Tag Archives: River Thames

Hungerford Bridge and Hungerford Market

My father took the following photo of Hungerford Bridge from the south bank in 1947:

Hungerford Bridge

The same view in 2022:

Hungerford Bridge

The photos are seventy five years apart, and as could be expected the core of the bridge is much the same now as it was in 1947.

There are some minor differences. The brick structure above the pier on the right was missing in 1947, although its appearance today may suggest it is part of the original structure.

Two signal gantries can be seen above the tracks in 1947, and on the left of the bridge the entrance to Charing Cross Station can just be seen, where today, the 1991 office block, Embankment Place, above the station is the major feature at the end of the bridge.

The white structures along the length of the bridge in the 2022 photo support the Golden Jubilee Foot Bridge which was completed in 2002. There is a second foot bridge on the other side of the railway bridge, to an identical design.

These foot bridges replaced a single, narrow footbridge that originally ran along the far side of the bridge. It was not that pleasant a foot bridge, always had large pools of water across the walkway after rain, and was often not the route of choice after dark.

Hungerford Railway Bridge was opened in 1864. It was built by the Charing Cross Railway Company to provide a route into the new Charing Cross Station from across the river.

It was not the first bridge on the site, and investigating further reveals the source of the name, a failed market, the original bridge, and a very strange death.

Charing Cross Station was built on the site of the 17th century Hungerford Market, and the site had originally been home to Hungerford House, owned by Sir Edward Hungerford.

The Hungerford family name dates back to at least the 12th century with an early reference to one Everard de Hungerford. The family name came from the Berkshire town of Hungerford, and over the centuries, the family amassed a considerable amount of land and property and became very rich.

Many of the Hungerford’s had key roles in the governance of the country (in  January 1377, Sir Thomas Hungerford was elected speaker of Parliament), and in national events (for example during the Civil War Sir Edward Hungerford was in command of the Parliamentary forces in Wiltshire, where it was reported that he carried out his responsibilities with an unpleasant zeal).

The first record of the Hungerford’s owning a house in the Strand was when Sir Walter Hungerford took up residence in 1422.

The Hungerford’s would own a house in the Strand until the late 17th century, when Sir Edward Hungerford (the nephew of the Civil War Hungerford of the same name) decided to try and create a market to rival the recently opened, nearby, Covent Garden Market.

An Act of Parliament in 1678 granted Sir Edward Hungerford permission to let some of the grounds occupied by Hungerford House for building leases and also to open a market on the site on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The market opened in 1682.

Despite being in what seemed to be an ideal location, the market was not really a success. It was sold to Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Stephen Fox in 1685 and after their deaths, it was sold on to Henry Wise around the year 1717.

It would stay with Henry Wise and his descendants until 1830.

The following print from 1825 shows the original Hungerford Market:

Hungerford Market

The image at lower left shows the bust that is on the wall of the market building, and the text below names Edward Hungerford and confirms the opening date of 1682. The coat of arms on the right is that of the Hungerford family.

In the above drawing of the market, there is a sign on the building on the right about Watermen. The text below is too small to be readable. This is probably some reference to the stairs and access to the river at the far end of the market.

The following print from 1830 shows a busy market scene, with the River Thames visible in the gap between buildings in the distance.

Hungerford Market

John Rocque’s map of 1746 shows the market between the Strand and the river, and shows Hungerford Stairs running down to the river:

Hungerford Market

As usual, to help with research, I checked newspapers for mentions of the old Hungerford Market. Papers of the 18th and 19th centuries record the numerous accidental and strange deaths that happened across London. I have read hundreds of these and one of the most unusual concerns a worker from Hungerford Market. This is a report from the Ipswich Journal on the 3rd of July, 1725:

“On Sunday Evening, an elderly Man that carried a Basket in Hungerford Market for his Livelihood, was drowned in an excessive Quantity of ‘Strip and go Naked’ alias ‘Strikefire’ alias ‘Gin’, at a notorious Brothel in the Strand; the poor miserable wretch expiring under too great a Dose of that stupefying Benediction.”

I have never heard of “Strip and go Naked” or “Strikefire” as a drink, and assume it was a form of Gin as this was the last alias.

It was with some trepidation that I put the name into Google, and the search results imply that it is now an American drink made out of beer, vodka and lemonade, also a cocktail made from beer, gin, vodka, lime juice, orange juice and grenadine.

Whatever it was in 1725, its description as a “stupefying Benediction” does sound rather appropriate.

18th century newspapers provide a view of the trades within Hungerford Market. These were in the paper for events such as bankruptcy so are not a complete list, but provide an indication: Wine Merchant, Butcher, Slaughter House, Oyster Merchant, Indigo Maker, Ironmonger, Coal Merchant.

As with any location which attracted people, there was also a public house – the Bull’s Head.

During the early decades of the 19th century, the market was becoming rather run down, dirty and surrounded by squalid housing.

The descendants of the Henry Wise, who had owned the building since 1717, sold the land and buildings to the Hungerford Market Company which had been formed in 1830.

The new company believed that by rebuilding, and providing a much improved market environment, the Hungerford Market could be just as big a success as Covent Garden and could also tempt some of the fish trade away from Billingsgate.

The new market buildings were much increased in size compared to the original market. New houses were built alongside, which included a number of pubs. The market buildings pushed the river embankment out by a further 150 feet and a set of stone stairs were constructed down to the river.

The following three prints of the opening ceremony on the 2nd of July, 1833, give an impression of the scale of the new market buildings and the grandeur of the opening, which was intended to give the market a considerable amount of publicity, and attract Londoners from as far afield as possible into the market.

The following print shows the view from the river, with crowds of people in front of the market and on boats on the river.

Hungerford Market

The opening of Hungerford Market was the place to be seen for the fashionable Londoner of 1833 as the following account from the Morning Advertiser on the 3rd of July, 1833 records:

“It having been announced that the opening of this splendid work was to take place yesterday at two o’clock in the afternoon, crowds began to assemble in the forenoon. By the specified hour, the concourse of people which thronged every part of the market, and all places adjoining, whence a view of what was going on could be had, was truly immense.

Of the numbers present it was impossible to form any conjecture which could be depended on. The large hall was most densely crowded with an assemblage of the most respectable kind, including much of the female beauty and fashion of this vast metropolis. The lower quadrangle was no less densely filled with an assemblage of the same class. The same may be said of the space appropriated to stalls and benches, underneath the colonnade. The quadrangle fronting the Strand, being open to all, was literally crammed with human beings. Indeed the open space in that particular part looked like a living mass of human beings.

The pavement on the south side of the magnificent building, which projects into the Thames, was so crowded with persons of all descriptions, that it was next to impossible to move from one part of it to another. The balconies at the top of the building, though a much higher price was demanded for admission to them, were filled with an assemblage of ladies and gentlemen. The view from these balconies was exceedingly interesting. It commanded an extensive prospect of the Surrey hills, and of a very considerable part of London, including a large portion of the Thames. Westminster and Waterloo Bridges were crowded with spectators, as were the tops of a great many houses in the neighbourhood of Hungerford-market.

The river was a most interesting scene; it was covered with boats, all as full as a regard to safety could justify. The coal barges in the neighbourhood of the market were so numerous and so close and so well filled that one could scarcely persuade himself they floated on water.

Taken altogether, we should say, it is very seldom indeed that so many human beings are congregated together.”

The following print shows the main attraction during the opening of Hungerford Market, a balloon ascent:

Hungerford Market

And the following print shows the balloon taking of from the quadrangle of Hungerford Market.

Hungerford Market

The balloon was piloted by George Graham, a prolific 19th century balloonist, who took two passengers with him in the basket.

The balloon took of at 4:30 in the afternoon. It went straight up for about sixty feet before heading in a south-easterly direction. Those in the basket waved their hats to cheers from the crowd as the balloon gained height.

By the time it had been up for 20 minutes it was described as being as small as a kite and after 30 minutes it was all but invisible, as it headed in the direction of Gravesend.

George Graham undertook many flights during the first half of the 19th century, and his wife was also a balloonist.

Margaret Graham was the first British woman to undertake a solo balloon flight, when in 1826 she took off from White Conduit Gardens in Islington, the location of her first flight with her husband just a couple of years before.

Individually, the couple would have a number of accidents. In one flight in 1838 George’s balloon hit a chimney on take off causing bricks to fall on an onlooker who died as a result. In a flight with his wife in 1851, the basket hit a rooftop just after launch causing him to fall from the basket and sustaining serious injuries.

In 1836, Margaret sustained serious injuries when during landing, her passenger stepped too early from the basket causing the balloon to rise, and Margaret to fall from a height.

In 1850 she suffered serious burns when a balloon caught fire.

George and Margaret had three daughters and the couple got them involved with ballooning. In 1850 Margaret flew with her three daughters causing something of a public outcry for taking all her children with her on what was considered a dangerous activity.

Despite having taken part in very many balloon flights Margaret died peacefully in her bed in 1880 at the age of 76.

Back to the opening of Hungerford Market, and in the evening there were fireworks and a ball was held which was “numerously and fashionably attended, and was kept up till a late hour with great spirit”.

The market buildings cost around £100,000 to build, and were expected to be a considerable success and rival Covent Garden and Billingsgate. At opening, all the market space had been rented out.

In the main hall, shops on the eastern side sold fruit and vegetables, butchers, selling meat, poultry and animal food took shops on the western side. There were large cellars and store rooms beneath the building and space for a large number of fish mongers. Space was provided for small traders with benches and stalls.

To try and tempt customers to the market, steam boats were run from east and west London along the Thames to the river stairs at the market. The market had one final trick to tempt what they called “the housewives of Lambeth and Southwark” to the market, and that was a bridge.

Hungerford Bridge

The above and below prints show the Hungerford Suspension Bridge which was opened to provide direct access to the market from the south bank of the river, and to provide another route over the river, as compared to cities such as Paris, London was believed to have too few bridges.

Hungerford Bridge

The bridge was designed by Sir Isambard K. Brunel and consisted of four individual chains running the length of the bridge, with two brick piers providing support for the chains.

The bridge was a considerable financial success. In their 1845 report for the first year of operation, the Directors recorded that tolls to cross the bridge raised £9,000 in a year. When the bridge was built it was expected that the daily traffic would be about 8,000 people, however after opening the bridge was attracting nearly 14,000 people.

The success of the bridge was such that the Board decided to pay the Directors £500 for their services to the company.

In a sign of what was to come, at the Board meeting in 1845, the Directors agreed to lease the bridge to the Central Terminus Rail Company for a fee of £186,000.

In the 1830s / 1840s, the area around Hungerford and Waterloo Bridges was being seen as a location for a railway terminus that would service the south east and south of the country, and connect into London Bridge – a subject way out of the scope of today’s post.

An interesting print from 1850 about flooding caused by a high tide shows some of the advertising for the Hungerford Bridge. The following print shows flooding in Vine Street which once ran where the Shell Centre building now stands on the South Bank, up to York Road. A large banner across the street directs people to the bridge, with another sign on the side of the terrace of houses towards the end of the street on the right:

Vine Street flooding

The south bank, being part of low lying Lambeth Marsh was subject to frequent flooding at high tides as shown in the print.

In the following extract from the 1894 Ordnance Survey map, I have ringed the location of Vine Street (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland“):

Vine Street

Despite the optimistic opening, steam boats bringing customers from along the river and the bridge to tempt customers from south London, the market was not a success.

In 1851 a Hungerford Hall was built on part of the site for lectures and exhibitions, however this building burnt down during an accident when lighting gas lamps. The fire also caused damage to the main market hall.

The market would close by the end of the 1850s.

Plans for new railways and stations had been developing during the mid 19th century, and the entire site of the market was purchased by the Charing Cross Railway Company in order to construct Charing Cross Station.

The station would serve as a terminus of a route from the south of the river, therefore a new bridge was needed, and this resulted in the demolition of the original Hungerford Bridge. The railway bridge was approved by the 1859 Charing Cross Railway Act, and construction of the new bridge started in 1860.

Charing Cross Station (and therefore the bridge) opened on the 11th January 1864, and quickly became a busy rail route between south and north sides of the river.

Demolition of the bridge was not the end for parts of the original suspension bridge.

One of Brunel’s projects had been the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This had run into delays and financial problems and Sir John Hawkshaw and William Henry Barlow took over construction of the bridge as consultant engineers, working to complete the bridge.

They were aware of the demolition of the Hungerford Bridge, and to help with the financial difficulties in completing the Clifton Suspension Bridge, they purchased the chains and ironwork from the original Hungerford Bridge for £5,000.

Many of these chains still remain, and look out on a very different view than when they spanned the River Thames (see my post on the Clifton Suspension Bridge and my visit to the hidden chambers beneath the bridge in this post):

Clifton Suspension Bridge

As well as some of the chains still being in use, the core of the piers from the first bridge were used in the construction of the piers for the new railway bridge.

The new Hungerford Railway Bridge initially provided a route for pedestrians across the river, with two footpaths on either side of the bridge. A toll of a half penny was charged up to 1878.

Initially the bridge provided four tracks across the river, however this was later widened to six tracks by the removal of the pedestrian routes, which were moved to a pedestrian way along the outside of the bridge.

The pedestrian route alongside the bridge as it appeared in the early 1950s:

Hungerford Bridge footbridge

The entrance to Charing Cross Station as it appears today:

Charing Cross Station

The ornate construction in the forecourt is a reconstruction (not a replica) of the Eleanor Cross that was located nearby and destroyed in 1647. The original Eleanor Cross was one of several built across the country in the late 13th century to mark the route when the body of Queen Eleanor was carried from Nottinghamshire for burial in Westminster Abbey.

Although the main market buildings were very slightly further back from the front of the above building, they were built on the site of part of the building, the station concourse and the platforms down to roughly where Villiers Street is today, with the steps extending down into the river. The later construction of the Embankment pushed further into the river

The following postcard shows Charing Cross Station as it appeared at the turn of the 19th / 20th century when the main building served the planned purpose of a hotel. Designed by Edward Middleton Barry in the French Renaissance style and which became one of the most fashionable hotels in London. Barry also designed the cross in the station forecourt:

Charing Cross Station

Plans for the reconstruction of London after the war proposed demolishing bridges such as Hungerford Bridge and routing rail traffic in tunnels, however there was no way in which this could be financially justified and the plans did not progress further than a paper proposal.

Hungerford Bridge now stands as a reminder of a centuries old family name, who had a house off the Strand in the 15th century, a site which became a market and is now occupied by Charing Cross Station.

All prints in this post are from the British Museum collection and reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

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County Hall and a Roman Boat

Today, the River Thames runs between embankments on the north and south sides of the river, embankments built over the last 160 years, and were still being completed in the 1980s. For centuries the river had an extended foreshore which would shift with the tides, and particularly on the south bank, large areas of wet, marshy land.

One stretch of the embankment, built during the first decades of the 20th century, is the stretch in front of County Hall, the purpose built home of the London County Council, then the Greater London Council, and now home to hotels and tourist attractions.

County Hall photographed from Westminster Bridge:

County Hall from Westminster Bridge

The London County Council was formed in 1889 to replace the Metropolitan Board of Works and to gradually take on powers covering Education, Health Services, Drainage and Sanitation, Regulation and Licensing of a whole range of activities, dangerous materials, weights and measures, street Improvements – there was hardly an aspect of living in London that would not be touched by the LCC.

The problem with having all this responsibility was that the LCC also needed the space for all the elected officials and the hundreds of staff who would deliver the services.

The LCC initially had an office at Spring Gardens, near Trafalgar Square, the old home of the Metropolitan Board of Works, but quickly started looking for a new location as staff began to be scattered across the city.

A wide range of locations were suggested, but they were either too small, too expensive or too close to the Palace of Westminster – the London County Council wanted to be seen as a completely separate authority to the national government, but still wanted a prominent location, suitable for the governance of London.

The LCC already had a Works Department which occupied a small part of a site on the South Bank, to the side of Westminster Bridge.

The new St Thomas’ Hospital on the other side of Westminster Bridge had already started the improvement of the Lambeth side of the river, which included the creation of a large formal embankment.

The land across Westminster Bridge Road from the hospital provided a sufficient area for the LCC with space to grow. It was in a prominent position, directly facing onto the river, and importantly was on the opposite side of the river to the Palace of Westminster so was close to, but separate from the national government.

As the site was being acquired, attention turned to the design of the new building, and a competition was organised to invite designs for the new home of the LCC.

There were some incredibly fancy and ornate designs submitted, however the winning design was one of relative simplicity by the 29 year old architect Ralph Knott.

Construction of County Hall began in January 1909 with the construction of a coffer dam in the river, which allowed the new river wall to be built, reclaiming an area of land from the river. Work then began on excavation of the ground, ready for laying a concrete raft on which County Hall would be built.

Work was sufficiently advanced, that by 1912 the laying of the foundation stone could take place, and to commemorate the event, a booklet was published, providing some history of the construction of County Hall up to 1912, along with some plans and photographs of the original river frontage, and an important find during digging ready for the construction of the concrete raft.

County Hall foundation stone

County Hall would be built on a 6.5 acre site, and to achieve this area, a significant part of the foreshore and river needed to be reclaimed. In total two and a half acres of the river were reclaimed and a new river wall constructed to hold back the Thames.

A new river wall had been part of the construction of St Thomas’ Hospital, and the alignment of this wall would be continued with the construction of County Hall.

588 feet of new river wall was constructed. the most difficult part being where the wall would come up against Westminster Bridge. The piers of Westminster Bridge had been built on timber piles, and the foundations of the river wall would go a further 6 feet deeper than those of the bridge, so careful construction was needed to avoid damage to the bridge. This included steel piles driven around the foundations of the bridge to provide some protection from the excavations of the river wall.

Construction of the wall started in January 1909 and was completed in September 1910 at a total cost of £58,000.

The booklet includes the following diagram which shows the outline of County Hall, the alignment of the new river wall, and within the outline of County Hall, the original buildings on the site and the alignment of the old river wall, showing just how much was reclaimed from the river.

County Hall

The site was occupied by businesses such as Cross and Blackwell with a jam and pickle factory, and the engineering firm of Peter Brotherhood who had their radial engine factory on the site. Their radial engine was an innovative machine used to power the Royal Navy’s torpedoes, as well as being a source of power for other machines including fans, and dynamos for the generation of electricity.

The booklet also includes the following photo of the site from Westminster Bridge. I suspect the embankment wall now runs roughly where the photographer was standing.

County Hall original river frontage

If you look at the edge of the photo on the right, there are a large flight of stairs leading down to the river, and at the top of the stairs can just be seen part of a pub. The pub had one side facing onto Westminster Bridge Road, and the other facing a small square and the river stairs. With limited research time, I have been unable to find the name of the pub, and it is not mentioned in the County Hall booklet.

This is the view of County Hall today, the photographer for the above photo was probably standing a bit closer to the river wall than I am, but everything in the following photo was built on reclaimed land.

County Hall

The new river wall and embankment was a significant construction, and before work on this could start, a timber dam had to be built to hold back the Thames from the construction site. The dam consisted of a wall of tongue and groove timber piles, which had to be driven through four feet of mud, then eleven feet of ballast (sand, gravel etc.) before reaching London Clay, then driven further into the clay to provide a firm fixing.

This was needed as the dam would have to hold back a significant wall of water, as the tidal range could be over 20 feet, so the dam had to hold back sometimes no water (at very low tides) and at very high tides, a wall of over 20 feet of water pressing on the dam.

The embankment wall was a very substantial construction, reaching down over 35 feet below the original Trinity high water mark. Between the river wall and County Hall, a new public walkway was constructed, and under the walkway there were large vaults within the open space between the walkway and the concrete raft at the base.

The following drawing shows the construction of the wall and embankment:

County Hall Embankment Wall

Behind the wall, a large area was excavated. Due to the marshy, damp nature of the ground a concrete raft was needed across the whole area on which County Hall would be built. It was during the excavation to build that raft that a significant discovery was made of the remains of a Roman boat, seen in the following photo as discovered:

County Hall Roman Boat

The booklet provides a description of how the boat was found:

“The discovery was primarily due to Mr. F.L. Dove, the present chairman of the Establishment Committee. While inspecting in January 1910, with Mr. R.C. Norman, the then Chairman of the Committee, the excavation for the concrete raft, he noticed a dark curved line in the face of the excavation immediately above the virgin soil, and some distance beneath the silt and the Thames mud. The workmen engaged suggested that it was a sunken barge, but Mr. Dove realised from its position that it must be of considerable antiquity, and accordingly requested the Council’s official architect to have the soil carefully removed from above.”

Mr. Dove was right about the considerable antiquity of the find. When excavated, it was found to be a Roman boat, constructed out of carved oak. It was lying 19 feet, 6 inches below high water, and 21 feet 6 inches below the nearby Belvedere Road.

The size of the boat was about 38 feet in length, and 18 feet across.

Within the boat were found four bronze coins, in date ranging from A.D. 268 to 296, portions of leather footwear studded with iron nails, and a quantity of pottery. There were signs that the boat had been damaged as several rounded stones were found, one of which was embedded in the wood, and there was indication that some of the upper parts of the boat had been burnt.

After excavation, the boat was offered to the Trustees of the London Museum, who accepted, and the boat was removed from site, with the following photo showing the transport of the boat from the excavation site. It is within a wooden frame to provide some protection.

Roman Boat

The boat was put on display in Stafford House, then the home of the London Museum. (Stafford House is now Lancaster House, in St. James, a short walk from Green Park station).

The following photo shows the boat on display:

Roman Boat

I contacted the Museum of London to see if parts of the boat were available to view, and was told a sorry story of the limitations of preservation techniques for much of the 20th century.

The boat was found beneath the silt and Thames mud in an area of damp ground. This created an oxygen free environment which preserved the boat’s timber.

As soon as the boat was exposed, it started to dry out, and over the year the timbers cracked and disintegrated. Museum of London staff tried to patch up with fillers, but this was long before the chemical means of conservation that we have today were available.

When the Museum of London moved to its current site on London Wall, only a small section was displayed, and this was removed from display when the gallery was refurbished in the mid-1990s.

Some key features of the boat such as joints and main timbers have been preserved as well as they can be after so many years, and are stored in the Museum of London’s remote storage facility, so not available for public display.

The Museum of London did donate some of the fragments to the Shipwreck Museum in Hasting, so I got in contact with them to find out what remained.

I had a reply from the former City of London archaeologist, Peter Marsden, who advised that much of what was preserved at Lancaster House was modern plaster of paris painted black. He also confirmed that only some ribs and a few bits of the planks survive, and are no longer on display.

Peter Marsden has written some fascinating books on Ships of the Port of London. They are very hard to find, however the English Heritage Archaeology Data Service has the book “Ships of the Port of London, First to eleventh centuries AD” available to download as a PDF from here. It is a fascinating read which includes many more discoveries in the Port of London as well as the County Hall Roman boat.

The age of the boat seems to be around 300 AD which is confirmed by the coins discovered in the boat all being earlier, and Peter Marsden managed to get a tree ring date of around 300 AD from one of the planks.

It is difficult to confirm exactly why the boat was lost on the future site of County Hall. There was much speculation at the time, including in the County Hall booklet, that the boat had been lost during battles in AD 297. The burning on parts of the wood written about in the booklet has not been confirmed, and the stones could have been ballast.

It seems more likely that the boat may have been damaged, or simply lost on what was the marshy Thames foreshore and land of the south bank. Away from the City of London, the boat was left to rot, gradually being covered by the preserving mud and silt of the river until discovery in 1910.

There is another feature on the plan of the new County Hall that suggests the boat could have been on the edge of the Thames foreshore.

On the opposite side of County Hall to the river is a street called Belvedere Road. This was originally called Narrow Wall. The first written references to the name Narrow Wall date back to the fifteenth century, and it could be much older. The name refers to a form of earthen wall or walkway, possibly built to prevent the river coming too far in land, and as a means of walking along the edge of the river.

In the following extract from John Rocque’s 1746 map of London, Westminster Bridge is at the lower left corner, and slightly further to the right, Narrow Wall can be seen running north.

Narrow Wall

Although straightened out and widened, Belvedere Road follows the approximate route of Narrow Wall.

If Narrow Wall was built along a line that formed a boundary between river and the land, then the Roman boat was close to this and would have been in the shallow part of the reed beds that probably formed the foreshore.

I have annotated the original plan from the booklet with some of the key features, including the location of the Roman boat:

County Hall

The following view is looking along Belvedere Road / Narrow Wall, with County Hall to the left:

Belvedere Road

The following photo is a view of the entrance to County Hall from Belvedere Road. The Roman boat was found just behind the doors to the left:

County Hall

There is a curious link between the finding of the Roman boat and the laying of the foundation stone commemorated by the booklet.

The foundation stone was laid on Saturday the 9th of March 1912 by King George V. Underneath the foundation station was a bronze box, the purpose of which was described in newspaper reports of the ceremony:

“Depositing a ‘find’ for some archaeologist of the future, the King and Queen watching the foundation stone of the new London County Hall being lowered into position. Before the stone was lowered into position and declared by the King to be well and truly laid, his Majesty closed a bronze box containing certain current coins and documents recording the proceeding, and caused it to be placed in a receptacle in the stone. Perhaps at some dim future day, when London ‘is one with Nineveh and Tyre’ this box and its contents will come to light beneath the spade of an excavator, burrowing amid the ruins of a forgotten civilisation.”

So having been the site of excavation of a Roman boat, the hope was that the bronze box would form an archeological discovery in some distant future.

I assume the bronze box is still there, below the foundation stone, in the north-east lobby adjacent to the old Council Chamber.

Construction of County Hall continued slowly. It was a large building requiring large numbers of workmen and materials.

The coal and dock strikes of 1912 and building workers strike of 1914 delayed construction. Work continued during the First World War, however war demands such as on the rail network caused problems with the transport of granite from Cornwall to London.

As parts of the building became useable, they were taken over by rapidly growing Government departments such as the Ministry of Munitions and Ministry of Food, who were able to prioritorise their needs over the LCC due to the demands of war.

By the end of September 1919, the LCC were able to retake possession of the building, and work on completion continued quickly, with over one thousand men working on the site by March 1921.

The building was soon substantially complete, was gradually being taken over by an ever expanding LCC staff, and was officially opened in July 1922.

The London County Council continued until the 1st April 1965. The London Government Act of 1963 restructured how London was governed, and this led to the Greater London Council (GLC) which took over from the LCC.

The GLC lasted to the 31st of March, 1986 when it was abolished by the 1985 Local Government Act, primarily down to conflict between the Labour held GLC and the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher across the river.

The building was sold to the Shirayama Shokusan Corporation, a private Japanese company, for £60 million. and in the following years it would be converted to a hotel and the ground floor facing the embankment walkway hosts tourist destinations such as Shrek’s World of Adventure, a Sealife Centre and the ticket offices for the London Eye.

County Hall is Grade II listed, and the original Council Chamber of the LCC has been preserved, and is now available to hire and is used as a theatre.

The architect Ralph Knott worked on County Hall for most of his career. He had been called up into the Royal Air Force during the First World War where he was responsible for the design of airfield buildings, but he still kept in touch with County Hall construction. He returned to the County Hall project after the war to see the main building through to completion.

He was still working on plans for extension of the building late in his career, which were not finished at the time of his death at the young age of 50 on the 25th of January 1929.

County Hall is a fitting tribute to Ralph Knott. A relatively simple, but grand and imposing building facing onto the river, suitable for an institution that was to have so much impact on the 20th century development of London. A building of contrasting design to the Palace of Westminster on the opposite bank of the river.

Sad that the Roman boat has been substantially lost. Preservation of organic remains that have been in waterlogged soil for centuries is difficult, but thankfully now much better, as seen for example, with the preservation of the Mary Rose in Portsmouth.

I hope that no readers comment that the bronze box beneath the foundation stone has been removed. It would be great that it is still there for archaeologists in the distant future to dig up.

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Tunnelling the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway

A couple of week’s ago, I wrote about the construction of the Greenwich foot tunnel, based on a pamphlet published in 1902 by the Institution of Civil Engineers. The pamphlet included details of another recent tunnelling project, constructing the tunnels of the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (known from the start as the Bakerloo line), under the Thames between Embankment and Waterloo Stations.

Parliamentary Acts of 1893 and 1896 had approved construction of the Baker Street and Waterloo Electric Railway, initially running from Dorset Square near Marylebone Station, to Waterloo Station. Further requests for extensions were approved and by 1904 the line ran from Paddington to Elephant and Castle.

The route of the Baker Street and Waterloo railway ran beneath the Baker Street Station of the Metropolitan District Railway, by Regent’s Park and Crescent Gardens into Portland Place, through Langham Place to Oxford Circus (where the tunnels pass over those of the Central Line with a clearance of only 6 inches at one point), down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus, along Haymarket and Cockspur Street to Charing Cross, along Northumberland Avenue, then under the Thames to College Street, Vine Street and Waterloo Station.

The majority of the tunnel went through London Clay and was a relatively easy construction project, however there was a challenge where the tunnel went underneath the Thames.

The following diagram from the pamphlet shows the route under the river, from Northumberland Avenue to College Street on the opposite side of the river. The station shown above Hungerford Bridge, labelled Charing Cross Station, is now Embankment Station.

Baker Street and Waterloo Railway

The diagram shows a “River Stage” extending south from Hungerford Bridge. This was a large platform, 50 feet wide and 370 feet long on which were built workshops, stores, steam cranes, boilers and air-compressors, staff buildings along with two shafts down to where the tunnels would be built.

The construction platform and shafts on the Thames were needed due to a strange anomaly found in the bed of the river when test boreholes were made along the route of the tunnels.

In the middle of the river there was a sudden depression in the London Clay through which the rest of the tunnel had been bored. This had filled with gravel, which was porous to water and required a different tunnelling method to the rest of the route, which would use compressed air to help keep out water as the tunnel went through the gravel.

The following diagram shows the route under the Thames of the Baker Street and Waterloo railway, the depression in the London Clay and short distance of gravel through which the tunnel would need to run.

Baker Street and Waterloo Railway

The diagram also shows the shafts sunk down to the level of the tunnels for their construction, along with the temporary work platform created on the river.

College Street on the right is now under the Jubilee Gardens.

Note also in the diagram how the depth of the two tunnels diverge as they route under the Thames, with the “up” line having a rising gradient towards Waterloo (shown as dotted lines) and the “down” tunnel having a descending gradient towards Waterloo.

The ground beneath the streets and buildings of London is generally invisible, but is just as interesting as the surface. I have written about some of the areas where the geology beneath the city has influenced the development of an area, for example, how water shaped north Clerkenwell, Bagnigge Wells, St. Chad’s Place and a Lost Well, and also when oil was found beneath the streets of Willesden.

There are many features below the surface, some as a result of ice and freezing, some as a result of water, for example when the Thames was a much wider river, and the multiple smaller rivers that ran into the Thames, and some the result of human activity.

I wondered whether the feature shown in the 1902 pamphlet was still there. I suspect we look at the Thames at low tide, and assume a uniform bed to the river as it descends from one side of the river, to rise on the opposite side.

The Port of London Authority (PLA) have a complete set of survey and navigation charts on their website, detailing the river from Teddington to Southend. They show a very different view of the Thames, a view that is essential to those on the river. The depth of water, obstructions, navigation lights, moorings etc.

A view where bridges almost disappear, with only the piers supporting the bridge shown on the chart, as these are the key features for those on the river.

The PLA kindly gave permission for me to include an extract from the chart for Lambeth Reach in today’s post, an extract which covers the area where the tunnel for the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway was constructed.

Port of London Authority chart for Lambeth Reach

Hungerford Bridge can be seen in the centre of map, although only shown by black lines, with the piers supporting the bridge as the key feature.

The depth of the water is shown in metres (the depth is the average depth at the lower of each day’s two tides, which should show the minimum depth of water for those travelling along the river). The green areas along each side of the river are where the land is exposed at each low tide, with the height being shown (numbers underlined).

The depth of the Thames is typically between 2 and 3 metres at low tide in the central part of the river, however as can be seen just south of Hungerford Bridge (arrowed) there is a small area where the depth increases to a maximum of 5.4 metres, which is the same area as the depression in the London Clay shown in the 1902 diagram. Today’s Bakerloo line runs a short distance below the deepest area of this depression.

The PLA charts show how the depth of water gradually increases as the Thames heads towards the estuary, which is to be expected. They are some other similar features to the depression by Hungerford Bridge. For example, just off Limehouse Marina, there is a small area where the bed of the river suddenly descends from an average depth of between 6 and 7 metres, down to 11.7 metres, which is quite a depth at low tide.

Returning to the 1902 diagram of the route of the tunnels, it shows the tunnels running under College Street on the south bank of the river. This is one of the many streets that were lost following clearance of the area for the Festival of Britain.

The 1894 Ordnance Survey map shows the location of College Street (underlined in red) in the following extract  (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland“):

College Street

Interesting to compare the above map with the PLA chart. In the OS map, the priority is the land, so the river is shown as a blank stretch of water, with no defining features.

The location of College Street today, is under the northern edge of the Jubilee Gardens. The Thames has also been pushed back, with the construction of the embankment and walkway along the river for the Festival of Britain. In the following map, I have marked the location of College Street, pre-1950 edge of the river, where the shafts to the tunnels and the working platform were located, along with the route of the tunnels which today form the Bakerloo line ( © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Baker Street and Waterloo Railway

Looking at the area today, the tunnels of the Bakerloo line, run roughly under the blue van in the photo below. The edge of the grass to the right is the approximate pre-1950 boundary with the Thames.

Baker Street and Waterloo Railway

This view is looking back towards Waterloo Station from the walkway along the south bank, following the route of the Bakerloo line tunnels and College Street:

College Street

in the following view, the work platform extended from the first bridge pillars on the opposite side of the river (in front of the white boat) and extended 370 feet to the left. The depression in the London Clay is in the centre of the photo, and the Bakerloo line tunnels are running from the white ship to where I am standing to take the photo.

River Thames

One of the benefits stated in the 1902 pamphlet of the work platform in the river was that material excavated during the construction of the tunnels could be taken away by barge, saving the transport of large amounts of material through the city’s streets.

The river continues to be used for a similar purpose, with close to the route of the Bakerloo tunnels, a new construction site on the edge of the river for the Thames Tideway Tunnel or the Super Sewer, being dug at a much greater depth to the Bakerloo line tunnels, but with the same need to understand the geology through which the tunnel will be bored beneath London, and to transport materials via the river.

Thames Tideway Tunnel

There is a superb aerial view on Google Maps of the above Tideway Tunnel construction site showing the shaft down to the tunnel, which can be found on this link.

The two tunnels of the Bakerloo are each 12 feet in internal diameter, and were located in the gravel bed at a distance of 23 feet apart from the centre of each tunnel. As the tunnels approach the south bank, they move closer and the east bound tunnel will be running vertically over the west tunnel along the old route of College Street. This was done to keep the tunnels within the limits of the street.

Presumably this was done to avoid any damage to the buildings on either side of the street, or to create problems with later construction on the street, where deep cellars may have been built.

To get from College Street to Waterloo underground station, the tunnel crossed Belvedere Road and then routed along Vine Street. This street was also lost during clearance for the Festival of Britain, and in the late 1950s, the Shell Centre complex was built over the site of the street (only the tower block still remains).

I worked in the building during the 1980s, and fortunately working in what would today be called IT (lots of network, radio and telephone cabling), was able to access many of the tunnels built as part of the complex. There were two tunnels between the upstream (with the tower block) and downstream buildings of Shell Centre (on the opposite side of the railway viaduct to Hungerford Bridge). One of these tunnels was for pedestrians, and the other was a service tunnel.

The service tunnel had a raised section which went over the upper tunnel of the Bakerloo line, and it was possible to hear trains rumbling through the tunnels below.

To start construction of the Baker Street and Waterloo railway tunnels, two shafts of cast iron, 16 feet in internal diameter, were sunk from the work platform on the Thames. They reached down 50 feet. I like to assume these cast iron shafts are still below the surface, filled in, as probably too difficult and expensive to remove.

From a chamber at the bottom of the shaft, tunnels were started heading in both directions, with special attention paid to the tunnels under the Thames due to the gravel. The gravel was waterlogged, and at high tide, the combination of river and waterlogged gravel gave a head of 70 feet which created a considerable pressure of water through which the tunnel had to be driven.

A special shield was constructed, weighing 29.5 tons and with an outer steel cylinder of 13 feet in diameter. The shield included 14 hydraulic rams, each 6 inches in diameter, to push the shield forward as the gravel in front of the shield was excavated.

The following diagrams show some of the detail of the shield’s construction, including the hydraulic rams, their controls and the pipes feeding the rams, along with elevations of sections of the shield. Each hydraulic ram could be operated independently

Baker Street and Waterloo Railway

Specially constructed iron rings were designed for the tunnel wall under the river. Each ring was 18 inches wide, and constructed of seven segments. Initially, the joints between the rings were machined to give a smooth fit between rings where bolts were inserted to join the two, however this design was soon revised with rough surfaces on the joints, which were then packed with creosoted pine wood (figures 7 and 9 below).

Baker Street and Waterloo Railway

Gaps were grouted using a specially designed grouting machine (figure 10 above), which applied the grout at pressure, through special grouting holes, to help make the rings water tight.

The first part of the tunnel was through London Clay, however as the tunnel approached the centre of the Thames, it hit the water bearing gravel shown in the diagram earlier in the post. This required a change in tunneling method.

Compressed air was now used to keep the tunnel pressure at a level slightly higher than the pressure of the water through which the tunnel was being bored. This prevented water entering the tunnel, but required adjusted working conditions for the workers, with shifts reducing from 12 to 8 hour shifts.

Air pressure was also adjusted as the tide above rose and fell as the pressure of the column of water above the tunnel through the gravel and the river changed.

As the air pressure in the tunnel was higher than the water column, air would escape from the tunnel, up through the gravel, and could be seen by those on the side of the river as water spouts, with the position of the spouts changing as the tunnel progressed across the river.

The configuration of the shield needed to change as the shield approached and entered the gravel. The following drawings show the shield as it approached and then went through the gravel (called ballast in the diagrams).

Baker Street and Waterloo Railway

Work on the first tunnel commenced on the 19th March 1900. it had taken the previous January and February to construct the shield at the bottom of the shaft. On the 2nd of April, work was stopped to allow the construction of an 8 foot thick bulkhead brick wall in the tunnel. This would form the airlock to the section of the tunnel through the gravel where compressed air would be used.

Tunneling restarted on the 2nd of May and on the 6th of June the shield entered the gravel, and on the 15th July, the tunnel was fully within the gravel.

During the period of tunneling through the gravel, there were a few “blowouts” where water entered the space behind the shield. The design of the shield allowed time for the men working to escape, and provided a means of re-entering sections, and continuing work.

On the 27th September, the tunnel re-entered London Clay, with the last of the gravel seen on the 6th October 1900.

Tests were then carried out by removing the pumped air pressure to check for leaks, repairs carried out and compressed air was ended on the 27th October, with the airlock being demolished in November 1900.

The second tunnel was constructed in 1901, with the majority of the same workers, and using many of the lessons learnt on the first tunnel. This second tunnel was completed separately as the shield from the first tunnel was reused.

There were no deaths during construction, two “illnesses” due to working in compressed air, neither of which appear to have been serious. Workers were provided with hot coffee, clean work clothes, and a place to change before and after work. A doctor was assigned to the project to monitor those working in the part of the tunnels with compressed air.

Figure 11 at the top of the following diagrams highlights the method of tunneling in loose, water-bearing gravel:

Baker Street and Waterloo Railway

The Baker Street and Waterloo Railway commenced services in 1906, from Baker Street to Elephant and Castle. The Middlesex & Surrey Express on March the 9th, 1906 provided a description of the new railway:

“The Bakerloo, London’s new tube railway, running from Baker-street to Kennington-road, will be opened tomorrow. There are intermediate stations at Waterloo, Embankment, Trafalgar-square, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus and Regent’s Park, and a novelty about the new stations is that they are each treated in a separate colour scheme.

A uniform fare of twopence for the whole or any distance is to be charged, and trains will run at frequent intervals from half-past five in the morning until twelve thirty at night. The cars are of the usual type, well lighted, and with good, if not excessive provision made for ‘strap-hangers’ and one can imagine a scramble for straps taking place during the busiest hours. Collisions are rendered practically impossible for a most ingenious system, of automatic signaling has been adopted. Should, however, there be a prolonged breakdown, passengers will be able to leave the trains as a lighted footway has been provided between each stopping place along the whole length of the line.

The booking halls at the various stations are almost palatial in their design, and a feature of the lift accommodation is the use of compressed air in the rapid opening and shutting of the gates. All the wood used in construction has been rendered fire resisting”.

What is not mentioned in any of the news reports covering the opening of the Bakerloo is the tunnel under the river, and the challenges that were overcome in building two rail tunnels through water logged gravel under the Thames.

There was speculation at the time that the depression in the clay was caused by dredging for an earlier tunneling project for the Whitehall and Waterloo Railway.

This was a scheme to build a pneumatic railway in an iron tube under the river, the tube being sunk into the river bed rather than bored. The Railway News on the 20th of May, 1865, provided a description of project;

“THE WHITEHALL AND WATERLOO RAILWAY. Arrangements have now been completed which will admit of the commencement of works of this proposed railway immediately on the necessary Parliamentary powers being obtained. The bill has passed the Commons, it is now unopposed in the Lords and in a few days it may be expected to receive the Royal assent.

The railway is to be worked on the pneumatic principle, and is to be carried under the River Thames from Scotland-yard to the Waterloo Station of the London and South Western. The work must, of course, be finished before the wall of the Thames Embankment on the north side is built up, hence the necessity of pushing forward the preliminary arrangements as quickly as possible.

The railway will be formed by an iron tube, twelve feet in diameter, sunk into the bed of the river and supported in piers – a bridge, in fact, built in, not over the waters. the iron tubes will be made by Messrs. Samuda, and the laying of the tube and the other works will be undertaken by Messrs. Brassey and Co. The principle upon which the line will be worked will be much the same as that adopted on the experimental railway in the grounds of the Crystal Palace. The machinery will be on the Surrey side at the York-road Station.

The whole of the works will be completed in twelve months from the date of commencement. The cost of the undertaking will be about £130,000. The total weight of iron in the tube will be about 5,000 tons, and it will be sunk in four separate sections.”

The project soon ran into financial difficulties, the proposed timescale and costs for the project were hopelessly optimistic. In February 1868, papers were reporting that “The Whitehall and Waterloo Railway is at a complete standstill, and the directors advise the abandonment of the concern, unless, as they say, something turns up between this and the spring. They, of course, hope the South Western will help them in their difficulty, but one would think nothing could be farther from the thoughts of the directors of this company.”

In 1871, the company formed to build the Whitehall and Waterloo Railway was wound up.

The route of this earlier railway did follow much the same route as the later Baker Street and Waterloo Railway, and some parts of the iron tube were found during excavation for the construction of the Shell Centre complex, however I am not sure whether the depression in the London Clay was caused by dredging for this abandoned project.

The shape looks natural, the plan was to dig in the tunnel across the river to bury the iron tube, however the PLA chart shows the change in depth running along the river.

Whether natural or man-made, it was a considerable achievement to bore two tunnels that would become the Bakerloo line, through water bearing gravel, under a considerable head of water, at the start of the 20th century.

If you travel from Embankment Station to Waterloo on the Bakerloo, you will pass through this area of gravel soon after leaving the station.

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Old Barge House Stairs

For today’s post, I am returning to one of my favourite subjects, the old stairs that lined the river and provided such an important connection between the Thames and the streets of London on both the north and south banks of the river. The stairs for today’s post are Old Barge House Stairs:

Old Barge House Stairs

In the above photo, there are some modern steps descending from the river wall, just to the left of the large OXO sign. The remains of a wood and stone causeway can be seen to the left of the base of the steps towards the river.

The causeway is all that is left of Old Barge House Stairs. The following view shows the stairs from the opposite direction to the above photo:

Old Barge House Stairs

The stairs are located on the north western corner of the Oxo building on the south bank of the river, a short distance to the west of Blackfriars Bridge. I have ringed their location in the following map. The two piers on either side are the piers from where I took the above photos (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Old Barge House Stairs

The name Old Barge House Stairs comes from their proximity to the King’s Barge House, along with accommodation for the Royal Barge Master. It was here in the time of Henry VIII that the King’s Barge was stored.

The stairs appeared on maps as early as 1720, as shown in this extract from “A Plan of the City’s of London, Westminster and Borough of Southwark”, where Old Barge House Stairs are shown in the centre of the map:

Thames Watermen at river stairs

I do like the way that the map shows the boats that were probably used by the watermen associated with the stairs, clustered around the stairs.

If you visit Old Barge House Stairs when the tide is high, you will find just the top of a modern set of metal stairs that run down from the walkway in front of the north western corner of the Oxo building. Visit at low tide, and the causeway that would have once led from the original stairs is visible:

Old Barge House Stairs

I doubt that the causeway we see today dates back to the time of the above 1720 map. These stairs and their causeways were remade several times over the centuries due to continual erosion by the river, as well their changing importance relative to other river stairs.

Old Barge House Stairs

What I find so fascinating about these river stairs is that they provide a fixed point between two very different worlds – the land and the river. They are where people moved between the two, and they provided a fixed point of reference to understand what was happening in these two very different worlds.

On the land around the stairs, they would be used as a reference to events happening near-by. This would help people find a location, or the best way to travel. For example, the following advert from the Morning Chronicle on the 5th September 1806 is the equivalent of today using an underground station as a point of reference:

“Oak Scantlings, Mahogany Plank and Boards, and Two Thousand Deals &c. By Mr Farebrother at Mr Gresham’s Wharf (late Gales) near the Old Barge-house-stairs, Narrow Wall, Lambeth, on Monday next at 12.”

Newspapers mainly report bad news, and the River Thames has been the scene of so many tragic events over the centuries. A quick scan of old newspapers reveals an almost daily report of accidents and deaths on the river. It was a very dangerous place, as well as the scene of tragedies such as that reported in the Morning Chronicle on the 8th April 1831:

“On Tuesday evening, about five o’clock, a middle aged French lady, elegantly attired, hired a waterman, named Oxley, belonging to Waterloo-bridge stairs, to row her to the Old Barge House stairs. On the man being about to land her, she desired to return back and proceed to Westminster-bridge. He instantly pulled round, but previous to his arriving near the bridge, he asked the lady which stairs she would like to be landed at? To which she replied the lower one. When nearing them the lady placed her muff and purse in the boat and taking a portrait out of her bosom, and her bonnet off, she precipitated herself into the river before the waterman could prevent her. By great exertion, however, he succeeded in catching hold of her after she floated through the second arch, and by prompt assistance, she was rescued from the death she meditated. She was conveyed into the Swan tap, where every attention was paid her, but she would neither give any explanation of her rash conduct, nor her name or place of residence. her friends, however, by some means, became acquainted with the circumstance and they sent a coach for her, the coachman being desired to drive to Thornhaugh-street.”

And this very sad report from the Kentish Mercury on the 16th February 1847:

“On Wednesday an inquest was held by Mr. W. Carter at the Mitre, Broadwall, Blackfriars-road, relative to the death of a newly-born male child, found under very remarkable circumstances. Mark Marten, a lighterman, deposed that he was proceeding down the river on Friday morning last, and whilst passing Raymond’s-roads on the upper side of Blackfriars-bridge, he saw a market basket floating down with the tide.

He pulled it into his boat, and rowed ashore at Old Barge House Stairs, where he opened it, and found the body of a child wrapt in a piece of flannel, and covered with meadow hay. On the top of the basket was a label, to the following effect ‘to be opened with care, from an old friend’. Witness gave the body to the police, and inadvertently destroyed the label, which in a moment of excitement, threw into a fire. Mr. E. Doubleday, surgeon, said that he had examined the body, which was that of a male child, fully developed. There was sufficient evidence of the child having breathed, but he was unable to say to what extent. The deceased from the appearance of the body, had clearly received the necessary attention at his birth.

The coroner remarked that the fact of the paper being destroyed by the first witness was an unfortunate occurrence as all chance of tracing the guilty party was lost. He left the case in the hands of the jury, who returned an open verdict of Found Dead in the River Thames.”

The above two reports cover some of the more unusual events where the stairs were involved. There were also very many more tragedies at the river in the vicinity of each of the stairs, for example in August 1880 at old Barge House Stairs, 16 year old John Thomas Glue, who drowned after simply going for a swim during his dinner hour. Ten or eleven yards from the bank, he suddenly had cramp, was swept by the tide under a barge near the steps where he drowned.

What would not have been reported in the newspapers are the thousands of people who have used these stairs, using the services of the watermen who gathered around the stairs like taxis in a taxi rank, waiting to take their fare to their destination of choice.

Old Barge House Stairs

Today, Old Barge House Stairs are found between the Oxo building and Bernie Spain Gardens. The gardens are one of the few places of grassed, open space in the immediate area as this is a very built up area.

The old ITV Studios buildings, IBM Offices and the National Theatre are found to the west. Housing, offices and streets inland. In terms of London’s development, building around Old Barge House Stairs has been relatively recent, with the majority taking place during the 19th century.

For centuries the land around Old Barge House Stairs was part of Lambeth Marsh, an area of land roughly between Lambeth and Blackfriars Bridges and inland to St George’s Circus.

In the following extract from Rocque’s 1746 map of London, Old Barge House Stairs is marked in the centre of the map:

Narrow Wall and Broad Wall

The map shows that by 1746, the land along the river had been built on, however inland it was mainly fields and agriculture. The Tenter Ground was an area used for the drying of newly manufactured cloth. Frames were set up across the field and the cloth was stretched across the frame to dry. If you look on the left side of the map, there is a building marked Dye House, so it is possible that cloth dyed in this building would be dried on the Tenter Ground.

The street running from the left is called Narrow Wall. This street ran from the current location of Westminster Bridge, running along the length of the south bank. The first written mentions of Narrow Wall date back to 1443, and it seems to have been a raised causeway or walkway with the sandy foreshore to the north. The name describes its original appearance as a Narrow Wall which would have helped prevent high tides coming too far inland.

Today, Narrow Wall is better known as Belevdere Road and Upper Ground. This later street name can be seen continuing to the right of the map, with the name again describing the physical characteristics of the street, when so much of the surrounding land was low lying, marshy, and would have been regularly threatened with flooding.

A long street called Broad Wall runs south from Old Barge House Stairs for the length of the map.

The name Broad Wall again defines how this street originally formed. It was also along the line of the western boundary of an area of land known as Paris Garden. The boundary was formed by one of the branches of the River Neckinger, which also seems to have gone by the name of Widefleet.

There was a syndicated article about Paris Garden in a number of newspapers in March 1890, which mention the boundary, and how the stream eventually became a sewer which entered the Thames at Old Barge House Stairs:

“Paris Garden, known as the King’s manor as appertaining to its lord and copyholders, formerly lay in St. Saviour’s Parish, and was famed for its mill, water-courses, pastures and wild plants. In 1670 nearly all of it was taken for the new parish of Christchurch, as constituted under the will of John Marshall, who had died 40 years before. Comprising the ancient hide of Wideflete, and covering nearly 100 acres, it had been given in 1113 by one Robert Marmion to the Cluniac Monastery of Bermondsey, whence, almost fifty years later, it passed to the Knights Templar, who set up a chapelry there, and from them to the Knights Hospitaler of St. John.

In the early years of the fifteenth century it became a sanctuary for offenders. Ultimately passing to Henry VIII, it was granted as dowry for Jane Seymour. Lord Hundens and others, who got the manor from Queen Elizabeth, conveyed the land and manor house to Thomas Cure, a benefactor to the parish. The manor house has been identified with the Holland’s Leaguer, or Nob’s Island, one of the many houses of ill-fame that formerly flourished on Bankside. The moated and castellated ‘Leaguer’ which was kept by one Susan Holland, in 1630, stood south-westwards of the present Falcon drawing dock. Latterly known as Beggars Hall, it was pulled down in making the southern approach to Blackfriars Bridge; yet some authorities question the survival of the original building to that time. The Widefleet was converted into a sewer, having its outlet by Barge House-stairs.”

The outline of streams can be seen in the 1746 map, however these can be more clearly seen in the Agas map which shows London in the mid 16th century. The map does not show Old Barge House Stairs, however the land of Paris Garden is shown as the built and cultivated area in the centre of the map, with Paris Garden stairs to the right of the line of buildings along the river. In the following extract of the Agas map, I have marked the location of Old Barge House Stairs (red circle):

Paris Garden

The map does illustrate the number of streams in this part of the south bank, and running south from the future location of the stairs is a street (Broad Wall), with a stream running along the west side of the street, one of the branches of the Neckinger, or the Widefleet, which drained into the Thames at the location of the stairs.

The Neckinger / Widefleet is not visible today and does not drain into the river next to the stairs. Presumably any running water from the stream is now part of the sewer system.

The river walls here are high, protecting the low lying land from the waters of the Thames:

Old Barge House Stairs

The causeway will gradually erode over the years as the daily tides cover and roll back from the structure. It would be interesting to know if the causeway extends further towards the river wall, under the sand of the foreshore.

Old Barge House Stairs

Thames stairs are so much more than the physical remains we see today. They are a reference point between the land and river, which help tell a story of the area, and the many thousands of people who have in some way come into contact with them.

The problem with researching these posts, is finding a reference to the subject of a post which raises a whole set of new questions, which I frequently do not have time to follow up. One example concerns a potential bridge across the River Thames which would have landed at Old Barge House Stairs.

In 1862 the London Gazette reported on the incorporation of a new compnay, for the making of new bridges over the River Thames. Application was being made by the new company for a new Act that the company was intending to bring before Parliament. The Act proposed a range of new bridges, including:

  • A bridge, to be called the Tower Bridge, for horses, animals, trucks and passengers across the River Thames. Works to commence at Irongate Stairs near the Tower of London, and to terminate at Horseleydown Old Stairs.
  • A bridge, to be called St Paul’s Bridge, for horses, animals, trucks and passengers across the River Thames, commencing from the foot of St Paul’s Steam-boat Pier and terminating at Mason’s Stairs, Bankside.
  • A bridge, to be called the Temple Bridge, for horses, animals, trucks and passengers across the River Thames, commencing on the north side at a point distant 100 yards or thereabouts in a south-easterly direction from the commencement of the Temple Steam-boat Pier near Essex Street, and terminating at certain Stairs called Old Barge-house Stairs at the end of Old Barge-house Alley

As well as the above, the Act also proposed the New Chelsea and Battersea Bridge and the Wandsworth Bridge.

Tower Bridge would be built, however construction was not started for a further 24 years after the above Act.

St Paul’s Bridge continued to be a proposed solution in the early decades of the 20th century, but was never built.

As well as the 1862 Act, a Temple Bridge was proposed in the 1943, Abercrombie County of London Plan, published by the London County Council, but would also not be built.

Today, there is a short stretch of Barge House Street from Upper Ground to behind the Oxo building, and there is a stretch of Broadwall from Upper Ground to Stamford Street, so some of these old street names, and reminders of the history of the area can still be found when walking today.

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The Thames from Cherry Garden Stairs

Before heading to Cherry Garden Stairs, can I thank you for the response to last week’s post. All eleven walks sold out within the first day, which I really did not expect.

I have added an additional five walks as follows:

The Lost Streets of the Barbican:

The Southbank – Marsh, Industry, Culture and the Festival of Britain

All the above walks have now sold out. I will be adding more in the coming months and listing on the blog. A really big thank you to everyone who has booked and supported my walks, very much appreciated.

The subject of this week’s post is one of the earliest of my father’s photos as it dates from 1946. The negative is 75 years old and is not in that good a condition. The scanned image needed some processing to get it to the state you see below, and it is still rather grey with poor contrast.

The photo is from Cherry Garden Stairs, Bermondsey, looking along the river towards the City, with the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral visible through Tower Bridge.

Cherry Garden Stairs

The same view today, with the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in exactly the same place, however a very different river scene (the perspective looks different due to the very different camera and lens combinations used).

Cherry Garden Stairs

The location of Cherry Garden Stairs is shown in the following map, with the stairs located within the red circle at lower right. The 1946 photo looks along the southbank of the river towards Tower Bridge  (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Cherry Garden Stairs

The two photos show a very different scene.

In 1946, the river bank was lined by warehouses, wharves and docks, with cranes along the river. A large number of lighters and barges are moored in the river, and directly in front of the camera, which would have been on the foreshore of the river.

In the 2021 photo the towers of the City are visible to the right, along with the Shard on the left. There are no more working warehouses, wharves or docks, and traffic on the river is today very different.

The river is though still used to transport construction equipment to a major construction site. In the 2021 there is a large shed on the left bank of the river, with the metal work of a travelling crane extending from the shed to over the river.

This is Chambers Wharf, one of the main construction sites for the Thames Tideway Tunnel. Chambers Wharf is one of the project’s main drive sites, with boring machines transported to the site via the river, and lowered by crane down to the point where the machines drive out, creating the tunnel.

Chambers Wharf was one of the many wharves between Tower Bridge and Cherry Garden Stairs. The following map is from the 1953 edition of London Wharves and Docks, and the left of the river covers the area from Tower Bridge to Cherry Garden Stairs seen in my father’s photo.

Thames Wharves

The type of goods that these wharves dealt with are (from the top of the left bank of the river):

  • Coles Upper Wharf: Bulk grain, flour, cereals
  • Butler’s Wharf: Tea, rubber, colonial produce, bulk grain, fresh fruit
  • Upper Odessa Wharf: Cereals, non-hazardous chemicals, bagged goods
  • Adlards Wharf: General and bagged goods, timber
  • Sterling Wharf: General, strawboards and wood pulp boards
  • Chambers Wharf and Cold Storage: All types of food including highly perishable refrigerated dairy produce and quick frozen goods
  • Fountain Dock: Grabable rough goods, coal, granite, ballast and sand
  • Fountain Stairs Wharf: General, flour, cased goods
  • Powells Wharf: Foodstuffs
  • Farrands and Cherry Garden Wharf: General goods in bags, cases and casks, flour and corn starch

Also in the above map is St Saviour’s Dock, which I will save for a future post.

The list of wharfs does show the considerable range of goods that were being handled in the stretch of the south bank of the river shown in the 1946 photo.

The following extract from the 1949 edition of the Ordnance Survey map shows Cherry Garden Street in the centre of the map, running up to Cherry Garden Stairs, which are at the lower left of Cherry Garden Pier  (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Cherry Garden Pier

A pier at the site seems to date from the later half of the 19th century, and Cherry Garden Pier is still there today, although used by a private company with no public access.

One interesting point in the above map, is to the right of the map is the Millpond Estate, a 1930s housing development which can still be seen today. The location of the estate had been the site of a flour mill, mill pond and terrace housing. The mill pond was once part of an extensive irrigation system that ran inland to much larger ponds – lots more to discover around this part of Bermondsey.

Cherry Garden Stairs are one of the many old stairs that provided access to the river. The earliest newspaper reference I can find to the stairs dates from the 25th May 1738 when “Yesterday morning an eminent Shoemaker at Cherry Garden Stairs, Rotherhith, was found drowned in the River Thames”.

The stairs are probably much older than the 1738 reference. Leading back from the location of the stairs (see above map) is a street called Cherry Garden Street. The street is named after a pleasure garden that was here called Cherry Garden.

In volume four of the 1912 edition of the History of the County of Surrey in the Victoria County History series, there is reference to a Jacobean style house called Jamaica House which could still be found in Cherry Garden Street until 1860.

This house appears to have been part of the gardens as in the same volume, there is a quote from Pepys which reads “To Jamaica House, where I never was before, together with my wife, and the Mercers and our two maids, and there the girls did run wagers upon the bowling green: a pleasant day and spent but little”.

Jamaica House or Tavern in 1858 (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Jamaica House

Pepys visit is referenced in an article in the Westminster Gazette on the 7th October 1910, which also recalls an inn that was located by the stairs: “Cherry Garden-street, the scene of yesterday’s big riverside fire, occupies the site and preserves the name of the old Bermondsey ‘Cherry Garden’, once a well-known place of public resort. The Cherry Garden was favourably known to Pepys, who recorded his visit there in his famous diary. At Cherry Garden Stairs there was formerly a celebrated inn known as the Lion and Castle, a name supposed to have been derived from the marriage which took place between the Royal House of Stuart and that of Spain. Close by was the even more famous Jamaica, traditionally supposed to have been the residence of Cromwell”.

Edward Walford in Old and New London (1878) doubts the Lion and Castle name originating from a Stuart / Spanish name and prefers the source to be “the brand of Spanish arms on the sherry casks, and have been put up by the landlord to indicate the sale of genuine Spanish wines, such as sack, canary and mountain”.

The Lion and Castle pub seems to have been at Cherry Garden Stairs from the late 18th century to some point around the 1860s. It was not shown on the 1895 OS map.

It may have been that the stairs were used for river access to the pleasure gardens and that was why they took the name of the gardens. Rocque’s map of London in 1746 shows Cherry Garden Stairs (right on the corner edge of my copy of the map):

Cherry Garden Stairs

Thames stairs were so very important for centuries in the life of the river, and for all those who had some connection with the activities carried out on, or alongside the Thames.

As well as providing access to and from the river, Thames stairs were a key landmark. There are hundreds of newspaper references to Cherry Garden Stairs during the 18th and 19th centuries. The majority of these are adverts of ships for sale, for lease, or that were about to set out and were advertising for cargo or passengers.

For example, the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser on the 8th May 1818 has the following advert: “Has only room for a few Tons of Goods, and will be dispatched immediately. For Gibraltar direct. The fine, fast-sailing Brig PRINCE REGENT, Henry Stammers, Commander. lying at Cherry Garden Stairs. burthen 118 tons. For Freight or Passage”.

Other reports concern accidents, collisions, drowning and bodies pulled from the river near the stairs. Such an incident is recorded in the last newspaper reference to the stairs that I can find, when on the 29th November 1936, Reynold’s Newspaper recorded that a ten year old Bermondsey boy had fallen into the Thames from Cherry Garden Stairs and had drowned.

Thames stairs and pubs also seem to be a magnet for crime. For example, there are reports of passengers being rowed across the Thames and then robbed in, or close by the pubs that were often located near the landside of the stairs.

The tide was in when I arrived at Cherry Garden Stairs to taken the comparison photo. Access to the foreshore is now via a modern set of metal stairs that run over the embankment wall that was built as part of the walkway / tree lined open space that runs along the river. Difficult to photograph without being on the foreshore, but the stairs can be seen at the end of the wall in the following photo:

Cherry Garden Stairs

The walkway to the pier can be seen in the background.

I am sure that my father took the original photo from the 1946 version of the stairs, as it was by standing on the stairs that I could get the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in exactly the same position. At this distance from Tower Bridge and the cathedral, even a small change in position changed the orientation of bridge and dome.

There is much more to discover in this part of Bermondsey, so it is an area I will be returning to again.

alondoninheritance.com

Limehouse Cut and Angel Underground Station

Before starting on this week’s post on the Limehouse Cut and Angel Underground Station, can I thank you for all the feedback following last Sunday’s post. It is really appreciated.

I also hope that if you receive my posts as a subscriber, this one does reach you. For the last few days there has been a rather obscure error message in the component that links the blog with the WordPress tool that manages e-mail subscriptions. The hosting company is investigating, so my apologies if it does not reach you automatically.

You may well be wondering what on earth brings the Limehouse Cut and Angel Underground Station together in one post. I can assure you there is a common theme linking these two locations, which I hope will become clear as you read through the post.

Limehouse Cut

If you walk east along Narrow Street in Limehouse, over the bridge that crosses the channel from Limehouse Basin to the Thames, then turn towards the river along the Thames Path, and at the end of the new apartment buildings that go by the name of Victoria Wharf, you will find a short channel in from the river:

This was the original river entrance where the Limehouse Cut connected to the River Thames.

The Limehouse Cut was opened in 1770 to provide a direct route between the River Thames and the River Lea at Bromley-by-Bow.

The River Lea entered the Thames to the east of the Isle of Dogs, so the Limehouse Cut provided a much shorter route for barges heading to the City and east London by avoiding the need to travel around the full loop of the Isle of Dogs.

The following extract from the 1816 edition of Smith’s New Plan of London shows the Limehouse Cut running as an almost straight line from the River Lea at top right to the Thames, where I have marked the point where the Limehouse Cut connects to the river with a red circle – this is the short channel in my photo above.

The area to the lower left of the Limehouse Cut was mainly open space, with a limited number of buildings and streets, however this would be changing very soon.

Soon after the 1816 map was published, another canal was built to help with transport across the city. The Regent’s Canal ran from Limehouse and headed north to loop around north London, allowing goods to be transported from the river to the north of the city, thereby avoiding the congested road system.

Part of the Regent’s Canal included a large basin, an expanse of open water just before the point where the Regent’s Canal entered the river. There were warehouses around the basin, and barges would gather, waiting to transit to the river when tides allowed the locks to be open.

The Regent’s Canal Basin, and the entrance to the river was built immediately to the west of the Limehouse Cut.

For eleven years between 1853 and 1864, the Limehouse Cut was diverted into the Regent’s Canal Basin, however after 1864 the original entrance was back in use, with a new bridge carrying Narrow Street over the canal. This would last for another 100 years.

The following extract from the 1955 revision of the Ordnance Survey map shows the Limehouse Cut running from top right down to the River Thames, with the Regent’s Canal Basin immediately to the left, labelled as “Dock” (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

By 1968 industrial activity in the area had been in long decline as was trade on the Regent’s Canal and Limehouse Cut. The entrance to the river was again closed, and the Limehouse Cut diverted into the Regent’s Canal Basin that was renamed as the Limehouse Basin.

The following extract is from a map of the area today. Limehouse Cut is coming in from top right and diverting straight into Limehouse Basin, I have again circled the original entrance with a red circle (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

The pink road that appears to loop across the north of the Limehouse Basin is in reality underground as this is the Limehouse Link Tunnel.

The following view is looking across the old entrance to Limehouse Cut. The wooden boards may well be the original planks that lined the entrance to the canal.

A couple of high explosive bombs landed in the immediate vicinity so the area surrounding the wooden planks may well be repaired bomb damage.

A very faded information board at the old entrance to the Limehouse Cut:

Between 1853 and 1864, the Limehouse Cut had been diverted to the Thames via the Regent’s Canal Basin. In 1864, the original entrance was restored, and a new wrought iron girder bridge was installed to carry Narrow Street over the Limehouse Cut. This 1864 bridge remains in place, although because of the filled in entrance, the bridge is not that obvious apart from the iron side walls as the street is carried over the Limehouse Cut. This is the view from Narrow Street looking south towards the Thames:

The view looking north:

Looking over the northern edge of the bridge, we can see the section of the Limehouse Cut that was originally the lock that controlled access between the non-tidal canal and the tidal river. Much restored late 19th century lock keepers cottages line the western side of the old lock (to the left in the photo below):

The old Regent’s Canal Basin, now the smaller Limehouse Basin, today hosts a marina, and provides links with the River Thames, Regent’s Canal and via the Limehouse Cut, the River Lea, and are all really interesting walks.

The old Limehouse Cut entrance is evidence of the canal’s original 1770 route into the River Thames for one of London’s early transport systems.

Angel Underground Station

Today, the entrance to Angel Underground Station is on the corner of a modern brick office block, facing onto Islington High Street. It has not always been in this position.

To find the original station, you need to walk south to the junction of Islington High Street with Pentonville Road, and walk a short distance along City Road and on the left is a rather strange looking building:

This is the original Angel Underground Station.

The Angel Station opened in 1901 as part of the City and South London extension from Moorgate. Six years later in 1907, the line was extended on towards Euston station. Today, Angel Station is on the Bank branch of the Northern Line. The following extract from the 1954 Ordnance Survey Map shows the original station in the centre of the map, on the corner of City Road and Torrens Street. This is the station building photographed above (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

The location of the old and new stations can be seen in the following map (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

When Angel Station was built, it had a narrow central platform, with both tracks running either side of the platform. Whilst this was probably fine for the short period of time before the line was extended, it was a rather dangerous place when the platform was crowded, and busy trains ran in both directions.

The following clip is from the 1989 BBC film Heart of the Angel (link at the end of the post), showing the crowded platform.

From the same film is a clip of the 1989 entrance to the station, looking down City Road and is on the right of my photo of the station at the top of this section of the post.

The platforms were also served by lifts from the ground level building. The exterior cladding around the original brick building was a later addition to provide extra space. The view down Torrens Street with the station on the right:

By the late 1980s, the station had a long history of overcrowding along the narrow single platform. It would frequently be rather chaotic when two trains pulled in, with passengers leaving both trains onto a narrow platform full of passengers waiting to get on the trains.

The lifts were also relatively small for the number of passengers at busy times and would also frequently break down. At the end of the 1980s a major rebuild of the station began.

A new tunnel was excavated to take the northern branch, thereby separating the northern and southern tracks so each could have their own platform. The southern branch today occupies the space of the original tunnel so has a rather wide platform compared to a normal station, as the platform occupies the space of the original platform and the northern tracks.

Escalators were installed to avoid the use of lifts, and these took passengers between the platforms and the new station entrance on Islington High Street.

The new station opened in 1992, leaving the original station building to sit on the corner of City Road and Torrens Street.

Crossrail 2 includes a station at Angel, and the complete eastern side of Torrens Street, including the original station building, was designated in the safeguarding map of sites for Crossrail 2 construction and operation.

The following view looks along Torrens Street at the buildings included in the safeguarding map.

The buildings along this side of the street are an interesting mix of old warehouses.

Candid Arts Trust occupies a 19th century warehouse:

And at the end of the street is an early 20th century building that was constructed on the site of a smithy and may have been used to stable horses, however it would be occupied by a metal working and plating company.

And there is still evidence of this activity:

The building is now occupied by the “Islington Metal Works” – run by a hospitality company and the site is used for Wedding Receptions, Corporate and Christmas events.

The link between these two very different sites, in different parts of London is hopefully now clear; that they are the redundant entrances to once busy transport links that have now been diverted.

The entrance to the Limehouse Cut was once a busy route for barges moving between the Lee River and the River Thames, with the Limehouse Cut now diverted into Limehouse Basin.

The original entrance to the Angel underground station has now been closed for some thirty years, with passengers now diverted along escalators rather than lifts to the new station entrance on Islington High Street, with a considerably improved and safer platform layout at the station.

There are many examples of these across London where the ever changing transport system adapts to changing technology, different patterns of use and improvements.

A film was made for the BBC 40 Minutes series in 1989 documenting 48 hours in the life of the Angel station.

Heart of the Angel was made by the BAFTA award winning director Molly Dineen, and it is a very honest portrayal of a station struggling to cope with the numbers of passengers using the station and the creaking infrastructure supporting the station.

if you have a spare 40 minutes, it is well worth a watch and can be found here.

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Topping’s Wharf and the Wharves between London and Tower Bridges

In August 1948, my father was on a boat sailing from Westminster to Greenwich, taking photos along the route. The following photo is after having just passed under London Bridge, looking down towards Tower Bridge, with the cranes and warehouses of the wharves that line the river opposite the City of London.

Topping's Wharf

The Southwark side of the river between London Bridge and Tower Bridge was very different to the City side of the river. The Southwark side was full of wharves, warehouses, cranes and moored ships and barges.

The City had Billingsgate Market, the Customs House, New Fresh Wharf and the Tower of London. The difference between the two sides of the river can be seen in the following map from Commercial Motor’s 1953 edition of London Wharves and Docks:

Topping's Wharf

This fascinating book lists all the wharves and docks between Teddington and Tilbury, and provides details of the trade that they handled and their facilities. The following tables cover the Southwark wharves between London and Tower Bridges:

Topping's Wharf

Topping's Wharf

There was a remarkable 20,250,000 cubic feet of storage space within the warehouses along this relatively short stretch of the river, and there was a wide range of goods being stored. Chances are that if in 1953 you were drinking your morning cup of coffee, it would have been imported through one of these wharves.

By 1953, all except the Tower Bridge Wharf were owned by Hay’s Wharf Ltd, a business that had been expanding rapidly, and a name that can still be found in this transformed stretch of the river.

Many of these wharves had been in existence for hundreds of years, and they would have had individual owners with the name often reflecting the original owner / builder of the wharf.

There is so much history associated with each wharf, and they can demonstrate how trade was conducted, and what life was like in this part of London. Close to London Bridge in the above map is Topping’s Wharf, and I have taken this single wharf to see what can be found of its history.

The first reference I could find of Topping’s Wharf was an advert in the Newcastle Courant on the 17th December 1774 where the new owners are setting up a cargo route between London and Newcastle and advertising Topping’s Wharf as a safe and insured site for goods to be stored:

“To the MERCHANTS, TRADERS and SHIPPERS of GOODS to and from London and Newcastle. We take this opportunity of acquainting you, that having lately taken a new, commodious, and convenient Wharf, situate in Tooley-street, Southwark, and adjoining to London bridge, known by the name of Topping’s Wharf, where there are exceeding good warehouses for lodging and securing goods from damage by weather, and where vessels of 300 tons burthen or upwards may load by cranes, which will be a considerable saving of expense and risk, incurred by the present method of shipping, by lighters from above bridge. The goods will be lodged in warehouses, upon which an insurance of £4000 from fire will be made till shipped and the policy deposited at the Bank of Newcastle. A set of good accustomed vessels are engaged, one of which will sail every week. We therefore solicit your favours, and assure you, that the greatest care will be taken to ship your goods with regularity and dispatch, by Your humble servants, CHINERY, RUDD and JOHNSON, London, December 9th 1774”.

These newspaper adverts and reports are interesting because they shed some light on how trade was conducted in the 18th century. They also mention fire insurance as a key feature of Topping’s Wharf, and from later events we can see why.

Warehouses held large volumes of highly flammable materials, and fires in London’s warehouses were very frequent, with often significant destruction of buildings, the goods stored in the warehouse and ships moored alongside.

I have already written about one fire in the area, called at the time the “Great Fire at London Bridge” in 1861. There had already been another major fire eighteen years earlier in 1843. This fire had destroyed Topping’s Wharf, as reported in the Globe on Saturday, August 19th, 1843:

“TERRIFIC FIRE THIS MORNING – Never since the too well remembered fire at the Royal Exchange in 1838, has it fallen to our lot to record a more terrific one than that which took place this morning at an early hour, at the premises known as Topping’s Wharf, situate on the east side of London bridge, near Fenning’s Wharf, which it will be recollected was destroyed by a similar calamity in 1836.

In magnitude it exceeded the above-named disaster, or any other that has occurred on the banks of the River Thames for many years past; for, in addition, we regret to say that Watson’s Telegraph, formerly a shot tower, the large turpentine and oil stores of Messrs. Ward and Co, in Tooley-street, and St Olave’s Church, all fell a sacrifice to the devouring element, besides doing extensive damage to a tier of shipping moored alongside Topping’s Wharf”.

The fire had started just before two in the morning and was spotted by a Police Constable. The Fire Brigade was soon on the scene, led by the superintendent of the brigade, Mr. James Braidwood (who would be killed in the fire in Tooley Street eighteen years later).

By four in the morning, St Olave’s Church, just behind Topping’s Wharf was on fire and the Globe reported that “there appeared very little chance of any of that ancient building being saved”.

The following print shows the 1843 fire at Topping’s Wharf  (©Trustees of the British Museum):

Topping's Wharf

The report in the Globe newspaper mentioned Watson’s Telegraph, and in the above print, just to the right of the church tower you can see the word Watson. I knew about Watson’s Telegraph, but did not know that the central London telegraph was based by St Olave’s Church and Topping’s Wharf, just to the east of the southern end of London Bridge.

The British Museum has a print of Watson’s Telegraph before the fire, with St Olave’s Church to the right, and Topping’s Wharf to the lower left  (©Trustees of the British Museum).

Topping's Wharf

Watson’s Telegraph was the creation of a Mr. Watson of Cornhill. The purpose of the system was to rapidly pass messages to and from the coast and key ports. It was important to traders and ship owners in the City to know when their ship and cargo were getting close, or events such as a tragedy at sea.

Watson’s Telegraph system comprised of a number of towers with a semaphore signaling system on top. These were located at strategic points to allow a message to be passed along a chain of stations to the required destination. Each telegraph station needed to be able to see the telegraph stations on either side in the chain.  For example, to pass a message between the City and Deal in Kent, the telegraph chain consisted of: “London-bridge; the second at Forest-hill; the third at Knockholt; and others at Wrotham-hill, Bluebell-hill, and three or four elevated spots between there and Deal”.

An article in the Illustrated London News provided the above list of locations, and I love the introduction to the article which paints a futuristic view of communications:

“In this miraculous age of improvements and discoveries when ‘the annihilation of time and space’ is no longer regarded as an idle chimera of the brain, it might hardly be considered necessary to occupy our space with a detail of the various schemes that have been adopted and put in operation to facilitate this most paramount and prevailing desire. So many of our readers must be naturally unconversant with those experiments in arts and science which the ‘great metropolis’ is continually eliciting, that we feel it a duty which we owe to our friends and supporters at a distance, to place before them those objects of interest and real usefulness in which the metropolis abounds, and which are only known to them by name”.

As well as the telegraph stations, a key part of the system was a Telegraphic Dictionary which was kept at each station and contained “several thousand words, names, phrases and directions, such as are likely to be most useful and required, and names of vessels, places, and certain nautical terms which have been selected with great care, as may best suit the object in view”.

The message entries in the dictionary have an associated unique number and the positions of the arms on the semaphore corresponded to different numbers, thereby allowing the position of the arms to send a message from the telegraphic dictionary.

The system was created in 1842. It is remarkable to think that 179 years later, on the evening before writing this post, I was watching a live stream over the Internet from the US of the Perseverance rover landing on Mars, with photos of the surface coming minutes after landing. How communications technology has changed in less than 200 years. I suspect the readers of the Illustrated London News in 1842, could not have imagined this new ‘the annihilation of time and space’.

It is difficult to track the ownership of Topping’s Wharf over the centuries of its existence. It seems to have been owned by Magdalen College, Oxford for some time, as in the Globe on the 28th October 1907, there is a record that: “the leasehold of Topping’s Wharf, Tooley-street, London-bridge, which Messrs. Jones, Lang, and Co. are to offer by the instructions of Magdalen College, Oxford”.  There was also a description of Topping’s Wharf:

“The premises, which comprise ground floor, basement, and three large upper warehouse floors are supplied with loopholes to each floor, with hydraulic lifts, and cranes, back and front, and have recently been fitted with a London County Council staircase”.

I cannot find who took the lease in the 1907 auction, but in 1912 Topping’s Wharf was let to Nestle and the Anglo Swiss Condensed Milk Company.  Hay’s Wharf Ltd seem to have taken on Topping’s Wharf in the 1920s.

Back to the view of the river between London and Tower Bridges, and another view of the wharves along the river, and the ships that used these wharves is shown in the following photo which my father took from the open space outside the Tower of London.

Topping's Wharf

When my father took the above photo and the photo at the top of the post, the wharves along this part of the river were really busy. Cranes lined the river and ships loaded and unloaded their cargo at this stretch of wharves which were then nearly all owned by Hay’s Wharf Ltd.

The introduction to the 1953 edition of Commercial Motor’s London Wharves and Docks gives an impression of how trade on the river was increasing:

“Commercial activity on the River Thames has increased considerably in the post-war years, due in large part to British Industry’s successful efforts to expand its export trade with world markets. Arising out of this intensified traffic in the industrial reaches of the Thames has come the need for an up to date, comprehensive guide to the many wharves and docks which line the banks of the River from Teddington to Gravesend”.

Despite the post-war increase in trade on the river, the wharves between London and Tower Bridges would not have too many years left. The increasing size of cargo ships and containerisation meant that inner London docks quickly became unsuitable for the type of shipping and new methods of moving cargo.

To show how quickly river trade changed, 26 years after the above description of increased activity on the river, I took the following photo in 1979, looking along the river from London Bridge:

Topping's Wharf

The cranes lining the river have gone, some of the warehouses were still being used for storage, but the majority were derelict. The space where the cranes once moved cargo between ship and warehouse was then used for parking space.

Another photo from 1979 looking down the river. A few of the remaining cranes can be seen just to the right of HMS Belfast. These would have been on Mark Brown’s and Tower Bridge Wharves.

Topping's Wharf

I took a couple of “now” photos in August 2020 to mirror my 1979 photos, and the following photo shows the redevelopment of the Southwark side of the river. Part of Hay’s Wharf remains, but the rest of the area has been transformed.

Topping's Wharf

A riverside walk now runs where cranes once transferred goods between ship and warehouse, and where cars parked in 1979.

The following photo is an August 2020 view of my second 1979 photo and shows the redevelopment at the Southwark end of Tower Bridge, with the Mayor of London’s City Hall.

Topping's Wharf

So what occupies the location of Topping’s Wharf today? The whole Southwark stretch of the river between London and Tower Bridges was marked for development in the 1980s, and by 1986 “Number 1 London” had been constructed. A two part building complex with a 13 storey tower adjacent to London Bridge and a smaller 10 storey section on the site of Topping’s Wharf.

In the following photo, taken from the top of the Shard, London Bridge is on the left. The two buildings of Number 1 London are of similar design and materials and can be seen to the right of the bridge, directly on the river. The smaller of the two buildings is where Topping’s Wharf was located.

Topping's Wharf

A view of the location from the river. Topping’s Wharf was located where part of the glass canopy and the building to the left of the canopy now stand.

Topping's Wharf

In my father’s 1948 photo at the top of the post there are a line of identical cranes between the warehouses and river. These are the 240 cwt. or hundredweight (approximately 12,192 kg) cranes listed in the Commercial Motor specifications for each wharf.

The most newsworthy appearance of the cranes was during the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965. His coffin was carried along this stretch of the Thames, and the cranes bowed in turn as the boat carrying his coffin passed. This can be seen in a British Pathé film of the funeral, which can be found here – the cranes can be seen starting at 9 minutes.

If you want to see part of the street that ran behind the warehouses at the Tower Bridge end of the river, then see my post on the Lost Warehouses of Pickle Herring Street.

There is far more to discover along this stretch of the river. The 300 year history of Hay’s Wharf and the lost church of St. Olave are just two examples. These will have to wait for future posts.

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Billingsgate Excavation and London Docklands

Two apparently unconnected subjects for this week’s post. A Billingsgate excavation, and the London Docklands. What connects the two is that whilst sorting a box of papers this last week, I found leaflets handed out to visitors when it was possible to visit the archeological excavation in the old lorry park at Billingsgate Market, and the London Docklands Development Corporation Visitor Centre on the Isle of Dogs.

I had posted some photos of an excavation a few months ago, asking for help to confirm the location, and a number of readers suggested Billingsgate. I was really pleased to find the Billingsgate leaflet because it helped to confirm the location.

Billingsgate Excavation

Billingsgate fish market moved to a new location between the Isle of Dogs and Poplar in February 1982, and whilst the buildings of the fish market were to be retained, the adjacent lorry park was to be redeveloped with an office block. The lorry park was in a prime position between the River Thames and Lower Thames Street and offered a sizeable area for new offices.

Archeologically, the site of the lorry park was important. It had been built on the area of land that was once the shifting waterfront between land and river. The Thames has only relatively recently been channeled within concrete walls, many centuries ago, the river’s edge would have been marsh, inter-tidal land up to where the ground rises north of Lower Thames Street.

As the importance of the City as a trading port grew, the edge of the City expanded into the river, building quayside, docks and buildings from the Roman period onwards.

It was this advance of the waterfront that the excavation hoped to uncover below a tarmac lorry park.

In 1982, the Museum of London published a leaflet explaining the Billingsgate Excavations and it was this leaflet I found in a box of London guides and leaflets.

Billingsgate excavation

The leaflet was published during the early weeks of the excavation, and provided some background to the location and included a drawing showing the results from a previous nearby excavation at St Magnus House which had found evidence of the Thames waterfront as it expanded southwards from the Roman period to the 13th century. A continuation of this Roman to 13th century strata was expected to be found under the Billingsgate lorry park.

Billingsgate excavation

Long before the fish market, Billingsgate had been one of the three docks or harbours dating from the Saxon period, along with Queenhithe and Dowgate. These later two sites had been lost to archeological investigation due to development in the 1960s and early 1970s, so access to the Billingsgate lorry park was of considerable importance.

Preparation of the site began on the 20th January 1982 when the tarmac was removed, along with rubble found in the basements of the buildings beneath the tarmac. A cofferdam needed to be installed to shore up the sides of the site and prevent water entering the excavation at times of high tide. The waters of the Thames would still try and seep through the land the river had lost. The work to excavate the site began in March.

The leaflet explains the source of funding for the excavation, from the Corporation of the City of London, the Department of the Environment and from a number of private contributions. A reminder of the expense of such projects and the considerable challenges of raising funds for such important work, as when these sites have been lost, there will never again be a chance to explore the history of the site.

Billingsgate excavation

I had photographed the lorry park in 1980, when the market was still open. Rather a bland view when you consider what would be found below ground.

Billingsgate excavation

I took a number of photos of the excavations when I visited the site. When I originally scanned the negatives I was not sure of their location (I was not good at keeping records of the location of my photos), and I published a couple in a post a few months ago asking for help with the location. A number of readers suggested Billingsgate, and finding the leaflet helped jog my memory of visiting the site.

Billingsgate excavation

The Billingsgate excavation uncovered a significant amount of evidence of the waterfront as it developed, and the buildings that lined the river.

Excavation of the upper levels found evidence of the waterfront dating back to the 12th century, along with tenements that lined the river (extending into the Billingsgate lorry park from other tenements discovered during earlier excavations to the west). A small inlet from the river was also discovered under the lorry park.

The church of St Botolph Billingsgate was originally just north of the site, where Lower Thames Street is today, however part of the church did extend into the area of the lorry park, and evidence of the southern wall was found, along with two tiled floors from the church and a number of burials.

Numerous small finds were uncovered, including a rare 14th century buckle, a lead lion badge, which could have been a pilgrim’s badge and intact 17th century bottles.

A number of fabrics dating back to between the 12th and 14th centuries were found. These were made of undyed, natural fibres, the type that have been used for sacking, probably evidence of the transport of goods from ships at the inlet and Billingsgate waterfront.

The Billingsgate dock may have been used by larger ships that would have been used for cross channel trade. Documentary evidence from the 14th century implies that these ships were encouraged to use Billingsgate rather than navigate through London Bridge to Queenhithe.

If you look in the middle of the following photo, there appears to be a number of twigs and branches laid out to form a mat. This is wattle consolidation in front of the 12th century waterfront.

Billingsgate excavation

In the following photo, a three sided wooden long rectangular box like structure can be seen:

Billingsgate excavation

This is a wooden drain that dates to the 13th century, possibly around 1270. The drain extended for a length of 8.8 metres, parts also had the top covering, and the drain was in exceptionally good condition allowing the detail of construction to be examined.

The results of the Billingsgate and related excavations, were published in the 2018 book “London’s Waterfront 1100-1666: excavations in Thames Street, London, 1974-84” by John Schofield, Lyn Blackmore and Jacqui Pearce with Tony Dyson. The book is a detailed examination of London’s historic waterfront as it developed over the centuries.

The book is published by Archaeopress, and is available for download under Open Access. 

The book includes a photo of the same drain that was in my photo, and as Archaeopress appears to state that the book comes with a Creative Commons licence, I have copied the photo from the book below.

Billingsgate excavation

The drain is exactly the same as in my photo, so final confirmation that my photos were of the Billingsgate excavation.

The Billingsgate excavation was a significant dig during the early 1980s. I found some of my old copies of Popular Archeology from the time, and there are a number of articles by John Schofield providing updates on the work.

Billingsgate excavation

The following photo shows how far down the excavation had reached when I photographed the site, however it would continue downwards to reach the timbers of the Saxon and Roman waterfront, showing just how far below the current surface of the City that these remains are found.

Billingsgate excavation

The excavation was initially scheduled to end in November 1982, however agreement with the developer allowed work to continue into 1983.

Excavation finally worked down through the Saxon waterfront to the substantial timbers of the Roman waterfront.

The BBC history series Chronicle made a programme on the Billingsgate excavation and this can now be found here on YouTube.

As well as providing comprehensive coverage of the excavation, told by those working on the site, it also shows how this type of work was carried out in the early 1980s, and “because the dig has extra funding from sponsors, the Museum of London can invest in computers for the first time”. Very early use of computer technology to record a large excavation.

When work completed, a large number of finds were ready for further investigation. Wood from the various waterfronts had been removed, and sections of wood cut out to allow the age of the tree and when it was cut down to be investigated.

The BBC Chronicle programme shows the pressures of City archeology, the pressure to complete by a date driven by the developer, negotiations for extensions and how work is planned to retrieve as much as possible within a limited period of time.

Today, the site is under the building at the western end of the old Billingsgate Market building, at the far end of the following photo.

Billingsgate excavation

The following photo shows a very different view from roughly where I was standing to take the 1980 photo of the old lorry park.

Billingsgate excavation

Finding the leaflet on the dig, along with reading the book and watching the Chronicle episode brought back a load of memories from visiting the site almost 40 years ago. An advert in Popular Archaeology of July 1982 states that the site was open for visitors every day of the week except for Monday, and admission to the viewing platform cost 50p for adults and 25p for children.

Preserving timbers exposed to the air, when they have been buried in waterlogged soil for centuries is a considerable problem, however it would have been really good if some section of the old Roman and Saxon waterfront could have been preserved in situ. It would have provided a really good demonstration of how the present City has been built on the layered centuries of previous development, and as the City has risen in height, so the Thames has been pushed back into the the confined channel that the river runs in today.

Another of my finds whilst sorting through a box of London papers was a reminder of a very different visit.

London Docklands – The Exceptional Place

In the late 1980s / early 1990s, the redevelopment of the old docklands, around the Isle of Dogs and the Royal Docks further to the east was moving forward under the management of the London Docklands Development Corporation (the LDDC).

The LDDC opened a visitor centre at 3 Limeharbour on the Isle of Dogs, where a brochure on the London Docklands – The Exceptional Place was available:

Billingsgate excavation

The rear of the brochure, shows a train on the recently opened section of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR).

Billingsgate excavation

The brochure opens up to reveal a large map of the area, from the City of London in the west, to the edge of the Royal Docks in the east. Having a map is probably why I picked up and kept the brochure – anything with a map.

Billingsgate excavation

The focus of the map is on the transport links connecting the docklands to the City and the surrounding road network. Only recently this area of London had seemed a remote and derelict land and if the LDDC were to entice the investment needed, along with the businesses and people to relocate to the docklands, they had to demonstrate that travel was easy.

The map charts the growth of the Docklands Light Railway, and shows the extent of plans in 1990, along with some station changes to the DLR network we see today.

By 1990, the DLR extended from Tower Gateway in the City, to Stratford, and Island Gardens on the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. The eastern route onwards from Poplar was shown as a dashed route to show that this section of the route was under construction.

Billingsgate excavation

The following section shows the north eastern tip of the isle of Dogs and Leamouth, with the River Lea / Bow Creek curving around an area of land that has now been redeveloped as City Island.

Billingsgate excavation

The red dashed line shows the 1990 expectations for the planned Jubilee line extension, where the line would continue from Canary Wharf, to a new station called Brunswick, then to Canning Town and on to Stratford.

As built, the Jubilee line extension took a different route, and headed across the river to North Greenwich from Canary Wharf, before heading back across the river to Canning Town. Brunswick station would never be built.

Comparing the planned to the built route of the DLR shows a similar loss of the name Brunswick for a station. In the 1990 plans, there was to be a Brunswick station on the DLR, however as built, this would be named East India. The following map marks the location of DLR stations today:

Billingsgate excavation

The route further east to Beckton shows the loss of a station. Connaught Station was planned between Prince Regent and Royal Albert stations, however when looking at the map, Connaught would have been so close to Royal Albert that it made little sense to build the station.

Billingsgate excavation

The yellow area in the above map is London City Airport, which had opened three years earlier in 1987. The map also shows the 1990 planned extension to the DLR, and the map below shows the line as built today.

Billingsgate excavation

The 1990 plan was for the line to run along the north of the Royal docks, however in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the line was further extended to Greenwich, Lewisham, City Airport and Woolwich.

The route south of the Royal Docks is shown on the 2020 map above, not on the 1990 map, and in the 1990 map, the line terminates at Island Gardens to the south of the Isle of Dogs, rather than crossing under the river and continuing on to Lewisham as it does today.

The map also identifies another element of transport infrastructure that has not been built  – the East London River Crossing is shown on the eastern edge of the map from Gallions Reach, heading under the river towards the A2.

Billingsgate excavation

Ideas for this tunnel keep resurfacing, however it is not on Transport for London’s list of new river crossings for London, and I suspect given current financial conditions, the Silvertown Tunnel will be the only new river crossing built for a very long time.

Two very different topics, the only apparent connection being the leaflet and brochure coming from a box of London papers. There is though another connection – they both tell of the development of London. With Billingsgate we can discover the growth of London’s waterfront from the Roman timbers found many feet below the current surface level, through the Saxon and Medieval to a lorry park that served the old fish market.

In the London Docklands, development continues to this day, and the brochure records some of this and shows how the 1990 plans developed to the transport network we see today.

It is interesting to speculate whether archeologists in 2000 years time will discover any remains of the DLR and what they will make of a 20th century transport system.

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A Thames Dolphin at Rotherhithe

The title for this week’s post is a bit deceiving. The Thames dolphin in question is not one of the marine mammals, rather it is a structure in the river which is also called a dolphin.

The definitions for this type of dolphin include a pile, or a collection of piles in the river to which a boat can be moored, or a cluster of piles at the entrance to a dock, and it is this later definition which I suspect applies to the dolphin in my father’s photo at the entrance to the Surrey Lock and Basin in Rotherhithe – photographed in 1947:

Dolphin

The photo was taken from the Thames foreshore, adjacent to the air shaft of the Rotherhithe tunnel, looking across to the Shadwell / Wapping side of the river.

The negative with the photo was in poor condition and took some processing to get to the copy you see above, which unfortunately still has the opposite bank of the river with a rather poor contrast and lack of detail to the buildings.

I could not get down to the foreshore to take a similar photo as the tide was not sufficiently out, so the angle of the 2020 photo is slightly different. The following photo shows that the dolphin can still be seen today, along with some landmarks visible in 1947 on the opposite side of the river.

Dolphin

The following extract is from the 1948 revision of the Ordinance Survey map. The lines converge on the approximate point where my father was standing to take the photo. A blue circle marks the location of the dolphin (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Dolphin

The green circle on the opposite side of the river is the position of the air shaft of the Rotherhithe tunnel which can be seen in the 1947 photo. The centre red arrow shows the alignment of the airshaft in relation to the dolphin.

The arrow on the left points to the church spire that be seen in the 1947 photo. This is the spire of St Mary’s in Cable Street. The spire can also be seen in the 2020 photo, and I photographed the church when I was walking the area a few years ago.

Dolphin

The arrow on the right points to the buildings which can be seen to the right of the dolphin. These are the buildings and cranes of Charringtons Wharf, which were demolished some years ago to be replaced by the large block of flats on the site today. The cranes to the right of the tunnel air shaft in the 2020 photo mark one of the construction sites for the Thames Tideway Tunnel, or Super Sewer.

There is a prominent line of buildings running between the dolphin and the spire of the church. These were buildings along the northern edge of The Highway – buildings that have now been demolished.

The gap in the centre of the line of buildings is open space between The Highway and Glamis Place, with the ruins of a pub to the left.

The entrance to Shadwell Basin is also in the photo, but is hard to see due to the lack of contrast, and the lighting of the scene across the river. The entrance is also at an angle to the river so the northern side of the entrance looks like a continuation of the river wall.

I have marked these features on the original 1947 photo as shown below:

Dolphin

There is one feature in the 1947 photo that I could not locate, however the Britain from Above archive came to the rescue.

The following photo from 1946 shows the Wapping / Shadwell area. The tunnel air shaft is lower left and I have ringed the church. I have written the name of The Highway along the street and the row of buildings along the north side of the street can be seen.

Dolphin

From the church spire, look diagonally to the lower left and you will see a chimney. This is the chimney seen in the 1947 photo and is the feature I could not locate.

Comparing the photo and the OS maps, the chimney looks as if it may have been part of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children.

The following map shows the area today. The lower solid red circle is the point from where the photo was taken, and for reference, the upper red ring is the location of the church (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Dolphin

The entrance to the Surrey Basin can be seen to the right of the lower red circle and the entrance to Shadwell New Basin is on the opposite bank.

The following photo is looking slightly to the west. The air shaft of the tunnel is opposite, and it is strange to imagine the thousands of cars and lorries that are running daily, under the river between where I am standing and the air shaft opposite.

Dolphin

The dolphin has been repaired since the 1947 photo, but still retains the mooring bollard on top.

Across the river, there is a second church spire to the left, this is St Paul’s Shadwell. The white building on the extreme left is the Prospect of Whitby pub.

A close-up view of the air shaft on the north bank of the river. To the left of the air shaft are the Shadwell Dock Stairs, which I wrote about here.

Dolphin

The area behind the northern airshaft is the King Edward VII Memorial Park – a fascinating area which I wrote about here.

The following photo shows the Rotherhithe tunnel air shaft on the south bank of the river, mirroring the design of the structure on the opposite bank.

Dolphin

The location of these airshafts can be seen when travelling through the Rotherhithe tunnel. They are each located where the tunnel bends, and with the walls of the tunnel set back for the infrastructure leading up through the air shaft.

If you look along the river wall in the above photo, you will see steps descending down to the foreshore, which at the time I was there were still partly underwater.

I suspect this was the method my father used to get down to the foreshore to take the 1947 photo, as the steps are also shown on the 1948 Ordnance Survey map.

The entrance to the Shadwell New Basin on the opposite side of the river is almost impossible to see in the 1947 photo. The entrance is at an angle and is still not that obvious today. The following close-up photo shows the entrance to the basin.

Dolphin

The Prospect of Whitby on the northern bank of the river (I can only dream of having a beer there at the moment):

Dolphin

View looking west along the river with the dolphin:

Dolphin

The dolphin is just outside the entrance to the Surrey Lock, which was the western entrance to the Surrey Basin, and the large complex of docks that once occupied the peninsula. The following extract from the 1940 edition of Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of Greater London shows the considerable size of the docks. The entrance by the dolphin is on the left and labelled Surrey Docks.

Dolphin

The following photo shows more clearly the position of the dolphin and the entrance to the docks, which today have two posts marking the entrance.

Dolphin

The mooring bollard on the top of the dolphin implies that ships could have been moored on the dolphin, however I would have thought a ship moored in that position could have been an obstruction for ships coming in and out of the dock.

Dolphins at the entrance to docks were also used as a type of fender where the dolphin provided something for a ship to gently hit up against, and as an aid to align and position the ship.

At the entrance to a dock this may have helped a ship enter or exit the dock rather than drift further up or down stream.

Whatever the use of the dolphin, I assume it is now redundant as the docks have long since closed, with the majority disappearing under new building, and the entrance from the lock into Surrey Water closed off by Salter Road which runs across the old entrance into the basin.

The entrance does have an interesting base, which appears to be composed of metal plates.

Dolphin

I suspect the design is to reduce the amount of sediment that settles on the base of the lock. The angled plates which run along the centre will result in water draining to left and right as the tide goes out, and the higher flow of water along the edges that this causes reduces the amount of sediment left in the dock.

Facing out of the dock, towards the Thames, the tunnel air shaft is on the left, and a large pub, the Salt Quay, on the right:

Dolphin

Looking in from the river, along the Surrey Lock, and a rolling lift bridge can be seen, carrying Rotherhithe Street across the lock.

Dolphin

The bridge is a rolling lift bridge as it has a large counter weight at one end of the bridge, with a curved framework connecting the counter weight to the deck of the bridge.

Dolphin

When the bridge opens, the counter weight moves to the ground, rolling the deck of the bridge upwards. The following photo shows the bridge in action, with the deck fully raised to allow ships to move from the lock and into the docks.

Dolphin

The above view is looking south-west from the Thames. The chimneys in the background are at the Rotherhithe Gas Works which I covered a couple of weeks ago.

The docks were a prime target for bombing during the last war, and the original bridge was badly damaged in September 1940. Whilst it could continue to provide a road across the dock, it could not lift, so only barges were able to enter, not the usual sea going ships that would have normally entered the docks via this route.

The original bridge was built in 1858 as part of the development of the dock complex, but was finally replaced in 1952 when the new bridge was completed and opened by Viscount Waverley, the chairman of the Port of London Authority.

When the bridge was opened, it was reported that “the people of Bermondsey will again be able to observe the daily spectacle of sea-going ships on their way in and out of this dock entrance”.

The bridge also had a wider roadway than the original bridge, along with improved approaches to the bridge which would help with the substantial volume of road traffic along Rotherhithe Street.

The bridge cost £110,000 to construct, and the fine balance of bridge and counter-weight enabled the 720 tons of the bridge to be raised or lowered in three minutes, by just a 50 horse power electric motor.

Newspaper reports of the time stated that “incorporated in the main structure are 100 tons of cast-iron blocks from an old bridge across the river at Limehouse”. An intriguing statement that I have not had the time to research.

The bridge today sits quietly in an area that those who attended the 1952 opening would be hard pressed to recognise, the area having been significantly redeveloped after the closure of the docks.

Dolphin

The following photo is looking from the bridge, along the Surrey Dock towards where Salter Road now closes off the entrance to the basin. Salter Road being part of the development of the area after the closure of the docks.

Dolphin

The dolphin at the entrance to the Surrey Lock is a reminder of the sea going shipping that once was so common on this part of the river, and that would have either moored on the dolphin, or used it as an aid to enter or leave the dock.

The Surrey Commercial Docks to give the dock complex their full name is an area I have yet to explore. My father took more photos of the area, so hopefully some return visits in 2021.

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Shadwell Dock Stairs

Six week’s ago, I walked along the north bank of the Thames from Tower Bridge to the Isle of Dogs, hunting some of the stairs down to the river. I am trying to trace all those that have been lost, and visit all those that remain. I have already covered a number of these fascinating places, and for this post I am at one of the probably lesser known stairs, Shadwell Dock Stairs.

The red circle in the following map extract shows the location of the stairs, between King Edward Memorial Park and the entrance to Shadwell Basin  (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Shadwell Dock Stairs are shown on the 1894 Ordnance Survey map, but in a rather unusual location as they are almost hard up against the entrance to the Shadwell New Basin. This was the eastern entrance to the London Docks, so must have been a busy place with ships entering and departing from the London Dock complex.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

The reason they are there is explained by looking at an earlier map, the 1746 Rocque map of London which shows the stairs in place, long before the build of the Shadwell Basin. They are highlighted by the red oval in the following map.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

The above map also explains the source of the name. If you look to the left of the stairs, there is a narrow channel leading a short distance inland to the street Lower Shadwell. This channel of water is named Shadwell Dock. There is a Timber Yard across the street, so perhaps Shadwell Dock was the route by which timber was landed to be moved to and from the Timber Yard.

So, I suspect it is safe to assume that Shadwell Dock Stairs are earlier than 1746, and were named after the nearby dock.

The Faithorne and Newcourt map of 1658 shows a continuous line of buildings along the river at this point, without the stairs or Shadwell Dock, so they must have been built in the years between 1658 and 1746.

UPDATE: Reader David Crowther highlighted in the comments a key point regarding the location of the stairs which I completely missed. In the 1746 map, Shadwell Dock Stairs are to the west of Labour In Vain Street, however in the 1894 map the stairs are just to the east of the same street. To check that this was not a mapping error in the 1746 map, I checked Horwood’s map of 1799 and that also shows the stairs to the west of Labour In Vain Street, the same position as the 1746 map. 

The Shadwell Basin entrance was constructed in the 19th century, and aligning Horwood’s map with the position of the basin entrance shows that the original position of the stairs was where the new entrance would be constructed, so the stairs were re-built just to the east of the basin entrance, to the new position shown in the 1894 map.

This perhaps demonstrates the importance of the stairs, in that they were not simply lost when the Shadwell Basin was constructed, but were rebuilt just to the east of the new basin entrance.

The following maps (1746 on left and 1894 on right) clearly show the change in location between Labour in Vain Street (red oval) and Shadwell Dock Stairs (yellow circle).

My thanks to David for finding this.

Shadwell Dock Stairs today are fenced off and show evidence of an alternative use of providing access to the river. They are located on the pathway that leads from Glamis Road to the southern end of the King Edward Memorial Park, where the northern ventilation  / old pedestrian access building for the Rotherhithe Tunnel is located.

This is the view looking towards the top of the stairs. The walkway is behind the fence at the top of the photo.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

The LMA Collage archive has a similar view of the stairs from 1978, when much of the land behind was still derelict.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0639_78_120_100_2

The clue as to the most recent use of the Shadwell Dock Stairs is found in the space between the stairs and the entrance to Shadwell Basin. This space is now occupied by Shadwell Basin Outdoor Activity Centre which provides water sport activities, and the Tower Hamlets Canoe Club.

The steps provided a launching route into the river for the adjacent organisations, however there now appears to be a much larger slipway built directly into the entrance to Shadwell Basin so I assume the stairs are now redundant, hence the current condition.

Boats would have been run down and up the metals runners which have been installed over the steps.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Shadwell Dock Stairs feature in numerous newspaper reports over the years. All the usual accidents, drowned bodies being found, crime, ships for sale etc. There are three reports that I want to cover, as they reveal some of the more unusual aspects of life on the river, centred around these river stairs.

From the Morning Chronicle on the 16th January 1841, a report which shows that it was not just the Thames around the area of the City that froze in winter:

“NARROW ESCAPE OF THREE WATERMEN ON THE RIVER – On Thursday night, at about six o’clock, three Greenwich watermen, who had been into the London Dock with a vessel they had brought up the river, were returning from the upper entrance at Wapping, when their progress was stopped by a large field of ice, which nearly broke their boat in two, and drove them towards Shadwell Dock-stairs. Here they were completely hemmed in among the ice, which extended from one side of the river to the other, and completely blocked up the navigation.

The boatmen endeavoured in vain to extricate themselves, and were at length driven nearly into the middle of the river. Here they remained stationary for some time, exposed to the sleet and snow.

Soon afterwards the ebb tide drove the ice a little further down the river, and again the poor watermen tried to get out, but with no better success than before, and the field of ice was again stopped by the barges and shipping.

The watermen continually hailed the people ashore to render them some assistance, but none could be afforded, and the masses of ice were not sufficiently consolidated together for any one to venture in safety.

The men at last began to complain of the wet and cold, and said they could not hold out much longer. They had been four hours among the ice and their situation became very critical.

Some watermen and lightermen ashore threw lines towards them, but they fell very far short of the boat.  At ten o’clock, when they appeared quite exhausted, Judge, an Inspector of Thames police, and three river constables came to the spot at Shadwell and determined to make some effort to save them.

They borrowed two hurdles and some ropes. Constable Jones ventured as far upon the ice as was consistent with safety, and threw a line towards the boat, but the men were unable to catch it. The Thames Police, finding no time to be lost, and that the men were benumbed with cold, and incapable of any exertion, resolved upon a bolder attempt to save them.

A rope was fastened around Jones, the youngest and most expert of the party, and he placed one of the hurdles across the blocks of ice in advance of the one he was standing on. 

After much difficulty, Jones got back with a second line he had made fast to the boat. On reaching the shore, the Thames police, with the assistance of five other men, pulled the boat right over the ice, with the three men in it, and brought it close alongside one of Mr Charrington’s coal barges.

The watermen were taken out and were conveyed to the nearest public house.

Their exposure to the snow storm had affected them so much that it was some time before they recovered; and had not the greatest attention been paid them one or more would have perished.”

Very descriptive, and looking across the river at this point, it is hard to imagine that it could have frozen, being much wider than in the City, but in reality the sheer number of moored ships and barges would have provided plenty of spaces where ice could aggregate, and tides would have broken free large sheets of ice which would have drifted around the river as described in the report.

There are a number or reports which mention a ferry running from Shadwell Dock Stairs, but so far I have not been able to find any detail of the type of ferry, the destination and for how long it operated. There was consideration of starting a large steam powered ferry service from Shadwell, similar to the Woolwich ferry, and in Lloyd’s List on the 15th February 1893, there is a report that the London County Council is proposing a ferry between Rotherhithe and Shadwell.

The article reports on the considerable differences in opinion of the effect on navigation of a two ferry-boat service running across the river at intervals of every 15 minutes throughout the day. The proximity to the entrance to the London Docks was identified as a risk, with a ferry being a serious danger to ships entering or leaving the docks.

The Rotherhithe to Shadwell ferry was part of a bill put before Parliamentary Committee, but the ferry proposals did not make any progress, the proposal for a road tunnel underneath the Thames was a much better option, able to move far greater volumes of traffic and with no impact on river traffic. The Rotherhithe Tunnel opened in 1908, and now runs underneath the river, very close to Shadwell Dock Stairs.

I have often wondered whether these Thames stairs were administered or overseen in any way, or whether they provided open access to the river. In the days when there was so much traffic on the river, with people and goods of all types being stored on ships and barges. Given the right tide, the river was probably the fastest method of moving across London. The Thames stairs were important gateways between the river and land.

An article in the London Sun on the 10th March 1868 mentions a Watchbox at Shadwell Dock Stairs.

The article reports on the trial of Thomas Deacon, a 19 year old lighterman who was charged with violently assaulting Edward Dove, a Waterman at Shadwell Dock Stairs. The report states that:

“The complainant said that the prisoner was a perfect nuisance at the place and was in the watchbox at Shadwell Dock-stairs last night with another man. They had no right there, and were requested to turn out, which they refused to do, and the prisoner, who is a strong and powerful fellow, struck the complainant a tremondous blow on the mouth with his clenched fist, and completely wounding the upper lip.”

Thomas Deacon was sentenced to two months of hard labour for the assault.

Watermen were higher in the river hierarchy than lightermen, and watermen had a range of rights covering their work on the river, and perhaps were involved in some form of policing, or watching over the river and stairs.

The Watchbox at Shadwell Dock Stairs possibly being part of this approach – a problem with writing this blog, researching any topic always opens up lots of additional subjects to investigate.

Looking down Shadwell Dock Stairs and the following photo provides a better view of the stones forming the causeway leading out into the river.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

The LMA Collage archive has a better photo of this part of the stairs at low tide in 1971. Interesting in comparing the above and below photos, the 1971 photo did not have what looks to be some form of concrete / stone platform either side of the causeway. This must have helped with preserving the state of the causeway. The concrete appears to have replaced the wooden posts that once held the side of the causeway in place.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0639_71_35_513_23

Looking west along the river with Shadwell Dock Stairs in the lower left corner. To the right, between the marker post and the opposite river wall is the entrance to the Shadwell Basin, showing how close the entrance is to the stairs.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Shadwell Dock Stairs are Grade II listed, and they were included in the impact assessments for the construction of the Thames Tideway Tunnel and close by is one of the construction sites for the tunnel, where part of the river facing walkway has been closed off. The following view is from the location of the Shadwell Dock Stairs, looking east, with the old Rotherhithe Tunnel pedestrian entrance, now ventilation point on the left, and the construction site on the right.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

A small part of King Edward Memorial Park is now part of the construction site, but the major part of this park is unaffected. It is a park with a fascinating story, including competition for Billingsgate Fish Market. I wrote about the history of the park here.

Large, black, storage tanks form an interesting view along the southern edge of the park:

Shadwell Dock Stairs

A longer view of the Tideway Tunnel construction site. Shadwell Dock Stairs can just been on the left edge of the photo.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Shadwell Dock Stairs were in existence before the London Docks, and the construction of the entrance to Shadwell Basin must have demolished the Shadwell Dock seen in the 1746 map, that the stairs must have been named after.

Shadwell Basin is the only remaining expanse of water from the London Docks, with the entrance to the basin being adjacent to the stairs.

A large lifting bridge remains over the entrance to the basin, carrying Glamis Road from Wapping Wall up to The Highway.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

The section of the basin entrance between bridge and river is now occupied by the Outdoor Activity Centre.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Looking from the bridge in the opposite direction with the basin entrance leading into the larger Shadwell Basin. The towers of the City in the distance.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

At the risk of sounding repetitive as I have mentioned this in my previous posts on Thames Stairs, I do find them fascinating. Shadwell Dock Stairs today is fenced off, but as with all the stairs I have looked at, they are a focal point for discovering the human history of the river and shore.

Standing by the stairs, we can imagine the thousands of people who have used the stairs to get to and from the river. The coming of the Shadwell Basin must have had a huge impact on the stairs. The times when ice from the frozen river broke up against the stairs, and the watchbox that must have been a scary place to sit on a dark winter’s night – all part of London’s centuries old relationship with the River Thames.

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