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 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 Greenwich.co.uk 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”.
Back in the KI, the Gallery column noted all was gloom at the old Greenwich Town Hall on Royal Hill…
…although none of it was showing when the old Greenwich Council bowed out, the Mercury noted.
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”.
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?
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.
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.
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.
The new Greenwich Council had to deal with the fallout (before finally sending the bulldozers in).
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.
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.
The recent death of Winston Churchill had sent the country into mourning – but would a motorway bridge at Woolwich have been a fitting tribute?
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”.
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…
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?