Category Archives: The Thames

The Massey Shaw Fireboat – On The River Thames, 29th December 2015

The weather in December seemed to be an endless run of overcast days and rain and in the run up to the 29th December 2015, I was checking the weather forecast on a daily basis and much to my surprise the forecast looked to be gradually improving with finally a sunny day forecast along with this December’s unusually very mild temperatures.

When the day arrived, and as the last of the overnight rain cleared, I made my way to the Isle of Dogs on a very quiet Underground and Docklands Light Railway, reaching South Quay just as the first hint of the dawn sun broke the dark of night.

The Massey Shaw fireboat is moored in the South Dock on the edge of the main Canary Wharf office complex. The plan for the day was to leave South Dock after nine and then travel up to central London to carry out some demonstrations of the Massey Shaw’s fire fighting capabilities during the early afternoon as part of the commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the 29th December 1940.

With the original 1935 engines running, and the expert volunteer crew having run through the process of preparing the boat for the day, pulling up the anodes, lifting the fenders and casting off the ropes, the Massey Shaw edged out into the South Dock as the December sun lit up the buildings of Canary Wharf.

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The following extract from the 1940 Bartholomew’s Atlas of Greater London has the mooring position of the Massey Shaw highlighted with an arrow and shows the entrance to the Thames through the locks at the South Dock entrance which is still the route through to the river.

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The locks are essential to maintain the water level in the docks whilst the height of the river fluctuates with the tides. At the time we left it was low tide so whilst the Massey Shaw waited in the lock, the water level dropped as water drained out into the river.

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With the level of the water within the lock having dropped to that of the river, the lock gates start to open and the River Thames opens up.

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Leaving the lock. It was fascinating to think of all the ships that have passed through this entrance coming from, and departing to, the rest of the world when these docks were in use.

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Moving out into the river. The weak December sunshine was a very welcome sight.

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Passing Greenwich.

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The route into London gave me an opportunity to learn more about the history of the Massey Shaw and how the boat steers and handles on the river and we had soon passed through central London, and reached Lambeth, opposite the old headquarters of the London Fire Service. Turning round, it was now the run back to the City and demonstration of Massey Shaw’s fire fighting capability.

Passing under Lambeth Bridge.

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The London Eye.

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Approaching Hungerford Bridge, it was time to test the Monitor. The Monitor is the steerable, high pressure jet which is a permanent fixture on deck. Additional water jets and hoses can be connected to the outlets running along the edge of deck, dependent on the type of fire.

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Switching one of the engines to power one of the water pumps results in a high pressure jet which can easily be directed towards a fire.

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The pressure of the jet is such that it was used not only to pour water onto a fire, but also to knock down walls where these had been left in a dangerous condition, or to provide a firebreak between buildings to prevent a fire spreading. Coming up to Southwark Bridge.

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The monitor can be positioned at a high angle with the jet then able to reach the upper floors of the warehouses bordering the Thames, or onto ships.

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The Massey Shaw then carried out the first demonstration in front of the location of Dowgate Fire Station, however the light was much better for the second demonstration so I will cover later in the post.

After the first demonstration it was back to moor on a swinging mooring at Bankside with the weather continuing to improve.

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Passing under the Millennium Bridge provided a unique view of this foot bridge.

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A good opportunity to enjoy the river and city in late December sunshine.

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A visit by the RNLI Tower lifeboat.

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The RNLI depart.

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Now heading back to the second demonstration, powering up and testing the water jet whilst passing Queenhithe. The attention to detail during the restoration was such that although a post war wheelhouse has been added, the lifebuoy is in the same position as when the Massey Shaw was operational – see the photos from the 2nd World War in yesterday’s post.

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Standing off the location of Dowgate Fire Station, and adjacent to the railway bridge into Cannon Street station, the Massey Shaw gave the main display using her on deck Monitor.

The Merryweather pumps on the Massey Shaw are each capable of pumping 1,500 gallons of water per minute through the main Monitor and the other deck outlets. This equates to an incredible 11 tons of water an hour.

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The following video shows the Massey Shaw in action.

Although the many warehouses that ran along the Thames have long since disappeared, the river edge continues to be populated with buildings that edge directly onto the river. These buildings, along with the many different types of craft that continue to travel along the river require the ongoing support of a Fire Service that can approach a fire from the river and support their land based colleagues, as well as providing rescue services on the river.

As part of the commemorations on the 29th December 2015, the Fire Dart, one of the fire boats currently in service with the London Fire Brigade arrived to demonstrate current fire fighting capabilities.

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Although of a very different design and using completely different construction materials, the function is basically the same – pump large volumes of water from the river at high pressure onto a fire.

Note also the very different uniforms of the crew compared to the wartime Massey Shaw (see yesterday’s post) where today life saving and protection from water and the elements are essential functions of the clothing worn by the crew. Comparing the uniforms of today with that of the men who fought fires during the war or sailed to Dunkirk in what appears to be have been little more than a thick jacket and trousers and a flat hat only adds to my admiration of these early fire fighters.

The Fire Dart, one of two current London Fire Brigade fire boats based at Lambeth at the river fire station demonstrating the use of their water jet.

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The main monitor on the Fire Dart is more flexible than that on the Massey Shaw in terms of the type of water jet that can be swiftly delivered. The jet can be quickly changed from delivering a single high pressure jet for force and distance, through to a cloud of water spray.

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The Fire Dart in front of London Bridge.

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Watching the Fire Dart run through its demonstration.

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Now both the Massey Shaw and the Fire Dart run up their main deck Monitors.

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The two jets at full pressure. Although the Fire Dart has more flexibility in how the water jet can be configured, the Massey Shaw jet appeared to be capable of slightly higher pressure, reaching higher than the Fire Dart.

Amazing to see two fire boats in actions, although 80 years separate their design, construction and materials, they are still performing the same basic function.

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The Fire Dart having finished demonstrating 2015 fire fighting capabilities, now heading back to Lambeth.

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It was then time to head back to the Isle of Dogs and enjoy the river and views of London on a very mild December afternoon.

Passing HMS Belfast on the river in a relatively low craft gives an appreciation of the size of the Belfast not always appreciated from the shore. It also gives an indication of what it must have been like to approach a large cargo ship in difficulties or on fire in the much smaller Massey Shaw.

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Approaching Tower Bridge.

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Looking down the river towards Rotherhithe.

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And a final view back towards the City.

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Passing Greenwich and approaching Greenwich Power Station.

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Running between the Isle of Dogs and the Greenwich Peninsula. I could not quite believe that this was late December.

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The flag of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships.

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All too soon we had returned to the South Dock on the Isle of Dogs. Since departing, the tide had risen and there was some discussion as to whether the Massey Shaw would fit under the bridge, even with the mast on the wheel house lowered.

Although the bridge states West India Dock, as can be seen from the 1940 map shown at the start of this post, this is the entrance to the South Dock, with the West India Docks (import and export) being the two more northerly docks, although they are interconnected. Manchester Road is the road passing over this bridge.

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In the end, the safest decision was to raise the bridge to allow the Massey Shaw to enter the lock without any risk.Massey Shaw 29th December 2015 - 35

It was a remarkable day out and hopefully a fitting tribute to those who worked on the Massey Shaw on the 29th December 1940.

The attention to detail during the restoration means that being on, and seeing the Massey Shaw in action is as close to experiencing the fireboat as it would have been in 1940 as it is possible to get.

It was a fantastic experience on a mild and calm sunny day, but consider what it must have been like for fire fighters on the boat on a cold winters night, soaked by the mist from the water jets, fighting fires as the City continued to be bombed with smoke and burning embers being blown across the river.

My thanks to the Massey Shaw Education Trust for the day, and to the whole volunteer crew who provided a wealth of information on the history of the Massey Shaw and the operation of the boat.

I hope that yesterday and today’s posts have provided some insight into this historic craft.

The web site of the Massey Shaw Education Trust can be found here for more details of events and how to support this remarkable craft.

alondoninheritance.com

The Massey Shaw Fireboat – A Brief History

Last Tuesday, the 29th December 2015, was the 75th anniversary of one of the heaviest attacks on London during the 2nd World War. I featured this event last year in a post on the 29th December along with one on the St. Paul’s Watch, whose actions contributed to the preservation of the Cathedral when large areas of the rest of the City were destroyed by incendiary bombs.

Along with the St. Paul’s Watch, the Fire Services worked throughout the night of the 29th / 30th December 1940 to prevent the many fires from spreading and to gradually bring them under control. The Fire Services worked at considerable danger from falling bombs, collapsing buildings and the risk of being cut off by rapidly spreading fires.

Through the night of the 29th December 1940 the availability of water was a problem. Bombing destroyed water mains and the many pumps drawing water from the working water mains considerably reduced the water pressure.

Hundreds of land based pumps were used and to help with the provision of supplies of water, the London Fire Service’s Fireboats were used to pump water from the Thames ashore.

To commemorate the events of the 29th December 1940 and the bravery of the Fire Services a number of events were held in the City of London last Tuesday, including displays of Fire Engines from the time, and a procession of Fire Engines through the City at the same time as  the sounding of the original air raid sirens in 1940.

As well as the displays on land, the Massey Shaw, the last remaining fireboat from the 2nd World War put on a display on the Thames by the bridge into Cannon Street Station and Dowgate Fire Station.

I was very fortunate to be on board the Massey Shaw for the day’s events and for this weekend I have two posts about this remarkable vessel. Today, providing a brief history of the Massey Shaw and tomorrow the voyage out on the 29th December 2015.

The Massey Shaw was one of several fireboats constructed to broadly the same design for the London Fire Brigade, with the Massey Shaw being completed by J. Samuel White & Co at Cowes on the Isle of Wight on 1935. Such was their importance that in 1939, with the war looming, the London County Council placed an order for twenty Fire Boats which all saw action along the length of the Thames, including one being sunk by a bomb at Thames Haven.

Named after Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, the first chief fire officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (from 1861 to 1891), the Massey Shaw was designed with a shallow draught to allow access along the Thames, under bridges and into the creeks feeding into the river at nearly all states of tide.

The following photo shows the Massey Shaw along with two other fireboats in the Thames at Lambeth in front of the headquarters of the London Fire Brigade. Their low design ensures they can pass under bridges in almost all states of the tide.

Massey Shaw History 1

Fireboats were an essential tool in the ability of the Fire Services to fight fires on and along the river. In 1935 the banks of the Thames was still occupied by large numbers of warehouses storing vast amounts of combustible materials and often access from the river was the only means of fighting fires in these warehouses, and the river also provided a readily available source of water.

Large numbers of ships carrying all types of cargo also presented a fire risk both along the Thames and when moored up in the Docks and along the river edge.

The Massey Shaw was equipped with two, 8-cylinder diesel engines which would either drive the boat, or could be switched over to power two Merryweather centrifugal pumps each capable of pumping 1,500 gallons of water per minute through to the deck fire fighting equipment.

On deck was a large 3-inch Monitor (a steerable, high pressure water jet) along with banks of water outlets on either side of the deck which could be used to set up additional high pressure water jets, or to pump water from the river to land.

It was the ability to pump water from the Thames through hoses to land which was of such importance on the night of the 29th December 1940. Not only was there limited water available from water mains, but it was also a low tide so access to water from the banks of the river was difficult. Having a Fireboat which could moor in water and pump to shore was essential in fighting fires on the night and protecting St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The Massey Shaw was one of several boats that pumped water from the Thames to the streets of the City on the night of the 29th / 30th December 1940.

The following photo shows how hoses would be rowed ashore to connect to hoses run along the streets providing additional supplies, or to replace water from the water mains. It is interesting to see in this picture that land based firemen would have the traditional helmet and the firemen on the fireboats would have flat hats which would have provided very little protection.

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The Massey Shaw could also moor along side and deliver water as shown in the following photo taken at Westminster Pier.

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War service for the Massey Shaw started before the bombing of London as the Massey Shaw was one of the little ships that played such a key role in the evacuation of Dunkirk.

The intention was originally for the Massey Shaw to fight fires at Dunkirk, however on arrival she was put to use ferrying troops from the beaches out to waiting ships, her shallow draft enabling the Massey Shaw to approach much closer to the waiting troops in Dunkirk harbour and the beaches.

The Massey Shaw made three round trips from Ramsgate to Dunkirk bringing back 110 troops in addition to those that she had ferried out to the larger shipping.

The book “Fire Service Memories” by Sir Aylmer Firebrace includes an account of the Dunkirk operation:

“Here, in its chronological position is a brief account of ‘excursion to hell’ (to use Mr J.B. Priestley’s graphic phrase) of the fire boat Massey Shaw, in which she played a gallant part in rescuing, from under the noses of dive-bombing Stukas, some of the 300,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force who were patiently and perilously waiting on the Dunkirk beaches.

The Massey Shaw, with a volunteer amateur pilot on board, arrived at Ramsgate on 31st May 1940. She made three trips to Dunkirk, bringing ninety-six men back on board and transferring five hundred others to larger vessels. It is believed that she was the last of the small boats to leave Dunkirk harbour. Whilst troops, British and French, were being taken off the beaches, heavy bombing was proceeding, air battles were being fought overhead, and the whole coast for many miles presented a panorama of raging fire and sullen smoke.

The embarkation bristled with difficulties; always there was the imminent danger of the fire boat going aground, and so becoming a total loss. The Dunkirk task completed, the Massey Shaw was on her way back to London, when, only two hundred yards away from her, the Emile de Champs, a French auxiliary vessel, struck a mine and sank within two minutes. Forty survivors, many of them in need of immediate attention, were picked up and transferred to H.M.S. Albury, a mine sweeper 

Vice-Admiral Sir Bertam Ramsey, K.C.B., Flag Officer commanding Dover wrote in the London Gazette of 17th July 1947:

‘Of the civilian-manned craft one of the best performances was that of the London Fire Brigade fire boat, Massey Shaw. All the volunteer crew were members of the London Fire Brigade or Auxiliary Fire Service, and they succeeded in doing three round trips to the beaches in their well-found craft'”

The Massey Shaw returns from Dunkirk on the 4th June, 1940.

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The Massey Shaw taking a fast ruin along the Thames. Greenwich Power Station is to the left.

Massey Shaw History 3Another photo of the Massey Shaw. The layout of the boat is much the same today, the only significant difference being the open steering position was replaced after the war by an enclosed wheel house.

Massey Shaw History 4The Massey Shaw fighting a warehouse fire using the main Monitor to fire a high pressure water jet. This photo illustrates how a river based craft can be far more effective at fighting fires along the river edge. Fully self contained and floating on an unlimited supply of water, the fire boat was a highly effective machine for fighting this type of fire.

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The Massey Shaw continued in operational service until being decommissioned in 1971. Left to gradually deteriorate in St. Katherine Docks, the Massey Shaw & Marine Vessels Preservation Trust was formed to rescue and preserve the boat.

A grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund enabled a full restoration to be carried out in 2012/13 and the Massey Shaw is now back to a fully operational status, with the majority of the boat still being of the original materials and construction.

The current mooring position of the Massey Shaw is in the South Dock on the Isle of Dogs. The following photo taken before setting out shows the deck of the Massey Shaw with the main water outlets.

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The permanent main Monitor is in the centre, just in front of the wheel house.

On both sides of the deck are four banks of deck connections with the outlets painted red. These are to provide water supplies for additional Monitors on the boat, or to connect hoses to provide a water supply to the shore.

The deck connections with the outlets painted black are for salvage work as the Massey Shaw also has the ability to suck water out of a stricken vessel.

The windows in the foreground provide light into the engine room directly below and can be opened to provide ventilation.

The following photo shows all the deck outlets in use to provide an additional 8 Monitors along the side of the boat.

Massey Shaw History 6The Massey Shaw continues to be powered by the two original diesel engines. Under normal operation, these both drive the boat at a full speed of up to 12 knots.

When fighting a fire, one engine would be switched to pump water with the remaining engine providing power to hold the boat in position. If the boat could be moored or anchored then both engines would be switched to pumping water enabling all the deck outlets to be used.

The engine room with the engines in magnificent condition after restoration.

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Indicator dials showing the vacuum created by the pumps when suction was needed to pump water from a vessel during salvage, and also the pressure in pounds per inch of the pump when supplying water.

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The heavy pipework and controls needed to transport the water under high pressure from the pumps to the deck.

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Working in the engine room with all engines and pumps working flat out was very noisy. Ear protectors are an essential aid, although nothing like these would have been in use in the 1940s.

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Signalling between the wheel house and the engine room continues to use the original system of bells and dials to indicate to the engineer in the engine room what power and direction is required from the  engines.

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The experience of being on the Massey Shaw along the Thames highlighted the considerable skill required to control the boat.

Whilst the shallow draft is excellent for navigating shallow water, it also reduces the water resistance so any wind has more of an impact. Due to the size of the boat and limited rudder size, there is a delay between turning the wheel and the boat starting to turn, and as the Captain does not have direct control of engine power, there is a further delay between requesting a change in power and the engines responding.

Keeping in position when fighting a large warehouse fire or manoeuvring in the Dunkirk harbour whilst under attack would have required a considerable amount of skill and experience.

The original indicator panel in the engine room showing the status of the navigation lights made by Siemens Brothers of London.

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The crew cabin of the Massey Shaw has a number of commemorative plaques as shown in the photo below.

The large plaque at the top was made just after Dunkirk, and the plaque below this details the names of the crew of the Massey Shaw at the time of Dunkirk.

Surrounding these are plaques presented to the Massey Shaw for the various commemoration visits to Dunkirk. The round plaque to the left commemorates the 2015 visit to Dunkirk on the 75th anniversary.

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As the last remaining fireboat from the 2nd World War, the Massey Shaw is a very graphic reminder of the engineering used at the time and the bravery of the crews who manned these boats that were so critical to the protection of London.

To have the Massey Shaw in a museum would be good, but to have the boat as a fully working craft able to demonstrate how fire boats operated at the time is remarkable.

My thanks to the Massey Shaw Education Trust for much of the information and photos used in this article (although any errors in recording this information are my responsibility). Other sources of information include the book Fire Service Memories by Sir Aylmer Firebrace published in 1949, which is highly recommended for an in depth account of the fire services up to and including the 2nd World War.

The web site of the Massey Shaw Education Trust can be found here and provides further information on the history, restoration and current operations of the Massey Shaw.

Join me in tomorrow’s post for a trip down the Thames on the Massey Shaw and a demonstration of fire fighting capabilities from both 1940 and 2015.

alondoninheritance.com

The Disappearing Cannon At The Tower of London

Walking around London it is easy to see many of the major changes to the city. The constant building, new towers adding to the skyline, however sometimes small changes can go unnoticed although they still have a profound impact on the character of an area and memories of the past.

One such change is the disappearance of the cannon that once lined the walkway running along the River Thames in front of the Tower of London.

I had not really noticed how much had changed until I was looking through some of my father’s photos and found the three photos from 1947 that I feature this week.

In the first, a range of cannon lined the river. I remember these from childhood walks and school visits, and for years before they had been a feature that no visit could ever have been complete without climbing one of these cannon.

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I walked down to the Tower one recent Sunday to see how much had changed. The weather was dull and rain was expected, so the lighting was not that good. The following photo is my 2015 photo from roughly the same position. The majority of the cannon have been removed, although a couple remain, looking rather sad up against the approach to Tower Bridge at the far end of the photo.

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I do not know when they were removed or why, I can only guess. Perhaps health and safety considerations, although falling was an accepted risk of climbing anything as a boy. An understandable reason could have been damage to the cannon. Making more space in this area is possible as it really does get crowded at the peak of the tourist season. Or perhaps the fact that they all seemed to be pointing directly at City Hall on the south bank of the river may have made certain occupants rather nervous.

What ever the reason it is a loss of some of the character of the place.

Standing at this point, it is fascinating to consider the incredible amount of change that the Tower of London has seen during the centuries. Just in the last 70 years the changes have been remarkable.

Whilst here, my father also took the following photo. I do not think this was to capture the south bank of the river as the warehouses must have seemed a rather fixed feature of day to day London activity, rather it was probably to photo the ship that was about to pass under Tower Bridge.

What the photo does show is the amount of change along this part of the river, which in 1947 still consisted of rows of cranes and their associated warehouses along with a steady stream of cargo ships mooring alongside. The warehouses on the left of the photo are the ones that lined Pickle Herring Street which I featured here.

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The following photo shows the same scene today. I was able to position the photo accurately using Southwark Cathedral. If you look to the far right of both photos, you can just see the four spires on the top of the tower of Southwark Cathedral.

I doubt that anyone looking across at this view in 1947 would have expected this scene to host Europe’s tallest building in the decades to come.

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The next photo my father took followed the ship as it passed under Tower Bridge.

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It was just about to pour with rain when I took the following photo so the lighting is very poor. Apart from the missing cannon, the scene is much the same today. The top of the old Anchor Brewery building behind the southern approach to Tower Bridge provides a convenient reference point to get the right position for the 2015 photo.

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The walk between the Tower of London and the River Thames is still a great place to watch activity on the river and the view along the south bank, however with the removal of the cannon it has lost some of its character and childhood memories.

alondoninheritance.com

From The City To The Sea – The Thames At Night

I have now reached the final stage of my journey on the Thames, a return to central London.

As darkness falls, the Thames takes on a new personae. It is very difficult to make out the twists and turns of the river, the water now appears very dark and merges with the night sky. The bank of the river before reaching central London has pools of highly lit factories and buildings with long gaps of darkness in between.

The river is also very silent.

Darkness started to fall on leaving Gravesend, and before we look at the river, a quick video of the Waverley.

The Paddle Steamer Waverley is a perfectly restored example of the type of passenger boat that would have been seen on the Thames. The industrial heritage of the Waverley is very important and it is the last sea going example of this type of craft.

It is beautifully maintained and derives a substantial amount of the funding needed for maintenance through these trips.

The engine room is the heart of the Waverley, generating the power to drive the paddles through the water.The following video starts with the engine room at rest whilst the Waverley is moored at Gravesend, then watch as the bells signal departure and the engines power up to start the Waverley’s journey back to Tower Pier.

 

Now for the run into London. Taking photos after dark using a handheld camera on a moving boat is rather a challenge. Much of the river was too dark, however the following provide a view of the river using a sample of the photos that worked.

Dusk starts to fall as the Waverley departs Gravesend. We can now see how the river turns and some of the hazards. The Queen Elizabeth Bridge is in the distance, in the centre of the photo, however the river turns to the left to approach the bridge. On the land jutting out from the left is the Broadness lighthouse as when darkness falls, and without this lighthouse there are no other lights on this spit of land and without the lighthouse a boat could try and aim direct for the bridge.

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A close up of the Broadness lighthouse. At high tide the land is submerged leaving only the lighthouse and the access walkway hovering above the water. A real hazard if it were not for the warning light.

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The industrial sites down the river look very different at night.

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Getting closer to the Queen Elizabeth II bridge with the Stoneness Lighthouse on the right.

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Having navigated the bends in the river, now heading straight to the bridge.

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Ships along the river provide pools of light on the dark water.

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Passing under the bridge. The two conical structures on the river bank to the right of the bridge are air vents of the two tunnels that also carry traffic under the Thames at this point.

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The Archer, Daniels, Midland Erith Ltd oil processing plant looks very different on the way back than on the way out.

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Now approaching the Thames Barrier. Each of the piers is lit up, I suspect not because they look good, but to ensure that each of the piers is very visible to shipping.

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About to pass through the barrier. Green direction arrows clearly point to the channel that should be used to navigate through the barrier.

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Passing through the barrier.

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Through the barrier and the banks of the river now start to light up with the clouds reflecting the lighting from below. Here, Canary Wharf and the O2 Arena are on the left and the Emirates Air Line crosses the river directly in front. Each pod being lit with a red light. It was fascinating to watch the red lights cross the river on the approach.

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Up close to one of the towers supporting the Air Line with the O2 Arena in the background.

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Passing the O2 Arena:

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With Canary Wharf in the background.

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A final view of the O2 Arena. The upturned electricity tower can be seen to the right (an art installation by Sculptor Alex Chinneck, commissioned for this year’s London Design Festival, aiming to celebrate the industrial history of the site)

Thames at Night 14

Passing along the Greenwich Peninsula, the Meridian Laser comes into view. The laser is located below the Airy Transit Circle in the Royal Observatory to ensure it is directly on the meridian line. Under ideal conditions and being in the right position, the laser should be visible more than 60 miles from Greenwich.

Thames at Night 15

Passing Greenwich and the masts of the Cutty Sark along with the lights of the Greenwich Pier come into view.

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The lighting provides a rather ghostly appearance to the Cutty Sark.

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Passing Greenwich and here is the entrance to Deptford Creek. The new bridge standards out more than during the day thanks to the lighting running across the bridge. This is the new bridge that pivots on the left bank so that it can rotate into the Thames allowing ships to enter and exit the creek.

Thames at Night 18

Passing along the Isle of Dogs. The brilliant lighting of Canary Wharf with the less intense lights of the homes along the river bank.

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Continuing pass the Isle of Dogs.

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The river is very quiet at night with very little activity. One exception are the party boats that come out at night providing a passing pool of light and noise before the river returns to silence.

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The brilliant lighting of Canary Wharf.

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On the final stretch of the river into the city, Tower Bridge appears. On the right are the outlines of the historic vessels moored at the Heritage Community Moorings.

Thames at Night 23

Now heading towards Tower Bridge. Looks as if they have not replaced the bulb on the right hand tower.

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Getting close as the bridge starts to rise. Also, the red warning lights from the top of the many cranes across the city.

Thames at Night 25

Nearly fully open with the Walkie Talkie peering in from the right.

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And the Shard on the left.Thames at Night 27

About to pass under Tower Bridge.

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Through Tower Bridge and about to berth on Tower Pier. HMS Belfast is on the left along with the visiting research ship, the RRS Discovery moored along side.

Thames at Night 30

The River Thames is a fascinating river. It is London’s river and it is remarkable to consider the number of people who have made the same journey over the centuries, and where they were leaving to, or arriving from.

As with London, change is a constant along the river. What can be expected in the future? Certainly the endless march of apartment buildings along the river bank. Within the next few years these will probably have run from Greenwich to the O2 Arena.

Possibly more bridges and / or tunnels as there always seems to be a constant stream of proposals for new bridges to the east of London, although so far none seemed to have got past the concept stage. The latest scheme is for a tunnel at Silvertown, the proposals for this tunnel are currently open for consultation.

The new docks at the London Gateway may well expand, will this impact Tilbury?

Will the Thames Hub / Estuary Airport go ahead despite the majority of expert opinion apparently being against an airport in this location.

It would be good to see more traffic on the Thames, there does seem to be a gradual growth in passenger traffic on the river.

To take a look at the Thames from City to Sea, the Paddle Steamer Waverley is planning to run trips along the Thames next year. I will certainly be taking another trip.

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From The City To The Sea – The Thames Estuary

Before returning to London, a quick chance to explore the Thames Estuary and discover some of the legacy from the last war that has survived the last 70 years.

As the Waverley left Southend, the sky and sea seemed to merge even more into a uniform grey with only the occasional boat adding any colour.

Soon after leaving Southend Pier there is the wreck of a part of the Mulberry Harbours that were used directly after the D-Day landings in France to provide temporary harbours until one of the French ports could be taken.

This particular part is a Phoenix Caisson. These were very large concrete hollow boxes that were used to provide the support to the harbour. They were manufactured at three locations in the UK including Tilbury on the Thames, however this Caisson was being brought from Immingham on the Humber to Southsea (Portsmouth on the south coast) ready for transport across the channel.

Whilst being transported from Immingham it sprang a leak and was towed into the Thames and beached in its current position.

Southend to Sea 1

There is a much more potentially destructive relic of the last war about 5 miles from Southend. This is the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery.

The SS Montgomery left the US in August 1944 loaded with over 6,000 tonnes of munitions and explosives. Arriving off Southend the ship was instructed to moor off Sheerness. On the 20th August, the Montgomery started to drag her anchor and drifted to a sand bank where she became stuck as the tide went down and the due to the uneven distribution of weight and insufficient water to provide support, she broke her back and was stranded on the sandbank with her full compliment of explosive cargo.

There was an attempt to remove some of the cargo, however before this was complete the ship finally broke in two and the salvage attempt was abandoned leaving a very considerable volume of munitions and explosives (high explosive bombs, fragmentation bombs, phosphorus bombs, pyrotechnic signals, flares and fuses) on the ship, which remain there to this day.

The ship has an exclusion zone marked by buoys and is regularly surveyed to check the stability of the structure.

I am not sure if anyone really knows what would happen if there was an explosion, many years ago I heard stories that it would break many of the windows in Southend.

It is an eerie sight passing the wreck and seeing the masts of the SS Richard Montgomery still standing above the water.

Southend to Sea 2

Further out from Southend are the Maunsell Forts.

These were operated by the Navy and Army during the last war to provide anti-aircraft gun emplacements in the estuary. The River Thames provided an ideal navigation route to central London for enemy bombers. Even at night and with a blackout, the glint of the moon on the water of the Thames would lead directly to London.

These forts were the idea of Guy Anson Maunsell, a highly innovative civil engineer who had worked on a range of civil engineering projects in the UK and abroad, including in 1931, the widening of Putney Bridge.

The initial requirement was for a set of Naval Forts further out to sea than the Army forts. They were operated by the Navy with the objective of preventing German mine laying in the approaches to the Thames. Four of these were constructed, of which two (Rough Sands and Knock John) survive. From the Thames Estuary the Knock John fort can be seen as a rather enigmatic shape in the distance.

Southend to Sea 11The Army forts followed the Naval forts. The aim of these forts was to attack approaching bomber forces with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on each of the individual forts.

The first set of forts were deployed in the Mersey to protect Liverpool, with the next set of forts deployed across the Thames Estuary to protect London.

Three forts were installed, Shivering Sands, Red Sands and Nore, with Shivering Sands and Red Sands remaining to this day.

Setting out from Southend, the first fort is Red Sands.

Southend to Sea 3

The forts were built on the Thames in a disused and derelict cement factory that Maunsell had found at Red Lion Wharf at Northfleet, close to Gravesend. The forts were constructed, towed out and installed on site between May and December 1943.

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A central observation tower was surrounded by towers, each with an anti-aircraft gun installed. Walkways were run between the individual towers to provide access across the complex.

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Although land was visible from the forts, this must have felt like an isolated and remote location for those based on the forts, coupled with long periods where there would not have been any enemy activity.  It cannot have been very comfortable on a cold and stormy winters night.

The crew of the forts would spend 4 weeks on-board, then a 10 day break ashore.

Although the forts were operational after the main period of the blitz on London they were successful during the later V1 campaign when at least 30 of the V1s were shot down on their way to London.

Southend to Sea 6

I passed the forts during my 1978 journey down the Thames, with the following photo from this time. Most of the walkways were then still in place. The weather was also better, just to show that there is some colour in the estuary.

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The Thames Estuary provides an example of how power generation has changed over the last century. Initially, power stations were local to population centres. London had a number of smaller power stations, (my grandfather worked in one in Camden). These were replaced by larger stations such as Battersea and Bankside. Power stations then started moving away from centres of population to places such as Littlebrook and Tilbury that we passed along the river. These have now closed and generation moved out to sea with a number of offshore wind farms located in the wider Thames Estuary.

Emerging out of the gloom are the 30 wind turbines of the Kentish Flats Offshore Wind Farm.

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Further out in the Estuary is the Shivering Sands fort. This was the last fort is be completed and as Maunsell wrote at the time:

“the final floating out operation sailed on the afternoon on December 13th, whereafter it transpired that the last of the Towers was grounded on the Shivering Sand in bright moonlight and bitter cold shortly after midnight on December 14th.”

Shivering Sands lost one of its towers in 1963 when it was hit by a ship. The stump of the tower still pokes from the water:

Southend to Sea 8

Passing Shivering Sands fort with Red Sands in the distance. Viewed from a distance they could almost be the Martians from H.G. Wells book War of the Worlds, striding across the Thames Estuary ready to wreak havoc on Southend.

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Seventy years of construction in the Thames Estuary from wartime defences to peaceful electricity generation.

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After the war, Guy Maunsell and a couple of partners set-up their own business and were much in demand to work on major construction projects across the world.

In London, G. Maunsell & Partners were responsible for the Hammersmith Flyover. When this was completed in 1961 it was the first such pre-cast segmented concrete structure in the UK. Further work followed on the Westway from Paddington to White City.

Guy Maunsell died in 1961. His company continued independently, working on projects such as the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee Line, until the year 2000 when the company was bought by the US firm AECOM.

The Imperial War Museum has a number of photos of the forts in use (reproduced under the IWM’s Share and Reuse, non commercial licence):

Supply vessel approaching one of the Thames forts © IWM (H 34537):

IWM - 1View from the top of one of the towers showing the anti-aircraft gun mounted on each tower © IWM (H 34542):

IWM - 2The only photo of the construction of the towers I could find was of the Mersey forts, however the Thames Estuary forts from Northfleet on the Thames would have been constructed in the same manner, ready to be floated out to sea © IWM (A 13259):

IWM - 3 A final view of the Red Sands fort, wind farm and a ship approaching the Thames heading for its berth further upstream.

Southend to Sea 14

The water that has flowed through London and down the Thames has now merged with the sea. Even at this distance, connections with London can still be found through the Maunsell Forts, built specifically to defend the city from attack during the last war.

The Thames is a fascinating river with a long history, intimately connected with London.

Now it is time to turn round and head back to London. For my final post on the Thames it will be a dramatic after dark return to the centre of the city.

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From The City To The Sea – Barking Creek To Southend

Continuing on my journey along the River Thames from the City of London to the Sea, this post covers the section from Barking Creek to Southend. The river continues to change as we get closer to the estuary. The river is wider and the land on the river bank appears lower, almost merging with the water.

Where there is industry, transport and trade, it is now much larger, almost mirroring the increasing width of the river. Ocean going ships start to appear and the river has navigation markers for these, not the small passenger ferries that are the main river traffic closer to the city.

The weather also changed as we approached the estuary. The grey of the river seemed to evaporate and merge with the sky.

Leaving Barking Creek, we find one of the navigation lights that help ships navigate the Thames after dark. This one is at Crossness with the houses of Thamesmead behind. Undergoing some maintenance, but one of a number that line the river.

Barking to Southend 1

Much of the north bank of the Thames from Barking up to Tilbury is occupied by a range of industries specialising in bulk goods such as aggregates:

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The common feature being that the Thames is the mode of transport for bulk delivery to the sites:

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On the north bank of the river, we pass the Ford plant at Dagenham. The plant is a shadow of its former self. Car production has long ceased and the plant now manufactures diesel engines. Problems with the age of the plant, terrible industrial relations during the 1970s and the strength of the Pound resulted in Ford shifting car production to a number of other European locations. A site which once employed around 40,000 workers now employs close to 3,000. There is still a dock on the river for Ford, used for shipping to transport engines to other Ford plants.

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How the site has changed can be seen by comparing the above with the Britain from Above photo below from 1949. In the above photo there is a very small blue Ford sign on the white band running across the centre of the building, in the past the site had the largest neon sign in Europe proudly proclaiming the Ford brand.

Ford 1949 - EAW022766

Past Dagenham, the Thames opens up. Calm and quiet.

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Approaching Erith, Kent on the southern bank of the river is the oil processing plant of Archer, Daniels, Midland Erith Ltd. This is oil from rapeseed, linseed and sunflowers rather than oil extracted from below ground. The plant processes 1 million tonnes of rapeseed a year to produce 385,000 tonnes of refined oil for use as food ingredients and biofuels.

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One common feature of the river bank are the scrapyards and excavators. I lost count of how many excavators there were along the length of the river.

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A break in the flat land bordering the Thames is not a natural feature, but a landfill site covering part of Rainham Marshes. Fortunately landfill does not occupy the majority of the old marshes and much has been preserved and now form an RSPB reserve on the Thames.

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Passing Rainham and the Queen Elizabeth II bridge comes into view. Opened in 1991, the bridge provides additional capacity to the two tunnels under the Thames at the same location.  Traffic crossing the river at this point has grown considerably and is the only river crossing east of the Woolwich Ferry and the only bridge east of Tower Bridge.

The first tunnel was opened in 1963, long before the M25 and provided a crossing under the river between Purfleet on the north bank and Dartford on the south. The second tunnel was opened in 1980, however traffic continued to grow and rather than add a third tunnel, the most cost effective method for a large volume of traffic was the bridge. The tunnels and the bridge now make up the river crossing between the M25 on the north and south banks of the Thames.

Barking to Southend 9

In the above photo, there is a power station on the right. This is the Littlebrook Power Station, an oil fired station and the fourth to operate on the site since 1939. Proximity to the Thames allowed the fuel to be transported by river.

The station is owned by the German utility RWE and has now closed as having used up a limited number of generating hours under the EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive that limits the life of the most polluting power plants.

On the south side of the river is where the River Darent enters the Thames. As with Barking Creek, the river has its own barrier which is lowered during very high tides and storm surges to prevent flooding down river. The river rises near Westerham in Kent.

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The land on the south side of the river has not been developed as much as the north and long stretches of the river bank and adjacent land have changed very little over the centuries.

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On the north bank of the river is the remaining powder magazine from the original set of five magazines that formed the Royal Magazine for Gunpowder at Purfleet. Each magazine provided storage for 10,000 barrels of gunpowder. Built between 1763 and 1765, the other four were only demolished in 1973. The site was one of the major stores of gunpowder for both the army and navy, storing powder produced at the Royal Gunpowder Factory at Waltham Abbey.

Waltham Abbey is adjacent to the River Lea so it is probable that the River Lea which enters the Thames by Trinity Buoy Wharf was used to bring the gunpowder to the Thames from where it was transported along the river to Purfleet.

Such was the importance of reducing the risks of sparks. wooden cranes were used inside to move the barrels. These still survive along with much of the original interior fittings. The remaining magazine is Grade 2 listed so will not suffer the fate as the other four.

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Now getting closer to the bridge, but the sun shows no sign of returning.

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Weekend pleasure users of the river:

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Passing under the bridge it is possible to appreciate the engineering which when driving over the top it is not always possible to do.

The deck of the bridge is 812m long with 450m of crossing over the river. The concrete masts rising above the bridge are 84m tall and they sit on 53m of concrete piers below the bridge. the clearance between the bridge and the river at high water is 57.5m

Each of the piers is designed to survive the impact of a 65,000 tonne ship travelling at 18.5km per hour. Reassuring when you next travel over the bridge!

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And the sun briefly makes an appearance as the Waverley sails on downriver from the bridge.

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Just past the bridge, on the north bank is another of Thames lighthouses. This one the Stone Ness Lighthouse on a spit of land poking out into the Thames. Whilst the twists and turns of the Thames are very clear during the day, at night the river is dark and although today ships have GPS navigation systems to guide them down the river, these lights would have been essential to show where the river did not continue in a straight line. Today they remain essential markers and a backup for those without accurate GPS based river mapping.

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The Thames can boast that it has the tallest electrical transmission towers in the UK. These can be found supporting electrical power cables across the river between West Thurrock on the north bank and Swanscombe on the south. Built in 1965 these towers are 190m, 623ft tall.

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There are a number of interesting new industrial complexes along the Thames which appear to use the river for transport of raw or processed materials. This one between West Thurrock and Tilbury, showing that along this part of the river it is still providing an essential function in supporting trade and industry. It has just moved much further downstream from London.

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Approaching Tilbury, large grain silos:

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Now at Tilbury Docks. The docks were opened in 1886 to help with the ever increasing volume of trade on London’s river and the lack of space at the central London docks.

Along with the availability of land, Tilbury was an ideal location due to a railway already being in existence leading to the ferry across to Gravesend. Unlike the central London docks, the availability of space, and the downstream location of Tilbury ensured that the docks could handle the conversion to containerisation and the ever increasing size of container ships.

Tilbury remains a busy port, however as we shall see, there is new competition downstream.

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This is the London Cruise Terminal at Tilbury, the original Tilbury passenger ferry terminal. The terminal supports a number of the smaller cruise ships.

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In my post that covered the Thames Barrier, I commented that without the barrier the river walls on the Embankment would need to be almost up to the height of the street lamps. The height of the river and the level of the land is very noticeable along stretches of the river. The following photo is showing Tilbury Fort with the majority of the fort gate hidden below the river wall.

Barking to Southend 23

The appearance of the gate to the fort and the river in 1849 can be seen in this painting by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield titled Wind Against Tide. See also my post on the fort which can be found here. Channelling of the river, the loss of natural marsh land to absorb overflow and possible sea level rise over the centuries has resulted in the level of the Thames rising with respect to much of the surrounding land.

Tilbury_Fort_-_Wind_Against_Tide_by_Clarkson_Stansfield,_1849

Across the river from Tilbury is Gravesend, an old town recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. Here is the Royal Terrace Pier, built in 1844 and now an operations centre for the Port of London Authority.

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Opposite Gravesend is Tilbury Power Station, as with the Littlebrook Power Station next to the QE2 Bridge, it is also owned by RWE and closed in 2013 having used up the hours available for coal and biomass generation, raw materials which were transported along the river. I do not believe there is now an operational power station along the Thames.

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Another industry that has left the river is crude oil refining. Shell had long operated a large refinery at Shell Haven. Refinery operations started in 1916 and continued until 1999 when the site closed. The refinery has since been demolished and replaced with the London Gateway, a major new container port, part of which is shown in the photo below:

Barking to Southend 27

The river has been dredged to ensure that deep water moorings are available and the river bank built forward to provide 2.7km of quayside. The container cranes are 453ft high and can reach across a ship laden with 25 containers across.

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Just past the London Gateway is the Coryton Refinery, named after the village that was absorbed into the refinery complex during a period of expansion in the 1970s. The Coryton Refinery lasted longer than Shell Haven and finally closed in 2013, ending crude oil refining on the Thames. Two years later the refinery complex is still in place, awaiting whatever the future holds for the site.

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Next along is Canvey Island, The island was hit hard during the floods of 1953 which caused the deaths of 58 people. The sea wall has been significantly strengthened around the island and as can be seen in the photo below, the roof line of the houses just peer above the top of the blue sea wall.

The white building in the centre of the photo is the Labworth Café. A unique modernist building made of reinforced concrete and built between 1932 and 1933. The building was almost lost during one of the river wall building programmes and the overall impact of the building has been reduced with the lower part becoming embedded in the sea defences. It has now been restored and is a Grade 2 listed building.

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The photo below shows the north Kent coastline along the river. It has not changed for centuries and is still much the same as when Dickens would have walked here, and as described in the opening sections of Great Expectations:

“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound twenty miles from the sea. My first and most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard….and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected  with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”

The north Kent coastline along the Thames. The flat coast land merging with the river.

Barking to Southend 33

One indication of how far one has travelled down the Thames is the size of ship that can be seen. This ship passing Canvey Island is an empty container ship on its way to the London Gateway.

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And finally, Southend Pier comes into view. The longest pier in the world at 1.34 miles. It is also Grade 2 listed.

The main reason for the length of the pier was to attract pleasure boats from London. The coastal part of the Thames Estuary leading up to Southend is relatively shallow and at low tide extensive mudflats reach out from the coast. A long pier was needed to reach a water depth that did not dry out at low tide, thereby allowing boats to moor at the end of the pier and unload visiting Londoners ready to spend their hard earned money during a rare pleasure trip to Southend.

Southend Pier has suffered numerous fires, has been struck by ships and has been threatened by closure, but after recent investment now seems to have a secure future. Even the trains, which were such a unique feature of the pier, continue to run.

Barking to Southend 32

It is hard to tell at Southend where the River Thames ends and the sea begins. The Crow Stone, an obelisk set in the river edge at Westcliffe-on-Sea, just a short distance west of the pier is the traditional boundary between the river and the sea. The Crow Stone was installed in 1836 to replace an earlier stone marker from 1755. These stones marking the limits of the authority of originally the City of London and then the Port of London Authority. Unfortunately, the Crow Stone was not visible this far out in the estuary.

Sailing down the Thames it is fascinating to imagine the vast number of ships and people that have travelled along the same route over the centuries. Prior to the development of flight (which given London’s long history is only relatively recently) the river was London’s gateway to the world for both people and trade.

Although much reduced, it still retains this role, whether taking cruise ships to Tilbury or cargo to the docks at Tilbury and the London Gateway along with the remaining industrial sites that line the river.

Although the boundary with the sea has been reached, there is more to visit, so in the next post a brief run out to the sea past Southend, before an after dark run back to Tower Pier.

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From The City To The Sea – Greenwich To Barking Creek

The next stage of the journey from the City of London to the Sea is from Greenwich to Barking Creek. This stretch of the river has lost a considerable amount of industrial and dock activity over the last 50 years. On the south bank of the river, the Greenwich Peninsula is the location of the Millennium Dome or as it is now called, the O2 Arena which, until recent years, was the only significant redevelopment on this stretch of the river, however the race to develop riverside apartment buildings is now extending down river from Greenwich.

The north bank has seen development along the Isle of Dogs with both residential and office buildings running up to Blackwall.

After leaving the Cutty Sark and the old Royal Naval College behind, there is an industrial intruder. The Greenwich Power Station was built between 1902 and 1910 to provide power (along with the Lots Road power station in Chelsea) for the London Tram and Underground networks. London Underground switched to the National Grid for power in 1998 since when Greenwich Power Station has held the role of a provider of emergency power to the London Underground. Initially coal fired, with the coal being delivered to the jetties on the river, the power station is now oil fired. There are plans to install new gas powered generators so the power station will remain a landmark on the Greenwich river bank for decades to come.

The white building in the shadow of the power station to the right, is the Grade 2 listed Trinity Hospital. Built between 1613 and 1617 with later additions and alterations (mainly from 1812), the building of these almshouses was funded by Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton.

Although not a member, the Earl of Northampton entrusted the management of the almshouses to the Mercers Company, who continue running the charity responsible for the almshouses to this day.Greenwich to Barking 1

A short walk along the Thames from Greenwich Power Station is the Cutty Sark pub, a perfect place to sit outside and watch the river.

Greenwich to Barking 2

A short distance along the Greenwich Peninsula is Enderby’s Wharf, the latest housing development which I suspect will soon be replicated all the way to the O2. Enderby’s Wharf has an important industrial heritage. The wharf takes the name from Samual Enderby & Sons, a whaling company who developed the site. It was later the site of the company Glass, Elliot & Co, who built submarine cables at the site which were loaded onto cable ships from the wharf.

Greenwich to Barking 3

Part of the original equipment that carried cable from the factory, across to be loaded on the ships moored at the wharf remains at the site and can be seen in the photo below in front of the yellow crane.

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Adjacent to Enderby Wharf is Morden Wharf, having been acquired by developers in 2012, it is a site that will also soon be redeveloped. I believe the name comes from the original owners of parcels of land along this stretch of the river, Morden College, who also owned part of Enderby Wharf.

Greenwich to Barking 4

I doubt you have ever wondered where the Thames tourist boats are taken for maintenance, but if you did, it is here, slightly further along from Morden Wharf. A rather novel form of dry dock for lifting the boats out of the water for servicing below the water line.

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Almost reaching the northerly point of the Greenwich Peninsula the Millennium Dome / O2 Arena comes into view. After a rather controversial opening and original purpose, this is now a successful entertainment venue and is an interesting architectural structure, unique in London, however I have no idea what the building on the left adds to the area. Another recent building in London that looks bland and in the wrong location.

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Rounding the northern end of the peninsula and the Emirates Air Line, or more commonly known as the Dangleway, comes into view. Opened in 2012 and operated by Transport for London, the route connects the Greenwich Peninsula with the Royal Victoria Dock area, close to the Excel exhibition centre.

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On the north bank of the river is the original Trinity Buoy Wharf. Trinity House built their workshops here in 1803. The site was used for the construction and storage of buoys and provided moorings for the Trinity House ships that would collect and lay the buoys along the river and out to sea, from Southwold in Suffolk to Dungeness in Kent.

The site included extensive workshops and storage facilities including experimental lighthouses, the last to be built can still be seen today.

The site closed in 1988 and now hosts a range of facilities including rehearsal rooms, studio and gallery space.

Bow Creek is just to the right of the red lightship in the photo below and is where the River Lea enters the Thames at the end of its journey from the source at Leagrave, just north west of Luton.

Greenwich to Barking 8It is good to see that there is still some manufacturing remaining on the banks of the river. Nuplex is a global company based in Australia and New Zealand manufacturing resins which are used in a wide variety of industrial coatings. The North Woolwich / Silvertown site is their UK manufacturing and service centre.

The cranes in the background are along the old docks close to the Excel exhibition centre. Left in place to provide a reminder of how the area would have appeared prior to the closure of the docks.

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On the north bank, adjacent to the old Royal Victoria Dock is the Millennium Mills building. A major flour milling operation throughout much of the 20th century. The “D” Grain Silo, the building in white on the right is a Grade 2 listed building.

This whole area, including the Millennium Mills is about to undergo redevelopment, although the Millennium Mills building will remain.

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Looking back to the O2 and Canary Wharf with one of the Thames Clippers passing. The Thames today is very quiet, most of the time, only the occasional passenger or tourist boat to be seen.

The function of the river is now changing. For many centuries it brought goods to and from the docks and factories that lined the banks of the river. Now it is a relatively quiet waterway providing a scenic location for the new developments lining the river that are gradually moving downstream.

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We now come to the Thames Barrier. The flooding along the Thames following the storm surge of 1953 resulted in a new strategy for how the land along the river could be protected from such serious flooding. Continually building higher and higher walls alongside the river would not be practical, for example without the Thames Barrier and to protect central London from the most serious storm surges, the walls along the Embankment would have to be many feet higher, to the top of the Victorian street lights, almost shutting of the view of the river from the walkways alongside.

The Thames Barrier provides two main functions, it prevents storm surges from reaching further up the river, and following periods of very heavy rain, it can prevent a high tide from moving up river thereby providing a space for the flood water moving downstream to occupy, before passing through the barrier at the next low tide.

The Thames Barrier and Flood Protection Act 1972 led to the construction of the barrier which became operational in 1982.

A walk along the Thames during a very high tide will demonstrate how essential the Thames Barrier is to the protection of London.

Greenwich to Barking 10About to pass through the Thames Barrier:

Greenwich to Barking 16

When I first had a trip down the river in 1978, construction of the Thames Barrier was well underway. The following are three of my photos from the time showing this major engineering project. Although similar, and larger, barriers had been constructed in the Netherlands, which had also suffered very badly in 1953, this was the first project of this type in the UK.

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And what passing through the Thames Barrier looks like today.

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Along this part of the river, the bank is lined with many relics of the river’s industrial past.

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The Tate & Lyle sugar refinery in Silvertown is still in full operation despite recent problems with EU imposed taxes on imported sugar cane from outside the EU which is used by the Silvertown plant rather than sugar beet produced within the EU,

Delivery of the raw product to be processed is by ship to the sites’ own mooring where the cranes lift out the sugar cane into the two black hoppers for transport to the refinery.

Delivery by ship makes the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery the furthest point upstream for large commercial shipping.

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Here is the old North Woolwich Pier. Before the free Woolwich Ferry came into operation, the Great Eastern Railway ran a passenger ferry across the river from this point. The brick building behind the pier is the old terminus building of the Great Eastern Railway.

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Looking back towards the Woolwich Ferry. The two ferry terminal buildings on either side of the river. One of the ferries at the Woolwich terminal and two ferries moored in the background.

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Passing North Woolwich, on the north bank of the river we now come to the old entrances to the Royal Docks. These were the last major docks to be built this far up the river and had the largest capacity of all the London docks at the time. The first, the Victoria Dock was opened in 1855, with the last, the King George V Dock opening in 1921. It was at this time that the cluster of docks (including the Royal Albert Dock which was opened in 1880) were given the name Royal Docks.

The Docks prospered until the growth of containerisation and in the size of ships meant that there was insufficient business for the docks and they finally closed in 1981.

Here we pass the original entrance to the King George V Dock.

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And thanks to the Britain from Above web site we can see what this entrance looked like in 1946. The King George V Dock is to the left and the Royal Albert Dock is to the right. The land in-between the two docks is now occupied by London City Airport which opened in 1987. I flew from the airport a number of times in the late 1980s and it was remarkably fast and informal. On the planes (relatively small, propeller driven Dash 7s), the pilots would often leave their door open and if you could get the right seat you had a superb view of the London Docks on arrival and departure.

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Next along is one of the two entrances to the basin that led in to the Royal Albert Dock. The channel leading from the river to the basin from this entrance has been completely filled in, with the entrance on the river providing a reminder that this was an entrance to one of the largest docks on the River Thames.

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The other entrance to the basin that led to the Royal Albert Dock is still in existence and provides access to the Gallions Point Marina, which now occupies the basin between the river and the Royal Albert Dock.

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Next along are the remains of what was once a very major industrial complex.

The Gas Light and Coke Company opened a plant here in 1870 to produce coal gas (along with a range of by-products) from coal. The site was chosen due to the large expanse of land and the deep water berthing available on the river for the colliers that would transport the coal to be processed.

The site supplied gas (or town gas as it was also called) for much of London north of the Thames. The discovery of large supplies of natural gas in the North Sea in the 1960s meant an end to town gas and the plant closed in 1970.

Only one of the many gas holders survives and can be seen to the left in the photo below. This is Number 8 gas holder, built between 1876 and 1879, the gas holder is 59m in diameter and was capable of holding 56,600 cubic meters of gas.

The piers in the river are all that remain of the large moorings on which the colliers would moor to unload their cargos of coal ready for processing into gas for the rest of London.

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Further along are a second set of piers for another mooring.

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The size of the site can be seen in the following photo from the Britain from Above web site, taken in 1931. The first set of piers on the photos above support the mooring to the left of the photo below, whilst the second photo are the moorings to the right.

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The name for the area, Beckton, comes from the name of the Governor of the Gas Light and Coke Company at the time the plant was opened, Simon Adams Beck.

And so to the final point in the tour down the Thames for this post, Barking Creek.

Barking Creek is where the River Roding (which rises near Stansted Airport) reaches the Thames. The area nearest the river was also affected by the floods of 1953. The residents of Creekmouth, which is directly to the right of the entrance, had more than 3ft of water invade their homes.

Being downstream of the Thames Barrier, the creek requires its own protection and this is provided by the barrier shown in the photo below. The main barrier provides sufficient clearance to allow shipping to enter the creek and descends when there is a risk of flood water entering the creek.

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That completes the Greenwich to Barking Creek stage of my exploration of the River Thames from City to Sea. Again, far too much history to cover, however I hope this has provided an introduction to this section of London’s river.

In my next post I will follow the Thames from Barking Creek to Southend.

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From The City To The Sea – Tower Pier To Greenwich

The River Thames is at the heart of London, it is the reason for London’s existence.

Coming from the sea, the location of London was the first point where it was relatively easy to bridge the river, probably the reason why the first Roman settlement was established.

For the centuries to come, the river allowed London to trade with the rest of the world and supported the growth of the businesses needed to finance and insure, trade the goods shipped through the port and the industries that used the raw materials delivered by the river and exported their manufactured products back out to the world.

Until the last few years, the river provided employment for thousands of Londoners with a high percentage of the country’s trade passing through the London docks.

The river provided London’s connection with the sea and the rest of the world.

Today, the docks have left central London, the river is quiet and very few Londoners have any real connection with the river.

The Thames now adds value to the expensive apartments built along the bank, it is something to be bridged, it is sometimes seen as a risk bringing the potential of flooding to the city.

Apart from the occasional visiting ship, the daily ebb and flow of the tides are now the only connection for most Londoners with the distant sea.

I had my first trip down the river in 1978, and since then it has been fascinating to watch how the river has changed. I also have a series of photos that my father took on a similar journey in the late 1940s. I am working to trace the exact locations and will publish these in a future post.

A couple of weeks ago I took the opportunity for another trip down the river aboard the Paddle Steamer Waverley, from Tower Pier out to the Maunsell Forts.

The Paddle Steamer Waverley is the last sea going paddle steamer in the world, built on the Clyde in 1947 to replace the ship of the same name sunk off Dunkirk in 1940. The Waverley is now run by a charity, the Waverley Steam Navigation Co. Ltd.

In my hurry to get on-board, I forgot to take a photo of the ship moored at Tower Pier, however photos and details can be found on the Waverley’s web site which can be found here.

This is a very brief run along the river. Such a journey really does demand more time and research, however I hope it will illustrate the rich history of London’s river. My photos are also straight out the camera with no processing and under changing lighting conditions, so I apologise for the variable quality.

Over the coming week I will cover:

  • Tower Pier to Greenwich
  • Greenwich to Barking Creek
  • Barking Creek to Southend
  • Southend out to Sea
  • An Evening Return to London (when the Thames takes on a whole new personality)

Join me today and for the next few days to explore the river, starting today at Tower Pier through to Greenwich.

After leaving Tower Pier, the Waverley is being towed out towards Tower Bridge.

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Passing underneath Tower Bridge. Unfortunately shooting into the sun.

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On the southern bank of the river, adjacent to Tower Bridge is the old Anchor Brewery building, with to the lower right of the building, Horselydown Old Stairs.

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On the north bank of the Thames, just after passing Tower Bridge is the entrance to St. Katherine’s Dock. Built on 23 acres of land on which stood the original foundations of the St. Katherine Hospital, a brewery, 1,100 houses and a church – St. Katherine by the Tower.

The last service took place at the church on the 30th October, 1825 and work on the dock commenced in 1827 with the first stone being laid on May 2nd 1827.  The docks were badly damaged by wartime bombing and with the docks being unable to accommodate the growth in the size of ships, never returned to their pre-war volumes in shipping and goods, finally closing in 1968. Much of the area has been redeveloped, however some of the original warehouses remain and the old docks are now occupied by a marina.

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Next along on the north bank is HMS President, the shore based location of the Royal Naval Reserve Unit for London. The Navy have occupied the site since 1988 following the sale of the ships HMS President and HMS Chrysanthemum. It was formally the P&O London ferry terminal.

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We then come to the first new developments on the north bank of the Thames, not continuing the architectural style of the warehouses that ran along this part of the river. On the river are moorings provided specifically for historic vessels provided by Heritage Community Moorings.

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Here is Wapping Pierhead, the original entrance to the London Docks. On either side of the dock entrance is a terrace of Georgian Houses built between 1811 and 1813. The entrance held a lock which was 170 feet long and 40 feet wide, providing access between the river and the London Docks.

During the 1930s the importance of the London Docks declined, again due to the ever increasing size of shipping and the entrance being unable to accommodate the larger ocean going ships.

The London Docks were gradually closed during the 1960s when the Wapping entrance was filled in. The gardens built on the filled in lock can still be followed back across Wapping High Street.

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Adjacent to Pierhead is Oliver’s Wharf, named after George Oliver for whom the wharf was built in 1870. Oliver’s Wharf has the distinction of being one of the first riverside wharfs to be converted into luxury apartments. The steps on the left side of Oliver’s Wharf are Wapping Old Stairs and lead up to the Town of Ramsgate pub. A pub has been on the site since the 15th century. It was known as Ramsgate Old Town from 1766 and in 1811 took the current name, Town of Ramsgate. The Ramsgate connection is reputedly down to the use of the stairs by fishermen from Ramsgate to bring ashore their catch.

The area around the base of Wapping Old Stairs is also assumed to be location where those found guilty of piracy were hanged and left in the water until three tides had passed over their bodies.

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Passing Oliver’s Wharf, the expanse of the Thames opens up with the towers of Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs in the distance. The river today is very quiet compared to how it would have been for much of London’s existence. This photo also illustrates how the river curves and loops. Here it curves to the left before embarking on a wide loop around the Isle of Dogs, taking the river to the extreme right of the photo.

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How the Thames has been the route for trade during the centuries is highlighted by three quotes used by A.G. Linney in his book “Lure and Lore of London’s River”:

“To this City, Merchants bring in Wares by Ships from every Nation under Heaven. The Arabian sends his Gold, the Sabean his Frankincense and Spices, the Scythian Arms, Oil of Palms from the plentiful Wood: Babylon her fat Soil, and Nilus his precious Stones; the Seres send purple Garments; they and Norway and Russia Trouts, Furs and Sables; and the French their Wines.” – Fitzstephen, a Twelfth-Century Monk

“The wealth of the world is wafted to London by the Thames, swelled by the tide; and navigable in merchant ships through safe and deep channel, for sixty miles, from its mouth to the City; its banks are everywhere beautified with fine country seats, woods and farms.” – Paul Hentzner, a Seventeeth-Century Visitor to England

“One hundred thousand men, dockers, stevedores, lightermen, sailors, and kindred callings depend upon the Port of London; and all of them subsist and owe their livelihood to the bountiful favour of Father Thames.” – John Burns, a Twentieth-Century London Lover

How this has changed we can explore as we travel down the river.

To protect the ships on the river and the goods they carried, the River Thames has one of the earliest established police forces in the world. The Marine Policing Unit was originally set-up in 1798 following a spate of thefts from shipping in the Pool of London. The original police station for the Marine Policing Unit was in Wapping, and although the original building has been replaced by one constructed in 1907, the head office and main operating base continues on the same site. The Marine Policing building in the centre with the Police pier on the river:

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In the above photo, the building to the right is St. John’s Wharf. This building and those in the photo below were all originally part of the St. John’s Wharf complex. The buildings facing the Thames are all original, however the Captain Kidd pub is new following a 1980s conversion of the building. The building on the right, now called Phoenix Wharf was originally St. John’s (K) Wharf and dates from the 1840s.

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Next along are the King Henry’s Wharfs. Originally used for the storage of sugar and coffee. The cranes mounted on the building show two of the types of crane which would have lifted goods from ships to be stored in the wharf building and were a common feature on the wharfs along the river.

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Just past King Henry’s Wharf on the north bank is Gun Wharves. These are Grade 2 listed buildings and whilst many of the other remaining wharf buildings date from the 19th century, Gun Wharves are from the late 1920s.

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Another original building converted into luxury apartments is New Crane Wharf and for a bit of 1980s nostalgia, the opening part of the video for Katrina & The Waves song Walking On Sunshine was filmed in and around a partially derelict New Crane Wharf in 1985. The video can be found here.

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Metropolitan Wharf, another Grade 2 listed building, the overall complex constructed between 1862 and 1898.

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We then pass the Prospect of Whitby. A pub has stood on the site for many centuries, with the current building from the early 19th century when the pub took the name allegedly after an 18th century collier registered at Whitby called the Prospect.

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Soon after the Prospect of Whitby is the entrance to the Shadwell Basin. The red bridge that can be seen above the dock entrance is the bridge seen in my father’s photo looking down Glamis Road which can be found in this post.

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Next along is the entrance to the Limehouse Marina in the original Limehouse Basin. The Limehouse Basin provides access to the Limehouse Cut which runs up to the River Lea and to the Regents Canal. This would have been a busy entrance providing the route for barges to transport goods further inland and around north London.

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Just past the entrance to the Limehouse Marina is another historic Thames pub. The Grapes can be seen on the left side of the photo with the tiers of stairs facing the river. Look in the river just to the right of The Grapes and one of Antony Gormley’s statues can be seen standing on a pillar in the river. The statue, called “Another Time” was purchased by Sir Ian McKellen who is a part owner of The Grapes. The statue is best seen from the terrace at the back of The Grapes during a high tide when the plinth is below the water and the figure appears to be standing on the water, forever staring downstream.

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The entrance to Dunbar Wharf. A short stretch of water named after the Dunbar’s who started with a local brewery and then went on to own some of the warehouses here and operate a large fleet of ships that carried goods across the world.

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Just past Dunbar Wharf we approach the Isle of Dogs and the Canary Wharf office complex that now occupies the site of the West India Docks.

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As well as office blocks, much of the riverside of the Isle of Dogs is now occupied by an ever increasing number of apartment buildings.

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This is the old entrance, now blocked up, to the Millwall Outer Dock, the dock at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs. One of my father’s photos shows the damage caused by a bomb which hit the right side of the entrance to the dock.

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The following photo from the Britain from Above website shows the southern end of the Isle of Dogs in 1934 with the Millwall Outer Dock and its entrance to the Thames.

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Looking back at the office blocks of Canary Wharf with the old entrance to the Millwall Outer Dock on the right.

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Most of the photos I have taken so far have been of the north bank of the Thames. I must admit I was concentrating on the north bank despite so much of interest on the south as we passed Rotherhithe. The sun was behind the south bank of the river tending to put the buildings along the south bank in shade.

Approaching Greenwich I moved over to look at the south bank and the following photo shows all that remains of Paynes Paper Wharf in Deptford.

The original arches are at the front, with a new development occupying the rest of the site. This was originally a marine boiler factory, built for marine engineers J. Penn & Sons. It was here that HMS Warrior, the ironclad ship (which had been constructed at the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Company based at Blackwall) had her engines built and installed. HMS Warrior is now preserved at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Production of marine engines ceased in 1911 and the site was later used for paper storage.

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The photo below shows the entrance to Deptford Creek. It is just possible to see the new foot bridge that runs across the entrance of the creek to allow the Thames Path to continue without the earlier in-land diversion. The unique feature of the bridge is that it is a swing bridge. To allow ships to pass in and out of the creek, the bridge can pivot on its easterly mounting (the left side of the photo) and swing open towards the Thames.

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Arriving at Greenwich with the entrance to the foot tunnel and the Cutty Sark.

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The Waverley did not stop at Greenwich this year, however to finish this section of the journey, the following photos show the arrival at Greenwich when I took the same journey in 1978:

City to Greenwich 27City to Greenwich 28City to Greenwich 29Greenwich has always held an important role in the life of Thames. Originally the site of a Royal Palace, reached by the river and the birthplace of Henry VIII in 1491, then as a Royal Hospital for Seamen and finally as a Naval College.

The Royal Observatory on the hill behind played a key part in developing the navigation systems and accurate measurement of time that helped ships navigate the world. The red ball on top of the observatory provides an accurate time signal to passing ships. Starting in 1833 and continuing to this day, the ball rises at 12:55 and drops at 13:00.

Join me in the next post to continue down the river, from Greenwich to Barking Creek.

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Swan Upping

Swan Upping is an event which takes place in the third week of July each year. Dating back many centuries, the event has roots in the Crown’s ownership of all Mute Swans (which dates back to the 12th century), ownership which is shared with two of London’s livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers who were granted rights of ownership in the 15th century.

Swan Upping is the annual search of the Thames for all Mute Swans, originally to ensure their ownership is marked, but today more for conservation purposes (counting the number of swans and cygnets, checking their health, taking measurements etc.), although the year’s new cygnets are still marked.

Six traditional Thames rowing skiffs are used to travel the river. Two for the Queen’s Swan Marker and Royal Swan Uppers and two each for the Vintners and Dyers.

Originally starting in the City of London and running to Henley, Swan Upping now starts in Sunbury and travels the Thames over a 5 day period to finish in Abingdon. The move out of central London was due to the lack of breeding Mute Swans, with the main area for breeding now being further upstream. The Swan Uppers search the river for Mute Swans and their cygnets and on sighting fence the swans in with their boats, then record, mark the cygnets, measure and check their health before moving on.

Swan Upping takes place in the third week of July as by this time cygnets are reasonably well grown but have not yet reached the stage when they can fly.

My father took photos of the event when it still had a City of London start, on Swan Wharf at the end of Swan Lane, near London Bridge. He did not date the photos, but from checking photos on the same strips of negatives, I am reasonably certain that the year was 1953.

This year, in amongst work and other commitments I was able to fit in a visit to Goring in South Oxfordshire to see the Swan Uppers pass through the lock on their way along the Thames.

This is my father’s photo of Mr Richard Turk who was the Vintners Swan Marker and Barge Master. He held this position from 1904 to 1960. A remarkable period of time to hold the role and the changes he must have seen along the Thames as Swan Upping was performed each year must have been fascinating.

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And today’s Vintners Swan Marker and Barge Master at Goring lock.

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The cap badge of the Vinters Swan Marker and Barge Master is taken from the armorial bearings of the Vintners Company with the chevron and three wine barrels being used. The swans on either side refer to the ancient rights of the Vinters to own swans on the Thames.

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Another photo of Mr Richard Turk:

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One of the 1953 Swan Uppers. The flags of the Vinters and Dyers are very similar. The flag on the right is the Dyers flag and on the left is the Vinters.

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The first skiff from the Dyers arriving at Goring:

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The Dyers flag contains the Dyers armorial bearings which are shown below, and are very similar to that of the Vinters, however barrels are replaced by three bags of madder. (Madder are plants from the genus Rubia and their roots produce a red dye which was used in the dyeing process)

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Swan Uppers from the Vinters Company. On the back of this photo my father had written that on the right is Mr E. Lefever and in the centre is Mr G. Cole.

Swan Upping 1Three more boats arriving at Goring lock. The two Vinters boats at the back with one of the Queen’s boats at the front:

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Another view taken by my father of one of the Vinters boats. The flags are the same today.

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Vinters boat on the left with a Dyers boat on the right. In 1953 Dyers wore caps with the Vinters wearing what looks like some form of woollen conical hats, continuing the same stripes as on the jumpers.

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Today, headgear and striped jumpers have been replaced by less colourful attire, however the shirts still bear the badge of the relevant livery company. The Swan Uppers waiting for the lock gates to open on their way further up the Thames.

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The Swan Marker and Barge Master of the Dyers Company:

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In the following 1953 photo one of the Vinters boats passes one of the barges that lined the banks of the Thames. The reason for Swan Upping now starting in Sunbury was the lack of breeding Mute Swans in central London, however I was surprised that this was only a relatively recent change which implies there were breeding Mute Swans on the river in central London in the post war period. A time when there was far more industry along the banks of the Thames and it was a much dirtier river. I suspect the difference being that the Thames did have many wharfs and gradual foreshore leading up the bank and plenty of inlets whereas the river today through central London now runs through a channel with vertical embankments on either side.

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Waiting for the Goring lock gates to open with a cluster of flags:

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A Vinters boat with an empty Queen’s boat ready to leave Swan Wharf in 1953:

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When swans are caught, the cygnets are marked according to the ownership of their parent birds. Cygnets allocated to the Livery Companies will have rings placed on their legs by the Livery Company swan marker. Swans owned by the Queen are left unmarked. When the parents have different owners, the Cygnets are split between the owners of the parent birds and when there is an odd number, the remaining cygnet will be allocated to the owner of the male bird.

The Queen’s Swan Marker and Barge Master is responsible for establishing ownership of the parent birds.

David Barber, the current Queen’s Swan Marker and Barge Master:

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The two Vinters boats having left Goring lock make their way up river:Swan Upping 19

As do the two Dyers boats:

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Swans are having a challenging time on the river. On the original route between London and Henley, numbers were low at the start of the last century, but grew steadily till the start of the 2nd World War, when numbers fell, but then rising again to reach more than 1300 birds by the mid 1960s.

Numbers then dropped dramatically, down to only 7 pairs in 1985. The significant reduction attributed to the use of lead weights in fishing, these have now been banned.

Numbers are still low. On the route from Sunbury to Abingdon in 2014 there were 34 broods with 120 cygnets, numbers at the low-end of the past 12 years. This year’s results will be released in the coming week.

It was fascinating to watch this event at Goring. Although Swan Upping has now moved out of central London, the Livery Companies maintain the link with the City and Swan Upping now performs the very important task of monitoring the health and numbers of Mute Swans on the Thames.

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Horselydown Old Stairs

On a Sunday morning in 1947, my father is taking photos along the south bank of the River Thames, in the region of Tower Bridge.

I have already covered Pickle Herring Street in a previous post, and for this week, we have walked under Tower Bridge, a short distance along Shad Thames to the area around Horselydown Old Stairs. If we look to the left, just before reaching the stairs, there is a man sitting on a low stool and painting a view that must have been painted, drawn and photographed many thousands of times since Tower Bridge was completed.

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The site is adjacent to the old Anchor Brewery building and finding the spot was easy, however where the artist sat in 1947 is now blocked by a wall that obscures the view to Tower Bridge and the river.

My 2015 photo is below. My father’s photo was taken from much closer to the wall, however if I took the same position most of the view is obscured by the wall, but it is close enough.

The Anchor Brewery building was restored in the late 1980s so I assume it was then that this new wall was built and when the brickwork on the right was cleaned.

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Horselydown Old Stairs are just to the right of the brick wall and are one of the oldest remaining stairs providing access to the river along the Thames.

If you look just to the right of Tower Bridge on the southern bank of the Thames in the following map from the 1940 Bartholomew Atlas of London, the position of Horselydown Old Stairs is clearly marked.

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To show the antiquity of these stairs,  John Rocque’s survey of London from 1746 shows the same area long before Tower Bridge was built, but still shows Horselydown Old Stairs in the same position (underlined in red).

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When the Thames was a working river, there were many stairs providing access to the river along both the north and south banks. Roque’s map demonstrates how many there were in this short stretch of the Thames. The map also illustrates the amount of shipping along the Thames and the stairs were used by those who worked the river and took smaller boats out to the larger moored ships etc.

Horselydown Old Stairs are one of the few that remain to provide full access from street level down to the river.

Horselydown was the area roughly from Tooley Street, down to the river and along to St. Saviours Dock. The name Horselydown is from “the district of Horsey-down, Horsa-down or Horsley-down, so called from its having been used by the inhabitants as a grazing field for their horses and cattle”.

Two Horselydown stairs were close to the two ends of the area on the river. Follow the bank of the Thames east from Horselydown Old Stairs and we find two Timber Wharf’s, George Stairs and finally Horselydown New Stairs. The above 1940 map extract shows the boundaries of Horselydown well with Tooley Street to the south, Horselydown is the area up to the river.

The fact that there is an old and new stairs in 1746 hints at the antiquity of the old stairs. Indeed Edward Walford’s Old and New London states that “from the corner of Bermondsey Street to Horselydown was formerly called Horselydown Lane; and here, on the west side of Stoney Lane; which was once a Roman road leading to the trajectus, or ferry over the river to the Tower.” Perhaps in the area of the stairs?

Note also that there is a difference in spelling between the 1940 and 1746 maps. In 1746 the spelling is Horsleydown with the spelling of Horselydown used in 1940 (just a swap of position for the l and e).

Horselydown makes an appearance in Ralph Agas map of London published around 1591. The fenced off area close to the river were originally the manor house, mill and brew house of the prior of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. also known as the Liberty of St. John of Jerusalem. In the reign of Edward 1st, this consisted of three water-mills, three acres of land, one acre of meadow, and twenty acres of pasture.

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A view of a fete at Horselydown in 1590 from Walter Besant’s Tudor London:

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The stars are entered through the old Anchor Brewery building, and drop straight down to the river. Fortunately the tide was out during my visit so I could get down to the foreshore.

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The lower level of the stairs run out from the building down to the foreshore. Note the remains of the paved surface leading from the bottom of the stairs out into the river.Horselydown 8

My father took the same route in 1947 and from the steps took the following photo.

Tower bridge has opened to allow a ship to pass. Part of the Tower of London can just be seen to the left of the bridge and to the right is the General Steam Navigation Company (GSN).

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The General Steam Navigation Company was formed in 1821 by a group of London businessmen and the name came into use in 1824 when a joint stock company was formed. GSN was active in trade around the UK coast and to the near European coast. It also ran a pleasure ship business taking Londoners down river to locations such as Southend, Clacton and Margate.

After the first world war the company was taken over by P&O and ran almost as an independent business, but after the second world war, trade and pleasure shipping was changing rapidly. GSN was integrated into the cross-channel ferry business, the pleasure sailings closed and the name finally disappeared in the early 1970s when GSN was fully integrated into P&O.

A close up of the ship passing underneath Tower Bridge. It is full of passengers, perhaps taking a Sunday excursion to Greenwich or perhaps more likely as far down the Thames as Southend or Margate.

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My 2015 photo from Horseleydown Old Stairs. Unfortunately I did not have the same luck with the bridge opening. The site of the General Steam Navigation Company is now occupied by the Tower Hotel.

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The foreshore at Horselydown Old Stairs is a great place to view Tower Bridge and the river. I also find it fascinating to leave behind the “redeveloped streets” that now run along much of the south bank of the Thames and look at the mass of old bricks and stone work on the foreshore, probably from the many old buildings that once lined the Thames and that are now being slowly eroded by the continuous cycle of tides.

I walked down Horselydown Old Stairs on a busy Saturday afternoon from a very busy Shad Thames, however for the 20 minutes I was on the foreshore there was only one other group of 4 people who came down to admire the view of the bridge and river.

In 1947 the foreshore was also very quiet. This photo looking underneath the bridge to the City has only two other people. A woman by the water’s edge and a man just by the barge.

Note the cranes on the left. These ran along the warehouses that faced onto Pickle Herring Street.

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The tide is further out in my father’s photo and you can see in front of the barge the raised edge of the paved section running down to the river.

Looking at the same view in 2015 (although I should have been a bit further back):Horselydown 5

Looking down at the remains of the paved walkway down into the Thames.

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And back up to the stairs leading through the old Anchor Brewery. The green algae shows the height of the tides.

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At the top of the stairs I found “Rehan’s painting spot” chalked on the wall. No idea who Rehan may be, but I was pleased to find a link back to the artist in my father’s 1947 photo.

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I walked across Tower Bridge and along the north bank of the river to look at the old Anchor Brewery building and the stairs. The following photo shows the brewery from the position of the General Steam Navigation Company and shows the stairs to the lower right. The wall which I assume was built as part of the redevelopment of this area can be seen as a small 3 tiered wall up against the right hand wall of the brewery. It is clearly not original as it does not have any of the architectural features of the main building. The 1947 artist was sitting at the base of this wall.

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A close up view of the stairs. Fascinating to consider how many people have taken these stairs over the centuries to cross the Thames or to reach shipping on the river.

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I went looking for the location of the artist and the stairs leading down to the Thames foreshore, but found Horselydown. There is much more to this area than I can cover in a weekly post and delving into the history of these areas also shows me how much I still have to learn of this fascinating city.

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