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Linking the port - ferries

The early ferries
The Woolwich Free Ferry
Woolwich Ferry from the 1920s
The Woolwich Ferry today
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The Woolwich Free Ferry

Protests in Woolwich

Old Waterloo Bridge from the South Bank, by W.L. Wyllie.
View full size imageOld Waterloo Bridge from the South Bank, by W.L. Wyllie. © NMM

The Woolwich Free Ferry was established because of the protests of Woolwich residents. Most of London's bridges were private businesses that charged tolls from those that used them. This discouraged most ordinary people from using them unless there was no alternative.

In 1877, Parliament passed the Metropolis Toll Bridges Act. This allowed the Metropolitan Board of Works (the MBW - predecessor of the London County Council) to buy up the private bridges and abolish the tolls.

The Vauxhall Iron Bridge.
View full size imageThe original Vauxhall Bridge (1816). © NMM
This angered the people of Woolwich, who still had to rely on the ferry. They pointed out that their taxes had helped to pay for these bridges, so they were subsidising free crossings in wealthy west and central London. They felt they were also entitled to a free crossing.

The Free Ferry 

One of the Woolwich Ferry paddle steamers, c. 1906-09.
View full size imageThe Woolwich Free Ferry, c. 1906-09. © NMM

Although the protests were successful, Woolwich still had to wait many years for its own crossing. The MBW began work in 1887.

By the time the ferry opened in March 1889, the MBW had just been wound up and replaced by the new London County Council. 

The first paddle steamers

The Woolwich Ferry boat 'Duncan' in 1906.
View full size imageThe Woolwich Ferry boat Duncan in 1906. © NMM
The first ferry boats were the paddle steamers Gordon, Duncan and Hutton.

They were licensed to carry 1000 passengers and up to 20 vehicles. The first two were built at Green’s Blackwall Yard.


The paddle steamers commemorated:

  • General Gordon, honoured as a hero after his death at Khartoum in Sudan
  • Colonel Francis Duncan, the author of History of the Royal Artillery
  • Charles Hutton, a famous professor of mathematics at the Woolwich Academy in the early 19th century.  

The terminals

Woolwich Free Ferry.
View full size imageThe northern approach to the Woolwich Ferry. © NMM

On either side of the river, passengers and vehicles entered the ferry boats through specially built ramps.

Vehicles were driven onto the boats via large ramps, while foot passengers used a smaller ramp alongside.

A Woolwich Ferry boat alongside the North Woolwich approach, c. 1960.
View full size imageA Woolwich Ferry boat alongside the northern approach, c. 1960. © NMM
The ferry boats were side-loading, and lay alongside the landing ramps, which jutted out straight from the riverbank. This system lasted until 1966.







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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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