Woolwich is very old. It’s been settled since the Iron Age, before the Romans built Londinium. Its name suggests that in Anglo-Saxon times it was a trading place for wool.
Woolwich – including Eltham and Plumstead – was one of London’s original metropolitan boroughs. Officially therefore, it’s part of inner London, even though it goes right out into Zone 4. The old metropolitan borough also spanned the River to include North Woolwich on the other side. There’s been a ferry across the Thames there since at least the fourteenth century, but it didn’t carry cars back then, and it wasn’t free until 1889.
At the beggining of the sixteenth century, Henry VIII founded a dockyard in Woolwich to build a giant ship, mostly because he was jealous of one that the king of Scotland had. Launched in 1514, his ship was officially named the Henry Grace à Dieu (“Henry by the Grace of God”), but everyone called it the Great Harry.
Gradually Henry’s dockyard expanded and eventually became the Royal Arsenal. Arsenal Football Club was the works team before it moved up to Highbury in 1913. One year before that the Woolwich foot tunnel opened, although it’s hard to be sure because time in the tunnel is never actually certain. The Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich was founded in 1900, and in 1965 it amalgamated with the Borough of Greenwich, whose headquarters is now Woolwich Town Hall. But it lost North Woolwich, which became part of Newham instead.
Eltham and Plumstead were separate parishes which became part of the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich in 1900. Eltham Palace was in royal use by 1270, when Henry III was recorded as celebrating Christmas there. By the seventeenth century however it was getting a bit puritanical. In 1654 for example, seven Eltham parishioners were fined for playing cricket on the sabbath. In the nineteen-Os a teetotalling Scottish Unionist MP by the name of Archibald Corbett bought the Eltham Park Estate and had houses built on it as a suburban development, but he put a covenant on the area forbidding any pubs. Not a pint was served there until a change in the licensing laws allowed the Long Pond to open in 2014.
Unfortunately Eltham is still remembered most in London for the 1993 murder of eighteen-year-old Stephen Lawrence on Well Hall Road by a gang of racist thugs. One of the murderers was the son of a prominent local gangster with police connections, and the whole investigation was marred by apparent incompetence and institutional racism. The police even infiltrated the Lawrence family’s justice campaign in an attempt to smear them. Eltham has changed a lot since then, but this evil racist murder still casts a dark shadow over its name, nearly thirty years later.
In fact Stephen Lawrence was from neighbouring Plumstead, which first appears in the historical record back in 960 AD as four plough lands (around 500 acres) gifted by King Edgar the Peaceful to a Kentish convent. The origin of the name isn’t clear, but may refer to it being full of plum orchards. In the time of Edward the Confessor (ruled 1042–66), Plumstead was apparently worth a tenner. Through the Middle Ages, assorted kings, bishops and aristos either took it away from the convent to corruptly bestow on their cronies, or piously returned it to the holy institution like a bunch of do-gooders. Henry VIII put paid to all that in 1539 when he dissolved the monasteries and took it for himself. Plumstead was then a little rural village until the 1880s when it was built up with housing for workers at the Arsenal.
Talking of the Arsenal, notable natives of Woolwich include Ian Wright, as well as Culture Club’s Boy George, and the nineteenth-century general Charles Gordon (of Khartoum).