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The Docks of Old London

May 12, 2013
by the gentle author

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

Colin Ross, Docker

George Wells, Able Seaman

Views from a Dinghy by John Claridge

Along the Thames With Tony Bock

Among the Lightermen

Whistler in Limehouse & Wapping

Dickens in Shadwell & Limehouse

The Grapes in Limehouse

Madge Darby, Historian of  Wapping

Steve Brooker, Mudlark

and these other glass slides of Old London

The Nights of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

The Doors of Old London

The Staircases of Old London

The High Days & Holidays of Old London

The Dinners of Old London

The Shops of Old London

The Streets of Old London

The Fogs & Smogs of Old London

The Chambers of Old London

The Tombs of Old London

The Bridges of Old London

The Forgotten Corners of Old London

The Thames of Old London

The Statues & Effigies of Old London

The City Churches of Old London

14 Responses leave one →
  1. May 12, 2013

    I will never forget watching Churchill’s funeral on TV in 1965, and as the barge carrying his coffin went down the Thames, the cranes at the docks all dipped in respect. I was very young, but that vivid image is imprinted on my memory.

  2. May 12, 2013

    Amazing images.

  3. May 12, 2013

    Wonderful, evocative slides. Another fascinating ‘Old London’ post – thank you. I have watermen ancestors, so this was a bonus for me.

  4. Elaine Napier permalink
    May 12, 2013

    Hi Gentle Author. I love the material you publish of the old glass slides from the Bishopsgate Institute (well, all the material you publish, of course, but I am especially fascinated by these amazing photographs of historic London. Can you tell me, please, if these slides are available in any form for the public to see. Obviously, there very ‘glassness’ makes them vulnerable but do you know if the images are stored in any sort of database the public can view?

    Keep writing please – your work is fascinating.

  5. Gary permalink
    May 12, 2013

    The other side of the coin were the conditions in which the dockers fared.
    My maternal grandfather had to stand in the holds of ships full of loose red lead and with another man had to shovel it into large crane buckets which then lifted it out showering them with the lead that adhered to the base of the buckets.
    No health and saftey men around in those days !

  6. May 12, 2013

    I loved reading this piece. I’m fascinated by this area of London and how it’s changed. My Grandad was a docker and his Dad before him. The old pictures above were particularly lovely to see. Thanks for putting it up.

    My Dad and I collaborated on a piece about Wapping for a project about the marathon for a writers group called 26. We explored how it has changed, Dad wrote some words and I took some pictures. I’ve attached it here in case anyone is interested: there is also a link at the end to watch my Grandad talking about The Docks (I’ll attach that too in case:

  7. Irene permalink
    May 12, 2013

    Another beautiful blog. Thank you

  8. May 13, 2013

    Is that timber floating in the docks in the Surrey Docks image?

  9. May 14, 2013

    Wonderful and informative as always. These photos capture so much of the atmosphere.

  10. John Campbell permalink
    May 14, 2013

    The busiest docks in the world stockpiled with the all the riches of our proud empire. Pause awhile and remember the abused and impoverished global workforce of men, women and children whose toil created this wealth for the priveleged few. Also,be mindful of the horrific suffering of the beautiful creatures whose tusks lay scattered on a dirty London floor.
    The not so good old days!

  11. Geoff permalink
    October 17, 2013

    My grand father trained old the training ship at greenwich he was born 1901 (ish)
    And was a lighterman at Greenwich, he at one time lived next door to the harbour masters house near the cutty sark pub.

  12. Nigel Harding permalink
    September 14, 2014

    wonderful site love the image of the massive stacked timber , as my great grandfather was a timber porter at the docks 1910 . would love to use that image on my own website dedicated to my great grandfather Harry Duncan welterweight boxer .

  13. Zoe Roberts permalink
    December 16, 2014

    Thanks – these slides are wonderful, and useful. I am trying to catologue an old film of the London Docks for the London’s Screen Archives “A Bigger Picture” Project, and they helped me identify the Cold Store at Albert Dock (so that’s what that intriguing building is).

    If you like London History, you might also want to check out

  14. August 10, 2015

    Wonderful photo of London Mammoth! Floating cranes are more than ships, they are awesome…

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