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John Claridge Along The Thames

February 23, 2016
by the gentle author

On 2nd June, I am publishing the definitive collection of over two hundred photographs of John Claridge’s EAST END. Please email if you are willing to invest £1000 to help me publish this important book and I will send you further information. You can also support publication by clicking here to pre-order a signed copy for £25.

In Silvertown, 1964

These atmospheric photographs of the Thames by John Claridge offer a unique 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

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert Green permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Looking at these photographs now it’s all to easy to forget that the scenes depicted here and indeed the whole way of life that went along with them are even now still part of relatively recent history, living in Upton Park the docks were always an integral part of my life in East London, many of my relations worked in the docks and on the river, as a young boy I too was always facinated by the perceived glamour and excitement of seeing the big ships come in from exotic lands all around the world and as a boy my father would often walk me down to the Royals and we would stand for literally hours watching the ships gliding in and out of the docks, watching admiringly I was always fascinated and impressed by the graceful elegance of those colossal structures as they sedately glided through the locks sometimes with breathtakingly small clearance, as a young boy the sight of those mighty ships leaving the docks and sailing off to all kinds of (to my mind) exciting adventures around the globe would transport my imagination far away from the real life everyday reality of living in the East End, of course both pictures and memories can blinker the often grim reality of bygone times and I know from personal experience for many including myself those days were often hard days and not without problems, but having said that, how I lament their passing, how my heart yearns to once again have that feeling of belonging to the history of it, history that succeeded generations before me, a feeling of belonging to a way of life that has now quite literally been completely obliterated.

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Well do I remember this.
    I took half-a-dozen ( bright daylight) photos of the docks in ’63 … all gone.
    When I was a child, in winter, we could almost always tell if it was going to snow – you could hear the ship’s hooters in Walthamstow, which meant there was a gentle SE-wind.

  3. pauline taylor permalink
    February 23, 2016

    This photographer is also an artist, anyone who wants to learn about photography now would do well to study these, the composition is brilliant!! Well done John.

  4. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    February 24, 2016

    The photo of New Canning is simply magnificent…… A stage with props set ready for the actors to enter, and behind, such a beautifully “painted” backdrop. I could stare at the magic in this photo for a long long time.

  5. February 24, 2016

    Wonderful photos of my childhood playground. Valerie

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