Last month, Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe announced he would move the borough’s mayor-making ceremony back to Woolwich Town Hall after 13 years of expensive ceremonies at the Old Royal Naval College. Historian and former councillor MARY MILLS argues the perfect venue is right under the council’s nose – the recently-squatted Borough Hall…
Once upon a time, a long time ago, Greenwich and Woolwich were separate places. I only moved to Greenwich in the late 1960s so I wasn’t around when the merger took place. This article is therefore about impressions rather than actual memories. I’m sure there are lots of people out there who will be delighted to correct me. Don’t let me stop you.
Greenwich and Woolwich had been set up as metropolitan boroughs in 1889. Woolwich was much larger than Greenwich and should probably have been a ‘municipal borough’ with a special status, like West Ham. Its Labour council had a strong ‘municipal’ ethos – everything should be done by the council and owned by the council.
Greenwich wasn’t like that – it was smaller but aware of its traditions as an important town in Kent. It was also strongly Labour and it was – well like Greenwich is – a bit arty with a population not frightened of having its say. Like all boroughs they looked at their neighbours with some suspicion and I rather think that in those days Greenwich saw itself as a bastion of respectability and culture lying between Woolwich and Deptford.
The cutting edge of architecture
In the late 1930s Greenwich built itself a new town hall. It already had a town hall – the building which is now West Greenwich House – but it was quite small and they wanted something modern. Woolwich and Deptford both had ornate and fancy town halls expensively built before the Great War but for its new town hall Greenwich was going for something plain, simple and extremely fashionable.
But in its day it was at the cutting edge of architecture, a ‘masterpiece’ the first modernist public building in the country. Poplar too was going for ‘modern’, including much art work – another building abandoned by its current borough. Greenwich seems to have decided to do the same in south London, with influences from contemporary Scandinavian and Dutch public buildings.
Greenwich commissioned 29-year-old Clifford Culpin to design its new town hall and the result has been seen as one of the UK’s most important civic buildings, To quote Pevsner it was “’the only town hall of any London borough to represent the style of our time adequately’. It included a tower from which the people of Greenwich could see the river and an extremely large public hall.
It was opened in 1939 and the next thing which happened was a world war.
‘That lot in Woolwich sold our town hall’
After the war things got back to normal and Greenwich was proud of its new town hall. But after just 20 years everything changed. In 1963 it was decided to shake up London government and unite neighbouring boroughs into larger units, seen as more ‘efficient’.
I understand rows proliferated all round the metropolitan area as neighbours were forcibly united and, in our area, Greenwich was united with Woolwich. I wasn’t around here then, and I don’t know what went on.
When I moved here in 1969 I was aware of council officers working in the Greenwich Town Hall, but they were soon to go. At some point in the early seventies it was decided to sell off most of the buildings – I don’t know the history of that decision – keeping only the huge Borough Hall and some associated halls and offices. I would be interested in hearing what happened from anyone who can remember. As a canvasser for the Labour Party on many Greenwich doorsteps you would find people complaining “that lot in Woolwich sold our town hall”.
In the 1970s the Borough Hall was used. I remember monthly Labour Party dances with a live band and hundreds of people. I saw Soft Machine there once and all sorts of other events. But this gradually stopped.
The office buildings which had been sold began to look very scruffy and had all sorts of occupants – do I really remember the University of Hull? The tower became inaccessible and I have never met anyone who has been up it and seen the river.
When I first went on the council in 2000 there were still some officers based in the area. I remember a senior planner telling me how good it was to be so near many of the buildings he had seen through planning and how walking around the area at lunch time he could monitor what was going on and any breaches in agreements. Then his department moved to Woolwich. At that tine Greenwich area planning meetings were held in Greenwich – although not in the Borough Hall. That stopped too.
Future plans ‘remain a mystery’
Many older Greenwich residents will not go to Woolwich – quote: “oh no dear, never go down there, mother wouldn’t let us go there in the War” – and for many new residents, particularly those living on the Peninsula, dragons live south and east of the Woolwich Road – quote: “somewhere called Westcombe Park, one of the most violent and dangerous parts of London”.
I don’t know what is happening to the Borough Hall now. It was let to Greenwich Dance Agency, but they have left and there have been squatters there who I am told are mainly disgruntled dance agency students. Perhaps we could be told. The future plans for the hall remain a mystery. Is it going to be turned into flats, like Hornsey?
Why doesn’t Greenwich Council use this magnificent hall for the purpose for which it was built? We are being told that they intend to stop using the, apparently unpopular and expensive, Painted Hall for civic events and ‘go back’ to Woolwich.
The Victoria Hall at Woolwich Town Hall takes a very limited number of people – if you want a lot of people to go to these events then why don’t we use the largest public hall in the borough? (Let’s exclude the Dome from this – it’s private, it would cost.)
Greenwich buildings are famous for being royal or naval – and I go on about our ignored industries – but Greenwich’s municipal tradition is also ignored. It had an architecturally ground-breaking town hall, most of which was sold off – but why does what is still in public ownership remain neglected by the people it was built for?
Greenwich – as I said – was an important town in Kent and it shouldn’t be treated like a suburb.
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