Woolwich Ferry

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Woolwich Free Ferry
BSicon BOOT.svg  London River Services
The ferry crossing the Thames
The ferry crossing the Thames
Locale River Thames, London, UK
Vessels 3 (2 used for service)
Piers served 2
Length 0.4 km (0.25 mi)
Transit type Car and passenger ferry
Began operation 23 March 1889;
125 years ago
No. of lines 1
No. of terminals 2
Owner London River Services
Operator Briggs Marine
Other operators and services
London Transport portal

The Woolwich Ferry (sometimes also called the Woolwich Free Ferry) is a free vehicle ferry service across the River Thames in East London, which is licensed and financed by London River Services, the maritime arm of Transport for London.[1] The service is operated by Briggs Marine under licence from TfL and carries both foot passengers and vehicles.[2][3]

The service links Woolwich in the Royal Borough of Greenwich with North Woolwich in the London Borough of Newham. It also links two ends of the inner London orbital road routes: the North Circular and the South Circular.


The Woolwich Ferry route

On weekdays, the ferry operates from 6.10am until 8pm with a two-boat service (10 minutes nominal interval between sailings); on Saturdays, from 6.10am to 8pm with a one-boat service (15 minutes nominal interval, and the last south-to-north sailing is 15 minutes earlier at 7.45pm); on Sundays, from 11.30am to 7.30pm with a one-boat service (last south-to-north sailing at 7.15pm).[4] The ferries can carry heavy goods vehicles and other road traffic across the river, up to a maximum height of 4.7 metres (15 ft) and width of 3.5 metres (11 ft).[5]The service is free for all traffic; in 2012 Transport for London (TfL) estimated a subsidy cost of 76.5p per passenger.[6]

Nearest alternative crossings[edit]

If the ferry service is suspended due to vessel maintenance issues or fog, pedestrians can use the nearby Woolwich foot tunnel.[7] A Docklands Light Railway (DLR) station, Woolwich Arsenal on the south side of the Thames, was opened in January 2009 as the new terminus of the London City Airport branch.[8] A DLR station near to the north ferry dock is King George V DLR station.

The nearest vehicle alternatives are the Blackwall Tunnel about two miles (3 km) upstream to the west, or the Dartford Crossing around ten miles (16 km) downstream to the east; but both these tunnels have height restrictions for heavy goods vehicles, and users of the Dartford Crossing incur toll charges.[9][10]


Early services[edit]

There has been a connection between what is now Woolwich and North Woolwich across the Thames since the Norman Conquest. The area was mentioned in the Domesday Book as 63 acres belonging to Hamon, the dapifer (steward), "which belong to (pertinent in) Woolwich"; the "pertinent" here refers to the portion of land north of the Thames yet also part of the county of Kent.[11] There has been a ferry service in the area since the early 14th century. Research has found a reference to a crossing running during this time between North Woolwich and Warren Lane. In 1308, William de Wicton sold the business to William atte Halle for £10. The ferry was subsequently sold in 1320 for 100 silver marks.[12]

Cross-river traffic increased following the establishment of the Royal Arsenal in 1471.[13] To enable movement of troops and supplies, the army established its own ferry in 1810.[14] The following year, an Act of Parliament established a commercial ferry company,[15] but this was eventually dissolved in 1844.[14] In 1846, the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway extended its lines to include a Thames wharf branch; eventually three steam ferries operated, but these still proved inadequate to meet growing demand. In October 1880 a public meeting was held in Woolwich to discuss establishing a locally-run steam ferry, but the cost was seen as too great.[14]

However, following the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had taken over toll bridges in west London and opened them to free public use, it was suggested that the Board should fund a free crossing of the Thames in east London.[14] Proposals were made to provide services at Woolwich and further downstream at Greenwich, though the latter plan was abandoned.[16] In 1884, the Board agreed to provide the free ferry service of two steam boats, each costing £10,650. The service was instigated by Sir Joseph Bazalgette using powers granted in the Metropolitan Board of Works (Various Powers) Act 1885.[15] In September 1887, Messrs Mowlem and company were awarded contracts to build approaches, bridges and pontoons at a cost of £54,900.[15][17]

Modern service[edit]

The service was officially opened on 23 March 1889, with the paddle steamer Gordon. Two days before the first service, the Metropolitan Board of Works was replaced by the London County Council (LCC), and the opening ceremony was conducted by Lord Rosebery instead of the expected Bazalgette. The sister vessel, Duncan was introduced on 20 April.[7]

By the end of the 1920s, the rise in motor traffic had put pressure on the ferry's capacity. A proposed bridge between Shooter's Hill and East Ham was rejected as it would be too obvious a target for wartime bombings, and a third vessel was introduced instead. The lack of a suitable alternative route was instrumental in creating plans for what eventually became the Dartford Crossing further downstream.[18][19]

Traffic queueing for the Woolwich Ferry in 1955. The conversion to a Roll On Roll Off vehicle service in 1963 greatly reduced waiting times.

By the 1950s, it was still quicker for ferry traffic to divert via the Blackwall Tunnel even with all three vessels running at full capacity.[20] In April 1963, the ferry service was upgraded to a Roll On Roll Off model, greatly reducing waiting times on the approach roads.[21] The LCC continued to operate the ferry until it was replaced by the Greater London Council (GLC) on 31 March 1965. In 1964, Marples Ridgeway and Partners started building the current reinforced concrete terminals, which can operate over a 30 foot tidal range.[7] The three ferries in use today were built in 1963 and the current terminals were opened in 1966.[22]

After the abolition of the GLC in 1986 the responsibility for operating the service was transferred to the Secretary of State for Transport, who contracted the then London Borough of Greenwich to run the service.[23] Asset ownership and operating rights were subsequently transferred to Transport for London (TfL) on the establishment of the Greater London Authority, but the London Borough of Greenwich continued to operate the ferry on behalf of TfL.[24]

In March 2008, the London Borough of Greenwich gave TfL notice that it would cease operating the service from 30 September 2008. On 12 September 2008 TfL announced that Serco Group would take over the operation of the service from 1 October 2008. The contract ran initially until 31 March 2010.[25][26] For the initial 18 months of their contract, Serco were paid £10.7 million to provide the free ferry service[27] This equates to £7.1 million per year.

On 3 August 2011, a 19 year old ferry worker died after falling off the boat into the river Thames.[28] The MAIB report published in August 2012 blamed "unseamanlike working practices" during the unmooring operation for the death.[29] In December 2012, control of the ferry passed from Serco to Briggs Marine after they won a £50m 7-year contract,[3] equating to approximately £7.1m per year.

In January 2015, workers for Briggs Marine threatened to strike over a pay dispute, which would have seen cancelled services. The action was called off after the company negotiated with Unite the Union for a 2.2% pay increase.[30]


Traffic boarding the James Newman. The ferry service is important for HGVs due to restrictions in the Blackwall Tunnel and northbound Dartford Crossing.

The first ferries were side-loading paddle steamers named Gordon, Duncan and Hutton (being named after General Gordon of Khartoum, Colonel Francis Duncan MP and Professor Charles Hutton). Each was powered by 100nhp condensing engines by John Peen & Son of Greenwich.[31]

The initial fleet was eventually replaced, starting in 1923 with The Squire (named after William Squires, a former mayor of Woolwich), and in 1930 with the Will Crooks (Labour MP for Woolwich, 1903-1921) and the John Benn (Sir John was a member of London County Council, Liberal MP for Wapping, and grandfather of Tony Benn).[31]

The current three vessels (built in Dundee in 1963 by the Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Company to replace the previous four paddle steamers used since 1923) were each named after prominent local politicians: John Burns, Ernest Bevin and James Newman (Newman was mayor of Woolwich, 1923–25). These ferries feature Voith-Schneider propulsion systems for manoeuvrability.[21][31] In 2014, Transport for London introduced an Art On The River scheme, showing decorative artwork on the ferry vessels.[32]

Passenger numbers[edit]

A Routemaster bus embarking the Woolwich Ferry in 1979.

The ferry typically attracts about two million passengers a year.[6] In 2011, The Mayor’s Ambassador for River Transport reported this figure. Occupants of vehicles (including drivers) are counted as passengers.[33] In 2012, the ferry carried around 20,000 vehicles and 50,000 passengers weekly.[3]

Ferry patronage is still high for vehicles, but has fallen away to minimal numbers for foot passengers. At all times of day, but particularly at peak hours, it is common for vehicles to have to queue beyond the next ferry departure; regular users know the lengths of the vehicle queues, and when it becomes worthwhile to turn away to the Blackwall tunnel. Several rearrangements and improvements have been made to the vehicle queueing arrangements over the years, especially to avoid impact on other local traffic.[34]

The passenger deck is beneath the vehicle deck, and on crossings nowadays the very substantial accommodation provided, both seated and standing, is normally empty.[citation needed]

For foot passengers, bus services converge on both terminals, on the north side there is a small bus station, but many cross-river foot passengers take the foot tunnel beneath the river, alongside the ferry route. Further competition arrived in 2009 with the extension to Woolwich of the Docklands Light Railway, which crosses under the river to the east of the ferry route.[8]


The ferry service currently exists because it provides one of the few available crossings of the River Thames east of London. Although there are 17 river crossings 20 miles west of Tower Bridge, there are only three the same distance east.[35] As long as there is a demand for a vehicle ferry it is unlikely to be discontinued, and it would require an Act of Parliament to do so.[34]

In 2004 planning applications were submitted for a new bridge, the Thames Gateway Bridge, close to the location of the Woolwich Ferry. However the project was cancelled in 2008.[36] In 2012, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnston, announced the Gallions Reach Crossing, a replacement ferry service running further east from Beckton to Thamesmead expected to open in 2017.[37] The option of a bridge is still popular, with an alternative option of a tunnel in the area. Were this to be built, the ferry service would probably be withdrawn as it would no longer be required.[36][35]

Tolls cannot be levied on the ferry without changing the Act of Parliament. However, it is possible that the ferry may eventually be tolled in conjunction with other projects such as the Gallions Reach Crossing, which is likely to be tolled itself.[38]

In popular culture[edit]

"Hunter/Hunted", a 1978 episode of the TV series The Professionals, features a sequence shot on board one of the ferries, as well as external shots of the James Newman and John Burns crossing the river.[39]

In "Strained Relations", a 1985 episode of the TV series Only Fools and Horses, the character Uncle Albert asks Rodney, played by Nicholas Lyndhurst, if he had ever been on board a ship to which he replied "Yes" but then added it was "only the Woolwich Ferry."[citation needed]

The John Benn is seen being destroyed by the titular monster in Behemoth, the Sea Monster (1959). A detailed scale model is used to interact with a model of the monster's head, which capsizes the ship in the Thames.


  1. ^ TfL website http://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/modesoftransport/1562.aspx
  2. ^ "Briggs Marine wins £50m Transport for London contract". Briggs Marine website. Briggs Marine. 13 December 2012. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c "Briggs Marine secures Woolwich Ferry service contract". BBC News website. BBC News. 13 December 2012. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  4. ^ "Ferry Services - Woolwich Ferry". Royal Borough of Greenwich website. Royal Borough of Greenwich. April 2013. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  5. ^ "Woolwich Free Ferry". Transport for London. Retrieved 25 May 2014. 
  6. ^ a b "Letter from Transport for London to the London Assembly". Transport for London. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c Smith 2001, p. 12.
  8. ^ a b "Mayor unveils DLR Woolwich Arsenal station". Transport for London. 12 January 2009. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  9. ^ "Woolwich Ferry update". Transport for London. 6 March 2014. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  10. ^ "Dartford Crossing improvements : Advice for drivers of goods vehicles and fleet managers". Highways Agency. p. 3. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  11. ^ "North Woolwich - origins". The Newham Story. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  12. ^ "History of the Woolwich Ferry". Greenwich Borough Council. Retrieved 22 October 2014. 
  13. ^ Carmona, Matthew; Wunderlich, Filipa Matos (2013). Capital Spaces: The Multiple Complex Public Spaces of a Global City. Routledge. p. 177. ISBN 978-1-136-31196-3. 
  14. ^ a b c d Payne, D.J. "The History of the Woolwich Free Ferry.". Plumstead Stories, including Woolwich and district. Retrieved 27 August 2012. 
  15. ^ a b c Smith 2001, p. 11.
  16. ^ "The Metropolitan Board of Works - Thames Crossings". Hansard. 12 April 1886. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  17. ^ "Free ferry agreed". History of the Woolwich Ferry. Royal Borough of Greenwich. Retrieved 27 August 2012. 
  18. ^ "Woolwich ferry". Hansard. 6 November 1929. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  19. ^ "Dartford and Purfleet Thames Tunnel bill". Hansard. 10 March 1930. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  20. ^ "Roads Programme". Hansard. 22 July 1957. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  21. ^ a b Brooke, Mike (22 April 2013). "Woolwich Ferry marks 50 years of drive-on, drive-off diesel vessels". The Docklands & East London Advertiser. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  22. ^ "Woolwich Ferry (Terminals)". Hansard. 22 November 1966. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  23. ^ "Woolwich Ferry". Hansard. 13 July 1987. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  24. ^ "Greater London Authority Bill". Hansard. 5 July 1999. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  25. ^ "Transport for London appoints Serco to operate the Woolwich Ferry service". Transport for London. 2008-09-12. Retrieved 2008-09-25. [dead link]
  26. ^ "Serco to operate Woolwich Ferry Services". Serco website. Serco. 12 September 2008. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  27. ^ http://www.london.gov.uk/mayor/mayors_report/2008docs/mayors_report_sep08.pdf
  28. ^ "Woolwich Ferry crew member 'killed by propeller'". BBC News. 3 August 2011. 
  29. ^ "Woolwich Ferry: Poor working practices blamed for teen's horrific death". London Evening Standard. 16 August 2012. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  30. ^ Micklethwaite, Jamie (29 January 2015). "Agreement reached between Unite and Briggs Marine to call off strike". News Shopper. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  31. ^ a b c Rogers, Robert. "Woolwich Ferry". The Newham Story. Retrieved 27 August 2012. 
  32. ^ "Look Out For Art On The River". The Londonist. 1 September 2014. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  33. ^ "TfL urged to improve ‘half-hearted’ approach to expanding river services". Greater London Authority. 24 February 2012. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  34. ^ a b "2013-03-25 London Waterways Commission presentation" (pdf). Transport for London. 25 March 2013. p. 8. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  35. ^ a b Mair, Lucy (15 October 2014). "Four new London river crossings needed for growth, Adonis urges". Construction News. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  36. ^ a b Donovan, Tim (7 May 2013). "New east London Thames bridge to be reconsidered". BBC News. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  37. ^ "The Gallions Reach Ferry (a ferry between Thamesmead and Beckton)". Transport for London. 26 June 2013. 
  38. ^ "Woolwich Ferry may be tolled as new river crossings proposed". Greenwich News. 10 July 2009. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  39. ^ IMDB.com http://www.imdb.com/search/title?locations=Woolwich%20Ferry,%20Woolwich,%20London,%20England,%20UK

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°29′46″N 0°03′43″E / 51.4961°N 0.062°E / 51.4961; 0.062