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The Virginia Settlers Monument in Blackwall

Anyone who walks along the riverfront near Blackwall and the Virginia Settlers Monument could be forgiven for believing the area is a bit of a backwater, however for over 400 years this was the site of great importance in British Naval history for it was in this spot that hundreds of Merchant and Royal Navy ships were repaired and built.

Blackwall’s location just before the bend of the Isle of Dogs gained its popularity as an important anchorage from which travellers embarked and disembarked from as early as the fifteenth century.

The Virginia Settlers Monument pays tribute to the Virginia Settlers who set off from this part of Blackwall in 1606, Captain Christopher Newport led the Virginia Settlement expedition with three ships: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. On board the ships were 105 men and boys, plus 39 sailors.

They carried with them a charter from the Virginia Company to establish a settlement in the New World. They arrived in Virginia in 1607 and created a settlement called Jamestown which became the first permanent English settlement in North America.

Captain Christopher Newport was born in nearby Limehouse and amongst the settlers were Captain John Smith who is known for his association with Native American Princess Pocahontas who later visited London and passed Blackwall on her way home, unfortunately she did not make it back to America but died at Gravesend.

The Virginia Settlers Memorial has a curious history, it was initially just a plaque on the wall of Brunswick House which was unveiled in 1928.

On the plaque is a depiction of three ships and a banner with the inscription ‘Dei Gratia Virginia Condita’
From near this spot, December 19 1606, sailed with 105 “adventurers”:
The “Susan Constant” 100 tons. Capt. Christopher Newport in supreme command;
The “Godspeed” 40 tons. Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold;
The “Discovery” 20 tons. Capt. John Ratcliffe.
Landed at Cape Henry, Virginia April 26 1607.

Arrived at Jamestown Virginia May 13 1607 where these “adventurers” founded the first permanent English colony in America under the leadership of the intrepid Capt. John Smith, Edward Maria Wingfield President of the Council, the Reverend Robert Hunt and others.
At Jamestown July 30 1619, was convened the first representative assembly in America.
Erected by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in 1928 in commemoration.

In 1947, following bomb damage, Brunswick House was demolished and the quay redeveloped. The Port of London Authority used the plaque as part of a large monument, which was made up of a pile of stones from the West India Docks or East India Dock with a bronze mermaid on top. Harold Brown designed the monument and the mermaid.

Remarkably there is a British Pathe news film of the unveiling in 1951. It was a very windy day as the American ambassador unveils the memorial but is fascinating to watch here

As the docks declined, so did the memorial which was vandalised and the bronze mermaid stolen. Eventually the area around the docks began to be developed for housing and Barratt Homes moved the monument to the riverfront of their development and commissioned a mariner’s astrolabe by Wendy Taylor to replace the mermaid. The renovated memorial was unveiled in 1999 and now has a pride of place opposite the O2 entertainment complex.

The Virginia Settlers were not the only pioneers to the New World to set off from this stretch of water. The Pilgrim Fathers sailed in the Mayflower from here to North America in 1620. The Mayflower pub and a statue in Rotherhithe celebrate this particular journey.

The Launch of the Minotaur at Thames Ironworks in 1863

Regular readers will know that regular contributor Eric Pemberton is a great collector of postcards and ephemera related to the Island and he often sends some of his latest acquisitions to share with our readers.

This week he has sent a fascinating glimpse into the ship building in Blackwall and especially the famous Thames Ironworks. The launching of ships was often  great social occasions for the shipyards and attracted enormous crowds.

The Launch

Eric managed to acquire an invitation to one such launch in 1863 of the Royal Navy  iron clad steamship Minotaur at Thames Ironworks. The London Illustrated News were present and produced the following report.

The Launch of the Minotaur at Thames Ironworks

Her Majesty’s iron-clad screw steamship Minotaur launched on Saturday, December 19th, from the yard of the  Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, Blackwall, in the presence of an assemblage computed at 10,000. Admirable arrangements were made by the company for so large a gathering, and although probably not fewer than 3000 persons were conveyed by pontoon and small boats across the creek that divides the yard— the creek into which the ship was launched — not a single accident occurred.

The dimensions of the Minotaur exceed those or any other ship afloat; and when the Agincourt is launched from the yard of Messrs. Laird at Birkenhead, and the Northumberland from the yard of the Mlllwall Company, there will be three ships of the class. All three were ordered by the Admiralty on September 2nd, 1861, and should, according to contract, have been launched six or seven months ago; but many changes have been introduced into all the ships, and hence the delay.

The launching of the Minotaur was managed to perfection. When the last supports had been knocked away, the first effort of the hydraulic ram moved her. Mrs Romaine then dashed the bottle of wine against the iron bows, and the huge vessel glided majestically into the river, amid the cheers of thousands. The work of fitting the Minotaur with her five iron masts,and generally completing her for sea, will be effected in the Victoria Docks.

The length of the Minotaur between perpendiculars is 400 ft ,her breadth 59 ft, 4 in., and her depth 41 ft, 6 in. She is of 6814 tons burden, builders measurement, and is to be propelled by engines (in course of making by Messrs. Penn) of 1350 horsepower. Her armament is not yet fully decided upon,, but it is expected that she will carry fifty guns of the largest calibre.

The launching of the Minotaur was three years after the launch of the HMS Warrior which was at the time the world’s largest warship and the first iron-hulled armoured frigate. Following the success of HMS Warrior and HMS Minotaur, Thames Ironworks managed to get orders from navies all over the world which allowed the yard to survive the 1866 financial crisis which closed many shipyards.

Minotaur took nearly four years between her launching and commissioning because there was trials with armaments and different sailing rigs. The ship was not a great success and considered slow and sluggish with sails that could not be used in any efficient way. The ship spent the bulk of her active career as flagship of the Channel Squadron, including during the Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Fleet Review in 1887. She became a training ship in 1893 and part of a training school at Harwich. Minotaur was then renamed several times before being sold for scrap in 1922 and broken up the following year.

Many thanks to Eric for sending us a small reminder of the remarkable shipbuilding heritage of Blackwall and the Docklands area.


The Rise and Fall of the Brunswick Power Station at Blackwall


The above picture from regular contributor Eric Pemberton was a reminder to tell the story of the Brunswick Wharf Power Station, it was for a short time between the 1950s and 1980s  one of the most prominent landmarks in this part of London.

The Brunswick Wharf Power Station was first conceived just before the war in 1939, it was part of a scheme to build five new generating stations in the South East region. Poplar Borough Council was keen to see a local power station in this area and informed the Central Electricity Board that the PLA was willing to sell a 16½ acres site at Blackwall.


East India Docks before development 1947

The plans were for the new station  to be built on the site of the East India Export Dock, with Brunswick Wharf providing a frontage to the River Thames. Its was considered the site had a number of advantages, there was an abundant supply of water for condensing purposes, deep-water berthing facilities, plenty of space for coal storage, facilities for the disposal of ashes and good rail links.


East India Export Dock filled in 1948

For all the advantages, there were objections, the London County Council was concerned about pollution and the Civil Defence Department of the Home Office and the Air Ministry both made strong objections on strategic grounds feeling that the construction of a new generating station in the docks area would be vulnerable to attacks. Despite the objections, the decision was made in 1945 to purchase the land and build the power station. The difficulties of the post war years led to delays and it was not until 1952 that the station began to supply electricity, and was not fully completed until 1956.

EAW0 1950 (2)

Photographs from the Britain from Above website show the construction including the filling in of the East India Export Dock.

EAW0 1950 (1)

Brunswick Wharf Power Station 1950

The design for the power station was very similar to Giles Gilbert Scott’s at Battersea Power Station which seemed a rather attractive but dated design for a modern power station. The boilers were designed to be fired by coal, .It was estimated that each boiler consumed 36,700lbs of coal per hour.


Brunswick Wharf Power Station 1953

The dangerous levels of pollution in London in the late 40s and 50s led for a call for power stations to be built away from the city and probably explained why the boilers were converted to burn oil in 1970. However, the rising cost of oil made the station increasingly expensive to run.   The 1970s saw the electricity supply industry with considerable spare capacity and the CEGB began to consider how to phase out the less economic stations. Brunswick Wharf was one of those targeted and closed in 1984. The site was sold in 1987 for redevelopment and the power station was demolished during 1988–9


Brunswick Wharf Power Station 1962

The Brunswick Wharf Power Station had a relatively short working life but became a landmark for the area. It is interesting to remember that the site of the Power station was not only on top of one of East India Docks but also covered the site of the Blackwall Yard which had been famous from the Tudor times.


Limehouse and The Great Storm of 1703


Whilst recently researching about Limehouse Hole, I came across the fascinating story about  The Great Storm of 1703 and the way that the ships in the Thames were destroyed on the Limehouse riverfront.


One of the great chroniclers of the Great Storm was Daniel Defoe who produced a book based of eyewitness reports which is now considered one of the first pieces of Modern Journalism.


Daniel Defoe 1706

Defoe had spent most of 1703 in trouble, one of his published pamphlets about Dissenters  led to him being placed in a pillory for three days  in July and then imprisoned in Newgate Prison.  He only obtained his release in November after agreeing to act as a spy .  Within a week of his release from prison, Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703,  on the 26th and 27th November. He was particularly interested in the shipping on the Thames and provided the following report.

Nor can the damage suffered in the river of Thames be forgot. It was a strange sight to see all the ships in the river blown away, the pool was so clear, that as I remember, not above 4 ships were left between the upper part of Wapping, and Ratcliffe Cross, for the tide being up at the time when the storm blew with the greatest violence, no anchors or landfast, no cables or moorings would hold them, the chains which lay cross the river for the mooring of ships, all gave way.

The ships breaking loose thus, it must be a strange sight to see the hurry and confusion of it, and as some ships had nobody at all on board, and a great many had none but a man or boy left on board just to look after the vessel, there was nothing to be done, but to let every vessel drive whither and how she would.

Those who know the reaches of the river, and how they lie, know well enough, that the wind being at south-west westerly, the vessels would naturally drive into the bite or bay from Ratcliff Cross to Limehouse Hole, for that the river winding about again from thence towards the new dock at Deptford, runs almost due south-west, so that the wind blew down one reach, and up another, and the ships must of necessity drive into the bottom of the angle between both.

This was the case, and as the place is not large, and the number of ships very great, the force of the wind had driven them so into one another, and laid them so upon one another as it were in heaps, that I think a man may safely defy all the world to do the like.

The author of this collection had the curiosity the next day to view the place, and to observe the posture they lay in, which nevertheless it is impossible to describe; there lay, by the best account he could take, few less than 700 sail of ships some very great ones between Shadwell and Limehouse inclusive, the posture is not to be imagined, but by them that saw it, some vessels lay heeling off with the bow of another ship over her waste, and the stem of another upon her forecastle, the bowsprits of some drove into the cabin windows of others; some lay with their stems tossed up so high, that the tide flowed into their fore-castles before they could come to rights; some lay so leaning upon others, that the undermost vessels would sink before the other could float; the numbers of masts, bowsprits and yards split and broke, the staving the heads, and stems, and carved work, the tearing and destruction of rigging, and the squeezing of boats to pieces between the ships, is not to be reckoned; but there was hardly a vessel to be seen that had not suffered some damage or other in one or all of these articles.

There were several vessels sunk in this hurry, but as they were generally light ships, the damage was chiefly to the vessels; but there were two ships sunk with great quantity of goods on board, the Russel galley was sunk at Limehouse, being a great part laden with bale goods for the Streights, and the Sarah galley lading for Leghorn, sunk at an anchor at Blackwall; and though she was afterwards weighed and brought on shore, yet her back was broke, or so otherwise disabled, as she was never fit for the sea; there were several men drowned in these last two vessels, but we could never come to have the particular number.

Even taking account of perhaps some exaggeration, the sight of hundreds of ships wrecked along the Limehouse riverfront would have been an extraordinary sight and there were also reports  of  chaos at Blackwall.

The Great Storm of 1703 was considered one of the most severe natural disasters ever recorded in England. It arrived from the southwest on 26 November (7 December in today’s calendar). In London, 2,000 chimney stacks collapsed. It was said every church steeple in the city was damaged, fatal casualties numbered 23 dead and over 200 severely injured, mostly by falling masonry.

The damage across the nation was considerable with human losses estimated at 8000 to 10000, an estimated 300,000 trees fell down or uprooted. Four hundred windmills and eight to nine hundred houses were destroyed, and over a hundred churches severely damaged.

Defoe’s The Storm is an extraordinary record of the event with contributions from all over England. The book was very popular at the time, but both the Storm and the book have largely been forgotten. It is ironic that Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is more famous and considered an eye witness account, it wasn’t ! Defoe was only four at the time.

The Strange Story of the Transportation of Cleopatra’s Needle


One of the most interesting parts of writing and researching about the Isle of Dogs is that  you often come across connections which are no means obvious.  Recently  I came across a newspaper report about Cleopatra’s Needle which illustrates this point.

For well over a hundred years, Cleopatra’s Needle has been one of London’s landmarks on the Embankment  but the story of how it was transported to London is fascinating and has a number of connections to the Isle of Dogs.

Cleopatra’s Needle is an Ancient Egyptian obelisk made during the reign of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Thutmose III in around 1450 BC. The obelisk was moved to Alexandria by the Romans in 12 BC, where eventually it toppled over and remained until 1877 when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson sponsored its transportation to London from Alexandria at a cost of some £10,000.

The question of transportation was a problem, it was too expensive to transfer by land and the British Government did not want to get involved in any way. The solution  proposed by engineer John Dixon was to encase the obelisk in great iron cylinder, 92 feet (28 m) long and 16 feet (4.9 m) in diameter.

needle ship

The creation of the iron cylinder was undertaken by Thames Ironworks in Blackwall who specialised in unusual constructions. Somewhat bizarrely on the top of the cylinder was a deck house, masts and a small set of sails. The cylinder named The Cleopatra was transported to Alexandria in parts and reassembled on the beach  under the supervision of John Dixon and Captain Henry Carter who was to command the ‘ship’ whilst being towed behind a steamship.


Eventually the obelisk was encased in the cylinder and attached to the steamship Olga for its journey to London, all went well until 14th October 1877, when a storm in the Bay of Biscay caused the cylinder to start rolling, The Olga sent out a rescue boat with six crew, but the boat capsized and all six crew were lost.  Captain Carter and the five crew members aboard the Cleopatra were eventually rescued, but the cylinder was feared to have sunk. However these fears were unfounded and the cylinder was found and was taken to Ferrol in Spain. Unfortunately this was not the end of the problem because over £2,000 salvage had to be paid before the journey could be continued.

The money was eventually paid and the William Watkins owned paddle tug Anglia (which was also built at Thames Ironworks) departed Millwall to travel to Ferrol to  tow the cylinder back to the Thames. Thankfully this journey was without incident and the tug and the cylinder arrived in the Thames estuary on 21 January 1878.

A newspaper report from The Times tells the next part of the story.

CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLE. (The Times, January .) The Cleopatra with the Alexandrian obelisk on board was safety moored on Monday afternoon in the East India Docks. Every preparation was made for her reception by Mr  Aslett, superintendent of the East India Docks ; Sir William Baynes, chairman of the East and West India Dock Company; Captains Marrable and J. Hales Dutton, dock masters; and Colonel du Plat Tayior, secretary of the dock company. It was resolved to give her the ‘railway berth,’ the best in the whole dock, just opposite the superintendent’s office. There was a great crowd at Blackwall, and much enthusiasm was evinced- as the afternoon tide approached high-water point, the time for which, According to the notification at the dock gates, was 3-35. Captain Saxby had foretold that it was to have been a very high tide, but it was much checked by a south-westerly wind. It was said that the Anglia, with the Cleopatra in tow, had left Gravesend at half-past twelve, an announcement which timed out to have been a little premature, as the start thenue was not made until 1. However, not long after  the Anglia, with the Needle-ship in her wake, was seen from the Blackwall Railway Pier steadily approaching. She is an iron steam tug of 140 horsepower, and has three funnels, painted black, with a red band in the middle, and hoists a red flag marked W, like all those of the fleet to which she belongs. The fleet numbers a score of these powerful iron vessels, which must not be confounded with ordinary river and coasting tugs, but often make ocean voyages, as far, for instance, as St. Helena. The form of the floating cylinder with parallel pinched ends need not be again described. She is painted buff down to her water-line, and red beneath, carrying two red flags, of which the upper one bears her name ‘Cleopatra,” the lower being a simple British merchant’s ensign. Owing to the number of vessels leaving the docks, it was close upon three before the Anglia and the Cleopatra approached the dock gates, and it was a quarter to 4 before the obelisk ship was within them. By this time the Anglia had resigned her charge  to the care of the dock company’s tug Mosquito,which worked the Cleopatra safely and comfortably through the narrow entrance, and saw her to her berth, which, however, was not reached till nearly 5. Meanwhile the crowds continued to swell, and the excitement was very great. Order was admirably preserved, thanks to the arrangements of Captain Sheppey, the superintendent of the East and West India Dock Police.

So the Cleopatra’s Needle’s first home in London was East India Docks until the decision was made where to erect it, The Palace of Westminster, St James Park and the British Museum were some of the suggestions but eventually the Embankment was chosen and well over 100 years later is where it still remains.

A Rainy Day on “The Euphrates” by Charles Dickens 1852

1849 624x544mallacca

Blackwall  1849

It seems quite a while since I have included anything from  Charles Dickens, to remedy this oversight, I  will bring to your attention  an unusual piece of journalism by the great author.


Blackwall railway station 1840s

‘A Rainy Day on The Euphrates’ finds Dickens standing at Blackwall Train station in 1852.

 The 13th of January, 1852, was a decidedly wet day. You, reader, as a shadow, not affected by the weather ; I, as a motionless, damp substance, under the porch of the Blackwall Railway station, looking up at the immense wet slate in . the sky, and down at the few human sponges whom fate urged, for some motive or other, to a run across the puddles on the pier. The river before us had a languid, sickly look, as if it had just come from swallowing a sewer. As for the opposite shore, utterly flat, it seemed to be depressed entirely, on account of the uncomfortable aspect of the morning.

It was our fancy to come down to Blackwall half-an-hour before the time appointed for embarkation on board the steamer which was to carry us alongside an emigrant ship.

I now ” hold in my hand ” (because I have just pulled out of my pocket) an Occasional Paper, published by the Committee of the Female Emigration Fund, containing specimens of letters recently received from emigrants sent out by them. While we await the arrival of the train which is to bring our young friends of today, we may profitably spend the little time we have in gossiping about the Home Talk of their predecessors. As for the Fund itself, to be sure there are some wise people who complain of the small scale on which an operation of this kind has to be conducted ; who complain that it can exert no influence upon the aspect of our social system, and that by favouring a few women who are sent away in peace, it becomes unjust to those equally deserving objects of compassion.

Dickens  is referring to  sixty poor girls who have been selected to emigrate to Australia and New Zealand. This is the twentieth and largest party of the needlewomen and  domestic servants sent out by the Right Honourable Sidney Herbert’s Female Emigration Fund. The whole number of emigrants despatched by this Fund, on the nineteen previous occasions, has been six hundred and thirty-seven ; so, including the present set, about seven hundred poor girls had emigrated.

Whilst Dickens refers to letters from emigrants who had made a good life for themselves and  often got married in the first year aboard, he is dismayed that Britain had failed the young women and no matter how hard they tried their prospects were poor if they stayed.

The girls go from Blackwall down to the ‘Euphrates’ in Gravesend on a steamer called the Meteor.  After a meal on board the ‘ Euphrates ‘ , it is time for Dickens, family and friends to leave and return on the Meteor. Dickens describes the scene as the girls prepare to say goodbye:

 The steamer is alongside, and the unfinished food is left, and all the girls, heedless of rain and uubonneted, are upon deck for the last accents of farewell. Pleasant it is to see the matron made a prisoner of love, unable to get free of the fingers which fond girls put out to her, who had given them perhaps the first sense of home comfort. A stout girl, clinging resolutely to a sister who must go on board the steamer, is standing on the plank and blocks the way ; she is warned off not gruffly, far from it. And, though she holds her place, and clings about her sister, caring most for the few minutes left for that embrace, and little for all the world else just then, (though she tries to make way for the other passengers,) nobody warns her off again. We all contrive to pass without disturbing her. At length the steamer has put off, the emigrant girls climb to where they can get the last look of the friends whom they may see no more. There are attempts at parting cheers, in which they seem to choke ; there is a mutual waving of handkerchiefs and hats : a mutual and complete goodwill. The sailors, who have all gathered in the bow of the ship, give three cheers of a louder sort to the departing steamer, and tomorrow morning early the Euphrates will set sail.


Typical emigrants ship accommodation 1852

Although this is where the Dickens piece ends, the story can be taken up by a fellow emigrant to the girls called  Emily Anne Wilson who wrote a record of the journey in a journal. Here are a few extracts:

I am told I shall have to rough it as the same vessel takes out about sixty female emigrants, some from Ireland (to whom Miss Hall is appointed matron) and that I must enter one of the classes or “messes”. This I do not mind and I am resolved not to murmur. I feel quiet and subdued on leaving my home. I parted from my brothers and sisters on Saturday afternoon, from my dear father on Sabbath afternoon, from my beloved mother on Monday afternoon, and yesterday morning from my brother Philip, who came to see me off. There was a good deal of weeping about us, but I struggled to be quiet and tho my spirits are saddened, the sky clouded and the rain falling in abundance, I will not droop. I am full of hope.

Unfortunately Emily’s hope did not last long, a few days later and she began to feel homesick.

I have been, and still am, rather low spirited. I have never felt the loss of a mother’s care and attention so much as I have done the last few days. I never felt so helpless. I could not move hand or foot. I have several times regretted coming but as I feel it is all for the best I have prayed (and I hope, fervently) to God to help me and strengthen me for the voyage. I was very low spirited on Sunday evening and cried very much. Miss Hall came and talked to me very kindly, and so did Teresa.

She cheers up a little and begins to get involved more in the ship’s activities until she has a really bad toothache. The Doctor offers Emily some interesting drugs to take.

April 4th. I was so bad last night Mr Brown was obliged to give me a ginger and laudanum poultice, and some opium to take. I had just got to sleep when the noise of the Irish girls awoke me and frightened me very much. The opium did me more harm than good.

Whether she was now in a opium induced state, she seems to develop some unusual tastes in food.

On Thursday, I saw a porpoise caught. I tasted it cooked several ways. It was delicious. It belonged to one of the sailors.

Eventually, they reach Sydney and the start of a new life for Emily and the girls.

May 24th. On one side of us we can see a vessel and on the other the shore of Sydney, the long wished for land. Although I was neither glad nor sorry that we were so near, my heart beat as I gazed on the land of my adoption.

Emily finds work as a governess but within a few months she decides to get married.

Blackwall was famous for centuries as a embarkation point for emigrants going to many different destinations. Dickens standing on a wet Blackwall train station watching these drama’s give us a little insight of what was once, a common sight of men, women and children looking to start  a better life aboard.


The London County Council Steamboat Service 1905 – 1907


Anyone who walks alongside the Thames cannot fail to notice the Thames Clippers plying their trade up and down the river.

It seems incredible that since the 1840s, many companies have tried to run regular boat services along the Thames to link east and west London but most have ended in failure. This failure seems all the more remarkable when you consider other river services around the world have had considerable success.

A recent postcard sent by Eric Pemberton bought to my attention a riverboat service from the early 20th century that started with great optimism but quickly was abandoned.

In 1905 the London County Council launched its own public river transport service , acquiring piers and investing in a large fleet of 30 paddle-steamers.  The fleet was to operate frequent services  from Hammersmith to Greenwich.


Many of the new boats had a local connection being built by the famous Thames Iron works at Blackwall and G. Rennie & Co at Greenwich. All the boats were virtually identical and could hold around 500 passengers, they were mostly named after famous people with a London connection.

It was in June 1905 that HRH the Prince of Wales opened the service travelling along the route  on the King Alfred. The opening of the service was not without controversy, newspaper reports both praised:

The Government had even allowed the Council a service of steamboats on the Thames. It would not run steamers to make an enormous profit, but to open up to Londoners a new highway. Municipal service was not to secure profits and. dividends, but to promote the general benefit of the community.

And condemned the scheme , many saw it has a waste of taxpayers money:

As for the Thames steam boats, a private company is said to have lost £10,000 in one year over them, : and, by analogy, it is safe to conclude that the Council could easily lose twice as much in the same time. The Thames, as we have often pointed out, is not a business thoroughfare, and does not run where it should if it is to be of any use to people going to and from their work. In Paris, which is the stock example, things are different. Our river can only he used for pleasure and not for business, and will never relieve the crush in the streets to any appreciable extent.

It quickly became clear that the doubters had been correct and it also became clear that the numbers needed to break even were not being met.

earl godwin

Photo  Dr J Meister

£15,000 WASTED.
At a specially convened meeting of the Rivers Committee of the London County Council held last month, it was unanimously decided to stop the running of the boats above London. Bridge, and to diminish still further the service between that point and Greenwich. A considerable saving in expenditure will thus be effected. That the great body of ratepayers are impatiently awaiting the notification that the whole of the boats will be laid up there is overwhelming evidence. As was only to be expected, the position, from the ratepayers’ point of view, grows rapidly worse. The following official figures bring home to everybody the folly of continuing the service:— . Week Ending Receipts. October 14  £351 36 , October 21  £215 13 , October 28  £250 15 0,  November 4  £250 11 0, November 11 , £165 17 6,  November 18  £140 0 0. In the meantime the service is still costing something like £2000 a week.


The operation struggled on until 1907, but the massive debts led to the operation being closed down. A newspaper report from 1908 remarks  on the services demise.

1908 – As for the Thames steamboats, they have, alas! become  a joke. The L.C.C. entered into the business with tremendous enthusiasm. They built new boats and christened them after the heroes of England. The project was ambitious, but laudable. It ought to have succeeded, But, as a matter of fact, it has proved an abject failure. The boats .were tied up all last winter, and only, started to run towards the latter end of last May. The comic papers to celebrate the joyous event, published illustrations  showing, all London thronging the Embankment, and gazing with intense eagerness towards the river, along which, slowly and majestically, a L.C.C. steam-boat was pushing her lonely way with one solitary and daring adventurer on board. Things are not quite so bad as this,but it is not to be denied that with the increased facilities for transit by train, tram, and motor buses, the Londoner no longer yearns to travel on dear old Father Thames.

originalsteamer ticket mol

The lack of customers was not the only the problems, the large and unwieldy boats had a series of accidents including one in a Martha Wilson from Deptford  was killed when she was crushed by two of the steamboats.

All that was left was to sell off the fleet, each boat cost £6500 to build and were sold off for a few hundred. A rival company, The City Steamboat Company bought fourteen of the boats and tried to run a profitable service but even they had to concede defeat  at the beginning of the First World War. Many of the other boats were snapped up at their bargain price and ended up being used all over Europe including Mesopotamia, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Germany and Russia.

Other efforts to run a river service in the 20th century generally ended in failure including the service to Canary Wharf.

Which all goes to show that unlike the tube, trains and buses running passenger services on the Thames has rarely been profitable.



The Mystery of Sir Walter Raleigh’s House in Blackwall


Walter Raleigh’s House in Blackwall in 1873

Anyone who has done any historical research usually comes across items that many people believe to be the truth but there is often very flimsy evidence on which to base that assumption. Walter Raleigh’s House at Blackwall which was demolished in 1881 falls into this category.

The information about the house suggest it was very old but there is nothing to suggest it belonged to Sir Walter, in fact there is more evidence that he had property in Islington.

raleigh islington

Walter Raleigh’s house in Islington

There is no doubt that Sir Walter knew the Tower Hamlets area well, Blackwall in  those times was well known for ships departing or arriving from long voyages and he sent at least a couple of letters from Blackwall. His close relationship with Queen Elizabeth I would mean he was a regular visitor to Greewich . He would also often visit his half brother Humphrey Gilbert in Limehouse  to discuss events of the day. There is evidence he spent some time at Mile End where the Throckmorton’s lived. Bess Throckmorton and  Raleigh secretly married  and it appears he often visited Mile End  in 1595 and especially 1596 when one of his servants died and was buried in St Dunstan’s churchyard. His relationship with Bess would lead him to be sent to the Tower for the first time.

1856 redisent

Print from the Illustrated London News 1856

As one of the most famous men of his day, it seems unlikely if Walter Raleigh had a permanent residency in Blackwall it would not be better known, however that’s not to say that he never stayed at the house. It was very common for mariners to stay in taverns and houses in ports waiting for favourable conditions to set sail.

The idea that the link is tenuous is shared by the Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs (1994),

Blackwall was the site of an ancient timber-framed house which became known, some time during the nineteenth century, as ‘Raleigh’s House’. It stood directly opposite the Artichoke Inn. Any association with the sixteenth century courtier and explorer is extremely tenuous, as is the further claim that the same property had been the residence of Sebastian Cabot.   Raleigh was indeed at Blackwall on many occasions, while waiting to go aboard ship or when on naval business. Many letters written by him are signed from Blackwall, but this is not proof that he was a permanent resident.

A photograph of the house taken in 1873 shows it to have been a jettied timber-framed building in filled with lath and plaster Wooden carvings of grotesque heads decorated the facade. The floor of the house was, by the late nineteenth century, below street level and the main entrance was blocked. As early as 1856 it was suggested that such a quaint house should be preserved and turned into ‘a little almshouse or school’.  This advice was not heeded, and pressures to develop the area eventually led to the demolition of the building, which had been carried out by 1881. Its site was bought by the Metropolitan Board of Works from the London and North West Railway Company in 1888 for the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel.

Until we have more information, it may be sensible to treat the claim of Walter Raleigh’s House in Blackwall with some caution. But it would be nice to find out what the house was used for anyway because it was a large and grand house for its time but information seems very scarce even into the 19th century.




The Parade of Sail at Blackwall


The wonderful sight of  around 50 Tall ships  going down the  Thames was too good an opportunity to miss, but rather than watch them at Greenwich I decided to watch them pass the old Maritime area of Blackwall .


For centuries this stretch of water was famous for its shipbuilding and safe anchorage.


It was also a major demarcation and embarkation point for millions of people.


The Greenwich Festival was the largest fleet  of Tall Ships in London for 25 years.


Lets hope its not another 25 years before they return.




The Tragedy at the Launch of the HMS Albion at Blackwall 1898


Many thanks to Eric Pemberton who bought to my attention, two remarkable films about the launch of the HMS Albion in Blackwall in 1898.

This launch was made famous by the tragedy that occurred after the launch when over 30 people died when a bridge collapsed.

E.P. Prestwich’s footage of the launch of the battleship HMS Albion is from a high view and shows the ship gliding into the water. However the film by British film-pioneer R.W. Paul is remarkable because it shows from the water , the huge crowds both on and off the water.


It was estimated that up to 30,000 attended the launch and Paul’s film shows the chaotic scenes along the riverbank. At the end of the film it suggests that a number of the boatmen were desperately trying to help with the rescue  but it is all a confusing scene.


This tends to support the following news report of the disaster.


36 BODIES RECOVERED. London June 22.

The catastrophe which occurred in connection with the launching of H.M.S. Albion at Blackwall yesterday, was of most appalling character. The Albion is a battleship of 12,900 tons which has just been completed for the Admiralty by the Thames Iron Works Company. Among those present at the launching were the Duke and Duchess of York, Mr. G. J. Goschen (First Lord of the Admiralty), Sir William Vernon Harcourt (Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons), Lord Brassey (the Governor of Victoria), some of the Ambassadors, and a large number of members of the House of Commons.


The Duchess of York, who christened  the vessel, made three unsuccessful attempts to break a bottle against the ship’s side. Loud cheers greeted the vessel’s approach to the water. The guests then departed. There was a general holiday for the workmen and their wives. These people were massed together, wherever a view of the proceedings was obtainable. Two hundred of the spectators occupied an old wooden bridge, despite the police and placards warning them of the danger. A huge backwash, which followed the launching of the vessel, rose high above the bridge, and swept all the people on it into the river. A terrible scene ensued.

Owing to the shrieking of the siren horns on the boats, the departing guests did not hear the cries of the unfortunate people. Several workmen dived from the quay walls, and rescued some of the screaming women and the babies in arms. Others were saved by means of boats. One gallant sailor rescued no fewer than six persons. The greatest confusion prevailed, the depth of the water where the accident occurred was 12ft. Mr Robinson, of the St. John’s Ambulance Society  revived four of the rescued sufferers by artificial respiration, and altogether 25 were resuscitated by this means. Thirty-six bodies have been recovered. One boat rescued 50 persons. The Duke and Duchess of York have sent a telegram expressing their sorrow at the terrible accident.

The  result of the inquiry into the disaster a verdict of accidental causes, indeed the inquest was quick to point out the crowd itself was responsible for the disaster.

 “no blame was attributable to the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co., nor to the police. There was 30,000 people present, and the disaster  arose from the stupidity of the crowd, who would not accept any warnings of danger. Thousands crowded on to the  dilapidated  bridge which ultimately collapsed under their weight, and refused to obey all orders to got off, Warnings and entreaties were completely disregarded. and the police were jeered and mocked , while vainly attempting to avert the impending danger.”


I doubt whether a modern inquiry would be so lenient with the police or the company who if they allowed so many people in a small area should have been more responsible. The great tragedy was most of the victims were women whose heavy clothing would have given them little chance of survival in the currents of the Thames.

If you would like to see the films here is a couple of links that will take you to You Tube.

Launch of HMS Albion at Blackwall (1898) Prestwich Film  here

‘The Launch of H.M.S. Albion’ (1898) Paul film here