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The Story of the Silvertown Explosion – 19th January 1917
(c) Museum of London
I recently contacted by the Museum of Docklands who are making available some photographs that illustrated some of the aftermath of the Silvertown Explosion of January 19th 1917. Knowing little about the disaster, I decided to undertake some research and came across the following newspaper report from 1935 which includes a harrowing eye-witness account of the disaster by Fireman James Betts who was awarded the King’s Medal for bravery.
The Story of the Silvertown Explosion
Eighteen years ago to-day London had a narrow escape from being blown sky-high when the Silvertown explosion occurred.
Ex-Fireman James Joseph Betts, a survivor, who was awarded the King’s Medal for bravery, described in the London “Sunday Express” the following story of what happened on that terrible evening.
It was ten minutes to seven; a chilly, starry night on January 19th 1917. The war had dragged on for two and a half years. I was on night duty with a number of others of the brigade at Silvertown Fire Station in Poplar.
On every side loomed the black shapes of factories. Behind screened, windows — for every precaution was taken in those days of air raids, and not a light showed — vast armies of war workers were engaged on their various tasks of turning out munitions, food, and clothing for the troops. Opposite the fire station was the munitions factory of Messrs. Brunner Mond, Limited. Behind it the flour mills of W. Vernon and Sons. A little to the east were the oil refineries of Silvertown Lubricants, Limited, and the saw-mill and creosote works of Messrs. Burt, Boulton and Haywood. To the west stretched the sugar factory of Messrs Lyle, Limited.
Nearly 5,000 workers were there in all — hundreds of them women and girls who were “doing their bit” in the absence at the front of husbands, fathers, sons and sweethearts. Perhaps the most important of these factories was that of Messrs. Brunner Mond, for it was here that, night and day, the ceaseless task of manufacturing shells and armaments was taking place. The hourly cry from the front was “More munitions.”
Not the least important branch of this vital work of munitions making was carried out in the chemical laboratories which lay a little away from the main works. These were the “danger” buildings, where high explosives were manufactured. From all sides came the din of racing machinery, the mournful treble whine of sawmills, and the rattle of cranes as the barges lying in the adjacent Thames were loaded. Pedestrians hurried past the fire station to and from their work, for it was about the hour when shifts were changed. Children carrying baskets of provisions and enamel tea-cans containing the evening meals of parents working overtime, hastened on their way. There was in the air the electrical tension brought about by high-speed production in an urgent cause.
General view of “A”, “B”, “C” “D” silos, Royal Victoria Dock
John H Avery © PLA Collection / Museum of London
Suddenly, without warning, a bright orange tongue of flame shot up from the very heart of the Brunner Mond works high into the air, all the more vivid on account of the enveloping blackness of the night. Into the station rushed one of the men. “Brunner Mond’s is alight!” he shouted. None knew better than we the terrible implications conveyed by that brief warning. For, once those rising flames reached the danger, buildings, there was little hope for the lives and property in the vicinity.
There was, too, a further danger, for besides the vast quantity of T.N.T. contained in the “danger” building there lay on the permanent way that ran close to the building four railway trucks containing enough of the deadly stuff to” blow up half London.
Within a few seconds fire alarms rang through the station, and our chief immediately rapped out orders.
We rushed to get out the escape and the pump. There was not a second to lose if we were to quell the fire and avert an explosion. But I felt it was such a forlorn hope that I yelled to my wife who, with our twelve-year-old son, lived in the quarters behind the station. Get out of it, Polly, for God’s sake. We’re all going up in a minute!”
The next second we were tearing across the road into Brunner Mond’s yard. Outside the fire station people stood transfixed as though fascinated by that now fiercely burning building across the way. Others were fleeing helter-skelter anyhow, anywhere from that flaring presage of imminent danger, yelling warnings as they went. Some lay flat, on their, faces on the pavement, some prayed against the walls of the street.
As we entered the factory gates we were met by the flying figure of the timekeeper, a burly Scotsman. “Run for it, mate, we’ll be gone in a minute,” he yelled to me as he almost staggered past, hatless, distraught, his face distorted by a terrible fear.
They were his last words. Then it was as though heaven and gravity plunged to meet the earth in a shattering upheaval. In one second the whole world seemed to have crumbled. It might have been seconds, minutes, hours before I next remembered. I was lying on my back on a piece of waste ground 200 feet from the spot where I and other firemen had been fixing the hose ready to play on the flames.
45 feet girder near silo loading shed, Royal Victoria Dock
John H Avery © PLA Collection / Museum of London
Around me was a vast plain of rubble. The factory had gone. There were fearful sounds in the air, the screams of injured women and children, the groans of those imprisoned under debris, the rattle of rafters and girders being feverishly overturned by rescuers who had rushed to the shattered area, the shrill resonance of ambulance bells, the imperious clang of fire alarms, the roar of flames. On every side great fires were blazing.
In all nine factories and mills had caught alight, ignited by red-hot iron girders, flung sky-high by the explosion, falling in their midst. Something of tire terrific force of the explosion can be imagined when I tell you that parts of our fire-engine were found a quarter of a mile away, smashed and twisted beyond recognition.
Enormous boilers were hurled into the air and landed several streets away. Houses we’re left with cracking walls, windows gone, doors blown in, and roofs with gaping holes. In places which received the full force of the explosion it was as though a giant pestle had descended from the heavens and pounded them to powder.
Every building in London was shaken. Half a million windows in shops and houses across the river a mile away at Charlton and South Woolwich were broken. The explosion was heard in districts as far apart as Salisbury and King’s Lynn. Meanwhile the surrounding factories burned fiercely, and the task of rescuing workers in their blazing depths began.
Every available fire-engine and escape from all parts of London converged on Silvertown. It was a grim and awe-inspiring scene.- For , three or four hours after the explosion the whole of London was lit by the flames.
The fire area itself was an astonishing spectacle. Imagine an arc of towering, flat-faced factories, with row upon row of windows. At that moment they were as if they had been filled with burning coal. Every window opening glared like an iron furnace when the doors are opened.
Through long cracks in the walls long flames waved out like fiery serpents. Now a great fragment of iron — it looked as large as a cottage roof — would slide down the sides of the glowing pile. Towards the river another great factory blazed fiercely. Its windows appeared like a series of white-hot ingots. To the right the widespread frame of a row of timber sheds resembled a great main line railway station afire. The scene seemed unreal.
There were these towering bonfires of light spread out across the black landscape, and as their flames leaped up to the sky they threw into relief the broken shells of rows of houses — streets without windows and, what was more, without inhabitants. Some were dead — no one knew yet how many. The rest were gone — anywhere away from that scene of death and destruction.
High overhead poured vast clouds of smoke. Beneath them from the flour mills, where several hundred girls had been at work, came flying showers of millions of tiny particles of light as though a sweeping storm of sleet had become incandescent. No doubt these tiny specks were the glowing ashes of a myriad grains of wheat carried up into the sky by the waves of flame. It was like a golden rainstorm.
The firemen and their apparatus were almost helpless against conflagrations of such number and magnitude.. For days afterwards the heaps of debris in the midst of the mere shells of these mills and factories that remained were smouldering. Weeks afterwards when the task of clearing .away the wreckage began,the workers. came across red-hot embers deep down among the piles of debris.
While the great battle against the fires, was being waged. By firemen, a large arm of helpers was helping to extricate the dead, and injured from the wreckage of their homes.
The heaps of ruins which had been houses were slowly explored. It was like scraping and scratching among great rubbish heaps. Sometimes a distracted mother in search of a missing child would push herself to the forefront of a group of searchers and herself claw at the pile of rubble in a frenzy of apprehension until her fingers bled.
Such scenes were frequent. One of the bodies dug out of the wreckage was that of a young clerk engaged in a large sugar refinery, one of the factories set ablaze. This youth had run from the factory to the manager’s house close by to warn him of the fire. As he was knocking at the door the explosion occurred, and the wall of the house collapsed and buried him.
One woman was putting her babies to bed when the explosion occurred. She rushed out with them, and in her terror ran on and on till she was taken in by some kindly people, at whose house she stayed. A number became mentally unhinged by the shock. One lad’s blood turned to water. He died six months later. My wife was rendered stone deaf: One encountered at every turn stories of simple heroism and human fortitude in the face of this terrible calamity..
There were tales of rescues by those who themselves were seriously injured. One man dragged four badly injured young children from the wreckage of a demolished house, and it was not until afterwards, when he suddenly sank into unconsciousness, that those around realised that he had himself lost a foot. .
There was one brave girl, Norah Griffiths, who helped to hold up a roof that would otherwise have fallen and crushed to death a number of young children attending a Band of Hope meeting at a local mission hall.
People divested themselves of their outer garments, despite the bitterly cold weather, in order to wrap up the shivering forms of homeless children, scores of whom had been separated from their parents in the darkness and confusion.
In every street stood groups of stranded people, gazing ruefully at what once had been their homes. In many cases the roofs and the bed rooms had just disappeared. Only parts of the walls of the downstairs were now left. These rooms were no longer rooms. They had no ceilings. Their fronts had vanished.
One of the most immediate and pressing problems was the housing of the homeless. The Salvation Army did wonderful work. It established buildings and provided food and hot drinks. A nearby chapel was hastily converted into a creche, and hundreds of children were found shelter. Some of the victims sought refuge further afield, at the house of relatives and charitable institutions.
With the coming of dawn there were still hundreds of homeless ones, weary and pale-faced, trudging the dismal streets. The entire district was cut off by a military guard and police forces. And through this cordon passed streams of refugees from the stricken area in search of food and sleep. Some clutched the glass vases which had adorned their mantelpieces, for in many cases it seemed to have been the most fragile articles that had escaped injury. Others carried clothes baskets filled with personal trifles salved from the ruins of their homes. Everyone seemed to bear a load of some sort — trunks, sacks, bundles, even treasures hastily wrapped in sheets and blankets. Some wheeled perambulators loaded with household goods.
And hundreds who had fled from the place as soon as they had overcome the great, shocks of the explosion begged a night’s lodging a few miles away tramped back to see what they could salvage from the wreckage of their former homes.
How little the world at large knew of this and a score of other similar war-time disasters, involving loss of life and injury among the civilian population! Seventy-four lives had been lost, nearly a thousand maimed and injured. The place which had been a munitions works was a waste of black desolation. Nearly a dozen factories and mills had been destroyed.
Thousands of houses were wiped out. Hundreds of people were rendered homeless. The damage amounted to £1,212,661. There were third-party claims running into several million pounds sterling. A dozen people living in the immediate vicinity of the explosion were never seen again. This terrible story of death and destruction was told to the world in the following prosaic announcement which appeared in the daily newspapers.
“The Ministry of Munitions regret to announce that an explosion occurred this evening at a munitions factory in the neighbourhood of London. It is feared that the explosion was attended by considerable loss of life and damage to property.
The official line of the authorities was to suppress much of the information about the disaster. There were rumours that the explosion was due to sabotage by enemy agents and the government did not want to give any credit to the Germans. This media blackout led to a number of theories about what had happened, it was not until the 1950s that information came to light that suggested that a small fire had set off the explosives to devastating effect. The 1950s report also criticised the authorities for allowing munitions to be manufactured in a dense residential area. For much of the 20th century, the disaster was written out of history and therefore we can hope that the centenary of the event raises awareness of the people who died and suffered in one of London’s worst explosions.
If you would like to see the available photographs at the Museum of London Docklands, visit the website here
Walking the Island Board Walk Trail (Part Two)
Part two of the Island Board Walk trail takes us along the west of the Island to the attractive Sir John McDougall Gardens which is a welcome piece of greenery, the park was named after John McDougall who was one the famous McDougall Brothers who owned a large flour mill in Millwall Docks. The park is on the site of former wharves and was opened in 1968.
Although today, Marsh Wall is a road at the top end of the Island. In the 17th Century, Marsh Wall was the embankment built up on the west edge of the Island. These embankments had been built and maintained since medieval times mostly by landowners who had drained the marshes and used it as pasture for their animals.
Although the Isle of Dogs was largely uninhabited until the early 19th Century, there was in the late 17th Century a number of windmills that were built on the Marsh Wall embankment that took advantage of the strong winds that would blow over the unprotected Island. Although it is widely thought that there was only seven mills, there is evidence that there could have been as many as 13. However most of the mills were small concerns and from the early nineteenth century were in decline and one by one the mills were abandoned and demolished.
However although the windmills disappeared, from the 18th Century the area become generally known as Millwall and when the Island became industrialised it gained a reputation not as an idyllic rural scene but rather for the industries that prospered here and the thousands of workers who came to live in the area.
From some of these workers at the Morton’s factory , Millwall Football Club was born and the team played on the Island until 1910 when they moved to South London. The rivalry between Millwall and nearby West Ham United has its origins in the days when supporters worked in the docks and shipyards. The board (5) gives more details of the Island’s interesting football past.
The next board (6) is located near the Limehouse Lock entrance which is situated just below Westferry Circus and indicates the lock’s historical importance and how its creation was inextricably linked to the ill-fated City Canal in the 19th Century.
The idea of building a canal across the top of the Isle of Dogs had been often raised but it was not until the plans for the West India Docks were finalised that plans for building the canal were discussed seriously. The scheme was funded by the Corporation of London who were confident that the short cut would be popular with ship owners, the Canal was finally open for business in 1806 it was 3,711ft long between the lock gates, 176ft wide at the surface of the water and 23ft deep at its centre.
It quickly become clear that the small savings in time for ships using the canal was not enough to attract a large amount of business, ultimately the decision was made to sell the canal to the West India Dock Company in 1829 who renamed the City Canal, The South Dock and stopped all transit passages and connected the dock to other parts of the West India Dock system.
Limehouse Lock entrance or South Dock West Entrance (Impounding) Lock has it became known were designed as the west City Canal entrance locks. Of all the docks entrances built-in the 19th century, The South Dock west entrance lock is the only survivor with some of its original features.
The next board (7) takes up the story of the City Canal and the New South dock which became famous in the days of sail when large fleet of clippers moored along the north side of the New South Dock.The New South Dock was used especially as a loading dock for wool clippers to Australia and New Zealand.
The walk then takes us to Westferry Circus with its wonderful views of the City of London skyscrapers and into the old West India Docks, the next board (8) is located on the North quay of the Docks complex near to the statue of Robert Milligan and in front of the Museum of Docklands.
Robert Milligan was the man considered largely responsible for the construction of the West India Docks. He was a wealthy West Indies merchant and shipowner who was upset at the losses due to theft and delays along London’s riverside wharves.
Milligan with a group of powerful and influential businessmen including George Hibbert created the wet dock circled by a high wall for added security. The creation of the large complex of docks in the next couple of years amazed visitors and West India docks were considered one of the most magnificent docks in the world.
The docks were in use for 178 years until they closed in 1980, in that time thousands of ships came in and out of the dock picking up and discharging cargo and the complex provided work for thousands of workers.
The Boards are a great introduction to the Island and this project provides plenty of interest, the new audio tour has been devised to coincide with the launch of the walk and will be available to download as a podcast from the website: www.islandboardwalk.com/audio-trail It is derived from exclusive interviews with those who live and work on the island and provides real insights into the past, present and future of the Island.
‘Free’ Leaflet/Trail Maps which are available to download online and to collect from The Ship pub, The George pub, HubBub cafe bar and restaurant, Cubitt Town Library and the Great Eastern pub by the School Day’s board at start of the trail.
For downloads and more information visit:
West India Docks : An Ever-changing Pageant by J. R. P. Taylor (1928)
London, West India Dock (Import), 1837. Engraved by FW Topham after a picture by R Garland.
Visiting the Warehouse 1 exhibition at the Museum of Docklands gave me the impetus to write something about the West India Docks. Fortunately I came across the following article which was written by J. R. P. Taylor in the P.L.A Monthly in 1928. The P.L.A Monthly often carried interesting articles about the river and the docks and this one mentions the filling in of the Limehouse Basin in 1928 and the writers memories of the great days of sail in the docks in the late 19th century.
The Limehouse Basin was two-acre basin that was at the west end of the West India Docks, It was built slightly later than the Import Dock and Blackwall Basin and was not completed until 1803. When the Limehouse entrance lock closed in 1894 the basin was little used. The Limehouse Basin was filled in 1927–8, to increase storage space, it was filled in using material from the excavations for the Millwall Passage.
West India Docks: View eastwards across the Limehouse entrance basin in March, 1928. The process of filling the dock with rubble has begun.Photo by A. G Linney (Museum of London)
Smugglers’ “Black Ditch”
During the past century and a quarter, the area containing the East and West India Docks has been the scene of industry’s ever-changing pageant (writes J. R. P. Taylor In the “P.L.A Monthly,” the magazine of the Port of London Authority). Old works, like old men, must sooner. or later be replaced, so let the first picture be of Limehouse Basin, soon to be no more, as the one and a quarter acres of water space are now being filled in with the material from tho new cuttings in various parts of this dock system. The old basin, however, and its solid oak bollards with deep ropeworn chines is just as it was originally constructed and it is clear that the West Indiaman of, say, 1820, was quite a pigmy compared with her successors, such as, for example, the S.S Inanda.
West India Docks: Filling the old Limehouse entrance basin with rubble, March, 1928. Note the old crane still in position on the quayside. Photo by A. G Linney (Museum of London)
These vessels used to enter to the accompaniment of good old shanties and lay by waiting for a berth, while the tars, whose lusty voices matched their physique, soon clambered to shore with their sea chests and dirty bags containing the essentials, of their calling, such as palm and needles, fid, grease cup, and such-like. True to tradition, these children of the sea would hug the shore, and when Poplar and Llmehouse had absorbed their money would very soon be outward bound again.
Prior, to the building of the West India Docks (and, indeed, for forty years thereafter) smugglers used the “Black Ditch” at night to run their goods. This stream, now filled in, gave access to the river and ran past where the London Salvage Corps station now stands, and was really, only a cess drain serving the cottages reached via Dingle Lane and the houses along Poplar High Street. One of the commodities that city merchants used to journey down to purchase cheap was Irish linen.
Protruding from the walls of Nos. 1 and 11 warehouses are still to be seen thick Iron rings, which were used during the sixties and seventies, when the Fiery Cross and other famous China tea clippers brought their valuable cargoes, and throughout the season the intervening space, now known as “The Square,” was roofed with canvas.
West India Dock ( New South Dock) National Maritime Museum 1885
Two long masts were guyed to these rings, and then a huge marquee was run up, and the unlucky servants of the company were then “In for It,” as they were required to be at the scales at six in the morning and work until eight at night, when those whose homes were at a considerable distance were allowed to sleep in the “Dead House,” a building situated near Limehouse Basin, and used then, as now as a mortuary for the bodies recovered from the Dock.
Old customs seem to die harder here than elsewhere, and many strange characters have been produced who would doubtless have been immortalised by Dickens had he been their contemporary. Not so long ago It was the custom of all warehouse keepers and first-class clerks to wear top hats and long-tailed coats. The latter practice survives, although it only needs the fingers of one hand to count the devotees, For the “snuffers,” however, both hands are needed, but, on account of their age, a few years must see their eclipse, and their boxes will be relegated to the class of curios. I have one which was handed down from father to son, and In turn to his son, a lately deceased first-class clerk.
West India Dock ( New South Dock) National Maritime Museum 1880
Up to tho advent of the Boer war, the decks of windjammers provided during lunch time an admirable parade for the dock staff, whilst messenger-boys, undeterred by Jacob’s ladder, climbed the rigging and sunned themselves, lying flat on the yards.
The opportunities of seeing these survivors of the glorious days of sail are getting rarer each year, but it is a consolation to record that as long as they last one can count on seeing an occasional representative in the East and South-West India Docks, for it is here that they discharge and stack, mountain high, cargoes of cut box timber. One very interesting arrival during August last was the Loch Linnhe, formerly of the Australian wool fleet and her log showed that it had taken her 25 days to struggle and ghost over from Sweden, owing to the lack of fair wind, and during the whole time no rain was met. Her usual time is about nine or ten days compared with a steamer’s six days.
Remarkably, sailing ships still occasionally frequent West India Dock, which gives us some insight of how the dock would have looked in its glory days with row after row of sailing ships.
The Photography of Christina Broom at the Museum of London Docklands – 19 June to 1 November 2015
The Museum of Docklands is located in West India Quay within a Grade One listed converted Georgian sugar warehouse and has a large number of fascinating permanent exhibits, however they also have a series of temporary exhibitions on particular themes.
On the 19th June, the museum presents a new exhibition which looks at the life and work of an early 20th century female photographer, Christina Broom. The exhibition is entitled Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom and includes a wide range of her work, including Suffragette processions, First World War soldiers, official photographs of the Household Division and key London events, from the Lord Mayor’s Parade and royal coronations and funerals to historical pageants.
Although Broom is considered to be the UK’s first female press photographer, she only began her photographic career in 1903 at the age of 40. The injury of her husband in a cricket accident led Broom to turn to the photography trade as a source of financial income. What made Broom’s work stand out from her female photographer contemporaries was that she became a sort of roving reporter taking to the streets to photograph newsworthy events.
What was extraordinary about Broom’s work was that although she was driven by commercial concerns using the photographs to make postcards to sell at her stall at the gates of the Royal Mews in London, what she was actually producing was a unique visual record of the people, locations and events of the time. In her thirty-six year career she produced around 40,000 photographs .
Perhaps because of her commercial output, her photographic reputation has been ignored up to the present day, however this exhibition goes some way to rectify this oversight. In an age when camera’s were bulky and difficult to transport, Broom achieves a wonderfully high standard that was recognised even by the Royal Family.
A walk around the exhibition offer glimpses into the past from pageants to funerals, parades to protests. Perhaps the most poignant are the servicemen from the First World War, the fun and high jinks of the soldiers in the photographs is tempered by the fact that the viewer would understand many would not return from the front.
This intriguing and important free exhibition runs till November and is well worth a visit.
The Bridge Exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands
In a couple of recent posts, I have given some background on the Bridge Exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands which opens to the public on the 27th June.
Well just before the big day, the press was given access to what is likely to be one of the highest profile exhibitions ever held at the Museum of London Docklands.
The exhibition is based in the 19th century warehouse which provides the ideal setting for the paintings, prints , photographs and films.
Old Hungerford Bridge – William Henry Fox Talbot (copyright Museum of London)
Without doubt the star of the show is the very early photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, it is quite incredible that the photograph has survived at all . Called ‘ Old Hungerford Bridge’ the photo was taken in 1845 , when Fox Talbot was beginning to perfect the process that would dominate photography for the next 150 years. It is somewhat ironic that the bridge built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel only survived 15 years but this extremely fragile photograph has survived over 160 years.
The Exhibition is built around the themes of Bridge ,River, Building , Crowds and Icons.
The Bridge theme considers the way that London for a long period reliant on London Bridge for a crossing, in the 19th century went through a Bridge building explosion fuelled by the industrial revolution and the growth of the railways.
Etchings by Whistler illustrate this growth and pays homage to Old Westminster Bridge.
The painting by Joseph Farrington made in 1789 gives an almost dreamlike impression of London before major building works on the river began.
Lucinda Grange with a very rare photo of inside London Bridge
More recently the photograph taken inside London Bridge by Lucinda Grange challenges some of our preconceptions of bridges.
The River theme makes the obvious point that without the river, London as we know it would not probably exist. The Thames has been a constant through centuries of change and has provided major challenges to those who would like to cross it . The William Raban film provides a visual tour through some of the stranger aspects of the river.
The Building theme remind us that building bridges are not always an easy process and are often sources of great engineering ingenuity.
The etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi of Blackfriars Bridge in 1766 illustrates some of the weird and wonderful designs that do not always come to fruition, the recent Thomas Heatherwick proposal for a Garden Bridge may be a classic case of this phenomenon.
Thomas Heatherwick (copyright Arup)
The Crowds theme looks at the way that Londoners have used the bridges often for their daily commute, this has often fascinated artists and photographers. The picture by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson from 1927 illustrates London as a working industrial city.
Finally, the exhibition looks at the way that the bridges themselves become Icons and how they come to represent the city as a whole. For many centuries London Bridge had its iconic role, however in more recent times Tower Bridge has become a focus of world attention especially during the 2012 Olympic Games.
Ewan Gibbs, London, 2007
Ewan Gibbs Linocut offers a different view which in many ways references Whistler’s work.
Though the exhibition is relatively small, its ambition and themes are large. Like the Museum’s recent exhibition Estuary it examines how the river has played a major part in London’s development and how Bridges have become an integral part of that story.
Using the Museum of London’s considerable art resources past and present , this free exhibition is one not to miss and if your bridge fixation is not satisfied visit other parts of the museum to see a scale model of Old London Bridge and many other interesting exhibits.
Museum of London Docklands – Bridge exhibition
27 June – 2 November 2014,
For more information visit the Museum of London Docklands website here
The Story of the Hibbert Gate
Hibbert Gate Replica -West India Docks
Wandering near the Museum of Docklands I have often looked at the replica of the Hibbert Gate and wondered what happened to the original .
Original Hibbert Gate (photo Museum of London)
The original Hibbert Gate was built as the principal entrance at the west gateway in 1803. It was made of a Portland Stone arch surmounted by a pediment with a 10 feet long model of a West Indiaman ship called ‘ The Hibbert’ which was made of Coade Stone. This striking entrance became the emblem of the West India Docks and later formed part of the coat of arms for Poplar Borough Council. However despite its historical significance, in the 1930s it was decided that the entrance was not wide enough for modern vehicles and was to be demolished.
Hibbert Gate on the Poplar Borough Council Emblem
Although there seemed little opposition to the destruction of this historic entrance, a newspaper reporter at the time questions ‘the price of progess’.
THE PRICE OF PROGRESS. 1932
Construction and destruction go hand in hand with progress in London, as in every other great city. Symbols of modernity rise almost daily on the ruins of old landmarks, which, were it not for the feverish hand of man, would withstand the stress of time and weather indefinitely. We are now told that the Clock Gate at the famous West India Docks, having outlived its usefulness and become a nuisance to traffic, must come down -is, in fact, already being demolished. Thus will disappear a landmark which, for 130 years, has served to turn the minds of Londoners back to that auspicious day when Pitt laid the foundation-stone of “the most magnificent dock in the world.” What the “most magnificent dock in tne world” mean’t in 1802 can be realised from the fact that the vessels to be accommodated in the West India Docks were put down at 300 tons each. The import dock, which is part of the West India Docks, could hold 204 ships of such size, but, judged by modern standards, it would be considered, of course, quite a puny affair. In this romantic dock there are several reminders of the age when men went down to the sea in sailing ships of the graceful clippers that rode the bounding wave. There is, for example, an ancient guardhouse, with two massive iron-cased pillars nearby to deflect the jib-booms of ships and prevent their damaging the adjacent warehouse or walls. There is too, a tall iron post surmounted by a bell which is still rung as a signal for fires and the extinguishing of all lamps and candles On the centre arch of the old gate way the eye was wont to behold a fine model in artificial stone of an East Indiaman named “The Hibbert.” Alderman Hibbert was principal director of the Docks Company, and, strangely enough, although his name had been forgotten in that association, It was preserved on the counter of this model, which measured about ten feet in length. In “The Peep show of the Port of London.” Mr. Linney says that “The Hibbert” underwent much overhaul, from time to time, and had a lead covering laid over her to preserve her from the destroying influences of the London climate. Her rig was somewhat queer, but the explanation was given that the dock master’s autocratic powers compelled a ship to submit to many things when once it had entered this “fortress dock.” Now, we hear, the model is to be given to the Poplar Borough Council, and will be re-erected in the Poplar recreation ground, where the modern generation will probably wonder what on earth it is.
The model was placed in Poplar Recreation Ground , however a combination of vandalism by the ‘modern generation’ and bomb damage left the model in poor condition. A last effort to save it failed, when the model collapsed in pieces whilst an attempted removal to Poplar Library.
Unlucky Isle of Dogs – The Pirates Gibbet
18th Century Gibbet in Museum of Docklands
One of the more grisly aspects of the Isle of Dogs in the 18th and 19th Century was when a set of gallows stood at the bottom of the Island. It was a familiar sight to many arriving in London by the river to pass by the rotting corpses of Pirates and other criminals at strategic points along the Thames.
It was at nearby Execution Dock in Wapping that many executions took place, however after the event the corpse was often covered in pitch and tar and put into a Gibbet and strung up. The Gibbet was built to keep the corpse in place even when it decomposed therefore a body could be on display for years.
Gibbeting or “Hanging in chains ” as it was called was part of the justice system that believed murderers and other serious offenders should not have the benefit of a proper burial but their bodies should either be used for dissection or be put on public display to act as a deterrent. Cuckolds Point in Rotherhithe, Blackwall Point opposite Blackwall and the Isle of Dogs were popular sites for these public display of pirates, selected for their clear view from the river to remind the many mariners who passed by the perils of becoming a pirate.
The exact spot of the gallows on the Isle of Dogs is not known but the 1746 Roque map shows it clearly marked a short distance from the old Ferry House opposite Greenwich
William Hogarth in his Idle Apprentice series of drawings in 1747 offers a much clearer view of the scene.
The Idle Apprentice companions are pointing to the gallows as a warning what would happen to him if he didn’t change his ways. The drawing clearly show the windmills on the Isle of Dogs at the time and the gallows next to the River.
A Reverend Mozely in his ” Reminiscences,” remembered travelling past the Island in 1820.
In 1820, and for many years after, the only inhabitants of the Isle of Dogs that I ever saw were three murderers hanging from a gibbet.
Although Samuel Pepys had christened the Island as the unlucky Isle of Dogs in the 1660s, it was in the 18th and 19th century that the south part of the Island began to gain a reputation as a uninhabited windswept marsh with a ghostly atmosphere. Obviously rotting corpses clanking in chains in the river mists did little to challenge this preconception.
However some people benefitted from this grisly spectacle, for many years the Greenwich pensioners who lived at the Naval Hospital would set up their telescopes at the top of Greenwich hill and charge people to look at the scene across the river.
This pastime was especially lucrative at the time of the Greenwich Fair when thousands of people crowded in Greenwich to enjoy the revelries.
Charles Dickens noticed the practice was still going on in 1839 when he visited the Fair.
The old pensioners, who, for the moderate charge of a penny, exhibit the mast-house, the Thames and shipping, the place where the men used to hang in chains, and other interesting sights.
Dickens said used to hang, because a few years earlier in 1834 after new legislation the gallows had been taken down and the practice stopped. Needless to say many of the pensioners complained that one of their little sidelines had been curtailed and some newspapers at the time took up their cause.
In 1858 a newspaper reporter discussing Public Executions remembered the practice.
Some few semi-barbarities indeed remained, of which the pillory has but recently disappeared ; that of hanging in chains, designed as an indignity to the dead and a terror to the living, was, we think, not extinct till about forty years ago. Old men amongst us will well recollect the numerous gibbets on the Isle of Dogs, which with here and there a bone bore witness to the commonness of the practice.
From the 1840s the river front on the Isle of Dogs was developed and ship builders and factories were set up and all evidence of the Islands grisly past was destroyed.
Well perhaps not all the evidence for in recent years a skull and skeleton were found on the foreshore near Burrell Wharf which would have not been too far away from the gallows.
From Mudlarks to Sailortown – A Decade of the Museum of Docklands
The Museum through the replica of the West India Docks Gate
As the Museum of Docklands celebrates its first decade in existence it is important to pay tribute to the people whose forward thinking bought a derelict historical industrial building into public use.
One of the pleasures of visiting the Museum is to be able to see the old warehouse in all its glory.
No 1 Warehouse where the museum is housed was originally designed and built by George Gwilt and Son in 1800 -1803. It was significantly added to by Sir John Rennie in 1827. It was originally part of a complex of huge warehouses that were a half a mile long. unfortunately only Warehouse 1 and Warehouse 2 remain due to the rest of the complex being destroyed by bombing in the Second World War.
The West India Dock Warehouses in 1921 before they were destroyed.
Although the warehouses are now dwarfed by the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, when they were built they were considered a source of national pride when the docks became one of the centres of the trade between Britain the rest of the world.
Warehouse No 1
The Museum charts the role of the Docklands from its beginnings to the dark days of the Second World War and to the eventual decline of the Docks and the growth of Canary Wharf.
The Old London Bridge
Amongst its highlights are a 1:50 scale model of Old London Bridge , many articles from the Docks, a gallery about the Blitz including an Air-raid shelter and Sailortown a full size reconstruction of the dark and dingy streets of Victorian Wapping. In Sailortown you can visit a local tavern or look through the window of the Animal Emporium.
Welcome to Sailortown
The Local Tavern
The Animal Emporium
Young children have their own section called Mudlarks which has a play area.
Other than the exhibits the museum is a bit of a cultural centre with regular events , there is also a popular Café and Shop.
Its exhibits are not all inside, there are still relics of the old docks around the warehouses not least the statue to Sir Robert Milligan directly outside. In the dock itself is a couple of boats belonging to the museum.
The museum is one of the hidden treasures of the Isle of Dogs and although not on the scale of the bigger London Museums it provides hours of entertainment for young and old.