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Swings And Roundabouts: Woolwich And History

August 5, 2013
Civic House, Woolwich

Civic House, Woolwich

Update: Regarding the below, it appears I was way too optimistic! I believe the demolition has begun, and that this went through planning about four years ago, driven by Tesco. Word on the street is that a Tesco petrol station is being built. Goodbye, interesting 1980s building… 

Last Wednesday I had two occasions to think about history. Specifically, about how some shreds of it can be miraculously rescued from oblivion, while others can be ignored, degraded, or discarded.

The first was the glorious rendition of She Works At The Arsenal Now, by the ever-tuneful Woolwich Singers. The sheet music was one of the exhibits in the recent show Spirit Of Freedom, which was on at the Greenwich Heritage Centre. It’s a music hall romance by Robert Donnelly about a woman called Florrie who gets a job at the Arsenal while her beau and his chums are off at war.

I assume (maybe wrongly) that the song has not been heard since it did the rounds of music halls and sing-alongs almost 100 years ago. It was a privilege to be there as the words were belted out once more and to discover what a rollicking tune it is. We all joined in the chorus:

“My Florrie, she writes and says don’t worry, I work at Woolwich Arsenal now. Give my message to your chums, Girls are working ‘midst the shells and guns. Although ’tis tiring as you’re requiring Ammunition for the fighting line, We’ll do our share for you out there, For the sake of Auld Lang Syne.”

Stirring stuff! Well done to the Woolwich Choir for bringing this small slice of history so wonderfully to life. It was a fitting way to help the Heritage Centre celebrate its tenth anniversary.

Sheet music for She Works At The Arsenal Now

Sheet music for She Works At The Arsenal Now

I also noticed, that same day, bright blue hoardings around Civic House on Grand Depot Road. What does this mean? Apparently, this building has been scheduled for demolition for some time, but I suspect that the wrecking ball is a little way off yet. According to planning documents on the Royal Greenwich website, the building is to be used (somewhat ignominiously) as a glorified billboard for some more Tesco signage. As if more were needed.

I’m not expecting many to agree with me, but I think buildings like Civic House deserve more respect. I reckon the architects, the Carpenter Farrer Partnership, with builders Walter Lawrence and Son, managed to create a robust and elegant expression of civic pride for Woolwich. And they did it in the 1980s.

But that’s the issue right there, isn’t it? This building is not very old, nor is it pretty, and it has played no pivotal role in history. It’s not going to make it onto any registry of significant architecture anytime soon. But does that mean it should be discarded, perhaps only to be replaced by a lump of designed-by-committee contemporary banality?

It’s nothing short of life-affirming that an obscure music hall song can be heard by fresh ears, in a new century. I find myself feeling equally nostalgic for an eighties relic such as Civic House. I hope it gets another chance.

  1. It’s certainly much more elegant and coherent a building than many of its contemporaries – it would be a shame to see that facade – an unusual combination of warm brick tones and a hint of brutalism – disappear.

  2. I had the good fortune to be able to take photos of the Thames from one of the upper floors, back when it was used by council departments. The views are amazing, in both directions.

    Woolwich is like Deptford, in one important respect, one has to look up, above uninteresting shop fronts, to see the exciting architectural history of the place. There are many significant examples that will vanish under the turgid Council and Berkeley vision.

  3. The development of Woolwich Town Centre is like a large container – difficult to turn around. The Tesco development is out of proportion and not sympathetic and there are some real casualties. I suspect future generations will look back with disbelief that a town that was the home for mutualism allowed such a blatant shrine to irresponsible capitalism dominate.

  4. Thanks all for your insightful comments. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels sympathetic toward Civic House. I still haven’t heard back from the council yet: I emailed them yesterday to try and find out more. I’ll update if/when I get more information.

  5. It’s a big problem. Sydney is losing its 80s heritage too. Great swathes of architecturally important buildings from the 1980s are planned for demolition (including the Sydney Exhibition Centre, which won the Sulman Medal for the New South Wales chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects in 1989). History tells us that the architecture from this period won’t be valued for at least another 10 years. By then it will be too late.

  6. Ken Welsby permalink

    There’s no doubt it’s a good building. But office buildings have to pay their way – and sadly like many of that era it isn’t really suitable for modern office use.

    Could it have been “re-purposed” into an apartment building? Perhaps, under current planning guidance. But at the time the Tesco redevelopment plan was put forward, that was unlikely – and financing such a project even harder. When Greenwich council found that Tesco had a concept and the cash to make it into reality, they did the deal.

    So we have a large development which is new and dramatically different. And while it may not be sympathetic to the older townscape, the townscape is changing. The view down to the river from Gen Gordon Place / Greens End / Beresford Square will change as the new Berkely towers are completed, and the new hotel above the DLR station is still likely to go ahead, even if the timing is uncertain.

    Not perfect. Not ideal. If anyone else had come along with a different plan and a spare £20 million or so we might have had something “better”, But all of these developments are helping and will help to revive the local economy, revive our spirits and bring a new sense of pride to our town.

    But we all have to do our bit to make it work.

  7. Its been the view from my bedroom window since i was a baby, and as i write this comment I can see workers tearing out the window frames. I’ve always thought of it as a hideous building, but with Peggy Middleton and it’s neighbors gone, civic house was pretty much the last remaining constant in the area surrounding the house i’ve lived in since i was born (excluding other houses), so I am quite sad to see it go.

  8. Cathy permalink

    I am glad to see it demolished. I very much doubt it will be a Tesco Petrol station given it’s proximity to the junction and lights and a residential development nearby. More flats I suspect.

    The new Tesco is hideous but Woolwich Town Centre is pretty dire anyway.

  9. Well, your instagram photo made it look nice. I can’t place where that building is, though. Is it on Thomas Street?

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