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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The ferry was a technical success but a financial failure, and its end was hastened by a new ferry pier next to North Greenwich Railway Station. The original ferry was forced to close, temporarily in May 1890 and permanently in 1892.
In the early days of WWII, bomb damage caused Greenwich Foot Tunnel to be closed for repairs and a ferry was temporarily reinstated (at Johnson’s Draw Dock, not at the original ferry location), making use of a pier created from timber and barges:
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.
On its closure, as with most other Island riverside sites, a new apartment block was built.
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 Society 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.
And even more if you manage to see it from the other side of the security fence:
The concrete slipways on both sides of the river can still be seen at low tide.
Walking, driving or cycling by, you’d never know the history of this place.