Tunnel Refineries to go out with a whimper, not a bang


A bit of excitement a couple of weeks ago as news reached 853 Towers of a “controlled explosion in Tunnel Avenue”. Not that anyone locally had been told, but Canary Wharf workers had been informed in case they thought the worst. Two and two were put together, and it seemed as if the silos at Tunnel Refinieries – one of the Greenwich peninsula’s great pre-Dome landmarks – were finally coming down. I had a chat with Rob at greenwich.co.uk, and discussed vantage points, not quite knowing what to expect. The 2pm deadline passed as I walked up that choking upper stretch of Tunnel Avenue, where it joins the Blackwall Tunnel approach, with very little sign of anything going on.

I met Rob on the footbridge by the tunnel’s entrance. “It’s probably going to be the little blue-…”

BANG!

And the three little blue silos, almost out of sight from our vantage point, toppled over. They’re the ones on the right in the picture above. Rob captured the scene here, while here was the view from the Isle of Dogs.

Unfortunately, it’s just been confirmed that the demolition of the main silos will not be using explosives after all. Thanks to my informant for telling me… “The silos will now be demolished without employing explosives using a long reach unit which literally nibbles the concrete structures from the top down. This will be a slow uneventful process so there will be no big bang.”

The other news is that the riverside walk along there will be closed for 12 weeks from Monday 15 March to enable the demolition to take place. So we’re denied the biggest bang Greenwich will have seen since the 2006 demolition of Greenwich District Hospital’s incinerator chimney – and the riverside path for three months. A bit of an anti-climatic ending for an institution that’s loomed over Greenwich and certainly made its mark on locals and visitors alike.

Tunnel Refineries – latterly known as Amylum, Tate and Lyle, and Syralclosed in September 2009 with the loss of 150 jobs. I walked through the site about a month ago, and its distinctive whiff could still be detected. When I was growing up, that sickly-sweet smell could drift for a good couple of miles, and was pretty much ever-present on the peninsula.

The closer you got, the fouler it was, but there was something comforting about coming home after a long journey, emerging from the Blackwall Tunnel, and getting a noseful of it. Historians will be noting another break from Greenwich’s industrial past, with what’s left of Alcatel/STC at Enderby Wharf awaiting redevelopment. The warehouses at Delta Wharf also came down recently, making the west side of the peninsula a strange, barren place to be.

Sunday will be your last chance to breathe in what’s left of the Tunnel Refineries whiff. Life’s going to be very different from now on.

42 comments

  1. BDL

    My dad worked at the Tunnel Avenue depot for LBG. I remember that they had to negotiate a special cleaning allowance for their cars. The staff car park was next to one of the refineries many “chimneys”. After a while they’d be covered in dust and other things from their neighbour. That smell would waft as far as Plumstead if the wind was in the right direction.

  2. Edith

    In the 1960s I lived in Gravesend and my best friends husband worked at Tunnel. Very exotic having a job in London – lots of amazing stories about life in the big city….. BUT when he came home, late, from shift we could smell him as he came up the street. So, when I moved to Greenwich myself the whole atmosphere was – well – familiar.

  3. Darryl

    I’m toying with getting a bike just so I can ride along the river. Schlepping it up and down the hill fills me with horror.

    I hope we get the Lovells Wharf stretch of river path back soon…

  4. Nigel Fletcher (Cllr)

    Interesting stuff- thanks for posting it, it’s good to mark the passing of these things. I can’t say I’ll be sad to bid farewell to the smell, though: it always made me feel a bit queasy. I used to cycle along there, but my bike was stolen last year, and I haven’t got round to replacing it. I think I’ll get another one now the weather is (hopefully) easing.

  5. Mary

    What has always surprised me is the number of residents who said they liked the smell, and to claim it was an important local feature – ‘Reminds us of home, love -its’our’ smell ‘ has been said to me only too often. What I am not going to miss are the vast sheafs of technical data produced by various smell experts and monitoring agencies – what it all seemed to come down to is that no-one apparently has yet devised a way of measuring smells.

  6. Darryl

    Can it be captured, or recreated? It could be piped through the new Discover Greenwich centre :-)

  7. O

    Thanks for the info. I’m on the other side of the river watching the peninsula skyline-I was going to say gradually change but it’s been quite rapid over the last couple of months.

    Was rather hoping if the silos were going they would go with a bang to somehow commemorate their passing!

    Going to miss the quirky industrial outlines especially when they get replaced with the no doubt blander rectangular residential blocks. We shall see!

    and if you’re toying with getting a bike then go for it – best way to travel and you’ve got http://www.greenwichcyclists.org.uk/ to help you get started.

  8. Abi

    Funny no one is bothered about the fact that 75 years of history is being destroyed here… generations of men, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles have worked here providing for their families and their communities..a further example of successive governments having no care for uk manufacturing.. another example of a foreign company buying a uk plant and then shutting it down soon after to move production abroad and boost their own capacity utilization. Here Syral- a French group buys up this plant for a knock down £5mil and shuts it down 2 years later putting 175 people out of work. Both prev owners Tate & Lyle and current management complicit in this outrage.

  9. BT

    I worked at Tunnel Refineries/Amylum/Tate&Lyle for 20 years and was made redundant in 2005.
    As Abi says there were generations of families who worked there. Until the early 90’s it was one of the best paid companies in SE London but salaries gradually suffered after that and gradually came in line with other Industries. But I have no complaints, they gave me a good living, despite the 24/7 operation and 12 hour shifts, and the generous redundancy payments and Pension enabled me to take early retirement.
    I don’t know how the remaining employees fared with regard to Redundancy under Syral, but I suspect they only got Government Minimum, a disgrace as many of them had worked there for over 20 and in some cases 30 years. Those of us who were made redundant before Syral took over were paid what we were due.

    Its a shame that its now rapidly becoming a pile of rubble, as despite the ‘Smells’ it was a part of the Community. Actually the worst of the smells ceased when they stopped processing Maize in the early 90’s.

  10. Clif

    I went down there today not knowing they had gone..bit of a shock..thought they employed 400 at one time ?. Its now almost a pile of rubble and an old chap up the road suggested another Housing Developement is planned.
    Wonder how those made redundant in Sep / Nove got on..retirement in the Sun or JSA.

  11. BT

    There’s a Facebook site set up by an ex-employee documenting the progress of the destruction/demolition.

    Many of people who worked there are still looking for work as you would expect.

  12. abi

    Not much left of Tunnel Refineries now, just rubble, dont know how the demolition mob can sleep at night after picking off the bones of working men long gone….bitter?? maybe…

    Majority of redundos dont have work, probably wont get any work that pays a decent wage…some dont want it and are in a good finacial situation.. good luck to them…

    This misery wont affect the prev management that jumped ship like rats…after destroying it….

  13. Edward

    Been there, done that, worn the Tee shirt….*I* also worked there for about 12 years…..on the maintenance team…..

    It USED to be good for the workers, then Amylum took over and things went steadily down hill.

    I left a goodly while back and was glad to see the back of the place.it ruined the paintwork on several vehicles I owned, when a certain EX REME major (Geoff Thackray…..last heard of working with the Underground) came and took over as engineering mangager I once had to ask him if I really needed to learn to “goose step” to be part of his “flexible working ” team…….TEAM ?? joke eh.

    Given my life over, would I go back and work there again?

    NOT A SNOWBALL IN HELLS CHANCE…..probably all down to the management of the day….pee takers…..

    Good luck to Phil (Sheetmetal shop) and Roy and Frank (welders) if they are / Were still working there at the time…..

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  15. Tom Smith

    I worked there 76 to 89 as shift Electrician ended up as Control Tecnician.
    Had some good times and a lot of laughs in the early days, yes it was dirty and smelly but paid good wages
    Now an Engineer in Norwich

  16. JAW

    can any body please tell me what byproducts u get from converstion of starch into glucose from tunnel refinery. and what was usage of that.

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  18. Tom

    1973 photo of some silos at

    Silos at Glenvilles Ltd, Riverside Walk, Greenwich, 1973

    As a one-time cement industry employee, I sympathise with the loss of jobs. Someone said to me the other day “I’ve never associated Kent with cement making”, and no doubt in a few years people will be saying the same about Greenwich and sugar.

    Tom

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  21. Terry Owen

    I worked for Tunnel refineries as a driver from 1979-1989,(although it was Richard Boulton based at Derby to start with). Then in 1986 the Derby operation was closed down and i was offered the job as night loader at Greenwich. I contiued in this position until 1988, when Tankfrieght took over the transport responsobilities. I stayed there until Febuary 1989, when i returned to Nottingham my home town from where i had comutted on a weekly basis for two and a half years. I now live in Southern Spain where i enjoy a very pleasent life. So a big hello to anyone who remembers me. Terry Owen.

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  23. David Causton

    I worked a tunnel in about 1968 as a piping/plant layout designer when the storage silos were being built and the “new” mill house was constructed. Great place to work and with knowledgable engineers and trades men.

  24. ricky bradley

    I worked there for hepgrove services from 99 till 06 on and off. when i first started as an apprentice i kept heaving with the smell after a few weeks i grew to like it. the place was great both old buildings with some new technology. i learnt alot there and met some great people. its a real shame that these industrial places are being closed in place of shops and houses. all the best to all that worked there.

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  26. Eleanor Tallowin

    I’m doing an architectural thesis project on the site next to where the refineries used to and was wondering whether the two brick buildings which seem to be derelict were part of the refineries?

  27. Tom Potter

    I started working in the wages office at Tunnel in 1959 and the smell nearly put me off. On several occasions I was nearly physically sick walking down Tunnel Avenue, but I persevered and spent nine memorable years there. I know that they did at one time employ 400 as I was one of those who wrote out by hand the wage slips for each and every one of them.

  28. MRS PAMELA BARCAS

    I worked at Tunnel Refineries from 1978 to 1985, it was a good place to work! I began in the Transport Dept. working in the Distribution Office, & moved to the Sales Department, our customers were all the main companies in the food industry.
    I loved the job, & really never found anything as exciting until my retirement.
    I now run a charity shop in Malta called Happy Paws, it supports a clinic, and we neuter all the stray unwanted animals on the island of which there are many!
    Pamela Barcas. 20th June, 2012. at 4.40pm

  29. Richard Miller.

    I have been biking along this section of the Thames path since the mid 90’s having started my trip’s at Tower Bridge. I will always remember the hum of the machinery and the smell as I biked passed the plant .It was so nice to see industry still alive on the river this close into the centre of the city. There were tree’s there too , why tree’s there of all places ?
    Then the shock of finding it all gone on my most recent trip a few days ago. How very sad. The whole area has been trashed.I had no idea this had happened, even the small seating area further up by the weeping willow tree’s has vanished. We know what’s coming……boring flats and more boring flats, I’m just greatful I experienced part of Greenwich’s industrial past.
    Richard Miller, 23 July 2012,

  30. PAMELA BARCAS

    YES, indeed, I was lucky to have worked there for 8 years, it is the the end of an era!

  31. Dave Carrott

    I worked at Tunnel for 20 years. I joined the company as a Fitter & later was promoted to Foreman. Later on I became a “Shift Engineer” The lads that worked as shift fitters & electricians were first class tradesmen.Then it was decided to do away with shift mainenance and we were all made redundant. Some managed to hang on in lesser jobs. My memories up to this poit were excelent, but as I was unable to find another job in my trade (Due to my age) I stayed on as a process worker untill my early retirement.

    From Dave Carrott

  32. Dave Carrott

    A P.S to my last entry. I neglected to mention the Mates both mechanical & electrical. We could’nt have functioned without them. Dave Carrott

  33. Ted

    And everyone seemed to forget about the good old Sheetmetal workers,the people who made the machine guards, hoods and hoppers, conveyers and pretty much everything else from flat sheets of steel and angle iron that held the whole damn place together….with a bit of help from the welders of course LOL
    Good to see your comments on here Dave,
    ME? Ritired over a year and now living in Norfolk, where anymore than 6 cars in a line is a TRAFFIC JAM !! Unlike Blackwall Lane at 07.30 in the mornings :-(
    regards
    Ted

  34. Dave Carrott

    Sorry I forgot the Sheet metal workes, Perhaps I should have mentioned the Welders ,Turners and lads who worked in the stores. By the way Jean & I now live in Hythe in Kent. We have similar traffic problems as you
    All the best Dave

  35. jeff (animal )lille

    i knew dave carrott,tom smith,ted harper,and all the other names mentioned and a few more.hope if you read this hope you are all well.i was made redundant by the stupid project futures.skilled engineer being interviewed by a process worker.jeff(animal)lille is my name and spent at least 11 years at tunnel part on day work and finished on shift maint.good times good work mates,actuary work with a mike delaney from the yard gang still talk about the good old tunnel days and all the personalities.about to come up for retirement but tunnel was one of the best jobs.

  36. David Carrott

    Hi Jeff ,
    Glad to hear that you are still alive and kicking. Jean & I are OK and living in Hythe Kent.
    I still look back to the old days at Tunnel. Probably the best years of my working life. I would like to know how all my old mates are doing.
    If you want to contact me , my Email address is:- davecarrott@hotmail.com I would really like to hear from you
    All the best Dave……….

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  38. Ian Watson

    Sorry to hear its gone, we used to smell the pong down in Gravesend as a kiddie and on a hot day with the wind in the wrong direction, you could smell it in Bromley where we moved to, I always remembered when visiting my great grandma in Point Hill that smell and it was allegedly that beefy sweet smell that caused my great granddad who was a copper at Greenwich West to lose his sense of smell but not his sense of beer where his circuitous route from the station took in much of Greenwich, Charlton, Blackheath hostelries mumping a free one.

    One of my old favourite drinking places was the Pilot but I heard that’s all gone as well, London has changed for the worse and is an alien planet from what I gather.

  39. Clare

    The Pilot is still around, recently redeveloped to add an extra storey. I haven’t been since the Olympics.

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