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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 Ferry today

The rise of road traffic

By the 1950s, it was clear that the Woolwich Ferry needed modernising. Originally built for foot passengers and occasional vehicles, the ferry was now carrying heavy road traffic.

The ferry needed new vessels able to carry more vehicles, particularly large lorries. A better way of loading the ferries was also necessary, because traffic using the crossing had to queue up in Woolwich town centre.

The new diesel boats 

The Woolwich Ferry boat John Burns (1963).
View full size imageThe John Burns in June 1963. © NMM

In 1963, the paddle steamers were replaced by three diesel boats: the John Burns, Ernest Bevin and the James Newman. John Burns (1858-1943) was one of the leaders of the great Dock Strike of 1889. James Newman was a former Mayor of Woolwich.

'James Newman' (Woolwich Ferry), 23 March 1989.
View full size imageThe James Newman in March 1989. © NMM

Ernest Bevin (1881-1951) was the great trade union leader who gained fame during the 1912 docks strike.

He was later the Member of Parliament for Woolwich and Minister of Labour in Churchill's wartime coalition.


The Woolwich Ferry boat 'Ernest Bevin'.
View full size imageThe Ernest Bevin in 2004. © NMM

The ferries were built in Dundee, and remain in service 40 years later.

Each can carry 200 vehicles and 500 foot passengers. This is a very different ratio to that carried by the old paddle steamers.


The new terminals

The Woolwich Ferry: the Northern Terminal.
View full size imageThe Woolwich Ferry: the Northern Terminal. © NMM

At first, the diesel boats used the same pontoon system built for the paddle steamers. In September 1966, the new ferry terminals were opened.

Their main feature is the huge ramps linking the road to the boats. These can be raised or lowered depending on the state of the tide.

The Woolwich Ferry: the Southern Terminal.
View full size imageThe Woolwich Ferry: the Southern Terminal. © NMM

The ramps are far larger than those used for the old pontoons, as they have to cater for the heaviest lorries.

Vehicles and foot passengers now use the same ramps, though the pedestrians have a protected entrance on the left.

Queuing for the Woolwich Ferry.
View full size imageQueuing for the Woolwich Ferry. © NMM
Special approach roads were built to each terminal. The southern approach road was built away from Woolwich town centre, allowing vehicles to queue for the boats without interfering with other traffic.



A vital link

The importance of road traffic has ensured that the ferry has got steadily busier despite the closure of the Royal Docks and the Woolwich Arsenal. The Woolwich Ferry now carries over a million vehicles and more than two million passengers each year. It is a vital part of the network of river crossings, and any disruption of the ferry service causes chaos throughout the area.

The Thames seen from the Woolwich Ferry.
View full size imageThe Thames seen from the Woolwich Ferry. © NMM

Although each boat can carry up to 500 foot passengers, on some sailings there are less than ten. This is a great pity - now that the Thames is no longer a working river, the Woolwich Ferry is an almost unique way to see the Thames.



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