Woolwich, the town on both sides of the Thames
- Credit: National Maritime Museum
Historian Andrew Summers looks at the strange anomaly of a town straddling the River Thames
Woolwich, on the south bank of the River Thames, is linked to North Woolwich by a ferry and foot tunnel. It is thought that Woolwich was so named as it was “a port from which wool was shipped”.
Located in the original Essex Hundred of Becontree, North Woolwich is a tract of land measuring about 500 acres, bordered by East Ham, Barking and, of course, the river.
However, although North Woolwich was geographically in Essex on the north bank of the River Thames, it was administratively part of Kent. It was described as “Woolwich in the parts of Essex” and later “detached Woolwich”.
This strange anomaly originated after the Norman Conquest and remained in place until 1965 when North Woolwich was incorporated into the London Boroughs of Newham and Barking and Dagenham following the reorganisation of local government in London.
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In 1086, Hamon Dapifer was the Sheriff of Kent appointed by William the Conqueror. He held lands in many parts of Kent and several manors in Essex.
At Woolwich, Hamon was not only County Sheriff but also Lord of the Manor. He was known to be unscrupulous and high handed.
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It was not unknown for Norman Sheriffs to encroach upon the lands of their neighbours and tamper with boundaries if they felt they could get away with it. So it is highly probable that the acquisition of Woolwich that was “North of the Thames” was the result of sharp practice, and quite possibly force, by Hamon Dapifer.
What made North Woolwich especially attractive was the prospect of collecting all the taxes and tolls from the cross-river traffic on both sides of the river.
Originally “Woolwich in the parts of Essex” was one continuous parcel of land between Ham Creek and the River Roding. However, by 1850, following changes to parish boundaries, a finger of East Ham had been extended south to the River Thames, effectively cutting the Kent administered area in two.
“Woolwich in the parts of Essex” now became known as Detached Woolwich No. 1 and Detached Woolwich No. 2.
The term North Woolwich first came to be used in 1847 following the construction of the railway line that terminated by the (north) Woolwich ferry landing pier.
Gradually the name North Woolwich spread from the area surrounding the station to encapsulate all of “Woolwich in the parts of Essex”.
Detached Woolwich soon fell out of use and the area simply became known as North Woolwich.
The station closed in 1979 and for a while it became ‘The Old Station Museum’ dedicated to the impact on the area of the ‘Great Eastern’ and ‘London and North Eastern’ railways.
North Woolwich is now served by the King George V station of the Docklands Light Railway which, with its extension under the Thames to Woolwich Arsenal station, despite administrative separation, provides a physical attachment to Woolwich.
Further strengthening the area’s ties with Kent is the giant London Crossrail project under construction.
For more of Andrew Summers’ work, visit essex100.com.
For more about the Woolwich ferry, visit rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum.