Silvertown & North Woolwich

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Exploring London takes you to places not often associated with a metropolis. When I dreamt of moving to the city, I hadn’t thought about its extremities.

Silvertown and North Woolwich were familiar, seen unwittingly in television and films over decades. An impromptu visit here had piqued my curiosity in the history of the landscape. How was an airport built in peoples back gardens? Why were factories, pumping out their pungent array of scents, positioned so closely to homes?

The sprawling asphalt of the Lower Lea Crossing and North Woolwich Road leads into the rapidly changing Silvertown. Spillers Mill looms over the scene, with the carcass of yesterday’s industry dwarfed by expensive tower blocks. Planning reveals the desire to flatten and repurpose much of this land. Existing homes will be lost as shopping centres, food outlets and offices take their place. Canary Wharf has threatened to encroach further east for some time, with wealthy city-types in dire need of homes that can sustain their demands for luxury.

Millennium Mills, once belonging to Spillers Flour Company, awaiting redevelopment

First impressions of Silvertown are negative. It’s an inhospitable place. Sharing similarities to the cold concrete of the bloc. The road cuts through a divided landscape. One side grows skyward; the Thames Barrier can be viewed from a manicured garden, lined with privet hedgerows. The adjacent side lies destitute with George’s Diner barricaded behind boards and fencing (a quirk of the diner is that is was run by Brian, not George). The cafe has lay barren since 2005, a profitable piece of real estate, not yet ripe for redevelopment opportunity.

After fragmenting at Canning Town, the southern bound branch of the DLR speeds toward North Woolwich. The factories of Tate & Lyle are embedded in the community here, once offering up thousands of jobs to local people. Present here for over 140 years, from when Henry Tate introduced the sugar cube to the masses. This area was once littered with factories, companies such as British Oil, Cake Mills and Henley’s Cable Works all offered employment; it was Tate & Lyle that proved most desirable for prospective employees. Mechanisation forced redundancy, which in turn contributed to the relocation of families. Now the presence of the Thames Refinery is merely visible, a reminder of a once tightly woven community fabric.

Visitors to E16 comment on the various smells that protrude from many of the local factories. As the sugar is cooked, heated into the famous syrups of Tate & Lyle, the aroma swirls from the refinery. A gentle breeze from the Thames can engulf you with unpleasantness from a nearby animal rendering plant. Wind from the north forces the fumes of aircraft from City Airport upon you. North Woolwich and Silvertown are unique for this. Policies that were enacted to alleviate the smog of the 19th century deduced that factories shouldn’t be built in the city centre. The Harmful Trades Act of 1844 transformed Silvertown and North Woolwich from marshland, to a landscape of industry.

An evening in North Woolwich, close to charity 'Fight for Peace'

The cold concrete constant throughout, until you reach the Royal Victoria Gardens. A tiered green space with views toward Woolwich, complete with tennis courts, band stand and bowls club. Once a pleasure gardens, it later adopted a Victorian layout. Bombing during WWII left little of the garden’s vast history. The disused railway terminus building, that later became a railway museum, is abandoned.

King George V DLR station replaced the local train stations. The conurbation that arose here in the 1980s sought to rejuvenate the locality, following the closure of the docks. Complete with local shops, the redevelopment has done little to rid the characterisation of decline. The plaza development has aged poorly, though the local park, play area and allotment provides the community with a place to congregate.

There are no longer any local schools; with local families expected to send their children elsewhere in Newham. Thankfully, the charity Fight for Peace has adopted the responsibility of care that the council could not afford. The charity is a pillar of the community, creating opportunities for young people. Children and teenagers visit the centre to learn martial arts, but lessons continue into a classroom. Education and personal development are tenets of their mantra, as they strive to create skilled and rounded community members. For older service users, they learn valuable interview skills. Collaboration with City Airport has generated employment for a number of people from the scheme. The evidence, over 10 years of participation in North Woolwich, suggests they are doing appreciated work.

The changes to North Woolwich are impossible to forecast. Industrialisation in the 19th century put the region on the map as an economic hub. The decline created a vacuum in which local people had to leave. The area has been overlooked, with the community coming together to make the most of their circumstances. The emergence of expensive and unattainable property suggests that the processes of change are underway. Few can anticipate what this will mean for the people that call Silvertown and North Woolwich home.