Woolwich Ferry

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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 lorries 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]


There has been a ferry service near Woolwich 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.[6]

Cross-river traffic increased following the establishment of the Royal Arsenal. To enable movement of troops and supplies, the army established its own ferry in 1810.[7] The following year, an Act of Parliament established a commercial ferry company, but this was eventually dissolved in 1844.[7] 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.[7]

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.[7] In 1884, the Board agreed to provide the free ferry service, which was instigated by Sir Joseph Bazalgette using powers granted in the Metropolitan Board of Works (Various Powers) Act 1885. In September 1887, Messrs Mowlem and company were awarded contracts to build approaches, bridges and pontoons.[8]

The service was officially opened on 23 March 1889. Two days earlier the Metropolitan Board of Works was replaced by the London County Council (LCC); the LCC continued to operate the ferry until it was replaced by the Greater London Council (GLC) on 31 March 1965.

The three ferries in use today were built in 1963 and the current terminals were opened in 1965.[9]

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. 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.[10]

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.[11][12] It was later extended until 2013 when Briggs Marine won a 7-year contract.[3]

Nearest alternative crossings[edit]

If the ferry service is not operating due to vessel maintenance issues or by being suspended due to fog, pedestrians can use the nearby Woolwich foot tunnel.

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. 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 (3.2 km) upstream to the west, or the Dartford Crossing some ten miles (16 km) downstream to the east but both of these tunnels have height restrictions for lorries, and users of the Dartford Crossing incur toll charges.


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.[13]

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).[13]

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.[13]

Running cost[edit]

For the initial 18 months of their contract, Serco were paid £10.7 million to provide the free ferry service.[14] This equates to £7.1 million per year. In December 2012 Briggs Marine won a £50m 7-year contract,[3] again equating to approximately £7.1m per year.

In 2003, when the annual running cost of the ferry was around £5 million a year, the effective public subsidy per vehicle crossing was £4.[citation needed]

Passenger numbers[edit]

As of December 2007 the ferry carried more than one million vehicles and 2.5 million passengers each year.[15] Occupants of vehicles (including drivers) are counted as passengers.

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.[16]

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

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.

Future of the service[edit]

The ferry service currently exists because it provides an alternative river crossing for vehicles (especially lorries). As long as there is a demand for a vehicle ferry it is unlikely to be discontinued and in any case would require an Act of Parliament to do so.[16]

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 November 2008.[17] If the bridge were to be built then it is likely that the ferry service would be withdrawn as it would no longer be required. A consultation is due to report in 2012 about the possibility of instigating a ferry service from nearby Gallions Reach, north of the Thames at Beckton, to Thamesmead in south east London, which may replace the Woolwich Ferry.


On 3 August 2011, a 19 year old ferry worker died after falling off the boat into the river Thames.[18] The MAIB report published in August 2012 blamed "unseamanlike working practices" during the unmooring operation for the death.[19]

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.[20]

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. c. April 2013. Retrieved 23 August 2013.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. ^ "Woolwich Free Ferry". Transport for London. Retrieved 25 May 2014. 
  6. ^ "History of the Woolwich Ferry". Greenwich Borough Council. Retrieved 22 October 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c d Payne, D.J. "The History of the Woolwich Free Ferry.". Plumstead Stories, including Woolwich and district. Retrieved 27 August 2012. 
  8. ^ "Free ferry agreed". History of the Woolwich Ferry. Royal Borough of Greenwich. Retrieved 27 August 2012. 
  9. ^ Woolwich Ferry on TfL website http://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/modesoftransport/1562.aspx#page-link-woolwich-ferry
  10. ^ "The Woolwich Free Ferry". Retrieved 2008-10-13. 
  11. ^ "Transport for London appoints Serco to operate the Woolwich Ferry service". Transport for London. 2008-09-12. Retrieved 2008-09-25. [dead link]
  12. ^ "Serco to operate Woolwich Ferry Services". Serco website. Serco. 12 September 2008. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  13. ^ a b c Rogers, Robert. "Woolwich Ferry". The Newham Story. Retrieved 27 August 2012. 
  14. ^ http://www.london.gov.uk/mayor/mayors_report/2008docs/mayors_report_sep08.pdf
  15. ^ http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/corporate/businessplandec2007.pdf
  16. ^ a b "2013-03-25 London Waterways Commission presentation" (pdf). Transport for London. 25 March 2013. p. 8. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  17. ^ "Mayor outlines ten year plan for massive transport expansion". Mayor of London. Retrieved 2008-11-10. [dead link]
  18. ^ "Woolwich Ferry crew member 'killed by propeller'". BBC News. 3 August 2011. 
  19. ^ "Woolwich Ferry: Poor working practices blamed for teen's horrific death". London Evening Standard. 16 August 2012. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  20. ^ 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