Most of the land area of Thamesmead previously formed about 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) of the old Royal Arsenal site that extended over Plumstead Marshes and Erith Marshes. There is some evidence of prehistoric human occupation of the area - flints, animal bone and charcoal were found in bore holes around Western and Central Way in 1997 by the Museum of London Archaeological Service (MOLAS). In Roman times, the river level was significantly lower, and work by MOLAS in 1997 around Summerton Way found evidence of field ditches and pottery and quernstones from Germany dating from around the 3rd or 4th century. After the Roman era, river levels rose again and the area reverted to marshland. According to Hasted, some areas of this marshland were drained by 1279 by the monks of Lesnes Abbey.
Between 1812 and 1816, a canal was built (by convicts) to take materials (such as Timber) from the River Thames to Woolwich Royal Arsenal. Much of this canal has been filled in, but part remains in Thamesmead West and is now called the Broadwater. A lock gate and swing bridge (disused) still exists beside the River Thames over the canal.
Much of Thamesmead was initially built by the Greater London Council (GLC) for rent to families moving from overcrowded back-to-back Victorian housing (also referred to as slums) in south eastern parts of Inner London. The area had been inundated in the North Sea Flood of 1953, so the original design placed living accommodation at first floor level or above, used overhead walkways and left the ground level of buildings as garage space. The first residence was occupied in 1968, but already there were rain penetration problems. The pre-1974 parts of Thamesmead are a mix of modernist town houses, medium-rise and 12-storey blocks system-built in concrete, which have featured in various films due to their 'rough urban look'; the design of the newer buildings is more traditional and in brick.
When the GLC was abolished in 1986, its housing assets and the remaining undeveloped land was vested in a non-profit organisation Thamesmead Town Limited (TTL). TTL was a private company with an unusual form of governance. Its nine executive directors were local residents; as is normal, they periodically submitted themselves to re-election.
In 2000, TTL was wound down and two new organisations were created. In broad terms, Gallions Housing Association took over the ownership and management of the housing assets whilst Tilfen, later Tilfen Land, took over the remaining undeveloped land. Tilfen is jointly owned by Gallions and Trust Thamesmead.
District heating and cable radio broadcasting were pioneered in Thamesmead. The District Heating System was decommissioned around the turn of the millennium, with those properties connected to it having wet radiator systems installed by the landlord.
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