Woolwich Ferry marks 50 years of drive-on, drive-off diesel vessels

The Woolwich Ferry is marking the 50th anniversary of a new fleet of diesel-powered drive-on, drive-off vessels that speeded up vehicle traffic.

The James Newman was the first to enter service on April 22, 1963, followed by the John Burns and the Ernest Bevin, replacing side-loading steam paddlers that had operating since 1922.

The new vessels revolutionised the busy ferry service between North Woolwich on the Thames north bank and Woolwich Town on the south side.

They reduced waiting times along the A406 North Circular Woolwich Manor Road in east London which was linked by the ferry to the A205 South Circular in south London.

Each vessel had greater manoeuvrability, with a propeller at each end to move sideways or spin, essential for the tidal Thames.

A ferry has operated at Woolwich since the 14th century. The Army ran its own ferry to move troops and supplies from Woolwich Arsenal during the Napoleonic Wars, before an Act of Parliament in 1811 established a commercial ferry.

But it was the Metropolitan Board of Works under Sir Joseph Bazalgette which introduced the first free ferry in 1889, which was taken over by the newly-formed London County Council that year, then passed to the GLC in 1965 before being handed to Greenwich Council in 1986 when the GLC was abolished.

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TfL, which took over in 2008, has now contracted it to Briggs Marine in a £50 million deal to modernise the ferries with diesel filters to reduce emissions by 90 per cent.