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Along The Thames With John Claridge

May 3, 2022
by the gentle author

In Silvertown, 1964

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

11 Responses leave one →
  1. May 3, 2022

    The photos John Claridge took as a young man are unique. And I don’t think he could “repeat” them in the same way again. Not least because of the different, analogue shooting technique.

    I myself took black and white pictures when I was 13 years old — today I am amazed at their special quality and I know: this atmosphere cannot be repeated. 

    Love & Peace

  2. May 3, 2022

    Beautiful eerie pictures. Some are absolutely stunning. Thank you.

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 3, 2022

    Superb photographs. Thank you.

    Black and white captures atmosphere so much better than colour and these are excellent. Well done John Claridge.

  4. David Green permalink
    May 3, 2022

    Speaking as a former deckhand and a former photographer, these are lovely.

  5. May 3, 2022

    Hello Gentle Author,

    I read your blog religiously, have for several years and continue to love it. It never disappoints.

    I was wondering if you have ever done a piece on the” old” London Bridge (not the one in Lake Havasu), but the one with businesses and homes/flats above them. I’m an independent scholar/researcher and needing to do a research paper on the old bridge of the 15th and 16th centuries–or when it started and ended as a multi-functional entity.

    Specifically, I’m hoping you might direct me somewhere to learn more of the following:

    – When it was destroyed as a bridge containing both the homes and businesses–and why? (I’ve done a few years of searching but have come up with very little.)

    – What types of businesses were conducted on the bridge (ironmongers, fishmongers, smithies, pubs, food stalls, etc.)?

    – The people who lived atop the businesses, what social demographic were they, and were they necessarily the actual owners of the businesses below?

    – Roughly, how wide was the interior center for left-right/north-south traffic to and from; also, dimensions on the length from London to Southwark?

    – Was there a toll to use the bridge, for whom, and the price in old money?

    – How well did the drawbridge(s) work and if it/they didn’t function smoothly, any relevant info on resultant commotion and delays with the city/country’s commerce?

    – And who manned the drawbridge (or drawbridges), including the machinery/hydraulics that made it all work, allowing ships to pass through; and did foreign ships pay toll or customs?

    Honestly, ANY and all information and resources is greatly appreciated! I tried the Bishopsgate Institute to glean data on the old bridge and came up with virtually nothing.

    I realize this is a difficult list of questions to ask you, knowing how active and busy you are, but being here across the Pond, I have few resources to learn anything about that bridge and thought if anyone could point me in the right direction, it would be The Gentle Author.

    Thank you very much, sir, and I remain

    Yours sincerely,

    Dorothy V. Malcolm
    Boston, Massachusetts

  6. May 3, 2022

    Any day that begins with photos by John Claridge is a winner. But may I say that I felt an extra layer of appreciation and recognition for this group. Just as these docks and piers have almost totally disappeared, the gritty steel mills of my youth (in Western Pennsylvania) were wiped away, without a trace. As my generation ages, we tend our memories of Steel City. (Just as you must
    long to have these once-essential docks back.) Dare I say, some of the photos of the piers looked, at a glance, like the long-ago Pennsylvania smokestacks, rail lines, and flues. The chug of the coal trains in Pittsburgh……and the sounding of the fog horns there in your grand city — calling us back to an earlier time.

  7. Akkers permalink
    May 3, 2022

    I loved this article and the excellent photos. My Great Grandfather and Grandfather were both dockers and I can just imagine them working in these locations.

  8. Cherub permalink
    May 3, 2022

    Thank you for posting these wonderfully atmospheric photos.

    I am fascinated by the traffic that goes up and down on working rivers like the Thames. At the moment for me it’s on the Rhein and I love walking to the local hydroelectric power station and seeing the cargo barges and huge lock gates there.

  9. Mark permalink
    May 3, 2022

    The creme de la menthe of cockernee snappers. Kushti!!!

  10. May 4, 2022

    I worked in Plaistow in the 1960s to 1970s and used to drive through Canning Town the the Woolwich Ferry to have a sandwich on the crossing for lunch. Until that is they told me it was not a cruise and I had at least to get off and on again on the south side. John Claridge really captures the atmosphere, even grimier than I remember

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    May 4, 2022

    Fabulous images, and such a rich history.

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