Greenwich Riverside Footpath in 1970

Above: View from the old riverside walkway in 2006 of a few barges remaining at Piper’s Wharf.

For those who have known Greenwich and its old riverside footpath, they will probably have different stories to relate, according to how far back you can remember walking the route. In the 1970s there were people in Greenwich who had grandparents who could remember walking along the footpath when it extended from the junction of Pelham Street and Ballast Quay all around the Greenwich Peninsula and ended at the slipway at the end of River Way.

Those days were during the latter decades of the 19th century. What caused the access to the footpath at the northern end of the peninsula to be limited was the extensive gas works, built between 1881 and 1886, covering a large part of what had been Greenwich Marsh. It was supplied with coal delivered to a massive jetty where it was unloaded. The jetty was demolished just before the Millennium exhibition at today’s O2 Arena. The enormous piers of that jetty remain beside North Greenwich Pier.

Until the 1980s and 1990s, it was possible to drive across part of the NE of the Greenwich Peninsula via Blackwall Lane, then under a disused railway bridge and into River Way. The old railway bridge once carried a remote railway track that linked to the Angerstein line. Beside River Way was the lonely pub called the Pilot. River Way crossed derelict land and ended at the Thames where there was a slipway for launching small yachts and other vessels.

When the gas works were constructed, most of the land towards the northern end of what is now the Greenwich Peninsula became inaccessible. From that time onwards, the old Greenwich footpath started at the junction of Pelham Road and Ballast Quay and ran almost due north to a point where it turned sharp right (away from the river) and ended in a no-man’s-land beside the main road leading to the old Blackwall Tunnel.

Writing about all this seems such a long time ago now. It was over 20 years ago and that is probably a long time for many people. It’s not so much the number of years that have passed but the remarkable changes that we have all seen since the Millennium Dome came into existence to help celebrate the coming of the millennium.

We will start our journey of memories from where the old footpath used to lead off Pelham Road and seemed to allow those who walked there into a completely different world. The footpath passed a substantial brick wall beside Lovell’s Wharf. On the wall was painted with huge black and white letters spelling out Lovell’s Wharf. They had to be that large so that vessels in the river could easily read them and know where they were on the Thames. If you were lucky, there was a cargo ship moored beside the footpath which all added to the experience.

After passing Lovell’s Wharf, the footpath seemed to meander a little and then pass large amounts of sand or aggregates (or both) on Granite Quay. The aggregates were loose and sloped up within high walls at the back. They had been scooped up by a crane and dumped on the wharf. To a pedestrian walking past, the mounds seemed very large indeed.

Walking further north, the path narrowed as it led between high corrugated-iron walls. In one wall was a small gate and sign above it which read ‘Beware of Cranes’. There was never any evidence of any cranes. Whether they were fixed- or travelling cranes it was not possible to find out. This was at Badcock’s Wharves.

Above: View looking north from the old footpath beside the beach at Piper’s Wharf. A large gantry at Enderby’s Wharf is just visible. Behind it can be seen the concrete silos at Amylum.

The confined passageway gave way to an open vista across the Thames once more as you walked beside a variety of barges moored close to the beach. This was Piper’s wharf. You could not mistake the location because on a further corrugated iron wall on the landward side of the footpath, painted black and white, were more large letters, this time spelling out ‘Piper’s Wharf’.

If there were any workers to be seen, repairing the barges, it was interesting to watch them usually applying Oxy-acetylene welding torches and adding large steel plates to the side of a barge. In the 1970s there were probably 20 to 30 barges to be seen at Piper’s. Over the years, the numbers dwindled to just a few and eventually none at all.

The narrow footpath led further north, passing a very large factory on the land which was, in its later years, part of Standard Telephones and Cables (STC). There were strong railings on the landward side of the footpath for security reasons. Walking past in the 1960s and 1970s, quite often you would see a cable-laying ship moored in the deeper part of the river. It was there for several weeks while an ocean telephone cable was manufactured in the factory and fed out on pulley wheels suspended above the footpath to the ship. The ship could carry enough cable to reach across the North Atlantic, including repeaters. Once all the cable had been stored, the ship would lay the cable – in all weathers – being at sea for many months until the work was completed.

Cable manufacture ended at Greenwich and work was transferred which meant that no cable-laying ships moored on the Thames at this point anymore. Beside the footpath (and behind the metal railings) was what looked like a normal domestic house. It had been the home of the Enderby Brothers who pioneered cables under the sea. The site was known as Enderby’s Wharf and, by the 1960s, the house was in use as the board room for the directors of STC.

The next part of the footpath always seemed a little curious because it was lined beside the river with large willow trees. Perhaps they were a remnant of the old Greenwich Marsh. The wharf acquired various names over the years. In the later years, the company was known as Amylum, Tate and Lyle, and Syral. The site was used for the storage of various foodstuffs. The plant closed in September 2009. The concrete silos were demolished soon after that.

The footpath followed an irregular river shape and arrived at Morden Wharf. This was in the form of a large red-brick building without any windows. The footpath had originally crossed the site – not at the edge but an odd angle through the middle. Because the factory did not want pedestrians to be hit by any fork-lift trucks or other vehicles, the factory had been built as a continuous building but with a covered passageway running almost through the middle. As time went on, a new footpath route was devised around the river’s edge of the large site. (That new footpath route is still in use at the time of writing.)

As you approach Morden Wharf from the south, the footpath takes a 90-degree turn to the left. At that point, the old footpath route through the large factory building can be seen. It is still there but sturdy steel fencing prevents any pedestrian access and has done since probably the 1990s. By the way, the site is known as Morden Wharf because the land was owned by Morden College, a charity that still stands on Blackheath.

The footpath continued past Molassine Meal Works before passing through the middle of Bay Wharf. Bay Wharf was another barge-repair company. They had huge sheds on the land accompanied by long elegant cogged slipways into the river. The original footpath passed beside the top of the slipway and the large sheds on the landward side. Probably in the 1980s, the footpath route was diverted around the site of Bay Wharf which meant that you lost sight of the river as you made an awkward detour.

Further north, in the 1970s, the footpath crossed Victoria Wharf. This had been redeveloped into a container terminal and a large blue crane was installed for loading and unloading containers out of ships moored alongside. The footpath was a great problem for the wharf which had been renamed Victoria Deep Water Terminal. Due to health and safety concerns, the public continued to use the footpath which was marked out with thick white lines on either side and large notices to stay within those lines. Since you were constantly being watched by those who worked on the wharf, everybody obeyed the rules and no accidents were ever reported.

Having walked past the land of Victoria Deep Water Terminal, the footpath took a sharp 90 degree turn to the right and your path was constricted by chain-link fencing until you reached the main road. This was the road that led to the original red-stone entrance to the old Blackwall Tunnel. The new tunnel opened in 1967 but was some distance from the old entrance which is now used for northbound traffic.

Having reached the point just described, there were only two options. The first option was to walk back to Ballast Quay, following the same route as before. The second option was to walk some distance around a slip-road, provided for overweight lorry loads and then walk to Blackwall Lane where it was possible to board a bus. The second option was so cumbersome that most walkers would return from whence they came and return by the footpath back to Ballast Quay.

How things have changed! The O2 Arena, North Greenwich underground station and all the many facilities nearby have created another world on what was once just Greenwich Marsh.


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Bay Wharf

Above:Looking at the derelict sheds and old slipways of Bay Wharf in 1977. There were still a barges on the slipways.

The Early Days of the Site

Bay Wharf is now the only wharf on the Thames in Greenwich that is still being used for work on river craft – in this case, boat and barge repair. The name is probably due to the original wharf having been laid out in a bay on the river bank. All the land that we now call the Greenwich Peninsula had once been Greenwich Marsh. It was flat and low-lying. Most of it lay slightly below river level at high tides and it was often flooded. Around the edge of the marsh, an embankment or dyke had been constructed to try to keep the land from flooding with various degrees of success.

Above: Ordnance Survey map for 1895 showing the breach whose site became Bay Wharf.

In the early 17th century – before 1625 – the dyke was breached and the land never fully recovered. It was known as the Great Breach or Horseshoe Breach, due to its shape. It is believed this is why Bay Wharf came to be laid out at that location. The breach is not shown on John Rocque’s small scale map which just shows the river bank as a continuous smooth line. However, before Bay Wharf was constructed, the OS 1895 map shows the state of the river bank which is unlikely to have changed very much since those early times.

Operators on the Site

The American boatbuilder Nathan Thompson set up a company for making identical boats by a mechanised process on the site that became Bay Wharf. It opened there about 1863. Thompson went out of business in a year and there are no further records that mention him.

Maudslay Son and Field set up a boatyard on the abandoned site in 1864 as a subsidiary of the Maudslay engineering firm based in Waterloo. The site at Greenwich was set up for shipbuilding – mainly concentrating on screw powered steamships. This included an experimental ship for Henry Bessemer whose small steelworks were nearby, now called Victoria Deep Water Terminal.

They also built two fast sailing ships for Willis, the Cutty Sark sailing ship owner. These were the Blackadder (launched 1870) and the Halloween. The company continued to build ships for the rest of the 19th century and moved into making marine boilers. They eventually went out of business and the entire property of the Maudslay company was auctioned at the site in 1902.

It is believed that the site was then leased to Segar Emery, an American mahogany importer

Alfred Manchester, a waste paper company, moved to the site before moving to a larger site in Charlton.

Humphrey & Grey (Lighterage) Ltd were taken over by Hays and moved to the site in 1945. They were Barge and Tug Repairers and Builders Manufacturer and Servicing of Tarpaulins.

Bay Wharf Construction Company, a subsidiary of Humphrey and Grey, took on many construction projects and also carried out some boat building. Some tugs built by them are still on the river today. Some of their buildings on the site were built in 1949.

About 2012 Thamescraft Dry Docking moved to Bay Wharf. They had to move from their old site further south at Badcock’s Wharf due to developers having bought all the land for housing. Thamescraft has continued to undertake boat repairs at their new location. The Thames footpath is now diverted around the old site of Bay Wharf.

Days of Decline

In the early 1970s, when Bay Wharf Construction Company was still operating on the site, the riverside footpath still ran through their yard. On the land were large sheds for use as covered workshops and also for barge repair. At the edge of the land, the beach gently sloped down and several steel slipways had been laid out to aid moving barges from the Thames. The footpath ran along the edge of the land, at the top of the slipways, without any fences. As you walked by, you saw the men working on barge repair and they would often greet you as you passed by. Of course, few members of the public ever used the footpath in the 1970s – unlike today when it is not only used by pedestrians but also by cyclists. All that changed in later years and eventually the footpath was rerouted in a landward direction around the site.

After the Construction Company closed down, it was still possible to see the empty sheds and the old slipways. For many of us, it was an opportunity to be reminded of what had been a way of life on the river throughout the 19th century and for much of the 20th century. The wharf is so full of dry-docks and boats, due to Thamescraft moving onto the site, that very little can be seen of the old wharf.


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Piper’s Wharf

Above: Looking across the Thames at PIper’s Wharf on a sunny evening in 1976

An earlier name for this wharf seems to have been Dawson’s Wharf. The name appears in documents but does not seem to appear on any maps for Greenwich around the 1890s.

James Richard Piper had been apprenticed to a Greenwich shipowner, William Bromley, and then went to work for Mowlem’s in Greenwich. After ten years he started his own barge repair business where he began to build barges to his designs and the business thrived. Piper took over Dawson’s Wharf in 1890 and built a series of outstanding sailing barges on the site. Some of them were built for racing and they won quite a few races.

Piper’s produced many successful barges – several of them built to win the annual barge races. The most well-known was Giralda, built in the year 1889, which became champion of champions.

In October 1894, the Kentish Mercury reported ‘A Destructive Fire at East Greenwich’. The newspaper wrote – “About two o’clock on Sunday morning a fire occurred at Piper’s Wharves on the riverbank at East Greenwich, the premises of Mr J R E Piper, barge builder. The fire broke out in the large corrugated iron building of one floor used as workshops, engine rooms and stores and the mischief spread to the second building of smaller size also used as workshops. Both were completely destroyed and a third building was much damaged by fire and water. The cause of the fire is unknown.”

An entry in the ‘Yachting and Coast Magazine’ for 17 June 1899 contained the following details – “James R Piper was apprenticed to William Bromley (JP for Gravesend) a Greenwich ship owner. He then moved on to work for Mowlem’s at their East Greenwich Yard. After ten years, Piper began to do work himself and then opened a small yard. Eventually, he was one of the largest barge builders on the Thames. He also became involved in producing barges for racing. He was a successful rower. He also worked as a marine damage surveyor.”

Piper’s Wharf was a well-known name on the riverside at Greenwich. By 1899 he had designed and built the largest ‘dumb’ barges. His sailing barges too were becoming well known and his order book was full. Piper’s had some pretensions above the usual barge and lighter repairers of East Greenwich – advertising themselves from the first as ‘Barge and Yacht builders’. In due course, James Piper was succeeded by Leonard and, then Malcolm. While they built a wide range of working Thames boats and some pleasure craft, they were most well-known for their classic sailing barges.

From the 1940s as Piper Marine Engineering the company undertook barge repairs until the mid-1980s. After James Piper, the company was owned by Leonard Piper and later by Malcolm Piper.

Thomas Scholey were barge owners and operators also working from Pipers Wharf and later from Dawson’s Wharf from at least the 1880s until at least the 1950s. They were Motor, Sailing and Dumb Barge owners. They were Licensed Lightermen and Wharfingers.

Pip, Squeak and Wilfred

Piper’s built many sailing barges. Among the names that are known were three vessels given the names Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. This came about due to a British strip cartoon published in the Daily Mirror from 1919 to 1956.

Pip – Built 1921 at Piper’s Wharf as a steel motor barge. Built for London and Rochester Trading. Later called Pinup. In 1954 her name was changed to Pine. She was run down at Purfleet by a steamboat and her crew drowned. She was dismantled but lay as a hulk at Greenwich.

Squeak – Built in the 1920s at Piper’s Wharf. A Hoy barge originally called Dorcas running from Sandwich and Dover with general cargoes. She had originally been built in 1898 in Rochester and called Hokey Pokey because of her painted hull. She was burnt out after a petrol drum cargo caught light off Woolwich and killed the skipper. She was sold to Pipers for £60 and had good enough timber to justify rebuilding. She was then rebuilt by and renamed Squeak as a staysail barge. She was dismantled in 1948 after nearly sinking in Sea Reach – she was by then notorious for fires. In November 1943 she arrived at Sheppey Gas Works wharf, Sheerness, with 160 tons of coal and made fast in 9 feet of water. In the morning the cabin floor had been pushed up by of mound of earth. The Gas Company denied responsibility but judgement went against them. She was then hulked and burnt out at Bedlam’s Bottom, on the River Medway.

Wilfred – Built 1926 at Piper’s Wharf. It was sold to London and Rochester Trading in 1954. She is now at the Embankment – and has had several names when it was in use as various restaurants. When built she was the last word in modern sail barges. She was used as a motor barge for ballast work and sand from Brightlingsea. Owned by T Scholey & Co. (Thames) Ltd. Was sold in 1954 to R Deards at Hoo.

Final Thoughts

In the 1970s there were often many lighters to be seen at Piper’s Wharf. Gradually their numbers declined and the company probably closed in the mid-1980s. Due to the overdevelopment of the riverside where Piper’s Wharf used to be, it is quite difficult to be certain of exactly where the wharf had been. A short stretch of beach has been left which is part of the old riverfront. There is little to show as a reminder of this once famous Thames company.

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Lovell’s Wharf

Above: Looking east on the old footpath beside Lovell’s Wharf on 24 April 1978. The ship was carrying sheet steel in tight coils. One of them is in the picture being moved by a derrick mounted on Lovell’s Wharf.

When the company called Lovell’s was in business, it was hardly necessary to explain to anybody where their wharf was. After going out of business their premises stood empty but on the wall beside the old riverside walkway, in very large letters, their name was still to be seen in front of their yard. About 2015 their site was demolished and work began to erect large apartment blocks – erasing all trace of the once-famous wharf. The old riverside walkway became a thing of the past, with a new pedestrian and cycle route being formed slightly further inland. If you are new to the area, then it needs to be explained that the large Lovell’s Wharf site had an entrance on the east side of Pelton Road which runs north to the Thames in Greenwich. The wharf almost extended to the side of the Thames with a substantial brick wall as the boundary and beyond that was a narrow pedestrian walkway between the river and the wall.

If you look for the site of Lovell’s Wharf on an old Ordnance Survey map for about 1900, you will find that it is named Greenwich Wharf, with a description of ‘Lime, Cement and Slate Works’ written across the extensive yard. The site has gone through several owners before Lovell’s and they will also be briefly described before providing details of Lovell’s Wharf.

Greenwich Marsh

Before continuing with the history of the site, it should be mentioned that Pelton Road was laid out on the boundary between Ballast Quay and a large expanse of open flat land. It was originally marsh and wetland known as Greenwich Marsh or Bugsby’s Marsh. Today it is known as the Greenwich Peninsula.

Greenwich Marsh extended as far west as today’s Pelton Road. It completely covered all the low-lying land bounded by the Thames – including the site of the O2 Arena. Its southern boundary was approximately where the modern Woolwich Road now runs. The Marsh was rich in wildlife but unsuitable for farming because it flooded at high tide. Locals trapped eels and hunted wildfowl and so-called ‘watermen’ ferried passengers and goods around by boat.

The open land was a discrete area with a gate on the riverside at the present end of Pelton Road. Before the 1840s this was Dog Kennel Field and Great Meadow and owned by Morden College since 1680.

Greenwich Wharf

All the land beside the Thames – between Pelton Road and the Enderby Wharf boundary – was developed for Morden College from 1838 as Greenwich Wharf by William Coles Child. It was subdivided into parcels and let to various operators.

The site later known as Lovells Wharf was operated as a coal import wharf by William Coles Child from 1841, with a lime burner as a subtenant. From 1852 the wharf was managed by Rowton and Whiteway for Coles Child. Later still, from 1900 it was operated by John Waddell and Co as a coal wharf. In addition, there was an ice-well on the site, operated by a man called Ashby. The lease of Coles Child expired in 1919.

Much of the coal, if not all of it, came from coal fields in Durham. Coles Child had several connections with that part of England. In passing, it should be mentioned that the original name of Banning Street was Chester Street, taking its name from the Durham mining area town of Chester le Street. THe name of Pelton Road is another example – Pelton Main and West Pelton collieries were immediately north of Chester le Street.

By March 1841 Coles Child was running lime burning operations himself, having taken over from other operators on the site. ‘Grey Stone and other limes’ were produced there and were, in effect, the start of a cement manufacturing business that carried on into the 1920s.

Lovell’s Wharf

In 1911 C Shaw Lovell, from a Bristol-based family business established in 1869, took over Coles Child’s Greenwich Wharf. Shaw Lovell also used Union Wharf in addition to Greenwich Wharf, which he had been sub-leasing since before the First World War. From this wharf, the company later dealt in scrap metal, requisitioned from the battlefields of the First World War.

Shaw Lovell operated a wharfage business with an emphasis on metal transhipment, eventually hosting the London Metals Exchange on site. In the 1960s, they built a computer centre and office block in Banning Street on the corner with Pelton Road. One of the most noticeable features of the site were two Butters Scotch derricks. They were admired by all who passed by and provided an immediate recognition to this part of the river. Steel for the yard was delivered by cargo vessels that moored alongside the old riverside footpath. The Derricks had a long reach and were used from the 1950s to lift the steel from the ships, over the footpath and into the yard. By 1982 Lovell’s Wharf was handling 118,000 tons of cargo – in the form of steel, aluminium and galvanised sheeting. Extensive use of containerisation meant that the wharf fell into disuse and became derelict after Lovell surrendered the lease when Lovell’s Wharf shut its gates in 1989. The derricks remained until after the wharf closed and were demolished by Morden College in 2000. Lovell’s Wharf had been a safeguarded wharf from the 1900s until the order was cancelled by the Mayor of London about 2000.

Handling steel was a highly specialised process. Although steel is known for its strength, the process of unloading or loading drums of sheet steel or bundles of steel rods required the utmost care. Drums of steel sheets were carefully packed in a strong casing to prevent the metal from being damaged by denting. When lifting bundles of steel rods they had to be placed in a cradle so that the cables lifting the steel did not pinch into the rods. Any pressure applied to the rods would have affected their strength.

River Gardens (Development)

A large development including many apartments and a few commercial premises (like cafes and restaurants) has been developed by London and Regional Properties. One end of the development stands beside Pelton Road and extends in an almost northerly direction beside the Thames. Part of the new development has been called Greenwich Wharf by the developers which means that the land has been returned to its original name.

For anyone who remembers the old Lovell’s Wharf site, all trace of their buildings, their yard with the derricks and the unusual riverside wall beside the old walkway has been airbrushed out of existence. They are gone forever and another part of what might be called ‘Old Greenwich’ has been sacrificed on the altar of developer’s greed.

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Ballast Quay, Greenwich

Above: Ballast Quay with its late Georgian terraces and the Cutty Sark pub.

The history of Greenwich is, at times, surprising for its lack of detail. For example, most place names in London are recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) and their position is well known. Te Domesday record of Greenwich is still not fully understood as to which piece of land it refers. Considering that Greenwich became the location for a famous royal palace, you might have thought that its early history would be better understood. The same goes for Ballast Quay. It is known to be a place of great antiquity – possibly the earliest part of Greenwich to be inhabited – yet only the vaguest details about it are recorded in early documents.

Since early times, probably the 10th century, there was an important house on or near Ballast Quay. Only a few details are known and there are no pictures of what anything looked like until the 16th century. In 1643, Anton van den Wyngaerde produced a line drawing representing a panorama of London which included parts of Greenwich. The riverfront at Greenwich is shown, including Ballast Quay. The large house remained standing until the end of the 17th century.

Above: Part of John Rocque’s small scale map (1746). Ballast Quay is shown by an arrow. The open land to the east is known today as Greenwich Peninsula.

Ballast Quay was the most easterly part of Greenwich beside the Thames. It is shown but not named on John Rocque’s small-scale map of London. Even by the time of the map – which was published only 90 years before the arrival of railways in London – there were no developments any further east on the riverside at Greenwich.

It was the earliest working quay in Greenwich, used, as its name suggests, for loading gravel taken from Blackheath and conveyed from the pits in Maze Hill via today’s Lassell Street to the quay. The ballast was loaded onto ships returning empty from Greenwich, being filled with ballast to stabilise them in stormy conditions. To the east of Ballast Quay was a large marshland that is now known as the Greenwich Peninsula.

Much of the land at Greenwich and also at Lewisham is described in Charters, the earliest of which is dated from AD 918. They still exist and are held in Ghent, in Belgium. They relate to the Abbey of Ghent who owned land in Lewisham and Greenwich. King Alfred’s daughter married the Count of Flanders and went to live with him in Ghent. On her death, she gave her land in Lewisham and Greenwich to the Abbey of St Peter in Ghent. How she acquired the land is unknown and why she gave it to the Abbey is also unknown.

It is a complicated story but in 1530, Henry VIII acquired the land owned by the Abbey of Ghent and took it into royal ownership. By that time, there was a large royal estate at Greenwich, including the land now known as Greenwich Park. The palace at Greenwich was a favourite of Henry VIII. The future Elizabeth I and Mary I were both born there and brought up there.

Ballast Quay was the first working wharf at Greenwich. A short distance to the east was a tide mill, constructed after the 14th century. Yet again, very few details are known about it.

Above: Painting which looks west at Ballast Quay, 1852. There are quite a few small ships in the picture. It has the appearance of a small harbour quay of a West Country harbour.

So much for the early history. We now shall move to the 19th century. The name Ballast Quay was changed in 1801 to Union Wharf, following The Act of Union (Ireland) Act of 1800. These days, the wharf seems to have reverted to its earlier name which is really how it should be.

The narrow street, also called Ballast Quay, is lined on the landward side by elegant houses built between 1804 and 1869. They are part of the land owned by Morden College – which are extensive almshouses standing on Blackheath.

Until the coming of the railways, which had started in the 1830s, Greenwich had a flourishing fishing fleet, centred on the riverside at Ballast Quay. An example was William Bracegirdle (1782-1863), a local Greenwich fisherman, boat builder and businessman. Men set out for deep-sea fishing from Greenwich as well as fishing in the Thames estuary. All this came to an abrupt halt when ports like Grimsby sent fish caught by their fishermen directly to London by train. The local Greenwich fishermen left and moved their work to ports in the north of England.

A subject related to fishing is boat building. Just around the corner from Ballast Quay is Hoskins Street. Its name commemorates the surname of a local boat builder called George Hoskins.

At the eastern end of the street called Ballast Quay stands a large house built for the Harbour Master whose job was to control the passage of colliers on the Thames. The house was erected in 1855 and was in use until 1890. It is now in use as flats. Due to the large number of colliers using the Thames – to deliver ever-increasing amounts of coal in London – they were in danger of clogging the river. Their passage on the river was controlled by three signalling stations – at Greenwich, at Limehouse and near St Katharine Docks. The colliers were counted as they passed each point and flags were flown to signal whether they were allowed to pass or wait until empty colliers returned downriver.

In the mid-1960s, a narrow strip of land beside the river became a garden for use by residents of the neighbouring houses. For a while, the residents ran a tea garden there.

Because Ballast Quay is already built on and most of the houses are listed, it is the only wharf that is likely to remain from early times. All the other wharves are gradually being lost as developers seek to maximise the land for overbearing and unsympathetic apartments. The Greenwich riverfront of the 1960s is rapidly loosing its charm and character – that’s for sure!

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Comment – Greenwich Wharves in the 1960s

A few of the ‘Greenwich Wharves in the 1960s’ have already been described. A few more pages are being added to the list starting today and continuing into next week.


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Whitechapel Station Upgrade

Above: Renewed entrance to the station from Whitechapel Road. If the stairs had a plush carpet, you might think it was the entrance foyer to a new London theatre.

Whitechapel station first opened in 1876 when the East London Railway (ELR) was extended north from Wapping to Liverpool Street station. In 1884, the District Railway – now known as the District Line – opened a new station adjacent to the deeper ELR station as the terminus of an extension of the underground line from Mansion House. For a few months during 1902, the District Railway station was rebuilt. Since that time, for anyone using the steep staircases and awkward gangways, it proved to be a very poor experience.

Work on the extension of the East London line commenced which resulted in its closure from 22 December 2007. It reopened on 27 April 2010 when tracks on a new alignment were connected to a disused North London Line viaduct from Shoreditch to Dalston, making Whitechapel part of the London Overground network. With the line being connected to lines south of the Thames Tunnel, it became possible for passengers to travel, without the need to change trains, from Crystal Palace, New Cross and Clapham Junction via Whitechapel and Shoreditch High Street to Dalston Junction. That was also extended to a new terminus at Highbury and Islington station.

It was a long time in the planning but in 2009 work began on a new railway line running east-west under Central London known as Crossrail. Part of that plan was a Crossrail station at Whitechapel, interchanging with those already there. It was due to be completed by 2018. According to the television programme made about it, it was the ’15 Billion Pound Railway’. The public was told it was within its budget. They were also told that it was on schedule. All of that proved to be incorrect. The railway is now promised for 2022 and the cost is approaching £20 million – and counting.

The Inner London part of the railway has been constructed with new platforms under already existing stations. This has not only required the new platforms to be built but also new passenger interconnections – with corridors, escalators and lifts – which are still incomplete. Londoners are waiting to see if the new date of 2022 will become a reality.

We now return to the story of Whitechapel Station. It is unusual in one respect – the underground railway line and platforms are physically above the Overground route. You would have thought it should be the other way round. Deep down in the ground, well below the levels of the two sets of lines, are the new tunnels for Crossrail. They are complete and the platforms are also complete along with a long escalator link.

For those using the two Overground platforms and the two underground platforms, things have been in quite a mess for several years. As has already been mentioned, the last time the station was rebuilt was 1902 and it certainly looked like it! For anyone alighting at Whitechapel station with any walking disability, life was very difficult, if not impossible. It was necessary to negotiate several flights of steep stairs because there were no lifts. With many more people expected to use the station when Crossrail starts running, a station upgrade was well overdue.

A completely new station concourse has been built and all access routes to the four platforms have been redesigned with new staircases but – more importantly – new lifts have been installed. Because the underground and overground lines run at almost 90 degrees to each other and at different levels, separate lifts – six in total – serving each possible combination of access between them have meant that there are now lifts all over the site.

Because the original station entrance from Whitechapel Road was closed for many months, with access from a specially built side entrance, it has been a long time for many passengers since they used the old entrance. The station entrance is now via the same doorways of years ago. The old cramped access has been removed and passengers using the entrance often stop in their tracks as they wonder if they have come to the right place. The old entrance from the road has not changed and it comes as quite a surprise to see what has happened to the ticket hall and the alterations to the ticket gates.

The newly built station opened to passengers in late August 2021 and access between the original main entrance, the underground and the Overground will be much easier for all who use it. During the morning and evening rush hour there is also much more space for passengers to move around the platforms. The two Overground platforms now have lift access and new access passageways but the walls beside the two platforms are still unfinished at the time of writing. When the Overground platforms opened in 2010, large colourful enamelled panels were erected on the walls beside the platforms. A few of them have been restored to their original positions but we still await the completion of the remaining work. Because the Overground platforms are what was once the East London Line and date from much earlier times, there is good brickwork at the lack of the two platforms and it was promised that this would be cleaned up as a feature of the new platforms. So far, this is also something that has not happened at the time of writing.

Of course, what we are really waiting for is the arrival of the new passenger service on the Crossrail platforms. That will cause the station to have many more passengers using it. By the way, when up and running, the new railway will be called the Elizabeth Line. The Queen visited a site at a Crossrail station on 23 February 2016 and unveiled a large new logo. A photograph was taken with her standing in front of a large station nameplate with ‘Elizabeth Line’ inscribed on it. That was five years ago and we are still waiting for the first train to arrive!


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Financial Times Newspaper Returns to its Old Offices

Above: The glazed eastern side of the building, standing on the west side of Friday Street.

There was a time in London when nearly all the newspapers had their premises in Fleet Street, in the City of London – prompting it to be known as the ‘River of Ink’. Those times are long gone and newspaper offices are to be found all over Inner London.

In 1959, the Financial Times moved to Bracken House, also in the City of London. These distinctive offices stand at 1 Friday Street and 10 Cannon Street. The building occupies the whole of the western side of the remaining fragment of Friday Street. The building is a late example of modern classicism, constructed from 1955-58 and designed by Sir Albert Richardson to serve as the headquarters and printing works of the Financial Times, on a cleared bomb site southeast of St Paul’s Cathedral. The exterior on the north side was clad in pink sandstone from Hollington, Staffordshire, alluding to the characteristic pink colour of the newspaper’s pages. Other features were red bricks and bronze windows to contrast with the verdigris of the copper roof.

Bracken House was listed Grade II in 1987 – the first building built after the Second World War in England to become listed. The building was named after Brendan Rendall Bracken, First Viscount Bracken, the founder of the modern version of the Financial Times.

The printing works at Bracken House closed in 1988 and in 1989 the newspaper moved from its City site to a large modern office block in Southwark, beside the Thames on the east side of Southwark Bridge. It was called Number One Southwark Bridge. It was a dramatic move because it meant that the Financial Times had moved away from the City of London.

After the newspaper had left the building, the central part of Bracken House was substantially altered to plans drawn up by Michael Hopkins and Partners between 1988 and 1992. In 2013 the listing of the building was upgraded to Grade II*.

The Financial Times stayed at their Southwark offices for 30 years before making the decision to move back to Bracken House once more. The official date for reopening was on 19 May 2019. Prior to their move, the building had been refurbished by John Robertson Architects. For the newspaper, it was a time of celebration. Firstly a move back to their prestigious old building. Secondly, the newspaper move came at a time when it had just broken through the barrier of one million paying readers, the highest level in its 130-year history.

It is probably the only newspaper ever to leave a site and then return at a later date. It is also one of the few national newspapers to remain so close to the historic site of Fleet Street. When it moved to Bracken House, the site had been chosen to be midway between Fleet Street and the financial district in the City which, at the time, was centred on buildings around the Bank of England. The Stock Exchange was then at 125 Old Broad Street, a short distance from Threadneedle Street.


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Wapping Warehouse Cranes

Above: One of the murals on Wapping Station showing a derrick beside the Thames at Wapping.

Those who live in London with long memories may remember the many small derricks and cranes mounted on warehouses lining the Thames and also lining many streets nearby. They always looked so elegant as they swung out to pick up heavy loads. Something that few people ever noticed was that they worked almost silently. There was never the sound of a noisy motor operating the mechanism because those cranes did not have one. They were not driven by a motor but by hydraulic power which was almost completely silent.

Large water pipes were laid in the ground by the London Hydraulic Power Company across London – from Westminster and the City of London in the west to Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Deptford, Stepney and Poplar in the east. Sites in other places were also served. All that was required to operate the cranes was a high-pressure pipe connected to the network and hydraulic power supplied the source of power for each crane. There were several pumping stations across Central London with large water tanks which provided the water pressure. The system was a very safe one because if anything ever went wrong the worst that could happen was a water leak. There was not the danger of an explosion from gas escaping from a fractured gas pipe or of electrocution from electric cables.

What looks like a drawing, is one of the large enamel panels lining the platform of Wapping Underground Station. It is one of many murals beside the two platforms, created by Nick Hardcastle who graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1981.

The picture shows a large red crane mounted on the side of King Henry’s Wharves in Wapping. The correct name for this type of crane is a derrick which derives its name from a type of gallows named after Thomas Derrick, an Elizabethan English executioner. For simplicity, the artist has chosen to show only the derrick. There is a small crane also mounted on the enormous wall as can be seen in the photograph below. The difference between a derrick and a crane is that the jib of a derrick can be raised or lowered so that it can reach out across a greater distance. In the case of this derrick, the operator sat in the red cabin, looking out with a good view of the goods that were being lifted. In the case of the crane, it could be swung around 180 degrees beside the wall but the angle of the jib could not be altered.

Above: King Henry’s Wharf, showing the derrick (left) and the smaller crane (right).

The Victorian engineers probably installed hundreds, if not thousands of derricks and cranes like those shown at Wapping. Many were removed from the walls of warehouses, for safety reasons, before they were redeveloped as apartments. It means that many of these wonderful pieces of engineering were abandoned and sent off for scrap. The derrick at Wapping is no longer operational but it provides a good visual aid for how barges were loaded and unloaded in Victorian times and continued in use until the 1960s when, within the space of a few years, they were no longer required.


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Royal Docks

Above: Helicopter view looking east at all three Royal Docks about 1985.

An important subject related to the history of the Thames is the Royal Docks. They stand on the east side of the River Lea, now part of the Outer London Borough of Newham. When the docks were built, they were on land that was then part of the County of Essex. The three docks have always been known as the Royal Docks, due to their names – Victoria Dock, Albert Dock and King George V Dock. They came under the Port of London Authority (PLA) control, even though they were built on land that was outside Metropolitan London.

As the middle of the 19th century approached, there was still a need for more docks as well as the need for deeper berths for the larger cargo ships arriving in London. The only solution was to build on land known as Plaistow Marshes because all the other riverside space between the Tower of London and the River Lea was already occupied by either wharves beside the Thames or dock systems with lock entrances on the river bank. The Royal Docks were the largest of all the dock in London and, because they were the last to be built, they provided much-needed access for freight via integrated railway lines.

Above: Outline map of the Royal Docks.

Royal Victoria Dock

The Royal Victoria Dock was the first of the three Royal Docks to be constructed, designed by George Parker Bidder and opened in 1855. It was the first dock to be designed specifically to accommodate large steamships. It was also the first to use hydraulic power to operate its machinery and the first to be connected to the national railway network, via the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway section of what is now the North London line. Originally known as ‘Victoria Dock’, the prefix ‘Royal’ was granted in 1880.

Royal Victoria Dock was connected to the national rail network via a line that ran between Canning Town and North Woolwich. When it was first built, the railway cut along the docks. To correct this, a swing bridge over the entrance to the dock was built which slowed journey times and a new line was built in 1855, to take the route around the north side of the dock to Silvertown. A station at Custom House opened where it reconnected with the original line. The older southern line was kept to serve local factories, where it was known as the Silvertown Tramway.

The Royal Victoria Dock consisted of a main dock and a basin to the west, providing an entrance to the Thames at the western end. The dock was deeply indented with four solid piers, each 152 m long by 43 m wide, on which were constructed two-storey warehouses. Other warehouses, granaries, sheds and storage buildings surrounded the dock, which had a total of nearly 2.25 miles (3.6 km) of quays.

The dock was an immediate commercial success, as it could easily accommodate all but the very largest steamships. By 1860, it was already taking over 850,000 tons of shipping a year – double that of the London Docks, four times that of St Katharine Docks and 70% more than the West India Docks and East India Docks combined. It was badly damaged by the German bombing in the Second World War but it experienced a resurgence in trade following the war. From the 1960s onwards, the Royal Victoria Dock experienced a steady decline as the shipping industry adopted containerisation, which effectively moved traffic downstream to Tilbury Docks. It finally closed to commercial traffic along with the other Royal Docks in 1981.

Royal Albert Dock

The Royal Albert Dock was designed by Sir Alexander Rendel as an extension to the Victoria Dock. It was constructed by Lucas and Aird and completed in 1880. Two dry docks and machine shops were established to the south at the western end for ship repairs by R & H Green & Silley Weir (later River Thames Shiprepairs Ltd). The dock is 1.75 miles long. It had 16,500 linear feet of new quays with a depth of 36 feet – to compete with the Tilbury Docks. From the 1960s onwards, the Royal Albert Dock went into a steady decline, along with all of London’s docks. It closed as a dock system in 1981.

Redevelopment from 1981 onwards by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) included a revolutionary idea – the construction of London City Airport which was built on the south bank of the dock with a single runway, completed in 1987. At the eastern end of the north bank of the dock, the University of East London Docklands Campus opened in 1999.

King George V Dock

The King George V Dock was the last dock to be built in London. Begun in 1912 by the Port of London Authority, there was a delay when work stopped during the First World War and it was not completed until 1921. Although at 64 acres (26 ha) of water it was smaller than the other royals, it had its entrance from the Thames through a lock and bascule bridge. This dock was officially closed in 1981.


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Dockers’ Statue, Royal Docks

London is generally accepted to have been established by the Romans and became a port even in those far off times. The Port of London continued along the banks of the Thames until the late-18th century when, to provide more secure storage of goods, the docks were formed. The banks of the River Thames and the many additional docks formed a larger Port of London until the middle of the 20th century when containerisation changed all the working practices on the Upper Thames. Gradually, Tilbury Docks took over as London’s port and the old ways of unloading ships fell into decline.

Until the 1950s and 1960s, you could stand on London Bridge and observe the many cranes operating on the City side and also Tooley Street side of the Thames being used to unload large cargo ships which moored alongside the quays. They were delivering bananas, cheese, bacon, eggs and wine to supply the food needs of London. Thousands of men toiled by day and by night, helping to unload the cargoes from the holds of the ships, using the dockside cranes and then storing the goods in warehouses beside the river.

The same scenes were enacted in St Katharine Docks, London Docks, Surrey Commercial Docks, West India Docks, Millwall Docks, East India Docks and the Royal Docks. The only difference was that no members of the public were allowed into those docks and the only witnesses were fellow dockers. All the goods – large or small – were unloaded in the same way. It involved considerable manpower aided by dockside cranes.

As the 1960s came, containers were being used. As one docker once explained, “You could pull a lever on a crane to lift a container and the weight that was lifted was equivalent to a week’s work by a docker moving things on his back”. By the 1970s, dockside cranes were falling silent and riverside wharves were becoming derelict. No more piles of sacks were to be seen on the wharves. Boxes and crates of goods were being moved by containerisation which had to be done in larger docks with deeper berths for even larger cargo ships.

It was the end of the docks beside the Thames in Inner London and the old-fashioned docker, unloading ships by carrying sacks on his back or moving goods using fork-lift trucks on the quayside was no more. Those men who were skilled in operating small dockside cranes were no longer needed. A way of life for thousands of men suddenly came to an end within the space of a decade or so.

What about those men? What happened to them? Who remembers them now? Where is there a statue showing all their hard work and loyal service? Most of them were made redundant and finding another job after being a docker was very hard because there were so many men seeking new jobs.

As for a monument, there are remarkably few in Inner London. The most splendid is to be found in the redeveloped Royal Docks, mounted close to the main entrance of the enormous ExCeL Exhibition Centre. The centre is modern but nearby are two large warehouses (not shown in the above picture), both listed Grade II, which add a touch of authenticity from the past for this fine statue. It is also close to the edge of one of the docks where disused large cranes still stand beside it. The Royal Docks are situated in the Outer London Borough of Newham.

The long-awaited statue, unveiled in 2009, depicts dockers at work and it is dedicated to all the Dock Workers from the 1800s onwards that had such an arduous life. The three figures are all based on real people – John Ringwood, an ex Seaman who later worked in the Docks; Patrick Holland from Custom House, who worked as a Stevedore in the Docks for 20 years, shown wearing a hat and portraying a Tally Clerk; and Mark Tibbs. Their names can be seen on the sides of the packing cases on the statue.

John Ringwood and Mrs Patricia Holland campaigned for a memorial to Newham’s Dockers which took about 10 years before the statue was realised. They raised the money to pay for the project and persuaded The Royal Docks Trust and Newham Council to commission the statue. Mrs Holland from Custom House, whose father and husband were stevedores, said “This is our history and we should be proud of it. Stevedore is a Portuguese name, this was a skilled job, and these men were in the hold of the ship all day unloading or loading. Dockworkers were on the quay unloading or loading. You had the Blue Union for the Stevedores and the White Union for the Dockworkers.”

It is one of the largest sculptures in London. The bronze figures are nine feet high. The sculptor, Les Johnson’s amazing talent is seen in the statue. Born in Australia, he studied fine art in Sydney and Melbourne before coming to Britain where he continued to study under Michael Marriott FRBS at the Sir John Cass School of Art, London.

The statue was cast at the Bronze Age Sculpture Casting Foundry, one of London’s largest bronze foundries, situated near the Limehouse Basin. It is a highly specialised foundry using the lost wax method to cast works in bronze and other non-ferrous metals.

The statue is a most realistic one with care having been taken to ensure that all the details were accurate. The two grey cranes in the background remain from the days of the Royal Docks and add a sense of realism to the setting. In the distance is a modern high footbridge, built across the dock to allow easy access via lifts for pedestrians.


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