The Ferry That Never Was (a Close Shave)

[My thanks to David, whose website The Forgotten Highway inspired me to write this article, and who was kind enough to dig out some images and share them with me. I suspect David is too modest or private to share his surname, but you know who are you are.]

The Island Gardens was the first public space to be created on the Island, an oasis of green in a grimy industrial environment, and boasting one of the best views in London.

Undated postcard (probably the 1900s)

In a short history of Island Gardens (see here for article), I described how the park lost some of its space early on to the construction of Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Recently I discovered that the park would never have been created at all if 19th century proposals for a new Greenwich ferry had been realised.

The late 1800s were turbulent times as far as the ferry between the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich was concerned. Or, more accurately, the ferries, as there were different routes and companies at various times. See this article for a history of the ferry; here is the potted version:

Traditionally, and for hundreds of years, a ferry service – known in the 1800s as Potter’s Ferry – operated from close to the Ferry House. The ferry stopped transporting horses (and carts or carriages) in the 1840s.

When Cubitt created his own service from a new pier at the top of Pier Street around 1860, he was sued by the Potter’s Ferry company for infringement of their historic rights (Cubitt won the case).

In 1872, the Millwall Extension Railway was completed to the south of the Island, and North Greenwich Railway Station was constructed next to Johnson’s Draw Dock. The ferry company moved their ferry boarding point to a pier directly next to the station.

1880s. Plan of North Greenwich Station and the ferry pier. (Metropolitan Board of Works).

However, according to the Survey of London… the lack of a vehicular ferry prompted the Metropolitan Board of Works to plan a free steam-ferry.

25th December 1888. The Morning Post

The plans for the free ferry – which can still be found in the archives of the Metropolitan Board of Works – were quite detailed and included a blueprint of the proposed pier on the Island side.

1884 plan for (free) ferry pier

Older Islanders might be able to work out where the proposed location is. Others will find it difficult because Ship Street and Barque Street no longer exist, and this section of Wharf Road was renamed Saunders Ness Road. It becomes more obvious for everyone if the blueprint is superimposed on a satellite image. It is on the site of Island Gardens.

1884 ferry plan on satellite image. (I’ve rotated the blue print, and added a little room on each side based on the space used on each side for other ferries).

In 1884, ten years before the opening of Island Gardens, this was a ‘public’ open space (owned by Greenwich Seamen’s Hospital), but it was far from landscaped and was known locally as ‘scrap iron park’. Greenwich Seamen’s Hospital forbade the construction of factories on this land as they wanted to preserve their view from across the river – the view of rest of the Island was dominated by factories, chimneys and smoke as this 1870s photo shows.

1870s. Ferry Street and areas west. Photo taken from Greenwich.

1860s. Areas east of Ferry Street. The future Island Gardens is more or less the space which can be viewed between the two domes.

15th March 1893

It is questionable if the hospital would have permitted the construction of a ferry pier on the land, but in principle it would not have violated their ‘no industry’ rule. ‘Scrap iron park’ had no official standing, and it was not only outside of direct control by the Metropolitan Board of Works, influential members of the Board and powerful local business interests were in favour of a free ferry. Had the ferry plans been realised – the later Island Gardens would have been either a lot smaller or perhaps not even tenable to begin with.

Fortunately for Islanders, however, the existing ferry company submitted such heavy compensation claims that the whole project collapsed.

27th January 1895

Otherwise, Islanders might have been robbed of their only green space, and generations of Londoners and visitors denied one of the finest views in London. Island Gardens opened just a few months after the LCC decided to refer to arbitration the negotations concerning compensation to the ferry companies.

As for the ferry company, they operated at a loss for a few more years, but were forced out of business for good on the opening of Greenwich Foot Tunnel in 1902.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel opened in 1902.

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5 Responses to The Ferry That Never Was (a Close Shave)

  1. derick roy kosecki says:

    i was born 1948 and lived at-72 ferry street-was johnson street-till 1968-our house backed onto the railway arch and i often would step from my bedroom window onto the arch to play our back yard was under the arch so no sunlight or sky-even as a child i allways wondered about the railway & the ferry-i femember when the grownups spoke of the ex railway they always called it-the penny poplar-does that ring eny bells

  2. Graham Whitmore says:

    Mick have been trying to contact you, have you received this?

    On Tue, 6 Apr 2021, 08:54 Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives, wrote:

    > Mick Lemmerman posted: “[My thanks to David, whose website The Forgotten > Highway inspired me to write this article, and who was kind enough to dig > out some images and share them with me. I suspect David is too modest or > private to share his surname, but you know who are you are.” >

  3. Heather Thomas says:

    Hi Mick,
    Thank you for this article. The photographs and drawings have helped me to imagine my grandmother (Alice Holbrook born 1895) as she watched ships and boats from what she knew as Scrap Iron Park. That name (I now know being the former name of Island Gardens) has always conjured up for me a rather desolate and possibly dangerous place for children so I am pleased to see the band stand and flower beds and trees depicted in the 1895 newspaper article.
    I have mentioned before how happy she was when the free foot tunnel to Greenwich was opened. I wonder if she would have preferred having the tunnel to the previously proposed free ferry service which would have taken up so much of the gardens.

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