The Gun 1969
Today I am delighted to publish the final part of the Memories of the Isle of Dogs by David Carpenter, in this part David recalls his association with a famous pub and witnessing a rather strange natural phenomenon in the graving dock.
As my apprenticeship progressed, the Gun tavern became my local, in those days its bars were quite small and it was almost classed as a criminal offence not to be there on Xmas Eve lunch time. By midday it would be packed out and the floor would be ankle deep in broken glass with the revellers who couldn’t maintain the pace being carried through to the snug to recover.
Luckily the Gun still survives, albeit catering for a different type of patron. The narrow cobbled lane known as Coldharbour where the Gun is located still exists despite the massive redevelopment of the surrounding area.
In the 1950s the area of land encompassed by Coldharbour and Preston’s Road was partly used by the Graving dock transport department and builders yards together with derelict storage space.
The riverside of Coldharbour was bordered by a couple of very nice properties and a row of old cottages in need of modernization and at the southern end just before the ‘Gun’ was the river police’s Poplar station. Below the ‘Guns’ terrace was the outlet from Graving Docks Dry Dock. This culvert followed the course of Coldharbour’s southern extremity, bordering what I was told was an old burial ground, then under Preston Road to the pump room at the southern end of the drydock.
Before the pump was installed, the dock was emptied by gravity; this meant that it could only be emptied when the tide was out. Once the pump had been installed, the dock could be pumped out at any state of the tide, thus increasing the turnaround of ships using the facility.
Quite regularly when the dry-dock was pumped out we found fish , usually roach , and the occasional pike , trapped in the drainage gutter near the pump room, whenever we could we returned them into Blackwall Basin. Some mornings under certain conditions with the mist rising off Junction Dock, the surface of the water would be blood red, closer inspection showed that millions of tiny red worms had risen from the depths; they would be visible for about 10 minutes before disappearing. With this in mind it was evident that the fish had an ample supply of food within the enclosed docks.
Millwall Dry Dock 1951
I often worked in the dry-dock adjacent to ‘Badgers’ ship repair yard in Millwall, this dry dock could accommodate larger ships than the Graving Dock.
Quite near was an area of waste ground that produced a large quantity of extremely potent horse radish, if caught unawares its strength was such that it seemed to pull your eyeballs down your nose! When the opportunity arose I would dig up a sack full and sell it to a Costermonger whom I knew in Beresford Market in Woolwich, this helped supplement my meagre weekly wage.
Poplar Hospital 1950s (photo National Maritime Museum)
Just across the road from the entrance to Blackwall Tunnel was Poplar Hospital, this was built to look after injured seaman and dock workers, this was before the days the health and safety brigade manifested itself. Even I had to present myself there on a couple of occasions to have a few stitches put in! The docks were dangerous place to work, but self-preservation was one of the things that were passed on to newcomers from the old hands without making a big issue of it.
We learned to recognise such things as to where the fire extinguishers and life buoys were situated and to make sure that steam valve handles were tied when working on a steam line. What we weren’t told about was the danger to our lungs from asbestos. One of the punishments for being cheeky to the Fitters of Heavy Gang was to have blue asbestos rubbed into your hair; the only way to get rid of it was to cut your hair off. It didn’t take long to learn the meaning of the word respect!
In hindsight the five years of the apprenticeship were probably the best years of my life, I was taught the basic skills of a trade, but more importantly I have learnt how to get on with my fellow workers, all of whom were hard men and sometimes quite eccentric in their ways, but they always went out of their way to help the apprentices whenever they could. Unfortunately with today’s attitude to the workplace of its unworkable health and safety and political correctness regimes, men like these would not exist!
Unfortunately the atmosphere of sounds, smalls and pub life of the ‘Isle of Dogs’ has gone forever. This also applies to all our old dock systems where dereliction and unemployment is the norm. Fortunately the ‘Isle of Dogs’ has been given another chance, but I consider that I was lucky to have been there in its halcyon days.
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.
Other posts you may find interesting
The Story of the London Graving Dock
Read your book a good while back as i went through the same thing, lived on the iod most of my life, served my time at rye-arc. Sent your book on to my uncle in the states who has since died from an asbestos related problem, he was in the same industry! Now myself suffering the same problems but still think about those ‘good old days’. Jeff Campbell