London Graving Dock (photo Dr Bob Carr)
In a previous post I told the story of the London Graving Dock with the help of a writer who worked there in the 1950s. The writer David Carpenter sent me some of his memories of the area at the time and it is my pleasure to publish the first part of his reminisces . David’s memories remind us that the Docks were foremost a busy and sometimes a potentially dangerous place to work.
Memories of the Isle of Dogs by David Carpenter
Today, anyone who lived and worked in the vicinity of London’s Isle of Dogs during the middle of the last century would find it hard to recognise the area as it is today.
Gone are the fine ships and infrastructure that made the area such an interesting and exciting place to work. The magnificent Victorian architecture that survived the Second World War has virtually all disappeared. This has been replaced by futuristic looking glass fronted megaliths that are inhabited during normal working hours by the upwardly mobile office personnel who have no conception of how important the area was in the past. Fortunately the sugar warehouse stacks on West India Docks North Quay, designed by George Gwilt has been preserved and are now home to the Museum of Docklands. How different the skyline is today compared to the 1950’s when ships funnels and a network of dockside cranes dominated it.
Cutty Sark in Millwall Dry Dock 1951
I started my apprenticeship with The London Graving Dock Company in 1955. Their yard was adjacent to the Blackwall Basin, all that now remains of this premier ship repair firm is the remnants of the dry dock, now nothing more than an ornamental duck pond, bordered by unaffordable housing. I spent two years in the huge machine and fitting shop before going ‘outside’ to work on ships in the various dock systems on the Thames. I regularly worked on vessels berthed at Canary Wharf, the North and South Quays and Monkey Island which was the quay between South Quay and Canary Wharf.
During my time in the fitting shop, my lunch times were divided between the P.L.A. canteen, which was situated just inside the West India Dock on the east side of the entrance locks. Kate’s Café, known as Auntie Kate’s, which was adjacent to the West side of the locks and accessed via a ‘secret’ removable section of the dockside railings, and then there were ‘Harriet Lanes ‘, which was a pie stall almost opposite the entrance to the Graving Dock in Preston’s road that was named after a woman who fell into the machinery of a Chicago meat works.
Together with other apprentices I often visited Poplar Baths for a lunch time swim via a short cut on the north Quay and across the railway shunting yards that now accommodate the new Billingsgate Fish Market.
As apprentices we also had to attend Poplar College one day and one evening a week. On these occasions I used to have my meals in the Farinas Café just to the left of the Blackwall Tunnel entrance and opposite the entrance to the East India Dock. The food there was excellent , the steak and spaghetti bolognaise could not be bettered , it was always thought to be horse meat, probably illicitly obtained from the West India Dock where the huge carcasses were to be seen hanging in rows awaiting shipment. They were always dyed with a green substance to make sure they were not used for human consumption. We often wondered if it was this that gave the meat its unique flavour!
During my spell in the fitting shop I occasionally had to go up to ‘Davy’s ‘the ships chandlers at the top end of West India Dock Road for odd bits and pieces. This necessitated a walk through the huge open sided timber storage sheds, then across the swing bridge at the top of Blackwall Basin and up the North Quay to the main gate at the bottom of West India Dock Road.
Wood Wharf 1950s (photo Museum of London)
George the charge hand always used to say, “Watch your step and mind how you go “.
It was good advice! As it could prove very dangerous, after walking around Junction Dock (now filled in) I had to dodge through the timber sheds with the steam cranes swinging bulks of timber onto waiting lorries, then over the bridge to the north quay where there was usually four or five foreign registered tramp ships unloading a variety of cargoes, such as fish meal and animal hides.
After the sweet smelling timber sheds, the stench in this area was appalling, then further up the quay came the pungent aroma of molasses from the sugar warehouses.
Sugar at West India Docks North Quay 1961 (photo Museum of London)
Once out of the dock gates and past Charlie Brown’s pub, I had to negotiate through China Town with its rich and appetizing smells drifting out of the numerous restaurants and cafes. On top of this there was the continuous business like noise emanating from the whole area, the quick sharp sound of tugs whistles as they signalled to each other, then the shrill sound of the whistles from the hatch masters as they signalled to the crane drivers as to where they lowered their gear into the ships holds, added to this was the continuous rattle of the steam winches coming from nearby ships as they swung their derricks outboard discharging goods from all parts of the world into waiting lighters (barges ) destined for upriver warehouses. Then there was the sound of high pressure steam escaping from the safety valves high up on the ships funnels as their engineers worked to keep their boilers ‘on the blood’ endeavouring to keep the winch men satisfied. Mixed with this was the clatter of railway goods wagons as they were shunted around the sidings that covered the area between the North Quay and Poplar High Street.
To the ship enthusiast, Davy’s was an Aladdin’s cave of nautical treasure, immediately on entering you were hit by an intoxicating aroma of tar, hemp, and paint and a visual impact of polished brass. It was a truly magnificent establishment.
In the 1950’s I was a dedicated follower of fashion , I always had my suits made to measure in Phil Segals at 225 East India Dock Road, where Phil and his son, Stan tailored the finest suits in the East End and probably the whole of London. This stretch of the East India Dock Road was full of tailor’s shops, if you stopped to admire their window displays you would be immediately accosted by the proprietor with tape measure in hand, ready to measure you up and at the same time ushering you to his threshold in a condescending manner.
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.
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