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Not Like Other Parts Of London: Peter Guillery On Woolwich And The Survey Of London

February 24, 2013
A statue of Napoleon, Prince Imperial, stands in front of the Royal Artillery Barracks. The Prince Imperial was the only son of Napoleon III and trained in Woolwich.

The Royal Artillery Barracks (1776).

The architectural research project known as the Survey of London began in 1894. The survey’s founder, Charles Robert Ashbee, published the first volume in 1900: on Bromley-by-Bow. Forty-eight volumes and more than 100 years later, it’s Woolwich’s turn to bask in the enquiring and meticulous spotlight that the survey (now under the aegis of English Heritage) has shone on other parts of this city. The result is a beautifully written and illustrated book, published by Yale University Press in 2012.

Peter Guillery, one of the driving forces behind the book, is passionate about Woolwich and it shows. He kindly agreed to my request for an interview.

Peter, what inspired the Survey of London to turn its attention to Woolwich?

Development pressures were the biggest single factor. There has been a great deal of change in recent years, but when we started the project in 2007, before the financial crash, yet more was intended. It was also clear then to English Heritage that Woolwich was exceptionally understudied and undervalued, its special historic qualities not nearly as well known as they should be. Finally, there was also a desire to redress an imbalance in the Survey of London series, which had not tackled a south London district in a long time.

How long did the project take, and roughly how many people were involved?

Five years, more or less. It’s more difficult to say how many people were involved. In terms of researching and writing the text, seven contributed, nine more provided drawings, two more photographs. Many others inside and outside English Heritage were also involved in small and not-so-small ways. In terms of the overall staffing level the equivalent of about 2.5 people full-time worked on the book across the five years. Most of the contributors spent shortish spells on Woolwich. I was the only person employed full-time on the project throughout.

Woolwich locals know that this place is full of surprises. What discoveries did you make, while researching, that really stand out in your mind?

  • The original central Woolwich location of the naval dockyard (thanks to unpublished research by the late Winifred Cutler)
  • That there is no good reason to attribute buildings in the Royal Arsenal to Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Credit for the imaginative early 18th-century architecture there belongs to Brig.-Gen. Michael Richards.
  • That the architectural character of the mid 19th-century structural ironwork in the Arsenal is due to the German architect Gottfried Semper
  • That nos 1-5 Thomas Street are buildings of the 1760s and that the great artist Paul Sandby lived at and enlarged No. 5 in 1769-72
  • That a small cinema building of 1912 still stands behind Woolwich New Road, now in use as a garage
  • Just how important Connaught Mews (the former Royal Artillery Hospital) is in the history of British military hospitals
  • How many good early Victorian houses there were (and still are) on Woodhill
  • What an important place the Morris Walk Estate holds in the history of British post-war housing
  • That the former Woolwich Polytechnic range of the early 1960s on Thomas Street was designed by Ron Herron (subsequently famous as part of the experimental architectural group, Archigram)
  • That components for atomic weapons were manufactured on Woolwich Common

I’ve heard you speak about Woolwich, and I detect a certain fondness. How would you describe this corner of London to someone who had never been?

I’d start by quoting Ian Nairn: “thumping self-centred vitality”. That description from the 1960s still seems valid despite all that Woolwich has been through. Woolwich is not like other parts of London. It is every bit as much a one-off and a place of great history as is Greenwich, but you have to look a bit harder to find its delights. From ship-building to building societies to system-building, its histories and their monuments are not presented on a plate.

If someone were to walk around Woolwich, which landmarks, buildings, and streets would you describe to them as “not-to-be-missed”?

The Royal Arsenal in general, the Free Ferry (across and back as a pedestrian), the two great 1930s cinemas (including the former Granada’s interior if possible), the two big RACS buildings on Powis Street, the Town Hall (definitely including the interior), the Royal Artillery Barracks and the Royal Military Academy (if only through a windscreen, but better on foot).

Royal Military Academy (1806). Best admired on foot.

Royal Military Academy (1806). Best admired on foot.

As well as being packed with information, the book is a beautiful visual record of a bygone Woolwich. So many historically significant buildings have been demolished over the years, some very recently. Do you think town planners and councils have a fair bit to answer for?

I’m not sure I’d put it like that. Looking back to earlier periods (the post-war decades in particular), I don’t feel we’re now in a position to throw stones at a society that was determined to provide people with houses and jobs even though that determination was at times blinkered. More recent mistakes have arisen perhaps from a sense that anything is justifiable to revive Woolwich after decades of economic decline. It’s not, of course – I’m just trying to be charitable. In the end, though, yes, ignorance of history and the value of its monuments has done great harm to Woolwich.

What areas of London is the survey currently researching?

Battersea will be published later this year (2013), work is underway in Marylebone (the area between Oxford Street and the Marylebone Road), and Whitechapel is next in the queue.

Will the survey do a book on Greenwich and/or Blackheath at some stage?

That would be nice, but given the above it won’t be very soon. There is the book on the architectural history of Greenwich by John Bold et al (Greenwich: an architectural history of the Royal Hospital for Seamen and the Queen’s House, 2000) that was produced alongside the Survey when it was a part of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. There are also the two Survey monographs on Morden College, Blackheath and the Queen’s House from the early 20th century, both accessible on the internet through British History Online.

Gatehouse of the Royal Woolwich Arsenal, now severed from the Arsenal by the main road.

Gatehouse of the Royal Woolwich Arsenal, now severed from the Arsenal by the main road.

About Peter

Peter Guillery is an architectural historian at the Survey of London, the topographical series founded in 1894 that continues from within English Heritage. He has previously been responsible for recording threatened buildings in London for the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. Away from the Survey of London his publications include The Small House in Eighteenth-Century London (2004), Behind the Façade, London House Plans 1660-1840 (2006, with Neil Burton) and, as editor, Built from Below: British Architecture and the Vernacular (2011). He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and serves on the committees of the Centre for Metropolitan History and the London Journal.

Woolwich: Survey of London Vol. 48 retails for £75 (worth every penny). Order online from Yale University Press

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