For just over 700 years, there has been a ferry service across the Thames at Woolwich, and it’s about time we took a trip in it, and there’s a reason to do so now.

There are more convenient ways for pedestrians to cross the Thames at Woolwich, but now is a good time to take a trip by ferry if you haven’t as the old boats currently crossing the river are to be replaced, so you don’t have too much longer to ride in them.

A ferry at Woolwich has existed since at least 1308, but it really took off when the military arsenal was built at Woolwich. With plenty of workers needing to cross the river each day, as the Arsenal grew, so did demand for a better ferry service.

A railway tried to operate three smallish ferries in the mid-19th century, but it was an act of Parliament in 1885 that authorised the Metropolitan Board of Works to provide a free ferry service, funded by taxes for the area.

The sewer king, Sir Joseph Bazalgette headed the team that commissioned two side-loading paddle steamers. Unfortunately for him, two days before he was due to turn up and launch the new service, the Metropolitan Board of Works was replaced by the London County Council (LCC), and the opening ceremony was conducted by Lord Rosebery instead

The steam ferries were replaced in the 1960s, with the three ferries that still work today — all named after leading politicians.

The ferry is still a vital road link for the area, carrying around 20,000 cars per week — but the lower deck of each ferry is a remnant of older times, being a vast space for pedestrians.

Pedestrians who can be counted by the handful, on a busy day, and less than that on a Sunday.

The approach to the ferry on the northern side is, not that unsurprisingly, not unlike any port, being a large rather barren looking car park space, where thanks to congestion, motorists can often be held during peak hours.

Pedestrians have the fast lane though for once, although a terse concrete shelter offers waiting space if the weather is poor.

Tides determine the steepness of the slope down to the ferry, and you can either wait up on top deck, or head down to the waiting space below.

A vast array of room like spaces carved out the walls holding the motorists deck above, and a long corridor that throbs with the rumble of the two massive engines within.

It’s a curious space, vast and empty, yet thanks to the way it’s laid out in “rooms”, almost cozy and welcoming. You can imagine workers and families sitting down for a few minutes of gossip on the short trip, grateful for the more human sized alcoves offered.

A couple of more intimate rooms with sliding glass doors offered more comfort on cold mornings, but are now locked. All around the warning signs of the perils of riding the waves, and the launch of the ferry was heralded by a safety notice should the boat sink.

Which at low tide on the Thames would barely affect anyone on board who would probably just get very bored waiting for rescue.

Although I was alone below, up on deck there were passengers. While the foot tunnel and DLR offer alternatives now, for those with prams, the ferry is still often the more convenient route across.

Soon though, the wooden benches and old boats will be swept away.

A fleet of new ferries have been ordered and while the specifics are still being worked on, it’s highly unlikely that they will have vast empty spaces for non-existent pedestrians to use.

You have roughly a year left to use the current 1960s era ferries, before their replacements arrive.

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36 comments on “Take a last trip in the Woolwich Free Ferry
  1. Andrew Jarman says:

    When I first used them there was a tea room on the boats with drinks and snacks too. This was back in the 70’s from memory so I have no idea when it was done away with. Maybe well before the abolition of the GLC back in 1986?

  2. Roy says:

    Im old enough to remember the side-wheelers that operated in the 50’s. The trip seemed to take forever as we crossed from Woolwich to meet my grandmother and then back again and onto the train to go to Custom House where she lived. It was always an adventure.

  3. JP says:

    By a strange coincidence was on the Woolwich ferry yesterday and yes it has great character. Haven’t got round to blogging on it though

  4. H says:

    I used them everyday to get to Uni. They always made me feel safe, much better than using the underpass.

  5. Pauline Revell-Bowles says:

    Fond memories of the Ferry. I can remember my dad holding me up to look in the engine room, when I was small, I remember the smell, the noise and the heat! I then had many a happy day when I was older riding back and forth with my friends, running through those corridors and sitting on the open benches either side of the boat watching the waves, (not accessible now – too close to the water). It was such fun, and kept us amused. Happy days.

  6. south london lad says:

    Nobody loves a ferry when she’s 40?

  7. Barry Evans says:

    Like Pauline above, I too remember the old pre 1960 ferries. I remember going below and seeing the engines, hearing the sounds and smelling the oil and the heat. I must have been six or seven when I first saw them. We didn’t have a car then, and a ride on the ferries was a day out for us children – my two younger brothers and me.

  8. Will says:

    There always seems to be more than a handful of pedestrians when I use the ferry – but I guess I am a fair weather traveller!

  9. Richard Leach says:

    my dad used the every time when he worked over the other side off the Thames

  10. Adrian johnson says:

    Loved it when I was young me my sister and my nan and grandad was always on the ferry in the late 70s . Good memory’s said to see the old girls go but thay have had there day . .

  11. Adrian johnson says:

    Loved it when I was young me my sister and my nan and grandad was always on the ferry in the late 70s . Good memory’s sad to see the old girls go but thay have had there day . .

  12. Bryan says:

    The ferries in Merseyside are doing well with their old boats. We turned them into tourist attractions rather than means of transport, with an onboard cafe and a recorded your guide explaining the sites as they cruise from Wirral to Liverpool and back.

  13. Dean Harris says:

    I remember being taken on it a number of times as a child and watching the engines. I was 5 years old when I was told that it wasn’t called the Woolwich Fairy.I was very disappointed.

  14. Michelle Deans says:

    It was like a big adventure to on the ferry when i was younger ..

  15. Steph Taylor says:

    I lived in Woolwich (Wellington Street) until I was 3 (1953 to 1956 before moving to Mottingham), and as a treat I always remember my dad taking me for a trip on the Woolwich Ferry!

  16. Gwen Parnham says:

    I used to take the ferry every morning and evening to get from E12 to Gatwick, used to take a flask of tea and drink it on the way over in the morning.

  17. Sue says:

    My friend and I as teenagers in the 80’s used to go on the bus from erith to Woolwich and once we finished at the shops we used to ride the ferry with our boom box radio and go backwards and forwards for hours sometimes just chatting. We once looked out the other side and we saw a young lad just starring and we got scared and that then became our mystery on our trips. Good memories.

  18. Colin Townsend says:

    I guess a refit to update and convert the wasted passenger space to accommodate more vehicles is more expensive than full replacement, but somehow I doubt the new vessels will have the same character or charm. I wish we were more concerned with protecting history and heritage, the paddle steamers are long gone but this seems an unnecessary replacement to me

  19. Derek Hutton (from Ilford) says:

    I remember in ther late 50’summer and early 60’s being taken to Nth Woolwich by my dad with my brother and sister, We’d drive onto ferry, Park on the other side (by foot tunnel entrance)then walk back through foot tunnel (shouting as we went) to hear the echo’s. Then travel back on ferry as Foot passengers, to watch engines and go on deck to watch boats/ river, then watch it dock,then watch the ramps come down “BUMP”. Later (in my teens) I’don’t ride my m/bike up there. Take a look round the Nth Woolwich Train museium, Then cross the River,and ride down to the Thames Barrier Cafe, have a tea and Sandwich overlooking river and Barrier.(and have a photo of the old steel footbridge over railway)behind Station

  20. Annabel says:

    The only time I went on it in the car was on a day when we had crossed the Thames once on a bridge and once in a tunnel, so having been *over* the Thames and *under* it, we, of course, had to cross *on* it! Many years later I went as a pedestrian, and was fascinated by the vast spaces that Ian pictures!

  21. Roger Norrington says:

    Have great memories of school summer holidays in the early to mid-sixties travelling from South to North Banks as foot passengers. Remember looking at the engines through the glass windows and smelling the hot oil. Outstaying our welcome we were often thrown off. If on the North side we would aim for the swings in Royal Victoria Park. On the South side the escalators in RACS were a draw with the free samples of cheese in British Home Stores in Hare Street.

  22. john parnell says:

    i can remember the old side wheelers and used the present ferries very well.
    i lived on the downham estate in my early teens wopuld ride my bike to woolwich
    go on the ferry then round to the king george 5th docks and watch the ships
    from there i ended up in tjhe merchant navy so they bring lots of memories
    i nom live in ashford kent and dont get there much. happy days

  23. Eve Galler says:

    When I was a young child we used to sit on the ferry and go backwards and forwards several times. We never got told to get off as the crew were very nice to us and we never caused any trouble. Lovely memories of a great childhood.

  24. KA Recovery says:

    I don’t mind taking a trip I might do that

  25. Roger says:

    Smell of hot oil, steam and coal all mixed together, heaven. The sight of all the pollution in the Thames being churned into a foam by the paddle wheels that would get blown across the surface of the water. Kids of today will only be able to relive their memories of what games they played on their phones. Poor little sods.

  26. GT says:

    How about a couple of pictures of the old ferries, that vanished in the very early 60’s ??

  27. Robert Gibbs says:

    I also remember the old boats from the 50’s, we used to travel from Bexleyheath to Woolwich by trolley bus then cross the river by ferry. We then caught another bus to my Grandmother’s in East Ham. In the early 60’s when I lived at Erith a day out was a bike ride up to Woolwich, cross the river by ferry, cycle East along the A13 to the Dartford Tunnel where I’d catch the special double decker bus, which had seats upstairs and cycle racks downstairs, this would take me through the tunnel, from where I’d cycle home. A great adventure for a ten year old!

  28. drhhmb says:

    Back in the 50s, once a year a friend and I would buy a Red Rover ticket which cost, I think, five shillings and allowed a day’s unlimited travel on red London buses. We used to circumnavigate London by various routes but there were always two fixed points – London Airport (as Heathrow was then called) and the Woolwich Free Ferry. I guess, but sadly don’t remember, that it must have been the old paddle steamers.

  29. P.R.Provest says:

    I was growing up during the war in the West Country and used to spend some holidays with an uncle and aunt in Forest Gate. The biggest thrill was to walk or take a trolleybus to Manor Park where the Route 101 bus route crossed at right angles. The Rte 101 ran very frequently but not all buses ran to North Woolwich. The really big thrill was that in the docks one of the bridges had been bombed and a policeman used to get on the bus to check no-one got off, then the bus ran up and back along two docksides, right close by the ships moored there.
    At Woolwich one caught the steam paddle steamer across the river. It was amusing that when it refuelled with coke the coke lorry stayed on board for two or three crossings.
    Once on the south bank there was another thrill, not only were there trams there right by the ferry entrance but it was the place where the trams’ power supply changed from overhead ( towards Abbey Wood) on to underground conduit ( towards London ) this was achieved via an old employee with a giant fork type device walking beside each tram. As a child I used to watch this literally for hours until I needed to go back across the river to return to Forest Gate.

  30. Marc says:

    What a popular post – the Woolwich Free Ferry clearly means a lot to many people! I’ve made sure my children have ridden on it a few times. Quite agree with Ian’s observations about the rooms/compartments below decks. I think it is the use of varnished wood that adds the character to these spaces – just think of the difference between 1959 and 1972 stock on the Underground.

  31. Peter Jay says:

    Got the chance to go down the river from the Isle of Dogs to Gravesend on board the steam tug Portwey. hadn’t been on the river since crossing on the Woolwich ferry back in the 50s with the old paddle steamers.

  32. john aitken says:

    hi, I used these ferries while living in Woolwich in the late 1950s and right through the 1960s and my girlfriend a PAT PHAIR and I used these ferries for our courting has in these great days you could stay on all the time has passengers and only 3 times I think pat and I was too busy looking at the engines working down below??? that we had to walk back through the tunnel has we had parked up for the night on the north bank. great days and yes I also went on the earlier paddle steamers.
    when are they having the last day has ill loved to take my pat up for a last kiss and cuddle on these great boats we saw come into service.

  33. David Hagarty says:

    Charon was the ferryman that conveyed souls across the river that separated the living from the dead. (I remember Virgil from those fifth form Latin lessons at school). And that’s exactly how we felt as children travelling on the ferry to North Woolwich. It was an alien place, where strange trolleybuses screamed along the road. We invariably saw these trips as frightening days out. I always thought the ferry would sink. My Dad didn’t help, as we often came back through the tunnel and he pointed out the dripping water from the roof, saying the river was about to burst through.

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