squires. Captain Superintendent Storey and Chief Engineer Adams had brought the new vessel from Cowes, where it was built and on the maiden trip a modest ceremony was held on board with Col. Kennard, L.C.C., among the company.

Col. Kennard told the assembled company that never before had a ferry boat come up the Thames under her own steam (hear, hear). Ter­rible weather and a gale prevailed at the time, but she had arrived safely, under the capable guidance of her officers (hear, hear). Capt. Storey, in reply, wished that the company had been larger.

"I wish there were more to join us," he said.

Perhaps he had heard of the good time that was had by all at the Freemasons' Hall in 1889.

Mr. Squires, L.C.C., the Woolwich bookseller after whom the boat had been named, was present recipient of eulogistic encomiums which were his just due after forty years of public service for Woolwich. On the return journey he made a short speech. There had been no accident in the thirty-two years of the ferry service and he wished success to the Squires and to the Staff, from Captain to Cabin Boy. Shortly afterwards, a replacement of the Gordon was put into commission, the original name being retained.

On June 29th, 1926, the accident-free record was unfortunately broken and it was the Squires that was involved; though, let us hasten to add, through no fault of her own. It was just that Mr. Squires forgot to touch wood when he made his proud boast three years earlier. The vessel had just tied up at the south pontoon when a cry from a girl on deck directed attention to the American steamer "Coahoma County", 6,000 tons, about to collide with Squires. In the twinkling of an eye, the mate, Reuben Edmonds, gave the signal for the ropes to be cast off and the vessel to steam astern. His prompt action prevented a worse disaster, but quite enough damage was done. The Coahoma County grazed the starboard side of the Squires and crushed her into the pier. The five-hundred people on board, most of them standing ready to disembark, were thrown about in all directions; children crying, women swooning, the ferry breaking loose and drifting into mid-stream, her port side splintered to matchwood, one engine out of action, her rails gone. Deck-hand Smith fell down the companionway and his pal Wiseman fell on top of him.

The men aboard and the crew, said the Kentish Independent, behaved admirably and, with a firm hand, soon restored comparative order. Women, though naturally frightened, responded well to the appeal to calm down. Four tugs swiftly brought the vessel back to the pontoon, the injured were comforted, doctors called in and several policemen "with a knowledge of first-aid and kindly intuition" rendered valuable assis­tance. Eleven of the injured were taken to hospital but were all back home in a couple of days. Squires was towed over to the north pier where the vehicles were unshipped, the green "Wreck" flag was hoisted over the south pontoon; and it was all over, save that it was a fortnight or so before repairs were completed and normal working resumed.

And for the convenience of users this was none too soon, for twenty thousand passengers and two-thousand-three-hundred vehicles were fre­quently carried in one day, with a yearly average of five-and-a-half million and half-a-million respectively. Pressure of traffic was such that even better boats and approaches were needed. Work began in 1928 and in May, 1930, when the Duncan was withdrawn, two new vessels, the Will Crooks and the John Bern, each, like their predecessors, capable of carrying a thousand passengers beside an upper-deck load of vehicles, took to the river. Will Crooks, of course, was well remembered locally but John Bern's name was more familiar in London government circles, as he had served as L.C.C. member from the inauguration of the Authority until 1922, including a term as chairman.

The John Bern, decorated for the occasion, made a short run down­stream and among the company aboard was Sir Ernest Bern, son of John, together with other members of the family and a representative selection of councillors headed by Mr. E. Kemp, L.C.C.

The boilers of these new vessels were not the right shape for sliding down; and a generation of children grew up ignorant of the exhilaration of swift descent and hot bottoms. That was bad enough, but what can be said of the 1963 newest and latest, the James Newman, John Burns and Ernest Bevin? They have engines, no doubt, but nobody can see them; capstans and winches, perhaps, but inaccessible to all but the crew. No paddle wheels threshing the water, no smoke, no steam. Once aboard, the passengers are segregated into separate compartments, with never a view of the river and its traffic. But the boats are splendidly utilitarian and when the new approach from John Wilson Street and the new piers are ready, traffic will have easy access with a straight run on and off: modernisation up to the minute. No longer shall we behold the amazing technique of the men on the top deck who, for so many years, have packed cars and lorries so cleverly, according to a plan which only they can comprehend. No longer, either, shall we be able to wander through that labyrinth of passages once known as "Forty Corners" which, through generations of knocking down and building up, preserved the rights of way in the riverside area where the new pier is gradually taking shape. Vincent describes the conglomeration of paths as: "A mere alley, entered by the Gasworks and emerging at the Soup Kitchen facing the river". By 1928 a great deal of unsalubrious property in this part of Old Woolwich had been demolished and newspaper corres­pondents vied with each other in remembering what had been. They spoke of Gas House Alley, Shorts Alley, The Grove, Hog Lane, Sow Alley and Pig Court, of the Parsonage that once was there, of the tumble­down cottages unfit to be lived in. Now they are all gone, including Enon Chapel.

When, at last, the new piers are completed there will doubtless be an official opening, but it is highly improbable that it will match the pro­cession of 1889, for such a spectacle would dislocate traffic and keep people away from their work. In 1889 even a new shop could not be properly opened without a brass band ceremony in an atmosphere of half­day holiday, with most of the children of the neighbourhood "hopping the wag" from school.

The withdrawal of trolleybuses in February, 1959, made life easier for London Transport but did nothing to solve the Woolwich traffic problem. Certain faith was pinned on the Dartford Tunnel which was expected to be ready in 1962. "When it is completed," said the Kentish Independent, "gone will be the lines of traffic waiting for the Ferry." Thus was Mr. Dance misled into believing that in a few years, if his lungs could hold out, he and his fellow traders in Hare Street would once again breathe fresh air unpolluted by diesel fumes from queued lorries. They had complained to the police who said that no law had been broken and to the Borough Council who could not act as the fumes were not black or, by definition, excessive. In the event, Dartford Tunnel did not solve the problem; and Mr. Dance, if still alive, will have to wait for the projected Ferry diversion. Plans for these were announced by L.C.C. in 1962 and work is still proceeding on a scheme which will take the Ferry traffic away from the town centre. A brand new John Wilson Street will provide an approach from Woolwich Common to pontoons on a new site and built especially to give time-saving, end-on loading on to the modern vessels. As is generally the way with improve­ments, some have to suffer. Fisher's, military tailors for a century, is to be demolished, the firm will close down and another family business disappear. At the other end, the Baptists have lost Enon Chapel, their home for more than 200 years. Neither L.C.C. nor Borough Council have been able to offer them an alternative site and members are con­strained to meet in private houses as their forbears did. From one end of John Wilson Street to the other the buildings which must come down are not only houses but homes. But there it is; the greatest good of the greatest number must be the criterion even though there is no universally accepted criterion as to what is the greatest good.

Nesbit and Bland's bohemian existence at Well Hall was interrupted by Bland's increasing blindness and eventually his death in 1914. Three years later, Nesbit married (Terry) Thomas Tucker, "the Skipper," an affable, loving ex-marine engineer, who ran the Woolwich Ferry. She continued to write, but following the catastrophe of the First World War, the sensibility she had evoked and served so well had been largely swept away, and she was no longer able to earn enough to support her new marriage in the style to which Bland and she had been accustomed. She and Tucker left Nesbit's beloved Well Hall in 1921 for a far more humble residence -- a pair of converted war office sheds.

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