Tony Bock on the Thames
Pier at Beckton Gas Works
Photographer Tony Bock took these pictures of the dockland – published here for the first time today – between 1973 and 1978, when he worked on the East London Advertiser and lived in Wapping. Subsequently, he returned to Canada where he had been brought up and, for more than thirty years, enjoyed a career as a leading photojournalist on the Toronto Star. Yet Tony’s mother’s family had originated in the East End, and the pictures he took here comprise both an important testimony of a vanished era and the record of one photographer’s search for his roots.
“Although the Thames is such a fundamental part of London’s history, in my time it was difficult to get access to it. In East London, every foot was lined by warehouses and industry which meant there were few places I could peer into the life of the river. And the docks were surrounded by high walls, some even inspired by prison walls. The goods being handled were often fragrant, exotic and valuable, both to the importers and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. So accessing the water was often a challenge.
The seventies were a sad time. Starting upriver, the docks, wharves and warehouses were closing. St. Katherine, London and East India Docks were old, small and inefficient, and they had closed in the sixties. The Surrey Commercial Docks in Rotherhithe did not last any longer, and by the mid-seventies the West India and Millwall Docks on the Isle of Dogs and the Royals in Newham were just hanging on. They could only handle open-hold ships and there were fewer of them calling, by then most shipping had been containerized and moved downriver to Tilbury. And, as the dockers and rivermen moved or lost their jobs, there was a noticeable effect upon the old communities along the river.
There were still some barges being towed. A friend, Don Able, was a tug boat skipper who let me accompany his crew, delivering barges six at a time, to a cement works upriver. Don was a big advocate of shipping freight on the river and avoiding the traffic jams on the A13.
Wapping was changing too. The warehouses, built overhanging Wapping High St, looked just as they had for years but then there was an epidemic of fires – usually in the dead of night – and many of the finest nineteenth century riverside buildings were destroyed in scenes reminiscent of the Blitz.
My brother-in-law, Ian Olley, was one of the last to get his Lighterman’s license. It was another dying trade, so he went into the docks following his grandfather and uncles. My own grandfather, Edward Axton, had worked as as docker all his life. He started at Hay’sWharf in the the twenties. The building is still there, re-developed, on Tooley St on the South Bank between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. After a few years, he transferred to the Royal Docks and worked there through the war until he retired in the sixties. I still have his T.& G.W. union cards. I wonder, would that entitle me to get a job in the docks?”
One of the last open-hold vessels to visit West India Dock.
Royal Dock on a winter’s day.
Heading downriver from West India Dock.
View from the abandoned Free Trade Wharf.
Barges hauled through East London.
Barges hauled through Central London.
New and old buildings in Limehouse.
Firemen watch as yet another warehouse succumbs to fire in the middle of the night.
Wapping High St, deserted early on a Saturday morning.
All that was left of Surrey Commercial Docks after the basins had been filled in.
Old warehouses at Wapping Wall.
Demolishing Tobacco Dock, Wapping.
View from Isle of Dogs towards the City.
Photographs copyright © Tony Bock
You may like to see these other photographs by Tony Bock
and these other stories about Lightermen and the Thames