‘London Shoes’ had to go a little bit subterranean this week in order to reach its selected destination – when it had to walk ‘under’ the River Thames to get to the subject matter in question.
Everyone knows that there are numerous bridges, train tunnels and road tunnels scattered across the ‘Smoke’, that you can use to ‘cross the Thames’ from its north side to its south side and vice-versa – but what a lot of people don’t necessarily know, is that there are also 2 ‘Foot Tunnels’ where you can actually ‘walk’ from one side of the Thames to the other.
The oldest and most popular ‘Thames-Foot Tunnel’ in terms of its usage and also its credibility, is the ‘Greenwich Foot Tunnel’ where you can walk under the River from Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs on its northern banks, and come out at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich on its southern shores.
However, there is another lesser known and lesser used ‘Thames Foot Tunnel’, that does not get the same care and attention as its more popular Greenwich neighbour – and that is the ‘Woolwich-Thames Foot Tunnel’, which links the north of the Thames at Silvertown–London E16 on the River’s northern banks, and emerges at the back of a small retail shopping centre on the other side, in Woolwich-London SE18.
Because London Shoes always sides with the lesser known and more unusual aspects of London’s history, it was the ‘Woolwich-Thames Foot Tunnel’ that was the subject matter for this particular ‘Shoes’ blog.
The Woolwich Foot Tunnel was opened in 1912, and cost £84k to build.
It is 1,654 feet long and was designed by the amusingly named architect ‘Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice’.
It crosses the River Thames from the London Borough of Newham on the north side – and comes out in the Royal Borough of Greenwich on its southern side.
It more or less runs alongside the historically famous and extremely busy ‘Woolwich Ferry’ service, and provides travellers with an alternative way of getting from one side of the Thames to the other.
Both is entrances on the north & south sides of the River, are protected by a Grade II Listed status.
It is estimated that approx 1,000 people per day use the ‘Woolwich Foot Tunnel’ – which doesn’t surprise me, as there are only 2 other alternatives to crossing the Thames at this particular point of the River – the DLR rail service and the Woolwich Ferry.
It takes roughly 15 to 20mins to walk from one end of the tunnel to the other – and there is certainly nothing glamourous down there – just a continuous long tunnel covered in old stained tiles with numerous little puddles of water scattered along its walkway.
Now – nothing much frightens me these days (other than the fury of the wife) but I have to say that, for some – walking the length of the ‘Woolwich Foot Tunnel’ could be a little bit scary, as your personal security & safety could certainly feel a bit vulnerable down there.
During my visit – when I walked the Tunnel from north to south, there was no-one else down there, except one young woman who I could just about see far in the distance walking towards me – and as she got nearer, I could sense her apprehension and tension as she passed me, which made me feel a bit awkward – because quite frankly, down there, no one can hear you scream – and strangely, I didn’t notice any evidence of CCTV coverage.
Later – at the end of my day out, and on my way back home – I walked the Woolwich Foot Tunnel again, but this time from south to north, and I was conscious that there were 2 lads some yards behind me, and because of the acoustics down there and the fact that there was no-one else about, I could literally hear every word they were saying – so I chose to pick-up my pace a bit and continue walking.
When I reached the end of the Tunnel I found that the ‘lift’ was out of service, and so I had to climb the hundreds of steps of the spiral staircase to the surface – a task which in itself had me old 62 year old ‘horse & cart’* pumping a bit, and left me old ‘scotch eggs’* wobbling. (*’horse & cart’=’heart’ – ‘scotch-eggs’=’legs’)
The other thing that crossed my mind when I was down there was, what if there was suddenly a ‘leak’ and old Father Thames came crashing down on me ‘filbert’*!!! – (‘filbert nut’ = ‘head’)
But – putting my personal anxieties to one side – this iconic 107 year old architectural masterpiece is most certainly worth a visit, if only for the fact that you can say you’ve ‘walked under the Thames’.
So – having emerged to the surface of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, on the southern banks of the River, I then made my way a few hundred yards down Woolwich High Street to a place I knew about but had never ever visited before – a historic site, significant to the defence of this country – the “Woolwich Royal Arsenal”.
Again – a bit like the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, the ‘Royal Arsenal’ at Woolwich does not necessarily get the attention it deserves – but it is as equally important to the history of this country.
This once vast expanse of land was once the ‘proving ground’ for Britain’s artillery – which simply means that, throughout the past centuries – weaponry and ammunition was manufactured and ‘tested’ there.
Situated on the south banks of the River Thames in Woolwich south-east London, the Woolwich Royal Arsenal has a history that goes back many centuries.
Way back in 1671 it was simply a 31 acre site that was used as a depot for storing the Royal Armoury.
A ‘Royal Ammunition Laboratory’ was added to the site in 1695, enabling the King’s military to experiment with different concoctions of gun-powder.
Gun Powder Mills were constructed close to the Royal Laboratory – and the site was often used to hold ceremonial firework displays to celebrate Royal occasions and battle victories etc.
In 1717 the ‘Royal Brass Foundry’ was built on the site to manufacture the new weaponry of ‘guns’.
By 1777 the site had expanded to 104 acres and had a 3,000 yard firing range to ‘prove’ (e.g. test) all the King’s weaponry.
In 1804 a 20ft high and 3.5mile long boundary wall was built by incarcerated convicts, to help keep the site secure.
By 1805 King George III formally named the site as the ‘Royal Woolwich Arsenal’.
At the beginning of the 1800’s some of Britain’s and the world’s top up-and-coming engineers worked at the Royal Arsenal.
During 1814 to 1816 the sites ‘Ordnance Canal’ leading from the Thames was built – again, by convict labour.
At that time, ‘Guard Houses’ were built around the perimeter of the site to keep law & order over the convicts working on-site.
The ‘Royal Engineers’ and the ‘Royal Artillery’ both located their HQ’s at the Royal Arsenal site.
At the height of its prominence, all of the following operated from the Royal Arsenal site at Woolwich:- >Royal Storekeepers Department – that stored all war and weaponry material
>The Royal Laboratory – that manufactured ammunition for small arms.
>The Royal Brass Foundry – that manufactured artillery pieces
>The Royal Carriage Department – that manufactured gun-carriages
>The Royal ‘Proving’ Range – where everything that was built, was tested.
> The ‘Dial Arch’ department – where all the manufactured weaponry was taken to be ‘signed-off’ – a sort of quality control centre.
Right through the 1800’s the Royal Arsenal was key to servicing Britain’s weaponry throughout the Napoleonic and Crimean wars – manufacturing weapons, bullets, lead shot, cannon balls, shells and fuses.
Socially, by the late 1800’s, with the emergence and popularity of the sport of football, a munitions-works team was formed – called the ‘Woolwich Arsenal FC’. In 1886 this works team joined the professional Football League – and in 1913 they became ‘Arsenal FC’ and relocated to the Highbury Stadium in north London.
By the time of WW1, the site of Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal covered 1,300 acres and employed over 80,000 people.
It was such a big employer in the area that the Government commission the construction of over 1,000 residential homes in the area, for its workers.
In peacetime between WW1 & WW2 the Royal Arsenal had to diversify its production, and it built steam engines. It was also prominent in the production of memorial plaques for deceased service men and women.
During WW2 there were 32,000 workers on site at the Royal Arsenal, and it was understandably a prime target for the German Luftwaffe. The site was subjected to heavy bombing, which claimed the lives of 103 workers and left 720 badly injured.
Following WW2 the Royal Arsenal had to again diversify its production – and became successful in the manufacture of ladies nylons.
After WW2 the Royal Arsenal workforce was reduced considerably. However, output started to pick up again with the onset of the Korean War in the early 1950’s.
Throughout the 1960’s the majority of the factories and production works within the confines of the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich closed down, as there was simply no need for their product output.
A big chunk of the site’s land to the east was sold off to housing developers and became the massive ‘Thamesmead Estate’.
The remaining buildings within the Royal Arsenal perimeters became storage depots for the likes of The British Library – the National Maritime Museum & HM Customs & Excise.
Sadly, in 1994 the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich closed completely as a military establishment – but the majority of its old Georgian buildings still remain, and have been converted into luxury apartments and business offices, and are protected by either Grade I or & Grade II Listed status.
The Royal Arsenal’s 1729 built ‘Dial Arch’ building was converted into a pub (called the ‘Dial Arch’-surprisingly) – which opened in 2010.
So the ‘Dial Arch’ pub had to be the logical place for me to ‘rest me plates’ and neck down a couple of ‘cheeky’ ones, before heading back through the ‘Woolwich Foot Tunnel’ to the bright side of the Thames – the north side, and then off back home.
So – that’s the ‘Woolwich-Thames Foot Tunnel’ and the old ‘Woolwich-Royal Arsenal’ for you. Not as popular or as loved as its posh Greenwich counterpart – but, still an interesting place to visit for a good old day out.
Hope you enjoy the accompanying photos.
See below the more detailed photo coverage of this Thames-Foot Tunnel & The Royal Arsenal-Woolwich- blog