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Forget six counties overhung with smoke, Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke, Forget the spreading of the hideous town; Think rather of the pack-horse on the down, And dream of London, small and white and clean, The Clear Thames bordered by its gardens green.

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Greenwich
Posted on Sep 26, 2002 - 04:58 AM by Bill McCann

Greenwich is one of London's great historical Boroughs. It is also a borough of great contrasts. On the one hand, it is a major destination for tourists who are attracted by majestic buildings, parks, views, the prime meridian and a wealth of history. It is a site of international importance which is reflected in the status of Greenwich Town Centre as a World Heritage Site. On the other hand, it is a borough with pockets of high unemployment and illiteracy, poverty and lawlessness tucked away on its sink estates.



Greenwich was one of the original twenty-eight Metropolitan Boroughs formed under the Local Government Act of 1888 which established the London County Council. The borough was merged with that part of the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich south of the Thames to form the Greater London Borough of Greenwich in the Local Government Act of 1963 which came into force on April 1st 1965. The Borough has an area of 5,043 hectares (12,461 acres) and a population of 218,600 (Office of National Statistics mid year estimate for 2001) which is expected to rise by about 3% by 2006. Using the IMD Deprivation Index, Greenwich is the 44th most deprived Borough in England and Wales. It is estimated that about 16% of the Borough's population is from minority ethnic groups.

The Borough is situated south east of Central London, five miles downriver from Tower Bridge, and is bounded to the north by the River Thames. It has the longest river embankment (eight miles) of all London Boroughs. Twenty-five percent of the borough is green open land - which includes the ancient Oxleas Wood which was recently threatened by a planned motorway extension. The Borough includes three main town centres - Greenwich, Woolwich and Eltham, and also encompasses the areas of Charlton, Blackheath Standard, Kidbrooke, Plumstead, Abbey Wood and New Eltham. The new town of Thamesmead is also partly in the Borough, straddling Greenwich's eastern boundary with Bexley. Shooters Hill, behind Woolwich, is the highest point in London at 129 metres.

Traditionally, the area's industry has been characterised by the docks, energy production (gas), military production, rope production and other manufacturing industries. The Royal Arsenal alone employed 80,000 people during the First World War. However, Greenwich suffered badly from the national, long-term decline in the traditional manufacturing industries, which led to the closure of many of the borough's largest employers.

Open space constitutes approximately a quarter of the Borough's total area, ranging from woodlands to large formal parks. There is a major swathe of open spaces stretching through the central, eastern and southern parts of the Borough forming part of an area of Metropolitan Open Land known as the Green Chain. There are also three Areas of Special Character of Metropolitan Importance within the Borough and these constitute the major part of the Green Chain open spaces:

  • Greenwich Park;
  • The Blackheath open spaces and
  • The Thames-side area.
Many of the Borough's open spaces are also of ecological importance and there are two sites of special scientific interest. The Borough also contains areas of high townscape quality and buildings of national importance. It has 19 conservation areas, almost 1000 statutory Listed Buildings, two historic gardens and parks and sites of ancient monuments.

Direct roads to the capital pass through the town, together with nearby links to the M2, M20 and M25. There are regular rail services to London Bridge and Charing Cross, as well as extensive bus routes into central London and outlying areas. A foot tunnel from Island Gardens, a station served by The Docklands Light Railway (DLR), passes beneath the Thames directly into Greenwich. The town can also be accessed by river, with frequent boat services from Charing Cross, Tower Pier and Westminster Pier. Journey time, depending on embarkation point, ranges from 30 to 55 minutes. Heathrow and Gatwick Airports are both accessible via the M25, while shuttle services from Canary Wharf and other key points in the City provide access to London City Airport.

The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) Extension, which opened in 2000, now links Greenwich, Lewisham and Deptford, as well as providing direct access to Canary Wharf, London's fastest growing business centre. There is a further proposal to add a link from existing DLR lines to London City Airport. In addition, the long-awaited Jubilee Line Underground extension provides Greenwich with its first ever Tube connection to central London and is about the only real success associated with the ill-conceived Millennium Dome. Other transport proposals include a rail crossing of the Thames at Woolwich and a rapid transit system linking the east of the Borough with the Jubilee line at North Greenwich.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the original town was founded on the slopes of Greenwich Park, where remains of settlements possibly dating to the Iron Age have been discovered. The remnants of a Romano-British temple have been unearthed in the same location. The original Greenwich manor formed part of Lewisham manor. Greenwich was already a busy port when King Alfred the Great (871-901) presented the town to his daughter, Elstrudis, on her marriage to Baldwin II, Count of Flanders. Upon her husband's death in 918, Elstrudis gave both Lewisham and Greenwich to the Abbey of St Peter in Ghent.

The name Greenwich is either derived from the Anglo-Saxon for "green village" (grene wych) or is a Scandinavian name given by the Danes "green reach". What is certain is that in 1011-1014 the Danish fleet lay off Greenwich and the sailors and warriors encamped to the east of the present borough. In 1011, they captured Alfege, the archbishop of Canterbury and brought him a hostage to the Greenwich marshes. After eight months of captivity he was stoned to death after refusing to allow a ransom to be paid for his release.

The area appears to have had early associations with England's monarchs. Edward I stayed here in 1300 when he made offerings at the chapel of the Virgin Mary and in 1408 Henry IV signed and dated his will at Greenwich. In 1414 Henry V transferred the manor of Greenwich to the Carthusian priory at Shene. However, in 1417 it passed to Humphrey, duke of Gloucester and, in 1433, Parliament granted him the right to enclose the 190-acre Greenwich Park. In its grounds, in 1437, he constructed Bella Court, a palace which, on his death, became the property of Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's wife.

This became Greenwich palace which was to become a favourite residence of the Tudors when it was known as Placentia. Henry VIII was born here in 1491, his elder daughter Mary was born in the palace in 1516 and his younger daughter Elizabeth in 1533. Throughout the sixteenth century it was frequently used for a variety of court occasions including celebrations, hunting, jousting and banquets. Elizabeth established the College of the Poor here and the first paupers were admitted in 1576. The almshouses were later controlled by the Drapers' Livery Company.

Shortly after his accession, James I settled the palace and the park on his wife Anne of Denmark and it was she who, in 1605, began the building of the Queen's House which was completed in 1635 when the wife of Charles I, Henrietta Maria, took up her residence here. In the meantime, Henry Howard, the earl of Northampton, founded another important group of almshouses - Norfolk College. These provided accommodation for a total of twenty residents, twelve of whom were from Greenwich and eight from his birthplace of Shottesham in Norfolk.

During the Civil War, three companies of the parliamentary army were sent here in 1642 to search for arms but returned to London without finding anything. Unusually, the palace was not sold during the commonwealth but was retained to become a residence of Oliver Cromwell who did, however, allow it to fall into disrepair.

At the Restoration, Charles II planned to construct a new palace but funds ran out in 1669 when only on wing had been completed. That survives as the King Charles building in the Royal Naval College. His improvements in the park, however, were completed to the designs of Le Notre. The foundation stone for the Royal Observatory, designed by Christopher Wren, y was laid in 1675 and the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, began his work here in 1676. The observatory remained her until the fog and smoke of the twentieth century London made its work increasingly difficult. It was gradually moved to Herstmonceux castle in Sussex between 1948 and 1975.

After the deposition of James II, Mary II, in 1692, decided that the building begun by her uncle should be completed to provide a hospital for disabled seamen. The buildings were designed by Christopher Wren, assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and the hospital was finally completed in 1726 by which time Wren had been succeeded by Vanburgh. He built two houses for himself in the area, one of which, known as Vanburgh's Castle, can still be seen to the east of the park. This is in the style of a fortress and is claimed to be England's first folly.

In 1694, Philip, the 4th Lord Chesterfield and author of the celebrated letters, had the Ranger's House built for himself. Between 1807 and 1817 the Duchess of Brunswick, mother of Princess Caroline, lived in it. It became the official residence of the ranger of Greenwich Park in 1815. It was bought by the London County Council in 1902 and turned into refreshment rooms for visitors to the Park. It is now home to the Suffolk collection of sixteenth to eighteenth century portraits.

The Queen's House passed to Princess Caroline in 1805 but it was sold to the Royal Naval Asylum the following year as a school for the orphans of sailors. The colonnades were added in 1809 to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar and, at the same time, the wings were added to accommodate the growing number of pupils at the school. The school moved to Suffolk in 1933 and the building was found to be in a damaged and mutilated condition. Partition walls had been inserted, doorways knocked through walls and new floors, fireplaces and stairways put in. It was restored by the Office of Works and opened in 1937 as the central portion of the National Maritime Museum.

As Royal Greenwich developed, the town, too, increased in size and importance. A busy fish market was established near Greenwich Pier, and for centuries local residents were employed in the fishing industry. Shipping and related industries such as rope making and metal casting were also active. In 1710, the parish church of St Alfege, reputedly on the site of his martyrdom, suffered a roof collapse and a new church was built out of the proceeds of Queen Anne's coal tax. It was designed and built by Hawksmoor whose and steeple were rejected by Church Commissioners. (He transferred it to the church of St George in the East in Cannon Street Road.) The new church was consecrated in 1718. Thomas Tallis is buried here and probably did use the still existing organ console.

In 1809 the people of Greenwich built the Jubilee almshouses to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of George III. In 1831, the town centre was rebuilt, and much of the resulting Georgian architecture remains intact. Notably in the Crooms Hill and Gloucester Circus areas. These were constructed along the line of the old Anglo-Saxon road and one of the houses, the Grange still contains timbers which have been dated to the twelfth century. The houses at numbers 10 and 11 Croom's Hill house the Fan Museum. This is the only museum in the world devoted entirely to every aspect of fans and fan making and has a collection of more than 3,000 predominantly antique fans from around the world dating from the 11th century to the present day.

The Trafalgar tavern was built in 1837. This is one of three hotels at Greenwich Pier, the other two being The Ship and the Crown and Sceptre. The Ship was the most famous of the three, being particularly celebrated for its whitebait dinners. The Judges met here every year for their annual fish dinner and they and their guests arrived from London on the Ordnance barges. The whitebait was caught in the Thames and was on the table within the hour. The Ship was highly popular with travellers and the crews of the river steamers. On the morning of November 1 1941 it took a direct hit from a German bomb and was completely destroyed.

In 1858, the London Bridge to Deptford railway line was extended to Greenwich, making it easier for the bringing for Londoners to visit the area. One main attraction was the twice-yearly Greenwich Fair, at Easter and Whitsun. In the latter half of the nineteenth century the crowds became vast crowds and Greenwich Fair gained a certain notoriety. The crowds and the revels began to get out of hand and in 1870 they were repressed as a nuisance to local residents.

In 1869, the Naval Hospital was closed by Act of Parliament and it re-opened in 1973 as the Royal Naval College where seamen from all parts of the world came to train in the naval sciences. The infirmary was retained as a Free Hospital for Seamen of All Nations. In 1998 the Royal Navy left Greenwich and handed over responsibility for the site to the Greenwich Foundation when the buildings became known as the Old Royal Naval College. The Hospital was closed, not without protest. In the Autumn of 1999 the University of Greenwich began teaching here, and in October 2001 Trinity College of Music also moved into the complex.

Until the late eighteenth century, international seafarers made their measurements of longitude based on a zero point located at the capital of their own country. In 1767, the British Nautical Almanack was published for the first time and was quickly adopted by navigators as an indispensable handbook. There was no opposition, therefore, when an international conference in Washington DC in 1884 proposed that the meridian which passed through Greenwich Royal Observatory should become the zero or Prime Meridian from which Longitude would thenceforth be calculated. The zero meridian is now marked by a brass rail inlaid in concrete at the Observatory. Of course, time zones across the globe are also based on this meridian or Greenwich Mean Time and it seems, somewhat ironic that British modern politicians are attempting to abandon this in favour of a permanent British Summer Time.

In the late 1880s, the present railway station was built and the arrival of the enhanced railway service began an era of prosperity for the town Many new industries attracted to Greenwich because of its proximity to the Port of London. Crowder's Music Hall was opened across from the Station and survives today as the Greenwich Theatre and a foot tunnel linking Greenwich with the Isle of Dogs enabled workers to cross to the West India Docks. The famous Goddard's Eeel and Pie house was founded in 1890 and survives today selling cheap pies and jellied eels to authentic cockney recipes. Widespread development followed and the town's economy flourished well into the 1950s when the late twentieth decline began.

Between 1891 and 1897 the northbound tunnel linking Greenwich with Blackwall was built by Sir Alexander Binnie. It was the second tunnel under the Thames and was 4,420 feet (1,344 m) long. Much of it was driven with a Greathead tunnelling shield and compressed air. These techniques were used together for the first time here and represented a major development in underwater tunnelling. The tunnel is lined with cast-iron segments filled with concrete and faced in white-glazed bricks and has an internal diameter of twenty-four feet (7.3 m). The south-bound tunnel was not build until 1960-7 to designs by Mott, Hay and Anderson. It is 2,870 feet (875 m) long and has an internal diameter of 27 feet 6 inches (8.4 m). The ventilation shafts, in a modernistic style, were designed by the Architect's Department of the then Greater London Council.

In 1954, a dry dock was constructed on the site of the still undeveloped site of the destroyed Ship hotel to house the Cutty Sark. This was the last, and most famous, of the tea clippers built at Dumbarton in 1869 for the ship owner Captain John Willis. She was still carrying cargoes in 1922 when she was sold and restored by the Cutty Sark Preservation Society. Today, she houses a museum of maritime prints, paintings, relics and the best extant collection of carved and painted figureheads. In 1967, Gypsy Moth IV, in which Sir Francis Chichester made his solo circumnavigation of the world, was also placed in permanent dry dock close by.

The Borough contains other noted villages and areas, many of which will require articles in their own right. Plumstead, in the east, was a prosperous village mentioned in Domesday and dependent on sheep and fruit farming. The high ground at Blackheath was a popular resting place for armies and pilgrims and, therefore, also highly popular highwaymen. Wat Tyler led the Kentish contingent in the Peasant's Revolt in 1381 when more than 100,000 gathered on Blackheath before moving onto London and eventual defeat. More recently, the first golf club in England was set up on Blackheath.

Eltham was the location of a royal palace from the thirteenth century, and was popular with many monarchs, including the three Edwards, I, II and III, and the three Henrys, IV, V and VI. Geoffrey Chaucer was Clerk of Works there and supervised the improvements ordered by Richard II which included a stone bridge whose moat still survives. The palace became less popular in the Tudor period and was, like a great many other royal sites, appropriated by Parliament after the execution of Charles I.

The industrial revolution brought the development of the Royal-Arsenal at Woolwich for the manufacture of gunpowder, armaments, energy, under-sea cables and the production of rope. In the late nineteenth century the co-operative movement purchased large areas of land to build homes for the workers employed at the Woolwich Arsenal. The Arsenal itself dated from the Tudor period when it was set up as the Royal Laboratory, Carriage Department and Powder House. At its closure at the end of the twentieth century, it was oldest and largest establishment of its kind in Britain. He site is now being developed to provide housing and industrial units and retains a link with its past in the recently opened Firepower Museum of the Royal Artillery.

The Arsenal stretched to the eastern boundary of the Bourough across the Plumstead and Erith marshes and these areas are now being intensively developed as part of the award-winning new Town at Thamesmead. The original development here was in the 1967 when the Greater London Council (GLC)built a series of 12-storey tower blocks as a short-term solution to the then chronic housing problem. The initial error of moving large numbers of the GLC's "problem" tenants into the area has now been largely corrected. The development includes 200 acres of parkland and two lakes. The rapid expansion in the past five years has included the construction of the new Woolwich Crown Court and the high security Belmarsh Prison which has provided accommodation for Geoffrey Archer, General Pinochet and the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs amongst others.

At Woolwich also is the Woolwich Free Ferry. A ferry has operated across this stretch of the Thames since at least 1308 and, in 1889, the London County Council set up the present ferry service for vehicles, passengers and goods. It was the first successful attempt to provide a reliable transport link across the Thames for the eastern districts of London. The service was originally operated by paddle steamers which were replaced by end-loading diesel boats in 1963. The original floating barges did not last much longer, being replaced between 1964 and 1966 by steel-trussed ramps which are currently about to be replaced by structures constructed entirely in re-cycled materials. The ferry has always been free and operates during daylight hours all year round. It is still very popular with foot passengers (who prefer not to use the adjacent foot tunnel) and drivers of Heavy Goods vehicles.

Charlton is another of the small villages to the east of Greenwich which has a noted history. It remains one of the few villages in the London area to have preserved something of its original distinctive village features. It is mentioned in the Domesday book as Cerletone but is certainly much earlier. Excavations in 1915 revealed that a distinctly British settlement survived here throughout the Roman occupation. The remains of the splendid hill fort which house the settlement were destroyed by quarrying soon after they had been excavated. Charlton was also home to the notorious Horn Fair and it still has one of the first mulberry trees to come to Britain. It was also in Charlton that the first telephone cable to be laid under the Atlantic to America was manufactured.


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