Final day for the Woolwich Ferry (1963 edition)

The Ernest Bevan. The John Burns. The James Newman. Since 1963, these three ferries have been moving cars, lorries, bicycles and people across the Thames from Woolwich to North Woolwich, or “Woolwich in Essex” as the cool kids are calling it.

Today is their last day in operation. Fancy new ferries will arrive in January, so for the next ten weeks you’ll have to take the foot tunnel (HGV restrictions apply).

I popped down to see them off, as it was a beautiful afternoon and I was in the neighbourhood.

As I was on my bike, I got to dismount and pass the cars and lorries queuing all the way back to the roundabout. I met what I took to be two retired ferry enthusiasts taking pictures on the approach. It turned out to be one ferry enthusiast and his friend from Huddersfield he’d dragged along on the trip.

“I’ve never heard of the thing in my life,” he complained, in that subtle Yorkshire tone that indicated he had nothing to complain about.

“I’m actually old enough to remember the ferries before these ones,” said his companion, recalling the John Benn (grandfather of Tony) and the Will Crooks (Labour MP for Woolwich 1903-30). “I wish I’d thought to photograph them”.

At this point we were interrupted by the blast of a ferry horn, and a responding one from a paddle steamer. Gloriously, the Waverley was on its way back from a trip up the estuary, and we crossed in front of all the motor traffic to get a view of the two old boats together.

It was time to board. “Last day today?” I asked a staff member who was keeping an eye on us twelve foot passengers.

“It certainly is,” he replied.

Pedestrian traffic on the ferry has been minimal for decades, but the masses of seating – including separate, now locked, smoking areas – in the belly of the ferry suggest a time when greater capacity was needed. The John Burns, as this photo from when it first came into operation indicates, has space for a thousand passengers. Soon, it, along with its two sister ships, will be towed to France to be dismantled.

I left my bike parked along an unneeded bench and climbed up the exit stairs to get a decent view of the crossing, and of the other ferry making the opposite trip.

After chatting about bikes with my new friend from Huddersfield, I waited for the ferry back, for one final trip. I managed to get on before any cars this time, though two motor bikes beat me to the front. The new ferries will, apparently, have a specific area for bikes.

This crossing took slightly longer than usual, the captain holding us mid stream for a few minutes to allow a barge (called “hound dog” to pass us. It was a good moment to gaze at the Thames Barrier and the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, before disembarking for the final time.

This time, I was the only foot passenger to do so.

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