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The Docks Of Old London

March 29, 2021
by the gentle author

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More lantern slides of old London from the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society Collection are featured in THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S LONDON ALBUM which is included in the sale.

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 courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to see 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 High Days & Holidays of Old London

The Shops of Old London

The Streets of Old London

The Fogs & Smogs of Old London

The Bridges of Old London

The Forgotten Corners of Old London

The Statues & Effigies of Old London

The City Churches of Old London

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Bunting permalink
    March 29, 2021

    That isn’t the vessel Hougoumont ,which was the last sailing vessel to carry convicts to Australia but is in fact the steel four-masted barque named Hougomont, 2428 tons, built at Greenock in 1897, and hulked at Stenhouse Bay in South Australia in 1932.

    Hougoumont was A three-masted full-rigged ship of the type commonly known as a Blackwall Frigate, Hougoumont was constructed at Moulmein, Burma in 1852. The ship’s original owner was Duncan Dunbar, a highly successful ship owner who entered the convict transport trade in the 1840s, providing nearly a third of the ships that transported convicts to Western Australia.

    Little is known of Hougoumont’s later service, but there are records of emigrants arriving in Melbourne on board Hougoumont in 1869, and was still listed in Lloyd’s Register in 1883, but is not in the 1889/90 volume.

  2. Mary permalink
    March 29, 2021

    These images look as if they could have been taken fifty years earlier so little has changed, perhaps the telegraph poles and the lack of sailing ships hinting at more recent times. Business appears to be booming just two years after the end of WW1 followed by a global pandemic. It is very sad to see the “ivory floor”, but realise that modern times have brought some changes for the better.

  3. Dean Armond permalink
    March 29, 2021

    A lovely article with stunning images.

    I took the liberty of sharing it but made sure that ‘The Gentle Author’ got credited.

    Thank you, I know that it will bring a lot of pleasure to people still able to remember the docks.

  4. March 29, 2021

    Trading was certainly the part of the economy that an ambitious person wanted to be in. It was a tough life for the dock workers and a dangerous life for the sailors but for the people who sat in London making the decisions, it mostly went very well. Alas those little boys on the training ship pre-WW1 seemed VERY young.

  5. mary woodward permalink
    March 29, 2021

    what a truly terrible, ghastly sight is that ivory floor …at least in this respect we are getting a bit better

  6. paul loften permalink
    March 29, 2021

    I agree with Mary what a shameful sight.
    On another note the old dockers leader Jack Dash became a London tour guide after he retired. The heart and soul of old cockney London showing us its heart and soul ?

  7. M D West permalink
    March 29, 2021

    This year 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the completion of the King George V dock (the last one built)…now the site of London City Airport(already 33 years old). I believe the huge iron mooring bollards, still there but cut off flush to level the quayside for the airport construction, still throw the aircraft magnetic compasses out of alignment

  8. March 29, 2021

    My eldest brother worked on the docks in the very early 1960s and used to tell of the HUGE spiders who arrived in the cargoes of Banana. I shudder just to think about it.

  9. Antony R Macer permalink
    March 29, 2021

    Ah! the docks… The subtlety of the smells!
    Even in the ’60s, Upper and Lower Thames Street’s airs were enriched by the contents of the warehouses.

  10. April 6, 2021

    Seeing the tidal range of Thames made me realize that natural occurring Graving Docks were available.

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