Above: Looking east from the shore at low tide, with Canary Wharf in the background.
The subject of piers on the Thames in an interesting one. In the days when the docks were still in use – which ended by the 1970s – there were few piers on the Thames and they were all under the control of the Port of London Authority (PLA), along with all the docks.
The PLA was established by the Port of London Act in 1908 to govern the Port of London. This gave it responsibility for operating all the enclosed dock systems, apart from Regent’s Canal Dock. It used to include the Port of Tilbury but the Tilbury Docks were privatised in 1992. The PLA has control over the Thames from a point near Teddington Lock, in the west, to a point on the estuary of the Thames, in the east – a distance of about 95 miles (150 km). The PLA originally had its prestigious headquarters on Tower Hill. After the PLA vacated the building, it was used for a time by Willis and then, in 2017, the building opened as a 100-room luxury hotel called 10 Trinity Square.
The PLA piers – of which Cherry Garden Pier was one – were manned by PLA personnel and their function was to aid the navigation of cargo shipping on the Thames. When the docks closed, there was little traffic on the Thames and the PLA piers were not required. Some of them were removed completely but most of them were sold off and taken over by private companies, using them to moor private passenger-carrying vessels. These vessels are in use either as tripping boats – carrying passengers in trips to see the Thames – or in use for private functions on the Thames – like corporate entertainment, weddings or parties.
In the days of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) – which was from 1981 until the late 1990s – new piers were constructed. Some of them were for additional tourist provisions while many were for stopping points for the newly-formed River Bus. Today, there are many piers on the Thames in use for many varied purposes. Some of the old PLA piers still exist but, due to their age, many of them have been replaced.
When Cherry Garden Pier was in use by the PLA, it was a busy place, always manned by day and by night, because it had a very important function to perform. Tower Bridge was completed 1894 to carry road traffic across it and also to open so that river traffic could pass through the middle of it. A quick look at a map of the Thames will reveal that the river has a distinct bend so that approaching large cargo ships could not see Tower Bridge as they rounded the bend at Limehouse. Similarly, those responsible for raising the bascules of the bridge could not see the ships until they were a very short distance away. When Tower Bridge was completed, the idea was that ships would not have to wait for the bridge to be raised but, instead, the bridge would be raised in advance so that the ships could pass through unhindered.
Remember that the bridge was completed at the end of the 19th century and the telephone was in use in London. The first telephone call in London was made in 1877. Tower Bridge could be informed of approaching ships by having PLA staff on lookout duty at Cherry Garden Pier. The position of the pier was such that men on the pier could see vessels as they rounded the bend at Limehouse. They then phoned Tower Bridge to advise them of an approaching vessel. The need for this communication declined in the 1960s as the wharves on the Thames and the large docks gradually closed and cargo vessels no longer came to the upper reaches of the river.
In addition, there was a working tide gauge on the downstream dolphin supporting Cherry Garden Pier. By the means of a large piece of timber, marked in feet, the level of the water showed the headroom between the two white lines painted on the bascules of Tower Bridge. All evidence for the tide gauge has now gone.
Cherry Garden Pier has been in use by a company chartering river-boats for cruises and functions on the Thames since the 1970s. The small huts at the western end of today’s pier probably remain from the days when the pier was operated by the PLA. They are in the same style that all PLA piers were built.
Finally, a few words of explanation of the name of the pier. The name derives from a place of public recreation that opened in 1664 on the river bank. As well as a beer or coffee house, there was a large garden, part of which was a cherry orchard. Samuel Pepys mentioned the place in his diary for 13 June 1664 with the words “… down to Greenwich and there saw the King’s Works … and so to the Cherry Garden and so carried some cherries home;”. Two days later, 15 June 1664, he was there again “to Greenwich … and so to the Cherry Garden and then by water singing finely to the bridge [London Bridge] and there landed”.
The Cherry Garden was closed in 1708. It was situated on land now covered by the street bearing its name. That street runs south from the street called Bermondsey Wall. Cherry Garden Stairs are shown on early maps. Cherry Garden Pier was probably not built until about 1850. It is not shown on Greenwood’s map (1830) or Cary’s map (1837) but it is shown on the first OS map for 1862. Cherry Garden Pier is now a private pier with no public access.