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Memories of Working on the River Thames by Tony Down – Part Four

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 .

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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.

 

The Bridge Exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands

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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.

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The exhibition is based in the 19th century warehouse which provides the ideal setting for the paintings, prints , photographs and films.

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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.

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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.

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The Building theme remind us that building bridges are not always an easy process and are often sources of great engineering ingenuity.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

FREE exhibition,

For more information visit  the Museum of London Docklands website here

From Mudlarks to Sailortown – A Decade of the Museum of Docklands

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Welcome to Sailortown

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The Local Tavern

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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.

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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.