A brief history of the Greenwich Peninsula
3200-600 BC – The Bronze Age
The early history of the area is vague, early communites would have lived on the densely forested flood plains of the Thames. The peninsula as we know it would not yet be in existence. The exstensive felling of trees on the peninsula in the Bronze Age showed a definate human presence.
5th – 11th Century – Arrival of the Anglo Saxons
With the arrival of the Anglo Saxons came the name Grenewic meaning Green Bay, a name that would stay with the area. Due to the issues of drainage and flooding on the peninsula, the land was generally used for farmland, wetland and pasture. There is mention of a riverwall being placed in the area to cope with the powerful tides of the Thames.
14th – 16th Century- Middle Ages to the Elizabethan era
There is record of a commission in 1315 setting the task of maintaining the Thames river wall. This led to the Court of sewers foundation in 1625; a group of local people dedicated to managing the river wall, who did so for 200 years. The area was so sparsely populated that is was known as marshland and agricultural fields and was referred to as Greenwich Marsh or East Greenwich. A millpond lay where Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park now is situated.
18th – 19th Century- Industrialisation
Although Greenwich is without a doubt part of London, until 1889 Greenwich was classified as part of Kent, the agricultural South East. This agricultural existence was maintained, with a few, unwelcome attempts at industrialisation moving onto the Peninsula. One of these was the a royal gunpowder magazine, quickly removed due to local protest. Greenwich Peninsula also had a sinister past, with Bugsbys Hole on the west side of the Peninsula being a site for the gibbeting of pirates. Pirate Williams was gibbeted here in 1735, and was a popular attraction for the locals for the cost of one penny.
From the late 1880’s industrialisation of the Peninsula was instigated with the introduction of gas and chemical works. In particular The South Metropolitan Gas Company’s East Greenwich gas works became the largest in Europe, dominating the peninsula for some time. The Peninsula was targeted for development due to it’s proximity to the Thames. Barges could be used for transport attracting telegraph cable factories, notably the attempts to construct Great Atlantic cables.
The Blackwall Tunnel, built in 1897, destroyed much of the remaining field and marsh. The area where the park now stands was built up from the excavated material from the tunnel building. The building of the tunnel caused a notable difference in population density, it was then recognised by contempories that unpleasant crowding and pollution now affected the peninsula.
20th Century- Becoming part of London
In 1900 structural engineers Redpath Brown and Co.Ltd, which would later become part of British Steel, had a large site on the peninsula. This was used as a steel dockyard from the 1920’s onwards. A new shed was built in the 1960s for the automated sawing and drilling of steel. From the 1970s onwards there was a decline in the gasworks (due to the discovery of north sea gas) and the steel site closed. British Steel were still making steel rods in the area in 1970s but by the 1980s the area was becoming derelict.
Later in 1997, English Partnerships, which was the government’s national regeneration agency, bought over 121 hectares of land on Greenwich Peninsula. Their aim was to build a community rather than just housing. Innovative schemes were put in place, designed to establish a high level of biodiversity with a rich variety of ecosystems. This was a UK government flagship project – aimed to inspire other developers and to encourage local residents to explore the outside, walking and cycling.
Also incorporated into the regeneration plan was Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, a primarily freshwater habitat which would compliment the semi-saline habitats of the tidal River Thames. It’s creation was partly to mitigate for the loss of reedbed and scrub that had developed on the derelict land, which was unique due to it being located within the housing devolpments. The work done in the Millennium village including the Park has been studied by architects and government officials from Germany, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Norway, Sweden, Vietnam, Ireland and France as an example of sustainable development.
To redevelop the area, EP had to deal with the contaminated land – particularly around the areas of Gas, tar and chemical works. These areas were contaminated with coal tars, heavy metals, cyanides and sulphur compounds. Remediation works included the removal of tanks, a tar well, an effluent pond, and whole ground layers in areas where it was particularly bad. The contaminants are confined under the spoil, lots of textile, and clay, from the digging of the Jubilee line. This reduces the possibility of contaminants from reaching the surface, and thus allowed the development to go ahead.
One of the schemes was the restoration of certain parts of the river bank, the area that had sheet piling was replaced with Salt Marsh terraces and Reed Beds, this transformed the riverside from having no shoreline and devoid of invertebrate life to a haven for wildlife. This natural barrier also meant that it acted as an effective flood defence.
21st Century- Now
The park was completed by early 2000, around the same time as The O2 (formerly the Dome) but was not opened to the public until February 2002. The Trust for Urban Ecology (now The Conservation Volunteers) successfully won the bid to manage the park. Their role was to open the park to the public, manage the habitats, publicise the park, and organise events and school visits.
Here are a few works that might be useful for the history of the Peninsula:
Mills, Mary, Greenwich Marsh- The 300 years before the Dome, M. Wright, London 1999.
W. V.Bartlett in “The River and the Marsh at East Greenwich. The History and Development” (Trans. Greenwich & Lewisham Antiquarian Soc. Vol 7, No.2. 1964-5 pp 68-85)
Another website where you can find out more about Greenwich Peninsula’s History: https://greenwichpeninsulahistory.wordpress.com/