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Along the Thames with John Claridge

May 2, 2012
by the gentle author

In Silvertown, 1964

These atmospheric photographs of the Thames by John Claridge – published here for the first time – offer a poignant vision of the working river that was once a defining element of the East End. Within living memory, the busiest port in the world was here yet today barely a trace of it remains. And John’s pictures, mostly taken when he was a mere kid photographer, capture the last glimmers of the living docks.“My dad’s friends were saying that the docks were going down, so I was aware of that and I just wanted to grab hold of it,” John told me.

“As a child, from my bedroom in Plaistow, I could see the lights of the docks at night and I used to go to sleep listening to the sound of the horns on the Thames whenever there was fog, which was quite often. You could smell the river if the wind was blowing in the right direction. A lot of the men in my family worked down the docks. My father took me down to the dock gate when he worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company – and I used to go out with my camera at weekends, or any spare time I had, to take pictures. I went out to see what was going on, I reacted to what was there and, if I saw something, I photographed it. It was instinctive, I never thought I was documenting. I had a need to take pictures, it was as natural as breathing.”

John’s photographs convey the epic nature of the docks where once thousands worked to unload vast ships bringing cargos from distant continents, a collective endeavour upon a grand scale. Yet these are personal pictures and, for this reason John has included few people, even if their presence is always tangible. “You can put yourself and your emotions into the photograph if there’s nobody in it,” he confided to me, “These pictures were for myself. I was interested in the quality of the light which was magnificent. Because of the bends of the river, you got it coming in all directions and in each place it was different.”

As a youngster, John was able to get everywhere, creeping through side alleys, climbing over walls, even setting out in a tiny inflatable dinghy on the river, but sometimes, he would just walk right in through the main entrance.“I’d go through the dock gate,” he confessed, “It was much more of an innocent time – I should have got a pass, but I’d just say, ‘I’m doing photographs’ and they’d say, ‘On you go.’ As a kid you could get anywhere.” If you observe the shifting point of view in these pictures, you can see that some are taken from the Thames beach, some from John’s dinghy at water level while others are taken looking down from walls and bridges, where he had climbed up.

The majestic image above was taken in the dawn light in Silvertown in 1964, when John climbed onto the dock wall to photograph the huge cargo ship that had just arrived, and waited for the sun to rise before he took his picture. As a consequence, the vessel filling the background looks like a phantom fading in the first light of day. There is an equally fascinating distinction between the foreground and background in the photograph below, also taken over the dock wall in Silvertown in 1964. The ships in the background appear ethereal as if they were a mirage too, about to vanish. In John’s vision, the docks are haunted by their own disappearance, and the incandescent dreamlike ambiance of his pictures – often taken through fog or mist rising from the river – places them in a pictorial tradition of the Thames which includes Whistler and Turner.

Yet beyond their breathtaking quality as photography, John Claridge’s elegiac photographs of the Thames are special because they are taken by one who grew up with the river and knew the culture of the docks intimately. As he admitted to me, speaking of the river and his relationship with it, “It’s not something you discover, it’s always been there – it’s part of you who you are.”

“I climbed over the dock wall to take this picture in New Canning Town. You never expect it to go and then all of a sudden it’s gone.” 1964

Old warehouses in Silvertown, 1982.

Dock wall, Isle of Dogs, 1982.

In Poplar, at the very end of the docks, 1982. “You can see how quiet it is.”

1962, a crane driver takes a break for a fag in Silvertown.

From the river, 1962

Inside the docks in Canning Town, 1968.“As soon as the containers moved down to Tilbury, you saw it winding down.”

Near Stratford, from road bridge with the canal in the foregound, 1960.

Limehouse, 1972.

At water level, Wapping, 1964.

A lighter in Wapping, 1963

Warehouses in Wapping, 1965

In a tributary at Canning Town, 1962

Near St Katherine Dock, 1960. “It was all open then, you could walk around.”

Chemical works near Bow, 1965.

Looking into the dock from a bridge, Silvertown, 1982. “There may have been some manufacturing left but the dockland was dead.”

Winter light downriver, 1982

Near Silvertown, with one of the bridges across the dock in the background, 1966.

A lighter in Wapping, 1961.

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

You may also like to take a look at

John Claridge’s East End

and read these other stories of the Thames

Colin Ross, Docker

Among the Lightermen

“Old Bob” Prentice, Waterman & Lighterman

Bobby Prentice, Waterman & Lighterman

Harry Harris, Lighterman

44 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy Willoughby permalink
    May 2, 2012

    Great photos. Thank you.

  2. May 2, 2012

    These are utterly amazing. If only we could find a photographer to do the same for Mistley Quay and Harwich docks….

  3. May 2, 2012

    Haunting.

  4. May 2, 2012

    These are wonderful. I remember walking round the dock area in the sixties, never dreaming that it would all go. Glad I saw it while it was still there.

  5. May 2, 2012

    Very atmospheric photos – I did see it around this time when it was under threat. Hard to believe there is so little left!

  6. May 2, 2012

    I should say in the 80′s rather than the 60′s!

  7. Alice permalink
    May 2, 2012

    Stunning photographs. Because, as John mentioned, he did not take these pictures for documentary purposes, they have a real honesty about them and are not contrived in any way. I can almost smell and feel the atmosphere of a time I never knew.

  8. Stan Smith permalink
    May 2, 2012

    Beautiful, thanks.

  9. Chris Allport permalink
    May 2, 2012

    Wonderful photographs. Bring back so many memories long forgotten of time spent in London’s docks and on the Thames.

  10. Cherub permalink
    May 2, 2012

    Wonderfully atmospheric photos, there is nothing quite like a working river. In the 20 years I worked in London I always liked it if I was in an office close to the Thames and at one point I was lucky enough to be right by it at Bankside; also, my late dad worked on the building of HMS Belfast as a young man, so another connection to it. I was born on the E Coast of Scotland, and it makes me need to be near water. I’m now back there a few minitus walk from the Forth, another great working river – I love looking at the oil tankers in the distance and the har coming in from the sea.

    For me the Thames was the next best thing to home.

  11. May 2, 2012

    These are definitely haunting images. It is almost impossible to picture that London nowadays. Impressive how much sadness those images transmit. Definitely captivating

  12. jeannette permalink
    May 3, 2012

    so beautiful. umbra sumus.

  13. linda sutton permalink
    May 3, 2012

    My personal favourite is the Silvertown 1964, cargo ship at dawn. So majestic. Can I buy a print of it?

    thanks for posting the story. Linda

  14. May 3, 2012

    John, as usual these are a superb set of images, as I said to you before it is amazing to me how at such a young age you were taking these type of photographs. I know at the time you were “just taking photos” but they are now historical records apart from being great photographs. I started my first job working as a young photographer around 1963/64 and had a camera well before that but I did not go around Belfast doing what you did in London (I wish I had) Too busy doing the day job taking portraits and weddings and then out chasin girls at night to think of documenting my surroundings!!!!. …Great images as usual.. Gerry

  15. Tim permalink
    May 3, 2012

    As ever with John he has captured something that we will never see, or feel again.
    Thanks to the amazing atmosphere of these shots they will help another generation understand
    life as it was in the East End not so long ago.

  16. May 3, 2012

    Once again we get an insight into John Claridge’s world as a young man, it blows me away, the atmosphere of the pictures fills me with warmth and admiration for the photographer, someone who cares about their surroundings and at the same time have an urge to document it without reason, that’s what a great artist is made of, it’s not about recognition, it’s about heart and soul.
    In my mind John Claridge is the most purest and honest photographer, and I hope we get to see more of his images in the future.

  17. Cindy Salmon permalink
    May 3, 2012

    John’s images always display a beautiful understanding of light; being asymmetrical they tell us so much about the photographer. If I knew John, I would expect him to be unconventional and opinionated. I would love to share a drink with him- what a night!

  18. May 3, 2012

    Haunting. Beautiful images, historically significant, I want to own copies.

  19. Roger Owen permalink
    May 3, 2012

    As always John, you never cease to amaze us! How you had the insight to capture this precious history while we were just taking pictures of our cars and girlfriends………………………..

  20. May 3, 2012

    late night here and I am truly blown away by the beauty of these images.
    amazing.
    thank you as always

  21. Adrian Taylor permalink
    May 3, 2012

    Eloquent documents of a vanishing scene. Poetic and bittersweet,
    Thanks, John. Hi Janet.

  22. Terry Holben permalink
    May 3, 2012

    John,
    Your beautiful, eloquent artworks rocket me back in time.
    As a child in school holidays, armed with a bottle of Tizer and Mums’ sandwiches
    I’d take the 685 trolleybus to the Woolwich Ferry. Buy a penny ticket and cross the river
    all day long. watching the great cargo ships passing by, White Star Line, P&O, etc
    off to the four corners, imaging that we were aboard, magic , until we were thrown off late.
    A magical time i thought was lost, you’ve brought it all flooding back, thank you.
    You have captured my memories.
    Terry

  23. May 4, 2012

    Beautiful images…….. and amazing how fast things have changed.

  24. Peter Bach permalink
    May 4, 2012

    Stunned.

  25. Paul Grubb permalink
    May 4, 2012

    You can smell the atmosphere in these images. Truly wonderful.

  26. May 4, 2012

    amazing. i feel like i’m there.

  27. May 4, 2012

    Thank you. This is my dads town, His Dad George Bert Allen had wet and dry fish shops in Silvertown. Bombed in the second world war. Grandma got the statutory £100 from the government, and promptly spent it down the pub. Great Photos, so glad you pushed the shutter button.

  28. gordon murray permalink
    May 4, 2012

    Some pictures! I used to walk down one side of the dock to sus out what ships were what,before going to the pool to sign on for a ship as an A.B seaman – this was in the fifties – ah happy days.

  29. May 5, 2012

    such bleak photos – i think i would prefer their colour versions!

  30. Simon Meyrick-Jones permalink
    May 5, 2012

    More of John’s East End pictures- not being familiar with the East End,they don’t stir
    any memories with me.It’s just stunning how much the world can change in one lifetime.
    It’s the photos themselves that amaze me.It’s extraordinary how he can get so many different
    qualities and varieties of black and white out of something that should either be black or be
    white:the strange almost metallic whites and shimmering blacks,and more kinds of grey
    than you ever knew existed…wonderful.

  31. May 7, 2012

    There is little more I can say,as everyone else has said it!! but these are really stunning pictures John and having not seen them before they are all the more amazing and so wonderful as these scenes have all but gone in the dash to modernise our city.

  32. May 7, 2012

    So very glad that you “climbed over the dock wall”. So many views of a past world, which Claridge has captured in such stunning, ethereal shots. Many thanks, John.

  33. Marien de Goffau permalink
    May 8, 2012

    Paintings of the life of the Thames. Black and white with a camera. Sometimes vague, but always beautifully sharp. Just great.

    Marien de Goffau

  34. May 9, 2012

    What a wonderful pageant of the former greatness of London’s docks . . .
    and all undertaken by a young kid! . . . but, there again, that young kid
    is the genius that is John Claridge.
    I never sampled the hustle and bustle of London’s docks at their greatest
    (I’m a Midlands lad) but I did live in Docklands in the naughties and can
    see through John’s lenses what a throbbing, pulsating environment it must
    have been before the advent of Canary Wharf, City Airport and monstrous
    skyscrapers . . . thanks for the reminder, John

  35. john edwards permalink
    May 9, 2012

    Sums up ‘ The past is another country ‘ . Very, very Old Father Thames smooth and silent as satin, and far naughtier, past the petrified forest of dock cranes, below which, battalions of three wise monkeys went about their monkey business.But, no more. Both river and cranes have witnessed God Knows What and have nothing to say that might incriminate as all, and they are without number, sins are washed away. Well hidden like a tarantula in a banana stem off an Elder Fyffe tub .
    The blankest silence, as the mirror shield of Perseus after he whacked Medusa and set Andromeda among the stars to look down on the everlasting snake of water below.
    When young I used to walk all those river alleys and wharves from the Brown Bear in Leman Street
    by the Merchant Navy Pool office, down to Canning Town. Always at night and in the company of the late [ and great abstract artist ] Sandra Blow. Back with the dawn to Chelsea Reach.We both drew inspiration from those sooty ill lit walls and pale glitter of vast water.
    Butter wouldn’t melt in Thames Mouth but the scars of battle are tattooed like a vast Queequeg
    body. Great far off songs of Silence – Johnny me old lighterman. Well done again.

  36. John in Paris. permalink
    May 10, 2012

    It would be extremely difficult (impossible?) to find more than perfect examples of the quotation(coined by a famous artist) “painting with light”.
    Claridge,don’t ever put the brush down to rest!

  37. May 28, 2012

    What wonderful haunting images. Beautifully composed photographs. Stunning.

  38. peter wright permalink
    June 25, 2012

    those were adventurous days. never new what new things you would discover. i spent my youth on that mighty river from its source to its estuary. the docks were magic places, they were the window on the rest of the world with all the different cargoes and bustling tugs and ships, the cranes and wires and barrows trucks and the fee for the security to go thru the gate.
    so poignant to see those pictures, how the mighty are fallen.
    went back to visit last year. now it has risen again with mighty buildings and a throbbing heart a centre of finance totally modern and computerised. not my cup of tea, but still to be admired.
    fantastic mood changing photos, well done.

  39. John Walker Simpson permalink
    June 25, 2012

    Many thanks for the dock photos as they relived memories for me when I was a regular visitor,1952 till end of 1957, being Engineer on Rangitoto and finally 3rd on the Ruahine.The remark about the Connaught was amusing,wish they had Stippers in my times there.
    Went to the old dock area in 1995,didn,t recognise a thing apart from the river.Cheers,John.

  40. Marie-Anne permalink
    June 25, 2012

    Back in the 1970′s, a very good friend of my parents took me and my sister on a tour around the old wharves of Wapping etc, before the boom of docklands development took hold.

    I was a young child, but that day is a vivid image that has been planted in my memory. I was fascinated by them and thought these derelict buildings were absolutely beautiful. They resonated with the history of what had gone before.

    I was sad to them redeveloped and the area lost all of its character. I would have wished them to stay empty but just vibrate with the past life they were so much an important part of. However, I know that that is an impossibility being such a prime piece of real estate!

  41. June 28, 2012

    My god John! This series of images are just ASTOUNDING.
    The cranes are particularly sublime and oh so haunting. The prints are out of this world and perfectly compliment your masterly vision.
    I have nothing else to say; l am speechless.
    Respect.

    ps. sod the drink l owe you. I’m buying you the bottle; the crate; the whole bloody vineyard!

  42. September 1, 2012

    Great photos. One correction. It is St. Katherine Docks not St. Catherine’s Dock, i.e. a K not a C, and s on the Docks not the Katherine. I walk by there every day, so it’s etched in my mind.

  43. Jennifer permalink
    February 7, 2013

    I was able to see the house where I was brought up, which backed on to the canal in Stratford.
    It brought back a lot of memories.

  44. September 19, 2013

    Wonderful pictures of my playgrounds during the 1940′s, I recognise so many of the scenes — that long high brick wall leading to the Isle of Dogs, walking and half running with my parents and young brother to the River Police canteen where Mum worked at night, with what sounded like tin cans falling around (incendiary bombs), also the iconic buildings in Silvertown where my Dad worked in the Victoria and Albert Dock and later where Mum worked in Tate and Lyle, and remember all of the invasion landing craft with Pnos. on the bows in 1944 lined up ready to go. The Lights or barges by East India Dock Basin where believe it or not we would swim in Orchard Place, it was also a great experience to stand by one of the bridges when they swung around further along that high brick wall by the Isle of Dogs and watch these huge ships go through a space with just 12in. of space either side of it, rubbing along the old tyres hanging from the sides of the quay, in words of the young ”it was awesome”. What courage and fortitude our parents had during those years and what freedom their children had !

    Thank you again John, those pictures bring it all back. — Michael Bacon.

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