The Docks of Old London
Within living memory, the busiest port in the world was here in the East End but now the docks of old London have all gone. Yet when I walk through the colossal new developments that occupy these locations today, I cannot resist a sense they are merely contingent and that those monumental earlier structures, above and below the surface, still define the nature of these places. And these glass slides, created a century ago by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society for magic lantern shows at the Bishopsgate Institute, evoke the potent reality of that former world vividly for me.
Two centuries ago, the docks which had existed east of the City of London since Roman times, began an ambitious expansion to accommodate the vast deliveries of raw materials from the colonies. Those resources supplied the growing appetite of manufacturing industry, transforming them into finished products that were exported back to the world, fuelling an ascendant spiral of affluence for Britain.
Despite this infinite wealth of Empire, many lived and worked in poor conditions without any benefit of the riches that their labour served to create and, in the nineteenth century, the docks became the arena within which the drama of organised labour first made its impact upon the national consciousness – winning the sympathy of the wider population for those working in a dangerous occupation for a meagre reward.
Eventually, after generations of struggle, the entire industry was swept away to be replaced by Rupert Murdoch’s Fortress Wapping and a new centre for the financial centre at Canary Wharf. Yet everyone that I have spoken with who worked in the Docks carries a sense of pride at participating in this collective endeavour upon such a gargantuan scale, and of delight at encountering other cultures, and of romance at savouring rare produce – all delivered upon the rising waters of the Thames.
Deptford Dock Yard, c. 1920
Atlantic Transport Liner “Minnewaska” – The Blue Star Liner “Almeda” in the entrance lock to King George V Dock on the completion of her maiden voyage with passengers from the Argentine, April 6th, 1927.
Timber in London Docks, c. 1920
Wool in London Docks, c. 1920
Ivory Floor at London Dock, c. 1920
Crescent wine vaults at London Dock – note curious fungoid growths, c. 1920
Unloading grain – London Docks, c. 1920
Tobacco in London Docks, c. 1920
Royal Albert Dock, c. 1920
Cold Store at the Royal Albert Dock showing covered conveyors, c. 1920
Quayside at Royal Albert Dock, c. 1920
Surrey Commercial Dock, c. 1920
Barring Creek, c. 1920
Wapping Pier Head, c. 1920
Pool of London, c. 1920
Mammoth crane, c. 1920
Greenwich School – Training ship, c. 1910
The Hougoumont on the Thames, c. 1920
Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute
You may like to read these other stories about the London Docks
and these other glass slides of Old London