Ferries carried people and goods between Woolwich and North Woolwich for centuries. These ferries charged tolls from the people that used them. In 1877, Parliament decided to remove the tolls on the bridges in west London, and to place the bridges under the care of the Metropolitan Board of Work (the predecessor to the London Country Council).
This angered the people of Woolwich, who still had to pay to cross the river. They felt they were subsidising wealthy west Londoners, and felt entitled to their own free crossing. Their protests were successful in the end. Work began in 1887, and in 1889 the Woolwich Free Ferry was opened.
The original paddle steamers were replaced by similar boats between 1922 and 1930, but the ferry remained unchanged until the 1960s. By that time, the growing volume of road traffic wanting to use the ferry was causing problems. New diesel ferry boats, more suitable for carrying vehicles, were introduced in 1963. These remain in service to this day. New terminals, opened in 1966, made it easier for cars and lorries to drive on to the ferry.