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Memories of the Isle of Dogs, Part Two – David Carpenter

london metropolitian archives 1969

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 nmm

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

Memories of the Isle Of Dogs ,Part One- David Carpenter

Memories of the Isle of Dogs by David Carpenter – Part One


London Graving Dock (photo Dr Bob Carr)

In a previous post  I told the story of the London Graving Dock with the help of a writer who worked there in the 1950s. The writer David Carpenter sent me some of his memories of the area at the time and it is my pleasure to publish the first part  of his reminisces . David’s memories remind us that the Docks were foremost a busy and sometimes a potentially dangerous place to work.

Memories of the Isle of Dogs by David Carpenter

Today, anyone who lived and worked in the vicinity of London’s Isle of Dogs during the middle of the last century would find it hard to recognise the area as it is today.

Gone are the fine ships and infrastructure that made the area such an interesting and exciting place to work. The magnificent Victorian architecture that survived the Second World War has virtually all disappeared. This has been replaced by futuristic looking glass fronted megaliths that are inhabited during normal working hours by the upwardly mobile office personnel who have no conception of how important the area was in the past. Fortunately the sugar warehouse stacks on West India Docks North Quay, designed by George Gwilt has been preserved and are now home to the Museum of Docklands. How different the skyline is today compared to the 1950’s when ships funnels and a network of dockside cranes dominated it.


Cutty Sark in Millwall Dry Dock 1951

I started my apprenticeship with The London Graving Dock Company in 1955. Their yard was adjacent to the Blackwall Basin, all that now remains of this premier ship repair firm is the remnants of the dry dock, now nothing more than an ornamental duck pond, bordered by unaffordable housing. I spent two years in the huge machine and fitting shop before going ‘outside’ to work on ships in the various dock systems on the Thames. I regularly worked on vessels berthed at Canary Wharf, the North and South Quays and Monkey Island which was the quay between South Quay and Canary Wharf.

During my time in the fitting shop, my lunch times were divided between the P.L.A. canteen, which was situated just inside the West India Dock on the east side of the entrance locks. Kate’s Café, known as Auntie Kate’s, which was adjacent to the West side of the locks and accessed via a ‘secret’ removable section of the dockside railings, and then there were ‘Harriet Lanes ‘, which was a pie stall almost opposite the entrance to the Graving Dock in Preston’s road that was named after a woman who fell into the machinery of a Chicago meat works.


Poplar Baths

Together with other apprentices I often visited Poplar Baths for a lunch time swim via a short cut on the north Quay and across the railway shunting yards that now accommodate the new Billingsgate Fish Market.

As apprentices we also had to attend Poplar College one day and one evening a week. On these occasions I used to have my meals in the Farinas Café just to the left of the Blackwall Tunnel entrance and opposite the entrance to the East India Dock. The food there was excellent , the steak and spaghetti bolognaise could not be bettered , it was always thought to be horse meat, probably illicitly obtained from the West India Dock where the huge carcasses were to be seen hanging in rows awaiting shipment. They were always dyed with a green substance to make sure they were not used for human consumption. We often wondered if it was this that gave the meat its unique flavour!

During my spell in the fitting shop I occasionally had to go up to ‘Davy’s ‘the ships chandlers at the top end of West India Dock Road for odd bits and pieces. This necessitated a walk through the huge open sided timber storage sheds, then across the swing bridge at the top of Blackwall Basin and up the North Quay to the main gate at the bottom of West India Dock Road.

mol 1950  wood warf

Wood Wharf 1950s (photo Museum of London)

George the charge hand always used to say, “Watch your step and mind how you go “.

It was good advice! As it could prove very dangerous, after walking around Junction Dock (now filled in) I had to dodge through the timber sheds with the steam cranes swinging bulks of timber onto waiting lorries, then over the bridge to the north quay where there was usually four or five foreign registered tramp ships unloading a variety of cargoes, such as fish meal and animal hides.

After the sweet smelling timber sheds, the stench in this area was appalling, then further up the quay came the pungent aroma of molasses from the sugar warehouses.

mol west india 1961sugar

Sugar at West India Docks North Quay 1961 (photo Museum of London)

Once out of the dock gates and past Charlie Brown’s pub, I had to negotiate through China Town with its rich and appetizing smells drifting out of the numerous restaurants and cafes. On top of this there was the continuous business like noise emanating from the whole area, the quick sharp sound of tugs whistles as they signalled to each other, then the shrill sound of the whistles from the hatch masters as they signalled to the crane drivers as to where they lowered their gear into the ships holds, added to this was the continuous rattle of the steam winches coming from nearby ships as they swung their derricks outboard discharging goods from all parts of the world into waiting lighters (barges ) destined for upriver warehouses. Then there was the sound of high pressure steam escaping from the safety valves high up on the ships funnels as their engineers worked to keep their boilers ‘on the blood’ endeavouring to keep the winch men satisfied. Mixed with this was the clatter of railway goods wagons as they were shunted around the sidings that covered the area between the North Quay and Poplar High Street.

To the ship enthusiast, Davy’s was an Aladdin’s cave of nautical treasure, immediately on entering you were hit by an intoxicating aroma of tar, hemp, and paint and a visual impact of polished brass. It was a truly magnificent establishment.

In the 1950’s I was a dedicated follower of fashion , I always had my suits made to measure in Phil Segals at 225 East India Dock Road, where Phil and his son, Stan tailored the finest suits in the East End and probably the whole of London. This stretch of the East India Dock Road was full of tailor’s shops, if you stopped to admire their window displays you would be immediately accosted by the proprietor with tape measure in hand, ready to measure you up and at the same time ushering you to his threshold in a condescending manner.

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

The Story of the London Graving Dock


The London Graving Dock

The history of the London Graving Dock is long and varied. When the West India Docks were built, it was decided that shipbuilding and repair would not be allowed in the docks area. However a dry dock was built in Millwall Docks in the 1860s and it soon became clear that not having a dry dock was leaving the West India Docks  at a disadvantage. Eventually there was a change of mind and a small site was found just off Preston Road.
The West India Graving Dock as it was named was completed and opened in 1878, it was at the time one of the largest dry docks in the country.

west india dry dock 1878
West India Dry Dock 1878

 By 1890 the site was taken over by the London Graving Dock company who built new buildings and plant and in 1917 extended the site. Although the site suffered heavy bomb damage in the Second World War, it was repaired and the site extended again in 1951.
In 1977 the London Graving Dock Company was taken over by British Shipbuilders and made part of River Thames Ship Repairers, however the decline of wet docks was the death knell of the dry dock which closed in 1979.
The caisson was removed in 1985 which flooded the dry dock and a concrete bridge built over dock in 1988.
The area surrounding the dock was later used for building a number of apartments.

Recently I have come across the books of David Carpenter who worked at the London Graving Dock.

He very kindly sent me some information about the Graving Dock and some anecdotes of working in the area in the 1950s.

Many people may be surprised where the remains  of  the Graving dock  are actually located .



Just off Preston’s Road there looks like a small ornamental pond , a concrete bridge and then a small stretch of water that  then feeds into Blackwall Basin.


Graving Dock 1950s (Photograph  Dr Bob Carr)

The photographs sent by David show the scene in the 1950s and David explains the layout.

The one looking down the dry – dock from approx. where Lovegrove walk (as it is now called) is situated shows the end of the dry dock where the pump room was, at the bottom can be seen the tunnel which extends round Coldharbour to exit into the river beneath the ‘Guns’ terrace. The wooden skin floor of the dry – dock can be seen exposed just outside the tunnel. On the left of the picture can be seen part of the Graving Docks Blacksmith’s shop.




Graving Dock 1950s (Photograph  Dr Bob Carr)

The other photograph of the dry – dock shows the caisson (now gone). On the right behind the tall double doors was the Graving Docks plumbers shop. Beyond the Cassion is Blackwall Basin and beyond this is the entrance to British Railways Poplar Dock.

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.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting some more of David’s memories of the Isle of Dogs in the 1950s.