Home » Dock Life
Category Archives: Dock Life
One of the pleasures of living on the Isle of Dogs is it is a great place to walk. Unlike much of London, cars are not found in great numbers and much of the Island has areas to walk well away from the road. Although the promenades next to the Thames are lovely with wonderful views, the walk around Millwall Dock brings you to the heart of the Island and uncovers a number of surprising links to the past.
Millwall Docks 1934
The Millwall Dock was opened in 1868 and is L-shaped, with a ‘Outer Dock’ running east-west, and a ‘Inner Dock’ running north from the eastern end. Millwall Docks originally contained around 36 acres of water and the site covered 200-acres. Originally as shown from the above photograph, the western end of the Outer Dock was originally connected to the Thames at Millwall.
It is now possible to walk around the whole of Millwall Dock, which of course was not the case when the docks were working docks.
A good starting place is South Quay Station, a plaque on the wall pays tribute to the two people killed by an IRA bomb in the 1996.
Around the Inner Dock is new developments that have grown considerably in the last few years. Across the dock is the new Baltimore Tower and the Lotus Chinese Restaurant that has been on a large pontoon since 1994. Up from the restaurant is Harbour Exchange which has two 1960s cranes standing in front of the glass covered buildings.
Glengall Bridge is where the inner and outer dock connect but also marks where many of the large developments cease and the older developments from the 1980s are in view. These older developments were part of more low level housing that used the space around the dock when it closed down.
The Outer Dock is much more relaxing with plenty of swans and ducks swimming amongst the sailing boats from the Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre which is located at the far West end of the dock near where the dock previously connected to the Thames. The centre was set up in 1989 by the London Docklands Development Corporation and the Sports Council and provides plenty of water experiences to a wide range of people especially young people.
Near to the Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre was the large West Ferry Printing Works, which was the largest newspaper print works in Western Europe when it was built-in 1984–6. It has now been flattened for yet more residential development. Walking on the other side of the dock gives wonderful views of Canary Wharf and allows you to look at many of the new developments at the top of the Island.
If you carry on, you end up the picturesque Clippers Quay housing estate built in 1984–8. Although now filled with water, this was the site of Millwall Dock Graving Dock which was a dry dock for ship-repair which opened in 1868. Many famous ships have been repaired in this dry dock including the Cutty Sark. It was said this dry docks was the best on the Thames, it was one of the largest, at 413ft long by 65ft wide with a depth of 25ft. It was closed and flooded in 1968 and is a haven for birdlife with swans and ducks enjoying its quite secluded location.
Walking on round the corner, you come across of a number of houseboats, mostly Dutch in origin , they offer some final interest before we come back to Glengall Bridge.
Unlike West India Docks, the buildings around Millwall Docks were more modest with sheds rather than grand warehouses. Therefore little remains from the estate from the working docks period other than 1960s cranes and a large number of bollards dotted about. But the docks themselves are still full of water and are an important resource for the Island. In the frantic redevelopment of the Island , the docks provides an attractive space and peaceful oasis to sit and watch the world go by.
Last Friday, I was fortunate to be invited to the world premiere of a film called On the Docks which features the history of London’s Dock Workers from the 1930s up until the closing of the docks from the 1970s.
What was unusual about the film was that it was made by children from Riverside and Westminster Cathedral primary schools with support from digital:works which is an arts and education charity.
Using the resources of the Museum of London Docklands, historians, two local archives and the community of retired dockers. The children began to develop skills like filming, sound capture and interviewing skills while others will began to learn to write historical and creative pieces.
The Friends of Island History Trust supported the project and provided some of the interviewees that appeared in the film.
The end result is a fascinating history of the docks and the people who used to work in the docks. The film is a reminder that working in the docks was often a struggle with little financial security and dangerous, injuries or even fatalities were not that unusual.
Despite these issues or maybe because of them, many dockers spoke about the camaraderie amongst the dock workers both in work and in the local communities. It was this community spirit and sense of humour that enabled people to survive in the depression in the 1930s and during the Second World War.
The film is nicely balanced between the interviews and action from docks to give a rounded view of the whole experience.
There is often a difficulty when trying to explain some of the intricacies of history to later generations because lives have changed considerably, even over the last 30 years. However, by allowing children to use their technological and creative skills is a great way to keep them interested and willing to learn about other periods of history.
If you would like to watch the film, it is now available to watch on the Thames Dockers website here
Congratulations to everyone involved for creating a film and project that pays tribute to the thousands of dock workers that were a vital part of the workforce especially in times of peril like the Second World War.
We have an early visitor to West India Dock with the arrival of Superyacht Reef Chief in West India Dock. The yacht was last in the dock in June 2018 and shares the berth with the tall ship Tenacious.
Reef Chief is a 49.07m, 160.76ft luxury yacht which was built in United States of America by Trinity Yachts and delivered in 2009. The yacht was previously named Anjilis and her luxurious interior is designed by Glade Johnson Design and her exterior styling is by Geoff Van Aller.
The yacht has a aluminium hull superstructure with an ultra-modern stabilization system. Reef Chief can accommodate 11 guests in 5 rooms and can carry up to 9 crew onboard.
Various reports suggest the yacht has been sold recently, but as usual it is very difficult to find out who actually owns the vessel.
It is that time of the year when people begin to review the past 12 months, carrying on the tradition from previous years, we are listing the ships that have visited West India Docks in the last year.
The development surrounding West India Dock and Canary Wharf seems to have had a considerable effect on the numbers visiting the dock. It has been a very quiet year for visitors in the dock, however we did welcome an interesting mix of ships and boats.
Some old Tall Ships favourites returned with Lord Nelson and Tenacious, other tall ships included Atyla and Marienborgh. We also had the Tall Ships Youth Trust Challenger Fleet on a visit.
Superyachts included the WindQuest Catamaran, Reef Chief, Forever One and the Lady A.
French Navy ships included Lynx, Guépard, Léopard, Panthère and Lion.
The Marienborgh yacht seems to be permanently in the dock and Tenacious has been berthed for several weeks.
The Massey Shaw, The Portwey and the Lord Amory which are permanently moored in the dock provide year round interest.
With all the development, it is unlikely that in the foreseeable future that numbers visiting will pick up quickly but we will keeping our eye on the many different ships that circle around the Isle of Dogs.
This year we spotted Superyacht Elandess, BNS Crocus, cruise liners Viking Star and MV Ocean Majesty.
May we wish all our readers a Happy New Year and we look forward to welcoming new visitors to the dock in the New Year.
Long time contributor Eric Pemberton has bought to my attention a new book that tells the remarkable story of the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest in East India Dock Road in Poplar. The book entitled ‘Saving Jack’ tells the story of the first 175 years of the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest (QVSR) and is written by David Hurrell and Alexander Campbell.
Seamen’s missions were institutions that were organised in the 19th Century to cope with the large number of seaman arriving in the London Docks. They were often part of the outreach work of various Churches who tried to provide support to sailors all around the world.
Whilst almost all the Missions founded for Seamen in London have disappeared , one institution still survives and retains its original function after more than a century. This is the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest (QVSR) which started life as the Wesleyan Seamen’s Mission of the Methodist Church in 1843.
The Methodists had also supported the work of the British and Foreign Sailors Society, however in 1890s they decided they needed to expand their services and build their own mission the Queen Victoria Seamans Rest in Jeremiah Street in Poplar.
As well as providing accommodation it also provided educational and recreational facilities. Remarkably it still provides accommodation and other facilities for seamen, other forces personnel and homeless people in need.
Eric sent a few of his postcards that feature the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest (QVSR) some time ago and feature some of the many facilities available to the residents.
If you would like to find out more about this little known part of Docklands history, you can buy a copy of ‘Saving Jack’ which has been published in a limited edition of 1,750.
To purchase a copy for only £9.99, you can get directly from the mission or visit their website here for further details
The address is
Queen Victoria Seaman’s Rest
121-131 East India Dock Road
London E14 6DF
Over the last few years, an amazing array of ships have passed through West India Docks. However it is worth remembering that when the docks was in full use, literally thousands of ships would use the docks. I have recently come across a news paper report from 1910 that illustrates that some of the great British voyages and adventures began from West India and East India Docks, Limehouse and Blackwall.
In the early part of the 20th century, the race to the South Pole was one of the great expeditions to undertake and their was plenty of confidence that the expedition led by Captain Scott would be successful. This confidence is shown by the reporter who goes to West India Dock to look over the expedition ship ‘Terra Nova’ and speaks to Scott and his crew.
The preparations for the South, Polar Expedition are going forward, and the following graphic account is given by ‘The Daily Chronicle’
‘Ware open hatchways!’
The cry might have been heard ringing out every other moment from a stout, square-rigged wooden barque of some 760 tons that lay in West India Dock. Outwardly there was little t0 distinguish this particular boat from others of its class ranged along the opposite quay. But on closer view one noticed signs of special activity.
Besides the men that were working lustily the blazing sun, swinging stores and pig-iron ballast into the thick-ribbed hold, one saw strange figures in top hats and frock coats, and others in elegant mourning gowns being escorted over piles of rope, oil barrels, casks, crates, half-sawn -beams, and newly-painted ladders, by guides whose white caps and gold-braided jackets betokened them undoubted officers of His Majesty’s senior service.
The secret of it all was soon solved by the Inscription on the bow, boats and belts— ‘Terra Nova R.Y.S.” For this plain and unassuming craft is, indeed, the very one in which Capt R. F. Scott and his gallant comrades are going to make yet another effort to capture for England the honour of being first at the South Pole.
She sails under the command of Lieutenant Evans— Captain Scott himself going on later by liner and joining the ship at New Zealand and something like seventy tons of provisions will have been got aboard. She will first go to Portsmouth to take in the scientific Instruments, then, onto Cardiff for coaling purposes, and then southward ho!
Accordingly, what with the loading of the stores, with reception of a constant stream of visitors, distinguished and otherwise, and the fixing up of all sorts of alterations that this latest raid of the Antarctic calls for, the Terra Nova was a scene of mingled, cheery activity, of hammering, and shouting that may, perhaps be remembered through many a silent vigil in the Polar solitudes.
With it all Captain Scott himself, who flitted in and out quite informally in a simple lounge suit and straw hat and Captain Evans and the other officers, welcomed everybody who had the remotest right to be there, and guided each round the tough little craft, which is to be their home for so many weary months, with unfailing patience, and courtesy.
Nothing, indeed, could be farther from the truth than any notion that the polar explorer must be necessarily a ‘rough customer,’ shaggy, gigantic, and unsociable, These officers of the Terra Nova, who are going to do things that have baffled the buccaneers and desperadoes of the centuries are neat, dapper, quick-witted young officers, boyish and keen and gentlemen to the core. They are without exception light and ‘wiry in physique— the very antithesis of the John Bull type. They are, in fact, picked men of a new and fine English breed. Behind their cheery modesty there is a determination that is not of cast-iron but of steel.
Shown round by Captain Scott. and Lieutenant Evans, ‘The Daily ‘Chronicle’ representative inspected every corner of the good ship from the tiny laboratories that had been specially built, to the cosy forecastle and the mighty beams beneath which the crew’s hammocks will swing.
Although It is twenty-five years old, the Terra Nova is, Captain Scott explained, in perfect condition. It has already proved its soundness in several voyages, both north and south. It flew the American flag at Franz Josef Land. It was relief ship to the Discovery, itself, which curiously enough now in the service of the Hudson Bay Company is lying in the very same dock.
As for the stores, their variety was bewildering. A specially interesting shipment was case upon case of lubricating oil for the motor-sleighs that are to play so important a part in the actual dash for the Pole. The pemmican and cocoa that are to be the staple food of the shore-party had been already stored away as they would be wanted last.
But as there are to be no less than three different expeditions to ‘cater for as’ soon as the ship touches the ice barrier the needs are infinite. One saw at least twenty crates of biscuits being heaved into the hold, huge stacks of boxes of sardines, a great stand by on account of the oil, casks of beer and crate after crate of mineral waters, dried vegetables of all kinds, beetroots, brussels sprouts, artichokes, broad beans, spinach, French beans, petis pois extra fine, asparagus, cauliflowers, ‘celery au jus, young carrots, cabbage, cheeses, pickles, soups, marmalade, lard, tinned fruits galore, tobacco and cigars, Christmas puddings—the list would have no end.
As it happened, the very last package to be taken aboard when the sheds closed was a large gramophone. By its means doubtless, many an Antarctic night will be charmed away with the songs of the old country, the silence of the ice-floe broken with Recollections of Harry Lauder or a Tetrazzini record.
Terra Nova in the Antarctic
Unfortunately, although Scott and four companions reached the South Pole in 1912, they discovered that Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, had got there first. The expedition group never made it back to safety being overcome by frostbite, starvation or exposure.
If you would like to see some of the relics from Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition (1910 – 1913) they are on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in their Polar Worlds gallery. They include Captain Scott’s overshoes, Captain Scott’s sledging goggles and Captain Scott’s book bag in which he kept his famous diary.
After a quiet period in West India Dock , we welcome back a regular visitor, the tall ship STS Tenacious into the dock.
The Tenacious is a wooden sail training ship which was specially designed to be able to accommodate disabled sailors. Launched in Southampton in the year 2000, it is one of the largest wooden tall ships in the world. It is 65 metres long with a beam of 10.6 metres at its widest point.
The Tenacious and the Lord Nelson are owned by the UK-based charity the Jubilee Sailing Trust who have for many years have pioneered sailing for the disabled.
The Jubilee Sailing Trust became a registered charity in 1978 and was the brainchild of Christopher Rudd, a school teacher and sailor who wanted to give the disabled children he taught the same experiences his able-bodied students had.
Since its launch Tenacious has taken nearly 12,000 people sailing of these 3,000 were physically disabled and 1,000 were wheelchair users.