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The Greenwich Millennium Site

The peninsula designated as the site for the national Millennium Festival is properly known "Greenwich Marsh" and was once, probably, a malarial bog. Walled and ditched some time in the Middle Ages, much of the land was owned by charities and was used for grazing. We can also assume some riverside trades--such as barging and fishing--and perhaps certain covert activities.

Greenwich in its hey-day

As the location of the Tudor Royal Palace as well as one of the larger industrial towns before 1800, Greenwich flourished. There was arms manufacture, shipbuilding, chemicals, ironworking, milling and much else. Industry, previously centred around Deptford Creek, began to need space to expand--and manufacturers looked east to undeveloped riverside land.

The Government Powder magazine

One of the earliest buildings on the marsh was an Elizabethan watchtower and from 1694 one large and dangerous building: the Government Powder magazine where gunpowder from various mills was delivered, tested, stored and distributed. It so frightened the inhabitants of Greenwich that they petitioned to have it removed.

Riverside expansion

In the 1790's a new store was built at Purfleet and the Greenwich building was sold in 1802. From that time industry on the marsh began to expand around the riverside edge of the peninsula. The basic industry was based on barge traffic--coal, cement, tar and general lighterage. For many years the central section remained to cows, market gardens, ditches, gypsies, passing watermen--and probably, smuggling and explosives testing...

Even today the marsh can be divided into a number of areas. The western shore, where many sites are still used by industry, began to expand around 1800. Much of this area is still owned by the Blackheath-based charity Morden College, established in the sixteenth century. The College's influence in the development of the marsh is an important but unresearched subject.

The gas works site which is earmarked for the Festival, to the north and east, was little used before 1880.

The Riverway Area

On the east side, at the end of Riverway, is an area separate from the rest of the marsh. Here in 1800 a soap maker named George Russell built a large tide mill. Parts of his "New East Greenwich"--housing a pub named after William Pitt ("The Pilot who weathered the storm")--are still there. The mill was a large one, built on an industrial scale to grind corn. During its building an accident took place, famous in the history of steam engine development--an explosion in the boiler of a steam engine designed by Robin Trevithick. It possibly changed the way in which steam power developed.

Industrial chemicals

In the 1840's the mill buildings and adjoining sites were sold to Frank Hills--an industrial chemist hitherto based in Deptford. Over the next fifty years his chemical works expanded at East Greenwich. He made a fortune from chemicals he developed using gas industry waste products and with his brothers owned works in Wales, Spain and elsewhere. He had also developed a steam car and patented an important piece of gearing. He went on to become a major London shipbuilder, perhaps involved with the Warrior.

Power and steel

In the 1890's, the site was acquired by a local company for a power station. In 1947 this was replaced by another, demolished in the late 1980's. The site is now derelict. To the south of the Riverway, the British Steel site was used from around 1900 for Redpath Brown's structural steel works. Greenwich Yacht Club, whose clubhouse is on the site of Frank Hills' riverside foreman's house, now use Redpatch Brown's old jetty.

Railway

The area was served by sidings from the Angerstein Railway to the east. This was built in the 1850's as a private industrial railway--probably in connection with plans for docks on the peninsula. The line, which joins the main line from Blackheath to Charlton, has always been managed by the South East Railway and its successors. It is still used today.

The Enderbys

The main industrial area on the east side of the marsh was already creeping eastward down river by the time the gunpowder store was closed. The site itself was sold and went on to become one of the most important in Greenwich. In 1829 it was acquired by a family called Enderby. They had been Bermondsey tanners who had made money from a white lead manufacturing process and then married into the whaling trade: "Enderby Land" in north-eastern Antartica was named after them.

Cable making

In Greenwich they built a rope walk (the site of which can be seen from the riverwalk when looking through the buildings on the STC site). On the riverfront is Enderby House, dating from the 1830's. In the 1850's the site was taken over by Glass Elliott, a company which was developing the new technologies of cable making--which subsequently became a major Thamesside industry. Here the first Atlantic cable was made. There have been many innovations here and the site can well be described as one of the most important in the history of communications technology. It is still in use as STC Submarine Systems Ltd (Alcatel Submarine Networks).

Cement, lime and gravel

Riverside sites back towards Greenwich have mainly been used for wharfage and building materials. The wharf recently vacated by Lovells was from 1838 used by Coles Child. He is typical of Greenwich riverside manufacturers. He was a Lambeth-based coal merchant who made enough money to live in the old Bishops' Palace at Bromley. At Greenwich he built up a complex site based on coal brought in from the north-east of England with local cement, lime and gravel. He developed the area of housing around Pelham Road. It was the custom to name streets after the North-East coalfield area--there was once a Newcastle and a Northumberland Street here.

Construction and engineering

The site now used by Wimpey Roadstone was once Mowlem's Yard where the Great Globe, now at Swanage, was made. Look at the Wall in Cadet Place for a selection of the stone they used. Continuing conections with the construction industry are obvious. A more unusual factory here was the engineering works of Joshua Beale--among many innovations he probably made steam-powered cars here in the 1840's.

Specialized sugars manufacture

There are three jetties attached to the STC site. Between the first two is an old causeway--or rather channel. The third jetty was used, before 1958, by the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich for tipping rubbish into barges.

Next is the Tunnel Refineries complex. Tunnel Glucose, a Belgian company, has been on the site since the 1930's. They make specialized sugars from maize, and more recently, wheat. In the 1960's, fathers who worked at the plant were in demand for supplies of "ice pops". Next to Tunnel Glucose are Hays Chemicals--successor to the many chemicals works which have come and gone in this riverside area. Hays are on the site of Mollassine, a dog food factory famous for its bad smell. Their red stone office block can be seen from the northbound A102M.

Shipbuilding

After Hays the riverside walk turns inland. On the riverfront is the area of Horseshoe Breach where an inrush of water destroyed the river wall before 1600. Shipbuilders took advantage of the resulting bay to site their slips. Here the innovative National Company for boat building by Machinery tried but failed to produce 6,000 boats a year, all to a standard pattern. They were succeeded by the ship building division of the great Maudesley engineering company. Here were built iron sailing clippers and huge complex steam engines were fitted into battleships. They were succeeded by barge builders and barge repairers. The present derelict concrete buildings covered barge building shops belonging to Humpheries and Grey.

Ammonia, seed crushing, wire cable, barge building and steel

After Horseshoe Breach, apart from a short stretch, it is not possible to walk along the riverside. This area was, until recently, dominated by the huge "portainers" of the Victoria Deep Water Wharf. This area has been home to many, many industries and is still busy today. One of the most important was that of John Bethell, who in the last century made tarred blocks for road building. There were lino works, Forbes ammonia factory, seed crushing, cement, amunition, wire rope, more barge building, more chemicals, more cable. Even Henry Besemer had a steel works here for a while. From 1905 until the 1980's the area was dominated by the Delta Bronze foundry.

Tar works at Blackwall Point

At the end of Tunnel Avenue by Draw Dock Road is a very typical SEGAS gate going into what was Ordnance Wharf. It is the first reminder of the once dominant gas works. This area was the Gas Company tar works--run as a separate site from the main works. Alongside is the drawdock--built by the gas company in the 1880's by order of Parliament--goes to the river. The air vents of the "old" Blackwall Tunnel are adjacent.

Ordnance Wharf

Ordnance Wharf was so named becasue of the Blakey Ordnance Company which made "great guns" here in the 1860's. Later there was the Bisulphated Guano Company which processed what was probably South American bird droppings. No wonder the Gas company protested that their works would smell no worse than existing users of the site! They were forced by Parliament to buy the site out before the gas works could be built. What is more important is that they also bought the enormous--and unsuccessful--dry dock which still lies somewhere under this area of Blackwall Point.

A community on Greenwich Marsh

There is still housing in Tunnel Avenue--the sole reminder of what was once a large community. Several factories had their own, adjacent, workers' housing. The London School Board School still stands, in use as a museum store and nearby was a listed church--now demolished! There were several pubs. Tunnel Avenue was once Ship and Billet Lane (the pub is now the Frog and Radiator); The Mitre, which for a while in the 1980's housed the notorious Tunnel Club, is now Dorringtons; the Star of India is now Radburns and the Sea Witch is somewhere on the Tunnel Glucose site. A community of fair ground operators now lives on the site of the Blakey workers' homes. Some housing was cleared in the 1960's and 1970's as Greenwich Council moved people away from the marshy area which was then designated for industry.

To build the world's best gas works...

South Met was based in Old Kent Road. In the late 1870's, the South Metropolitan--based in the Old Kent Road and led by George Livesey, a charismatic engineer who later became its Chairman--took over most of the other South London Gas Companies. In 1881 it set about building a "super" works to rival Beckton across the river--works they intended to make the best in the world. The gas works of South Metropolitan in East Greenwich, built in 1884, were very modern: no other new gas works have been built since.

...and the largest in Europe

The two gas holders, the smaller of which still stands, were the biggest in Europe--only one holder in America ever surpassed them. They are very special holders built with great difficulty on the marshy subsoil. They are very plain because George Livesey didn't believe in ornament. In the history of holder design and because of the ethos by which they were built they are much more important than other, ornate and listed, holders elsewhere.

Social progress of a kind...

In 1889 gas workers left work (strikes were illegal!) to protest against Livesey's profit-sharing scheme. The outcome of this complicated story was huge investment in social facilities by South Met. Opposite the present Port Greenwich offices stood the Institute and Theatre built as part of a co-partnership scheme. Children born to workers in the company maternity scheme could work, be housed and buried by the Company.

Chemical weapons research and acid parties...

In the First World War, South Met was involved in chemical weapons research in a designated area of the site. South Met also took over part of Frank Hills' chemical works running it as a separate plant, Phoenix Wharf. The amazing and dramatic pre-cast concrete parabolic sulphate house built in the 1950's and too modern to list but much used by film companies was demolished in the 1990's on the pretext that it was used for illicit rave parties.

The tunnel and the motorway

The biggest feature of Greenwich Marsh today is the A102 and the two Blackwall Tunnels. The earlier tunnel was built by the Metropolitan Board of Works in the 1880's--as a free crossing for East Londoners because they did not benefit from the abolition of tolls on upriver bridges. The tunnel was built for horse and cart and was served by trams. Seventy years after it opened the second southbound tunnel was built by the GLC and a motorway standard road joined it to the A2 at Blackheath.

Adapted from a paper by Mary Mills, PhD MPhil. June 1996.


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