Woolwich, Greenwich

A historic naval and military town, now much altered, situated three miles east of Greenwich

Woolwich Arsenal history

A com­mu­ni­ty has exist­ed by the Thames at Wool­wich (pro­nounced ‘woolitch’ or ‘woolidge’) since at least the Iron Age, and the Romans built a fort here. The Old Eng­lish place name prob­a­bly means ‘trad­ing place for wool’, but no evi­dence has been found of a wool mar­ket.

In 1513 Hen­ry VIII found­ed a dock­yard here to build the roy­al ship Hen­ri Grace à Dieu, pop­u­lar­ly known as the ‘Great Har­ry’. Sub­se­quent naval expan­sion brought a rope yard, ord­nance stor­age and a gun bat­tery to the water­front, which at that time may have lain as much as 200 feet south of the present shore­line. Eliz­a­beth I came to Wool­wich in 1559 to mark the launch of her ship Eliz­a­beth Jonas.

In 1695 the Roy­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry was estab­lished next to Tow­er Place, man­u­fac­tur­ing explo­sives, fus­es and shot. It was built on a site known as Wool­wich War­ren, which was named for its large rab­bit pop­u­la­tion. A burst of activ­i­ty from 1716 to 1720 saw the for­ma­tion of the Roy­al Reg­i­ment of Artillery and the con­struc­tion of its first bar­racks – as well as of a brass foundry, a new man­sion house and the ‘great pile’ of build­ings at Dial Square, which was prob­a­bly the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor. The Roy­al Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my was found­ed at Wool­wich in 1741.

From 1776 redun­dant naval ves­sels were moored off­shore to accom­mo­date pris­on­ers who would oth­er­wise have been sent to the Amer­i­can colonies, then in rebel­lion against the Crown. Con­vict labour was used to build new wharves and to dredge silt from the riv­er.

Wool­wich Com­mon – which for­mer­ly cov­ered a much wider area extend­ing into Charl­ton – was grad­u­al­ly encroached upon for the con­struc­tion of army quar­ters. At the height of Britain’s empire-build­ing much of the British Army used to camp on the com­mon until called for­ward to the Roy­al Arse­nal to col­lect stores and ammu­ni­tion before embark­ing on ships moored in the Thames. Between 1776 and 1802 new bar­racks were built on Wool­wich Com­mon for the Roy­al Reg­i­ment of Artillery.

Woolwich - Survey of London - front cover
Pub­lished in 2012, The Sur­vey of Lon­don’s his­to­ry of the built envi­ron­ment of Wool­wich is fab­u­lous­ly com­pre­hen­sive – but very pricey

In 1805 the Roy­al Arse­nal was offi­cial­ly estab­lished and no expense was spared in mak­ing this the world’s fore­most muni­tions works.

The Roy­al Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my moved to the east side of Wool­wich Com­mon in 1808. The acad­e­my taught every branch of mil­i­tary sci­ence, as well as French and Latin, writ­ing, fenc­ing and draw­ing. Among the mag­nif­i­cent mil­i­tary build­ings on the com­mon is the Rotun­da, designed by John Nash for an exhi­bi­tion in St James’s Park in 1814 and moved here six years lat­er, when it became the first mil­i­tary muse­um.

The dock­yard was extend­ed in 1833 and again in the 1840s, when mod­ern docks were built. Wool­wich Arse­nal and Dock­yard sta­tions opened in 1849 on the South East­ern Railway’s new line from Lon­don Bridge to Dart­ford, Gravesend and Strood. Shops lined the main streets and Wool­wich became north Kent’s prin­ci­pal com­mer­cial cen­tre.

Such was the pres­sure of expan­sion that growth began to spill over into Plum­stead in the 19th cen­tu­ry and lat­er into Eltham.

The prison hulks were abol­ished in 1858 and the dock­yard closed in 1869, when the site was hand­ed over to the War Depart­ment for use as an annexe of the Roy­al Arse­nal. The com­mon con­tin­ued to be used as an artillery fir­ing range until 1860.

Work­ers from the Roy­al Arse­nal set up a buy­ers’ co-oper­a­tive in 1868, oper­at­ing at first from mem­bers’ hous­es in Plum­stead and then from 147 Powis Street as the Roy­al Arse­nal Co-oper­a­tive Soci­ety. In 1886 anoth­er group of work­ers estab­lished a foot­ball club, known ini­tial­ly as Dial Square, and then Roy­al Arse­nal. On mov­ing to High­bury in 1913 the club short­ened its name to Arse­nal.

By the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry the Roy­al Arse­nal cov­ered 1,285 acres. Includ­ing its test­ing ranges, the site mea­sured three miles long by one mile wide, and had three sep­a­rate inter­nal rail­way sys­tems. At the out­break of the First World War the Roy­al Arse­nal employed over 70,000 work­ers.

The Roy­al Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my closed in 1939 and was re-estab­lished eight years lat­er at Sand­hurst in Berk­shire. After the Sec­ond World War declin­ing demand for arma­ments prompt­ed the arse­nal’s diver­si­fi­ca­tion into man­u­fac­tur­ing for civil­ian pur­pos­es, from rail­way trucks to auto­mat­ed equip­ment for the silk-weav­ing indus­try.

The Roy­al Ord­nance fac­to­ry closed in 1967, although many of the build­ings con­tin­ued to be used for test­ing and stor­age. Much of the new town of Thames­mead cov­ers the arsenal’s east­ern test­ing ranges.

In an IRA bomb­ing in Novem­ber 1974, two died and many more were injured when a device was hurled through a win­dow of the King’s Arms, oppo­site the Roy­al Artillery Bar­racks.

In 1975 Wool­wich acquired the UK’s first McDonald’s ham­burg­er restau­rant, which took the place of a branch of Burton’s, the tai­lors.

The former headquarters of the Woolwich Equitable Building Society
The for­mer head­quar­ters of the Wool­wich Equi­table Build­ing Soci­ety in Gen­er­al Gor­don Square

Mil­i­tary use of the Roy­al Arse­nal site ceased alto­geth­er in 1994 – the cul­mi­na­tion of a peri­od of decline from which Wool­wich is only now recov­er­ing. The arse­nal’s build­ings were tak­en over by Eng­lish Part­ner­ships for the devel­op­ment of hous­ing, light indus­try and leisure facil­i­ties.

A new Green­wich Her­itage Cen­tre opened at Roy­al Arse­nal West­’s Build­ing 41 in 2003. One of the near­by build­ings became Fire­pow­er – The Roy­al Artillery Muse­um. Both these insti­tu­tions have since closed, promis­ing to reopen at new loca­tions with­out indi­cat­ing when this might be.

The 16th Reg­i­ment Roy­al Artillery left Wool­wich Com­mon for rur­al Rut­land in 2007. The bar­racks is cur­rent­ly home to the King’s Troop and the 2nd Bat­tal­ion of the Princess of Wales’s Roy­al Reg­i­ment.

At present, the pro­por­tion of coun­cil ten­ants in Wool­wich is very high while own­er-​​oc­cu­pa­tion is low but ris­ing. Wool­wich has been tout­ed by some prop­er­ty con­sul­tants as south London’s ‘next big thing’ because of its improv­ing trans­port links, the devel­op­ments on the Roy­al Arse­nal site and its selec­tion of well-​​built Geor­gian ter­races.

As well as the trans­for­ma­tion of the arse­nal site, sev­er­al oth­er changes have tak­en place late­ly, notably in the form of improve­ments to key pub­lic spaces. The Roy­al Bor­ough of Green­wich is promis­ing much more to come over the next 20 years, espe­cial­ly in the vicin­i­ty of the new Eliz­a­beth line (Cross­rail) sta­tion in the zone called Roy­al Arse­nal River­side.

On the afternoon of 22 May 2013 British Army soldier Fusilier Lee Rigby was attacked and killed by two radical Islamists near the Royal Artillery Barracks.

Postal district: SE18
Population: 36,619 (Woolwich Common and Woolwich Riverside wards, 2011 census, showing a 32 per cent increase on 2001)
Stations: Southeastern Trains (Woolwich Dockyard, zone 3; Woolwich Arsenal, zone 4) and Docklands Light Railway (Woolwich Arsenal branch terminus, zone 4)
Further reading: Andrew Saint and Peter Guillery, Woolwich (Survey of London), Yale University Press, 2012 – Survey of London books are the ultimate in architectural history, but they’re eye-wateringly priced
and Kristina Bedford, Woolwich Through Time, Amberley, 2014
See also: Well Hall