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It is now over a year since the three Woolwich ferries were taken to France, having ended a long career of ferry service between North Woolwich and Woolwich. All three ferries were taken over the course of a couple of weeks at the end of October/early November 2018 and their movements down the Thames towards the Channel are quite well documented. Its actually a shame the old ferries were got rid of. They did the job well. The new ones simply ‘aren’t good enough.’

Very little has ensued on what the ferries’ fate was. Social media certainly showed a number of pictures of the three ferries in Le Havre awaiting scrapping, but barely anything of what happened afterwards. As far as we in the UK were concerned, that was the end of it. The most immediate problem for most was the complete unreliability of the two new ferries built to replace the 1963 models.

As has finally been acknowledged, the new ferries built in Poland are just not up to the job. There’s been numerous problems. The unions actually went on strike because the new ferries were completely unreliable. The automated docking system has been a disaster and essential elements such as the generators keep failing. There’s also major power supply issues. The fact just two were bought made things even worse because the new vessels just were not as reliable as the old ones.

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A sad end. The Ernest Bevin on the Thames at Dartford en route to Le Havre. Early morning 31st October 2019. Source: Twitter

Those who have been following the Woolwich Ferries’ saga will of course know the ferries were destined for scrapping in France. This would take place in Le Havre at the Gardet & de Bezenac facility.

Gardet & de Bezenac were established in 1932 and have undertaken scrapping work since, as well as the specialist task of dealing with contaminated land. Their main body of work however involves both vessels and trains and a number of SNCF stock ends up at Gardet’s Grémonville site for scrapping. In 2016 Gardet were acquired by Baudelet Environnement (established 1920) and the work of Gardet was expanded to include sensitive environmental recycling.

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Gardet’s new offices at their Le Havre site. Source: France Recyclage

The yard in Le Havre processes about 200 vessels a year of all sizes. Arrivals are moored up along the Canal de Tancarville and assessed to see what kind of procedures should be taken. Sometimes there are requests for certain parts to be recovered intact. Sometimes there are contaminated areas and the appropriate precautions have to be taken to clean these out and the materials processed or disposed of sensibly before the vessels can even go onto the slipway to be scrapped.

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Ernest Bevin and James Newman berthed up, awaiting their turn in the process of scrapping. Source: Twitter

Whilst waiting for ultimate scrapping a considerable amount of soft scrapping takes place on the vessels. This means small stuff, bits that can be easily cut up by workers and taken away for recycling. Some stuff is lifted off by crane and processed on land. The really big stuff (hulls, superstructures) is left intact and its the final process of cutting up which will do that work.

One of the advantages of this preparation work is the total weight of the vessel is reduced. The ferries each weighed a total of 860 tons however the slipway can only drag a total of 800 tons of hulk up it.

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On board the John Burns before work commenced. Ernest Bevin and James Newman are berthed in the distance. Source: Paris Normandie

There are pictures of the scrapping underway however its just the John Burns that we see. I don’t think the other two at this time of writing had reached their final stages.

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John Burns seen by the slipway at Gardet’s scrapyard in November 2018. This was probably just a positioning move. Once the other vessel has been processed, it will be the Woolwich ferry’s turn to be hauled up the slipway for complete demolition. Source: Twitter

Many of the pictures were taken by Fabien Montreuil, a photographer (and port worker) from Le Havre. There doesnt seem to be a website or social media account where his work can be seen, only this page.

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John Burns on the Gardet slipway with its bridge largely removed. May 2019. Source: Mer et Marine

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Another view of the partially dismantled ferry. At this stage it has been dragged up the slipway. This was taken on 15th May 2019. Source: Mer et Marine

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Just mostly the hull remains at this stage. 29th September 2019. Source: Twitter

The huge machine used to scrap the ships is known as the Shovel. It can process 50 tons of metal each day. Here’s a very brief video showing this machine at work.

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The John Burns is nearly gone. 1st October 2019. Source: Twitter

Most of the pictures were taken from the opposite side of the canal. See Google Streets for the site where people take photographs of ongoing work at Gardet’s premises on the opposite side of the very wide Canal de Tancarville.

The scrap merchants, Gardet & de Bezenac, are one of a few approved merchants authorised to scrap ships. As people will no doubt be aware, most ships are scrapped on the beaches of India or other countries where regulations are few and far between and the metal is processed cheaply and there’s considerable risk of loss of life.

In Europe the scrapping of anything is of course a far stricter affair. That is of course to protect both the worker doing the scrapping and the environment too. What this means is companies have to be very specialised in the work they do. Gardet & de Bezenac are one of only twenty companies in the EU authorised to scrap vessels and the company is white-listed by the EU.

Gardet & de Bezenac follow certain procedures and it can detail where the scrap was from and where it it is going, its sustainability ratings, whether there are any contaminated materials such as asbestos and how this is disposed of. It will also provide a detailed rundown of the work it has done to interested parties such as companies who want to ensure the metals they are having scrapped is dealt with in the best way possible or that the metals that have been acquired are entirely transparent in how they were procured. In this respect Gardet are very highly esteemed and its work is much in demand.

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The steelworks at Bonnieres Sur Seine near Paris. Note the ship being unloaded. Source: Rivaacier

Some of the scrap metal from the Woolwich ferries would ironically have been taken by barge about 250km up the Seine. This would be to a town called Bonnieres Sur Seine, roughly 60km west of Paris (its 100km by river however.) The steel works here on the bank of the Seine are known as the Iton Seine (Ion Seine) and is owned by the Riva group.

Iton Seine often receives scrap metal from Gardet & de Bezenac and the Seine makes an excellent transport artery between the two facilities. The steelworks can accommodate ships up to 2,000 tons. The works are on the south side of the river opposite to what is known as the Grande Île in Bennecourt. This island is famous for being the location where Claude Monet did a number of his celebrated paintings.

Here’s an interesting pdf on the Seine ironworks and their history.

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Really good blog londonblogger – thanks for telling me what happened to those old ferries.
I crossed the Woolwich ferry a handful of times during those storms last month to look at the Thames. I am no expert but the new ones were sooooo much smoother, faster and quieter. Having said that, the new seating deck is not nearly as fun as being down in the old ferries’ underbelly.