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The Woolwich ferries had their last day on 5th October 2018, with James Newman having the honour of the very last crossings. These pictures, taken in the final hour of sister ferry, Ernest Bevin, show the bridge, the captain at work and the engine rooms. I had not expected to be given a tour of the ferries – the captain spotted me taking pictures and asked if I wanted to come up on the bridge, which I did. I asked if I could look at the engine room too!
The bridge is of great interest and the views are fantstic however the engine rooms are really where everything happens to make the ferry work. There is far more to the engine rooms than just engines, there were banks of control cabinets, various other machinery, pumps, many different levels conected by ladders, probably not a surprise to those in the know but for me it was exciting and the bonus was I was able to see the bilge areas which are not usually shown to the public, especially as this is where the propellor shafts can be seen outside of the engine room running towards the propellors themselves.
I have some limited technical knowledge of engines and marine equipment so I was able to ask Bill, the engineer in charge of the engine rooms, all sorts of questions, what the different bits of equipment did, and how the ferry is actually controlled and so on. It made a fantastic change from what the things I usually see and do which is not very much (cos I dont get to go behind the scenes anywhere for a start….)
This post is actually an extra to what I had planned for the ferries’ finale, so am having to sort of re think the concepts I had in mind and with the many other things that happened, clearly a further post will need to be written just to cover the actual last crossings and final moments of the ferries later that evening.
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Up on the bridge and the best view of the river there is!
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Captain David Watkins at his controls.
This You Tube video features the captain reminiscing on the ferries and other aspects of the river.
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James Newman arriving at Woolwich as Ernest Bevin crosses to North Woolwich.
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Captain Watkins skillfully berthing the ferry at North Woolwich pier. As he says, a bit like trying not to crack an egg with one’s boat!
Once the boat has docked a series of buttons are pressed (these can be seen in front of the captain) and one denotes to the supervisor in the pier terminal the boat is ready to have the ramps lowered (or raised as has been the case sometimes when there are spring tides!)
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The ramps descend to allow the traffic to alight from the ferry.
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Yes until 5th October 2018 TfL employees really did use these old dial phones! This is an internal communications system to the crews quarters, engine room etc. Otherwise its radio communications thats generally used for the deckhands, car stewards, the pier and shore staff.
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Looking to the port side of the bridge. Port is always the red side (red lights, right hand side) and starboard the green side. Its the starboard side which ships must pass each other, which means the other vessel passes to your left. (or as the dictum is usually on the UK waterways, keep to the right.) Even though the Woolwich ferries are bi-directional, the port and starboard sides remain fixed. The ferries do regularly pass each other on the port side, and although port/starboard is very important in marine law, its not illegal when its done with the acknowledgement of each other. The ferries nearly always keep to the right of each other and even though the sides being passed are ‘wrong’ its a done thing! With other ships, boats, about in the immediate area its usually a case of wait at the piers and let the other vessels pass. Any problems that do arise will be discussed over the ferry’s and other vessels’ UHF channels.
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The steps leading down from the bridge. Uusually the instructions for step ladders (such as in windmills and factories) tell one to go down backwards – this is the first I have seen an instruction to descend facing the ladder.
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The engine – a huge Blackstone diesel. I imagine its a refurbished one rather than the original in situ. These are six cylinder engines, its a normal diesel engine, its not a V type for example. Does the job like most diesels, these Blackstones are real workhorses and run all day without any fuss. Some of this old technology was extremely reliable, start it up and it pretty much looks after itself – much better than whan we have today! At the side of the engine is all the feed pipes for the fuel, oils etc – all simple 10mm or 15mm copper piping – nicely done and with the all important loops in various places to reduce stress from vibration. Compared to modern engines the craftmanship that went into these is very admirable.
Blackstones’ (as Blackstones-Mirrlees) also built diesels for British Railway locomotives however these were not very successful. Four of the High Speed Trains were given Miralees-Blackstone engines which were ultimately not satisfactory and the Valentas were reinstalled. Blackstones’ venture into the rail industry did not last long. I suppose its the same as Lister, suitable for many jobs and extremly reliable but not for very heavy intensive use such as passenger rail engines which clearly needed a specialist type of design.
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The propellor shaft leading from the engine housing.
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The propellor shaft as it heads towards the stern glands and ultimately towards the Voith-Schneider propulsion system. This part of the boat is reached via a ladder down a very narrow access hatch. Difficult to squeeze through with a camera! The main passenger corridor through the centre of the boat runs directly above. The bottom is clearly the boat’s hull and its slope leading upwards towards the stern can be seen. The far end of the walkway is only about three feet six inches high and one must practically crawl.
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View looking down on the pair of diesels required to power the ferry, such as lights, pumps, equipment etc. The covers on the right hand one are stood at one side thus the engine itself can clearly be seen. There has always been separate engines for the propulsion and electrics. These engines are not the original either, they are far more recent models. That on the right seems considerably new.
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View looking across one of the engine room gangways to what is the air intake for the engines, seen at the far end. The picture on the right shows the engine starting console. Those with technical knoweldge on diesels will know the procedure, which is quite simple. Its not done by a starter motor as many of us who are, or have been, motorists, will no doubt be accustomed to. The job is done by air. A pair of compressors crank the engine over until it is at firing speed then the wheel is turned and this releases the diesel into the compression chambers above the cylinder, and the engine fires up.
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The master controls for the propulsion. Essentially these control the direction of the propellors which are housed in a huge cylinder and can be rotated in almost any direction. The controls here are duplicated on the bridge. See picture below.
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If one line is lit up  it means the propellor is running in that direction if two are lit up it means the propellor is running between, and if a line is fully lit it means full power is being adminstered. If its partially lit it means reduced power and the amount of power to be used is up to the captain. The point at which the above picture was taken shows the ferry is in holding position hard against the North Woolwich pier whilst traffic unloads/loads onto the ferry.
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The controls on the bridge, essentially similar to those in the engine room.
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The electrical power bank. Controls and dials for the various supplies to different parts of the boat.
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The emergency pumps. Their use is to provide back up power in an emergency if the normal equipment fails, such as the bilge pumps not working, or as in the case of the fire pump (on the right) to provide high pressure water if there is a fire and the hoses are activated.
My impression of the boat was clearly one that it could have performed many more years of service. Had they put their mind to it the boats could have operated another fifty years more!  Yes it was old, but it wasnt clapped out. Invariably its the technology, design and replacement of parts that becomes the problem as well as the public perceptions which are important. The public doesnt appreciate it when they are transported in what some would describe as stone age conditions lol! The skills needed to maintain equipment becomes more specialist and fewer people are in the know as to how it all works. There’s also that magic word – progress!
I saved these two pictures for last! This is the engineers’ log books and the desk they rest on. The desk and seat is clearly original! Much like a school master’s desk lol! The engine room log book is open and shows the final entries for 5th October 2018 for MV Ernest Bevin. So thats a bit of history there. As the engine room log shows, the boat had 19 and half tons of fuel. It also indicates that 1500 litres of fuel is expected to be used in the course of the boat’s final day.
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The Woolwich ferry’s Ernest Bevin final logs, and the pretty ancient seat and desk on which the log books rest!
I asked the various staff whether they were leaving or staying. This is what I gleaned from the boat’s engineer and its captain:
Bill, the engineer is continuing work on the ferries and will be with the two new vessels due to begin operation late this year or early next year.
Captain Watkins is leaving his job after 22 years on the ferries. He is taking a new job as captain on the London Eye River Cruises.

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Hello, fabulous photos,thank you so much for posting the blogs. I wish I’d though to ask for a tour of the engine room!
I’m the motorcyclist you met at the N terminal waiting for the last crossing, I’m so pleased I met you and we had a chance to speak, otherwise I would never have found your fabulous website. I am looking forward to being a regular follower. Is there any possibility of buying some of your pictures of the ferry for my personal collection?


Thanks for your kind comments! Yes I do remember you very well especially as you pointed out there was to be an RM or an RT, so I kept watch for it and got a shot of the ferry in mid river with the bus. It wasnt a very good shot as the boat was too far off – there was so much noise in the picture – but I managed to reduce that enough and get a suitable picture onto the second part of the Woolwich Ferry Finale posts which has now been published. I’m not sure my photos are any good for others as the camera is pretty ancient! I’ll email about your request anyway.
Re the engine rooms it was great – didn’t even expect more than a cursory glance at the engines – I spent 25 minutes down there, taking all sorts of pictures and asking all sorts of questions, I’d have stayed an hour!