Black and white photo of a dock, barrels and a ship
Royal Albert Dock, 1914 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

Also known as ‘Land’s End’, illegal prize-fighting was said to take place nearby, while gargantuan prison hulks loomed out of the mist, moored on the banks of the Thames.

A Chapman & Andre map of 1777 shows a smallholding called ‘Devil’s House’, including three hanging gallows, facing eastward towards the mouth of the river as a bloody reminder of the consequences of piracy. The overall picture of the area is decidedly gloomy. However, one feature predates (and has outlived) all the above: the Woolwich ferry.

Sitting on the north side of the river, yet curiously a part of Kent, North Woolwich gained its name from its connection to the older settlement across the Thames. The Domesday Book (1086) refers to sixty-three acres of land on the north side of the river belonging to Hamon of Woolwich, allowing the easy crossing of a ferry between the two banks.

The ferry was first mentioned in official state papers of 1308 when the waterman William de Wicton sold his business for £10 to William Atte.

Old photo of a shopping strip with cars driving

There is little further mention of the ferry after the fourteenth century, despite the establishment of a Royal Arsenal at Woolwich in 1671, developed on a military base built there by Henry VIII.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century things began to develop at a more rapid pace. A rival ferry sprang up slightly further west along the river in 1811, but financial difficulties had forced its closure by 1844.

With traffic increasing, public houses emerged effectively as waiting rooms for passengers. The Prince Regent shared its name with the road that linked the ferry to the Barking Road, joining at the Old Greengate Inn, while the later Old Barge Inn served also as the living quarters for the ferryman.

The Prince Regent was forced to close and relocate in 1847 due to the building of the North Woolwich Railway, the same year that a steam ferry replaced the previously horse powered vessel.

Albert Road, Silvertown, 1975 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library
Black and white photo of a pub
Connaught Tavern | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

These two innovations ushered in the transformation of the area from a simple embarking and disembarking point to one of the most important industrial hubs across the world.

An ‘agricultural price’ was all it took for George Bidder’s North Woolwich Land Company to acquire everything that lay between Bow Creek and Gallions Reach by the 1840s. This purchase would prove to be incredibly shrewd business by the engineer.

The Metropolitan Building Act of 1844 banned toxic industries from operating within London’s boundaries, which just so happened to fall at Bow Creek. This transformed Plaistow Level into an extremely attractive area for investment, with developers flooding in.

Following on from the opening of the new railway and improvements to the ferry, plans were made public in 1850 for the construction of a new dock. Victoria Dock and Pontoon Dock were officially opened in 1855 by Prince Albert, followed by the Royal Albert Dock and King George V Dock in 1880 and 1921, respectively.

Black and white of a warehouse
Prince Regents Wharf, Thames Barrier construction site, December 1971 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

As well as the docks, many factories set up shop in the area, able to unload raw materials and despatch finished products with ease. One, S.W. Silver & Co., even built small, terraced houses for its workforce to overcome the area’s remote location in 1852 – inspiring the name ‘Silvertown’.

The result was an area described in The Times in 1859 by resident clergyman Rev. H. Douglas as ‘islands of liquid filth, surrounded by stagnant dikes. Poverty alternated with fever’.

Despite the bleak outlook for residents, the lure of work opportunities instigated the area’s rapid development. By 1869 there were 375 terraced houses, housing up to 3,000 people, as well as eight public houses, a school and St Mark’s Church, built in 1862.

This, in addition to the unusually located Pavilion Hotel and Royal Pavilion Pleasure Gardens opened by William Holland in 1851, laid the foundations for the area we know today, turned effectively into an island by the completion of the Royal Albert Dock in 1880.

Prince Regents Wharf, Thames Barrier construction site, December 1971 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

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Photo: Newham Archives and Local Studies Library