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In A Dinghy With John Claridge

February 24, 2024
by the gentle author

Ship maintenance, 1964

Take a trip down the Thames at a relaxed pace with Photographer John Claridge, in his tiny inflatable dinghy with outboard motor attached. The journey begins in 1961 when the London Docks were still working and ends in the nineteen eighties once they were closed for ever. This set of photographs are some of the views to be seen on that voyage.

Setting out at dawn, John’s photographic adventures led him through smog and smoke, through early morning mist, through winter fog and haze upon the river, all filtering and refracting the light to create infinite luminous effects upon the water. In the previous century, Joseph Mallord William Turner and James McNeill Whistler had attempted to evoke the distinctive quality of Thames light upon canvas, but in the mid-twentieth century it was John Claridge, kid photographer from Plaistow, who came drifting out of the London fog, alone in his dinghy with camera and long lens in hand to capture his visions of the river on film.

Look, there is a man scraping an entire boat by hand, balanced precariously over the water. Listen, there is the sound of the gulls echoing in the lonely dock. “It smells like it should,” said John, contemplating these pictures and reliving his escapades on the Thames, half a century later, “it has the atmosphere and feeling of what it was like.”

“You still had industry which created a lot of pollution, even after the Clean Air Act,” he recalled, “People still put their washing out and the dirt was hanging in the air. My mum used to say, ‘Bloody soot on my clean clothes again!'” But in a location characterised by industry, John was fascinated by the calm and quiet of the Thames. “I was in the drink, right in the middle of the river,” John remembered fondly, speaking of his trips in the dinghy, “it was somewhere you’d like to be.” John climbed onto bridges and into cranes to photograph the dock lands from every angle, and he did it all with an insider’s eye.

Generations of men in John’s family were dock workers or sailors, so John’s journey down the Thames in his dinghy became a voyage into a world of collective memory, where big ships always waited inviting him to depart for distant shores. Yet John’s little dinghy became his personal lifeboat, sailing on beyond Tower Bridge where in 1964, at nineteen years old, he opened his first photographic studio near St Paul’s Cathedral. John found a way to fulfil his wanderlust through a professional career that included photographic assignments in every corner of the globe, but these early pictures exist as a record of his maiden voyage on the Thames.

Across the River, 1965

Gulls, 1961

Quiet Evening, 1963

Smog, 1964

At Berth, 1962 – “It wills you to get on board and go somewhere.”

Three Cranes, 1968

Skyline, 1966 – “I climbed up into a crane and there was a ghostly noise that came out of it, from the pigeons roosting there.”

Steps, 1967

Crane & Chimney Stack, 1962


Spars, 1964

Barges, 1969

After the Rain, 1961


Capstan, 1968

From the Bridge, 1962

Across the River, 1965

Wapping Shoreline, 1961 – “I got terribly muddy, covered in it, sinking into it, and it smelled bad.”


Thames Barrier, 1982

At Daybreak, 1982

Warehouses, 1972

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

You may also like to take a look at

John Claridge’s East End

Along the Thames with John Claridge

At the Salvation Army with John Claridge

In a Lonely Place

A Few Diversions by John Claridge

This was my Landscape

John Claridge’s Spent Moments

Signs, Posters, Typography & Graphics

Working People & a Dog

Invasion Of The Monoliths

Time Out With John Claridge

5 Responses leave one →
  1. February 24, 2024

    These are a great set of photos showing London’s industrial past. A number of my family worked in the docks during their history. Indeed, one of the Crudgingtons was killed by a barrel of rum falling from a crane while being unloaded.
    I remember when the Thames Barrier was being developed. My Dad assured me that this was a very big thing for London. He always was of the opinion that it could be used to harness tidal energy, which would have been a great additional feature. Big water engineering projects were his daily work at the pinnacle of his career although he was living too far out of London by the time this one was being built, to have been involved directly. Thanks John, and the GA for sharing these.

  2. Mark permalink
    February 24, 2024

    Whenever I see the great man’s portraits I ask myself; is this the greatest ever photographer that ever lived?
    Takes me breath away everytime.

  3. Marie De Vere permalink
    February 24, 2024

    These photos are so evocative. I can smell the river – the way it was to me as a child growing up in Shadwell. Dank and musty. Love them. Thank you.

  4. Robin permalink
    February 24, 2024

    What an eye!

  5. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 25, 2024

    Evocative pictures and ones I remember very clearly while growing up in London within walking distance of the Thames, during the 50s, and early 60s. I was born in the late 40s, but didn’t mention memories from that period at all, ’cause I don’t recall them.

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