Thursday, November 26, 2015

A round-up of planning matters in Rotherhithe peninsula

This post has now moved to its new location on the trackerzone blog about planning and development in SE16.

You can find it here, along with all the previous planning and develoopment posts that have appeared on this blog:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Update: South Dock development boatyard workshop

This post has now been moved over to my sister planning and development blog at:

Sustrans Brunel Bridge - News?

I've just seen a link from RotherhitheWhatsOn (on Twitter @WorgInfo) to the Londonist website where five innovative ideas for the future of London are mentioned.  They were apparently discussed in a conference earlier this week.  I did wonder if something about the bridge had been aired recently because a journalist contacted me yesterday to ask if I had an opinion on the subject on the bridge.  The Londonist article (at ) states that Annette Jezierska from Sustrans estimates 30,000 new jobs in Canary Wharf and 20,000 new homes becoming available at Canary Wharf alone and goes on to ask "Canada Water station is already logjammed during peak hours; how on earth is it going to cope with all these new people?"  As the Londonist page says, one of the proposed solutions to the traffic and public transport problems is the Brunel Bridge, which would go from Durand's Wharf on Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf.

Earlier this year Sustrans was given £200,000 to research the proposal in detail but I have not heard of the output from this research project having been published, and without seeing precisely what is being proposed it is a bit difficult to form any sort of opinion about the viability, the logistics and the impacts.

There's a story about it today on The Guardian website: 

When anyone hears anything new about the bridge I'd be grateful for any updates.  My email address is in the header at the top of the blog if you would like to get in touch.  

The Brunel Bridge website is at:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Wonderful Rotherhithe Bascule Bridges

Surrey Basin bascule bridge by Rob Noble
Two of Rotherhithe's most distinctive landmarks are its wonderful Scherzer bascule bridges.  Neither of the bridges are functional now, and they have been stripped of their associated paraphernalia, but both are quite remarkable.  Today they are painted red, and look marvellous. Their scale is best appreciated when you stand beneath them - they are truly massive.  One of them crosses the underpass that leads from Greenland Dock to the shopping centre at Canada Water, next to Salter Road, and the other crosses the Surrey Entrance Lock on the opposite site of Rotherhithe, near the Old Salt Quay public house, where it forms a part of Rotherhithe Street.  Although they are very similar, they are not identical.  You can compare them in the photographs below.

Image from Wikipedia - I love it! Every
time I see it, I think that the little car on
the right is going to fall straight in!
Bascule is the French word for a seesaw or balance. The best know British bascule bridge is Tower Bridge, a rather more massive undertaking than the Rotherhithe one, with two leaves, but following the same principles. Scherzer bascule bridges are lift bridges that roll or rock back on a curved base to rise so that ships can pass beneath, and are often compared to Medieval draw-bridges. They may have one leaf, like the Rotherhithe ones, or two leaves, which open either side of a span and meet in the middle (like Tower Bridge). Scherzer bridges are found all over the world because they have simple mechanisms, open rapidly and have low energy requirements. The bridges consist  of two important components - the length spanning the gap, in the Rotherhithe cases spanning two sections of road, and a counterweight filled with water. It sits on tracks, and electric motors wind the bridge over the tracks with the assistance of cogs and racks that fix it into place at 90 degrees to prevent slippage. They must have been quite something to see when they were working.  In spite of its somewhat Victorian look and engineering here in Rotherhithe and at various other locations in the United Kingdom, the bridge was such a success that it continues, now that the patent has expired, to be a successful engineering solution
When I first saw them I thought that they probably dated to the late 1800s or early 1900s, because have so much Victorian panache about them.  In fact one was built in the late 1930s and the other was added in 1949, having been moved from Deptford.  But it turns out that I wasn't far from the mark.  The bridges were built to a design by William Donald Scherzer of Chicago, who patented the design in 1893.  Following his death in 1893 the business was taken over by William's younger brother Albert Scherzer and the company successfully preserved its exclusive patented rights to build this particular style of rolling bascule bridge for decades afterwards.  There is a brilliant description of the development of the Scherzer bridge in Chicago in this early 1900s pamphlet by the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company:
Starting at a time when engineering in this particular branch of the science was entirely undeveloped and there was little upon which to base our designs, except theory and unbounded faith, we have now the satisfaction of having proven both our theories and our faith, the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge being today universally known as the standard of excellence in bascule bridge design, after a period in modern structural engineering in which the development of the bascule bridge has been one of the noteworthy features. 
It is a basic principle of all great inventions that necessity is the stimulus, and a brief outline of how history repeated itself and necessity brought out the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge is interesting. The Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad of Chicago had practically completed all of its other construction without solving the serious problem of earning its tracks over the Chicago River where the limited right of way between the swing bridges at Jackson Boulevard and Van Buren Street precluded the use of a horizontally moving bridge of the required span length, time and money were expended freely in consultation with the most eminent engineers in the country and various solution  were suggested, each, however, developing limitations that made them impractical. Vertically moving bridges in all of the varieties as then known even to a reproduction of the new Tower bridge across the Thames in London were proposed but none was satisfactory in meeting all of the requirements. The management called in William Scherzer of Chicago, a consulting engineer specializing in structural design, and it was his ingenious but practical suggestion that both solved the problem for the railroad and to the science of movable bridge engineering its most important development. It is the irony of fate, too, that death from over-work in concentrating on this very matter should have robbed William Scherzer of the satisfaction of seeing the completion of the structure to which he had given so much of his time and thought, but credit will be given to his name wherever the history of movable bridge engineering shall be written.

Surrey Basin bascule bridge in the 1950s and
2004. From Rankin's Walk A, p.24
At the time of the installation of the bascule bridges in Rotherhithe there were only two ways to leave Rotherhithe by road, and when both bridges were up at the same time, the peninsula became an island and all traffic came to a standstill for as long as it took for ships and smaller vessels to pass.  The sense of being at the mercy of the bridges is captured by the title of F. Mary Wilson's 1960s book Between Bridgers. She says that awaiting the bridger is "a local phrase for the cessation of traffic and pedestrians." Another phrase was catching a bridger, which was used to indicate that someone had been delayed by the raising of the bridge or bridges. Much better than "the dog ate my homework."  The local Rotherhithe fire brigade, at that time located between the two bridges, were not permitted to cross over either in case the fire engines should become trapped on the wrong side of them when the bridges were raised, which would have prevented the engines returning to service in the main Surrey Commercial Docks area in an emergency.  The bridges were also known locally as "the iron bridges."

In London, as in other parts of the UK, the 1930s are known as a period of economic depression, followed immediately by the Second World War. The majority of people working in and around Rotherhithe in the 1930s were working-class families, dock and river workers, struggling with the economic conditions, but there was a brief book in the timber trade and Rotherhithe was one of the principal timber handling dock systems at that time.  In response, the Port of London Authority (PLA) did much to upgrade the docks at this time to improve their prospects, including open-sided timber sheds (principally for the newly desirable plywood), a new general cargo warehouse of 75,000sq ft, and two small timber ponds were amalgamated to form Quebec Dock.  The two bascule bridges were part of this programme of improvement.

Surrey Basin bascule bridge
The Surrey Basin bascule bridge is still in its original position over the lock between the Thames and the Surrey Basin (now known as Surrey Water) next to the Old Salt Quay public house. It replaced a somewhat elderly swing bridge, of which there were several around Rotherhithe, thanks to the crazy mosaic that made up the Surrey Commercial  Docks. The lock is Grade 2 listed (IoE Number: 471266) but the bridge does not appear to be listed. It is Rotherhithe's oldest bascule bridge, 20m long and was built to cross the lock into Surrey Basin, which in turn led into the Surrey Commercial Dock network.  As the smallest of the available locks connecting the docks to the Thames (the biggest lock was the one into Greenland), it mainly handled smaller ships and barges, but was still a very important access point.  The photograph taken shortly after its installation (see above) shows a corrugated iron hut built onto an overhead gantry.  This was the station from which the bridge was operated.  When I first moved into the area it was still possible to drive across it, but it was eventually decided to convert it to pedestrian-only access, which was an excellent decision.  It is a great place to go and have a quiet look at the construction.  The Shadwell Basin bascule bridge (on the north of the Thames) is very similar to Surrey Water bridge, and as both were operated by the Port of London Authority they were probably sourced from the same manufacturer.  The Shadwell bridge was erected during the 1930s by the successful engineering contractors Sir William Arrol and Co., which specialized in rolling lift bridges during the 1930s.  Although the company's origins were in iron working, it became well known for its excellence in steel working, and this skill was used in its build of Southwark Bridge.   The Surrey Basin bridge in articular looks like another Sir William Arrol and Co. bridge, the White Cart Bridge in Glasgow

Greenland Dock bascule bridge
The Greenland Dock bridge that carried Redriff Road over the cut between Greenland Dock and Canada Dock was built in 1949, when it was erected in Deptford to bridge the Deptford Creek.  Ten years later it was moved to Rotherhithe to replace an ageing swing bridge, which had been erected when the cut between the two docks was made in 1904.  It is of a different construction to the Surrey Basin and Shadwell Basin examples, without the extensive metalwork on either side of the roadway.  Instead the water tank is connected directly to the sides of the bridge, with no metalwork above it.  As the Deptford Creek did not come under the authority of the PLA, it is possible that the Greenland Dock bridge could have been made by a different manufacturer. Today the bascule bridge no longer carries the road but sits parallel to it, and is easy to visit and inspect.

It is strange to think that only twenty years later the last ship was leaving Greenland Dock, and that the last wharves closed in the 1980s, but even when the bridges were erected the writing was firmly on the wall.  Stuart Rankin calls the post-war period "a false dawn."  The bascule bridges, so vast and confident, are an admirable monument to both engineering excellence and a complex economic and social past.

Thanks to @RainbowQuay for letting me know that a YouTube video of the Surrey Basin bridge operating, that I knew existed but couldn't find, is now at the following address (and just look at all those umbrellas!):

The Shadwell Basin bascule bridge, which is
no longer operational. (Shadwell Wikipedia page)


I had the devil's own time finding information about these bridges, so in addition to those credited in the text and captions, my thanks to the following books and sites for information to start me off:

Stuart Rankin, Rotherhithe History Walk A (Southwark Council 2005)
F. Mary Wilson, Between Bridgers (no publisher, late 1960s)
Stuart Rankin, A Short History of the Surrey Commercial Docks, Rotherhithe Local History Paper 6, 1999.
The Adam Hunter pages on
Historic Bridges

Photos of other European and American bascule bridges are on Wikipedia:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Is it a bird? Is it a crane? No, it's affordable housing.

I've rarely heard anything so thoroughly silly.

Southwark Council are apparently now arguing that restoring the red derrick (crane) on the Thames Path at Odessa Street would take funding away from the provision of affordable housing.  How on earth would the drop-in-the-ocean costs of partially restoring the derrick deprive Rotherhithe of affordable housing??? 

Have your say, and vote on the future of the historic Odessa St crane in the Southwark News survey at

View of Commercial Wharf with the
Scotch derrick in the background,
1982. With thanks to Malcom T.
Tucker for the photograph.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Last day to enter "The Hidden Treasures of SE16" photo competition

Don't forget that Sunday 15th November 2015 is the last day of the photo competition.  If you have a last minute entry, see the competition details here:

Good luck to all entrants!

Project: 30 Years of Urban Ecology at Stave Hill in Docklands

Some truly nice news for a very pleasant change.  The new 30 Years of Urban Ecology at Stave Hill in Docklands project is a really positive one.  Its intentions are detailed below, but in prĂ©cis the project is designed to commemorate the 30 years of the development of Stave Hill Ecological Park by creating a plan of walks that will capture the park through the eyes and ears of local residents, focusing on the site through the seasons.  The results will be published on a website for all to learn from and enjoy.

All the text is provided by the Project organizers.  The pics are mine.



We have learned about Stave Hill Ecological Park through collaboration on soundCamp, an ecological and acoustic project which has been based there for two years. This has led to the current proposal for a residency comprising research, outreach and documentation coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the Park in 2016.

Stave Hill is the successor to the William Curtis Ecological Park set up by Max Nicholson and the Trust for Urban Ecology (TRUE) in 1976. As such it is a direct continuation of the first urban ecology park in the UK and seemingly the world. Stave Hill was established on derelict former dockland in 1986 and comprises a varied collection of micro-habitats created from scratch on landfill and rubble. Over 30 years it has become a vital green space and a centre for ongoing ecological research and action in an increasingly dense urban area.

There is almost no information available online about this sustained and in many ways unique experiment in environmental, social and personal transformation in the heart of Rotherhithe. To the outsider and to young people it is hard to believe that what appears as a natural landscape has been painstakingly created and maintained, sometimes by the same individuals, over a third of a century. At the same time, the organisation and community sustaining the site has evolved from what appeared initially as a marginal experiment to a case study in community based ecological action. These developments exist as an unofficial history reflected in a living archive of plantings, acquired knowledge and skills, shared experiences of participants, organisational innovations and technical recipes acquired sometimes at great cost - as in the destruction of the site's first interpretation centre by arson.

Our aim is to document this heritage through the eyes and ears of local residents and by focusing on the site through the seasons. We will focus on continuities from the history of TRUE to ongoing work of direct and pressing relevance to how we engage with our common ecological futures. We are equally interested in the seasonal changes and the longer ecological timescales, including cycles of abandonment and re-generation, which give the site much of its value and character.

We propose an extended residency divided into four phases, each linked to a season. Each phase will consist of a preparatory research phase, during which the artists will be working on site. This will lead to a public engagement event, including a walk exploring the site and its environs, and related workshops and activities, together with specific local groups and community based organisations. The outputs of each phase in the form of environmental sound recordings, oral history, texts and images, collected and made by the artists in collaboration with workshop participants, will be archived on a dedicated website and curated in the form of four seasonal walks, each described in a printed booklet and available with additional media online. These will remain as resources for future visitors to explore the area.



Stave Hill Ecological Park, Russia Dock Woodland, Greenland Dock, Lavender Pond
Date: March 2016 (Spring Equinox) 
These events will take place outside in the Park, starting with a site walk, and around the SHED, with a fire it it's cold.
Our aim is to engage with the site directly, using sound and other time based media to elicit responses. Recorded voices will be situated in the landscape. We will compare the current site to pictures taken at its inception and before [see attached] and consider its future. Aims: 1) To review the history of the site since its creation, via the recollections of local residents and key actors.
Method: We will invite participants to interview and record each other on portable recorders, with people of different ages / generations working together. We will also share audio materials and images from the research phase. 2) To explore these historical materials within wider ecological timefames: circadian and circannual. Method: We will work with artist Ky Lewis to make and put up solargraph cameras around the site, to record the changing path of the sun over periods of up to one year. 
Groups involved: TBC through consultation

Stave Hill Ecological Park, Russia Dock Woodland, Greenland Dock, Lavender Pond and Pumphouse
Date: 30APR - 1 MAY
The second walk is a dawn chorus walk, taking place in the context of soundCamp 2016. Many participants will have slept out the night before. They will be joined by others, as in previous years. They will gather at 04.30 and walk in small groups around the site, each group accompanied by an ornithologist. There will be preparation with birdsong ID on Saturday, and a follow-up on Sunday, along with other related activities. Why: Daybreak is unusual because human sounds tend to be low and non human sounds relatively high at this time. As such, daybreak gives a window onto a more biodiverse soundscape than many people have a chance to hear or attend to. Sunday 1st May is International Dawn Chorus Day, when many other people around the world do similar early morning walks. We will also be coming to the end of the 24 hour Reveil radio broadcast, linking ecological and acoustic projects around the world in real time. Method: Soundwalk with supporting workshops and activities, including breakfast. Over the weekend, we will also officially launch the 30th Anniversary year.
Groups involved: TBC through consultation

A day in the Life of Stave Hill:  Summer Holidays walk and workshop
Date: Summer Holidays
This walk and workshop focuses on the changing soundscape of the Park in the course of the day, and on the sounds and sights of Summer in the Park. 1) Botany and cyanotypes Method We will work with a botanist / ecologist to identify plant communities, and photographer Ky Lewis to capture images of them in situ, in a workshop introducing the Cyanotype process. 2) Unheard sounds of Summer Method We will work with portable recorders and live audio streams to explore the micro acoustics of the site, including classic sounds of Summer such as bees buzzing and crickets creaking. Sound recordings will be archived online and as part of World Listening Day on Images will form permanent works on paper including ID information, for long term display on site. Both will feature in devised seasonal walks on paper and online.
Groups involved: TBC through consultation

From the former William Curtis Ecological Park by Tower Bridge, along the Thames, via Stave Hill, to Greenwich
Date: Autumn Half Term
The fourth walk explores The Third Estate: areas of reserve or neglect associated with an increase in biodiversity. We will walk along the river charting fluctuations in the variety and density of sounds, and reviewing their ups and downs over the previous 4 decades, and further into past and future. We aim to experience, elicit and document what can be learned from the interventions of the Trust for Urban Ecology in this area from 1979 to the present, and their implications for the future.
1) The Third Soundscape Method Soundwalk with soundCamp and Jon Best, ecologist. 2) Invisible food Method Wild food foraging in Autumn and outdoors cooking with Invisible Food
Groups involved: TBC through consultation


South Dock / St George's Wharf Development - Any Update re November workshop?

This post has now moved to my sister blog, which focuses on planning and development, and can be found at:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Red crane may be preserved as bird sculpture? Sigh.

Anyone who has been following the fate of the red derrick on the Thames Path at the end of Odessa Street will be aware that it is under threat from a development that will replace that corner of derelict basketball court and former youth club, removing the problematic former nightclub at the same time.  There are benefits to the Hollybrook Home proposals, as well as potential downsides (see my summary of the consultation exhibition in an earlier post).

According to an article in Southwark News today by Joey Millar, there are now two principal options on the table for the derrick (or crane).  One is to preserve it partially by restoring the metalwork and removing inconvenient arms, leaving one arm remaining (the CGI image from Hollybrook Homes, left, shows the sort of thing envisaged).  The other is to use the metalwork to sculpt it into the form of a bird, to create a crane of the feathered variety, a sort of somewhat grizzly pun.

If the derrick has to be modified in any way, I don't see any point in doing anything other than retaining as much of it as possible.  It is either a meaningful piece of our heritage as it stands, or you might just as well give up and go home.  How on earth is a bird sculpture supposed to represent Rotherhithe's wharfinger past?  Well apparently that wouldn't be the point - the point would be to represent some sort of "aviary heritage" of which I was unaware.  I think that the word "heritage" is being used somewhat loosely here.  A local resident feels that a bird would be a "talking point" but I have no idea how that is supposed to tie in with what the red crane was all about, and what it still stands for today.

Apparently the options will be put to local residents after Christmas.  I was tempted to make a joke about turkeys, and almost stopped myself just in time.  Sigh!

Here's the Southwark News article:

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Update: Odessa Street / Red Crane planning proposal

This post has now moved over to my sister blog that focuses on planning and development news and issues, and can be found at:

Monday, November 2, 2015

Were Rotherhithe notables slave owners? Were your own ancestors slave owners?

I am very glad that I joined the Port of London Study Group, which meets weekly at the Museum of London Docklands.  Every week we have two one-hour or one two-hour lecture about some aspect of the Port of London.  Research is conducted within the group, and external speakers are invited too.  I have only been a member for a few weeks but I am loving it. 

This week's visiting speaker was Dr Nicholas Draper from the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project.  He was superb.  The first talk put London's docks into the economic context of the slave trade, explaining how the trade helped to finance the eastward growth of the West India and London Docks on the north banks of the Thames, and how the trade operated.  One of the concrete outputs of the  Legacies of British Slave Ownership project is the database.   When slavery was abolished it was decided that slave owners needed to be compensated for the loss of their workers.  £20million was allocated to the compensation.  Over a period of four years the money was allocated and detailed records were made of who were compensated when their slaves were freed.  The Legacies of British Slave Ownership project allows you to search under various different parameters but perhaps the most interesting for some people will be looking up their family name to see if their ancestors were compensated in the past for the loss of their slaves, and were therefore slave owners.  An uncomfortable thought.  I must be safe on my father's side but I do worry about my mother's canal-building ancestors!  I haven't yet investigated that possibility. Here's the database address if you want to take the plunge and find out if your own family history includes slave trading:

My head has been fizzing ever since with linkages, with the vast and complex network of different commercial interests and innovations, with the perception of that world becoming smaller by the day, with no ambition being too big, with the sense of the drive that adapted itself so painlessly to the idea that foreign people could be treated as commodities like sugar, tobacco, rum or pack animals.   Realities like the Empire and the slave trade are things that as a nation we are often embarrassed to talk about, but in tandem with other ventures, the slave trade was one of the complex enterprises that established the commercial foundations on which our economy and culture were built.  As mortifying as it is today to recognize the less honourable parts of our past, we cannot ignore that those financial successes helped to form the nation that we have inherited today.  Understanding how the slave trade fitted into the viability of the country as a commercial entity is essential to understanding our history.  The  Legacies of British Slave Ownership project is looking explicitly at some of the outcomes of the slave trade, at the contributions it made in a set of different but related areas, the "legacies" of the project's name.  See the Legacies website for more about these. 

What I am excited about from the point of view of this blog is that I am terribly uninformed about the slave trade, and I now know that there is an awful lot of research that I can pursue in the future with respect to Rotherhithe.  For example, now that I know that slave trade incomes helped to finance the docks on the north banks of the Thames opposite Rotherhithe, I am going to use the database to see if local ship builders, ship owners, ships' captains and local notables were involved in slave ownership and how that impacted the social and economic life of the peninsula.  It is almost certain that those who ordered East and West Indiamen from Rotherhithe builders had some interest in the slave trade, so that will be interesting to look into.  The Rotherhithe docks were very under-developed prior to the 1833 Abolition, although the Howland Great Wet Dock (1696) was funded partially by one family’s East India profits and was used at least partly as a winter base for East Indiamen, so that’s another avenue of investigation. 

But even after the abolition of slavery in 1833, dirt-cheap labour was still being transported from where it was in ready supply to where it was needed, and I want to learn more about that too.  For example, I posted a piece about the tea-clipper Borealis, built by Thomas Bilbe in 1864, well after the abolition of slavery, and that will now need rewriting.  Bilbe was involved in the movement of Chinese “coolies” to Cuba as cheap labour, and I really need to go back and rethink the piece in the light of what I learned today (not to mention that it wasn't my best piece of writing ever!). 

Today's lecture makes me look at everything I have been writing about Rotherhithe in a highly critical way and with a real sense of annoyance, although not for the first time.  One of the eternal and irritating problems of blogging history is that it is fragmented, pulled ruthlessly from its context.  It is the best way of using the time I have available to me, but I am always aware that the bigger picture is always lost in my blog.  Ships, buildings, people, all lifted from their social and economic past and presented like excavated pieces in an Edwardian museum.   I need to do something about that before too long.

So it's a huge thank-you to Dr Draper and the Port of London Study Group for giving me a lot of food for thought, and now it's back to my day job for the time being!

Don't forget to visit the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project at and you can see one of Dr Draper's talks on the subject of slavery and its impact on London on Youtube: What does London owe to slavery? (26 Oct 2010)