Erith has a long and rich history owing to its prominent position on the river front. This section looks at the changing face of Erith over the years.
Erith is an ancient settlement, dating at least back to the medieval period. The town has always been intimately associated with the Thames; the first significant instance of this was when Henry VIII opened a naval dockyard there in the 16th century, on the site of the current Riverside Gardens.
Until the mid 19th century, Erith was a popular small port and anchorage, often a stopping off point for ships bound for the Port of London to discharge some of their cargo. In the 19th century, this commercial activity was complemented by leisure and recreational uses, with a large ‘pleasure garden’ built along the river where Morrisons now stands. Erith had a reputation as a resort and daytrip destination, with pubs and hotels lining the riverbank.
The pleasure gardens were short lived and Erith’s strategic location on the Thames and with existing railway infrastructure made it an ideal place for industrial development. One of the earliest industrial businesses was the Erith Iron Works at Anchor Bay, opening in 1864, but soon a large number of heavy industrial uses came into being, accompanied by an extensive network of goods railways connected to the mainline. Erith Pier, dates from this time. It was built as an industrial railway pier, allowing goods trains direct access to anchored ships.
In the 1960s, the town was extensively redeveloped following Modernist town planning ideas, including pedestrian/traffic separation, multilevel commercial environments and residential tower blocks. This redevelopment, which had been partly prompted by wartime bomb damage, dramatically altered the layout of the town, and many crucial routes were radically altered: notably the High Street became largely a service road for the new shopping centre. The town’s public spaces were also fundamentally altered by the construction of flood defences, which serve a crucial purpose in protecting the area from flooding but which sever much of the town from a connection to the river. Various buildings and spaces survived this transformation, notably the town’s two Churches.
Photos courtesy of the Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre.