The free Thames ferry between North and South Woolwich, financed and operated by the London County Council, was opened for public use on 23rd March 1889. The first free local authority ferry in the country, it ran a high frequency service every nine minutes from 5.00am. until midnight each day and proved an instant success in attracting large numbers of passengers and vehicles. Initially operating with two paddle steamers, these had reached the end of their working lives by the early 1920s when replacements were ordered from J. Samuel White & Co. of Cowes. The first, named Squires, was completed in 1922 and the second, named Gordon, followed the next year; both paddlers were identical and were registered at 609 tons gross. Measuring 171½ feet in length with a 44 foot beam and an extreme breadth of 62 feet, they were far from handsome though highly practical for the variable river conditions they encountered on a daily basis. Capable of 8½ knots when tide and weather permitted, each was licensed to carry 1,000 passengers and both lasted until well after the Second World War despite years of unremitting schedules.
In his classic work Steamers of the Thames and Medway (publ. 1949), Frank Burtt comments thus on their extraordinary lines:
The ferry boats employed are of ungainly appearance, and their action reminds one of a crab, only for a short distance in midstream do they progress as other vessels. Most of the 1,050 feet journey is accomplished by side-way kicks of their paddle wheels as they push off from or sidle up to the pontoons. The sidling is accomplished with such accuracy that the four hydraulically controlled fallbridges can be lowered immediately into place for the passengers and vehicles to embark and disembark. The machinery of these boats consists of two entirely independent sets of simple condensing engines, each with two opposed cylinders working its paddle entirely independently.