[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.