Woolwich Ferry
London River Services
The south terminal of the Woolwich Ferry
LocaleWoolwich, London
WaterwayRiver Thames
Transit typePassenger and vehicle ferry
OwnerLondon River Services
OperatorLondon River Services
Began operation23 March 1889 (1889-03-23)
No. of lines1
No. of vessels2
No. of terminals2
Daily ridership7,100
WebsiteOfficial website

The Woolwich Ferry is a free vehicle and pedestrian ferry across the River Thames in East London, connecting Woolwich on the south bank with North Woolwich on the north.[1] It is licensed and financed by London River Services, the maritime arm of Transport for London (TfL). Around two million passengers use the ferry each year.

A ferry has operated on the Thames at Woolwich since the 14th century, and commercial crossings operated intermittently until the mid-19th. The free service opened in 1889 after tolls were abolished on bridges to the west of London. Traffic increased in the 20th century because of the rise in motor vehicle traffic and it remained popular because of the lack of nearby bridges. Pedestrian use dropped after the construction of a parallel foot tunnel and the extension of the Docklands Light Railway to Woolwich Arsenal station. Alternatives such as the Thames Gateway Bridge and Gallions Reach Crossing have been proposed as replacements, but there are no plans to discontinue the Woolwich Ferry as long as there is demand.


The Woolwich Ferry route, connecting the North Circular and South Circular Roads. The Woolwich foot tunnel runs alongside the ferry and the Docklands Light Railway parallels the route from King George V to Woolwich Arsenal.

The service links Woolwich in the Royal Borough of Greenwich with North Woolwich in the London Borough of Newham. It also links two ends of the inner London orbital road routes: the North Circular and the South Circular.[2]

On weekdays, the ferry operates from 6.10 am until 8 pm with a two-boat service (10 minutes nominal interval between sailings); on Saturdays, from 6.10 am to 8 pm with a one-boat service (15 minutes nominal interval; the last south-to-north sailing is 15 minutes earlier at 7.45 pm); on Sundays, from 11.30 am to 7.30 pm with a one-boat service (last south-to-north sailing at 7.15 pm).[3] The ferries can carry heavy goods vehicles and other road traffic across the river, up to a maximum height of 4.7 metres (15 ft) and width of 3.5 metres (11 ft).[4] The service is free for all traffic; in 2012 Transport for London (TfL) estimated a subsidy cost of 76.5p per passenger.[5]

Nearest alternative crossings

The nearest alternative crossing for pedestrians is the Woolwich foot tunnel about 100 metres (110 yds) to the east.[6] A Docklands Light Railway (DLR) station, Woolwich Arsenal on the south side of the Thames, was opened in January 2009 as the new terminus of the London City Airport branch.[7] King George V DLR station, on the opposite side of the river, is close to the north ferry dock.

The nearest vehicle alternatives are the Blackwall Tunnel about two miles (3 km) upstream to the west, or the Dartford Crossing around ten miles (16 km) downstream to the east. Both tunnels have height restrictions for heavy goods vehicles, and users of the Dartford Crossing incur toll charges.[8][9]


Early services

There has been a connection across the Thames between what is now Old Woolwich and what would later be North Woolwich since the Norman Conquest. The area was mentioned in Domesday Book as 63 acres (25 ha) belonging to Hamon, the dapifer (steward), "which belong to (pertinent in) Woolwich"; the "pertinent" here refers to the portion of land north of the Thames yet also part of the county of Kent.[10] State papers in 1308 show that a service was running between North Woolwich and Warren Lane. That year, William de Wicton sold the business to William atte Halle for £10. The ferry was subsequently sold in 1320 for 100 silver marks.[11]

Cross-river traffic increased following the establishment of the Royal Arsenal in 1671.[12] To enable movement of troops and supplies, the army established its own ferry in 1810.[13] The following year an Act of Parliament established a commercial ferry company,[14] but it was dissolved in 1844.[13] In 1846, the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway extended its lines to include a Thames wharf branch; eventually three steam ferries operated, but they proved inadequate to meet the growing demand. In October 1880, a public meeting was held in Woolwich to discuss setting up a locally run steam-ferry service, but the cost was seen as prohibitive.[13]

Following the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had taken over toll bridges in west London and opened them to free public use, it was suggested that the board should fund a free crossing of the Thames in east London.[13] Proposals were made to provide services at Woolwich and further upstream at Greenwich, but the latter plan was abandoned.[15] In 1884 the board agreed to provide two steam-powered ferries, each costing £10,650, and asked chief engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette to lead design and construction.[16] In September 1887 Messrs Mowlem and company were awarded contracts valued at £54,900 to build approaches, bridges and pontoons.[14][17]

Modern service

The service was officially opened on 23 March 1889,[18] with the paddle steamer Gordon. Two days before the first service, the Metropolitan Board of Works was replaced by the London County Council (LCC), and the opening ceremony was conducted by Lord Rosebery instead of the expected Bazalgette. The sister vessel Duncan was introduced on 20 April.[6]

By the end of the 1920s, the rise in motor traffic had put pressure on the ferry's capacity. A proposed bridge between Shooter's Hill and East Ham was rejected as too obvious a target for wartime bombings, and a third vessel was introduced instead.[19] Because of the lack of a fixed crossing, the Thames became a psychological barrier for those living in the East End of London, who could only use a limited number of routes to cross the river, including the Woolwich Ferry.[20] The lack of a suitable alternative route was instrumental in creating plans for what eventually became the Dartford Crossing further downstream.[19][21]

Traffic queueing for the Woolwich Ferry in 1955. The modernisation of the roll-on/roll-off service in 1963 reduced waiting times.

By the 1950s it was quicker for ferry traffic to divert via the Blackwall Tunnel even with all three vessels operating at full capacity.[22] In April 1963, the paddle steamers were replaced and the ferry service upgraded to a more modern roll-on/roll-off model,[18] reducing waiting times on the approach roads.[23] The LCC continued to operate the ferry until it was replaced by the Greater London Council (GLC) on 31 March 1965. In 1964, Marples Ridgway started building the current reinforced concrete terminals, which can operate over a 30 feet (9.1 m) tidal range.[6] The current terminals were opened in 1966.[24]

After the abolition of the GLC in 1986, the responsibility for operating the service was transferred to the Secretary of State for Transport, who contracted the then London Borough of Greenwich to run the service.[25] Asset ownership and operating rights were subsequently transferred to Transport for London (TfL) on the establishment of the Greater London Authority,[26] but the London Borough of Greenwich continued to operate the ferry on behalf of TfL.[27]

In March 2008, the London Borough of Greenwich gave TfL notice that it would cease operating the service from 30 September 2008. On 12 September TfL announced that the outsourcing group Serco would take over the operation of the service from 1 October 2008; the contract ran initially until 31 March 2010.[28] Control of the crossing passed from Serco to Briggs Marine, which was expanding into public passenger services, in December 2012. The company was awarded a £50 million seven-year contract, which began in April 2013.[29]

In 2014, TfL began an upgrade of the ferry service, starting by refurbishing the piers and in 2016 ordering two new boats to replace the existing vessels that were nearing the end of their working life.[30][31] In early 2017, it was announced that the new ferries were being built by Polish firm Remontowa to a design by LMG Marin.[32] The diesel-electric hybrid vessels have 210 metres (690 ft) of space for road vehicles over several lanes and dedicated cyclist accommodation. The vessels are licensed to carry 150 passengers segregated from road traffic.[32] Continuing the tradition of naming the ferries after local people, it was announced in June 2017 that the two new vessels would be named after Dame Vera Lynn, a singer and entertainer from nearby East Ham, and Ben Woollacott, the 19-year-old deckhand on the Woolwich Ferry who drowned after being dragged overboard in a mooring accident in 2011.[33]

In October 2018, the Woolwich Ferry was suspended for four months in order to undertake major repair work for the piers, and the existing vessels were taken out of service.[34] The foot tunnel remained open.[35] The ferry service resumed on 1 February 2019.[36]

Following expiry of Briggs Marine's contract in December 2020, the service is now run by London River Services.[37] Under TfL-owned London River Services’ stewardship, services on the route have been slashed with operating hours for the ferry reduced to end at 7pm weekdays rather than 10pm. In addition, only one of the two new ferries has been in service since 2020, with TfL citing staffing challenges as the reason for the roughly 70% reduction in capacity.


On 3 August 2011, 19-year-old ferry worker Ben Woollacott died after falling off the boat into the River Thames.[38] The MAIB report published in August 2012 blamed "unseamanlike working practices" during the unmooring operation for the death.[39] When two new ships were bought to update the service in 2018, one was named after him.[40]


Traffic boarding the James Newman. The ferry service is important for HGVs owing to restrictions in the Blackwall Tunnel and northbound Dartford Crossing.

The first ferries were the side-loading paddle steamers Gordon, Duncan and Hutton, named after General Gordon of Khartoum, Colonel Francis Duncan MP and Professor Charles Hutton. Each was powered by a condensing engine manufactured by John Penn and Sons of Greenwich, producing 100 nominal horsepower.[41]

The initial fleet was eventually replaced, starting in 1923 with The Squire (named after William Squires, a former mayor of Woolwich), and in 1930 with the Will Crooks (Crooks was Labour MP for Woolwich, 1903–21) and the John Benn (Benn was a member of the London County Council, Liberal MP for St George—which included Wapping—and grandfather of Tony Benn).[41]

Three vessels were built in Dundee in 1963 by the Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Company to replace the paddle steamers, and were each named after prominent local politicians: James Newman (mayor of Woolwich, 1923–25), John Burns, and Ernest Bevin. These ferries featured Voith Schneider propulsion systems for manoeuvrability. A cycloidal propeller was fitted centrally at either end, each driven by a 500bhp 6-cylinder Mirrlees Blackstone diesel engine.[23][41] Transport for London introduced an Art On The River scheme in 2014, showing decorative artwork on the ferry vessels.[42] These vessels ceased operation on 5 October 2018, after which service was suspended for four months and the ferries sold for demolition.[35]

Two new vessels, the Ben Woollacott and the Dame Vera Lynn, were delivered from the Remontowa shipyard in Gdańsk, Poland, to replace the previous fleet in October 2018.[35][43][44] The new vessels entered service on 1 February 2019.[36] They have suffered from numerous technical issues resulting in closures and service reductions, with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan apologising in November 2019 and stating the new ferries "aren't good enough".[45][46]

Passenger numbers

AEC Regent III RT bus embarking on the ferry in 1979

The ferry typically carries about two million passengers a year;[5] occupants of vehicles (including drivers) are counted as passengers.[47] In 2012 the ferry carried around 20,000 vehicles and 50,000 passengers weekly.[29]

At all times of day, but particularly at peak hours, it is common for vehicles to have to queue beyond the next ferry departure. Various improvements have been made to the vehicle queueing arrangements over the years, especially to avoid impacting local traffic.[48]

For foot passengers, bus services connect to both terminals. There is a small bus station on the north side,[49] but some cross-river foot passengers take the foot tunnel instead. About 300 foot passengers used the ferry daily between 1983 and 1985.[50] Further competition arrived in 2009 with the extension to Woolwich of the Docklands Light Railway, which crosses under the river to the east of the crossing and the tunnel, and has led to a reduction in the number of foot passengers using the ferry.[7]


The ferry service provides one of the few road crossings of the Thames east of the City of London.[51] As long as there is a demand for a vehicle ferry it is unlikely to be discontinued, and doing so would require changing the Metropolitan Board of Works (Various Powers) Act 1885.[48]

Planning applications were submitted for a new bridge, the Thames Gateway Bridge, close to the Woolwich Ferry, in 2004 although the project was cancelled in 2008.[52] In 2012, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced the Gallions Reach Crossing, a replacement ferry service running further east from Beckton to Thamesmead which was expected to open in 2017.[53] This did not occur and has been replaced with proposals for either a new bridge or tunnel in the area.[51][52] TfL planning director Richard de Cani has said that the ferry will continue to operate as long as there are no alternatives, and there are no current plans to discontinue the service.[54]

Tolls cannot be levied on the ferry without changing the 1885 Act of Parliament. However, it is possible that the service may eventually be tolled in conjunction with other projects.[55]

Media appearances

The Woolwich ferry has made several appearances on TV and film. The John Benn is seen being destroyed by the titular monster in the film Behemoth, the Sea Monster. A detailed scale model is used to interact with a model of the monster's head, which capsizes the ship in the Thames.[56]

See also



  1. ^ "Woolwich Free Ferry timetable". Transport for London. Archived from the original on 10 March 2015. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
  2. ^ East London, Billericay & Gravesend (Map). 1:50,000. Ordnance Survey.
  3. ^ "Ferry Services – Woolwich Ferry". Royal Borough of Greenwich website. Royal Borough of Greenwich. April 2013. Retrieved 23 August 2013.
  4. ^ "Woolwich Free Ferry". Transport for London. Retrieved 25 May 2014.
  5. ^ a b "Letter from Transport for London to the London Assembly" (PDF). Transport for London. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  6. ^ a b c Smith 2001, p. 12.
  7. ^ a b "Mayor unveils DLR Woolwich Arsenal station". Transport for London. 12 January 2009. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  8. ^ "Woolwich Ferry update". Transport for London. 6 March 2014. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  9. ^ "Dartford Crossing improvements: Advice for drivers of goods vehicles and fleet managers" (PDF). Highways Agency: 3. Retrieved 3 March 2015. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. ^ "North Woolwich – origins". The Newham Story. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  11. ^ "History of the Woolwich Ferry". Greenwich Borough Council. Retrieved 22 October 2014.
  12. ^ Carmona, Matthew; Wunderlich, Filipa Matos (2013). Capital Spaces: The Multiple Complex Public Spaces of a Global City. Routledge. p. 177. ISBN 978-1-136-31196-3.
  13. ^ a b c d Payne, D. J. "The History of the Woolwich Free Ferry". Plumstead Stories, including Woolwich and district. Retrieved 27 August 2012.
  14. ^ a b Smith 2001, p. 11.
  15. ^ "The Metropolitan Board of Works – Thames Crossings". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 12 April 1886. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  16. ^ Smith 2001, pp. 11–12.
  17. ^ "Free ferry agreed". History of the Woolwich Ferry. Royal Borough of Greenwich. Retrieved 27 August 2012.
  18. ^ a b Weinreb, Ben; Hibbert, Christopher (1993). The London Encyclopaedia (Rev. ed.). London: PaperMac. p. 999. ISBN 0333576888. OCLC 28963301.
  19. ^ a b "Woolwich ferry". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 6 November 1929. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  20. ^ Webb 2011, p. 16.
  21. ^ "Dartford and Purfleet Thames Tunnel bill". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 10 March 1930. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  22. ^ "Roads Programme". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 22 July 1957. Archived from the original on 28 December 2018. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  23. ^ a b Brooke, Mike (22 April 2013). "Woolwich Ferry marks 50 years of drive-on, drive-off diesel vessels". The Docklands & East London Advertiser. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  24. ^ "Woolwich Ferry (Terminals)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 22 November 1966. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  25. ^ "Woolwich Ferry". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 13 July 1987. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  26. ^ "The Woolwich Ferry Order 2000" (PDF). Greater London Authority. 12 April 2000. Retrieved 9 March 2021.
  27. ^ "Greater London Authority Bill". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 5 July 1999. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  28. ^ "Transport for London appoints Serco to operate the Woolwich Ferry service". Transport for London. 12 September 2008. Archived from the original on 30 September 2008.
  29. ^ a b "Briggs Marine secures Woolwich Ferry service contract". BBC News website. BBC News. 13 December 2012. Retrieved 23 August 2013.
  30. ^ "Essential refurbishment of Woolwich Ferry loading bridges". Transport for London. 22 June 2015. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  31. ^ Broadbent, Giles (8 March 2016). "Woolwich free ferry service gets a reprieve". The Wharf. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  32. ^ a b "Remontowa Shipbuilding to build hybrid ferries for London". Poland at Sea. 4 January 2017. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  33. ^ Broadbent, Giles (30 June 2017). "Names for new Woolwich ferries revealed". The Wharf. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  34. ^ Woolwich veterans retired Ships Monthly December 2018 page 10
  35. ^ a b c "Woolwich Ferry upgrade". Transport for London. Archived from the original on 6 October 2018. Retrieved 5 October 2018.
  36. ^ a b Morton, Sophie (1 February 2019). "Woolwich Ferry finally reopens - but with a limited service". Newham Recorder. Retrieved 16 February 2019.
  37. ^ Woolwich Ferry Take-Over Ships Monthly July 2020 page 11
  38. ^ "Woolwich Ferry crew member 'killed by propeller'". BBC News. 3 August 2011.
  39. ^ "Person overboard during unmooring operation on ro-ro passenger ferry Ernest Bevin with loss of 1 life". GOV.UK. Marine Accident Investigation Branch. p. 33. Retrieved 1 January 2019.
  40. ^ "Drowned deckhand given ferry name honour". BBC News. BBC. 6 July 2017. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
  41. ^ a b c Rogers, Robert. "Woolwich Ferry". The Newham Story. Archived from the original on 19 August 2014. Retrieved 27 August 2012.
  42. ^ "Look Out For Art On The River". The Londonist. 1 September 2014. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  43. ^ "Trio of ferries set sail for the last time in Woolwich". South London Press & Mercury. 3 October 2018. Retrieved 5 October 2018.
  44. ^ New Thames Pair Arrive Ships Monthly January 2019 page 11
  45. ^ "Sadiq Khan apologises after being accused of 'wasting' £20m on new Woolwich ferries". LBC. 7 November 2019. Retrieved 1 March 2023.
  46. ^ Chamberlain, Darryl (16 February 2023). "'Shoddy' Woolwich Ferry closed for two weeks for more upgrade works". 853. Retrieved 1 March 2023.
  47. ^ "TfL urged to improve 'half-hearted' approach to expanding river services". Greater London Authority. 24 February 2012. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  48. ^ a b "2013-03-25 London Waterways Commission presentation" (PDF). Transport for London. 25 March 2013. p. 8. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 August 2013. Retrieved 23 August 2013.
  49. ^ "North Woolwich Ferry towards Canning Town or Plaistow". Transport for London. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
  50. ^ "Woolwich Ferry". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 6 April 1987. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
  51. ^ a b Mair, Lucy (15 October 2014). "Four new London river crossings needed for growth, Adonis urges". Construction News. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  52. ^ a b Donovan, Tim (7 May 2013). "New east London Thames bridge to be reconsidered". BBC News. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  53. ^ "The Gallions Reach Ferry (a ferry between Thamesmead and Beckton)". Transport for London. 26 June 2013. Archived from the original on 6 November 2015. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  54. ^ Boyce, Russell (5 March 2015). "London's Ancient Ferry". Reuters. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
  55. ^ "Woolwich Ferry may be tolled as new river crossings proposed". Greenwich News. 10 July 2009. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  56. ^ Pettigrew, Neil (1999). The Stop-motion Filmography: A Critical Guide to 297 Features Using Puppet Animation. McFarland. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-786-40446-9.


51°29′46″N 0°03′43″E / 51.4961°N 0.062°E / 51.4961; 0.062