Home » Dock Life » West India Docks : An Ever-changing Pageant by J. R. P. Taylor (1928)

West India Docks : An Ever-changing Pageant by J. R. P. Taylor (1928)

London, West India Dock (Import), 1837. Engraved by FW Topham after a picture by R Garland.

Visiting the Warehouse 1 exhibition at the Museum of Docklands gave me the impetus to write something about the West India Docks. Fortunately I came across the following article which was written by J. R. P. Taylor in the P.L.A Monthly in 1928. The  P.L.A Monthly often carried interesting articles about the river and the docks and this one mentions the filling in of the Limehouse Basin in 1928 and the writers memories of the great days of sail in the docks in the late 19th century.

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The Limehouse Basin was two-acre basin that was at the west end of the West India Docks, It was built slightly later than the Import Dock and Blackwall Basin and was not completed until 1803. When the Limehouse entrance lock closed in 1894 the basin was little used. The Limehouse Basin was filled in 1927–8, to increase storage space, it was filled in using material from the excavations for the Millwall Passage.

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West India Docks: View eastwards across the Limehouse entrance basin in March, 1928. The process of filling the dock with rubble has begun.Photo by A. G Linney (Museum of London)

Smugglers’ “Black Ditch”

During the past century and a quarter, the area containing the East and West India Docks has been the scene of industry’s ever-changing pageant (writes J. R. P. Taylor In the “P.L.A Monthly,” the magazine of the Port of London Authority). Old works, like old men, must sooner. or later be replaced, so let the first picture be of Limehouse Basin, soon to be no more, as the one and a quarter acres of water space are now being filled in with the material from tho new cuttings in various parts of this dock system. The old basin, however, and its solid oak bollards with deep ropeworn chines is just as it was originally constructed and it is clear that the West Indiaman of, say, 1820, was quite a pigmy compared with her successors, such as, for example, the S.S Inanda.

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West India Docks: Filling the old Limehouse entrance basin with rubble, March, 1928. Note the old crane still in position on the quayside. Photo by A. G Linney (Museum of London)

These vessels used to enter to the accompaniment of good old shanties and lay by waiting for a berth, while the tars, whose lusty voices matched their physique, soon clambered to shore with their sea chests and dirty bags containing the essentials, of their calling, such as palm and needles, fid, grease cup, and such-like. True to tradition, these children of the sea would hug the shore, and when Poplar and Llmehouse had absorbed their money would very soon be outward bound again.

Prior, to the building of the West India Docks (and, indeed, for forty years thereafter) smugglers used the “Black Ditch” at night to run their goods. This stream, now filled in, gave access to the river and ran past where the London Salvage Corps station now stands, and was really, only a cess drain serving the cottages reached via Dingle Lane and the houses along Poplar High Street. One of the commodities that city merchants used to journey down to purchase cheap was Irish linen.

Protruding from the walls of Nos. 1 and 11 warehouses are still to be seen thick Iron rings, which were used during the sixties and seventies, when the Fiery Cross and other famous China tea clippers brought their valuable cargoes, and throughout the season the intervening space, now known as “The Square,” was roofed with canvas.

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West India Dock ( New South Dock) National Maritime Museum 1885

Two long masts were guyed to these rings, and then a huge marquee was run up, and the unlucky servants of the company were then “In for It,” as they were required to be at the scales at six in the morning and work until eight at night, when those whose homes were at a considerable distance were allowed to sleep in the “Dead House,” a building situated near Limehouse Basin, and used then, as now as a mortuary for the bodies recovered from the Dock.

Old customs seem to die harder here than elsewhere, and many strange characters have been produced who would doubtless have been immortalised by Dickens had he been their contemporary. Not so long ago It was the custom of all warehouse keepers and first-class clerks to wear top hats and long-tailed coats. The latter practice survives, although it only needs the fingers of one hand to count the devotees, For the “snuffers,” however, both hands are needed, but, on account of their age, a few years must see their eclipse, and their boxes will be relegated to the class of curios. I have one which was handed down from father to son, and In turn to his son, a lately deceased first-class clerk.

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West India Dock ( New South Dock) National Maritime Museum 1880

Up to tho advent of the Boer war, the decks of windjammers provided during lunch time an admirable parade for the dock staff, whilst messenger-boys, undeterred by Jacob’s ladder, climbed the rigging and sunned themselves, lying flat on the yards.

The opportunities of seeing these survivors of the glorious days of sail are getting rarer each year, but it is a consolation to record that as long as they last one can count on seeing an occasional representative in the East and South-West India Docks, for it is here that they discharge and stack, mountain high, cargoes of cut box timber. One very interesting arrival during August last was the Loch Linnhe, formerly of the Australian wool fleet and her log showed that it had taken her 25 days to struggle and ghost over from Sweden, owing to the lack of fair wind, and during the whole time no rain was met. Her usual time is about nine or ten days compared with a steamer’s six days.

Remarkably, sailing ships still occasionally frequent West India Dock, which gives us some insight of how the dock would have looked in its glory days with row after row of sailing ships.


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