Murky Depths

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A look at long abandoned plans for a Woolwich shopping centre

1960s plan

As Wilko prepare to close their Woolwich branch in advance of a major redevelopment project, the town’s fortunes are again in the limelight. More changes at this spot reminded me of a long lost project that I’d heard and read snippets about in the past. A project that could have seen a new shopping precinct appear in the centre of Woolwich.

From the 1960s various projects to build a major mixed-use scheme around and on what is now General Gordon Square were proposed, consisting of shops, offices and a council centre.

Separate Powis Street plan from 1964

Shopping centre plans would have completely changed to look and feel of the centre of town – though various problems after nearly 20 years of arguments and demolished buildings, it never proceeded and was eventually dropped in 1983.

This view was not possible for decades – and wouldn’t have been if a centre built in the 1960s

On the week Elephant & Castle shopping centre shut for good, its notable that this plan could have rivalled it as one of the first purpose build, covered shopping centres in London.

Elephant and castle with block above shops

The proposed Woolwich shopping precinct embodied many tropes of 1960s design – raised walkways separating pedestrians from extensive parking and roads plus predominantly office blocks located above podiums and car parks.

Towers, walkways and car parking

Renders from the time are similar in design to numerous UK-wide projects.

Viscount House. Development would have extended over the road

The development would have covered General Gordon Square and extended over to where Wilkos and Viscount House currently stand – and what will become a new leisure centre.

Store is to close and building pulled down

The plan proved contentious and local people fought it for years – though Compulsory Purchase proceeded for years as buildings around General Gordon Square were razed. The London Country Council seemed less enamoured than the local authority, which was pushing for a new civic centre. Numerous problems arose and eventually the plan died in 1983.

Office blocks sprouted in the 1960s – but never really succeeded

A big hope for the scheme – and others in the 1960s – was to develop Woolwich as a major commercial centre to replace employment at the Royal Arsenal which was winding down alongside the closure of Siemens’ factory – among others locally. An example of this objective for new types of employment away from industry was Riverside House, built in 1962 and now in line for conversion to 200 flats, and the Morgan Grampian building built in 1972 – which is now converted to flats:

Morgan Grampian building beside Sainsburys

From the 1960s Woolwich progressively lost both employment and shopper appeal as Bromley, Lewisham and Bexleyheath all profited over subsequent decades.

Bexleyheath shopping centre beside pedestriansed street

Lewisham would see a shopping centre built in 1977 as did Bexleyheath in 1984. Lewisham had the Citibank tower attached. Bromley followed with a shopping mall in 1991. All pedestrianiased areas of the town centre and prospered to varying degrees.

Morgan Grampian building looms over Woolwich

Woolwich never saw its shopping centre of course. Lewisham did, and yet is similar in some respects to Woolwich. Woolwich lost Cuffs department store. Lewisham lost Army & Navy – though quite a few years after. These days everywhere is losing department store of course.

Maybe I’m wrong but it never felt like Lewisham declined quite so much as Woolwich perhaps due to the centre. It still retains High Street staples like H&M and Next.

Lewisham. Former RACs building refurbished – as in Woolwich

What could also have blocked Woolwich’s grand design 40-50 years ago was the “Brown ban” by government on office blocks in outer London around 1964. It wouldn’t last, but may have caused plans to halt for long enough to cause some occupants to think twice stalling the scheme.

The square today – and Churchill House aka Maritime House behind

Wrangles over the plot then saw a temporary public space created which was to become permanent. Viscount House, which now houses Wilko, was eventually built in the 1980s to the east. Pedestrianisation of Powis Street also occurred in that decade.

One of the last vestiges of 1980s pedestrianisation. Raised red brick planters used to line Powis Street

One notable argument over recent months is to move offices to outer London where people can hotdesk as and when needed. A case of history repeating – though of course underlying factors differ.

Shopping

Some blame pedestrianisation for Woolwich’s ills though contrasting fortunes in other centres across south east London highlight other factors.

The 1980s project which closed the road to cars wasn’t the first idea. Alongside a shopping precinct over General Gordon Square was this plan in 1964 for Powis Street:

Powis Street plan from 1964

No covered areas were built, though it’s notable how many buildings of this era included canopies:

Fixed canopy

These projects came and went. Some did occur such as Sainsburys opening on Monk Street. They were to be an anchor tenant at General Gordon Square – which was another factor in that scheme dying out.

Woolwich Sainsburys

This site is now part of Greenwich Council’s plans for redevelopment. The circle continues.

A lot of these projects that were built didn’t help. The management of Woolwich got a fair bit wrong down to a basic level. One of my very earliest memories as a child is of being terrified of the car park above Sainsbury’s. It’s still etched in my mind. The place stank of pee and had one of the worst lifts going. Utterly filthy and it creaked and wobbled as it descended to a grotty old area at street level. I nagged my parents to go anywhere else when they suggested Woolwich. At a fundamental level the town just wasn’t looked after.

Tiled building to be demolished under submitted plans

The town generally had – and still does – a very poor reputation among many even though in many ways it’s come a long way – though threats to remaining buildings and areas of merit are never far away.

Marks and Spencer upped and left for Charlton

Growing up in Abbey Wood estate meant many people I know should have gone to shop in Woolwich. It was close. But even on a less than wealthy estate, few I knew would ever go unless they had to. Bexleyheath would win out almost every time.

The town seemed to lack effective leadership who could get the basics right – and this still seems an issue over the past decade. Those in charge of Woolwich were often too eager to throw away buildings of merit as they latch do onto the next great regeneration project that would solve many ills.

Buildings on right were in line for demolition

Signs of change in the recent past include a Conservation Zone which finally recognises the huge amount of impressive and noteworthy buildings. It’s incredible to think that the art-deco co-op was in line for demolition as recently as 2008. And what for? A car park.

Long neglected.

Replacement buildings nearby were called a “pastiche” by the GLA and “the case has not yet been convincingly made for the loss of existing buildings on the site”.

Co op

In somewhat curious fashion, trees obscure some views of the art deco co op today unless up close. Clumsy positioning of trees seems to typify the town’s management.

Looking towards former co-op

Similar demolition was planned for the Officers’ House in 2016. A vehicle drop-off point was proposed. It was saved.

This would’ve been flattened if 2016 plans went ahead

Few of the office blocks built post-war succeeded in attracting private companies for very long though Morgan Grampian lasted until the 1990s – by which time Woolwich really was at a low ebb.

Office block and now housing. Shops in place of car park

Looking back on Woolwich in the 1990s and it was at a really low ebb. I recall going to watch Titanic at the Coronet. The town was dead on a Sunday. No people and no life. Sunday trading by then was popular in places like Bexleyheath. Charlton retail parks were also expanding and sucking life away; a problem that continues to this day.

Woolwich Equitable building. Buses used to pass close by – now you can have a coffee.

General Gordon Square was pretty bleak too. By the 2000s I walked through it daily to reach work. It was notable how few people used it as a space to relax and enjoy. The square was generally cluttered, dirty, messy and unloved including bus stops wedged in front of the Woolwich building providing narrow space for waiting passengers. It detracted from another great building.

Vastly improved

By 2009 a new scheme arrived which we have today, and is a great improvement. It’s extremely well used by many people.

Future

Woolwich is endlessly fascinating with such an ever-changing and varied history. You can see the former glories just about everywhere – though often a glance above shabby or vacant shopfronts is required.

Empty shops below handsome buildings

It has reinvented itself so many times – to varying degree of success – and is forever in flux. It is now. Just look at the projects on the drawing board across the entire town.

Mortgramit Square plans

Some threaten all the same mistakes. Some work with the best of what’s there.

In line for demolition

Many post-war attempts to lift the town didn’t work. Would a shopping centre have done so? It’s possible, though the square did prove a success and welcome green respite despite becoming unloved for some time. Architectural design of the proposed 1960s centre is of a type that barely lasted anywhere – so who knows what it would be now if built then.

Probably a ten-a-penny replacement development budged up against the Woolwich Equitable building – if that even remained.

Now we await future plans such as Spray Street. A new cinema was supposed to be a major selling point – but just today we see major trouble that Cineworld is fine.

Now we wait to see what Greenwich Council draw up for the Wilko site – almost 60 years after first proposing the ill-fated shopping precinct and office plan on that very site.

 

13 Comments

  1. Josh

    I go through Woolwich often, although only over the last few years. I think it has a lot of good aspects, and could quite easily be improved. I like the new development in the aresenal, lots of space and good pubs. I like the open square along the equitable, but the pathments along the other sides are often impassable due to bus stops and waiting passengers. I often wonder if it would be better to move some of this to a less central location? Or widen the pathments?

    I don’t think a shopping centre would have helped too much, but I may be wrong.

  2. That 60’s shopping centre if built would now be a sad, decaying, concrete eyesore that had been long abandoned.

    • Venus

      Woolwich centre should keep restore its heritage buildings and create an ambience with good eateries especially when Woolwich Works are to open. Greenwich Market is such a draw for tourists and visitors.

  3. Roy

    Greenwich like many other Councils always think that demolition is the 1st step to creating a user friendly town centre when in fact preservation of old buildings should be the 1st step…Creating entertainment…activities…a healthy atmosphere…would encourage shoppers and shops. Too many times Greenwich have rejected opportunities…18th Century thinking…we only have to look at aspects of Parking in Woolwich which is abysmal….the new,Tesco which is on the Architects List as an eyesore….these are the facts. Greenwich Control is stuffed with a Control Agenda not an opportunity attitude

  4. Gold Penny

    Thank God, the woolwich shopping centre was never built or it will be eyesore 20 years down the line like Lewisham, Catford Centre or Elephant

    • Lewisham shopping centre suffers from having been built from ugly red/brown bricks, BUT it is generally well maintained and until the pandemic, had a high occupancy rate and was beginning to attract different stores such as Deichmann’s. The centre has since lost H Samuel – part of a general shake up by the holding company – and Warren James.

  5. CDT

    Great article Murky which made for great reading and bought back so many memories of Woolwich.

    I agree I think the Woolwich Shopping Centre had been built in concerte it probably would have fallen in to a state of disrepair and left neglected similar to what has happened with other shopping centres around the UK.

    Although i do like shopping centres where you can shop out of the cold and rain
    However, for shopping centres to be successful they do need the right retailers in them to attract customers.

    I hate the Monk Street multi storey car park which is fithly smells and attracts anti social behaviour. I was hoping the plan briefly mentioned to knock the the multi storey car park and build a bigger better Sainsbury;s store with much needed new homes above would get the go ahead.

    Woolwich has been left to go in to decline since the late 1960’s and 1970’s and got much worse over the last 20 to 30 years.

  6. Bob

    Perhaps such a mall would be now ready for demolition and redevelopment, as Elephant and Castle’s one is: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/elephant-and-castle-shopping-centre-close-redevelopment-a4549776.html%3famp

  7. Marian tayloe

    I did love woolwich when it had a thriving market.now virtually in decline l have no reason to visit the town.was okay when it had m and s and bhs and littlewoods yearsgone by.

  8. Graham

    Woolwich as been in decline for the last 40 years and sadly comtinues to do so despite many new developments in the area.

    Woolwich Town Centre needs a new independent Management Team and major investment to bring Woolwich back to a thriving town centre again for retail and leisure to also help Woolwich night time economy in the future post covid-19.

    I am looking forward to the re-development of the Spray Street site.

    But what needs to be done now is tackling the anti social behaviour that as alsohelped to runin Woolwich as a place to visit,

  9. Pete

    Interesting read. Re: the cinema. It is a Picturehouse one. The nearest one is in Greenwich near the train station. Small a bit pricey for what it is and hardly anyone uses it because getting to the Odeon in Bugsby Way and Cineworld at the O2 is a short distance away.

    I was going to be involved with something the council was planning to do before the pandemic threw everything haywire.

    The idea as basically at a focus meeting which appears to be council employees none or few who live in Woolwich decided that the community was split. So a project was going to be started to bring the communities together.

    The split is people that live in the new homes on the Royal Arsenal Estate rarely interact with shoppers and people in Woolwich.
    The reason being…. The main road.

    What rubbish! There are crossings at the bottom of Burridge Road and by the gatehouse.
    Getting across the road is not difficult and it isnt an obstacle.

    People that live there rarely come into Woolwich as most have jobs, cars (so can just drive to Sainsburys, Asda or Morrisons) unless they want to go to Tesco. The shops in Woolwich sell tatt and aren’t worth going too. The market is dead and equally not worth bothering with.

    I walk into Woolwich from Kingsman Parade to Sainsburys and walk out again. It’s rare l walk down Powis St.

    Now Wilko has gone the site can be demolished for the new leisure centre which there has never. been a public demand for. The people that will use it use the Waterfront. Very few will people will suddenly decide they are interested in exercise just because there is a new leisure centre.
    If it wasn’t for the fact the council are clearing the waterfront site for developers to build unaffordable flats it would have stayed where it was.
    Woolwich is dead. It will never be revived regardless off crossrail. With more and more retail being done online the chances of major stores ever opening is minimal to say the least.

    I was at a public meeting 3-4 years ago. One of the Greenwich Councillors said the council were in talks with a major store about the opening a store in Woolwich. Where is it?

  10. Jonathan

    Sorry story well told, thanks Murky.
    It’s incredible that local Labour & Co-operative councillors haven’t done more to bring the brilliant little Co-operative building on Powis Street back into use (those brass bay windows!). It’s a fine piece of local heritage – and it’s also their heritage as Labour politicians. Similarly, the industrial buildings belonging to Furlongs on Mortgrammit Square are too good to go. Reuse would surely have been the better option here, if not in terms of housing volume then certainly in terms of character and history. An imaginative architect could have created something fantastic with this remnant of the automotive era.

    • Town councils are full of vandals who care nothing about heritage or the built environment. They are far more interested in allowing big developer to pollute every spit and spot of land with gimcrack units.

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