Family at Work in Greenwich

When I journey back to my hometown of Greenwich today, I look upon the familiar scenes I knew well as a child that have changed little over the years, the Old Royal Naval College, the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich Park and the Old Royal Observatory, the destination of tourists and visitors to this ancient riverside town. Other areas however, the riverside and Greenwich Marsh places of industry, manufacturing, technological development, and ship and boatbuilding, have now almost all disappeared, replaced by high-rise apartments, shopping venues, sporting and entertainment arenas, bars, restaurants, and contemporary marketplaces.

East Greenwich’s working riverside, c 1950, before regeneration. (Greenwich Heritage Centre, Greenwich at Work, Amberley Publishing)

Up until my formative years, around the early 1960s, many of my older family members lived and worked within a few miles from where they were born, my parents, uncles and aunts and grandparents. My paternal grandfather was the exception, as he was born in northern India before partitioning, joining the British Royal Navy and eventually arriving in Greenwich London, where he met and married my grandmother. My grandfather, Charles, ran his own small business in Greenwich up until his death when in his early forties, leaving my grandmother Lilian looking after their four children, the family members, my great gran and my grans own brothers and sisters, all living in close proximity, all rallying around with much needed support and care.

Charles Ramzan, left, with brother-in-law, Ernie. (Greenwich at Work, Amberley Publishing)

Some years on and my grandmother married widower George Austin, a Waterman by trade, who lived just a few doors along the street of the family home. Pop, as he was referred to by the younger family members, worked on the river as a crane driver, offloading coal from colliers bringing their cargo down along the coast from the northeast and then up the Thames for local industries.

On my mother’s side of the family, most resided to the west of Greenwich in the areas of Deptford and Camberwell, my grandfather Arthur Peachey, a lorry driver by trade, worked for British Road Services, one of the country’s largest road hauliers with depots at Bermondsey and Greenwich. My grandmother, Hannah, was of Irish descent, her ancestors migrating to Southeast London during the late 1800s.

Lilian Ramzan, my grandmother, seated with two of her sisters, Kit and Betty, and younger brother Jim. (Greenwich at Work, Amberley Publishing)

At the beginning of the 1900s, the profession and trade of Greenwich residents were recorded in the local census. Working women during this period were mostly employed as domestic servants, shopworkers, laundresses and, occasionally, innkeepers, a trade usually inherited by the widow of a licensee. The professions listed for males, however, were much more varied.

When my grandfather Charles and grandmother Lilian moved into the family home at Old Woolwich Road after marrying, the occupations of their neighbours included a metal fitter, wharf clerk, tram driver, barge builder, marine store dealer, storekeeper, engineer’s labourer, watchman, carpenter, and a Lighterman, all employed locally.

The family home for over one hundred years, 99 Old Woolwich Road, an early Victorian stuccoed terrace house, part of the Morden College Estate. (Greenwich at Work, Amberley Publishing)

My father began his working career as an apprentice plumber, and my mother, after leaving education, took up a position in clerical work, employed in the account’s office of a local furniture dealer, Kerr’s, located on Greenwich High Road.    

Many members of my immediate family also worked locally in various retail positions and public services, however, as other employment opportunities presented themselves outside of the local area, and with improved transport links and ownership and rental of property much more affordable beyond inner London, family members gradually dispersed to the outer suburbs, as well as into Kent, myself included.

Far right, lorry driver Arthur Peachey, my grandfather, alongside his work colleagues from British Road Services. (Greenwich at Work, Amberley Publishing)

Before this, while still at school, I had several jobs, cycling around Greenwich on Sunday mornings delivering newspapers, singing in a local church choir at weddings, as well as helping on a street greengrocer stall on Saturdays. During the school summer break, I also had a part-time job working at the National Maritime Museum, serving in the visitors’ café and Greenwich Park Tea Pavilion. On leaving education, I then headed off to London where I began a career in design and advertising, traveling to and from work by train, occasionally commuting by some more unusual modes of river transport, hovercraft and hydrofoils running from Greenwich Pier to London and back.

Coach outing to celebrate the Coronation of Elizabeth II for residents of Staunton Street, Deptford, where my mother lived before marriage. My grandmother, Hannah Peachey, second from the right on the first coach. (Greenwich at Work, Amberley Publishing)

Where at one time people worked and resided in their local surroundings and family members lived near each other, in society today, it is not unusual for work and home life to be located many miles apart. Family members move on, and away from their places of birth, and in this modern era, not only has the working landscape of Greenwich changed beyond all recognition, so has the riverside town’s working practices.

David C. Ramzan's book Greenwich at Work is available for purchase now.