WCPF: The Cultural History of Woolwich

As I continue my journey with Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair, I delve into the history of this fascinating corner of London to discover how the its social and cultural past resonates with the regeneration of the area today. 

By Ed Oliver

Woolwich finds itself on the bank of the Thames in the historic royal borough of Greenwich. For centuries its landscape has been dominated by docks, warehouses and factories, providing an incredible platform for cultural development. 

The town has a number of public sculptures: one of Roman origin, several statues and reliefs from the 19th and early 20th century, and a number of modern sculptures. An entrance at Woolwich Arsenal station features a large tiled mural by renowned contemporary artist, Michael Craig Martin. 

Nick Richards, Thames Barrier. Etching (Thames-Side Print Studios)

Nick Richards, Thames Barrier. Etching (Thames-Side Print Studios)

The Royal Dockyard was established by King Henry VIII in the 16th century and meant Woolwich subsequently evolved into a military garrison town. Its gun-wharf was expanded in the seventeenth century into what became the Royal Arsenal, a substantial weapons manufactory. In the 18th century the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the Corps of Royal Engineers were established in Woolwich, with both headquarters in the Arsenal. A Military Academy was set up there to educate prospective officers of these 'scientific' corps. By the 19th century the Royal Artillery had moved from the Arsenal to new barracks on the Common, soon followed by the Royal Military Academy. 

The monumental site comprises of a group of 18th-century buildings: the entrance gate, the Guardhouse and the ‘Clock House’ which housed the Dockyard offices. A pair of nineteenth- century docks remain, on the site of their sixteenth-century predecessors, and the later development of the Dockyard in the early Victorian period is represented in a group of buildings alongside the dockyard chimney, a prominent landmark on Woolwich Church Street. 

Further along the river, by the striking Thames Barrier, further 18th century buildings of the retired Woolwich Dockyard prove this corner of Greenwich Borough is an architectural gem.
Owing to the proliferation and decline of the Woolwich Dockyard, the complex is now one of London's largest concentrations of artists' studios. An untapped creative bed, this site house the Thames-Side Print Studios and Phramed picture framers who will both be exhibiting in November at the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair.

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