Kentish Independent, 2 April 1965

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Greater London – and half-a-century since shotgun marriages between metropolitan boroughs, urban districts and county boroughs formed today’s 32 London boroughs.

Even all those years on, you can still hear the occasional grumble about Greenwich being forced to merge with (and move to) Woolwich, or Deptford having to pitch in with Lewisham.

Even naming the boroughs proved problematic – the organisation sitting at Woolwich Town Hall could have been called the London Borough of Charlton as a compromise between the two squabbling sides, while Lewisham was nearly called “Ravensbourne”.

A few years back, Rob Powell from uploaded a scan of the Mercury supplement introducing the “new” Greenwich Council. I thought I’d head back down to the Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal to see what else was going on at the time.

The headline above shows how the Mercury’s rival, the Woolwich-based Kentish Independent, headlined its coverage of the final meeting of Woolwich Council, which stretched out to Plumstead, Shooters Hill, Abbey Wood, Eltham and Lee. The good burghers of Woolwich were sat in the same town hall that the current Greenwich Council sits in today. Meanwhile, the Mercury noted a “gift night spectacular”.

Mercury, 2 April 1965

Back in the KI, the Gallery column noted all was gloom at the old Greenwich Town Hall on Royal Hill…

Kentish Independent, 2 April 1965

…although none of it was showing when the old Greenwich Council bowed out, the Mercury noted.

Mercury, 2 April 1965

A mile or two away on New Cross Road, the old Deptford Council – which also took in New Cross and Brockley – was also turning out the lights, sent down to Catford to merge with Lewisham.

“Mercury Man” was sorry to see the old borough go, mourning “an ability to present a public image which would make a publicity man suicidal”.

Mercury, 2 April 1965

Looking back at these misty-eyed reminiscences, it’s striking how closely the local press watched the local councils then. But there’s still a level of deference. The Kentish Independent still got excited over the new mayor of the London Borough of Greenwich. 50 years on, is anyone really that bothered now?

Kentish Indpendent

In the Mercury, the new Greenwich borough opened with a Labour rebellion over a “lodger tax” for council tenants. This was something the old Woolwich Council had done for years, yet had been resisted by Greenwich. In the end, a compromise saw the area covered by the old Greenwich borough let off the extra charges until 1966.

Mercury, 2 April 1965

Then another Woolwich habit got up Greenwich noses, as the new council managed to annoy traders on Royal Hill by cancelling their contracts in favour of shopping at the Co-op instead.

Mercury, 9 April 1965

One of the last decisions of the old Woolwich Council was a big headache for the new authority. In 1961, it’d decided to invest in an experimental automatic car park. The Autostacker was a spectacular failure. The last Woolwich Council meeting approved plans to knock it down.

Kentish Independent
Kentish Mercury

The new Greenwich Council had to deal with the fallout (before finally sending the bulldozers in).

Kentish Independent
Kentish Independent

What else was going on at the time? One Mercury front page from early 1965 bemoaned a labour shortage across south-east London – there were simply too many jobs and not enough people. Even its recruitment ads boasted of jobs for everybody. But in the Kentish Independent, the year opened with bad news for Plumstead’s Beasley Brewery – closing after a century of slaking SE18 thirsts.

Kentish Independent, January 1965

Signs of things to come on Plumstead Marshes were also apparent in the KI, as the new Greenwich Council sought to assert itself over plans for a new town on surplus Royal Arsenal land, which stretched onto Belvedere Marshes in the new borough of Bexley (and the old Kent district of Erith). The split was one of the issues that hobbled the new town – and it still does, half a century on.

This was three years before the first residents moved into what became known as Thamesmead.

Kentish Independent
Kentish Independent

The recent death of Winston Churchill had sent the country into mourning – but would a motorway bridge at Woolwich have been a fitting tribute?

Kentish Independent

Nevertheless, one part of the Ringways scheme – the Blackwall Tunnel southern approach – was causing aggravation in Blackheath and Kidbrooke.

On Blackheath’s Old Dover Road, traders awaiting new accommodation couldn’t wait to be rid of the old Greenwich Council as their colleagues in Woolwich had a more “go-ahead approach”.

Kentish Independent
Kentish Independent

London was changing in the 1960s. In the Mercury – whose coverage at the time stretched from Bermondsey and Camberwell to Abbey Wood – headlines discussed racism, with one reporting a magazine article which compared Lewisham to Alabama.

At the same time, this was what was in the Kentish Independent, reporting from what was then still Kent…

Kentish Independent

Within two decades, councillors from the new borough of Greenwich would have set up their own paper to challenge racism – but that’s a different story.

The old metropolitan boroughs had lasted 65 years – the new London boroughs have now notched up 50. Will the current boroughs outlast their predecessors, or are we due for another round of mergers and squabbles?

The days of Ken Livingstone wanting to take an axe to the current structure are gone. But we’re in an age of devolution – Greenwich joined boroughs north of the river to discuss this a few weeks back – and austerity, where sharing services is looked upon kindly.

So today’s councils may well be toasting today’s anniversary with some trepidation. The London Superborough of Greenwich & Lewisham, anyone?

12 replies on “50 years ago: Farewell Woolwich Council, ta-ta Deptford borough”

  1. I am tempted to say a thing or two. Probably shouldn’t. I moved to Greenwich after amalgamation because Alan had a job with that wonderful computer centre which you have quoted Tom Smith as praising. Set up by Greenwich Council, named after one of their officers, closed down when the Council moved to Woolwich – the first local government computer centre now demolished with never a word of regret …………… and ……… I used to hear it all over ‘They sold our Town Hall’ . There were (and are) some very real cultural differences. I wonder what Greenwich would be like now if its old Met. Borough had survived – and – if the issues raised at the EGRA meeting last night, and the responses to them, be the same

  2. Your word or two informative, Mary, as always. The cultural differences might be better accommodated if we had PR — no reason not to work for a collegial, civil balance, even if an uneasy one at times.
    Thanks for this post, Darryl. (Autostacker: showing the way for foot-tunnel lifts?)

  3. Nice collection of clippings. Many thanks for the Beasley’s link. What I have always wondered about Deptford Council meetings is how the public managed to hear a word that councillors said. The chamber is a beautiful room, but the acoustics are terrible.

  4. Very interesting. Woolwich often comes up as an anomaly amongst metropolitan parishes. It got added to the census as part of ‘London’ in 1840 which is why it became part of the Metropolitan Board of Works area, then County of London, then Inner London. However, during the MBW era it had local government structures of a provincial town/suburb (a local board of health instead of a vestry or board of works). I read something about labour pay rates (I think right up into the metropolitan borough era) and the local pay rates were well below the London average. So on an economic level it was somewhat detached from London as a whole.

  5. Great article on the local history of Greenwich/Woolwich and Lewisham
    Having only been living in the Greenwich/Lewisham area for the last year or so I have found the boundaries between the two boroughs very interesting when walking around. I could not believe that Greenwich and Lewisham were not part of the same Borough.
    Some parts of Deptford are now in Greenwich, and I know that other areas of Deptford have been from Greenwich to Lewisham since 1965. I can’t understand how the vast majority of Blackheath comes under Lewisham, whilst why Greenwich extends almost into Lewisham Town Centre with the Morden Mount Estate which seems odd to me. I think the Borough borders should be looked at again. Of course any merged Greenwich/Lewisham Borough would lose other areas, probably by extending the Bexley boundary further along towards Shooters Hill and in the other directions towards Eltham & Plumstead. Also having been on Thamesmead a couple of times and looked at the map the Bexley and Greenwich boundaries don’t make any sense at all. Similarly Lewisham should really lose the area it has around St Norbett Way around Honour Oak/Nunhead which should really been under Southwark Council similarly the areas around Grove Park and Downham should be under Bromley Council.

  6. @Steve Chambers
    Woolwich was an anomaly, according to the wikipedia page for the London Government Act 1899 the civil parish of Woolwich adopted the relevant legislation to establish a local board in 1852 some three years before the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works.

    @Mark Bunn
    When the Metropolitan Boroughs were created in 1900 the civil parish of Deptford St Paul became the Metropolitan Borough of Deptford and the civil parish of Deptford St Nicholas became part of the Metroplitan Borough of Greenwich. (This followed the division of the old Greenwich Parliamentary seat into separate Deptford and Greenwich seats in 1885) The boundary between the two civil parishes dated from c1730 when St Paul’s church was consecrated and the new parish of Deptford St Paul created.

    In 1994 Convoys Wharf, Dacca Street and some other bits of Greenwich were transferred to Lewisham, but a significant chunk of land west of Deptford Creek remains in RB Greenwich.

  7. Please, never merge Greenwich and Lewisham. Lewisham does mostly a better job than Greenwich looking after it’s area. I do think that anything west of Deptford Creek should be in the LB of Lewisham THOUGH.

  8. I think Deptford Creek should be the boundary it is up from Deptford Bridge , and by the penny bridge, but for some reason the boundary moves to give Greenwich a large bit of area west of the creek including the bottom end of Deptford High Street which doesn’t make any sense to me.
    Also think Lewisham should get the Estate around Elverson Road, were one side of the street is in Lewisham and the other Greenwich. Also noticed yesterday two Greenwich bins within Lewisham, next to a Lewisham bin, maybe they are trying to annexe areas of Lewisham!!

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