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.
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.
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.
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.
Renders from the time are similar in design to numerous UK-wide projects.
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.
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.
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:
From the 1960s Woolwich progressively lost both employment and shopper appeal as Bromley, Lewisham and Bexleyheath all profited over subsequent decades.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
No covered areas were built, though it’s notable how many buildings of this era included canopies:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Similar demolition was planned for the Officers’ House in 2016. A vehicle drop-off point was proposed. It was saved.
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.
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.
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.
By 2009 a new scheme arrived which we have today, and is a great improvement. It’s extremely well used by many people.
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.
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.
Some threaten all the same mistakes. Some work with the best of what’s there.
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.