Henry VIII laid the foundation for the future national importance of Woolwich when he established one of his principal naval dockyards here, a little way downstream from his palace at Greenwich. The associated development of rope-making, naval stores and armaments facilities gradually grew into the Royal Arsenal. The wars with Spain and France in the 18th and early 19th centuries demanded a vast expansion of the dockyard and the arsenal, and this expansion was achieved largely through immigrant labour.
The presence of Irish immigrants in Woolwich from 1770 onwards is the main contributing factor to the rapid growth of Catholicism in the area and the early foundation of a Catholic mission in 1816. Further increases in the Irish labour force coincided with poor social conditions in Ireland which caused mass emigration, particularly the 1845 potato famine. Irish immigrants constituted 10% of the population in Woolwich by the time of the 1851 census.
A large part of the Irish population came from Cork and Western Munster They were able to emigrate to England for a fraction of the fare to New York, and many travelled on boats directly from Cork or Dublin to the port of London. This boat journey was known colloquially among the immigrants as the ‘long sail’ to distinguish from the shorter sailing from Dublin to Liverpool. Woolwich became an obvious town for the reception of these immigrants, as it was nextdoor to their disembarkation point and had a ready source of employment in the dockyard and the arsenal, and a Catholic Irish community for social support. In the 1851 census, 39% of the Irish in Woolwich said they were from Cork. The figure could be much higher as 1500 did not state their county of origin in the census returns.