Famous Woolwich People
So, what is Woolwich famous for? Well, heaps of things, of course. The Arsenal, the RMA, the Artillery Barracks, the free ferry, the RACS movement, the Great Harry. I could go on. This page, however, is all about who. It lists the people who have helped put Woolwich on the map. They come from a wide spectrum of human endeavour, from showbiz and sport to science and engineering to poetry and soldiering. A big thanks to those who’ve helped flesh out this page. I still have a few more to add, so keep those suggestions coming!
Arthur Edward Jeune Collins studied at the Royal Military Academy after passing his entrance exam in September 1901. A couple of years before he had set the record for the highest score ever in cricket. He made 628 not out over four afternoons, in 1899, when he was 13. His record remains unbroken. Collins never played first class cricket. He was killed in action in Ypres in 1914.
Michael Faraday, who discovered the laws of electrolysis and electromagnetic induction, among other things, was Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy from 1830-1851.
General Charles George Gordon was born in Woolwich on Jan. 28, 1833. He was educated at the Royal Military Academy and fought in China and Africa. He held the post of Governor General of the Sudan. Charlton Heston played him in the 1966 film Khartoum. General Gordon Square in Woolwich has become a focal point for local people and fairly buzzes during the warmer weather.
World champion bare knuckle boxer Tom Cribb (1781-1848) lived in Woolwich in later life, until he died at 66. He was buried in St. Mary’s churchyard off Woolwich Church Street and you can find his impressive memorial in the gardens there (pictured below). Tom Cribb Road is the main way into the Royal Woolwich Arsenal. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.
Metaphysical poet, Richard Lovelace, was born in Woolwich (probably, although some say Holland but boo to them) in 1618. His poem “To Althea, From Prison” features the well-known lines “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” Lovelace Green in Eltham was named after him.
Mechanical engineer Henry Maudslay was born in Woolwich on Aug. 22, 1771, on the west side of Beresford Square. The house is no longer there, but English Heritage believes it would have stood close to where Iceland is now. He started working at the Arsenal when he was 12, filling cartridges. He pioneered many aspects of mechanical engineering now used globally, including the first industrial screw-cutting lathe. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Woolwich.
Olinthus Gregory (1774-1841) was a maths teacher at the Royal Military Academy from 1802 to 1838. He was one of the founders of the Royal Astronomical Society. While in Woolwich he carried out experiments to calculate the velocity of sound using mortars, guns and muskets. He came close to calculating it correctly. He died at his home on Woolwich Common in 1841.
Louis Napoleon, Prince Imperial (1856-79), the only child of Napoleon III, studied at the Royal Military Academy while in exile from France and came 17th in his class. Earlier on he had fled from France with the Imperial family; they ended up living in Chislehurst in Kent. He was killed during the Anglo-Zulu War and his remains were brought back to England. He is buried in Chislehurst.
The original white-faced pantomime clown, Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) retired to Woolwich after a stellar career on the stage to live in George Street and then in Prospect Row. He lived in Woolwich with his wife and their alcoholic son. After his wife’s death, he returned to North London and died in Islington in 1837. Although he died in relative obscurity, he had been the most popular entertainer of his day. Charles Dickens edited the clown’s memoirs.
Charles Hutton was Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Military Academy from 1773 to 1807. He calculated the density of the earth from Nevil Maskelyne’s observations on the Scottish mountain, Schiehallion. He was a prolific author. His Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary, a valuable contribution to scientific biography, was published in 1795. In 1779 was apppointed foreign secretary of the Royal Society before resigning in 1783 after a run-in with Sir Joseph Banks. Hutton is buried in Charlton
George Landmann was born in Woolwich in 1779 and went to the Royal Military Academy. He was engineer of the London and Greenwich Railway (among many other projects). The London and Greenwich was the world’s first suburban passenger railway.
Frederick Augustus Abel (1827-1902) was a lecturer in chemistry at the Royal Military Academy (1854-1888), then Ordnance Chemist and Director of the Chemical Section of the War Department at the Arsenal. He was a pioneer in the chemistry of explosives, particularly gun cotton.
William Congreve worked at the Arsenal and it was there that he first demonstrated his solid fuel rockets in 1805. The Congreve Rocket was used extensively during the Napoleonic Wars. Congreve also did the fireworks in London to celebrate peace in 1814 and for the coronation of George IV in 1821, so it wasn’t all about hurting people.
Paul Sandby was drawing master at the Academy from 1768 to 1799. He is regarded as the father of modern landscape painting in watercolours. His work hangs in galleries throughout the U.K. and globally.
Okay, a couple more recent ones…
Former Crystal Palace and Arsenal striker Ian Wright was born in Woolwich on November 3, 1963.
Glenn Tilbrook, lead singer and guitarist of Squeeze, was born in Woolwich on Aug. 31, 1957. He now has his own recording studio in Charlton.
Note: I put the word out on Twitter, asking for suggestions, and I got some beaut ones (thank you to those who got in touch). Some of them don’t feature in the above list because they were on the edges of Woolwich, and also because I’m too lazy to expand this list to take in a wider area. They include Kate Bush (born in Welling and went to school in Abbey Wood); champion snooker player Steve Davis (born in Plumstead); Boy George (Shooters Hill, when he was 11); and of course Bob Hope (born in Eltham). In 1878 Gladstone gave a 2-hour speech to constituents at the then roller skating rink at Herbert Park in Plumstead (now Eglinton School).