Beresford Square, SE18
Beresford Square (c. 1890). Workers leaving the Royal Arsenal are walking past the elegantly designed public convenience.
Credit: Ideal Homes
Beresford Square was formed in the early 19th century and was named after the Anglo-Irish general William Beresford, Master-General of the Ordnance and Governor of the Royal Military Academy.

Beresford Square was not a laid-out square but the result of a series of clearances. Therefore, some of the buildings are older than the square. In 1812-13, some "paltry buildings" around the road junction near the main entrance to the Arsenal were demolished for "encroachment on Crown land". The northern section of the road that wound down from Woolwich Common to Plumstead Road was called Green’s End.

The northernmost tip, now the west side of Beresford Square, was known as the High Pavement. Land to the east of this road was part of the Burrage Estate, named after its 14th-century owner, Bartholomew de Burghersh. The Salutation Inn stood almost at the northern end of the High Pavement. It had a tea garden and may have been Woolwich’s first theatre, mentioned in 1721. The garden later became Salutation Alley with about 20 timber cottages. In one of these Henry Maudslay was born in 1771. Living conditions here were appalling, as described in the Booth Survey of 1900. It was condemned a slum in 1955 and cleared in the 1960s and 70s and is now a market traders’ pound. In 1833 the Salutation pub moved to new premises next door.

In 1831 four more cottages were cleared on the southeast side of the square, creating more space between the two pubs on this end, the Ordnance Arms and the Elephant & Castle. Along with several pubs on Plumstead Road and the New Road, these all thrived with thousands of Arsenal workers passing through the area every day.

The clearance formed a spacious entrance to the Royal Arsenal and in 1828-29 a new entrance gate was built by the Master-General of the Ordnance, William Beresford, 1st Viscount Beresford (17681854). It became known as Beresford Gate, later the Royal Arsenal Gatehouse. In 1837 the square too was named after Beresford, when the Board of Ordnance handed it over to the parish of Woolwich. A new road was laid out to its northwest, where the ropeyard had been from around 1570 till 1832, and was named Beresford Street. At the eastern end of this street, facing Beresford Square, Holy Trinity Church was built in 1833-34 (demolished in 1962). This large Anglican church had an imposing facade in Portland stone with a stump tower above a Greek Revival portico.

Woolwich Market received its charter in 1618 but may have existed before. In 1808 it moved from Market Hill (near Woolwich High Street) to Market Street (in the Bathway Quarter). This peripheral location proved to be unpopular with traders, who drifted back to Market Hill and, after 1813, to the new square in front of the Arsenal (where no market tolls had to be paid). The police regularly cleared the square and it was not until 1879 that the existing situation was accepted and regulated. In 1887 the Local Board of Health bought out the Maryon Wilson family’s interest in the market charter. A new market was laid out by the Board with room for 136 stalls, against much opposition from costermongers. It officially opened in September 1888. In the middle of the square stood an iron toll house, a drinking fountain and a brightly ornamental urinal. Most of the pubs and shops around the square were rebuilt in the last two decades of the 19th century.

Throughout the 20th century, Beresford Square remained the centre of Woolwich life. In 1907 some 8000 Arsenal workers sett off from here to demonstrate in Westminster against job cuts. Trade unionist and Labour politician Will Crooks spoke several times to large crowds in front of the Arsenal gate. Crook’s memorial service was held on the square in June 1921.

The market was thriving six days a week and drew in shoppers from neighbouring areas. As the market was often overcrowded, plans for extension were made in 1901 but only realized in 1936 with the opening of the covered market on Plumstead Road. Traffic congestion continued to be a major problem with trams and other traffic running through the square. In 1958, 1969 and 1972 plans were presented for the widening of both Beresford Street and Plumstead Road, and the pedestrianisation of the square. Initially, Beresford Gate was to be demolished in the plans approved by the Greater London Council. In 1984-86 the A206 road was rerouted through the Arsenal, north of the gate. In the early 1990s and yet again in 2010-11, Greenwich Council relandscaped the square. A portal reflecting the market’s history was erected at its Woolwich New Road entrance. By that time the market’s popularity had declined considerably, parallel to the town’s general decline after the closure of the Arsenal.

In 1913, the Woolwich Arsenal Cinematograph Co. started a cinema in a building between the Salutation pub and Holy Trinity Church. Twelve years later it was extended to the rear, replacing much of the north side of Salutation Alley, creating a theatre with 669 seats. It was later renamed Premier Cinema, Royal Arsenal Cinema and Century Cinema. It closed in 1964 and was demolished shortly afterwards, along with Holy Trinity, the Salutations Inn and other neighbouring buildings.

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