Sunday, April 5, 2015

Built in Rotherithe: Argonaut 1866, the last clipper built by Thomas Bilbe

Nelson Dock, 1868. Click to see the full-sized image
Thomas Bilbe built Argonaut in 1866 with his partner William Perry.  Bilbe was based at the Nelson Dock shipyard from 1850 until the late 1860s.  It was one of Rotherhithe's biggest shipyards. As well as tea and wool clippers, Bilbe built a ship that was armed and designed to operate in the illegal opium trade, he transported Chinese coolies as cheap labour, and pioneered a new method of hull framing and invented a mechanical slip, which he patented.   The slip can still be seen today immediately next to the Hilton Hotel's car park on Rotherhithe Street, its engine house preserved immediately behind it, facing onto Rotherhithe Street.

The site is now located within the grounds of the Hilton Hotel on Rotherhithe Street (today's postcode SE16 5HW - see the location on and is one of the few places in Rotherhithe to preserve any of the physical infrastructure of the area's shipbuilding past.   The dry dock was incorporated into the hotel complex when the Scandic Crown Hotel first owned the site.  It is the only one to be preserved on Rotherhithe.  Bilbe's patented mechanized slip and the slip's engine house also survive to the west of the dry dock, also part of the Scandic Crown's original estate.  The engine house was opened as a museum during the regeneration of Rotherhithe in the 1980s, but to as far as I know has not been open to the public in the last 20 years.  

Nelson Dock in 1862, by Stuart Rankin from his 1996
booklet "
Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - The Nelson
." Rotherhithe Local History Paper no.2
Thomas Bilbe was a remarkable character, and I have said something about him on my earlier post about WynaudOther Bilbe ships that I have written about are Borealis, Orient,and Yatala.  Thomas Bilbe was responsible, either on his own or with his business partner William Perry, for the construction in the 1860s of the clippers Orient, Florence Nightingale, Red Riding Hood, Whiteadder, Wynaud, Coonatto, Borealis, Yatala, and Argonaut at Nelson Dock.  Like William Walker, discussed on previous posts, Thomas Bilbe specialized in composite ships.  His first composite was Red Riding Hood, and thereafter all his ships were composites, made of wood planking on an iron framework, a design that provided additional strength to the structure of a ship, and made much of the internal woodwork that had formerly been required redundant, providing additional room for cargo.  

Argonaut was built for Bilbe and Perry's own use, unlike some of their earlier ships, which had been built for the Orient Line.  Clippers built in America and Britain in  the earlier and mid 19th century had been constructed for the tea trade from China, and Argonaut was built for this trade.  The Thames shipwright strike of the 1860s was one of the final nails in the coffin of Thames clipper building, diverting most of the new contracts to the Tyne and Clyde. The rising dominance of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal also doomed the age of commercial sail.  Argonaut was the last of Bilbe and Perry ships, and William Walker's Lothair (launched in 1869, the year that the Suez Canal opened) was the last clipper to be built on Rotherhithe. 

Argonaut had a net tonnage of 1073, was 206ft long, 33ft wide and 26ft deep.  David R. MacGregor describes her as "sharp in the ends" with "a long floor."  She had three masts and sported a magnificent set of sails and was fitted with two cannons for defence against pirates.

It was of critical importance to ship owners that their cargoes arrive at their destinations as soon as possible, because the first cargoes back earned the best prices.  There was always, therefore, a race between the great sail clippers to return to port ahead of ships that were owned by competitors.  Andrew Shewan described Argonaut as "a galloper" and commented that her first captain, Sandy Nicholson, who was her master for many years, was "noted as a sail carrier," meaning that he liked to deploy as much sail as possible for the prevailing conditions.

Argonaut on an Angry Sea. By Henry Scott
Argonaut's first voyage was to Foochow in China on a tea run.  Leaving Foochow with her cargo of tea on 10th July 1867 she arrived back in 111 days, arriving in London on 29th October.  It was an exceptional maiden voyage, only 8 days behind that of the famous Ariel and the same number of days as another well known fast ship, The Fiery Cross.  In the following year she took 113 days to return from Shanghai to London improving her time in 1869 with a run of 109 days on the same route.  MacGregor, in his book The Tea Clippers,  says that in 1872 Captain Nicholson had "sailed through the dangerous Paracels on a moonlit night and did not have to tack till of the Cochin China coast.  The Paracels were known to be dangerous, and had not been surveyed, and taking them at night was a particularly risky short cut to the Java Sea."   

There's a great incident involving Argonaut that is described by Basil Lubbock in "The China Clippers," whilst she was in Shanghai.  Lubbock explains that most clippers were equipped with an armory of hand weapons as well as two or more cannons that could be deployed both for defence against pirates, as well as ceremonial purposes:
Shanghai Bund in 1860. Peabody Essex Museum. Click to see full size.
Regarding the use of the cannon for saluting purposes, an amusing incident occurred in Shanghai in 1868. Several of the tea clippers were moored in the river, discharging, etc., before proceeding to Foochow, when the Leander, having finished, unmoored and towed to the sea.  Her departure was signalised by a general solute from the other clippers present.  And it so happened that just as the Argonaut fired one of her guns from the starboards side of the poop, a Chinese man-of-war junk happened to be sailing past.  the wad, which had been made purpose hard of old rope in order to raise a loud report, went right through the junk's mainsail and landed on the quarter of another ship near by, knocking away some of the gilt carving on her stern.  The men on the junk fell flat on the deck with fright when the gun went off, and it knocked a hole in her sail large enough to drag a wagon through. 
Apparently the story did her a lot of good, because pirates operating in Chinese waters considered her to be a force to contend with!

I love the comment of Andrew Shewan about her ensign:  "Everywhere the British Ensign waved supreme.  It was sometimes worn at the peak, but more often on a flagstaff over the taff rail . . . . But it should be a full-sized ensign, not the insignificant mockery of a thing which some masters affected for economy's sake . . . the Argonaut, some three hundred tons bigger than the Norman Court, with a full poop and a long flagstaff, flew an ensign not much bigger than a large pocket handkerchief.  It completely spoilt the appearance of the ship and looked ridiculous, like a cock robin perched on an elephant."

Bilbe and Perry had an agreement with Jardine Matheseon and Co in China for Argonaut.  According to David R. MacGregor in his book The China Bird, Thomas Bilbe was one of the few sail ship owners and agents who understood that steamships were taking over at a terrifying speed from clippers, whilst many others maintained a blind optimism about the situation, even whilst steamers filled the Chinese harbours.  He quotes a letter from Thomas Bilbe and Co to Jardine Matheson on July 29th 1870:
"We are duly in precept of your esteemed favour of the 2nd ulto and have perused it with grate interest, the state of matters as regards the loading of the teas ships is, oar rather will be we fear, pretty much as we have anticipated.  In fact we will think ourselves well off in the face of the competition of you are able to get the Argonaut loaded at 30s with fair despatch.  Of course we don't mean that such a rate pays, but only that we will look upon it as a fair get out under the circumstances."

Argonaut hove-to with her mainsails clewed up, waiting for
the arrival of a pilot.  By James Burr. From David MacGregor's
"The China Bird."
In 1873 Argonaut was involved in an unfortunate incident when under the command of Captain Nicholson.  She was loaded with 1,465,000 cases of tea and left Foochow on 9th August 1973, headed for London. MacGregor tells a story with a less successful outcome than his earlier tale, which took place in the following year:  "In 1873, anxious to carry the somewhat westerly monsoon for as long as possible, Nicholson kept on too long and stranded on the Pescadores, being forced to jettison 300 tons of tea before getting off."  MacGregor concludes that episodes of this sort "were frequent amongst the hard-driven ships."  Even with the delay she made the trip in 111 days. 

In 1874 her new commander, Captain Cameron, was only able to achieve the trip in 128 days. It was the end of her China career.  Like so many tea clippers Argonaut was ousted from the China tea trade by the dominance of steam and the ability of steam ships to make use of the Suez Canal, which had opened in 1869.  Steam ships, which at that time required refuelling stations, were unable to cover the Australian route, giving the sailing ships a last lease of life and an important role and many of the tea clippers were reassigned to the Australian wool trade. 

In 1877 she was sold to Anderson, Anderson and Co (later the Orient line, which was eventually amalgamated into P+O).  Bilbe and Perry had built several successful ships for Anderson, Anderson and Co. for the Australian trade, and this was added to their fleet. In 1883 Anderson, Anderson and Co. sold Argonaut to Jacob Brothers of London.  They in turn sold her to Jacob Brothers of London in 1883.  Argonaut only survived another five years under Jacob Brothers.  In 1888 she put in to Port Natal (Durban, South Africa), taking on water en route from western Australia to Hamburg.  She was condemned, and her sailing life was over.

The photograph below shows Nelson Dock today.  The barriers at its Thames end are painted with the name of one of its early 1900s owners, Mills and Knight, and is now filled with water and blocked off from the Thames.   Grade 2-listed, the Nelson Dock passed into the ownership of the Hilton Hotel when the hotel chain purchased the property from the Holiday Inn, which had purchased the site from the group that owned the Scandic Crown.  For several years, rather incongruously, it was fitted with a fountain, and still has an artificial heron and real water lilies.  But it looks loved, and where heritage preservation is concerned, that's what is important. At the time of writing the Hilton Hotel is about to be upgraded to become a Doubletree, so it will be interesting to see what they do to the dock and to the patent slip and its engine house in the redevelopment process.  It would be lovely if the former engine house museum were to be re-opened.

Nelson Dry Dock at the Hilton Hotel.
Photograph by Christine Matthews.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Residents source lovely new nesting rafts for Rotherhithe docks

Thanks to local residents, a sorry history of neglect and decay has a happy ending.  The disgraceful sunken pontoons on Greenland Dock and Surrey Water are being replaced by brand new custom-built rafts funded by Cleaner Greener Safer Awards that were applied for by people living in Rotherhithe who were appalled by the condition of the pontoons, and the unprecedented lack of provision for our local water birds.

Attempting to nest on a semi-submerged nesting
pontoon in 2013. Photo by Andrea Byrnes
In 2013 and 2014, as many readers will recall so vividly, there was a somewhat acrimonious exchange with Southwark Council over the desperate state into which the pontoons on Greeenland Dock and Surrey Water had fallen.  Southwark Council eventually decided to abandon its obligations in this area. This led to various completely submerged and semi submerged pontoons, many of which swans and coots attempted to nest on.  The results were really sad.  At least one nest, with eggs, was destroyed in bad weather on one of the semi-submerged pontoons in Norway Cut, in spite of efforts to secure the pontoon to the side of the dock.  More about this can be read in my posts in 2013: "Plight of Nesting Swans and Coots at Greenland Dock," "Nests abandoned," and, a year later in 2014 "Nesting pontoons still in a ruinous condition." The photo to the left shows a swan on her nest, on a partially submerged nesting pontoon in 2013. 

At that time the whole problem was taken over by local residents.  In the short term, this involved local people shoring up existing pontoons, roping them to dock walls to prevent them sinking, and providing much-needed nesting material (all of which can be seen in the above photograph).  This enabled a family of swans in Greenland Dock to survive (hatching all but one egg) and several families of coots to hatch eggs in Greenland Dock and Surrey Water.  But with 2015 looming, these were temporary measures.

Palatial home for a family of coots on Surrey Water.
Photograph by Steve Cornish.
For the longer term, as the Council were still adamant that funds were not available to repair or replace the nesting pontoons, other measures needed to be taken.  So the same local residents again stepped in and applied for Cleaner Greener Safer Awards, and this enabled the construction of some fabulous new rafts and a couple of very palatial duck houses.  The total amount of Cleaner Greener Safer money allocated to all above was 10.5 K. This was from successful bids by local residents, which is probably the best news of all.

In the photograph on the right (click to enlarge) you can see a very upper class residence for a family of coots on Surrey Water, who are already in there with their nest. There is only one of this type which is on Surrey Water, the others are plain flat rafts, but they are all very well built.  The others will be going in tomorrow, Wednesday 31st March 2015.

Nesting rafts ready for deployment
Photography by Steve Cornish
Between 12 and 20 in number will go along the entire length of Albion Channel. They will be hexagonal shaped.  Approximately 15 will go into Surrey Water - all shapes and sizes. Some of the old waterlogged pontoons will be removed as they have been in there for about six years and have served their purpose.  Approximately 15 will go into Greenland dock.  Some are to be at the Tesco end, where they are disparately needed, some have already gone in at the others end in the middle finger, and two have been placed in Norway Cut. 

Canada water has one side as a nature reserve with nesting facilities and an abundance of reeds and bullrushes for nesting therefore is not as critical as the other three bodies mentioned. It is also a popular fishing area so would be problematical for floating pontoons chained to the bottom which could be highly dangerous for fish being inadvertently feathered by the fishing line if snagged up.

Thanks to Steve Cornish for all the information in this post and for the photographs of the amazing new rafts and duck houses!  As in previous years, Russia Dock Woodland and Stave Hill Ecological Park have joined forces to provide nesting material.

Fantastic news!  And many thanks to Steve and the local residents who applied for the Cleaner Greener Safer Awards and to those who are helping to launch them and fix them into place tomorrow.  It's glorious what people can do when they join forces.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Please help to save the red crane on the Thames Path at Odessa Street!

What a shame that a wonderful piece of local heritage is under threat from development by Southwark Council and its business partners.  The red Scotch derrick at Lawrence Wharf, a wonderfully preserved crane from Rotherhithe's shipping past, is both a monument to a lost world and an inherent part of Rotherhithe's modern character and identity. Please add your voice to a newly launched petition to save the Scotch Derrick by signing it at at the following address:

And please share the petition address as widely as you can.  The petition has only just been opened so we need many more signatures.  The more signatures, the better the chances of saving this super piece of our local heritage

The Scotch Derrick in 1937
In August 2013 I wrote an account of the Scotch Derrick on the Thames Path, which is just off Odessa Street.  It was preserved by the London Docklands Development Corporation in recognition of its importance as the last remaining independently mounted crane in Rotherhithe, the only Scotch Derrick that remains, and a significant piece of our industrial heritage.  It was photographed as part of the photographic survey of the Thames in 1937, when it was hard at work, as you can see in the picture on the left (click to enlarge it). Miraculously, it survived the Second World War, when the Downtown area was bombed intensively during the Blitz, leaving almost nothing of the original riverside properties behind.  In the 1980s it was still hard at work long after the Surrey Commercial Docks had closed, one of a number of derricks employed to shift hardwood timber tree trunks from ships into Lawrence wharf, as the photograph below shows. Lawrence Wharf was thought to be the last remaining sawmill in London until it closed in 1986, when the family sold the business, but still the crane survived.  Its value as a piece of local history is beyond dispute but it is also much-loved by local residents, who not only respect its links to Rotherhithe's past, but also hold it in considerable affection in its own right.  It is such a distinctive local landmark and has become an old friend,

In October 2013, I made a list of the items of Rotherhithe heritage that I considered to be most in danger due to neglect or from the risk of development.  I included the Scotch derrick because of its location on a piece of Thames-fronting land that could handily fit a block of flats.  Here's what I said about it at the time:

Moving vast timber logs in 1980 (with thanks
to Malcom T. Tucker)
It is no surprise that there are a lot of rumours locally about the fate of the piece of land at point where the northern part of Odessa Street bends abruptly to the left and, to the right, reconnects with the Thames Path.  This small corner of the area does have a slightly battered look, and the best thing about it is the wonderful Scotch Derrick that is preserved at the top of the basketball court at the edge of the river.  It is a terrific piece of heritage, about which I've written in the past, and a real Rotherhithe landmark.  At the moment there is an abandoned youth club hut and a basketball court, running up the side of the access to the former Downtown nightclub and it is entirely probable that both developers and Southwark Council will feel that it would be ripe for development.  The Scotch Derrick should not be sacrificed during any of those plans. 

It survived the Second World War.  Let's see if it can survive plans for yet another block of flats.  

Please sign the petition:

In 1982 (with thanks to Malcom T. Tucker)

As it is today

As it is today

Monday, March 23, 2015

Canada Water Masterplan - Stage 2 Consultation Report

From Lizzie Bird:

Following the consultation events in December 2014 which looked at the emerging  draft Canada Water Masterplan, all feedback has been compiled and analysed and we are please to share the report.

The full report can be downloaded here (16.06 MB/ PDF)

For a bite-sized version you can download the executive summary here (4.1 MB/ PDF)

All our reports are open to community review, please do take a look and let us know if you have any comments. If you have any difficulties downloading, let us know and we will get an alternate version to you. The feedback presented in this report has been shared and discussed directly with British Land and the design team to help inform development of a more detailed masterplan. 

Surrey Quays Leisure Park Site
It was announced at the beginning of March that British Land have acquired the freehold of the Surrey Quays Leisure Park Site. This is the area between Surrey Quays Road and Redriff Road where the cinema, bingo and bowling alley are. The Draft Masterplan shown in December included indicative proposals for this area, to help inform a joined-up approach. It is now possible for the Canada Water Masterplan to fully consider proposals for the SE16 Printworks Site, Surrey Quays Shopping Centre Site and the Surrey Quays Leisure Park Site together.

Over the next few months the masterplanning team will be working up more detailed proposals for the three sites. The next stage of consultation will be held in the coming months and will discuss the masterplan further; we will be back in touch with details soon.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

Best wishes,

Lizzie Bird

Consultation Assistant
t    020 7729 1705

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Between Bridgers" by F. Mary Wilson - A request for information

A group of local residents were recently discussing Mary Wilson's book Between Bridgers.  I know of only three people in Rotherhithe who have copies, all of whom come from long-standing Bermondsey and Rotherhithe families, but I am sure that there must be more copies squirrelled away and much-valued in local homes.  It would be great to see the book back in print, or made available online, but that depends on obtaining permission from the copyright holder. 

For those unfamiliar with the book, Between Bridgers was written by F. Mary Wilson in 1966, and was illustrated throughout by Mary Want.  I only got my paws on a copy recently, and I really could have made good use of it before.  Mary Wilson was a resident of Rotherhithe's Downtown area, the Head Teacher of Redriff Primary School and had expert knowledge of the area.  More than that, she had a real feel for the place, its present and its past. The "bridgers" of the book's title are the swing and lift bridges that crossed a number of cuts (links between different docks) in the Surrey Commercial Docks.  Although the book is not exclusively about Downtown, it does take a distinctly Downtown-centric view of things, and that's really refreshing because most books about Rotherhithe focus on the area around St Mary's Church, which is nowadays referred to as Rotherhithe village.

The book is divided into a number of chapters, which of which explores a different aspect of life in Rotherhithe:
  1. Rotherhithe Street - The Heart of Down Town
  2. River Mist
  3. Religious Life Down Town
  4. Education
  5. Surrey Commercial Docks
  6. Floods and Disasters
  7. Redriff in Literature
  8. Signs of the Sea
  9. Epilogue

The book was printed in 1966 by Copyprints Ltd of Borough High Street. Copyprints continue to do a good job from their new Borough High Street premises, and they tell me that as they only printed the book the copyright remains with F. Mary Wilson and her descendants.  Effectively, it was self-published.

So the question becomes - does anyone know F. Mary Wilson's family?  If they are still in the area, perhaps they too would be interested in seeing the book become available once more.  And if so, would it be possible to help me to get in touch with them to talk about getting the book either reprinted or published online, so that local residents can once again benefit from Mary Wilson's personal insights into Rotherhithe peninsula?  All help would be gratefully received.  It would be really nice to see this local classic available once again, for the enjoyment of all.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Lavender Dock and Lavender Wharf 1684-1937 (today's Sovereign View)

Detail of Rocque's 1746 map showing Lavender Street and
the shipwrights' premises that occupied the sites that later
became Lavender Dock and Lavender Wharf.  The map
also shows some of the market gardens that were all
over Rotherhithe at this time, and probably gave
Lavender Street its name.
There are a number of buildings and features named Lavender, including three that I have already covered on previous posts:  Lavender Pond, Lavender Pumphouse and Lavender lock.   This post looks at the other two:  Lavender Dock and Lavender Wharf.  The site was immediately upriver from where the surviving Lavender Lock was built in 1862.  See the location of the site at SE16 5XH on this map on

The earliest known building on the site was a windmill, dating to around 1684, but no details about it survive.  Lavender Dock was the site of a shipbuilding yard from 1702 and ships were built at the site until the mid 19th Century.  In the early nineteenth century the site was divided into two, Lavender Dock and Lavender Wharf.  By the late 19th Century the shipyard had been filled in and it was replaced by a series of small wharf buildings known collectively as Lavender Wharf.  The site was further subdivided in the early 20th Century into Lavender Wharf and Grand Surrey Wharf.  All remains of the site were erased by the modern Barratts residential development Sovereign View.

The Lavender dock, wharf and lock names come from the name Lavender Street, which was what this stretch of Rotherhithe Street was called during the 18th Century, shown on the Rocque map of 1746, above.  Lavender Street was probably named for the growing of lavender in the local market gardens, where I was surprised to learn that it was a popular crop.

Unfortunately, the history of neither site forms a nice linear sequence, and the sequences of both sites are composed of bits and pieces of information cobbled together, but it is fascinating that such a small site should have such a multitude of uses over time.

All the ships mentioned in this post will be covered on future posts, if they have not already been covered.  

Lavender Dock

The site was a shipbuilding yard from 1702 until 1708 when, Stuart Rankin records, Edward Swallow had the site and built ships including the 50-gun Leopard and the 40-gun Southsea Castle.  In 1709 Swallow moved to Limehouse.

Following Swallow the yard was occupied by John Whetstone, one of a prominent family of barge and ship builders operating along the Thames.  He built a 50-gun ship called Gloucester at the yard, launched in 1745.  It appears to have been his only Royal Navy commission, perhaps because it took him two years to build, which was double the time taken by other ship builders in the area to complete similar vessels.  It is not recorded when Whetstone left the yard.  Rocque's famous map shows the whole section of frontage along Lavender Street between being occupied by shipwrights in 1746 (above right). 

Robert Inwood's frigate Southampton, built at Lavender Dock. From
British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1792: Design,
Construction, Careers and Fates, by Rif Winfield
In 1756 Rankin says that the yard was in the hands of Robert Inwood who built a number of ships for the Royal Navy during his tenure at the yard including the 10-gun sloop Spy, the 32-gun frigate Southampton, the 28-gun Aquilon, the 14-gun sloop Beaver and the frigate Boston and the 28-gun Hussar.  The frigate Southampton deserves special mention as she was the first of a new type of ships, indicating the esteem in which Inwood was held by the authorities who entrusted him with the job.

After Inwood's departure, at some point between 1770 and 1773 the yard was held by a number of ship builders to supplement their existing operations.  Immediately following Inwood, for example, the shipyard was briefly taken by the well known Peter Everit Mestaer, who already operated a number of other yards along the Thames, although he was here only briefly.  Although it is not recorded which of his ships were built here, it is possible that he took the yard only to fulfil specific commissions whilst his other yards were busy, or that he expanded too far and had to reduce his holdings later on. 

Trethivick's Catch-Me-Who-Can.
Sourced from Wikipedia
The site was split into two in the early 19th Century, with the dry dock and related ship building structures next to the remains of today's lock, and Lavender Wharf, as it became known, immediately downriver.  The dock was taken over as a ship breakers in the name of Job Cockshott in the early 1800s.  Ship breaking became a popular activity as the ship building industry went into decline, and there were several along Rotherhithe's frontage.  Ships were broken up and sold off for their parts.  Most valuable was their wood and their metal fittings, but even old rope had a certain value, as it was processed and re-worked into other products. Many famous naval warships met their ends at ship breakers like this.   Job Cockshott operated from the yard until 1824, when he died.  He invested in property in the immediate area, was a shareholder in the Commercial Docks Company, owned two ships of his own, and had an interest in Lavender Wharf.  Job Cockshott's story intersects with that of the engineer Richard Trevithick.  Trevithick is notable for many reasons, whose previous connection with Rotherhithe was  the failed attempt to tunnel under the Thames at Rotherhithe before Sir Marc Brunel's successful Thames Tunnel, and this will be covered on another post.  At the time of his meeting with Job Cockshot he had premises nearby and was working on a number of projects to develop ship and dock related machinery.  His most famous invention was the high pressure steam engine to power his Catch Me Who Can railway locomotive, which was displayed with great fanfare in July 1808.   The Catch Me Who Can was not, however, a commercial success, attracting crowds, achieving enduring novelty status, but no investment.   Trethivick presumably went into business with Cockshott to reduce his losses and they entered into an agreement to install the locomotive's machinery in the former Lord Mayor's State Barge to power an internally installed paddle wheel.  Unfortunately the story ends there, and nothing seems to have come from the venture.

Lavender Wharf and Lavender Dock.
Rotherhithe Rating Valuation Plan 1862.
From Stuart Rankin's Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe No. 4b
The next couple of decades are unclear, and the site was probably used for various small ventures, including ship breaking, repairs and barge building.  However, by 1865 the shipyard had passed into the hands of John and William Walker and it entered another great ship building phase, this designing and building commercial rather than naval ships.  Of John Walker there is no surviving record, apart from the name of the business, although he was clearly related to William Walker.  William Walker was a shipbuilder who operated, at different times, out of Rotherhithe, Deptford, Poplar and Millwall.  William Walker specialized in composite ships. It was here that the Walker brothers built the composite clipper ship Mikado (upcoming post) and the subsequent three composite clippers about which I have already written: Shun Lee, Ambassador and Lothair.  Clippers were originally designed to serve the China tea industry, and were used in the Antipodean wool industry as well.  Sleek cargo carriers with tall masts and vast billowing sails, they were designed for speed.  Originally made purely of wood, they were improved by the use of iron frames to reinforce the structural integrity of the ships and expand the available storage space.  These composite ships came at the end of the age of the wooden tea clippers, and are amongst the most beautiful and successful. The Walkers' Lothair was one of the fastest ships of her day, her speeds comparing to those of the more famous Thermopylae and Cutty Sark.  Lovely Lothair, launched in 1870, was the last large sailing ship to be built in a Rotherhithe shipyard.

Ambassador, built by William Walker
at the Lavender Dock (Thomas J. Duggan 1869)
Lavender Dock was marked on the 1868 Ordnance Survey map, and James Turner had the dock from October 1873 to 1886, and was succeeded by John Medhurst who was there until at least 1890, but the dry dock had vanished on the Ordnance Survey map by 1894, by which time it had been filled in and the entire site was now marked as Lavender Wharf.  There is a lot of overlap between the dock and the wharf, with wharf buildings being occupied at the same time as the dock site from at least the early 19th Century.

Lavender Wharf

Wharves are a nightmare to find out about from secondary sources.  I've already posted about other wharves and have found that as with many of the almost countless other wharves around Rotherhithe, it is frustratingly difficult to find out much about any of them.  Many of them had additional buildings added and removed over time, and not all of the available maps show these transformations.  Many of them had name changes, which make them difficult to trace in records. Wharves habitually changed hands many times, sometimes with new owners, sometimes new leaseholders, and tracing their histories is often more a matter of listing names of successive owners rather than learning much about how individual buildings were used, what cargoes were handled and what their owners were like and where they came from. Lavender Wharf is unfortunately no different.

Lavender Wharf and Dock, from the 1843 Rotherhithe
Rating Valuation Plan. From Stuart Rankin's
Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe No. 4b.
Lavender Wharf was a river frontage and buildings immediately down river of the Horseferry Stairs, which divided it from Horseferry yard.  It was built over part of the shipbuilding yard of Lavender Dock, which it eventually replaced, and wharf premises co-existed with the dock for many decades. The company Beech, Whitaker and Brannon had Lavender Wharf until 1818, when they published in the London Gazette to announce that the partnership had been dissolved but it is by no means clear what they did.  As wharfingers they would have handled cargo delivered by boat, but whether they specialized in a particular cargo or handled general content is unknown.  According to an anonymous comment on a previous post, the James Brannon of the partnership lived from 1762-1818, so the partnership seems to have been dissolved on his death.  Job Cockshott had an interest in the wharf between around 1806 to 1824, apparently an extension of his shipbreaking activities at the Lavender Dock.  The overlap in these two sets of dates can probably be accounted for by the fact that Lavender Wharf was made up by a number of different buildings.

Following the death of Job Cockshott in 1824, Cockshott's Lavender Wharf lease was taken over by Thomas Beech, also for ship breaking.  On the Rotherhithe Rating Valuation Plan of 1843 it is shown as "Lavender Stone Wharf, Mr Manuelle," and there are seven buildings shown, four of which are labelled:  sheds, dwelling, blacksmith's shop and granary.  The granary was probably the former mould loft, adapted to a granary after the site ceased to be used for ship building.  Mould lofts were large flat surfaces that were used to draw out the hull and cross-sections of the ship, drafted by loftsmen, which were then used for templates for building ships.  In 1862 William Walker had amalgamated the dock and the wharf until around 1870, when the wharf and the dock were again leased as separate units and the wharf was leased to William Lund.  It seems likely that he is the same as the William Lund who commissioned Ambassador from the Walker. W. Lund and Sons established the Blue Anchor delivery line in 1869, and Ambassador was purchased as the primary ship of the brand new line particularly for the tea trade.  In 1895 part of the site was leased by a chicory manufacturer.

Lavender Wharf in 1914, highlighted, which is flanked by
Grand Surrey Wharf and Lavender lock
Between the 1890s and the late 1930s a number of Lavender Wharf  buildings were collectively occupied by W.B. Dick and Company (their registered premises was 233 Rotherhithe Street), which handled barrels of oil, delivered by river and stored in large tanks behind the premises.   The 1914 Ordnance Survey map shows that the site had now been further divided into two, with Lavender Wharf occupying the downriver part of the site next to Lavender Lock, and Grand Surrey Wharf occupying the upriver section.  W.B. Dick also occupied a building on the other side of the Lavender lock, and operated a number of motorized barges from its premises.  A rather nice account in London Night and Day 1951 describes how the W.B. Dick site could be distinguished by its aroma:  "In fog, pilots smell their way upriver.  Well, this is one of the places they smell.  And the distinctive smell is that produced in the processing of mineral lubricating oils."  One wonders quite what the smell was.  W.B. Dick expanded to take in Grand Surrey Wharf. The oil containers, five of them, are still shown on the 1984 Docklands History Survey.

Lavender Wharf in 1937, when it was the premises of W.B. Dick and Co.


Nowadays the land it inhabited is occupied by a modern pseudo-Regency residential development named, somewhat grandiosely given its dubious architectural merit, Sovereign View, running along the Thames Path.  I wonder which sovereign the developers (Barratts) may have had in mind when they named it?

The site of Lavender Dock and Lavender Wharf today,
seen from the Thames.  Lavender lock is at far left.
Courtesy Google Maps.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Canada Water Consultative Forum - Tonight's Agenda

Monday, 9th March 2015
at 7.00 pm
Alfred Salter Primary School, Quebec Way, Rotherhithe SE16


1.    Welcome and Introduction                                                                  7.00

2.    Apologies Approval/Amendments 1/12/14

3.    Matters Arising 1/12/14  

Rotherhithe & Surrey Docks Neighbourhood Planning
Brian Hodge

Broadband for Rotherhithe                                                   7.10
Brian Hodge & Damian Belson

4.    LBS Plan, Scoping Document and; CWAAP changes               7.20
           Tim Cutts – LBS

5.    BL Canada Water Masterplan -                                                        7.40
feedback from Stage 2 consultation and next steps
Eleanor Wright – BL
6.    Decathlon Site                                                                   8.10                  Tony Garner / Charlotte Steedman - Sellar  

7.    Site Updates                                                                       8.30

Albion Street former library        -  13-AP-4332 / Pauline A
Convoys Wharf                         -
Downtown                                -   Steve Cornish
Docklands Settlement                -  11-AP-2242 Lorraine Cavangh / Steve Cornish
Greenland Dock                        -
Library / Plaza                                        - 
Mast Leisure Centre                   -   BL      
Mulberry/ Kings                         -   13-AP-1429 + timetable Kim Humphreys
Open Spaces                            -   Jerry Hewitt
Site A  + B                                -   BL - Postbox   
Site C & E                                 -   12-AP-4126 Sellar’s report
Seven Islands                           -
Surrey Docks Stadium               -   14-AP-0309 / 14-AP-0310
QWIE (Woodlands)                   -   11-AP-2565 report

8.    A.O.B.                                                                                       8.45

Date of Next Meeting
Meeting will close at 9.00 pm