Above: Painting by Keith Snow. The image is copyright.
For those of us who have lived our lives in London, as we all become older we also realise that there are less and less people who remember scenes like the one in the above painting. The artist, Keith Snow, grew up knowing London and enjoyed painting scenes of the river. In the early 1970s he then left England to live in New Zealand and still lives there today.
The painting could have been made in the 1950s or 1960s. Not only did the artist leave England after that time but very few large ships like the one seen in the painting came up to Tower Bridge or London Bridge much later than the end of the 1960s. As a ‘rule of thumb’ 1965 was the ‘cut off’ date for pictures like this one. Many people remember Churchill’s funeral when, after the service, his body was conveyed by water and, at the moment of the launch setting off, the dockers dipped their cranes as a sign of respect (a photo of the event is shown in the blog for 7 February 2015). The funeral was in 1965. Although all the cranes were still operational – as were all the wharves – it was only a few years after that famous event that ships ceased to discharge their cargoes on wharves beside the Upper Thames.
The many commuters, who walked over London Bridge each day on their way to work, hardly imagined that the scenes of large cargo ships moored near London Bridge and Tower Bridge would suddenly disappear – but they did! Suddenly it was all over and the mighty river was ‘dead’.
The painting records a typical day on the river. The painting is simply titled ‘St Saviour’s Dock at High Tide’. The artist is probably sitting near the side of a wharf. He would have had to get permission because all the the wharves lining the river were on private land. The view-point is from just down-river of St Saviour’s Dock. The entrance to the dock is on the far left of the view and the ochre-coloured warehouses with the closed doors were then part of Butler’s Wharf. That building is now converted into apartments and stands on the west side (up-river side) of the dock, at the river end. The line of warehouses on the left of the view facing the Thames were all part of Butler’s Wharf.
A large cargo ship, with its steam up, is either about to leave or to arrive at its moorings alongside the wharf. It is being assisted by a tug (on the right of the cargo ship) which is also under power, assisting the ship at its moorings. Two men are on the wharf – about to secure or realise the rope from the cargo ship. A second tug is seen further to the left, also with smoke coming from its funnel, but that one does not seem to be working with the cargo ship.
In the background is Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. In front of the latter is a Thames sailing barge. We still see sailing barges at this point on the river but they are now being used for pleasure cruises. At the time of the painting, that sailing barge would have been carrying a cargo making it a rare sight on the Thames for the 1960s because the use of such sailing barges had almost ceased by the time of the painting.
One other feature of the painting is ever rarer than the sailing barge. The lighter (large barge) at the bottom left-hand corner is being steered by a waterman using a large oar. While such a sight was common in the 1860s, it was becoming very rare indeed by the 1960s. Older watermen sometimes demonstrate their skill at barge-steering races today but usually just to show how it was done and not part of their normal work. Lighters – often called dumb barges, because they had no power to drive them – are very large and very heavy, even heavier when loaded. After the Second World War they were usually towed by a tug. However, knowing the currents of the tide a skilled waterman could use the long oar to push against the water and manoeuvre the lighter into the moving water. In that way the current of the tide would carry the lighter – at a slow speed – along the river. The watermen used the oar to steer the lighter. They were not rowing it, as you would row a rowing-boat.
The painting evokes a feeling of the past that ended quite abruptly by the 1970s. It was a time that many of us remember all too well but, because we thought that way of life would go on for ever, very few of us ever thought to record it by taking any photographs.