Above: The three cranes shown on the Agas map of c1561.
“Upper Thames Street – Part 11”
The site of the ancient Three Cranes Wharf was east of Queenhithe (Dock) and it extended for some distance — as can be see on the Agas map. Part of that land is now on the east side of Southwark Bridge. In the 16th century the wharf was not famous for a particular import, it was not even famous as a place name but it had one unusual attribute. On the wharf, there were three cranes by the riverfront.
If that does not seem very interesting — or even mind-blowing — then we need to pause to talk about 16th century cranes. Remember that at in those days people lived in an age without electric power, without steam power and the only water power that was known required the mechanism to be next to a fast flowing stream. Harnessing the tidal power of the Thames was done in some places along the Thames but not on wharfs because the process would have taken up too much valuable land. So, how did the cranes work ?
The 16th and 17th century maps of London show many cranes beside the Thames and, of course, there were many others at ports throughout England. Today, there is only one remaining crane in England that looks similar to those on the Agas map and it is on public display at the port of Harwich, in Suffolk. The Harwich crane was fixed in position and did not rotate. The tread-mill was also much larger than those shown on the Agas map.
Above: The ancient crane at Harwich. This one had a moving arm but the structure containing the tread-mill stood on the ground and did not rotate.
The drawings of each crane on the Agas map are not very clear so a description may help. The whole structure of the crane was mounted on a vertical post (in much the same way as that of a ‘post-mill’ windmill) so that it could be rotated. The arm of the crane was fixed at an angle that could not be altered. The hook at the end of the rope ran over a pulley and the other end of the rope was wound around a horizontal shaft attached to a tread-mill. That tread-mill was mounted inside what looks like a hut on the crane and was powered by a man walking inside the tread-mill, thus providing the power to lift goods on and off ships.
For a wharf to have one crane was considered quite sufficient. For a wharf to have three cranes was probably almost unheard of, which is why the name is so interesting. It must therefore have been a busy wharf to require three cranes all working at the same time. If that had not been the case the wharf owners would not have had the three cranes built.
Above: The name plate is beside the riverside walkway on the Thames Path running through the City. The name plate has probably been there about 20 years, put there when the walkway was created in relatively recent times. It is a welcome reminder of the original name of Three Cranes Wharf — dating from at least Tudor times.