A Woolwich People Walk

Route & what to see


An almost circular walk of 2½ miles from Woolwich Arsenal Station (National Rail or DLR)

Begin in General Gordon Place

Major-General Charles George Gordon (1833 – 85)
Gordon was born in Woolwich, a son of Major-General Henry William Gordon. He was educated in Somerset and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He was commissioned in 1852 in the Royal Engineers, completing his training at Chatham. He saw action in the Crimean War but made his military reputation in China. He later became the Governor-General of the Sudan, where he did much to suppress revolts and the slave trade. Gordon organized a city-wide defence of Khartoum against the Mahdi lasting almost a year but was killed before relief was finally sent.

Along Powis Street to the Co-op building

Alexander Mcleod (1832-1902)
He was the son of Skye crofters and went on to work with various railway companies. In 1859 he secured work at the Arsenal where in 1868 a group of workers set up the Royal Arsenal Supply Association. Initially they sold tea, butter and sugar from a house in Woolwich, then in 1872 they leased premises in Powis Street as a shop and changed the name to the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (RACS). In 1882 McLeod was appointed Secretary and Manager of the Society and he remained so until his death. The new building, which also became their head office, was built in 1903 by the RACS architect Frank Bethell. It has a prominent statue of McLeod.

Continue to the end of Powis Street

Theodore Komisarjevsky (1882-1954)
He was a Russian theatrical director and designer. He began his career in Moscow, but had his greatest influence in London. He was noted for groundbreaking productions of plays by Chekhov and Shakespeare. After Lenin advised Lunacharsky to "put theatres into coffins", Komisarjevsky emigrated to Britain. He designed a lavish interior for the Granada Cinema in 1935. This was later used by Gala Bingo but has now been purchased by a church.

Cross John Wilson Street to the churchyard

Tom Cribb (1781-1848)
He was born in Bristol and worked as a coal porter before spending some time at sea. Taking up prizefighting, he had his first professional contest in 1805, defeating his opponent over 76 rounds.  He had two noted fights against Tom Molineaux, a black ex-slave. On the first occasion Cribb had not trained properly and was nearly defeated. The rematch in 1811 drew more than 20,000 spectators. This time and the fight was over in twenty minutes after Molineaux’s jaw was broken in the fifth round. At the coronation of George IV he was one of the boxers who provided an escort. The champion retired from the prize ring greatly honoured, but the rest of his life was an anticlimax. He set up in business as a coal merchant, but the venture failed and he then kept a succession of London pubs. He died at the age of 67 in the house of his son, a baker, in Woolwich High Street. Subscriptions were raised for the lion monument in the parish churchyard.

Walk past the south side of the church

SS Princess Alice was a passenger paddle steamer on a day trip from Gravesend in 1878. She was sunk in a collision with the collier Bywell Castle where she split in two and sank within four minutes. Many passengers were trapped within the wreck and drowned but also the release of 75 million gallons of raw sewage had occurred an hour before the collision. Between 69 and 170 people were rescued but over 650 died in the greatest loss of life in any Thames shipping disaster. 120 victims were buried in a mass grave at Woolwich Old Cemetery with a memorial cross to mark the spot. There is also a memorial window in St Mary Magdelene’s Church.

Cross Woolwich Church Street. Go through to the river and follow the Thames Path eastwards

Woolwich Ferry Boats are named after James Newman (a Woolwich Mayor), Ernest Bevin and John Burns. Ernest Bevin (1881 – 1951) co-founded and served as secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union from 1922 to 1940. He was Minister of Labour in the war-time coalition government and Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government 1945-51.
John Burns (1858 – 1943) was a trade unionist and politician, particularly associated with London politics. After retirement, he developed an expertise in London history and coined the phrase "The Thames is liquid history".

Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice (1861– 1924)
He was an Irish civil engineer who worked on the Forth Railway Bridge and Aswan Dam.
He became Chief Engineer to the London County Council and was responsible for the Blackwall, Rotherhithe and Woolwich tunnels.

Continue into the Arsenal site

Napoléon, Prince Imperial (1856 – 1879)
Louis was the only child of Emperor Napoleon III of France. At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War he accompanied his father to the front . However when the war began to go against them the Imperial Family fled to England and settled in Chislehurst. He was accepted by the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich  and commissioned into the Royal Artillery. With the outbreak of the Zulu War in 1879, the Prince Imperial, with the rank of lieutenant, forced the hand of the British military to allow him to take part in the conflict. He was only allowed to go by special pleading of his mother, the Empress Eugénie, and by the intervention of Queen Victoria. He went as an observer, attached to the staff of the commander in South Africa, who was admonished to take care of him. However a scouting party he was sent on was ambushed by 40 Zulus. Unhorsed he was stabbed 18 times. His badly decomposed body was brought back to England on board the British troopship HMS Orontes and a riverside guardhouse at Woolwich Arsenal served as a temporary mortuary. He was initially buried in Chislehurst but later transferred to a special mausoleum in Farnborough next to his father.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769 –1852)
He was a one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century. Wellesley was commissioned as an ensign in the Army in 1787 and was a colonel by 1796. He saw action in the Netherlands and India but rose to prominence as a general during the Peninsular campaign of the Napoleonic Wars. He was promoted to the rank of field marshal after leading the allied forces to victory against the French at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. Following Napoleon's exile in 1814, he was granted a dukedom. In 1815 he commanded the allied forces which, together with  the Prussians, defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. He was twice prime minister under the Tory party from 1828–30 and in 1834. He continued as one of the leading figures in the House of Lords until his retirement and remained Commander-in-Chief of the British Army until his death.
He has a statue in the park built on the site of the Shell Foundry.

Jan & Pieter Verbruggen
Jan and his son Pieter along with two daughters immigrated from the Netherlands in 1770. 
Jan had been the Dutch Master Gunfounder but had lost favour. The Verbruggens vastly improved manufacturing in terms of quality and the technology of cannon manufacture. A new house was built for them in 1773 at government expense. This building is now occupied by solicitors.

Sir John Vanbrugh (1664 -1726)
He went into soldiering but found himself imprisoned in France for over four years, the French thinking they had a spy or a valuable hostage. When he returned he began writing plays including The Relapse and designing properties such as Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace. He also worked on buildings for the Royal Hospital, Greenwich and Royal Arsenal, Woolwich where he designed Dial Arch Square and the Royal Brass Foundry.

Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736)
He was taken on by Christopher Wren as his clerk at the age of 18. From about 1684 to 1700, Hawksmoor worked with Wren on projects including St. Paul's Cathedral and Greenwich Hospital. He then worked with Sir John Vanbrugh, helping him build Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.
In July 1721 Vanbrugh made Hawksmoor his deputy as Comptroller of the Works. Hawksmoor also worked in Oxford and Cambridge and was responsible for six of the Fifty New Churches. Tower Place is attributed to Hawksmoor.

At its peak, during WWI, the Royal Arsenal extended over some 1300 acres and employed around 80,000 people. By then the site had the Royal Gun Factory, the Royal Shell Filling Factory, the Research and Development Department and the Chief Chemical Inspector.
In 1886 workers at the Arsenal formed a football club initially known as Dial Square but renamed Royal Arsenal. The club entered the professional football league as Woolwich Arsenal in 1893 and later became known as Arsenal F.C., having moved to north London in 1913.

Exit Arsenal site and cross into Beresford Square for access to station


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