Sunday, February 23, 2014

The development of Albion Dock and the timber ponds of the Grand Surrey Dock and Canal Company

The Grand Surrey Canal Company was incorporated in 1801 to build the Grand Surrey Canal and, when this was complete, the canal passed across Rotherhithe and beneath Greenland Dock towards Deptford before turning south towards Camberwell (which opened in 1811) and Peckham.  See my earlier post about the development of the Grand Surrey Canal

The Grand Surrey Canal system in 1843 showing
the expansion of the canal to create dock areas
but before the addition of the new lock,
Surrey Basin, Albion Dock and the new
timber ponds.  Compare with the map below.
The Grand Surrey Canal was not the success that its planners and investors and hoped for, but they realized that they could develop both the canal and the surrounding areas to create inland docks of the sort already pioneered on Rotherhithe by the Commercial Dock Company (see my earlier post for the development of the CDC) . They applied for parliamentary permission to expand the the channel of the canal that led from the island basins that made up the Grand Surrey Outer Dock, and this was granted in 1811, allowing them to expand the canal to either side to form a dock with the canal flowing down the middle.  It was named the Grand Surrey Inner Dock, later being renamed Russia Dock.

The success of this venture confirmed to the Grand Surrey Canal Company that its future lay not in the canal but in the development of further inland docks.  In 1855 its named was changed to the Grand Surrey Docks and Canal Company, after which it set about modernizing and expanding in order to accommodate the larger and deeper vessels that were being built. The upgrades were necessary to accommodate a new and larger type of ship. When the Grand Surrey Canal was built, most of the ships traveling through the outer basins and the canal itself were wooden, and powered by sail.  With the advent of steam and the the development of steel hulls, ships became faster and bigger.  Older locks were often neither long enough nor deep enough to handle the bigger ships, and dock systems had to upgrade in order to remain competitive.  Bigger cargo holds meant a requirement for greater cargo handling efficiencies and storage facilities.  Steam ships, which were not at the mercy of tides, required a quick turnaround, and therefore cargo handling facilities needed to improve.  This all represented opportunity for the Grand Surrey Docks and Canal Company.

The new Surrey Lock, with narrowboats in the foreground and
timber stacked on its eastern side,  a gas light on the left
Land on Rotherhithe was still available, and The Grand Surrey Docks and Canal Company was able to purchase land from one of Rotherhithe's biggest landowners, the Lord of the Rotherhithe Manor, Sir William Maynard Gomm.  This enabled them to substantially extend their operations, which they began with an extended lock upriver of the old one (250ft by 50ft and 27ft deep), which opened into a new basin, the Surrey Basin (3 acres in area and 27ft deep).  Surrey Basin was connected to the Grand Surrey Inner Dock, which was now extended to an area of 14 acres and 19ft and was provisioned on its west side with two big yards that extended along its length.  With two locks and two sets of basins, both newer larger ships and smaller sailing ships and barges could be accommodated easily.  Locks at each exit could seal the basin off from the rest of the network, reducing leakage and maintaining levels within the docks.  Leakage was always a problem with the Rotherhithe docks.  

At the same time construction began on Main Dock (later Albion Dock, and not to be confused with Albion Dry Dock) and four timber ponds, which were completed by 1860 and in use by 1862.  The name Albion seems to have been derived from the name of the road that ran along the western edge of Main Dock, Albion Road, which also gave its name to its western yard, and was shown on an 1862 map of the area.  The road is un-named on the 1868 and later Ordnance Survey maps.

The newly excavated Grand Surrey Dock
and Canal System, with the two lock entrances
highlighted at the top of the map.  1868.
With an area of 11.5 acres and  and a depth of 25ft, Main Dock was built mainly for handling timber.  It was flanked by three large yards, Albion Yard to the west and Centre Yard to the East and Baltic Yard to the north.  Baltic Yard sat between Main Dock, Surrey Basin and the Outer Dock.

By 1862 the Grand Surrey Canal Dock and Canal Company had added four timber ponds to their system for the first time:  Timber Ponds 1, 2, 3 and 4 (later named Albion Pond, Centre Pond, Quebec Pond and Canada Pond respectively).  These were designed to compete with similar ponds in the Surrey Commercial Dock system and were intended for the flotation and handling of timber.  The ponds were linked into the rest of the system by a connection between Timber Pond 1 and Main Dock.  

In 1864 the two companies that now operated dock networks on Rotherhithe as independent systems, the Grand Surrey Dock and Canal Company and the Commercial Dock Company amalgamated to become the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, as the result of  a price war between the two that damaged both companies and competition from dock companies north of the river. Linkages between the two systems were made, allowing them to form a single massive network that covered most of Rotherhithe.

The first lock was sealed off from the dock system in 1888 and was later used as a Thames wharf.  Today its position is marked as an inlet downriver of Pacific Wharf, the modern apartment block next to the Old Salt Quay public house.   

Partial view of the Surrey Entrance Lock from the
Thames, to the right.  From "Lure and Lore of
London's River" by AG Linney, 1932.
During the Second World War, the dock system was severely damaged by bombing.  The northeast side of Albion Dock was severely damaged during the bombing of 9th July 1944 when, just after 2pm, a V1 bomb was dropped on the dock, fell on floating timber and exploded, damaging a nearby brick building, some barges and surrounding property.  On 11th July another V1 bomb was dropped on Centre Yard, injuring six people, at 1126 in the morning.  On the same day, at 1745, another was dropped on Russia Dock, exploding on impact with floating timber and injuring two people. However, the docks were all restored after the war and continued to operate until the closure of the docks in the late 1960s. There's some great black and white footage of a ship arriving in Albion Dock not long before the docks closed in 1970, at:

Canada Dock completed this part of the dock system, and was built in 1875 by the amalgamated Surrey Commercial Dock Company, and will be discussed in a post that will be published in the next few days.  A new cut was made between Canada Dock and the older part of the system, and the old cut was converted into a dry dock, now known as Albion Dry Dock (about which more can be found here).

Albion Channel
Today's Surrey Water is the complete Surrey Basin, which now supports local bird life.  It was filled in after the closure of the docks but re-excavated by the London Docklands Development Corporation.  The new lock and its gates still survive at the end of Surrey Basin, although it is now no longer operational, connecting Surrey Water to the Thames.  The area that used to be occupied by Albion Dock is marked by Albion Channel and the residential buildings that flank it.  Albion Channel was excavated by the London Dockland Development Corporation in the 1980s to serve as a decorative feature to link Surrey Water (the old Surrey Basin) with Canada Water (the remains of the old Canada Dock).   The spoil from the excavation of the channel went to make Stave Hill. The four timber ponds are covered by a mixture of residential developments and commercial buildings, including Decathlon, Surrey Quays shopping Centre, and Harmsworth Quays.

Thanks as usual to Stuart Rankin's booklets for being such a great resource for local history.  His book, A Short History of the Surrey Commercial Docks can be downloaded as PDF, free of charge, from:

1 comment:

Maureen said...

What has happened to the Albion Channel. It seems to be covered by a green angular bloom, and some of the water lilies are being chocked by it