For nearly a thousand years, North Woolwich was part of its namesake on the south side of the river. Then, in 1965, without a single shot being fired, the newly-formed London Borough of Newham took it to its hideous cockney bosom.
Thus ended an anomaly – the only town in London on both sides of the Thames. A unique, curious oddity became just another place (if not, two places). Some believe that it is time for North Woolwich to be returned to the lands of its fathers, to receive slightly higher Council Tax bills from its southern overlords and bright new litter bins.
North Woolwich had been part of Woolwich since at least the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, when William The Conqueror gave it to his mate, Hamon, the Sheriff of Kent, probably so he could trouser taxes from the ferries. It became a detached part of Kent, known for a time as Detached Woolwich. It was the only part of the county north of the Thames and the only part touching Essex, which was probably less fun than it sounds.
Today, it is connected to South London by the Woolwich Ferry, the Woolwich Foot Tunnel and the DLR at King George V station. The people of Woolwich implored the powers of the 1880s to make the ferry free of charge, as their taxes paid for bridges further upstream that were gratis. The Metropolitan Board of Works agreed and it’s been free ever since. It opened in 1899 with a huge party. 500 foot passengers rode the ferry north, had a wander around, then sailed back to Woolwich town centre for a massive piss-up; eating, drinking and, I’m sorry to report, making speeches.
But if South London is to reclaim its former territory, what would it be reclaiming? I took to the ferry to find out, itself a novel thrill; travelling by boat to a strange land. As mentioned in our Top 10 Thames Crossings, the lower deck would make an excellent kooky bar if they didn’t make you disembark every five minutes.
Finally, after several of those minutes, land was ahoy. On the other side, the buses were red, just like ours, and shops honoured the deep-fried chicken and doner kebabs of our ancestors.
The first building of note I came across was the old North Woolwich train station, probably the most grand in the whole area, boarded up and disused since its closure in 2006. It limped on as a railway museum for a couple of years, until that too closed. But then you come across that rare thing, a park overlooking the Thames. Not on the scale of Battersea Park, but still, the Royal Victoria Gardens echoes better times, when it formed part of the pleasure gardens of a swish hotel. The owner of the Pavilion Hotel, William Holland, was a great extrovert who is said to have escaped his creditors, from the park, in a hot air balloon.
It no longer houses trapeze artists and ‘monster baby shows’ but it was preserved as ‘a breathing space for the occupants of these very dreary localities which are without anything of the sort’, after a public whip round that included 50 nicker from Queen Victoria herself. It’s got all the sports stuff you’d hope for (but avoid), plus bowls and a paddling pool. But its chief merit is that it enables you to be in a park and on the river at the same time, like some sort of dimension-twisting goddess.
You are soon thrust back into the reality of North Woolwich on Albert Road though, where one of the area’s two remaining pubs stands. The Royal Standard Hotel may look closed, but there’s a reason for that. It doesn’t want you looking in for free as it provides: ‘Live entertainment for gentlemen’, most afternoons and at weekends. I sauntered into the public bar like a man well used to gentleman’s entertainment.
‘Can I help you?’ asked the lady behind the bar.
‘Could I… yes, please. I-I only want a drink, honest. Thank you, pleasure.’
‘What would you like?’
That was a surprisingly difficult question given that there was no evidence of any booze offering whatsoever. No pumps, no bottles, no nuffink. Nonetheless, the question settled me down.
‘What have you got?’
‘Foster’s, John Smith’s, fruit cider.’
Not even a Guinness. She disappeared behind a curtain for my half of sub-standard bitter, into the main bar where there is a stage for the exotic dancers and where the gentlemen of E16 pay for private dances. The web site for the agency providing the girls exclaims: ‘Give a man a match and he’ll be warm for a minute, but set him on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life’. So very true, unless you manage to douse the flames before he croaks.
Not far from the Standard is a bridge over the King George V dock from which you can plane-spot the arrivals and departures from City Airport, should you not enjoy live entertainment for gentlemen. Them’s the choices in these parts.
There are community initiatives. The Fight For Peace Academy teaches boxing and martial arts combined with education and support. They do valuable work for the youngers here in North Woolwich and elsewhere that, ironically, helps them avoid fighting.
Back down Albert Road towards Silvertown there’s a great deal of Crossrail-related construction, as the Thames Tunnel is built to connect Docklands to Woolwich. Despite taking out vast tranches of land, there is fuck all in it for North Woolwich. No station, no nothing. Just a building site that will eventually help take people from the yuppie enclave of the Woolwich Arsenal development to Canary Wharf and Bond Street. Despite former Mayor Boris Johnson’s claim to make the Royal Docks regeneration ‘an absolute priority’, it has missed out on a glaring opportunity, presumably because North Woolwich is a deprived area, always has been and, with leadership like this, always will be.
The stroll did take me to the area’s other pub though, the Henley Arms, a welcoming estate boozer named after a local submarine cable pioneer who had a factory nearby. All the mid-afternoon crowd said hello to this stranger, as they cooed over someone’s baby. An old boy finished his fag and came in on his Zimmer frame to perch at the bar by an iPad with the horse racing on, next to his pint and a pile of betting slips. At last, I felt at home.
A short walk from here takes you to London City Airport. You could make a case for the airport being in North Woolwich – certainly the runway is, as it extends into King George V dock. Darren Isambard, the leader of shadowy independence movement, the South London Autonomy Group (SLAG) was in no doubt when I called him for a comment.
‘It’s proper South London, that is, and we mean to take it back. By force, if necessary, but preferably by a petition and a pub sit-in. Somewhere nice, like Dulwich. What’s more, once it is restored to the rightful land of our foremothers, we will rename it the South London North Woolwich East End Airport of South London. Or SLNWEEASL, for short.’
Sadly all the bars at City are located beyond security, so I’m not that bothered, though it is the best, and some would say, only airport in London.
The SLAG leader also covets the Satellite Earth Station that BT built here in the ’80s that transmits and receives TV and radio signals, near the Tate & Lyle factory. Strictly speaking, the sugar giant is in Silvertown, but that doesn’t stop Isambard’s zeal for further annexation.
‘When South London is ours, we will not only lead the 12 boroughs, we will have the top airport and make flights to and from London free. If you want to go, fuck off. If you want to come, happy days. We’ll control the TV and maybe the sugar too. These are narcotics for the masses. We can rid the people of these nourishment-free opiates. Or, if we’re having a bad day, enslave them.’
In fairness to Isambard, North Woolwich doesn’t seem to have benefitted much from coming under the Newham umbrella. Maybe, out of respect for history and kinship with its southern brothers and sisters, it could be quietly returned. It’s got miles of undeveloped river and dock frontage and yet it can only claim one pub where a lady’s frontage isn’t for public consumption. In 2016.