Category Archives: The Thames

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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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Defending The Thames – Coalhouse Fort

Coalhouse Fort on the River Thames at East Tilbury is a short distance further towards the Thames estuary from Tilbury Fort, the subject of my last post.

As with Tilbury Fort, the purpose of Coalhouse Fort was to protect London and the towns and industries along the river’s edge from any naval force that attempted to penetrate the river.

The location of Coalhouse Fort can be seen in the following map. A key location on a bend in the river enabling any attacking force to be shelled on the approach and as it rounds the bend in the river. Two forts on the opposite bank of the river at Cliffe and Shornemead would also have engaged with any attacking force and if they managed to pass through this part of the river, they would then come into the range of Tilbury Fort.

This level of defence highlights the fear that the River Thames could have provided easy access to London, and shows how well London was protected.

As with Tilbury Fort, the origins of Coalhouse Fort are with one of Henry VIII’s blockhouses, constructed in five locations along the Thames following the break with Rome and fears of invasion from Catholic Europe. Unlike Tilbury Fort, Coalhouse was not upgraded or used during the time of the Armada and it fell into disuse.

The original fort was not utilised during the time of the Dutch Admiral, de Ruyter’s incursion into the River Thames and there are local traditions that during this raid the church at East Tilbury was damaged by cannon fire from the Dutch fleet.

Due to continuing threats of war with France during the late 18th century, new fortifications were planned at East Tilbury and building work finally commenced in 1799. A semi-circular defensive structure was built which could support cannon and behind this were constructed the buildings to house supplies and barracks for those manning the fort.

No attack was forthcoming and after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the fort was again abandoned.

Ongoing tensions with France during the 19th century resulted in a plan for significant upgrades at East Tilbury. The original fort was demolished in 1861 and the new fort was constructed at a cost of £130,000.

It is this fort which is still substantially in existence today.


Unlike Tilbury Fort, Coalhouse Fort today is run by a volunteer group, the Coalhouse Fort Project who run occasional open days and are gradually restoring the fort and attempting to stop further decay.

Coalhouse Fort is found at the end of the road that passes through East Tilbury and the original site of the factory and village created by the Bata Shoe Company. (The history of Bata in East Tilbury and the factory / village Bata created is fascinating and there is a website dedicated to the history of the East Tilbury site which can be found here)

On arrival, the solid construction of the fort is clearly visible, now surrounded by landscaped parklands. The fort was constructed to be defendable from land based attack as well as to attack enemy shipping on the Thames.

Coalhouse Fort

The entrance gate to the fort:

Coalhouse Fort

Once inside the fort, the archways ringed around the river facing side of the fort can be seen, these are the gun casements, each originally housing an 11 inch gun (with some 1877 upgrades to 12.5 inch guns), with above the casements, space for a range of 9 inch guns on the roof.

These had a range of 3.1 miles with the whole fort capable of firing many rounds per minute at any attacking force coming up the Thames.

The later brickwork buildings along the top are from the 20th century.

Coalhouse Fort

The view of the fort from the roof. The Gatehouse is on the left, with the barracks for those manning the fort to the left and at the far end of the photo:

Coalhouse Fort

Underneath the gun casements are a series of tunnels and storage rooms to store and move the ammunition needed by the guns. Some of these tunnels are still accessible:

Coalhouse Fort

Storage rooms run the length of the tunnel:

Coalhouse Fort

The bright light at the end of the room is an electric light in the original lighting window. The challenge with lighting underground ammunition storage rooms was to eliminate any possibility of sparks or flames, whilst still providing sufficient light for work. The window was completely sealed of from the room, and held an oil lamp which was lit and refueled from a separate set of tunnels which provided access to these lighting windows. This approach ensured that light could be provided whilst separating the two areas and preventing any sparks or flames being exposed to the contents of the ammunition stores.

Following the initial armament of the fort, upgrades continued, including placing quick fire guns, controlled from the fort, nearer to the river to counter new threats from fast-moving torpedo boats.

Guns with increased range (7 miles) were installed and some of the earthen embankments at the front of the fort were added to improve the camouflage of the fort.

During the 1st World War, an Artillery Company along with the 2nd Company of the London Electrical Engineers moved into the fort to man the guns and the searchlights used to monitor traffic on the river.

Minefields were established in the Thames to manage the traffic flow along the river, with tugs in the river checking incoming vessels. In support of this activity, Coalhouse Fort had the role of firing a warning shot at any suspect vessel, or any vessel that refused to stop for examination.

As with Tilbury Fort, Coalhouse Fort was used as a transit and training camp for troops on their way to the battlefields of France and Belgium.

During the 2nd World War, the fort served a number of functions.

Whilst new gun batteries had been set-up closer to the sea, along with greater naval protection, Coalhouse Fort was one of many batteries along the banks of the Thames designated as anti-invasion weapons, tasked to provide protection to the ports and docks of London from any fast moving cruisers and torpedo boats that had evaded the outer defences, as well as being able to attack any mass landing of enemy troops on the flat lands of the Thames estuary or the river.

The whole area around the fort was heavily defended. Bofor anti-aircraft guns were installed on the roof along with further batteries of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights in the immediate locality. These saw a considerable amount of action during the bombing raids on London as the Thames was a perfect navigation aid providing a route direct from the coast to the docks and central London.

Parts of the roof are still accessible. A single Bofor anti-aircraft gun remains on the roof as an example of the types of weaponry used at the fort and in the locality in the defence of London.

Coalhouse Fort

The view from the roof shows why this is an ideal location for defending the river. This is the view looking downstream towards the point where the river curves to the east. The white fuel tanks are those at the Coryton site and Canvey Island. To the left of the tanks is the new DP World London Gateway Port. The latest incarnation of docks along the River Thames, gradually moving further downstream in order to support the ever-growing container ships and the volume of land needed to manage the growth in container storage and movement.

View from Coalhouse Fort

Later additions on the roof including positions for the control of searchlights and also range finder equipment:

Coalhouse Fort

There were many installations around the fort, a few of which remain. The tower in the middle of the following photo adjacent to the Thames is a 2nd World War Radar Tower which was used to control the approaches along the river and through the minefields.

View from Coalhouse Fort

During the war, the fort also had a special role in protecting shipping leaving the London docks. One of the many threats to ships leaving the Thames was the magnetic mine, capable of detonating at a distance from a passing ship without any contact and either sinking or causing considerable damage, without even being seen.

To counter the threat from magnetic mines, it was found that moving a cable with an electric current along the hull of the ship would, for a relatively short time “de-gauss” or remove the ships magnetic field sufficient to allow the ship to leave London, pass out through the Thames estuary and the Channel into open waters where magnetic mines were less of a threat.

To ensure that ships leaving London were sufficiently de-gaussed, sensors placed on the river bed, fed signals back to a monitoring station on the roof of Coalhouse Fort. Ships which still had a magnetic field capable of triggering a mine could be identified, contacted, and sent back for further attention.

One of the now empty gun emplacements on the roof:

Coalhouse Fort

The construction of the new Coalhouse Fort in 1861 was the result of a Royal Commission recommendation for a whole series of forts around the country to defend strategic rivers, ports, dockyards etc. The recommendation was supported by the Prime Minister of the time, Lord Palmerston. As well as Coalhouse Fort, many others still exist, perhaps the most dramatic being the forts built in the Solent to defend the approaches to Portsmouth and Southampton.

Solent Forts

Although sea based, these forts had exactly the same purpose as the Thames forts, to provide a platform for heavy artillery to fire on any attacking naval force.

After the last war, Coalhouse Fort was used for a short time for the training of sea cadets, and then by the British Bata Shoe Corporation for storage.

The fort is now owned by Thurrock Borough Council with the volunteer Coalhouse Fort Project taking on the task of restoration and enabling open days throughout the year.

Tilbury and Coalhouse Forts provide an example of how London has been dependent on a much wider area around London. For four hundred years Tilbury and Coalhouse Forts have played many roles in the defence of London from the risk of attack along the river and in the last century, from the air.

Details of open days at Coalhouse Fort can be found on the Coalhouse Fort Project website which can be found here.

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Defending The Thames – Tilbury Fort

As well as publishing my father’s photos and tracking down their location, one of my aims with this blog is to give me a push to get out and explore more of London’s fascinating history, locations such as Tilbury Fort.

The history of London is indelibly linked with the surrounding countryside, towns and villages, and what has always interested me is how London’s influence spreads so far beyond the original walled city. Central to London is also the River Thames, without which London would not have come into existence and developed in the way that it has. The influence of the Thames is often somewhat neglected these days, frequently just a scenic backdrop to the developments alongside.

If you follow the river from central London towards the estuary there are two forts at Tilbury that have played a key role in protecting both the River Thames and London from a range of threats over the centuries.

Tilbury today is best known for the Tilbury Docks (the first major commercial docks this far east of London, opened in 1886), as a cruise terminal and with a ferry across the river to Gravesend, however Tilbury has also been the location since Tudor times of a Fort to protect the River Thames and the approaches to London.

The River Thames provided access directly to the City of London, it carried all the import and export trade to the docks, and along the banks of the river were many of the yards that constructed and equipped the countries naval and commercial shipping (for example the Woolwich Arsenal and the Deptford Dockyards).

The relative ease with which these could be attacked was highlighted in June 1667 when a Dutch fleet entered the Thames estuary and sailed up the River Medway to attack the naval shipping at Chatham, burning a number with fire ships, capturing and sailing away a number of others. After this event, the diarist John Evelyn visited Chatham and wrote “a Dreadful Spectacle as ever any Englishman saw and a dishonour to be wiped off”.

The construction of the first Tilbury Fort was a result of Henry VIII’s separation from the Church of Rome. Fearing attack from the Catholic powers of Europe, five “blockhouses” were built along the Thames at West and East Tilbury, Higham, Milton and Gravesend.  The blockhouses had artillery installed on the ground floor and the roof, aligned to provide crossfire across the Thames in conjunction with the blockhouse on the opposite side of the river.

Any attacking force moving up the river would have to pass these five blockhouses, all firing multiple artillery rounds.

Fortunately for Henry VIII, there were no attacks along the river so the blockhouses remained untested. When Mary 1 became queen in 1553, the papal supremacy was restored so the threat of invasion from Catholic Europe was lifted. The blockhouses were disarmed and left.

When Elizabeth became queen in 1558 the Tilbury blockhouse was repaired and re-armed with additional reinforcements during the threat from the Spanish Armada in 1588. The following plan from The History of the Town of Gravesend by Robert Peirce Cruden shows the site in 1588 with the blockhouse in the lower centre surrounded by embankment defences.

Tibury_Fort_AD_1588

The site was completely rebuilt after the 1667 Dutch attack, with construction commencing in 1670 and completion in 1685 resulting in one of the most powerful forts in the country, equipped to protect the City of London, the docks and industries along the river from any attacking force that ventured up the Thames. The new Tilbury Fort also included major defences to protect the fort against any land based attack.

It is this Tilbury Fort which is still substantially in existence today.

Approaching Tilbury Fort today, walking alongside the River Thames, entrance is through the ornate Water Gate, completed around 1682. The plaque above the main entrance reads “Carolus II Rex” – Charles 2nd and there was probably a statue of the King in the niche above.

Tilbury Fort 1

The Water Gate stands out well in this 1849 painting by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield titled Wind Against Tide (source: commons.wikimedia.org – click on image for original link) showing the fort on the right with shipping on the river experiencing rather rough conditions.

Tilbury_Fort_-_Wind_Against_Tide_by_Clarkson_Stansfield,_1849

On entering the fort, the large parade ground gives an indication of how many soldiers would have been stationed here at the height of operations. Throughout the life of Tilbury Fort, numbers were in the range of between 100 and 300.

The officers barracks are at the back of the parade ground.

Tilbury Fort 2The layout of the rebuilt Tilbury Fort and the considerable defences can be seen in this plan of the fort in an engraving from a 1725 plan from The History of the Town of Gravesend by Robert Peirce Cruden. The Water Gate is at the lower centre of the plan. Note the markings for low and high water showing that at high water the river originally came up to edge of the fort.

Tibury_Fort_AD_1725

It is hard to get an impression of the overall scale of the fort from ground level. The following photo is from the Britain From Above website and was taken in May 1934. Tilbury Fort can be seen at the lower right of the photo. The defensive moat that runs around the fort was partially dry at the time and shows up as white. The Tilbury Docks can also been seen, along with a considerable amount of shipping in the river between Tilbury and Gravesend on the opposite shore.

EPW044217As well as defending the river, Tilbury was also a mustering point for soldiers from London.

In March 1587, Queen Elizabeth 1st requested the City to provide a force of 10,000 men, fully armed and equipped. The following table lists the numbers of men from each individual ward:

Farringdon Ward Within 807 Broad Street 373
Bassishaw 177 Bridge Ward Within 383
Bread Street 386 Castle Baynard 551
Dowgate 384 Queenhithe 404
Lime Street 99 Tower Street 444
Farringdon Without 1264 Walbrook 290
Aldgate Ward 347 Vintry 364
Billingsate 365 Portsoken 243
Aldersgate 232 Candlewick 215
Cornhill 191 Cripplegate 925
Cheap 358 Bishopsgate 326
Cordwainer 301
Langbourne 349
Coleman Street Ward 229 Total 10007

These numbers give some idea of the population density of each of the wards, The Earl of Leicester was in command at Tilbury and received 1000 of the London force, only on the condition that they brought their own provisions.

The description of their arrival at Tilbury gives the impression of  London men being dressed for show, rather than for work and fighting:

“The London men wore a uniform of white with white caps and the City arms in scarlet on back and front. Some marched in companies according to their arms. Their officers rode beside the men dressed in black velvet. They were preceded by billmen, by a company of whifflers (trumpeters) and in the midst marched six Ensigns in white satin faced with black sarsenet and rich scarves The dress of the officers and men was just as useless and unfit for continued work as could well be devised. It is melancholy to find that the Earl of Leicester who was in command at Tilbury held a very poor opinion of the London men.”

It was also at West Tilbury that Elizabeth 1st met the Earl of Leicester on the 8th August 1588 and the following day addressed the troops with the speech:

“And therefore I come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust. I know I have the body of a week and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms.”

Although there are a number of different versions of this speech, the evidence appears to be strong that Tilbury was the location where Elizabeth 1st addressed her troops at the time of the Armada.

For those stationed at Tilbury Fort, it must have seemed a remote and barren location. Today, the fort is surrounded by docks and a power station, but up to the building of the docks the area was mainly barren, flat land. To get an idea, the following photo from 1938 is also from Britain From Above and shows the fort in the bottom right hand corner with only a water treatment works before flat fields stretch into the distance. Much of this is now occupied by Tilbury Power Station.

EPW057978

At the far end of the parade ground are the officers barracks. These were originally built in 1685, rebuilt in 1772 with further modifications during the 19th century. These barracks would have been used by the senior officers along with their families. Unfortunately the solders barracks were demolished in the early 1950s. They also faced onto the parade ground.

Tilbury Fort 3

There is an interesting connection between Tilbury and Greenwich. When Charles II approved the construction of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the King allowed £500 towards the new building, together with a supply of bricks from Tilbury Fort, where there was a spare stock, so some of the fabric of both locations is from the same stock of bricks.

As well as acting as a mustering points for troops, the main function of the fort was to protect the river.

Tilbury is the point in the Thames where the river starts to narrow on the approach to London, so it is an ideal location to site guns to fire at any invading ships attempting to move up river. Gun emplacements are arranged along the fort providing firing points looking across the river with Gravesend in the background:

Tilbury Fort 8

Shipping still passes Tilbury Fort, but of a very different type from when the fort was in use:

Tilbury Fort 9

The fort also stored a considerable amount of gunpowder and munitions, both for use in the fort and as a general reserve for the army. Two magazines held large quantities of gunpowder. These are the only powder magazines to remain in Britain from the early 18th Century. Very strong, with a large blast wall around the perimeter.

Tilbury Fort 10

As well as gunpowder, munitions were stored in tunnels constructed under the earthworks. One of the tunnels leading to storage rooms for artillery shells and other munitions:

Tilbury Fort 6

One of the storage rooms leading off the tunnel:

Tilbury Fort 7During the 18th and early 19th centuries there was the occasional threat of an attack on London via the river, although the majority of wars were being fought on the continent or at sea.

Tilbury Fort was permanently manned with numbers being ramped up or down dependent on the perceived threat level. The troops at the fort were also responsible for defending the fort and surrounding area from any land based attack. The fort was very well protected from land based attack with a series of moats and land defences. To the rear of the fort, a reconstructed bridge leads across to one of the island defensive locations, then on to the flat lands north of the river.

Tilbury Fort 4

Soon after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6 Tilbury Fort was used as a prison for survivors of the rebellion whilst they waited for trial in London. Off 303 that sailed from Inverness, 268 survived to Tilbury. They were imprisoned in the gunpowder magazines in such dreadful conditions that a further 50 died. After trial in London in 1747 they were either executed or transported to Barbados and Antigua to work on the sugar plantations as slave labourers.

Another view inside the fort. The Water Gate is on the left with the guard-house and chapel on the right:

Tilbury Fort 5

The gunpowder held at the fort was used for many purposes. In May 1838 the Brigg, William had been run down by a steamer opposite the fort and was causing an obstruction in the river. The people of Gravesend petitioned the Government to have it removed and a party of sappers and miners led by a Colonel Paisley arrived to sink a large amount of powder under the wreck by means of a diving bell. A special fused pipe led to the surface allowing the fuse to be lit from the surface and the sappers to get back to shore in time. There was an “awful explosion” with “waters rising mountains high followed by clouds of black coal and pieces of wreck”.

Tilbury Fort continued in use throughout the 19th century with occasional upgrades as technology provided new and more efficient guns and threats changed, however by the start of the 20th century naval technology had increased so much that large shore forts along the river had become obsolete and naval protection of the Thames was considered a more effective form of defence.

The fort continued to be used for storage and also as a transit centre for troops, a key role during the 1st World War, given the adjacent port of Tilbury.

During the 2nd World War, the fort had a brief role as an anti-aircraft operations centre, controlling the fire from guns along the river.

Tilbury Fort finally ceased any military role in 1950 when it was transferred into the Ministry of Works as a historic monument and the fort is now in the care of English heritage.

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The Chelsea Physic Garden

Last weekend I was walking in Chelsea, hunting down some of the locations of my father’s photos when I walked past one of the places I have always meant to visit.

If you walk or drive along the Chelsea Embankment, in-between the rows of apartment buildings that face onto the embankment you will see a low brick wall with a slightly ornate entrance gate, with what appears to be gardens behind.

This is the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Chelsea Physic Garden

The main entrance to the Chelsea Physic Garden is on Swan Walk, which when facing the Gardens from the river forms the eastern boundary. A plaque in the brick wall adjacent to the entrance provides an indication of the function and the age of the Gardens:

Chelsea Physic Garden

The main entrance is a relatively small gate in Swan Walk:

Chelsea Physic Garden

Once through the gate and having paid the entrance fee, the Gardens open up. Hard to believe that this is Chelsea and that the traffic on the Chelsea Embankment and the River Thames is just beyond the trees at the far end of the following photo:

Chelsea Physic Garden

The Chelsea Physic Garden was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries when the land was leased from Charles Cheyne, the Lord of the Manor of Chelsea. It has continued to occupy the same location adjacent to the River Thames, whilst the rest of Chelsea has been developed around the gardens.

The Apothecaries needed an area where medicinal herbs could be grown and apprentices to the Society could be trained in their use. The Society had acquired a Medical Garden at Westminster prior to Chelsea and it was the contents of this garden that were moved to Chelsea.

The location chosen in Chelsea was ideal. It was south-facing, fertile and directly adjacent to the river (the Chelsea Embankment had not yet been built) as the river provided easy and safe access to central London rather than cross the dangerous fields and marshes that extended east at this time.

In London Old and New, Edward Walford writes:

“The Physic Garden to which we now come, was originated by Sir Hans Sloane, the celebrated physician, and was handed over in 1721 by him, by deed of gift, to the Apothecaries Company, who still own and maintain it. The garden, which bears the name of the Royal Botanic, was presented to the above company on condition that it should at all times be continued as a physic-garden, for the manifestation of the power and wisdom, and goodness of God, in creation; and that the apprentices might learn to distinguish good and useful plants from hurtful ones. Various additions have been made to the Physic Garden at different periods in the way of greenhouses and hot-houses; and in the centre of the principal walk was erected a statue of Sir Hans Sloane, by Michael Rysbraeck.”

Walford gives the impression that Sir Hans Sloane created the Chelsea Physic Garden, however it was already in existence and Sloane had been an apprentice at the Garden. After Sloane had made his fortune (more on this in a later post on Chelsea), he purchased the Manor of Chelsea from Cheyne and granted a perpetual rent of the Garden to the Apothecaries for a peppercorn rent of £5 a year.

Chelsea Physic Garden

The Chelsea Physic Garden has not always looked as good as it does now. From “London Exhibited in 1851”:

“At the time the garden was formed, it must have stood entirely lying in the country, and had every chance of the plants in it maintaining a healthy state. Now, however, it is completely in the town, and but for its being on the side of the river and lying open on that quarter, it would be altogether surrounded with common streets and houses. As it is, the appearance of the walls, grass, plants and houses is very much that of most London gardens – dingy, smokey, and as regards the plants, impoverished and starved. It is however, interesting for its age, for the few old specimens it contains, for the medical plants, and especially because the houses are being gradually renovated and collections of ornamental plants, as well as those which are useful in medicine, formed and cultivated on the best principles, under the Curatorship of Mr Thomas Moore, one of the editors of the Gardeners Magazine of Botany. In spite of the disadvantages of its situation, here are still grown very many of the drugs which figure in the London Pharmacopoeia.”

From inside the garden we can see the gates that face onto the Chelsea Embankment. These gates and the upgraded enclosure of the gardens was completed in 1877 when Mr Thomas Moore, mentioned in the above quote, was the Curator.  (As evidence of the scientific principles underlying the gardens, the Curator is effectively the Head Gardener, but with the responsibly to curate the collection of plants held by the garden.)

Chelsea Physic Garden

A the top of the gates is the badge of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in London:

Chelsea Physic Garden

The following engraving from London Old And New shows the gardens in 1790 with the original wall and gates directly onto the River Thames before the construction of the Thames Embankment.

Chelsea Physic Garden

The following map extract from the early 1830s shows the Botanic Gardens between Coal Wharf and the Swan Brewery facing directly onto the river, as did Cheyne Walk prior to the construction of the Chelsea Embankment.

Chelsea Physic Garden

The statue to Sir Hans Sloane has pride of place in the centre of the gardens. This in not the original 1733 Michael Rysbrack statue, the original was damaged by pollution and is now in the British Museum. The current statue is a replica of the original.

Chelsea Physic Garden

Visiting the garden now provides an excellent learning experience. The plants are very well labelled with several themed areas to focus on specific geographical sources of plants. There is also currently an art installation by Nici Ruggiero which uses jars in the style of those used by early Apothecaries to explain how different plants were and are used in medicine.

Jars are placed on stakes in the gardens:

Chelsea Physic Garden

As well as a rack of jars against one of the boundary walls:

Chelsea Physic Garden

If you did not know that Lungwort is for diseases of the lungs and for coughs, weezings and the shortness of breath, which it cures both in man and in beast, or that Golden Rod cures conditions of jaundice and provokes urine in abundance, then this is the place to learn.

The Chelsea Physic Garden was also one of the first in Europe to have a glass / hot house, and in 1685 the diarist John Evelyn described a visit to the garden where he met Mr Watts, keeper of the Garden and saw the heated glass house. He wrote in his diary: “what was very ingenious was the subterraneous heat, conveyed by a stove under the conservatory, all vaulted with brick, so as he has the doores and windowes open in the hardest frosts, secluding only the snow.”

The gardens to this day have a number of heated glass houses that support plants from tropical locations that would not otherwise thrive in a London climate:

Chelsea Physic Garden

And they work well in promoting abundant growth:

Chelsea Physic Garden

At the Chelsea Embankment edge of the gardens, it is still possible to find hidden on the side walls, stones fixed to mark the original division walls:

Chelsea Physic Garden

The gardens experienced mixed fortunes in the later half of the 19th century. The numbers of visiting medical students rose significantly in 1877 from a couple of hundred to 3,500 due mainly to the Society of Apothecaries finally allowing women to the study of medicine, but by the end of the 19th century the study of plants had been dropped from the medical syllabus and the Society of Apothecaries decided that there was no real need to continue with the garden.

The gardens also suffered from the construction of the Chelsea Embankment in 1876, cutting of what had been a riverside garden from the river.

The gardens were taken on by the City Parochial Foundation. From the history of the Foundation by Victor Belcher:

“The first additional long term obligation taken on by the Foundation was the maintenance of the Chelsea Physic Garden. By the 1890s the Company had decided that it could no longer afford the upkeep of the garden and recommended that the site should be sold and the proceeds used to endow scientific research and teaching. Widespread concern was voiced and a departmental committee was appointed by the Treasury to look into the situation. In 1898, W. H. Fisher (later Lord Downham), a trustee who also happened to be a Junior Lord of the Treasury in Lord Salisbury’s government, introduced a motion before the Central Governing Body urging the trustees to take over the garden from the Apothecaries Company. he stressed its importance as an open space and as a source of botanical study for students at the Battersea and South-Western polytechnics. The trustees were convinced and asked the Charity Commissioners to draw up a scheme. This was published in 1899 and required the Foundation to give an annual grant of £800 to the garden. the government provided a small supplementary grant, but from this time the Chelsea Physic Garden was essentially the Foundation’s responsibility, a state of affairs which was reflected in the composition of the garden’s managing committee, over half of whose members were to be appointed by the Foundation.”

(The City Parochial Foundation is one of the many bodies that have had an impact on the development of London. Formed in 1891 by bringing together a range of endowments so as to be under the control of a single corporate body, the Foundation was charged with helping the poor of London mainly through creating and supporting technical education in the form of the polytechnic movement)

It was good fortune that the Chelsea Physic Garden was saved otherwise it would now be just more Chelsea streets and buildings.

Chelsea Physic Garden

The City Parochial Foundation continued to support and provide grants to the gardens. By the early 1920s the original £800 per annum grant had grown to £2000.

The grant was reduced during the 2nd World War as the gardens were placed on a care and maintenance status, with several plants being moved to Kew due to damage by bombing. After the war the Foundation was responsible for repairs and redecoration to the gardens and buildings.

The end of the association between the City Parochial Foundation and the Chelsea Physic Garden started in the 1970s, again from the history of the Foundation:

“By the mid-1970s the trustees were becoming concerned about both the rising cost of repairs and the amount of grant now needed. There was also a nagging doubt, once the connections with the polytechnics had been severed, whether the Physic Garden could be said to serve the purposes of the Foundation any longer, if indeed it ever had done. The sub-committee which was appointed to prepare a policy for the quinquennium 1977-81 was asked to include the future of the Garden in its deliberations. It recommended that  funds should be made available for the modernisation of the Garden, but that the Charity Commissioners should be informed that the Foundation wished to withdraw further financial support. In the meantime the trustees would actively seek another sponsor.

Finally, in 1981 a new and independent body of trustees agreed to take over the Garden, and in return were promised grants totalling £200,000 to meet the estimated running costs over the next four years. A new scheme was published, and the formal transfer took place on 1 April 1983 when the Foundation’s scheme grant came to an end.” 

Along with the new status of the Chelsea Physic Garden, it was also formally opened to the public, and this continues to be the status of the gardens today with a small, independent charity responsible for the running of the gardens, and the associated educational work carried out to this day.

Chelsea Physic Garden

During their development, the gardens benefited from a constant stream of new discoveries from across the world. the 18th and 19th centuries were a time of botanical discoveries with expeditions being sent to all corners of the world to bring back specimens.

Among those who contributed to the garden was Joseph Banks, who had already made expeditions to Newfoundland and Labrador and was part of Captain Cook’s voyage to South America, the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand. It was through his role as President of the Royal Society that Banks supported expeditions around the world to bring back specimens for the Chelsea Physic Garden. Banks was elected as President in 1778 and held the post for 41 years

Curators were also major plant hunters. One such being Robert Fortune who was curator from 1846 to 1848. He was a prominent plant hunter who brought back many samples from Asia.

Chelsea Physic Garden

Insect houses up against the boundary wall with the Chelsea Embankment.

Chelsea Physic Garden

It has not really been possible to do justice to the history of the Chelsea Physic Garden in the space of a weekly blog post, however I hope this provides some background and an incentive to visit another example of the history of this fascinating city.

The sources I used to research this post are:

  • The Face of London by Harold P. Clunn published in 1951
  • Old And New London by Edward Walford published in 1878
  • The City Parochial Foundation 1891 – 1991 by Victor Belcher published in 1991
  • London: The Western Reaches by Godfrey James published in 1950
  • The history of the gardens on the Chelsea Physic Garden web site which can be found here

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The Lost Warehouses of Pickle Herring Street

Many of the photos I have used to illustrate how London has changed are of the more well known views of London, from the Stone Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral, from Greenwich, from Waterloo Bridge, the Royal Festival Hall etc. however sometimes to get a real understanding of how London has changed since the last war in terms of the streets, buildings, employment and people, you need only look in some of the more ordinary, mundane places.

I was unsure of where my father took the subject of this week’s post. There are two photos, taken from within the same tunnel, looking out to streets with closely packed warehouses on either side.

The warehouses with their trademark walkways over the streets were clearly along the Thames. The tunnel in which the photo was taken would be adjacent to one of the stations or bridges across the Thames.

I vaguely recognised the tunnel from many walks along the south bank of the river, and a morning exploring all the tunnels finally found the location, however the changes were such that I was still slightly unsure (I will explain how I confirmed the location later).

The first photo, and it is a Sunday, early in 1947 and a solitary man walks with his two dogs towards my father taking the photo from the middle of the tunnel.

Welcome to Pickle Herring Street, taken from the tunnel under the southern approach to Tower Bridge in 1947 and then in 2015:

Pickle 1

Pickle 2

These two photos really show how London has changed in the intervening 68 years.

In 1947, shipping was still coming this far up river to be loaded and unloaded at the warehouses that ran the length of the river. The warehouses on the right were facing onto the river, walkways over the street lead to further warehouses.

Pickle Herring Street in the 1947 photo is the street winding through the warehouses, it had been here for many years but has now disappeared along with all the warehouses lining this stretch of the Thames in the redevelopment of this area of the south bank for City Hall (the building that appears to lean backwards in the 2015 photo), the home of the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority, along with the public open space created up to Tower Bridge.

Instead of the solitary Londoner walking his dogs we now find the thousands of tourists who follow the walkway along the river and cross to and from the north bank and the Tower of London via Tower Bridge.

It took a while to take the 2015 photos, I was waiting until there were not too many people in the tunnel, such is the popularity of this area even on a chilly March morning. Not long after I took the photo, an ice cream van arrived and parked to the left of the tunnel entrance. I wonder what the man in the 1947 photo would have thought about how London would be changing over the coming decades.

The change was such that I was still slightly unsure that this is the correct location of the 1947 photo, so I checked the tiling on the roof of the tunnel. The following photos show that even across 68 years the same defects and damage to the tiling can be found.

roof compare 1

In the following map from the 1940 edition of Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of Greater London I have marked the location from where the photograph was taken with a red dot.

The tunnel is directly underneath the approach road to Tower Bridge and Pickle Herring Street is seen running to the left:

Pickle map 2

The following early 19th century map extract shows the area prior to the construction of Tower Bridge. There was also a Pickle Herring Stairs roughly where St. Olaves Wharf is shown in the 1940 map. Note also Horslydown Old Stairs. This is where Tower Bridge would be built later in the 19th century.

Pickle map 6

Despite having such an interesting name, I have not found that many references to Pickle Herring Street. The name must refer to the landing and storage of pickle herrings here at some point in the past.

Old and New London, published in 1878 describes the area:

“Indeed from Morgan’s Lane – a turning about the middle of Tooley Street, on the north side, to St. Saviour’s Dock, the whole line of street – called in one part Pickle Herring Street, and in another Shad Thames – exhibits an uninterrupted series of wharves, warehouses, mills and factories, on both sides of the narrow and crowded roadway. The buildings on the northern side are contiguous to the river, and in the gateways and openings in these we witness the busy scenes and the mazes of the shipping which pertain to such a spot. “

The buildings would be exactly the same in 1947.

Gustave Doré visited the area in 1872. The following is his illustration of Pickle Herring Street for the publication, “London – A Pilgrimage”:

gustav dore

Doré probably used some artistic license in this drawing, the buildings look rather too finely built for riverside warehouses, however it probably does give a good impression of the atmosphere in Pickle Herring Street at the time.

Return to the dot in the above map, turn to the right and you will be looking down Shad Thames. This was the scene in 1947 looking down to the next stretch of warehousing running the length of the river. This was Butlers Wharf.

Pickle 3

In 2015 Shad Thames remains as does Butlers Wharf, although converted into luxury flats, restaurants and shops, again indicative of the changes across much of central London.

Pickle 4

The excellent Britain from Above website has the following photo of the area, also take in 1947.

The warehouses on either side of the approach road to Tower Bridge can clearly be seen along with the cluster of shipping and barges up against the warehouses along Pickle Herring Street.
EAW011130

I stood for a while in the tunnel waiting to take the photos, in exactly the same place as my 18 year old father back in 1947, under the same tiled roof, but looking out on a very different world.

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