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Notes and news — December 2000

In this issue:

Steam Tug Portwey

In the West India Docks close to the West India Quay station of the Docklands Light Railway you will generally see a small steam tug 80 feet long called the Portwey. She is usually berthed on the North Quay of the Import Dock close to the coaster SS Robin. The tug's name Portwey is perhaps at first sight a rather odd one but it comes from the fact that she originally worked for the Portland and Weymouth Coaling Company towing barges out to large ocean-going ships in Portland harbour that in the days of coal firing used to call in there to take on coal. What is remarkable is that Portwey herself is still coal-fired by hand.

Portwey, built on the Clyde at Govan in 1927 by Harland and Wolff's, has twin screws and has two steam engines to power them. These engines are inverted vertical twin cylinder compounds and steam comes from a double furnace Scotch fire-tube boiler. Engines and boiler were made by D and W Henderson & Co Ltd of Glasgow. As with most steam ships there are a number of subsidiary steam engines which include a twin cylinder steam windlass engine on the forecastle, a twin cylinder steam engine in the wheelhouse which powers the steering gear, a Robey powered electric generator or dynamo, a powerful salvage pump which can supply four firehoses, a general service pump and so on. For the steam engine enthusiast there is much to see.

Perhaps what is now the most striking feature of Portwey is the cramped stoke hold where, when the vessel is under way, an enormous amount of hard manual labour is required to constantly stoke the boiler and rake out ashes. Cramped means that two or three people in the stoke hold is a crowd. Burning household-type coal rather than the deep navigation Welsh steam coal for which she was designed means that heat transfer to the boiler water is not as efficient as it should be and as a consequence much of the vessel becomes hot when she is in steam. Recently boiler tubes have been replaced and a new smoke-box end built. With the limited means available this was quite an achievement. Bob Carr
GLIAS members interested in learning more should contact Barrie Sanderson, secretary of the Steam Tug Portwey Trust, Tethers End, Old London Road, Rawreth, Wickford, Essex SS11 8UE. Tel: 01268 769583. Website: Visits on board by small parties can sometimes be arranged, generally on a Wednesday afternoon when maintenance work takes place

Thames Shipbuilding Study Group

In early September a symposium on Thames shipbuilding was held in Rotherhithe organised by Stuart Rankin of the Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Local History Group and sponsored by the National Maritime Museum and Greenwich Maritime Institute. Those attending included representatives of the forthcoming Museum in Docklands, the Museum of London Archaeology Service as well as Professors Tony Arnold, University of Essex, and Andrew Lambert, Kings.

In the comfort of Nelson House (ex Nelson Dock and now part of a hotel complex) delegates heard a number of papers on subjects all connected with Thames shipbuilding: Millwall Ironworks, Pitchers of Northfleet, PO & Steam Packets, etc. A book will be published including all the contributions.

At the meeting it was agreed to set up a Thames Shipbuilding Study Group. It has been agreed to have a twice yearly newsletter and to hold future conferences.
Anyone interested in joining/contributing should write (with SAE) to Michael Jones, 51 Montrose Avenue, Whitton, Twickenham TW2 6HE

Woolwich Arsenal news

Woolwich Arsenal has been hidden behind closed walls for so long that very few people have any knowledge about the great armaments factory inside and its many interesting buildings.

The secrecy which enveloped the complex means that very little was known, even in Woolwich. Nevertheless a small band — mainly of ex-Arsenal workers — have been keeping an eye on what has been going on.

This autumn a small group of members of GLIAS and Greenwich Industrial History Society were allowed in to see a few of the things going on. First of all we were shown a small exhibition on the past of the Arsenal, and a video, made by Mike Neill who is in charge of work being undertaken on the new Greenwich Heritage Centre. We were then taken to see the buildings that will house the heritage centre — now just a shell. The buildings are 41 & 41a, which were part of New Laboratory Square. Half of the building will soon be opened as Firepower — the new complex for the Museum of the Royal Artillery Regiment and Greenwich's Borough Museum. Archives will be merged into the other half. Along with this we hope to see a new riverside walk and exciting vistas, which will draw attention to the many listed buildings on site.

We then trudged to the other end of the Arsenal — in heavy rain — to see what should have been the high spot of the visit. 25 years ago, as many GLIAS members will remember, a pottery kiln was discovered on an archaeological dig at the Woolwich Ferry site. It was removed, wrapped up, and taken off by the council — and this is a vast object weighing many tons! It has stayed like this ever since and we had been told that at last the wrappings would be removed. Unfortunately the rain was so bad that the contractors were unable to start unwrapping it that day — so all we could do was view it from a distance. (The kiln was eventually unwrapped a couple of days later and Mike Neill reported: 'The kiln is in remarkably good condition; no collapse or cracking, no root growth, just a tiny robin's nest.')

Mike told us about the interest from all the over the world which the kiln has attracted. It will be very thoroughly studied before being put on public view.

The next thing we saw at the Arsenal were some very large objects! These were anvils which have been removed from sites around the area and will be used as display features. We also went to look at the site of the steam hammer bases — nothing to see because they are so large it has now been decided to leave them in place. This was the base of the 40-ton steam hammer which was inaugurated in 1864 by the Czar of Russia. There has been a bit of campaign locally to save them — but the cost of removing them would, in any case, have been prohibitive.

This was a short visit to a tiny bit of what is left of the Arsenal. Housing now surrounds the canal and the tumps where gun tests were carried out. The railway is completely gone except for a few pieces of rail here and there. Most of the site will be turned into housing although some of the buildings will remain as stores, offices and so on. One day the public will able to see everything in a new and refurbished state — and hopefully will be able to get a tiny idea of what this vast and important armaments works was all about.

Something which we will not see in Woolwich is the locomotive 'Woolwich' we understand has been bought by the Waltham Abbey Trust where they will have facilities to run her.
We are keen to talk to anyone who was involved in the original dig — please contact Beverley Burford at Plumstead Museum. Tel: 020 8855 3240.
Visits to the kiln can be arranged. Please contact Mary Mills who can make arrangements. Tel: 020 8858 9482. Be warned to wear something mud-proof and be prepared to climb ladders!

Excavations at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich

Since April 1999 the Oxford Archaeological Unit (OAU) has been carrying out a major programme of archaeological works and excavations at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.

The main archaeological interest of the site arises from its use as the nation's principal arsenal and armaments factory, dating from the site's purchase by the Crown in 1671 to its final demise in 1994. At its peak during the 1914-18 war the arsenal covered over 100 acres and employed over 80,000 people.

To date the excavations have centred primarily on the western end of the site notably on the sites of the Royal Laboratories (built 1696-97 for ammunition production) and 'The Great Pile', a complex of gun finishing workshops and storehouses of 1717-20 attributed to Nicholas Hawksmoor. Both sites reveal evidence of continuous adaptation to new process and technologies including the switch from horsepower to steam power, as well as hydraulic, gas and electric installations.

The Royal Laboratory excavation revealed fragmentary remains from its early courtyard period and good evidence from its roofing-over in 1855 to form 'the largest covered machine shop in the world'.

Excavations within the 'Great Pile' revealed machine bases, coal cellars, iron and bronze furnaces, casting bosses, boiler houses, an engine house, and flue systems. The remains were often of massive scale, the foundations for one steam engine consisting of 250 tonnes of stone blocks, while the casting pits excavated were over 4m deep. Finds recovered have included crucibles, gun mould fragments, foundry tools, stone lithographic blocks, cannon balls and iron cannons, as well as lead shot and bullets, covering almost the whole period during which the Royal Arsenal Woolwich was in production

More recent works, have centred principally on the sites of the 'West (or old) Forge (built from 1856) and the 'Central Power Station' built c1890 on the site of the east quadrangle of the Napoleonic 'Grand Store'. During these works three massive steam hammer bases were encountered. Two of these were from the 10-ton and 12-ton hammers, described by Vincent c1875 (Vincent WT , Warlike Woolwich p31), while a third by Massey was somewhat later in date.

Despite their colossal size and weight (up to 100 tons each) the London Development Agency has funded their recovery and relocation for monumental display on site. Among a huge number of other recovered artefacts have been four 10m-long rifled liners from 12" naval guns of the 1880s.

The investigations have also revealed a late Roman cemetery at the western end of the site. Other pre-arsenal features excavated have included foundations, ditches, pits and a medieval double-flued, tile-built pottery kiln. Many of the recovered artefacts will be displayed on site in due course, hopefully in the proposed Borough Heritage Centre. A major publication on the archaeology of the site is in course of preparation.
Rob Kinchin-Smith and Ben Ford, Oxford Archaeological Unit. Reproduced by kind permission of GIHS.

Crossness Engines AGM

The Annual General Meeting of the Crossness Engines Trust was held at the Crossness Engines on 1 October 2000. The meeting was presided over by Peter Bazalgette, chairman of the trust's board and attended by 31 trust members who listened to John Ridley, chairman of the executive committee, deliver the annual report.

John reported on the restructuring of the board which now consists of an executive committee comprising: John Ridley, vice chairman: Michael Dunmow, secretary; Mike Jones, treasurer: Peter J Skilton; Margaret Wilken and Philip Wilson, elected members. Board members are: Peter Bazalgette, chairman of the board; John Austin MP, member of parliament for Greenwich and Erith; Robert Howard-Jones, director of administration for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers; Jennie Page, a non-executive director of Railtrack. It was reported that Simon Jenkins, Joanna Lumley and Lucinda Lambton have agreed to become vice-presidents of the trust.

Among the year's achievements are the appointments of Martin Wilson as site manager and Roger Bartram as project manager. Under Roger's watchful eye and guidance, the volunteers working on the Millennium Project (getting the engine Prince Consort back into steam) have made great progress in the past year. Not only are the various parts of the engine being put back together, the boiler installation is ready to proceed now clearance has been received from the relevant authorities.

The board has accepted a formal education policy for the trust, submitted by the executive. This, it is hoped, will enhance our chances when applying for funding. A stronger liaison has been forged between Thames Water and Crossness Engines Trust, in particular with education publicity. Crossness Engines Trust was asked to host a reception on behalf of Thames Water for the opening of the Thames-side Path. This event was attended by John Austin MP, Edwina Currie and members from Bexley Council among others.

As already reported (GLIAS Newsletter December 1999), Crossness Engines Trust were founder members of the Association of London Pumping Heritage Attractions (ALPHA). This, it is hoped, will benefit in various ways individual organisations who belong to it.

Two members of the executive had to stand down as the 'Mem. and Arts.' requires, and both were re-elected unopposed.

Our treasurer has worked very hard to place a bid with the Heritage Lottery Fund and had the pleasant news that Crossness Engines Trust have been awarded £27,000 towards the cost of our Millennium Project. In spite of seemingly illogical questions and instructions, Mike, fired with enthusiasm, is now looking forward to make a 'bid' for the 'Big One' which will enable Crossness Engines Trust to get the Beam Engine House back into good repair.

After the meeting, members were invited to visit the Engine House and museum to witness the progress. Peter Skilton

Royal Academy of Engineers visit Kirkaldy's

On Wednesday 25 October, a party of fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineers paid a visit to the Kirkaldy Testing Museum. They were first shown the introductory video followed by a short talk given by Dr Denis Smith on the history of the Kirkaldy family and the works. The group were then divided into three parties and given a more detailed explanation about the equipment within the museum and the types of tests carried out by the Kirkaldy family.

The visitors then repaired to the Globe restaurant for lunch before meeting with the KTM volunteers on Bankside.

Here in the shadow of the Millennium Bridge they listened to a member from Ove Arup, the bridge project engineer, describe the problems faced by the company in solving the "wobble" (damn the media for introducing that word). The mathematics involved left my head in a spin but the ample explanation given by the Ove Arup representative made the scheme quite understandable. Many searching and pertinent questions were posed by fellows from the RAE and these were expertly answered by the engineer from Ove Arup. At the conclusion, Admiral Sir Lindsey Bryson, on behalf of the RAE, thanked both the engineer from Ove Arup and the members of KTM for a most enjoyable and enlightening day. Peter Skilton

International Tide Mills Conference proceedings

In September 1999, David Plunkett of Eling Tide Mill and the River Lea Tidal Mill Trust held an International Tide Mills Conference at the House Mill. They have now published the proceedings of the conference, which give a full picture of the surviving tide mills of Britain at the end of the 20th century, plus reports on Rupelmonde Tide Mill in Belgium, tide mills of the Eastern United States and the discovery of the remains of a 7th-century horizontal mill in Northern Ireland.


Pevsner Architectural Guides have won a lottery grant to fund research into the great industrial cities that have changed radically in recent years — Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester. The Cities Research Project will lead to a paperback on each city centre. Research will also be made available on a new educational website.
Further details from The Buildings Books Trust, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ. Tel: 020 7416 3201

Tram proposals

Following the success of the Croydon Tramlink (GLIAS 185, p5; GLIAS Newsletter August 1999), four new tram schemes are under consideration.

One proposal is the 11-mile Cross River Transit which would head from Camden Town, Kings Cross and Euston across Waterloo Bridge to Waterloo Station, via Holborn and Kingsway. It would then split in two, one branch heading to Elephant and Castle and the other through Lambeth to Brixton.

A £200m proposal for a tram line between Uxbridge and Shepherd's Bush is nearing consultation with a route through Acton, Ealing, Southall and Hayes.

There are also plans for East London Transit routes between the Royal Docks and Gants Hill and Romford, as well as the Greenwich Waterfront Transit between Greenwich and Abbey Wood.

The schemes would take five years to complete.

Stay of execution for Routemasters

Routemaster buses at Victoria station. © Robert Mason London's famous Routemaster will continue to service central London well into the next century. London Buses has purchased 24 secondhand buses which will be fully refurbished and put into service on existing routes.

The Routemasters will be fitted with new engines making them more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. At the same time the interiors will be brought up to modern standards, increasing passenger comfort while the traditional livery will be maintained. The upgrades will be completed by early 2001. They will then be put into service on existing Routemaster routes allowing refurbishment of existing buses to be carried out where necessary without causing disruption. The refurbishment work will maintain the size of the present fleet and allow it to be operational until 2010.

The number of Routemasters has fallen from 1,935 in scheduled service in 1984 to 600 today. Meanwhile the number of closed-door buses, regarded as safer and less polluting, has leaped from 2,425 in 1984 to 5,000. Factory assembly lines churned out Routemasters between 1954 and 1968. Because of a lack of new spares, body parts are cannibalised to keep them on the road. Some 1,000 are still in operation around the country, although they are associated the world over with London.

Open platform buses do not contravene any current EU safety regulations.
Further information on the Routemaster may be found on the website of the Routemaster Operators & Owners Association at:


The Antigallican public house (and hotel) near Charlton railway station has recently been advertising 'en suite' accommodation. There is (or used to be) another pub of the same name in Southwark near the site of the southern entrance to the Tower Subway. Bob Carr

Brian Strong replies: As it happens, I passed it en route to the Brunel Exhibition at the Design Museum. It is still there, but appeared to be derelict. Presumably the name comes from the late 18th-century journal?


The 1931 former Daimler car-hire garage by Wallace Gilbert and Partners in Herbrand Street, WC1 has been refurbished (at least externally). It is now well worth a short detour to see the restored striking white art-deco façade, so redolent of its period.

The well-known publishers, Thames and Hudson, responsible for a number of books of direct relevance to GLIAS members, have moved out of their premises at 30 Bloomsbury Street, WC1. Just outside the front door the tiled top step with its evocative design depicting dolphins remains, but probably not for long. Has anyone taken photographs? Bob Carr

Britney Spears and physics

Britney Spears is currently being used to promote an interest in solid state physics, especially from young men. Does this fresh initiative, which attempts to make physics sexy, presage a turn of the cultural tide? Might we be moving away from the arts dominated 1990s into a new era when a knowledge of science and engineering becomes more widespread? The return swing of the pendulum might be starting right now. Bob Carr
See Britney Spears website:

A future without images?

In an article at present unpublished GLIAS member Chris Grabham suggests that because of the introduction of electronic image manipulation and editing by computer about ten years ago, photographs will no longer be reliable as historical evidence. For the brief period of about 150 years, roughly 1840-1990, we were in the unique position of being able to look at traditional photographs of the past and know that within the limits of the technology then being employed what we saw in the photographic image was what was actually there. Unlike a written account which is subject to the prejudices of the author a photograph showed what the camera saw and although it is not strictly true that 'the camera never lies' as long as the original negative existed most attempts at forgery were quite easy to detect and even if only a print was available an expert was generally able to verify its authenticity.

With the advent of electronic cameras and computer manipulation all this is changing. There is a now a real epistemological problem. We are returning to almost a pre-photographic situation, like that when people had to rely on the work of artists to depict the appearance of scenes and people. This may at first strike the reader as a surprising symmetry.

Even the most well meaning photographer with access to electronic editing will improve the composition of his image and omit say distracting material in the background. What is often so fascinating about say a Vicwardian photograph is the things in the picture the photographer, and the audience for that photograph when it was originally taken, had no interest in as they were so commonplace. It is just this kind of thing which is so valuable in period photographs. No one usually bothers to write down what is common knowledge at the time and a photograph can be the only evidence for much we are now concerned about.

Anyone with an interest in say the industrial history of the Ironbridge Gorge will know just how unreliable are the images of that region left to us by artists from the time of the industrial revolution. Often all we have is a picture worked up subsequently in the artist's studio from rough sketches made on site, with the original sketchbook long since discarded. Buildings may be moved about and redrawn and even several views may be superimposed to make a more interesting whole for the final composition. This is just what is now happening to us. Images we are now beginning to see are in a sense part of a virtual reality and will usually have been tidied up and improved, even if only for aesthetic reasons.

You may say, well simply keep the traditional photographic material for the use of historians. For a time this may be possible but an ever increasing economic pressure will ensure that more and more images are transferred to a cheaper electronic medium which will be all too easy to edit. This is already happening in the museum world where for instance still photographs are transferred to a computer system for ease of storage as well as public viewing. For how long will say original cumbersome and fragile glass plate negatives of what are perceived to be less-important images be kept when storage space is at a premium?

Thus the period 1840-1990 is likely to become a unique epoch in human history when it was possible to know more about the recent past than in the ages before or after. What is needed is a means of electronic storage which is impossible to edit and this does not seem a likely development. Readers may like to comment. Bob Carr

£19.75m spending review funding boost for British Waterways

A £19.75m increase in funding for British Waterways' activities in England and Wales has been announced by the Government.

As part of the Chancellor's spending review 2000 in July, British Waterways, which owns and manages around 2,000 miles of Britain's waterway system, will receive an increase in grant — by £9 million in the financial year 2002/2003 and £9 million in 2003/2004 — to take the total funding to £61.5 million in those years. A further £1.75 million has been made available this year, 2000/2001.

The increased funding will help British Waterways contribute to the Government's new 'Waterways for Tomorrow' policy. Launched last June, it encourages the sustainable development of the waterways through regeneration, and the development of brownfield sites through partnerships and innovation.

'Waterways for Tomorrow' is mainly about the canals and navigable rivers which make up the bulk of the inland waterways but it also covers other kinds of inland waterways such as the Broads. It concentrates on the non tidal waterways but much of its contents apply also to tidal waterways.

There are approximately 5,090km (3,160 miles) of fully navigable inland waterways in England and Wales about 445km of which are tidal. British Waterways is responsible for about 2,615km, about 75% of which comprises canals. The Environment Agency is responsible for about 875km, nearly all navigable rivers. The Broads Authority is responsible for 160km. Of the remaining 1,440km, 1,335km are managed by a wide range of other bodies and 105km have no management authority.

In addition there are about 890km of managed unnavigable waterways, about 480km of which are the responsibility of the three largest bodies (British Waterways — 320km, Environment Agency — 120km and Broads Authority — 40km). There are a further 2,095km of abandoned unnavigable waterways. Many unnavigable and abandoned waterways are being restored to full navigation.

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© GLIAS, 2000