Ransome’s Dock

Above: Looking south into the dock from the end that meets with the Thames.

This old dock is one of the surprises to be found in the river bank upriver of London Bridge. Between London Bridge and the western boundary of Inner London – at Hammersmith – there have been various creeks that have been used for purposes connected with the Thames. In addition, there have been a few docks cut into the bank of the Thames. Today all of these man-made features have been swept away and it is only Ransome’s Dock, at Battersea, that remains the same size and shape as in Victorian times.

The river bank – just west of today’s Albert Bridge – was nothing more than open land until after the turn of 1800. In the bank was a small creek which was the mouth of a tiny stream related to the Falcon Brook. Several chemical works and other industries had sprung up from about the 1830s. The Battersea Foundry of the Pimlico engineers Robinson & Cottam was erected beside the creek in 1863-64, to designs by John Whichcord.

By the mid-1870s the site had been taken over by Allen Ransome, of the famous Ipswich-based engineering company. They already had works at Chelsea. Ransome invested heavily in extending and rebuilding the adjoining creek to form the dock that now bears his name. Excavated and constructed in 1884 by the local engineering contractors B Cooke & Company, under the guidance of the civil engineer Edward Woods, the dock was designed to take not just lighters and barges, but also coastal steamers. It was wide and deep enough to allow craft to turn, as well as allowing two rows of vessels to pass, and to leave on the lowest of tides.

It is possible that only the straight section of the dock, leading from the Thames, was built because the lower segment is not shown on the map until the Ordnance Survey map for 1896. Ransome’s remained at the premises beside the dock until about 1890. The buildings were then taken over by a steelworks company.

Underground ice wells were built for the Natural Ice Company Ltd which had premises beside the dock to store ice that was shipped direct from Norway. The date when that started is not known. It was later taken over by Slaters Ltd and, by 1902 belonged to the United Carlo Gatti Stevenson Slater Company an amalgamation of block ice trade merchants. During the 1920s, with advances in refrigeration technology, the store was replaced by an ice-making plant above ground and an ice making factory was built in Parkgate Road. The factory remained until some time in the 1970s. Parts of the building became a restaurant in the late 1990s.

Above: Looking north in the dock from the southern end.

A development beside the dock was completed and opened in 1992. Within one of the buildings was a well know restaurant – by the same name – which sadly closed its doors on 11 August 2013 after being in business for 21 years. On the west side of dock are the architectural offices of Foster and Partners

The dock is situated just a short distance west of Albert Bridge. It can be reached by a riverside footpath from either Albert Bridge or Battersea Bridge. Access to the buildings around the dock can be gained from Parkgate Road.


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Nine Elms Pier

Above: Looking east towards Vauxhall in April 2003 near Nine Elms Pier. The peaceful scene in this picture will never return to this part of the Thames.

Once upon a time – all the best stories start ‘Once upon a time’ – there were parts of London that somehow managed to remain in ‘suspended animation’, looking a bit Victorian and certainly ‘old fashioned’. I am talking about the 1960s when I first used to go exploring to get to know parts of London that I was not familiar with. From those years onwards, London has gradually been ‘sanitised’ by one developer or another and many of the unusual fragments from a bygone age have gradually been swept away. There was a time when you could walk the length of Clink Street and Bankside – from London Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge – and hardly meet another person. Nowadays that walk is rather like Victoria Station on a bad day – it is so full of people. Bermondsey has been redeveloped, so has Deptford. The Isle of Dogs is like a different planet to how it was in the 1970s.

All the above preamble brings us to Nine Elms Pier. It takes its name from the area which once had nine elm trees growing near the river. The old pier is situated to the west of Vauxhall Bridge. Until well after the dawn of the new millennium, the land between Vauxhall Bridge and Chelsea Bridge – the general area of Nine Elms – was mainly derelict as factories and warehouses gradually closed down, leaving the area empty of almost all human activity. It meant that you could go for a walk beside the Thames and hardly meet a living soul, sit by the run-down river wall and just let the world go by. The noise from traffic was far away. It was an area of tranquillity.

Above: A painting by Samuel Scott of how the bank of the Thames at Nine Elms looked around the 1750s. Dramatic change has taken place from the time of the painting. We are living through another phase of change in the same area today.

However, the years after 2000 were the ‘lull before the storm’. Nothing seemed to be changing for maybe a decade but, behind the scenes, developers were busy acquiring the land and drawing up new plans for the overdevelopment of the area. Today, unsightly modern housing blocks for the rich are defacing the area. The factories are giving way to overbearing apartment blocks. Part of this land, which most Londoners had never visited before its makeover, is being issued with a new underground station and the American Embassy is moving to the area because they see it as a desirable place to be.

At some time in the 1980s a riverside walkway, of sorts, was devised. Because the land was so derelict, it was hard to devise a permanent plan but at least it provided an unusual walk – mainly some peace and quiet for the pedestrian with open views of the Thames, some of them quite stunning. Amid all the derelict warehouses was Nine Elms Pier which had hardly been used for decades. It should be explained that Nine Elms Pier was not a commercial pier. It had outlived its useful purpose and was then mainly unused with houseboats using the location as moorings. Whoever owned it was probably making a decent income from charging mooring fees.

That was its attraction and house-boats began to colonise the space around it. They too were rather run-down but that just added to the charm of the location. There were no shops nearby and hardly any properly maintained open spaces. With the houseboats on the river, the scene was not unlike the kind that you find on country creeks in Essex or on the Thames much further upriver as it passes through the countryside to the west of London.

Since some time around 2010 the river was gradually cleared of any vestige of ‘times past’ and cleaned up so as not to look ‘untidy’ next to the well-heeled, overpriced apartment blocks that have been erected for people who have never previously lived anywhere near Vauxhall, Nine Elms or Battersea. Yet another slice of ‘old world’ London has been removed so that everywhere in Nine Elms looks like anywhere else in an up-market residential part London.


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Battersea Creek

Above: Looking west at low tide towards the Thames along the short remaining section of Battersea Creek. Buildings in the distance are on the Fulham side of the Thames.

Although the River Thames is the main river flowing through London, much of it has been embanked which means that it not as wide as it once was when it flowed through open countryside hundreds of years ago. Without making this article too much of a geography lesson, it should be remembered that the Thames – like all great rivers around the world – derives its water from its source but also from the tributaries that feed into it, draining water from the land at many points along the river’s course. Even today, with all the concrete embanking that the Thames has suffered, nature cannot be totally restricted and small streams feed into the Thames are many points inside and outside the London boundary.

One tributary of the Thames at Battersea is the Falcon Brook, which is responsible for a street name like ‘Falcon Road’ and also for the pub name of ‘The Falcon’ which stands near Clapham Junction Station. The name of the stream derives from St John family, who were local landowners. Their coat of arms depicted a rising falcon.

The Falcon Brook has two parts, both flowing across the area of Streatham before combining into one stream at Battersea and eventually flowing into the Thames some distance south of Battersea Railway Bridge. The mouth of the stream is called Battersea Creek. Because water draining from the land has to be allowed to flow into the Thames, a small part of that creek is still to be seen today.

Above: Map of 1895 showing Battersea Creek. It has been considerably shortened since the days of the map. York Road runs with tram lines in the middle of the road immediately west of the creek.

Much of Battersea Creek was open until the 20th Century when all but the short riverside section was filled in. Battersea Creek was used as a dock for the Price’s Candle Factory built in the early 19th Century in York Road. Price’s were once the largest makers of candles in the world and still supply candles for many Royal State occasions – although their factories were moved to new sites outside London in the late 1990s. The candle factory replaced a late medieval moated house which was built by the Bishop of Durham in 1474 and was later given to the Archbishop of York.

Like many other parts of London, the Battersea riverside has been gentrified with imposing blocks of expensive apartments for the rich. Little remains to reflect the early history of the area or of its more recent industrial past. It is, therefore, this little fragment of the old creek that ‘marks the spot’ for the site of Battersea Creek. It reminds us of the days when this area was flat land, crossed by footpaths which needed small bridges to walk over tiny streams flowing across the land.


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London Heliport

Above: View from near Wandsworth Bridge of a helicopter about to land at the London Heliport.

London Heliport is London’s only licensed heliport. It might come as quite a surprise that a vast metropolis like London does not have more heliports but this is the only one. Over the years since the Second World War, there have been several attempts to set up heliports in London but none of them were successful – mainly because of the noise nuisance from the helicopters. After the Festival of Britain ended, in late 1951, part of the site was used for helicopters. When the OXO Building was still owned by Dewhurst, the butchers, Mr Dewhurst used to land his personal helicopter on a helipad set up to float on the Thames outside the building. Another attempt was made to set up a heliport on the Thames just downriver from Blackfriars Railway Bridge in the hope of attracting usage by businessmen visiting the City of London. The base of the floating heliport was formed from an old floating dock-crane. All the bright ideas came and went and only the heliport at Battersea is still in business.

Above: The old jetty, now in use by the London Heliport, with Battersea Railway Bridge in the distance.

London Heliport, also called Battersea Heliport, is known officially as the NetJets London Heliport for sponsorship reasons,. The facility, which was built by W & C French and opened in 1959, is located in Battersea on the south bank of the River Thames. It uses an old jetty which is situated a short distance south of Battersea Railway Bridge. The heliport, once owned by Westland and then Harrods, is a very small site, making use of a jetty to provide a helipad for take-off and landing as well as onshore parking for three to four helicopters, depending on their size. The reason for the site being beside the Thames is because commercial helicopters – unlike those used by the Police and HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) – are required to fly at 1,000 feet (305 m), following the line of the Thames. This is for safety reasons, should a helicopter crash, but mainly to limits the noise nuisance on adjacent buildings in built-up areas. Ground running of rotors at the heliport is restricted to a maximum of five minutes for the same reason.

In 2003 London Heliport was acquired by Weston Homes. In 2012 it was bought by the Reuben Brothers, who also own Oxford Airport. In 2016, the heliport’s official name became the NetJets London Heliport after the private jet company signed a branding deal with the owners. The site of the heliport can only be seen easily from the riverside walkway in Fulham.

The only helipad within the Metropolitan London area, it is used for commercial flights to locations including the City of London and Heathrow Airport. The helipad is also used by police helicopters and private air taxis.


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Battersea Railway Bridge

Above: Looking at Battersea Railway Bridge from Wandsworth Bridge. St Mary, Battersea, can be seen in the centre of the view (above one of the piers).

You might think that a relatively narrow railway bridge crossing the Thames at Battersea is hardly an interesting topic. Well, if you find railways boring then it probably is. However, this bridge has several unusual features. There are plenty of much better-known railway bridges than this one – Charing Cross Railway Bridge and Cannon Street Railway Bridge to name just two. The point of mentioning the last two bridges is that, although they cross the Thames, they only convey trains over the Thames and then immediately end in a railway terminus. In Inner London, Battersea Railway Bridge is the only railway bridge to cross the Thames carrying trains that run to multiple destinations at each end. In fact, as well as passenger trains using it, the bridge is also used by freight trains. The two lines across the bridge link destinations on the south coast of England with other destinations in the north of England. Now, perhaps, the bridge is seen to be more important that it first appeared.

Because of its many railway links, the bridge was a target for German bombs during the Second World War. Armaments were being manufactured in the north of England and conveyed by freight trains via the bridge to ports on the south coast of England.

Battersea Railway Bridge was designed by William Baker, chief engineer of the London and North Western Railway. It was opened on 2 March 1863 with a construction cost of £87,000 – equivalent to over £7 million today. It carries two tracks and consists of five 120-foot (37 m) lattice girder arches set on stone piers.

The bridge was strengthened and refurbished in 1969 and again in 1992. During a high tide in late 2003, the structure was struck by a refuse barge damaging some lower piers of the bridge. Repairs were completed in early 2004.

If, while you have been reading this text, you have been puzzling over the fact of it being the only railway bridge in Inner London to carry railway trains to other parts of England, please remember that structures like Fulham Railway Bridge do not count because that was designed to carry only underground trains.

Above: Looking across the Thames, from just north of the bridge on the Battersea side.

Returning to the subject of Battersea Railway Bridge, it should also be noted that it is the only one over the Thames that does not cross the river at right-angles. The bridge is also the narrowest to cross the Thames – including all railway, underground and road bridges. The bridge has never been rebuilt since it was opened in 1863, making it one of the oldest bridges (of any type) crossing the Thames in Inner London.

When the bridge was first opened it was called Cremorne Bridge – a name that is sometimes still used today. The name arose because land near the Chelsea end of the bridge was then in use by Cremorne Gardens – one of London’s many pleasure gardens. The name derived from a house and gardens that originally stood on the site acquired in 1778 by Thomas Dawson, who in 1785 was created Viscount Cremorne. Completing the story, the name Cremorne derives from a barony in County Monaghan, in Ireland.


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Battersea Bridge

Above: Looking at the west side of the present Battersea Bridge from the Battersea side of the Thames.

Today’s Battersea Bridge is the second on the present site. The first bridge on the site was erected 1771-73 as a toll-bridge at the expense of Earl Spencer, who lived in Battersea. The bridge replaced the Chelsea Ferry which was in the form of a wherry used to row passengers across the Thames. The bridge structure was made entirely of wood, with 17 narrow arches, supported on wooden pilings and with a pronounced hump in the middle. The appearance was picturesque and became the subject of several paintings – particularly by Whistler and Turner.

In 1799 oil lamps were installed on one side of the bridge. At that time there were no street lights in London and crossing the bridge by night in almost pitch-black conditions would have been very perilous. The oil lamps were replaced by gas lamps in 1824. In 1879 the bridge was made free of tolls when it was taken over by the Metropolitan Board of Works – along with all the others crossing the Thames in London.

Above: Old Battersea Bridge. The clumsy-looking wooden bridge had a wide point at the centre to allow Thames sailing barges (with their masts lowered) to pass through the structure.

By 1881 the old bridge had become unsafe and it was closed. It was the last wooden bridge crossing the Thames. On 21 July 1890 a new bridge, built of iron, was officially opened by the Earl of Roseberry. The new bridge was sited a short distance east of the old one. The engineer was Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the work was supervised by his son. That bridge remains today. It has five spans with cast iron ribs. It is 40 feet (12 m) wide between parapets making it now London’s narrowest surviving road bridge over the Thames. In 2004 it was the fifth least-used Thames bridge in London. The bridge is 725 feet (22 m) between abutments.

The present bridge has had more than its fair share of accidents. The bridge is at the end of a long straight length of the Thames before the river suddenly bends south as it passes Battersea. Being on a sharp bend in the river, the bridge still presents a hazard to navigation. (1) In 1948, the MV Delta jammed under the bridge, and its master suffered broken arms and needed to be rescued from the smashed wheelhouse. (2) On 23 March 1950, the collier John Hopkinson collided with the central pier, causing serious structural damage, leaving the tram tracks as the only element holding the bridge together. The London County Council was concerned that the entire structure would collapse and closed the bridge until January 1951. (3) Another serious incident took place on 21 September 2005, when the James Prior, a 200-ton barge, collided with the bridge, causing serious structural damage costing over £500,000 to repair. The bridge was closed to all motor vehicles other than buses while repairs were carried out, causing severe traffic congestion; it eventually reopened on 16 January 2006.

In 1983 the bridge was designated a Grade II listed structure. In 1992 English Heritage oversaw a project to renovate the bridge, which for some years had been painted blue and red. Paint samples were analysed and photographs from the time of opening consulted. The bridge was restored to its original appearance of dark green, with the spandrels decorated in gilding. The lamp standards, which had been removed during the Second World War, were replaced with replicas copied from the surviving posts at the ends of the bridge.


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Fowler’s Horizontal Mill

Above: View from the Thames looking south in 1800. It shows the mill with the church of St Mary, Battersea, in the background. The mill structure was even higher than the parish church.

One of Battersea’s most unusual buildings, throughout its long history, is that of Fowler’s Horizontal Mill. It is probably one of the most unusual topics anywhere in London. With plenty of wind-power, usually coming from the west, London, along with most of England, has had many windmills over the centuries. Such machinery, made from stout timbers, was an efficient way to harness the power of the wind and its typical use was to grind grain to make flour.

Windmills with vertical sails mounted on a horizontal shaft go back to at least the 13th century in England and well documented in books, prints and paintings. Fowler’s Mill was unlike typical windmills in that its construction had no external sails driven by the wind. It was called an ‘air mill’ and rotated around a vertical shaft. It was erected near the river bank in 1788 by Thomas Fowler, on land formerly part of the gardens of Bolingbroke House which had been demolished apart from its east wing. Fowler was probably an oil and colour merchant, attracted by the rapidly-growing chemical industry. He used the mill to grind linseed. The mill was designed by Captain Stephen Hooper of Margate, in Kent, who had designed smaller versions at Margate and at Sheerness.

The lower part of the mill was a two-storey brick and tile construction. From its centre emerged a 120 feet high cylindrical structure containing more than ninety perpendicular boards or vanes, each 80 feet long. They were attached to a central drive shaft and encased in a timber framework with vertical shutters, operated by the miller like Venetian blinds. The mill was circular – 52 feet in diameter at the base and 45 feet at the top – with the main shaft being 120 feet long. It drove six pairs of millstones.

Above: View from the Thames looking east in 1829. It shows the remains of the mill relative to the church of St Mary, Battersea.

Fowler’s venture was not a success, and by 1792 had been taken over by John Hodgson to grind corn and malt for his neighbouring maltings and distillery. Hooper’s design was not very efficient and the structure required frequent repairs. The air-mill was operated by wind until 1825. The upper part of the tower was then taken down in 1827, leaving the truncated base that was incorporated into other buildings. At some date before 1833 a steam engine was installed to power the mill. The original base of Fowler’s Mill was removed in 1849. The general site was used for milling, using other machinery, until 1882. New machinery was installed by the Mayhew early in the 20th century and was known as the Battersea Flour Mills. The business was later incorporated into the Rank company which, in 1962, acquired Hovis McDougal to become Rank Hovis McDougal. All buildings on the site remained until at least the 1970s. After standing empty for many years the land was sold to developers and is now housing.

The mill stood near the demolished Bolingbroke House which had been built during the 17th century by the St John family on the original site of the Manor House of Battersea. The mill occupied land that was a short distance north of the parish church of St Mary.


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