Home » Dock Life » The Story of the London Graving Dock

The Story of the London Graving Dock

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The London Graving Dock

The history of the London Graving Dock is long and varied. When the West India Docks were built, it was decided that shipbuilding and repair would not be allowed in the docks area. However a dry dock was built in Millwall Docks in the 1860s and it soon became clear that not having a dry dock was leaving the West India Docks  at a disadvantage. Eventually there was a change of mind and a small site was found just off Preston Road.
The West India Graving Dock as it was named was completed and opened in 1878, it was at the time one of the largest dry docks in the country.

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West India Dry Dock 1878

 By 1890 the site was taken over by the London Graving Dock company who built new buildings and plant and in 1917 extended the site. Although the site suffered heavy bomb damage in the Second World War, it was repaired and the site extended again in 1951.
In 1977 the London Graving Dock Company was taken over by British Shipbuilders and made part of River Thames Ship Repairers, however the decline of wet docks was the death knell of the dry dock which closed in 1979.
The caisson was removed in 1985 which flooded the dry dock and a concrete bridge built over dock in 1988.
The area surrounding the dock was later used for building a number of apartments.

Recently I have come across the books of David Carpenter who worked at the London Graving Dock.

He very kindly sent me some information about the Graving Dock and some anecdotes of working in the area in the 1950s.

Many people may be surprised where the remains  of  the Graving dock  are actually located .

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Just off Preston’s Road there looks like a small ornamental pond , a concrete bridge and then a small stretch of water that  then feeds into Blackwall Basin.

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Graving Dock 1950s (Photograph  Dr Bob Carr)

The photographs sent by David show the scene in the 1950s and David explains the layout.

The one looking down the dry – dock from approx. where Lovegrove walk (as it is now called) is situated shows the end of the dry dock where the pump room was, at the bottom can be seen the tunnel which extends round Coldharbour to exit into the river beneath the ‘Guns’ terrace. The wooden skin floor of the dry – dock can be seen exposed just outside the tunnel. On the left of the picture can be seen part of the Graving Docks Blacksmith’s shop.

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Graving Dock 1950s (Photograph  Dr Bob Carr)

The other photograph of the dry – dock shows the caisson (now gone). On the right behind the tall double doors was the Graving Docks plumbers shop. Beyond the Cassion is Blackwall Basin and beyond this is the entrance to British Railways Poplar Dock.

David Carpenter has published a humorous and informative account about the his time working in the London Graving Dock  in the book ‘Dockland Apprentice’.

In his later book, Below The Waterline follows the Author through his experiences from the end of his apprenticeship in 1961 with The London Graving Dock Co. on the Isle of Dogs to his time in the Merchant Navy as an engineer.

Both books are available here

David has kindly offered a 10% discount if you mention Isle of Dogs Life.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting some more of David’s memories of the Isle of Dogs in the 1950s.


28 Comments

  1. Diane Chiplin says:

    I am really interested to read this account of the London Graving Dock. My father worked there from the age of about 18 when he was the junior office boy and rose to become company secretary. He was the last person to work at the docks when it shut down. He is now 91and very frail. We were talking about his work over lunch today but his memory is now very hazy. At the time the London Graving Dock and Ayr Engineering were his life! He would be very interested in David’s book but he is now partially sighted and finds reading a challenge.

    • Hi Diane,

      Thanks for your comment, it is a fascinating part of the Island History. The Graving dock is still there which is pretty amazing considering the development.
      Your father sounds an amazing character working his way up from office boy to company secretary which was a very senior position in those days.
      David’s book is well worth reading but I understand your father may find it difficult. I am sure David probably knew your father, if you visit his website you will find his email address.
      Once again many thanks for getting in touch.

  2. George Rollinson says:

    I served my apprenticeship at the London Graving Dock 1971 to 75 but at their King George V works at Silvertown. I done a further ten months with them before going to sea as a Junior Engineer. Last Ship I worked on was the RFA Sir Lancelot in the Preston Road dry dock May 76. I cannot recall the Company Secretary’s name but I am sure it is on my indentures or other paperwork I have from my apprenticeship days. Part of my time was with Ayrodev (from Ayr Engineering) which was the electrical side of things.

    • Hi George,

      Thanks for the comment, the London Graving dock is a fascinating piece of Island History. I posted some excerpts of David Carpenter’s book about working there. Amazingly the graving dock is still there!

    • Andy Fairbairn says:

      I also served my appentership as an electrician at the same time as George. I remember installing the circuits for the computers in the offices and carrying out maintenance on the cranes going down the pump room and working on the rollers in the blacksmiths shop. We made some life long friends Mick Grogan being one.

  3. tracey says:

    I have my grandfathers reference from when he work at the west india dock preston road poplar e14 he was a marine fitter on ship repairing work for admiralty and merchant vessels in 1943 I,d love to find out more and the pics are great

    • Hi Tracey,

      Thanks for the comment, Your Grandfather was involved in very important work because a large number of ships were refitted to enable the war effort to continue. There were later a number of projects preparing for D Day. It was also extremely dangerous working in the Dock area with the German bombing decimating the area. If you look through the site you will find a number of posts referring to the second world war, hopefully these will give you more of a picture of what was going on.

  4. Andrew Hopkins says:

    I worked at LGD from 1974 to 1980 in the print shop above the blacksmiths. In the summer, it was unbearably hot as our print shop was a converted container with one window cut in the side. It made it worse when the blacksmiths below had the furnaces on. It would be interesting to hear from anyone still around from the old days. I remember Rod in the wages office and quite a few of the others around the yard. Am still in touch with one of the Wade family who had several members of the family working there. I have a few black and white photos taken during this time too which always bring back a few memories.

  5. Anthony Waye says:

    I am writing a book about my long career in the British film industry, during my research I looked up on the internet on any history on LGD.
    In 1967 I worked on a film called ‘Attack on the Iron Coast’, a story loosely based on a famoud WWII attack on the dry dock in St Nazaire (during which 89 medals were awarded including 5 VC’s). During our 5 nights shoot we brought our ship into the London Graving Dock so we could shoot on and around the deck area at night, it was easier to control lighting and special effects explosions with a solid working area all round.

    • Hi Anthony,

      Thanks for the comment, I find it fascinating the amount of filming that has happened on the Isle of Dogs.
      I actually saw the Attack on the Iron Coast when it was released, I thought it was very good.
      I didn’t realise the Graving Dock was used for filming scenes for the film, so that is useful information.
      Once again many thanks for the comment and the best of luck with the book.

    • Peter Frost says:

      Hi Anthony, I was an working as an apprentice plater at the time, and remember the film being made. The sheds had swastikas painted on them and WW2 vehicles were all on the dock side. I remember the film caterers were very good.

  6. Jeffrey Wood says:

    I was the last apprentice to ‘serve his time’ as a shipwright at the Graving Dock at their yard on the Limmo peninsula – the Orchard Dock. I’m now 87 (2017) and, I think, may be the last man alive to have worked at the Orchard.

    • Hi Jeffrey,

      Thanks for leaving a comment, that is remarkable.
      I bet you have a few stories to tell of your time at the Graving Dock.

    • Ernest Leahy says:

      You not the last man alive to work there l served my apprenticeship there 1958 _1963 but the last 18 month’s I had to to down at Tilbury because the Orchard closed.by the way I’m 77

  7. David Barry says:

    hi I served my apprenticeship as a fitter at LGD from 1970 till I was made redundant in 77.My father Len, his father Len before him and 4 of my uncles Charlie,Harry,Dickie and Kenny were all boilermakers at LGD unfortunately only Kenny is left.
    Due to all the riveting they all had hearing problems and burn marks around the neck area due to the burning they did [wouldn’t happen today] that’s why they wouldn’t let me become a Boilermaker.
    We travelled to the Royal docks and Tilbury and my mentor was a fitter called Bob Dellow and his mate was Wally Learmouth.
    I worked on a lot of ships but used to love the huge tankers how they float I will never know.
    when the Fred Olsen cruise ships Blenheim and Black Watch used to come in to Millwall we had a 1 day turnaround to carry out all the repairs so it wasn’t delayed sailing the next day.
    One of the most saddest memories was I worked on the Sir Galahad at Tilbury before it went to the Falklands.
    I remember Rod in the office and also bunging the night watchman to put our checks in of a night to clock us out.
    I had so many good memories and met so many characters that even though I was there only 7 years it was the best working years of my life.

    My dad played for the LGD football and cricket teams and I still have his Cricket jacket in my wardrobe which I am in the process of getting framed in his honour.

    I can go on and on but it would be great if other people who worked there see this and contributed

    • Hi David,

      Thank you for your contribution

      It is important for people to know that working in the docks was no picnic and did have long term effects.

      It must have been incredible working on the large tankers and cruise ships and I am sure there were plenty of characters around.

      Once again many thanks

      • Ernest Leahy says:

        I remember the Barry’s Harry was a chargehand at the Orchard dock where I served my apprenticeship 1958 to 1963 and I remember Lenny and Kenny who I think had blonde hair. I’m sure Lenny used give a song in the pub sometimes and Harry used to play the piano

      • dave barry says:

        Hi Ernie
        my dad Len did sing in the pubs around the east end and absolutely loved it.
        What trade did you serve as an apprentice?
        what happened after LGD shut did you leave the ship repair business?
        Dave

    • Jon says:

      Hi just seen this have you any photos.? My grandad was Wally learmouth .
      Cheers
      Jon

      • Hi John,

        No sorry, do not have any other photos other than the article.

      • Jon Learmouth says:

        No worries Thanku

      • Dave barry says:

        Hi Jon
        I actually worked with your grandad he was a fitters mate for my fitter Bob Dellow when i was an apprentice so i worked with him for about 3 years.
        I know he had a son whose name was Alan i think so not sure if that’s your Dad i did meet him once or twice because they lived in Poplar and so did I.
        Your Grandad was a proper character who had quite strong political views but could argue with them best of them.
        Unfortunately i have no photos but if you would like to get in touch via my email davebazza@aol.com if you have any questions i would gladly try and answer them.
        Regards
        Dave Barry

  8. Ernest Leahy says:

    I serve my apprenticeship at the Ayr Engineering which was part of the London Graving Dock from 1958to 1963.
    We worked on Sir Galahad the Royal Navy auxiliary ship that was sunk in the Falklands and it’s sister ship the Lancelot.

  9. Ernie Leahy says:

    I worked on the Galahad before it went to the falklands it was definitely in the London Graving Dock dry Dock

  10. tony gifford says:

    My mother worked at the graving dock , she worked in the offices from, i believe from about 1948-53
    We all lived with my gran in a flat at ,coventry cross ,until my father became a foreman at Bryant & May
    in 1950 he got the job because he unloaded the most logs off the barges,he also got a rented house
    in Ridgdale St. Bow

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