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Woolwich Arsenal to be turned into creative quarter

There are many buildings and sites around the country where the old purpose lapses and a new one is found after a major refurbishment. After all, there are former barns converted into homes, mills turned into office complexes and old railway station houses that become pubs. Even Battersea Power Station is getting a new lease of life as a major apartment complex.

However, few locations could get so radical a change in use as the historic buildings of the former Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, commonly known as Woolwich Arsenal. Once a 17th century foundry for making weapons, it grew substantially through the following centuries and when the First World War occurred it grew to its peak size, with 80,000 people working there, turning out vast quantities of guns, shells and other ordnance. So large was the site that it had its own internal railway system.

The arsenal continued to produce weapons in the following decades, through the Second World War and beyond, before production finally ceased in 1967. It was still owned by the Ministry of Defence until 1997, but the site has not yet been fully redeveloped, although it does contain the Royal Artillery Museum as a clear reminder of its past.  

All that, however, is changing. A small part of the site will be the home of the new Woolwich Station on Crossrail, with services starting next year and a large entrance on Dial Square. Now, however, a 170,000 sq ft development has been given the green light by Greenwich Council, in order to establish a new 'creative quarter'.

There is certainly an irony that a place famous for producing the means of destruction should now be a hub of creativity. Indeed, some might observe this as proof that the pen is mightier than the sword after all.

Council documents noted that the scale of the site offers huge potential, stating: "The total usable space is comparable, if not larger, than the creative space provided in the South Bank Centre."

While this particular part of the South Bank of the Thames is outside central London, the connectivity offered by Crossrail will make a key difference and one of the motivations behind the council's acceptance of the plan was the desire to provide a major attraction to bring passengers on the new route to Woolwich. There already is a mainline Woolwich Arsenal station close by, but the new stop will be right outside the creative quarter.

This transformation will mean new insulation, waterproofing and various other works being carried out to take the historic buildings and turn them into something new and exciting. There will be ten rehearsal rooms, a 450-seat theatre and a courtyard for open-air performances.

Of course, Woolwich Arsenal already has a legacy that stretches far beyond the manufacture of weapons. The football team bearing the same name was founded by its workers - although it was initially called Dial Square - and played at several local grounds. In 1892 Woolwich Arsenal became the first London club to join the Football League. Subsequently, the prefix 'Woolwich' was dropped as the club moved across London, destined for a local rivalry with Tottenham Hotspur rather than Charlton Athletic.

Woolwich Arsenal may no longer be the name of a football club, and the arsenal itself is no longer a munitions factory. But its new guise once the site's buildings have been refurbished should ensure it makes as big a name for itself in the arts as it has in military and footballing circles.