Potter’s Ferry

These buildings are on the site of the oldest developed area of the Isle of Dogs, the ferry to Greenwich, for many centuries known as Potter’s Ferry.

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The first documented mention of a ferry here was in 1450, and it was probably much older than that. When the the Island had few inhabitants and was little more than marshland, it was most notable as a way to get to Greenwich from north of the river. There was little other reason to be there.

Anthon van den Wyngaerde’s 1558 panorama of London shows the ferry buildings opposite Greenwich Palace.

wyngaerde

It is well known that Samuel Pepys passed through a couple of times, as his diary mentions:

24th July 1665

We set out so late that it grew dark, so as we doubted the losing of our way; and a long time it was, or seemed, before we could get to the water-side, and that about eleven at night, where, when we come, all merry (only my eye troubled me, as I said), we found no ferryboat was there, nor no oares to carry us to Deptford. However, afterwards oares was called from the other side at Greenwich; but, when it come, a frolique, being mighty merry, took us, and there we would sleep all night in the coach in the Isle of Doggs. So we did, there being now with us my Lady Scott, and with great pleasure drew up the glasses, and slept till daylight, and then some victuals and wine being brought us, we ate a bit, and so up and took boat, merry as might be; and when come to Sir G. Carteret’s, there all to bed.

31st July 1665

Up, and very betimes by six o’clock at Deptford, and there find Sir G. Carteret, and my Lady ready to go: I being in my new coloured silk suit, and coat trimmed with gold buttons and gold broad lace round my hands, very rich and fine. By water to the Ferry, where, when we come, no coach there; and tide of ebb so far spent as the horse-boat could not get off on the other side the river to bring away the coach. So we were fain to stay there in the unlucky Isle of Doggs, in a chill place, the morning cool, and wind fresh, above two if not three hours to our great discontent. Yet being upon a pleasant errand, and seeing that it could not be helped, we did bear it very patiently.

1745:

1745

According to the Survey of London (Athlone Press):

The name Potter’s Ferry, of uncertain origin, is first mentioned in a lease of 1626 to Nowell Warner of Greenwich.

The Warners — Masters of the Royal Barges under successive monarchs from Elizabeth I to William III — were connected with Potter’s Ferry for nearly 150 years. Nowell’s son John bought the ferry outright in 1676, and his family continued to hold the rights to it until 1762, when Richard Warner sold it for 15 guineas to a group of Greenwich watermen, later known as the Potter’s Ferry Society.

During the late eighteenth century the ferrying of horses and cattle appears to have been discontinued, footpassengers only being conveyed, but with the opening of the West India Docks the need for a regular horse-ferry revived. In the early nineteenth century a rival ferry service was set up by the Poplar and Greenwich Ferry Roads Company, both operators sharing the old landingplace, though not harmoniously. The Potter’s Ferry Society twice destroyed the company’s toll-gates-claiming that prospective passengers were using the Deptford Ferry in preference to Potter’s Ferry, to avoid having to pay the road toll — and the two bodies were involved in much litigation.

During the 1840s the horse-ferry was discontinued, and in 1868 the company assigned its rights in the ferry to the society. In 1878 the society sold out to private operators and was itself subsequently dissolved.

The lack of a vehicular ferry prompted the Metropolitan Board of Works to plan a free steam-ferry in 1884–5, but the project collapsed in the face of heavy compensation claims. It was left to private enterprise to meet the need. The Greenwich Ferry Company, incorporated by Act of Parliament, bought the rights to the ferry for £80,000, and in February 1888 the first crossing of the Greenwich Vehicular Steam Ferry was made.

There were two steel-hulled ferry-boats, identical at each end to enable them to shuttle back and forth without turning. Designed by George Skelton and built by Steward & Latham at Britannia Yard in Millwall, they were each 120ft by 40ft with a 6ft draught. Trimming was achieved by pumping water in or out of tanks in either side of the hull. There were other refinements to facilitate docking. Elmwood fenders of 12in. by 3in. section, fixed along the sides of the hull in three rows of three with 1½in. spacers between the bars in each row, provided a continuous spring buffer to cushion the impact with the landing platforms. The bulwarks along the sides were arranged as a series of hinged panels — operated, with the assistance of counterweights, by winding-chains attached via sheaves to steam cylinders — which were lowered to form a complete connection between boat and landing-stage. The decks, of asphalted steel plates laid down on a timber base, were fitted with four sets of 4ft 8½in.-gauge railway lines.

potter

Traffic boarded in two stages, from the street to either one of a pair of parallel traveller-platforms and thence to a movable landing-stage alongside the ferry-boat. The platforms, 60ft long by 23ft wide, and the 70ft by 60ft wide landing-stages, were mounted on bogies running on rails set on 348ft-long concrete ramps following the river bed at an incline of one in ten. The platforms and landing-stages were constructed of mild-steel plate with wooden decking laid with rails to correspond to those on the boats. They were hauled or checked by steel cables from shore-mounted windingengines, with the aid of counterweights hanging in castiron-lined shafts 145ft deep (with ‘fine old English crusted conservatism’ the shafts were sunk using divers). The working plant, designed by Standfield & Clark of Westminster, was made by Appleby Brothers of East Greenwich, who also built the ferry-boat engines.

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A technical success but a financial failure, the ferry was forced to close, temporarily in May 1890 and permanently in 1892.

1895

In the early days of WWII, bomb damage caused Greenwich Foot Tunnel to be closed for repairs and so the ferry was temporarily reinstated, making use of a pier created from timber and barges:

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After the war, the draw dock was variously a boat repair yard and breaker’s yard (me and my mates climbed over the gate a few times to play there when the owner wasn’t about). The yard was still doing business until around 1990.

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My beautiful picture

On its closure, as with most other Island riverside sites, a new apartment block was built.

Potter's (Ferry) Draw Dock and Ferry House 15199971406

Apparently the Ferry House has a nice collection of cellars, and one them contains a commemoration stone which was once mounted on the side of the ferry building. The text on the stone reads (thanks to the Tabard family for this information).:

This building was erected at the expense of the Greenwich Ferry Fsociety commonly called Potter’s Ferry by order of the trustees ad 1822

That stone should be in a museum…..anyone from the Museum of Docklands reading this?

The ground floor of the new apartment block has been left open, so it is possible to see traces of the old yard and dock.

Potter's Ferry 16080198595

And even more if you manage to see it from the other side of the security fence:

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The concrete slipways on both sides of the river can still be seen at low tide.

Potter's Ferry Remains 15460533743

Potter's Ferry Remains 15892916240

Walking, driving or cycling by, you’d never know the history of this place.

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5 Responses to Potter’s Ferry

  1. Bob CAmpbell says:

    My Great Gran and Grandad lived a couple of doors down from the Ferry House then they were bombed out in the war and had the downstairs of a house 4 doors along from Macs Pub.
    Almost brings tears when I see the pictures .They evoke such memories.Thanks

  2. Richie Brown says:

    Hello Mick, read with interest your post about the ferry. You mention the temporary ferry that was used when the foot tunnel was bombed in WW2, but looking at the pictures it seems to me that this was located on the slipway where the rowing club is, which was a bit of a surprise to me because having been a member of the club since 1959 it was never mentioned by the older members. Of course most of those old boys are no longer with us to pick there brains but interesting all the same. One last thought, think what ‘elf and safety’ would make of it today! Keep up the good work, always a joy to learn stuff about the Island.

  3. Thanks for another fascinating piece. Can anyone explain why the slipways and vessels were fitted with railway tracks, when the vehicles conveyed were apparently restricted to horse-drawn wagons? Where exactly was the slipway on the Greenwich side, and were there tracks here too? Loved the thought of Pepys indulging in an all-night “frolique” with Lady Scott in a carriage on the Island!

    • Micky Lemons says:

      The diagram in the article doesn’t show it too well, but there was a sort of cart running on rails on the slipway, to transport people, horses and wagons to/from the ferry. There was once such a slipway on the Greenwich side, where the foot tunnel building is. The floating pier made this slipway redundant.

      More information can be found here: http://gihs.gold.ac.uk/gihs2.html

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