History of Woolwich

A community has existed on the riverside at Woolwich since at least the Iron Age. Hidden under the ground in what is now Riverside Park, adjacent to the Royal Arsenal, are the remains of a Roman fort within which were found traces of an Iron Age settlement. The remains of many Roman cremations and burials, presumably associated with the fort, have been discovered on the Royal Arsenal site.

The Anglo Saxon place name is intriguing: "trading settlement or harbour for wool". No documented associations with the early wool trade have yet been discovered but it ties in with other specialist landing places on the Thames: Rotherhithe (cattle), Lambeth (lambs), Chelsea (chalk), and, possibly, Erith (gravel).

An economic mystery yet to be unravelled. It is just possible that the name originates from North Woolwich on the other side of the river from which there would have been access to and from the grazing lands of Essex. That curious piece of Kent on the Essex side of the river seems to have existed by 1086 and may have been even more ancient.

Woolwich was included in the gift of land by King Edgar to St. Peter’s Abbey in Ghent and, by the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, had acquired a chunk of land on the other side of the Thames: North Woolwich.

Until 1965 when North Woolwich was transferred to the new Borough of Newham it remained a unique characteristic of Woolwich that it was bisected by the River Thames. North Woolwich on the Essex shore was a detatched part of the County of Kent until the creation of the County of London in 1889.

In 1512 for reasons that are difficult to understand Henry VIII chose Woolwich as the site for the building of his flagship the “Henri Grace a Dieu". From then until its closure in 1869 Woolwich had a royal dockyard of considerable distinction.

A rope yard followed the establishment of the royal dockyard, and in 1695 the Royal Laboratory was set up adjacent to Tower place on Woolwich Warren. The Royal Laboratory, producing explosives, fuses, and shot, was the beginning of the Royal Arsenal. Early in the following century the Brass Foundry and Dial Square were built almost at the same time as the building which was to become the Royal Military Academy, later the Model Room.

The Regiment of Artillery was formed in the Arsenal in 1716 and in 1741 the Royal Military Academy. The Royal artillery moved from the Arsenal to new barracks on the Common between 1776 and 1802 and the Academy moved to another new building also on the Common in 1808.

The presence of these great institutions had a profound effect on the development of the town creating an industrialised garrison town. The town grew very rapidly occupying all vacant land except Woolwich Common which was owned and used by the Royal Artillery. The focus of the town moved from the old town centre on the riverside to fields which lay to the south. The new town centre with its impressive range of shops grew to become the principal shopping area in South East London and North Kent.

The demand for houses greatly outstripped the amount of vacant land so, in the 19th century, Woolwich expanded into the adjacent village of Plumstead, and then in the early 20th century onto the fields of rural Eltham.

The dockyard closed in 1869, the Academy moved to Sandhurst in 1945, and the manufacturing element of the Arsenal shut down in 1967. The subsequent closure in 1968 of the great Siemens factory on the Woolwich/Charlton borders brought about a downturn in the town’s economy with serious effects on the success of Woolwich as a shopping centre.

The final closure of the Royal Arsenal in 1994 created the opportunity to open up the Arsenal site with its fine buildings and river views for housing, business, leisure, and heritage. “Firepower” the Museum of the Royal Artillery has already opened on the Arsenal site, and the Greenwich Heritage Centre is due to open in 2003.

It is hoped that the Royal Arsenal will provide a springboard for the regeneration of Woolwich’s economy.

See historic maps of Woolwich