|Greenwich from One Tree Hill by Johannes Vorsterman|
A fascinating painting by Johannes Vorsterman dating to 1690 entitled “
|Portrait of Wriotheseley Russell and |
Elizabeth Howland, 1695 by John Riley.
Source: London Borough of Lambeth.
Originally the plan was to use both the land and the financial settlement to create just a dry dock, but it became clear that a big open wet dock would offer far more benefits to its potential customers and its investors, so after the dry dock had been established, an application was made in 1695–6 for an Act of Parliament to open a large wet dock. The names of the application were the Duke of Bedford, his widowed daughter-in-law, Lady Rachel Russell, and Elizabeth Howland, the mother-in-law of the son of Lady Rachel, named Wriothesley Russell, the Marquess of Tavistock. It was also partially financed by the John (1662-1702) and Richard Wells of a very successful Rotherhithe shipbuilding family, whose main shipyard is now partially occupied by the Surrey Docks Farm, who had built several East Indiamen for Wriotheseley's grandfather. The reason for the decision to build a dock on this scale, a unique enterprise at the time, has been lost, but it is entirely likely that the Earl of Bedford, grandfather of Wriotheseley Russell, had input into the idea. At his estates in Cambridgeshire he was involved in land reclamation schemes, the engineering of which was not dissimilar from that involved in dock construction.
The Howland Great Dock was completed in the early 1700s following the granting of an Act in its favour in 1696, and which was probably the largest dock in
|Howland Great Wet Dock by John Kip|
Unlike the later enclosed docks that eventually filled Rotherhithe peninsula, the purpose of the Howland dock was not for cargo handling but to provide protection against storms and to provide facilities for for ship refitting and repair. Until Howland great Dock was opened ships were forced to moor on the river itself, where they were were vulnerable to gales, ice and river pirates. Piracy was a big problem for ship and cargo owners alike, especially when carried out with the collusion of crew members. Within the dock, 120 merchant ships could moor against the quay-sides either for shelter alone, or for refit work to be carried out. Rows of trees planted around the rectangular dock offered protection from the elements for the ships, and this is depicted in a 1705 etching by Kip (now housed in the National Maritime Museum, London). It is believed that many of the ships that were moored here were those of the East India Company, which did long distance trips on an annual basis, receiving severe wear and tear in the process, and were laid up on their return for repairs, refits, ready for the new season. The value of the dock to ship owners who used it was demonstrated during a particularly fierce and well documented storm in 1703. Ships moored on the Thames suffered serious damage and many were blown aground. Elsewhere 100s of people died and the Eddystone Lighthouse was destroyed. But all of the boats in Howland Dock survived unharmed. There were no cargo handling facilities, and no cargo was stored or moved in the dock. There were no warehouses associated with the dock, but there were buildings that stored materials required for repair and refitting work.
|The mansion at the end of the dock|
A mansion was built at the west end, complete with ornamental gardens. This was probably intended for the Marquis of Tavistock and his young bride Elizabeth Howland but they never occupied the house, which was taken down in the early 1800s. It would not have been a peaceful place to stay even when ships were using it to shelter, but when it later came into use for the processing of whale carcasses it would have been actively unpleasant. Even so, there are records that it had various occupants, including members of the Wells family.
By the early 1700s the entrance to the dock was flanked by shipyards, clearly visible on Kip's illustration, above. Two of these were of considerable size, capable of handling shipbuilding projects for the Navy and the East India Company. To the north of the shipyards, upriver, more trees are shown, apparently forming an avenue, and these are associated with fairly substantial houses. A carriage drawn by horses is shown heading out of the area, through a flat, rural area.
|Rotherhithe in 1746|
The map on the right shows what Rotherhithe looked like in 1746, during the period when the dock was in use for whale carcass processing, a thin band of ship and barge building and related activities on the western edge of Rotherhithe, a pattern of streams and drainage ditches dissecting the marshy interior and the Howland Great Wet Dock accessible by a road and just upriver of the Deptford Royal Docks.
In 1763 the dock was bought by a new generation of the Wells family, John (1761-1848) and William (1768-1847) Wells, for the sum of £18,000 from the fourth Duke of Bedford. John and William were partners in the Blackwall ship building form Perry, Wells and Green. It remains somewhat unclear if it was now renamed Greenland Dock or if this had happened earlier, in 1725. The dock was now wholly devoted to whaling with over 1000 tons of blubber processed and boiled there annually. John and William Wells sold Greenland Dock to William Ritchie, a Greenwich timber merchant, in 1806. It was acquired by the Commercial Dock Co. in 1807.
For the whaling history of the dock see a later post: