|On Saturday 30 January, a cold but clear winter’s day, twelve people from boroughs north and south of the river gathered at Woolwich to pray on the Ferry and in the Foot Tunnel.
The Thames Gateway Prayernet exists to bring before God lands from the Estuary and the North Sea to the heart of the nation, London, our capital city.
The Woolwich Ferry (left) is an ancient crossing over the Thames. The service links Woolwich in the London 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. Its origins can be traced back to the 1300s when Woolwich was a fishing village and the town had the right to run a ferry. The ferry ran between Woolwich on the north shore and Warren Lane on the south shore.
The earliest references to the ferry can be found in the state papers of 1308, when the waterman who ran it, William de Wicton, sold his business and house to William atte Halle, for £10.00. In 1320 the ferry was sold again for 100 silver marks.
There is no further mention of the ferry during the years that Woolwich rose to prominence as a royal dockyard under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Later, as London expanded, the movement of troops and supplies became a problem. In 1810 the army established its own ferry that ran from Woolwich Arsenal to Duvals Wharf.
The free ferry service was instigated by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, known as The Sewer King (and also, incidentally, great-great-grandfather of Peter ‘Baz’ Bazalgette of Big Brother and Changing Rooms fame). The ferry was officially opened on 23 March 1889.
The ferry carries more than one million vehicles and 2.5 million passengers each year. The passenger deck is beneath the vehicle deck, and on crossings nowadays the very substantial labyrinthine accommodation provided, both seated and standing, is virtually empty. This is where we gathered to pray for seven crossings of the river (left).
We sang, read scripture and made declarations over the Thames. We prayed for the ferry and her crew. We poured oil into the river for the healing of divided and hurt communities, and threw in mustard seeds that faith might grow on both banks. Jane Almond threw salt into the river, just as Elisha threw in the salt to heal the waters in 2 Kings 2.21. The Rev Edward Wright blew his shofar across the waters (see above).
Liz Pooley brought information about the prison hulk stationed temporarily on the north side of the Thames. The hulk was positioned there because of unrest and escape plotting among the convicts – escapes to the more populous Woolwich waterfront were more common than to the north shore, and there was fear of the Essex marshes, long thought to be the source of pestilence and mysterious death.
The hulk existed because in 1775 the War of American Independence ended Great Britain’s century-and-a-half-old practice of regularly transporting criminal offenders to the North American colonies. William Eden, the Home Office secretary to whose lot it fell to deal with the resulting crisis, estimated that alternative accommodations would be needed each year for about a thousand convicts, far more than could be crammed into the already overcrowded jails of England. A decision was taken to retain in English waters certain of the ships engaged in the convict transportation, and to utilise them there as places of confinement. The arrangement was viewed as a temporary expedient, and thus it was first authorised by Parliament for only two years. It was an arrangement that had no defenders. Conservatives condemned it because of the likelihood of its exacerbating the criminality of offenders. Liberals agreed and furthermore deplored its inhumanity. But in spite of these constantly renewed expressions of chagrin from all quarters, it was an arrangement that endured for eighty years. We called to God for mercy for this inhumane period.
After to-ing and fro-ing, we ended up on the North Woolwich side, meeting up with Matthew Porter from Transform Newham, sporting a large gold flag.
Administratively, North Woolwich was part of Kent at least since the Norman Conquest when one of William the Conqueror’s lords, Hamon, was granted land on both sides of the Thames at this spot, probably to enable him to enjoy the taxes from cross-river traffic.
It lay in the parish of Woolwich and later the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich, but was absorbed into the London Borough of Newham in 1965 when Woolwich south of the Thames became part of the London Borough of Greenwich. It is unique in Outer London in being part of the County of London before 1965. The population peaked just before the First World War, and reduced substantially in the Second World War when it was heavily bombed.
Matthew took us down onto the Capital Ring walkway and led us in prayer. Led by Edward, the south brought blessings to the north. We draped Matthew and his colleague from Transform Newham, Hannah Watherston, with the gold flag, as this was done. This represented a new mantle being taken up. Liz poured oil into the soil of Newham (left), and Edward blew his shofar again. Together we declared the Gatekeepers’ Psalm (24:7-10) over the river. Linda Holt read Isaiah 62:4-5 and Jane read out verses 6-7 (see below).
We then went into the Woolwich Foot Tunnel (right). This tunnel was designed by Irish engineer Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice and built by Walter Scott & Middleton for London County Council and opened by Lord Cheylesmore, Chairman of the LCC, on Saturday, 26 October, 1912.
In many respects it is very similar to the nearby Greenwich foot tunnel – where the Thames Gateway Prayernet are meeting next time – being accessed by lifts and stairs from buildings featuring glass domes. This tunnel is 504 metres long.
We walked to the half way point where the boroughs of Greenwich (soon to be ‘Royal’ Greenwich) and Newham meet, 69ft under the high tide above (left), and Edward led us in a hymn, our combined voices reverberating along the white-tiled tunnel. Edward again blew the shofar, which also echoed loudly. We held hands in a long line straddling the boundary as a sign of unity and healing. The Spirit fell and a number of us were affected, laughing and praising the Lord.
We emerged at Woolwich on the south bank (right). The name Woolwich derives from the Anglo-Saxon name, “trading place for wool”, the wic bit meaning “village”. Woolwich has been inhabited since at least the Iron Age, and a Roman fort was found in the current Riverside park.
Woolwich remained a small Kentish village until it started to become a leading military and industrial town. It was home to the Woolwich Dockyard (founded in 1512), the Royal Arsenal (dating back to 1471), the Royal Military Academy (1741) and the Royal Horse Artillery (1793); the town still retains an army base at the Royal Artillery Barracks (although it is no longer the Royal Artillery but infantry soldiers who are based in Woolwich), and the Royal Artillery Museum, Firepower. Diarist Samuel Pepys lodged in Woolwich during 1665 to escape the Great Plague of London.
In 1889, Woolwich became part of London, with the formation of London County Council. In 1900 Woolwich, Eltham and Plumstead became the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich until boundary changes in 1965 created the current London Borough of Greenwich.
We all crowded on a small raised platform next to the river, and Matthew symbolically opened the gate that was at one end. Instantly, some of us felt the Spirit. Jane poured oil into the gaps between the paving stones representing the Christ-life that grows freely through the cracks between the dull monotony of the heavy slabs of religion (left). This was followed by prayer at the nearby church of St Mary’s where there’s a large statue of a lion erected as a memorial to one Thomas Cribb, who was a world champion bare-knuckle boxer in Victorian times.
Afterwards, Jane described the day as, “Importantly relational and connective… prophetically significant… bridge building…”
The Thames Gateway Prayernet next meet to pray at the Greenwich Foot Tunnel on Saturday 27 March.
Transformation Thurrock is a partner with and co-facilitator of the Thames Gateway Prayernet and encourages creative prophetic intercessors to be a part of these very serious but immensely fun ‘prayer actions’.
Written with help from Liz Pooley (Dartford), Jane Almond (Havering) and Matthew Porter (Transform Newham). Info sources: Wikipedia, Wapedia (Thomas Cribb), Greenwich Borough website and http://intolerablehulks.com/intro.html.
For more details on the TGP, contact Tim Harrold on firstname.lastname@example.org.