Home > Maritime Greenwich >

Our history

The modern Royal Borough of Greenwich is a very large area including Charlton and Woolwich to the east and Eltham to the south-east. Historic Greenwich, by contrast, lies entirely within the World Heritage Site and a little of its riverfront buffer zone to east and west. It has been closely connected with English royalty since the 15th century but its pre-eminent architectural heritage is largely that derived from its role as a focus of maritime science, welfare and education from the 1670s onward.

Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site at time of inscription in 1997

A ROYAL SITE

After being a royal manor under King William I, Greenwich was a possession of the Abbey of St Peter at Ghent until returned to Crown ownership in 1415. By the mid-15th century the Royal Park - the oldest in London - had been enclosed and the Palace of Placentia built on the riverside. By 1520 this had been rebuilt and expanded by Henry VII and Henry VIII as the Palace of Greenwich, which remained a major site of the court until the English Civil War of the 1640s. Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I were all born at Greenwich (in 1491, 1516 and 1533). Inigo Jones’s  Queen’s House (c. 1616–38) is the last surviving building of the Tudor and Stuart Palace complex and the earliest fully Classical one in England. Completed in the reign of Charles I it was modified under Charles II in 1662, who also re-modelled the Park to its present general form at that time. 

Royal Observatory Greenwich

ASTRONOMY AND NAVAL WELFARE

In 1675-76 Charles II built the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park to harness astronomy to the improvement of navigation. Its prime aim was to find ways of determining longitude (east-west position) at sea, to support expanding British trade and naval power. It is Britain’s earliest purpose-designed scientific building. From the mid-1690s to the 1750s the Palace of Greenwich was redeveloped, to a master-plan by Sir Christopher Wren, as the Royal Hospital for Seamen or ‘Greenwich Hospital’, the national charitable home for injured naval seamen. The Hospital subsequently bought up most of Greenwich town centre, which it rebuilt in its present fine late-Georgian form in the 1830s. It ceased to be a residential home for seamen in the 1860s but is still a major naval welfare and educational charity, based on income from its role as the main local property owner and from other assets. 

Meridian line light up at night

EDUCATION, SCIENCE AND HERITAGE

By 1715 the Hospital established a school for the children of seamen in Greenwich, and in 1806 George III gave use of the Queen’s House to another large naval orphanage school. These combined in the 1820s and were renamed the Royal Hospital School (RHS) in 1892. By 1770 the Observatory had played a key role in solving the ‘longitude problem’ and otherwise improving navigation. From 1851 when the modern Greenwich Meridian (Longitude 0º) was fixed there, it became ‘home’ of British and later (1884) of world time. In 1934, after the RHS moved to Suffolk, the new National Maritime Museum (NMM) took over its former buildings, including the Queen’s House, and opened in 1937. The Observatory also became part of the NMM in 1953, after its scientific work moved out of London, and was redeveloped to tell the story of British astronomy, especially related to navigation. The following year the tea-clipper Cutty Sark (1869) was permanently dry-docked for preservation at Greenwich as a famous vessel closely associated with London’s historic sea trade.

Tourists at Cutty Sark Gardens

VISITOR DESTINATION AND UNIVERSITY TOWN

With its Royal Park, riverside inns, and a growing landscape of fine architecture built under royal patronage for national uses, Greenwich has been a popular ‘visitor resort’ just outside London since the late 17th century. From 1873 to 1998 the former Greenwich Hospital buildings housed the Royal Naval College, sometimes called the ‘Navy’s university’. When this left, the site was placed under a new management trust, the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College, and is now the main campus of the University of Greenwich and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance: it is also much more open to the public. Improved rail and river transport links, events at the Millennium and the 2012 London Olympics have also had major effects in the historic area since it became a World Heritage Site in 1997: from receiving about 3 million visitors a year in the mid 1990s, it now has about 9 million, with 10,000 students being taught in what is now a significant university centre. 

Partners