History of Plumstead
Plumstead is almost entirely a suburb of the industrial town of Woolwich. The riverside parish is between Woolwich and Erith, and for many centuries its thousand or so inhabitants made a living from fishing and agriculture; the name Plumstead means ‘the place where the plums grow’. Plumstead has a flat strip of riverfront, a steep slope leading to a narrow plateau of its common and then another slope leading to the summit of Shooters Hill.
Plumstead’s growth was inextricably linked to Woolwich, in particular with that town’s military status and more precisely with the manufacture of arms and armaments. The site where this took place was given the name Royal Arsenal in 1805. Woolwich was also a major garrison town and home to a major dockyard of the Royal Navy. The Arsenal expanded in the mid-19th century in response to military endeavours sustaining and enlarging the British Empire.
Development took place in four distinct phases. In the 1850s and 1860s the area south from Woolwich Arsenal Station to Plumstead Common Road was built on as Burrage New Town. This was on land owned by Queen’s College, Oxford. Second, the British Land Company developed the Herbert Estate farther south on Shooters Hill at about the same time. These two enterprises were up-market in their character and appealed to managers and scientists from the Arsenal and officers from the regiments garrisoned in Woolwich. Plumstead’s population jumped spectacularly, more than tripling from 8,000 to 28,000 in the twenty years after 1851.
A further stage of development took place later in the century and was on land farther east. The houses built were small and were aimed at the increasing number of semi-skilled and manual workers at the Arsenal and other industrial developments, such as Siemens at Charlton. These were all private initiatives providing homes to rent at market rates. The final development was the Bostall or Coop estate. This was made by the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society between 1900 and 1914 on land near the parish boundary at Abbey Wood.
There could easily have been a fifth development, that of the Common itself. In 1876 the Common’s freeholder, Queen’s College, Oxford, started to promote new building but this as resisted by the Commons’ Protection League under John De Morgan. The common was occupied by local residents and plans were dropped. Lingering suspicions held by the London County Council as to Queen’s College, Oxford’s intentions over other open space they owned led to the purchase of Bostall woods, Clam Field and Shoulder of Mutton Green in the later years of the 19th century.
By 1914 most available land in Plumstead had been built upon, so government, local authority and private builders looking to accommodate Woolwich’s need for housing alike turned their attentions farther south to Eltham.