By Peter Guillery, on 15 June 2018
In 2012 the Survey of London published the 48th volume in our main series, on Woolwich. Among recent Survey volumes this has been a best-seller, comparatively speaking, but it has only been fully accessible as a substantial printed book, published for English Heritage (then the Survey’s host institution) by Yale University Press on behalf of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
Many with an interest in the area have found the book difficult to get at, or, we surmise, failed to discover its existence. Draft text files that were placed online before publication to seek comments have remained accessible, but these are no substitute for the finished publication, with its numerous beautiful drawings and photographs. We are pleased now to be able to make illustrated pdfs of Woolwich openly accessible here (link). The whole volume is available, divided up into chapter files. Volumes 1 to 47 of the Survey of London have all been online for some time via British History Online (link). Printed copies of Woolwich can be purchased from Yale University Press (link) and other retailers.
Woolwich was the first Survey volume to cover any part of south London in more than fifty years, and the first ever south-east London parish volume. It deals with one of London’s most intriguing districts, a place with a vigorously independent record.
A Thames-side settlement with pre-Roman origins, Woolwich grew from Tudor times into a dynamic military and naval centre, crucial to the country’s defences. In the Royal Naval Dockyard and the Royal Arsenal, both beside the Thames, vast skilled workforces wrought ships and armaments in ever-expanding series of specialized structures that are fully chronicled and analysed in this volume.
In due course, pressure on space pushed the military to expand onto the open uplands of Woolwich Common. Here the grand set pieces of the Royal Artillery Barracks and Royal Military Academy survive, along with the training landscape of Repository Woods.
Between riverside and common, the town of Woolwich benefited from this military presence, but also struggled with poverty. It maintained a proud life of its own, expressed in buildings that include a noble Edwardian town hall set in an early municipal enclave; big co-operative department stores that represent a strong local history of mutualism; distinctive churches, including one by Pugin; and fine 1930s cinemas. Shops have thrived on Powis Street, and Woolwich has always been an important point for crossing the Thames – its Free Ferry still operates. Most of the domestic fabric is of post-war date and there are historically significant housing estates. Manufacturing departed in the 1960s and Woolwich declined. Since the 1990s there has been new investment, bringing great change.
With a Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) station in the offing, that change has accelerated since our book was published. In 2018 Woolwich is faced with several controversial development schemes: between the High Street and Powis Street; on the former Woolwich Polytechnic ‘island block’ north of Wellington Street; west of General Gordon Square, where a 27-storey tower is proposed; at the north end of Woolwich New Road and round to Plumstead Road (the Spray Street site); at the Morris Walk Estate; and in the far north-west corner of the parish. Some of these sites are illustrated below. We hope that the historical information we are now making more accessible will help to inform discussions.