“Woolwich is a great place to invest in property,” more than one person said when I was house hunting last year. “The arrival Crossrail will send house prices soaring and it will help to continue the much-needed regeneration of the town centre,” I was told.
Walking along the southern bank of the Thames – just a short walk from Woolwich Arsenal station – on a sunny summer day it was hard not to be captivated by what this area could be. In the Berkley Homes marketing suite the sales agent talked enthusiastically about their Royal Arsenal Riverside development. With the aid of a model of the site, she pointed out when different homes would be finished. The cheapest one bedroom apartment was priced at £440,000 and would be ready in 2018.
They didn’t have printed sales brochures that I could take away with me, but I was handed a USB memory stick which I was told contained a digital version of this. One of the schemes at Royal Arsenal – Waterfront – is described by the sales blurb as “providing vibrant riverside living” and “with impressive city views, a new landscaped central park and unrivalled travel connections”.
I wasn’t seriously house hunting on my visit to Royal Arsenal Riverside development – I had already bought a new property elsewhere in South East London earlier in the year, but perhaps in the future I will move there. From a brief visit I had seen the possibilities for the area (particularly once the Crossrail station opens in 2018, when Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street will be 8 and 14 minutes away respectively) and major residential projects are completed). But I wanted somewhere a bit more established.
My summer visit to Royal Arsenal Riverside was therefore to discover more about the site’s history. For many years members of the public would have been unable to explore the complex – it was one of Britain’s most important ordinance and supply establishments, so off limits to visitors. Now was my chance.
Woolwich (believed to be an Anglo Saxon word meaning “trading place for wool”) took up its important role in British military history in 1512 when Henry VIII founded Woolwich Dockyard (and operated until 1869) for the building of his ship “Henri Grace A Dieu”. It was expanded in subsequent years as the threat of war increased and the testing of guns began in the 1650s at what was known as the Warren. And in 1696 a workshop called Warren Laboratory was established to make fuzes, gunpowder and shells. The Royal Arsenal was born.
Nick Barratt says in his book, Greater London, that “while Woolwich shared a strong naval theme with Greenwich, in many other ways the two places could not have been more different from each other. Woolwich was exclusively an industrial centre. Greenwich, by contrast, retained the upmarket atmosphere it had acquired when Henry VIII had decided to make Greenwich Palace a favourite haunt in the 16th century”.
The Royal Arsenal – a large part of which is now being developed by Berkeley Homes – grew over the course of four centuries to become a major munitions factory and ordinance depot, peaking during the First World War when it employed over 100,000 people on an area stretching some 1,285 acres. The Board of Ordinance had purchased Woolwich Warren in the late 17th century as it had run out of room at its base at Woolwich Dockyard.
But over the course of the 20th century production declined and manufacturing ceased in 1967. After the Royal Arsenal finally closed in 1994, the Ministry of Defence transferred (in 1997) the site to English Partnerships and the transformation of the site began. With 23 listed buildings, some dating back to the 17th century, it is today a fascinating place to explore.
One of the first places I encountered was Dial Square, where only the facade of a former gun machining factory with its imposing archway, and dating from 1717, remains. The front now acts as the entrance for a newly built Young’s pub, but roll the clock back to 1886 and it was here that workers formed Dial Square Football Club. It soon changed its name to Royal Arsenal and enjoyed early success to the extent by 1890 they were the “Champions of the South” and in 1904, by then they were called Woolwich Arsenal, they were the first southern team to play in English football’s top division.
Today, the team is of course known as Arsenal, a name it adopted following its move to Highbury in north London in 1913. As I’ve written previously, the club was declared bankrupt in 1910. With high unemployment in the area, fans couldn’t afford to watch the team, so the chairman who rescued Arsenal (Henry Norris) decided to move the entire club across the river to what he saw as a more prosperous area.
Across from the Dial Arch pub, stands the Royal Brass Foundry which was built in 1717 was used for the casting of guns for government service until around 1870. The Board of Ordinance had decided to build its foundry at Woolwich following a devastating accident at Moorfields in 1716 in which 17 people died in an explosion.
Moving further on through the development, I came across the old Royal Military Academy (built in 1720 on the site of the original Tudor Manor House and used for this purpose from 1741). When the institution moved to Woolwich Common in 1806, the building became Royal Arsenal Officers’ Mess.
Adjoining this building is the Greenwich Heritage centre – housed in a 19th century-built former rifle cartridge workshop – which provides a succinct introduction to the site’s history.
Today, Royal Arsenal is a pleasant place to visit. But a late 19th century guide tells a different story of the area, with a vivid description of the Shell Foundary: “On entering, the visitor will be somewhat startled by the grim contrast within; for save for the livid glare of the molten metal streaming in cataracts from the furnaces, or in seething cauldrons borne through the gloomy shades of this inferno, scattering their dross in fiery stars over the iron floor, all is black as night.”
Town of contrasts
Heading inland from the Royal Arsenal Riverside development, it doesn’t take you long until you arrive at Woolwich town centre which was re-located here from the Thames in the early 19th century.
Living conditions in the early days of the new town were pretty dire, with reports of poor-quality accommodation and inadequate public services. One health inspector recorded in 1851: “…in some parts of Woolwich a great excess of sickness and morality exists… Another evil in Woolwich is the insufficient manner in which the town is supplied with water. This… leads also to accumulations of filth in sewers and drains, and causes them to emit foul air through the gratings into the streets, and through the sinks into the houses.”
Nowadays there are some eye-catching new residential blocks here, such as apartments with what seem like conservatories clinging on to each of the units built above a vast modern Tesco Extra store. And prior to that, the opening of the Woolwich Arsenal DLR station helped with much-needed rejuvenation of the area.
But visiting today, many of the buildings in the town look tired. Woolwich took a battering in the second half of the 20th century, as major employers – notably Siemens in 1968 and the scaling back of Royal Arsenal which culminated in the full closure of the site in 1994 – pulled out.
Powis Street – Woolwich’s main shopping street – contains many of the usual stores that you would find in any other London borough. Pound stores, cafes, banks and fast-food restaurants are all here. Yet the further you head towards west, many of the trading units are empty and boarded up.
The Travelodge at the quiet end of Powis Street fascinated me as it housed in a building constructed as the “Central Stores” for the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (established in 1868, re-established in 1903 according to the stonework). And across the road another of its former premises (this one built in Art Deco style) has been abandoned, but may one day become apartments.
Established (initially as the Royal Arsenal Supply Association) by 20 workers from the Royal Arsenal, it would rise to a membership of 500,000, boast outlets across south London (and beyond) and at its peak in the 1970s have sales of more than £60m. The society’s activities stretched far beyond merely running food shops, to operate department stores, food processing factories, undertakers and hotels. It built housing, ran social and education activities and even had a political wing.
But the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (once the most successful societies in the country) failed to see the rise of supermarkets and by the late 1970s was in trouble. And so its interests transferred to the national Co-Operative Wholesale Society in 1985.
Two former 1937-built Art Deco cinemas (the Odeon and the Granada) are now being used as Pentecostal church halls.
It was only the morning when I visited Woolwich, but in Beresford Square the pubs were already doing a steady trade. With the Tesco store behind them and the red-brick Royal Arsenal Gatehouse (built in 1829 as the main entrance to the Royal Arsenal and now used for office space) looking the other way, a group of young men sat drinking pints of Fosters in the sun outside the Elephant & Castle pub. Spit and sawdust boozers like this would have served the workers in nearby factories when they operated.
Where next for gentrification?
Jumping on a train at Woolwich Arsenal and heading back towards Lewisham, I was able to take stock of how short a distance the gentrification taking place at Royal Arsenal Riverside spreads. The Berkley Homes site is very much self-contained – beyond the ghastly 1980s Waterfront Leisure leisure centre (which I wrote about when I did my Capital Ring walk), you quickly see local authority blocks, built after the Second World War, but already looking dated. And a considerable amount of land along the water’s edge is used still being used for light industry.
It will be interesting to see the impact that Crossrail has on the area beyond Royal Arsenal Riverside. What become of the local authority homes on the water’s edge in the years to come? And will Woolwich town centre be truly transformed?