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Memories of Working on the River Thames by Tony Down – Part Four
Tony recalls the time when barges became a regular sight going up and down the Thames with waste for Mucking Marshes which was a major landfill site servicing London, it was one of the largest landfills in Western Europe and had been filled for decades with waste.
Tony found working on the river was hard work but not without its lighter moments especially if the police were involved. However, Tony was not laughing too much when he was making his way under London Bridge, the taking down of old London Bridge and the building of a new London Bridge in the 1960s and 1970s caused a certain amount of disruption on the river and caused particular problems to the tugs with heavy barges.
Recruit, Touchstone, Swiftstone, were tugs that I worked on during the 60-70s, then I was bosun at Feathers Rubbish Wharf in Wandsworth for 6 yrs loading rubbish, sheeting up and moving 200 – tonne barges at high water that were then towed down the Thames to Mucking for discharging on the marshes. The marshes were owned by a firm called Surridge, who I was told purchased the Mucking marshes in Victorian times for £25 an acre then allowed London’s rubbish to be dumped there at a cost of course. I believe they also had barges that transported rubbish to the Medway as well as bringing bricks back from the brick works in the Medway to London.
One day, all of a sudden, a number of police cars with bells clanging (this shows my age!!) came flying up the wharf and there were police everywhere. It turned out that a prisoner had escaped from Wandsworth prison in the back of a rubbish lorry. The lorry had already tipped its 6 tonne load into the pits. They stopped the crane grabbing anymore rubbish out of the pit and then a mini–bus arrived full of more police and cadets who proceeded with rakes to get in the pit and sift through and turn over the smelly rubbish. The lorry had been to Roehampton Limb Centre first and loaded unwanted old false limbs before its last pickup at the prison, every time they came across an arm or leg they thought they had found the prisoner. We stood there laughing, even more so when we found out that the prisoner had jumped out of the lorry as it came into the wharf picked up an old mac, stole a dustman’s bike and ridden off into the sunset so to speak.
I was holiday relief on many of Cory’s Tugs, the Regard which was the jetty tug at the Albert Dock towing loaded coal barges across the river to the barge roads on the south side. Now and again we would tow a barge loaded with ripe bananas from the ship in the Victoria dock. If some of the banana’s were ripe when unloading they were no good for market so around 20 to 30 tonnes were dumped in our barge and towed to land-fill at Mucking with our other rubbish craft. Not liking waste, we often used to all take a stalk of bananas home.
One day on the way home in my little 1935 Austin Seven Ruby saloon, our skipper Tom was in the back with 3-4 stalks of bananas sitting beside him. We were pulled over by a policeman in Shooters Hill Rd (in those days policemen could safely step in the road put one hand up to stop you). Tom, the skipper had just lit up his stinking pipe so when I wound my window down and the copper popped his head in to ask where we had been, all he got was a great cloud of Toms smoke wafting in his face. He quickly spluttered “ OK on your way “. When we looked round at Tom in the back he was sitting there with a big smile and his Trilby hat perched on a stalk of bananas, technically we were in fact stealing even though they were being dumped.
In the 1970s, the old London Bridge was being dismantled and the contractors sheet piled caissons around the old arch abutments which narrowed the gap that we had to tow through, making it much smaller coming down on the spring ebb tide. With six 200 ton barges behind us, it was very challenging, we would put lighterman and spare breast ropes out on the barges as we approached the bridge .
As you came through the arch, the water would drop like a step and spit you out like a cork out of a bottle. Once committed there was no turning back, no brakes !!! Breast ropes would snap and for a few seconds you had no control and all you could do is hang on, miss the Belfast and shape up for Tower Bridge. Once you got through, everyone would breathe a sigh of relief, you would get your hands back on the tug and carry on down river. We all generally agreed that going through London Bridge was more than enough excitement for one day.
Poppies, Sheep and a Hippo
Regular readers will know that one of my favourite walks is from the Isle of Dogs up to the Tower of London. There is always plenty of interest as you walk through the old docklands area ranging from the relatively new Sunday Wapping market at Shadwell Basin to the retail ‘white elephant’ of the Tobacco Dock shopping centre.
However it was to be our destination this week that would be full of surprises, Any one who has been visiting the Tower of London over the last few months would have noticed that ‘planting’ of the ceramic poppies around the Tower was drawing larger and larger crowds. As it almost reaches its completion, the full effect is beginning to take shape and the scale is incredible.
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, is being created to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper, 888,246 ceramic poppies will eventually fill the Tower’s moat. Hundreds of volunteers have worked thousands of hours to complete the planting which will be finished on the 11th of November, Remembrance Day.
Perhaps going from the sublime to the ridiculous , a trip into St Katherine Dock next door offers the bizarre sight of a 70 feet wooden Hippo bobbing about amongst the yachts and boats.
Built for the Totally Thames festival, the sight of Hippopo has caused quite a stir and has become a favourite with Londoners and people all over the world.
The Hippo’s facial expression cannot fail to raise a smile and you can see this very surreal sight for the next two or three weeks.
London Bridge offered an altogether different scene , the Sunday morning traffic of tour buses and other vehicles were treated to the strange sight of sheep being herded across the bridge.
On the medieval London Bridge, this would have been a common sight but in twenty first century London it was an unusual spectacle . The event was organised by the Worshipful Company of Woolmen to allow Freeman of the City of London to undertake their ancient privilege of driving sheep across the bridge.
It was all done in a good cause with the proceeds from the day going to charity.
Many tourists stopped and watched the event and were bemused and bewildered by what was going on, Londoners as usual just took a quick look and marched on over the bridge.
Underneath the Arches – The Bridges of London
In a previous post I wrote about the forthcoming exhibition called Bridge at the The Museum of Docklands. To give some insight into the exhibition, the museum organised a trip on the river by Thames Clipper to have a closer look at some of London Bridges.
With renown architectural historian Dan Cruikshank as our guide, we departed London Bridge Pier and were made aware that it was once London Bridge that dominated the Thames for over 1700 years.
It was in the 18th and 19th century that a series of bridges were built over the Thames that meant that London Bridge lost its unique position in London and when the medieval bridge was finally pulled down in 1830 to be replaced by an elegant but not iconic stone bridge, it lost most of its historical significance.
The bridges opened up the city to encourage development of the South of the River and enable freedom of people to move between the North and South especially when tolls were done away with.
When your on the river and get past Tower Bridge heading west, you quickly realise how many bridges there are, ranging from pedestrian, railway and multi purpose bridges.
A few surprising facts are given by Dan Cruikshank such as the solid-looking London Bridge is actually hollow inside, in fact in the exhibition is a photograph by Lucinda Grange which illustrates this.
Inside London Bridge (copyright Lucinda Grange)
A couple of rather unusual facts was that Waterloo Bridge is known as the ‘Ladies Bridge’ because it was said it was mostly built using the labour of women in the Second World War , it also has a more melancholy reputation due to the high number of people who have committed suicide throwing themselves from it.
The exhibition will have a large number of exhibits that will show existing and demolished bridges in paintings, prints and photographs, however it will also look at the way artists and writers have used bridges in their work.
It is perhaps with some irony that the Bridge Exhibition will take place in a warehouse in the West India Dock area because it was the shipping trade that curtailed any suggestion of bridges east of Tower Bridge.
The only major crossings attempted in this area were the tunnels at Wapping, Rotherhithe and Blackwall.
For those who cannot make the exhibition, I will be writing a review next week.
The Bridge Exhibition will run from 27th June – 2nd November at the Museum of Docklands
For more information visit the Museum website here