Home » Dock Life » Secrets of Millwall Slipway

Secrets of Millwall Slipway

© Photograph by Loren Brand

Following local photographer Loren Brand’s visual tour of the Island, we come across a piece of land by the side of Westferry Road which most people would just walk past. However, the old bollards and industrial equipment that pepper Millwall Slipway gives some indication of its importance in relation to Millwall Dock.

© Photograph by Loren Brand

The site of Millwall slipway was originally the entrance to the Millwall docks and when it opened, the Millwall Dock entrance lock was the largest lock in London, being 80ft wide with chambers 247ft and 198ft long. It was 28ft deep at high water at the centre and 23ft deep at the sides.

Millwall Docks Entrance gates in 1867, before the flooding of the docks (British History Online)

Excavation began in the summer of 1865 and work on the coffer-dam outside the entrance in early 1866. The lock was without doubt the most difficult part of the works and progress was slow. The contract for iron lock gates, sluices, capstans and related hydraulic machinery went to W. G. Armstrong & Company and the lock was completed by August 1867.

Sluices and culverts allowed water to pass between the lock and the dock or the river, or directly from the dock to the river. The massive wrought-iron gates were each 42ft 3in. wide by 34ft high and weighed approximately 60 tons. The outer gates were perforated on the river side to allow water to flow through compartments, thereby reducing the effect of impact damage.

Ordnance Survey of 1893–4 (British History Online)

Near to the Dock entrance was a series of cottages called Pierhead Cottages which were built in 1875, to provide a security presence at the Millwall Dock entrance and to accommodate dock company employees.

Pierhead Cottages in the 1920s.  (British History Online)

The easternmost cottage had a top room overlooking the docks and was probably occupied by the dockmaster, while the others went to the lock foreman and dock policemen. Number 3–10 were demolished in 1954–5; the remaining four became derelict and were pulled down by the LDDC in 1986.

© Photograph by Loren Brand

The gates were originally operated by hydraulically powered windlasses but were replaced by hydraulic jiggers in 1875. In 1906 two 3-ton capstans on the inner side of the lock were replaced with direct-acting, double-headed capstans from C.  A. Musker Limited, of Liverpool. In 1910 that firm supplied three more hydraulic capstans, one of which survives on the slipway.

Millwall Dock; Traffic queuing in the Westferry Road as a ship enters the Millwall entrance lock in September, 1926. Photo Albert Gravely Linney (Museum of London)

Anyone who has seen ships entering the West India docks via the Blue bridge would have some idea of the sights and sounds of ships moving through the Millwall dock entrance into the dock. ‘Bridgers’ were common and there was often a build up of traffic on Westferry Road.

© Photograph by Loren Brand

The entrance lock was badly damaged in September 1940, when bombing destroyed the middle gates, hydraulic machinery, sluices, culverts and part of the south wing wall. Reconstruction to a revised version of the pre-war plans was proposed for 1949, but the work was postponed due the cost of reconstruction and led to damming of the lock inside the Outer Dock. The dam was built in 1956 by John Mowlem & Company using precast-concrete blocks and timber taken from a temporary dam at the Royal Albert Dock. A rebuilding of the lock was considered before it was permanently closed in 1967, its east end filled in.

© Photograph by Loren Brand

The lock was left to silt up until 1988–90 when the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), filled it as far as the outer gate recesses, leaving a slipway. The pierhead was landscaped and the hydraulic jigger from the middle-gate machinery was mounted on display.

Although the days of ships crossing into Millwall Dock are long gone, the slipway is still the scene of some excitement, one day a year when the Great River Race comes to the Island.

The organisers uses the slipway as its starting point and up to 300 small boats go into the water at this point to start their voyage down the Thames.

Millwall Slipway is a reminder that the history of the Island is there for anyone to see if you are willing to do a little bit of investigation.

If you would like to see more of Loren’s work, go to her website here  and Instagram account here


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: