Greenwich History Tour by David C. Ramzan
A changing landscape through the passage of time
Anyone standing on the south bank of the River Thames at Greenwich Reach will look out upon an area of regeneration and change. The Thames meanders its way eastwards from the Pool of London through Greenwich and beyond towards the English Channel. Looking in either direction you will gaze upon a once active river now devoid of ships, wharves and warehousing which once occupied this vast expanse of waterway and the embankments north and south.
Having been born and raised in Greenwich during the time when the town was still a thriving mercantile and industrial community, as a youngster I lived and grew up close to the Thames when vessels from all around the globe would tie up at the wharves and warehouses situated along our stretch of the river. Merchant seamen from far off countries speaking many different languages, something of a rarity in those days, would frequent the many inns and public houses found nestling between riverside buildings or standing on the corners of streets consisting of row upon row of two up, two down, terraced houses, with no high-rise properties in sight. Within easy access to the river, the wharfs and barges were our adventure playgrounds of the time, where, on many occasions, my friends and I would be chased off by the London River Police patrolling our stretch of the river.
Since those earlier times my home town has seen continual change and re-development throughout the past fifty years, the once busy riverside industries have now almost all gone, and much of the areas rich local mercantile and industrial history and heritage is gradually fading away.
Although the Thames continues to be an important thoroughfare for river traffic, where occasionally tugs can be seen towing barges up and down stream, some of the few remaining working vessels still in operation. It is more likely the craft you will see today are the pleasure boats taking tourists on sightseeing trips with a guide pointing out places of interest along the way or perhaps the new fast, sleek, passenger ferries transporting commuters to their places of work in central London and back again at the working day’s end. Most of the wharfs and warehouses that once stood on the river’s edge are now long gone. A few which survived demolition by developers converted into apartments and offices, the rest flattened to make way for modern new-builds, hotels, restaurants and luxury dwellings.
Although the most famous of landmarks remain, such as the old Royal Naval College, now the University of Greenwich; the National Maritime Museum, once a school for boy sailors and the Royal Observatory built on the site of a 15th century castle are just some of the main places of interest visited by thousands of tourists annually. Many of the historical landmarks and commercial and industrial buildings, which made the area famous throughout the world, can now only been viewed by way of old photographs printed in local history publications.
In this modern era, the Royal Borough of Greenwich is also known for its marvels of modern technology and engineering. Such as the Millennium Dome located on the Greenwich Peninsular, the Thames Barrier stretching out across the Thames from New Charlton to Silvertown, and the London Docklands Light Railway running from the south under the river northwards emerging out to the Isle of Dogs and the busy financial centre Canary Wharf. At one time however, it was through astronomical and navigational discoveries, shipbuilding and industrial innovation which made Greenwich, situated directly on the Prime Meridian, predominant in the advancement of scientific technology and pioneering engineering.
For over a thousand years, the area was the site of a thriving boat and ship building industry, from the construction of small river fishing boats up to the huge oak-built Men-of-War, trading vessels and ships of discovery and exploration, which sailed out across all the seas and oceans around the globe. However, there are few reminders, apart from some information boards positioned along the riverside walkway, of the areas industrious boat and shipbuilding industry which once stretched out from the Royal Dockyard at Deptford, through and around Greenwich and onwards to the Royal Dockyard of Woolwich.
In my two latest publications, A to Z of Greenwich and Greenwich History Tour, I have endeavoured to guide the reader around my hometown of Greenwich, not only to discover its most well known and most famous landmarks and buildings, but also the less well-known sites and hidden places of historical interest, and importance.
Through an ever growing interest in local and family history during the past decade, thanks not only to popular historical television productions such as Time Team, Who Do You Think You Are, The Secret History of My Family and A House Through Time, but also through the many excellent local history publications readily available today. There has never been a better time than the present to discover and uncover the fascinating history of the places where you were born, lived or simply just visited, especially in changes which have taken place in the local landscape through the passage of time.