Monday, January 27, 2014

A short history of South Dock, Rotherhithe, 1811 - 2014

East Country Dock, bottom right in
1828.  Immediately to its north is
Greenland Dock. Click to
enlarge the image.
Only two of the docks that were built in the 19th Century are preserved in their entirety today:  Greenland Dock and South Dock (sometimes known as Sweden Dock), both at the east side of Rotherhithe peninsula and connected to each other by a small channel.  South Dock, today London's biggest marina, is the only one of the two docks to maintain its operational connection to the Thames.  To see how South Dock fits into the history of Rotherhithe's docks, see the post The Development of the Surrey Commercial Dock System 1699-1909.

I have had to keep some of the photographs in this post small to fit them all in to the text, but if you click on them they will expand to full size so that you can see them in greater detail. 

The granite bollards of the
East Country Dock are unique
on Rotherhithe
South Dock began life as the East Country Dock in 1811 by the East Country Dock Company. Ralph Dodd was the engineer originally hired to build it in 1801, on a considerable wage of £600 a year. He was a rather mixed blessing, full of ideas but not always the best person to execute them.  In 1802 he fell out of favour with the Eastern Dock Company and he was given a gratuity and dismissed as engineer, apparently because he was simultaneously engaged on other work and his fees were too high. Whatever the reason for his dismissal, he was quickly replaced.

The dock first appears on maps in the early 19th Century as East Country Dock, clearly shown on maps in Smiths Map of 1828, Cary's map of 1837, and Davies's 1843 map as a long thin, dock, as long as Greenland Dock was at that time, but around a quarter of its width.  It is difficult to imagine why such a long, thin dock was considered to be advantageous.  The East Country Dock Company, which was formed in 1807 and was named for its trading connections with the eastern Baltic.  

The East Country Dock was not connected to Greenland Dock, which was owned by a rival company, and it therefore required its own lock out onto the Thames. The dock was built specifically for the Baltic timber trade.  It is thought that the distinctive granite bollards that dot the edges of the dock probably date to this time.  

Weller map, 1868
Although attempts were made to take over the dock, the East Country Dock Company retained its ownership of the dock until 1850 when the dock was purchased for £40,000 by the Commercial Dock Company, which was already developing vast areas of Rotherhithe for mercantile use. 

Over the next two years, between 1850 and 1852, the Commercial Dock Company expanded the dock, doubling its width at a cost of £190,000, extending its area to 5061 acres and its depth to 27ft. It became known as South Dock and it was connected to Greenland Dock and the rest of the Commercial Dock network to the north. It was designed and overseen by important engineer James Walker, who was also responsible for major extension work at Greenland Dock.  There is a bust of him on a tall plinth overlooking Greenland Dock outside the Moby Dick pub.  The lock has walls of sandstone ashlar.  It now measured 48ft wide and, somewhat oddly, was only 25ft deep, meaning that it was 2 feet shallower than the dock itself.  A newly designed self-acting sluice was installed in 1855 is preserved.

A painting from 1888 showing
a view from the same standpoint
(Museum of London Docklands)
A connection to the rail network was established in 1855, which linked South Dock, Greenland Dock and Norway Dock.

In the same year James Walker's swing bridge was erected across the lock.  It was moved in 1987 to Greenland Dock, where it crosses Norway cut. In 1862 Henry Grissell's swing bridge was installed across the entrance lock.  Although it is no longer there, this bridge can also still be seen as it was moved in 1860 by the Port of London Authority to cross Steelyard Cut, the connecting channel that runs between South Dock and Greenland Dock.

A photograph taken in the late 1870s shows Steelyard Cut with some low buildings stationed along the quay, and sailing ships and lighters dotted around the docks, with a tug in the foreground. An 1888 painting of the dock by Tatton Mather, on display at the Museum of Docklands, shows a remarkably similar similar scene from a very similar vantage point, but with some much taller and very elegant brick warehouses situated behind the lower buildings shown in the 1870s photograph.

A photograph from  the late 1920s, showing an aerial view of a busy Greenland Dock and South Dock, shows the same buildings to the north of Steelyard Cut. The bridge in the painting looks very like the one in the 1870s photograph.

South Dock, bottom right,shown by sculptor Michael
Rizzello as it was in 1896. Stave Hill.
Today, the cut survives and is flanked by Henry Grissell's 1862 swing bridge, which was moved there at a later date from its original position across the entrance lock to South Dock.  The buildings were lost during the Second World War and have now been replaced by modern housing. 

In 1865 the two dock operating companies, The Commercial Docks Company and the Grand Surrey Docks and Canal Company, amalgamated to form one big company, the Surrey Commercial Docks Company.  

South Dock warehouse in the
late 1870s, with the lock
entrance and hydralic capstan
in the foreground
By the late 1890s both South Dock and Greenland Dock (which, at that time, was much shorter than it is today) had locks onto the river and were connected to each other and, via Greenland Dock, to a whole network of timber ponds, basins and the Grand Surrey Canal.  To the south of them a road ran from east to west, continuing up the eastern side of South Dock and crossing the Grand Surrey Canal to the south.  The Grand Surrey Canal passed uninterrupted to the south of both, linking Surrey Basin in the west of Rotherhithe with the rest of the canal which headed first east and then south towards Peckham.  Rotherhithe was a vast mosaic of docks, basins and timber ponds flanked by endless warehouses.  Housing, small shops and pubs were all confined to the edges of the river, where they rubbed shoulders with ship repair and related services.  It is all beautifully captured in Michael Rizzello's 1896 sculpture of Rotherhithe, which sits on the top of Stave Hill.

As the docks became busy and settlements grew up around them, requirements for improved public services became obvious, and local churches and schools were established.  Trinity Church, in the nearby Downtown area, was established in 1838 with a small school, and St Barnabas on Plough Way was built in 1872, with its associated school opening in 1874.  In the late 1890s Greenland Dock was extended, meaning that the Grand Surrey Canal now crossed the middle of it, but still passed beneath the end of South Dock.  The tiny building on the corner of Rope Street and Sweden Gate, known as the Yard Office was the old toll building for the canal, and was built in 1902 after the extension of Greenland Dock.  The extension of Greenland Dock also required the diversion of the road that used to run parallel to the canal and the early termination of the railway at South Dock, whereas it formerly ran to Norway Dock.

The Dog and Duck public house, Rotherhithe
The airship and aircraft bombings of the First World War did not damage the dock, but it fell victim to the more intense and targeted Luftwaffe bombing of the Second World War.  The lock was badly damaged and was sealed until after the war.  In 1944 the connection with Steelyard Cut was sealed off, the dock was drained, the floor was spread with rubble and the dock was used for the construction of concrete sections for Mulberry Harbour units. Mulberry Harbours were modular units which, when assembled, were used to create temporary harbours.  They were used for the Normandy beach landings. When they were complete, Steelyard Cut was re-opened, the dock was refilled via Greenland Dock, and the sections were floated out onto the Thames through Greenland Dock's entrance lock.  Warehouses were also hit, and one of the more notable casualties of the bombings was the Dog and Duck public house, which sat at the end of South Dock and had been there in some form since at least 1723.  All that remains of it is the name of the Dog and Duck staircase, one of a whole series of watermen's stairs that are found all along Rotherhithe's foreshore. 

After the war, South Dock's entrance lock was repaired and warehouses were replaced.  Although the docks had a brief period of revival following the war, traffic fell off for a number of reasons, mainly due to containerization of cargo and the specialized handling equipment, large docks and entrance locks required. The Surrey Commercial Docks closed in 1969, the end of an era.  Most of the docks, including South Dock, were filled in, although South Dock and others were re-excavated later as part of the regeneration plans, to bring the local heritage to life once again, and to add attractive water features to the area for the benefit of residents.

At some point, possibly during the late 1950s or early 1960s a set of very ugly warehouses were built on the eastern side of South Dock. These warehouses were still in place when the London Docklands Development Corporation began to redevelop South Dock. The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), which operated between 1981 and 1994, had already achieved success in its Canary Wharf developments on the Isle of Dogs, in spite of considerable opposition from local residents.  Their work at Rotherhithe followed that success.  One of the LDDC's first projects at South Dock was to commission the lock control building, which overlooks the hydraulically operated lock at South Dock.  Built by Conran Roche between 1986-9 it looks remarkably like a very short air traffic control tower with a bowed control room and reflective glass, on a cantilevered pedestal.

Before and after - the
Plough Way warehouses
and the modern homes that
replaced them
Although the LDDC had few financial resources of its own it did own land and was therefore in a position to work closely with developers to regenerated the derelict docks.  A lot of surrounding buildings were still standing, although abandoned and completely derelict, and these were knocked down by the LDDC.  The vision for Rotherhithe was rather different from its plans for Canary Wharf, and focused primarily on the development of the area for residential purposes.

One of the earliest residential developments was Baltic Quay at the end of South Dock.  People purchasing apartments in the landmark building must have been taking a huge gamble on the potential success of the Rotherhithe venture, with the derelict 60s warehouses  still standing, great gaping eyesores amidst the optimism of the LDDC's plans for regeneration.  Falling on the Deptford side of the Southwark-Deptford border, which ran along the eastern side of South Dock's quay, the fell outside of the London Docklands Development Corporation's dockland regeneration remit, and were therefore not knocked down until the mid 1990s.  Although the docks themselves were closed to shipping in 1969, many of the warehouses continued in use, and the South Dock warehouses in the photograph were employed as bonded warehouses.  Containers of goods were delivered and stored there prior to distribution.  The photograph above shows the warehouses as they were shortly before they were abandoned, but they were much worse in the early 90s when I first saw them with wide hollow entrances to the starkly desolate and rather alarming wind-tunnel interiors, their floors covered in debris and shattered glass, broken windows rattling in the wind.

Baltic Quay
The massive Baltic Quay complex was built by Lister Drew Haines Barrow, opening in 1990. Visible from miles around and always recognizable due to its vast arched roofs, it is probably the most distinctive and imaginative of all the tall buildings on Rotherhithe. When it was built it was envisaged as a combination of office space with apartments above, but the demand for residential space far exceeded that of commercial offices and, apart from the ground floor, the office space was converted for residential use by Barlow Henley Architects.   Eventually the office space on the ground floor was also converted to apartments.  Baltic Quay will be covered on another post.  It reaches fourteen storeys. Its external metalwork was first painted  in a lively combination of blue and yellow, making it bright and welcoming, but more recent counsel clearly decided that this was a bad idea and it is now uniformly pale grey. The photograph here shows it after it was given its London-grey colouring.

Swedish Quays
On the West side, with views over either Greenland Dock or South Dock, a smaller complex was built between 1985  and 1990 by David Price and Gordon Cullen, named Swedish Quays.  Although rather more conservative than Baltic Quay, mainly due to its smaller scale, its brick construction and deep brown colouring, it still stands out as something somewhat different from the normal bricks-and-mortar style the dominates dockland and canal-side developments throughout the country thanks to cream rendering, tall columns, interestingly arranged glass panels, arched windows at the top of the buildings and something of an echo, however elusive, of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and other turn of the 20th Century designers. 

Modern apartments
overlooking the entrance
lock at South Dock
on Rope Street
When the warehouses on the east side of the dock were pulled down, they were replaced with the three-storey residential complex that remains today, overlooking South Dock on the one side and Plough Way on the other. (shown on the above before-and-after photograph) Rainbow Quay was added next to Swedish Quays.  Later, three-floor apartments were built over their garages behind the dock office at the Thames end of Rope Street. Their appearance, with facades consisting of  wood-lined curved bays on the two lower floors and top recessed floors above, are unusual and not to everyone's taste, but they do contribute diversity to the often bland local architecture.  

Today South Dock is London's largest private marina, providing both temporary and residential moorings on around 200 berths. It is operated by Southwark Council.  If you are keen on boats, old and new, big and small, this is a great place to take a stroll.  It is home to everything from narrow-boats, converted Humber keels and Dutch barges to wind-powered vessels of all sizes, alongside all sorts of strange and bewildering works-in progress.  Some of these boats are stunning, some are frankly hideous (particularly where lovely old hulls have been sabotaged with appalling conversions for habitation), but all are fascinating.  Some have been moored there longer than I have lived here and feel like old friends.  The Steelyard Cut still connects South and Greenland Docks, and the marina extends into the top end of Greenland Dock.  A modern lift bridge enables Rope Street to pass over the cut whilst allowing vessels to pass between the two docks.  Entrance to the marina is still via South Dock, the Greenland Dock having been blocked off after the closure of the docks in 1969.  The new hydraulic lock gates were added in the mid 1980s.

Rainbow Quay
Between them Greenland Dock and South Dock offer a peaceful atmosphere with a wide variety of modern architectural styles flanking their former quays.  At the same time, there are many features of the docks that survive and they provide a glimpse of a very different dockland past.

Once associated with a busy and often chaotic commercial activities, the docks now form the heart of a residential area that is characterized by its much-appreciated tranquility.  But the traces of its vibrant history, even after the Luftwaffe attacks and massive regeneration work, can still be observed by those who have an interest and take the time to look.

Steelyard Cut.  The modern Rope Street lift bridge and the 1862 swing bridge by Henry Grissell

Now crossing the Norway Dock entrance from
Greenland Dock, this bridge originally crossed
South Dock, where it was established
in 1855.  It was moved by the LDDC in 1987.

The old warehouses on South Dock
before demolition, with Aragon Tower in the
background before the redevelopment
of the Pepys Estate


ezuall said...

This was a wonderful read. I really enjoyed finding out more about the area's interesting history. Great work!

Andie said...

Lovely to hear from you and I am so glad you liked the post.