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Modern Limehouse is mainly a quiet residential area, however in the 19th century it was a bustling throng of businesses, ship builders and associated workers. Within this maelstrom of activity was Dunbar Wharf under the auspices of Duncan Dunbar. His fascinating story is told in a new book by Michael Rhodes. The book entitled Lion Rampant: Duncan Dunbar and the Age of Sail charts the rise of Dunbar from his birth at Dunbar Wharf to his death when he was one of the richest men in Britain.
Duncan Dunbar junior was not a self made man but built upon the considerable fortune left by his father Duncan Dunbar senior who arrived at Dunbar Wharf in 1779 after a short time working on Robert Milligan’s sugar plantation in Jamaica. His friendship with Robert Milligan and James Hibbert would be very beneficial for Dunbar when they became the leading lights behind the creation of the West India Docks.
Photograph – Isle of Dogs Life
Dunbar Senior used these contacts when he began his export business which began at Ropemakers Fields in Limehouse as a brandy, wine and beer merchant. Dunbar had noticed a gap in the market providing alcoholic drinks to the various outposts of the British and used his contacts with Milligan, the East India Company and various suppliers to build up a lucrative trade. An interesting by-product of this trade was that traditional British dark beers were not suitable for long journeys, so India Pale Ale was developed by a number of brewers, notably Hodgsons in Bow. The book throws some light onto the ongoing debate about IPA, part of the confusion is that Dunbar IPA was popular throughout the empire but it was often brewed at the Barley Mow brewery owned by Taylor Walkers and exported under the Dunbar label.
Photograph – Isle of Dogs Life
The success of these enterprises allowed Dunbar senior to expand his business along the Thames waterfront and Ropemaker Fields. He took over full control of his business and gradually included his sons John and Duncan as partners. After Duncan Senior died in 1825, the sons were left the business and property at Dunbar Wharf. Although Duncan was only 22 and John 17, they had worked in the business for many years and had a wide network of family and acquaintances.
The main part of the book charts the rise of Duncan Dunbar junior from Dunbar Wharf in Limehouse to shipbuilder and owner of the largest fleet of sail ever assembled. He also founded two insurance companies and two banks and dominated trade routes to Australia, New Zealand, India, and Asia. It is estimated that his ships brought to Australia and New Zealand one-third of all arrivals and supplied transport for the Burmese War, the Crimean, Second Opium War and Indian Rebellion.
However for all his success, Dunbar remains quite an enigmatic figure and a pioneer who has been largely forgotten by history. Over the years this has always been the source of some mystery to myself who has long been fascinated by Dunbar Wharf and its long and varied history.
This book does provide some clues to his personality with a section that delves into his personal life. Duncan Dunbar junior was actually born in a small room at Dunbar Wharf and grew up in Limehouse before being sent to Forres Grammar school in Scotland. Duncan Dunbar senior was a great believer in Scottish education and Forres contained a number of the wider Dunbar family. At the age of 15, Duncan Dunbar junior worked full time at Dunbar Wharf learning the family trade.
Even in his early 20s, Duncan Dunbar junior was a large imposing man and had a reputation as an engaging and enquiring personality. He had followed his father’s footsteps by becoming a member of Blackheath Golf Club, he developed into quite a competent golfer winning the Summer medal more than once. Blackheath Golf Club was much more than just a sporting outlet, many of the members were wealthy and held prominent positions in the business and political world.
However as his business grew, Dunbar had less time for golf and was in demand to sit on Business and commerce organisations like the City of London club, Lloyds Registry, he became a director of the West India Dock Company. He remained unmarried but was surrounded by family at his home in Howrah House in Poplar. Despite his rise in society, it seems that Dunbar was generally liked for his approachable demeanor and good humour, he also seemed to have something of ‘the common touch’ being popular with the Dunbar ship captains and crew.
Duncan Dunbar by Camille Silvy, 18 January 1862, © National Portrait Gallery, London
As he grew older, he developed an interest in art and moved to Porchester Terrace in Bayswater. This move from East to West London was significant on many levels suggesting he was ready to enjoy the fruits of his labours and would leave the day to day running of the business to trusted members of staff. A photograph in the book shows Duncan Dunbar in 1861, the photograph reflects his position as one of the moving forces of the Empire.
However, the stress and strains on his constitution would eventually come to the fore and suddenly in 1862, Duncan Dunbar junior collapsed and died in his Bayswater home. He was only 58 and his death rocked the Stock Market and the business community.
This book comprehensively charts Dunbar’s rise and provides evidence about how quickly Dunbar’s business empire was carved up between family members and the executors of the considerable 1.6 million pound estate. It was the demise of the Dunbar business that probably explains why Duncan Dunbar’s name disappears from history and his legacy is little understood.
Hopefully, this book will change people’s perceptions of Duncan Dunbar, the author has travelled the world accumulating information from a variety of sources to create the most definitive biography of Duncan Dunbar to date. This fascinating biography places Dunbar and Limehouse at the centre of global trade that provided the template for the modern world. Products and labour from around the world became interlinked in a way that had never been seen before. The effects of that trade changed the world forever and this book is a timely and important reminder of the process and people behind that trade.
If anyone wants to buy a copy of the book, find a link here
One of the more interesting parts of the Dunbar Wharf post of a few weeks ago was that the building was used to store juniper berries for local Gin distilleries. Michael Murnior has sent a Gin advert from the Evening Standard from the early 1990s that tells us a lot more about Dunbar Wharf and its association with gin.
The advert follows master distiller, Hugh Williams as he checks on the juniper berries and other herbs and spices stored in the top of Dunbar Wharf. Hugh visited Dunbar Wharf, once a week for over 18 years to check that the ingredients were of the highest quality.
The article tells us it was not just juniper berries that were sent to the warehouse but ginger roots from China, angelica from Saxony, coriander from the Crimea plus six other herbs and spices.
The main ingredient was wild Italian juniper berries that were grown in the green fields of Umbria. The berries were harvested by the Scarponi family and were selected for their unique quality.
According to the article, Gordon’s had stored their natural ingredients at Dunbar Wharf for over 100 years. The air in the storage areas was perfect to keep the ingredients in top condition.
This article illustrates that many of the old warehouses were used to store all types of products from all over the world, anyone who visits the Museum of Docklands can enjoy the interesting smells that come from the many wooden beams.
Unfortunately, this long tradition at Dunbar Wharf came to an end in the late 1990s when the warehouse was redeveloped into apartments.
I am sure that when the residents in Dunbar Wharf opened up their gin over Christmas, they would little realise the remarkable history of the building related to Gordon’s.
Many thanks to Michael for sharing the fascinating adverts.
Dunbar Wharf 2020
Around this time last year, I wrote about Dunbar Wharf in the 1920s with the assistance of Barry Ashworth and Michael Murnoir. Limekiln Dock and especially Dunbar Wharf convey some of the atmosphere of 19th century docklands industry. The original loading doors and cast iron windows of the small, early 19th century warehouses of Dunbar Wharf in Limehouse are a reminder of how much of the riverside would have looked in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Dunbar Wharf 2020
A few weeks ago, Michael got in touch and told me he had come across an old home movie of when he visited Dunbar Wharf in the 1980s. Michael was kind enough to send a copy of the home movie which shows Dunbar Wharf still used as offices and warehouses before the widespread development of the area.
No other part of London underwent a more rapid and radical redevelopment in the 1980s and early 1990s than the Isle of Dogs and Docklands. This development was a response to the decline and eventual closure of the docks. The creation of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in 1981 and designation of the area as an Enterprise Zone led to number of initiatives including the DLR which opened in 1987.
Dunbar Wharf 2020
Dunbar Wharf was home to one of the richest men in Britain who ran a large shipping fleet with connections all over the world. The story really begins with Duncan Dunbar senior who leaves Scotland and founded a brewery in Fore Street in Limehouse in the 1790s. His career as a brewer and wine merchant was obviously very successful because when he died in 1825 he left around £ 40,000 in his will. This wealth allowed his son Duncan Dunbar Jnr who was born in Dunbar Wharf to branch out into shipping. Young Duncan’s bought his first ship in 1827 and by 1842 his fleet stood at 11 ships, over next 20 years he ordered 42 new ships.
Even into the mid 20th century, Dunbar Wharf was used for transporting products all over the world. By the 1980s, many of the docks were closed or ready to be closed and old warehouses were being eyed up developers. In the film we can see the old warehouses across from Dunbar Wharf being pulled down to be developed.
Dunbar Wharf in this period was still being used by a number of companies under the E.W. Taylor Group who were transporting goods around the UK and the world, but it was past its glory days of the 18th and 19th centuries.
One fascinating aspect of the film is to see the area before the large development of Dundee Wharf and to see Dunbar Wharf, just before it was redeveloped as flats and apartments.
The exterior and interior gives the impression that Dunbar Wharf had changed little since the 19th century with many of the original warehouse doors and fittings still there.
Dunbar Wharf overlooks Limekiln Dock which now has a bridge across,
in the 1980s this was not the case with many of the riverside industries not allowing public access to their sites.
Dunbar Wharf occupied a much larger site than the old warehouse with considerable storage areas down to the river.
Looking over towards what is now Canary Wharf, we can see the old timber yards and pier down to the river.
The only tall buildings on the Isle of Dogs at this time are the four Barkantine tower blocks completed in the 1970s.
The old Dunbar Wharf warehouses were often used for storage and Michael shows sacks of Juniper berries being stored high in one of the warehouses. The sacks were stored for local gin distillers for up to two years, the warehouses were chosen because they tend to be airy and were the perfect temperature for the berries.
The film offers a remarkable insight into a world that was on the cusp of changing forever. Although Dunbar Wharf is now residential, it does retain much of its character and is a reminder of the large number of riverside wharves and warehouses that have largely disappeared.
Many thanks to Michael for sharing his memories.
Credit – Barry Ashworth
Recently, I mentioned Barry Ashworth and his long career at Dunbar Wharf, when he first started work at the wharf in the 1960s he came across a number of documents and photographs from Dunbar Wharf’s previous owner, Francis Vernon Smythe.
I am publishing a couple of these remarkable photographs of Dunbar Wharf in the 1920s, I have taken a couple of pictures recently in roughly the same place and was amazed that the facade of Dunbar had changed very little in the pass 90 or so years.
Credit – Barry Ashworth
In the photo the coastal schooner is the Plymouth registered ‘Alfred’ offloading alongside Open Wharf. Michael Murnoir in conversation with Barry Ashworth guessed it had offloaded the pile of staves which can be seen on the wagon. Vessels such as schooners could settle in the mud without damage because they were shoal draft or very shallow keeled.
The photo is posed as you can see from the group standing on the wharf (Smythe with a very dapper boater) and the workmen in the lofts. Both Michael and Barry guessed the photograph was taken in the 1920s and the oak staves came from Germany and Spain mainly, but also from America, and the schooners cargo was a transhipment. Staves were transported a short distance to the cooperage on Ropemakers Fields which had a frontage to Narrow Street right opposite Duke Shore Wharf and ran through to Ropemakers Fields.
In the background on the left looms the much larger Barley Mow Brewery building, since demolished. It is unlikely it would have backloaded beer or barrels because the railways carried most of beer and there were plenty of local brewers. Oak barrels which left Limehouse full of beer, port and sherry could return to the Port of London from all over the globe refilled with juices, preserved vegetables in brine, rum or molasses.
Many of the original warehouse doors and fittings are still there, although the buildings are now used for residential use.
Both Barry and Michael believe this is Dunbar Wharf between 1920-30. The guy in the light grey suit, legs apart is Cyril Legge, Wharf Superintendent until at least 1970. His father was before him.
Credit – Barry Ashworth
The guy in the gabardine raincoat is Francis Vernon Smythe, owner of Dunbar Wharf.
Once again the original layout of the wharf are still recognisable with still the same doors and fittings.
Creeks: Sailing barges packed into Limekiln or Limehouse Creek in October, 1930 by Albert Gravely Linney ( Museum of London )
I have also managed to find a picture of Dunbar Wharf from roughly the same period by well known Thames photographer Albert Gravely Linney.
Many thanks to Barry for permission to publish the photographs and to Michael and Barry for the information about one of the most interesting parts of modern Limehouse.
May I wish the readers of Isle of Dogs Life, A Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.
Charles William Wyllie (1853-1923) ‘A view on the Thames’ credit Barry Ashworth
Recently I had a conversation with Barry Ashworth who worked for a long period at Dunbar Wharf, during the conversation he mentioned a painting he acquired at auction. The painting is entitled A View of the Thames by Charles William Wyllie and shows a barge full of hay berthed near Limehouse.
Charles William Wyllie (1853-1923) ‘A view on the Thames’ credit Barry Ashworth
It is a fascinating painting that clearly shows the famous Limehouse waterfront near the Grapes that have attracted a number of artists. However it is the barge laden with hay that really draws your attention and is a reminder that within the streets of London that for a long period it was not cars but horses were that were king.
Hay-boat on the Thames. 1859. From The Book of the Thames from its Rise to its Fall,
There were thousands of horses on the streets of London and they had to be fed and it would have been a common sight to see Thames sailing barges heavily laden with hay. Although generally known as hay barges, for those in charge of the barge they were known as ‘stackies’. There were special adaptations made to the Thames sailing barge to allow the large amount of hay to be stacked on board. To provide some stability, below the hay were bricks for the various developments in London. The hay was collected from the farms of Suffolk, Essex and Kent and transported up the Thames. Once the hay and other cargo had been unloaded in London, the barges were then filled with manure from the horses which were taken back to the farms to spread on the fields.
Hay-Boats on the Thames, 1872 After Gustave Doré
This cycle was played out over a long period of time and became a way of life for the bargees that plied their trade up and down the Thames.
Hay Barge off Greenwich by Edward William Cooke Date: 1835 (National Maritime Museum)
As with most things, progress bought technological changes with the arrival of the combustion engine which slowly took over the London streets until the early 20th century when horses were not needed in large numbers and the hay trade declined.
In the early 21st century, the hay barges have virtually been forgotten until we come across paintings like Barry’s that remind us of the past.
Charles William Wyllie was part of family of artists that became known for their marine landscapes, river and coastal scenes. His brother, William Lionel Wyllie was considered one of the country’s most famous marine painters. Charles trained at Leigh’s School of Art and at the Royal Academy Schools.
Some weeks ago, I told the story of Aberdeen Wharf and the close ties between this small corner of Limehouse and Scotland. Eric Pemberton who regularly provides the site with interesting ephemera has provided some information on Dundee Wharf which gives us more information about these long forgotten ties.
Dundee Wharf is a now a striking residential development with a prominent position on the River Thames. The modern buildings was built-in 1997 but occupy land that has had a variety of uses for centuries. Before it became Dundee Wharf in 1901, it was a shipyard known as Limekiln Dockyard.
Dundee Wharf is on the embankment known as the Dunbars. The Dundee, Aberdeen, Caledonia and Dunbar Wharves were once owned by the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company.
The Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company first began its passenger service between Dundee and London in 1826 and were one of the first to introduce paddle steamers on the route in 1835, the ships were considered the most luxurious and fastest steamers on the East coast route.
Gradually the era of paddle steamers gave way to screw steamers and the company began to expand their fleet with cabin ships which had berths for 65 first class and 60 second class passengers as well as 75 deck passengers. Business was so successful, the company opened its own terminal at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse in 1901. Although as the following newspaper report from 1906 points out, business at the wharf was good but health and safety was a bit of an issue.
An astounding discovery was made on the steamer Perth when she arrived at Dundee from London. A dock labourer named Stewart, was found to have been buried in the hold of the vessel among the cargo. He had been imprisoned for sixty hours, and during that time had neither food nor water nor light. Stewart was engaged in loading the steamer at Limehouse Wharf, when he was buried among the cargo, which consisted mainly of jute, and was taken to Dundee, which, owing to fog, was not reached until sixty hours later, or double the normal time. As the vessel was being unloaded at Dundee the men heard a cry from below: ‘That’s right mates, heave away,’ and soon afterwards Stewart was found half-doubled up among the bales. He was in a very exhausted condition.
During the war years of 1914 – 1918, many of the company’s ships were requisitioned and in 1918 the company found itself with no vessels to maintain its sailings. Eventually they were able to find ships and returned to the Dundee to London sailings and expanded with routes to Lisbon, Seville, Antwerp and Barcelona .
Limekiln Dock and surrounding warehouses,(Large warehouses on Dundee Wharf in the middle) 1928.
The interwar years were relatively profitable for coastal line ship companies who carried passengers and various cargoes. Some of the products bought down from Scotland included jute products, popular magazines from D.C. Thomson, jams made by Keillers, printed stationary and postcards produced by Valentines .
Dundee Perth and London Shipping Company Ship 1933
The outbreak of Second World War saw vessels requisitioned once again and more seriously, Dundee Wharf was badly damaged in a bomb attack during September 1940 and was out of action for a considerable time.
The SS Angusburn moored at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse, 1953.
After the war, the ships resumed the passenger service to London but were facing increasing competition from both road and rail services. In 1946, the company introduction of the three general purpose vessels “Angusburn”, “Angusbrae” and “Angusmuir”, which travelled around the world with various cargoes and became familiar sights in many ports in different parts of the world.
The SS Angusburn moored at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse, 1953.
In 1954, the company acquired a minority interest in a small London-based firm, Lockett Wilson Ltd who used Dundee Wharf to run sailings to Paris. The coastal trade became increasingly difficult to operate profitably during the 1950’s and 1960’s which led to ending of the liner service between Dundee and London which the company had been run since its formation in 1826. The last “London boat” made her final sailing in 1961 and eventually Dundee Wharf was sold in October 1969.
Once again many thanks to Eric Pemberton for bringing another piece of Docklands history to light, it is remarkable to consider that the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company were bringing passengers and cargoes from Scotland to this small part of Limehouse for over 100 years.
Although the late 17th and 18th terraced housing on Narrow Street is considered of great historical interest, Limekiln Dock and especially Dunbar Wharf convey some of the atmosphere of 19th century docklands industry. The original loading doors and cast iron windows of the small, early 19th century warehouses of Dunbar Wharf are a reminder of how much of the riverside would have looked in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although often overlooked today, Dunbar Wharf was home to one of the richest men in Britain who ran a large shipping fleet with connections all over the world. The story really begins with Duncan Dunbar senior who leaves Scotland and founded a brewery in Fore Street in Limehouse in the 1790s. His career as a brewer and wine merchant was obviously very successful because when he died in 1825 he left around £ 40,000 in his will. This wealth allowed his son Duncan Dunbar Jnr who was born in Dunbar Wharf to branch out into shipping. Young Duncan’s bought his first ship in 1827 and by 1842 his fleet stood at 11 ships, over next 20 years he ordered 42 new ships. remarkably there is little evidence that he had the ships built locally in Limehouse or nearby Blackwall.
Many of his new ships were built-in the North east at the works of Philip and James Laing, a small number were built at Duncan Dunbar’s own building yard that had built at Moulmein in Burma. the Dunbar clipper ships were famous around the world and were often named after family members or Scottish place names from the family’s home county of Morayshire.
Although there has been suggestions that he exported beer and spirits abroad, the ships carried a variety of cargo. Chartered by the government, Dunbar’s ships made 37 voyages carrying convicts mainly to Australia, a number of his ships were also used as a troopships in the Crimean War. Making full use of the cargo space, ships on the way back from Australia would go to India or China to pick up a cargo which often included spices, jute, teak, rice and ivory.
These perilous voyages around the world occasionally ended in disaster, his ship the Dunbar was lost when the captain mistook the entrance to Sydney Harbour in a gale leading to a shipwreck and a large loss of life. These disasters did not deter Duncan Dunbar in his business activities which included founding the London Chartered Bank of Australia, being deputy-chairman of Lloyd’s Registry, chairman of the General Shipowner’s Society and deputy-chairman of the East and West India Dock Company.
Duncan Dunbar jnr lived in initially at Dunbar Wharf until he moved in with his parents at Howrah House in Poplar, his mother’s died there in 1853 when Dunbar bought a house in Porchester Terrace, London. It was at Porchester Terrace that he built on a picture gallery and became a patron of the fine arts. In 1862, Dunbar suddenly died and left an estate worth between one and two millions (which would be worth around £65 million today). He never married and had no children, therefore the majority of his wealth went to other family members who showed no interest in carrying on the business. Within the next two years all of Duncan Dunbar’s ships were sold and that was the end of the Dunbar shipping line.
Remarkably one of Duncan Dunbar’s ships still survives, he bought the Edwin Fox for long distance voyages. Regular contributor Coral Rutterford in New Zealand remembers in the 1970 seeing the remains of the Edwin Fox at Picton where it had been for a number of years, since then it has been made into an attraction called the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum in appropriately enough Dunbar Wharf in Picton.
Many of the posts on the blog are the outcome of research suggested by contributors, Eric Pemberton often sends one of his interesting postcards which engages my curiosity and makes me determined to find out more about the subject. Eric sent a postcard recently which was a reminder that certain parts of the river have an intriguing history all of their own.
Historically, The riverside district from the South West India Dock (Impounding) entrance lock up to Dunbar Wharf was known as Limehouse Hole. The name was in use by the seventeenth century, this was one of the first parts of the parish of Poplar to be developed, but almost nothing survives of its earliest 17th century development, In the 18th to 20th century, Limehouse Hole was developed with a number of shipping-related enterprises. There were shipbuilders, barge-builders, boat-builders, ropemakers, sailmakers, mastmakers, blockmakers and ship-chandlers.
Due to its location on the river, Limehouse Hole was a popular place for watermen to ply their trade, which they did successfully from the seventeenth century. In the ninetieth century, watermen were losing business to steamboats and tried to encourage trade by erecting a floating pier at Limehouse Hole Stairs. It was erected in 1843 but did not have the required effect and was gone by 1860. However it was the first pier in Limehouse Hole, but not the last because when a passenger steamboat service to the locality was proposed, a new floating pier was erected at Limehouse Hole Stairs in 1870. This pier, a walkway on three pontoons, was designed by Stephen William Leach was removed in 1901 for the building of Dundee Wharf. The postcard sent by Eric dates from the early 20th century and features another Limehouse Pier, this construction was built for the short lived ‘Penny Steamer’ service in 1905 but managed to survive until 1948.
Other views of the pier are from Thames Riverscape and the Britain from Above photographs. In 1937 the Port of London Authority commissioned Avery Illustrations to document both banks of the Thames between London Bridge and Greenwich/Island Gardens. This Thames Riverscape now provides an invaluable record of the Thames from this period.
The aerial picture from Britain from Above shows the pier in 1928 and clearly shows how far it extended.
The pier was not the most successful ever but it did feature in a 1927 poem by Helen Markham
At Limehouse Pier, the tide is strong,
And there are curious things adrift,
But the wind hath a nobler song,
Salt with the sea’s sharp kiss, and swift.
A flowing fire is on the river,
Like wine outpoured, wine-gold, wine-red,
or purging of her piteous dead.
The great crane engines swing and quiver.
And the lost sea-birds wheel and cry,
The long, slow barges, dreamfully,
The little brown-sailed boats, go by
Intent to find the sea.
To a large extent, Limehouse Hole has now disappeared underneath Westferry Circus and the Riverside developments, this stretch is now known as part of the longer Limehouse Reach but for centuries the name of Limehouse Hole and to a lesser extent Limehouse Pier were known all around the world.