The area we now call the ‘Greenwich Peninsula’ is filling up with everything that is new and fresh and modern, writes Mary Mills…

There are not just lots of new flats plus the Dome but a community is emerging with exciting projects and lots of ideas. There is, for instance, a very active arts centre in the NOW Gallery, the gardening centre on the Jetty, the longer established Ecology Centre, and much, much more. It’s been a lot of hard work to change the area – because, quite honestly, it wasn’t always as nice as all that.

It was until quite recently known as Greenwich Marsh. Until about 1840 it was just marshy fields, ditches and reeds – except of course for the big Government gunpowder store which stood near where Enderby’s is now until the 1790s. Pieter van der Merwe wrote an excellent article in the last Greenwich Society newsletter about the gibbeted pirates on the riverside in the 18th century – so I think we can say it was a beautiful marshland area with lots of wildlife and a few rotting corpses.

In 1871 a man called Edward Ballard was commissioned to investigate bad smells along the riverside between Greenwich and Erith. He was a doctor who lived in Islington and became Medical Officer of Health for the Local Government Board. In his investigations into bad smells on the Thames he said that he had had complaints from the Commandant and the Medical Officer at the garrison in Woolwich – some distance from Greenwich of course, but smells tend to spread. There were two offensive works on the Peninsula, and several others in the immediate area.

Ballard visited both the relevant works on the Peninsula in 1870 – one was the Mockford Ordnance Manure Works. That had been established in 1870 and was on the riverside in the area where the Dome stands now. He said that stored on site was about 250 tons of waste from cloth manufacture – shoddy. There was also over 5,000 tons of guano – that’s bird droppings collected from sea bird nesting areas. He reported ‘the arrangements for preventing the escape of offensive effluvia are very imperfect’.

The other works was the older established Hills Manure and Vitriol Works. This was on the riverside adjacent to the Pilot Pub and Frank Hills had opened this works in the early 1840s. Like Mockford’s they stored waste material from cloth manufacture as well as waste leather, bones and bone ash, refuse from sugar bakeries, coprolites, and mineral phosphates and – of course – more bird droppings. Ballard did not add that they also processed vast amounts of waste materials from inner city gas works. He said the works had ‘no means for preventing the escape of offensive effluvia into the atmosphere.’

However, the two works on Greenwich marsh were nothing compared to what was on the other side of the river! On the north bank, directly opposite where the Millennium Village now stands, were seven works.

Four of them – Gibbs’ Oil of Vitriol and Manure Works, Odham’s Oil of Vitriol and Manure Works. Farmer’s Oil of Vitriol and Manure Works, and Shroeder and Company’s Oil of Vitriol and Manure Works – all stored the same mix of waste materials for making manure as Mockford and Hills. Ballard was very critical of them: ‘acid fumes were escaping a very powerful pungent odour pervaded the works … an empyreumatic odour …. no means whatever are in use to intercept these effluvia’. The others – Duncan’s Sugar Bakery and Walmsley’s Malt Roasting Works – were not so bad.

There were of course many other works further down river which Ballard visited. However the worst smells were from the skutch works in Erith – and though Erith is a long way from the Greenwich Peninsula the smells from there pervaded the barracks in Woolwich. Ballard said “the putrid sickening odour from them travels for many miles”. This is not the place to discuss skutch but it involved the manufacture of glue.

I suspect people think that the huge gasworks on the Peninsula was a cause of offensive smells but from the start it was a super efficient modern works conscious of the need to take care. However before the gas works was built the local authority in Greenwich asked them to build the smelliest part of the works, the purifying plant, at the north end of the site on Blackwall Point – where the Dome is now – so that smells were kept as far away from Greenwich as possible while wafting over the north bank of the river. At an enquiry into the building of the gas works there were submissions from neighbouring businesses. One was from the owners of a big dry dock who said smells from the gas works would damage the ‘high-class paint work’ they were doing, and another from another manure works, the Biphosphated Guano Company. The gas works were told they had to buy up these businesses.

In the 1930s The United Lampblack Works was in the centre of the Peninsula and residents took an action out against them. A Mr. Webb gave evidence. He had a ‘dining rooms’ at 159 Tunnel Avenue and complained of black specks coming from the factory. He described how he made a steak pudding and found it full of specks which looked like currants.

Most people who have lived in the area for more than 10 years will remember the smells from the sugar refinery which stood on Morden Wharf. Earlier the Mollassine factory had been nearby where pet food was made from molasses based mixture. The smell was known all along the river.

Then there was the glucose refinery. They had begun as Tunnel Glucose and then became Amylum and there was an adjacent distillery. Many people locally actually liked the smell which, they said, ‘reminds me of home’ while others found it revolting. Individual reactions to smell can be very different and it is also difficult to measure. I used to see a lot of reports on the efforts to sort all this out – plus the heroic efforts of the Greenwich Environmental Health Team. The factory was eventually taken over by Tate and Lyle, who sold it to Syriol – who closed it down. The unannounced demolition of the factory is another story.

With the closing of the refinery nasty smells on the Peninsula seem to have disappeared. It’s a bright and shiny world on the Peninsula now with most things new. No one wants bad smells near people’s homes – or anywhere really. Oh – and one day the traffic on the Tunnel Approach will get sorted.

The Greenwich Industrial History Society meets once a month.
All welcome. Please see
http://greenwichindustrialhistory.blogspot.com/ for current news and events.
• 12th March, Roger Williams Thames Fishing industry and Greenwich whitebait
• 16th April Richard Buchanan on Street Furniture
• 14th May Mike Clinch Underground Kent
• 11th June.Tracy Stringfelllow & Charlie MacKeith. Jacobean Vistas and public conveniences, Meeting will be in the Studio not the Bakehouse
• 15th October David Waller. Men of Iron – Maudslay
• 12th November Pieter Van der Merwe A Great Light in
the East (End): Gas and the Royalty Theatre, Stepney’ 1816 This will be held in the Studio not the Bakehouse

Meetings held at 7.30pm at the Old Bakehouse, Bennett Park, SE3 (rear of Age Exchange) There is no parking.