The wonders of Woolwich

The University of Greenwich story actually started a few miles down the road at Woolwich. We remember some of Woolwich’s legendary student landmarks.

Thomas Spencer Hall fire

Through Woolwich Polytechnic, and later Thames Polytechnic and the university, our students were part of the fabric in Woolwich for well over 100 years, from as long ago as 1890.
For many alumni their introduction to Woolwich was arriving at the nine-storey Thomas Spencer Hall of Residence. For over 30 years, from 1971, this was home to generations of students, approximately 250 each year.

Alumni always seem to have a few tales to tell about life in these halls….

In a week in which London marks the 350th anniversary of its Great Fire in 1666, it appears that Thomas Spencer Hall had its own fire, in around 1993.

Steve Hill recounts: “Someone fell asleep in his room with candles going and started a small fire. Cue the alarms going off and everyone assembling outside for a couple of hours while the firemen sorted it out. I seem to remember there was a floor that was out of commission for a while.”

Sadly, Thomas Spencer Hall was demolished in 2008, but hopefully its spirit remains in the many lifelong friendships that were first made there.

“Someone fell asleep in his room with candles going and started a small fire. Cue the alarms going off and everyone assembling outside for a couple of hours while the firemen sorted it out. I seem to remember there was a floor that was out of commission for a while.”
Steve Hill

Cellar Bar

Another iconic meeting point was the basement Cellar Bar at the main site in Calderwood Street. Perhaps not the aesthetically pleasing bar by the sounds of it, and often cursed with a slippery floor, but a much revered social hub, renowned for its gigs and club nights.

Phil Windeatt (Humanities 1979) recalls: “The Cellar Bar was pretty grim – there were vinyl tiles on the floor and the toilets were terrible with graffiti all over the walls. But it was the fulcrum where you went to meet and get something to eat and drink. It had a little burger bar tacked on to the bar, a couple of pinball tables and a fantastic juke box.

“The midweek gigs there were great, just 20p to get in. It was an intimate venue with a low ceiling so the sound was pretty good.”

“The Cellar Bar was pretty grim – there were vinyl tiles on the floor and the toilets were terrible with graffiti all over the walls. But it was the fulcrum where you went to meet and get something to eat and drink. It had a little burger bar tacked on to the bar, a couple of pinball tables and a fantastic juke box.
Phil Windeatt, Humanities 1979

Rooftop photos

Another rite of passage for many alumni appears to have been the class photo on the rooftop of the main Island Site. Does anyone recognise themselves in the pictures below and can you tell us when they were taken?

The university left the main site in Woolwich in 2002 but Drama students do still make use of the Bathway building, once home to the Students’ Union, and earlier, a swimming pool.
You can see more memories of our many campuses, past and present, on Facebook and Twitter, particularly through the regular #ThrowbackThursday feature.

By |2017-03-14T10:18:12+00:00August 29th, 2016|Categories: Thames Polytechnic, Woolwich Polytechnic|

About the Author:

Dan Stevens manages and maintains this website.

40 Comments

  1. Ben Beck September 20, 2016 at 8:11 pm - Reply

    Don’t forget the Occupation, in 1973 . . .

    • The Alumni Team September 21, 2016 at 9:37 am - Reply

      Yes, in fact the 1970s saw a whole series of occupations at the polytechnic!

      One, in March 1972, lasted for two weeks, seeking better grants, and involved around 200 students. A later occupation in February 1978 protested against cuts affecting international students and lasted 19 days.

      We would love to hear memories of any of these occupations – and see any photos!

    • tony watts January 19, 2017 at 4:23 pm - Reply

      hi Ben beck.
      this is Tony watts -humanities student at Thames Poly from 1970 to 1972.dont know if you are the same Ben i knew,but i ran the Nus/thames Film festival

      • Bob brown February 19, 2017 at 8:33 pm - Reply

        Hi Tony

        I was the social secretary during the period of the film festival. Do I remember star wars?

      • Christine Holland April 27, 2018 at 5:22 pm - Reply

        Hi Tony watts. I was on the Humanities course at the same time as you. Your film nights were legendary. I also remember you went out with my room mate Ruth Downie. We’re still in contact and I’m still friendly with Rob Fiddy also part of our course. Can you remember the full name of the pub in Woolwich partly called The Duchess?

    • Alan Mathison May 15, 2017 at 12:38 am - Reply

      Dear Ben, Hope you are well, I came onto this site looking for some information on the very early Woolwich Poly, do you recall the plaque on the Poly’s wall in Calderwood St that mentioned the YMCA as an originator of the Poly in the late 19th Century? I will have to drive there the next time I go up to London and take a photo, if the plaque is still there. I have not met any student from the Poly since 1978 when I met an ex Poly student doing a Ph.D in St Andrews Uni, I was pleased to see Tony Watts also came on this site I think many of us did not appreciate how good the Film Festival he started was and what a significant event it became when it transformed into the National Student Film Festival. Tony did very well and did eventually get Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards over to the Festival. I put a comment on this site about the 1973 and 1974 occupations of the Poly that I hope you appreciate. I’m retired now and live on the South Coast, so we enjoy the barmy Sussex weather, walking our dog on the beach. Regards,Alan

  2. Mick Costello September 20, 2016 at 9:27 pm - Reply

    Don’t forget the squash courts in the basement of Hall with the most powerful showers in the world?
    Also 1968-72 the Friday night folk club… Hunters Musket anyone?

  3. Bill Fletcher September 21, 2016 at 8:39 am - Reply

    And the fabulous Riverside House

  4. Raphael Awoseyin September 21, 2016 at 9:38 am - Reply

    Talking of fires in Thomas Spencer Hall, I could in fact have burnt down the hall in 1975. I was in my 2nd year of mechanical engineering and I had my room on the 6th floor. I had the routine of going to my room for a light lunch of a boiled egg and two toasts. One summer day that year, about 12 noon, I started to boil an egg in the shared kitchen and went back to my room for what was supposed to be no more than 5 minutes. About 2 minutes later a classmate brought a mathematics problem for us to solve together. We got so absorbed in it that I forgot I was boiling an egg. We returned to the classroom on Wellington Street. About 10pm, I was having a shower when my mind flashed back at the fact that I was boiling an egg earlier in the day but never ate it. I ran out of the shower to the kitchen. There was the charred pot. Someone on the floor had seen the thick smoke from the kitchen and turned off the electric cooker.. I believe he saved the hall from what could have been a terrible fire.

  5. Phil Windeatt September 21, 2016 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    There was a three week occupation of Thames Poly in Woolwich in 1978 against the imposition of quotas for overseas students. Ended up on BBC TV News and Thames TV News. Then Thames Poly was the home of the NUS Film Festival and I remember “Carrie” was screened and main star Sissy Spacek was having something to eat in the canteen!

    • The Alumni team September 21, 2016 at 2:36 pm - Reply

      Thanks Phil. There is actually a section about this occupation in the university history book, which suggests some 1500 students attended an Emergency General Meeting. Impressive, especially given the much smaller student numbers at that time!

      Does anyone else have memories of this occupation, or others? Or perhaps of seeing film stars on site?

  6. Muhyee Din Mahmoud November 2, 2016 at 3:03 am - Reply

    I still feel very proud to have studied at Woolwich and graduated from it with B.Sc. in Elect. Eng. in 1964 at the time Mr. Freeman was Head of Dept. and K.B.Reed-lecturee (later Deputy Director).

  7. Tony Stanford-Beale November 25, 2016 at 10:11 am - Reply

    Stumbled on this site and remember Thomas Spencer well. Anyone remember the discos in the early 80s and Steve (?) the barman and the legendary Pernod nights?

  8. The Alumni Team November 29, 2016 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    Thank you Tony. Has anyone got photos of the bar at Thomas Spencer?

  9. Mike French December 1, 2016 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    I remember those discos well. As an assistant warden in the Thomas Spencer Halls of Residence at the time (from the beginning of 1980 until August 1883) part of my role was to ‘supervise’ those events. I was extremely grateful to have Steve (Paddy) Powers on my side of the bar when I needed him. In the early 1980s Iraq and Iran were in conflict and Thames had a number of students from both countries. I remember at one of those discos, a serious dispute breaking out between two of those students and Steve stepping in and holding the protagonists apart with his enormous hands. He was an immense man in all senses of the word and I spent many a long evening in the TS bar listening to the stories of his experiences in the navy and as a copper in the East End. I was thinking about Steve recently actually; he was a keen rugby man and never let me forget that Munster had beaten the All Blacks just a couple of years previous in 1978 – he would have been over the moon at the result in Chicago last month. I returned to New Zealand in 2002 after 22 years teaching law in the business school and then the law school at Thames/Greenwich.

    • Bill November 2, 2018 at 12:49 pm - Reply

      Steve, the Thomas Spencer Halls barman, was a former policeman with a strong west country burr to his accent. His original hair colour would have been ginger but it was greyish white in the late 70’s early 80’s. He sold scrumpy from a barrel on the counter that had a sign “go under for under a pound” as it was 25p a pint and few could handle four. He also made and sold kebabs from the counter, also at 25p a pop. When the food was ready, you would hear the gentle refrain, “LAMB KEBAB, CHICKEN KEBAB”, even in the Director General pub a few hundred yards away. He was very tolerant and had a twinkle in his eye.

  10. The Alumni Team December 6, 2016 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing your memories, Mike. It sounds like Steve Powers is a much-remembered character from those days at Thomas Spencer.

  11. John Ford January 19, 2017 at 12:26 pm - Reply

    I was the President of the Student Union at Thames Poly in 1978 when we staged the three week occupation against the hike in fees for overseas students. I moved the motion to begin the occupation. I also appeared on television to explain our case. The cameras filmed us in the old canteen in Woolwich. There was tremendous support among the students for the campaign. I recall a particularly militant demonstration by sports students outside the Principal’s house on the Dartford campus. The occupation only ended because the Polytechnic managed to mobilise the Architecture students at the Hammersmith site who had little sympathy for the overseas students who were largely concentrated on the Woolwich site, and part time students who knew little or nothing about the issue because we didn’t find the means to reach them. The General Meetings that took place throughout the occupation were huge. The last meeting at Woolwich which ended the occupation was so large that I feared the students who had filled the gallery might bring down the old structure. Instead they voted to end what had been a concerted effort by the students to reject the discrimination against foreign students. I remember the episode with pride and pleasure. I have a copy of the student magazine that was produced by the student union at the time of the occupation.

  12. Ray Daniel February 3, 2017 at 10:45 pm - Reply

    Hi. I was President of the students union in 1979/80 and we had an occupation in the refectory relating to food prices. This one was useful and a success if I recall.

  13. Ray Daniel February 3, 2017 at 10:47 pm - Reply

    The irony about the Thoms Spencer Hall fire, is that I was a member of the Fire Brigade that put it out!

  14. William (Bill) Brading February 6, 2017 at 10:52 pm - Reply

    Great memories of the old Woolwich Poly when the Principal was Dr E Mallett and head of maths was Hugh V Lowry.. I still have his textbooks. I emerged with a First in Engineering in 1950. Has anyone else from that year been in contact? W A (Bill) Brading of STC (Sandwich student). It didn’t cost me a penny in those days.

    • Stephen Partridge January 4, 2018 at 9:43 am - Reply

      Happy new year Bill. You may remember I did the Dip. Tech . with your brother Ted also a sandwich student with STC. Courtesy of Harold Wilson’s White Heat of Science revolution!
      . What an extraordinary revolution we have lived through in Telecomms. So many of the mighty fallen! Only Arm have lived to tell the tale of the British Industry and now they have been sold off.
      Anyone from 1955/ 59 still around?

  15. The Alumni Team February 13, 2017 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    Thank you John. It’s really interesting to hear from someone who was so heavily involved in the leadership of this occupation, which a number of alumni have mentioned to us. We’ve heard that as many as 1500 students may have attended the General Meeting you mention, which is an incredible figure given that Thames Poly in those days was a lot smaller than today’s university! We will try to find the student magazine you mention, which might be in the university archive, but if there is any way you could send a photocopy/digital copy to us, we would be really interested to see it.

  16. John Laxton, President of the SU 1973-4 March 1, 2017 at 3:55 am - Reply

    My memory isn’t what it was, but wasn’t the first occupation (March 1972) about Students Union autonomy? It was for 2 weeks, at the Woolwich site (main building) only. Next year there was a one week occupation seeking an increase in student grants. That one included Vencourt House, Hammersmith & Riverside House, Woolwich..

    What should be remembered for that era is the pioneering Alternative Prospectus, for which we must thank Frank Joyce. It described Woolwich as a northern industrial town somehow located on the south bank of the Thames.

    • The Alumni Team March 8, 2017 at 1:30 pm - Reply

      Thanks for sharing your memories, John. We will see if we can find any sign of the Alternative Prospectus in the Archive here.

      Our source for thinking the 1972 occupation was related to a national campaign for better grants was the official university history by Thomas Hinde. However, we know Students’ Union autonomy was also a major issue at that time. Perhaps there was more than one cause involved in the occupation.

      It certainly sounds like it was very organised, with (according to the official history) 200 students occupying the main site, five committees running it and twice-daily meetings to make decisions. Reporters from the Guardian, Observer and the Morning Star all visited the occupation.

  17. Alan Mathison May 14, 2017 at 4:59 am - Reply

    Hello, Ben, Tony & John, The SU produced Alternative Prospectus was a real pioneering effort by TPSU, it gave the students view of the courses, facilities and general attractiveness of the
    Polytechnic. The Poly Admin were very concerned when the idea was first thought up by the SU, but after publication of the first edition became rather proud of our effort. It did not get much publicity, I think there was an article in the Eduation Guardian, but then Oxford Uni SU copied our idea and they got masses of publicity in newspapers, the education press and TV. After that it really caught on, in the late 1970s when I was at St Andrews Uni the SRC there produced one, but I never mentioned where the idea came from. There were two occupations while I was at the Poly, one in 1973 and a second in 1974, both lasted two weeks. The 1974 one was during the power cuts caused by the National Miners Strike that year and I chaired a General Meeting of students it in packed out Woolwich Main Hall. John Laxton was SU Preident, it was held in the afternoon, we had the curtains drawn back to get the maximum light possible into the Main Hall as there was no electricity. That meant we did not have any PA so everyone had to be exceptionally quite so the speakers could be heard, there must have been over 1,000 students in the Hall and I was told afterwards that those at the back of the Hall could hear every speaker for or against continuing the occupation. As the afternoon progressed the Hall got darker and we had only one hurricane lamp and a flash light. I had the flash light to help me recongnise would-be speakers and we put the hurricane lamp at the front of the Hall on top of a step ladder so speakers addressing the meeting could be seen standing in a circle of light. As the Hall darkened It became very difficult for me to see who wanted to speak next so I asked would be-speakers to come to the front and stand in a queue to await their turn to speak. At the end of the General Meeting we decided to end the occupation and we all, very carefully made our way out of the Hall in pitch darkness. Due to the lack of electricity to power our PA system and my need as Chair to be heard throughout the Hall I developed such a sore throat that I could not speak for four days afterwards. Alan Mathison 1970-74.

    • Christine Holland April 27, 2018 at 5:28 pm - Reply

      I remember your name Alan…one of the good guys. I was also at that meeting to back the miners’ strike. I also remember taking our overdrafts out of Barclays Bank because of their South African connection. On a different note the market was shut down because the stall holders raised their prices sky high to fool people the day we went decimal. Happy days.

  18. Andy Braddel August 8, 2017 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    I seem to recall that the disco nights in the bar area downstairs at Wellington Street in the early 1970’s were called the “Virgo Intacta” disco? If so no comment! I distinctly recall the all night film shows as well with such iconic films as Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs etc. Bands I remember playing live on stage in Wellington Street were Stray and Pink Fairies. Also I recall the four legged pub crawls when Woolwich had as many as around 20 pubs – 3 students with four of their six legs tied together falling flat on their faces whilst attempting to traverse a zebra crossing in the high street was a shock for motorists ! And yes the excessively hot summer of 1976 – final exams in the main hall in Wellington Street with no air conditioning and a pollen count off the Richter scale is clearly the reason why I only attained a 2/2 !! Andy Braddel 1972 – 76

  19. Alan Mathison 1970-74 August 30, 2017 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    The Cellar Bar was a snack bar when I first saw it on the summer afternoon I came for interview in June 1970, it had white tiled walls and black cast iron pillars. When I arrived as a student in October 1970 it has been transformed into a licensed bar/snack bar run by the Polytechnic. The SU was moribund and when we suggested holding discos in the Cellar Bar, this was refused, so we first years just went ahead and set up a disco and we all enjoyed ourselves. The next week we were setting up the disco when it became apparent that all the power sockets in the Bar saloon had been disabled and the barman was under orders not to allow us to use the electric sockets behind the bar, so no disco. The following week I brought my father’s long extension lead, plugged it into the socket in the Snooker Room on the floor above to power the disco. After that both the SU officers and the Poly admin made no attempt to stop us holding discos in the Cellar Bat. And that’s how the weekly disco started.

  20. Steve Hill September 13, 2017 at 11:26 pm - Reply

    Thanks for reposting my fire story.

    Other memories include the fountain in the town square turning into a bubble machine once every couple of weeks, thanks to entire bottle of washing-up-liquid.

  21. Terry Fitzpatrick September 15, 2017 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    Someone slagged the Cellar Bar toilets – the Dive Bar at Avery Hill had ample urine facilities – extensive grass at the beck

  22. Sarah Gifford February 11, 2018 at 6:21 pm - Reply

    I’m trying to track down 1988 FKR/FKB Thames Polytechnic graduates plus any of our lecturers who would like to join us. We’re planning a thirty year reunion barbecue in June 2018. I believe that James Harding is sadly no longer with us. Great to see Mike French’s name above. How about Eliot Henderson? We were delighted to have him as a guest at our wedding in 1988. Myself and a group of friends used to run the French Society. Highlights included a group trip to the previews of Les Miserables at The Barbecan and a disco/social in Woolwich where four of us performed the can can. Great fun! I do have photos 🙂 I also remember a May Ball where comedians Hale and Pace entertained us and were hilarious. If any 1988 FKR/FKB graduates or lecturers are reading this and would like to get in touch about the reunion please email me at sarah.l.gifford@gmail.com (formerly Sarah Howes)

  23. David Woodhead March 1, 2018 at 11:01 am - Reply

    I have just come across this site. Interesting to see the comments and recognise some of the names. I was a lecturer in politics from 1969 to when I retired in 2002. More significantly I was assistant warden in Thomas Spencer Hall from 1971 to 1975. My abiding memory is having to call out the fire brigade with great regularity because the lift had broken down

  24. Christine Holland April 27, 2018 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    Am I right in remembering an alcove table in the Cellar Bar up a couple of steps from the rest of the tables? It was THE place to sit.

  25. Alastair September 25, 2018 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    I was at Woolwich Poly from 1976 – 1980 had an absolute blast and learned a huge amount doing a Materials Science degree. This set me up for life having worked in 6-7 countries and have now just retired

  26. Arzmi Yaacob November 2, 2018 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Phil Windeat,
    Remember me? Arzmi Yaacob from Malaysia. We were classmates for the course Humanities 1975-78.
    Yes I remember Woolwich. I stayed at the Thomas Spencer Hall for my first and final years.
    Really a wonderful place and very convenient. Woolwich was such a wonder town. There is so much that I could talk
    about but suffice to say my stay at Thames Polytechnic and Woolwich was among the best period of my life.
    I played hockey for the Poly and remember taking a bus for the short ride to Well Hall where the sport fields were.
    I later learned that Well Hall was the birth place of Bob Hope the legendary American actor.

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