I recently did a little work in the Surrey Quays area, and I have to admit the whole area is fascinating. The most exciting thing is how drastically the landscape has change in the last fifty years. I wondered how I was going to communicate this without just ranting about it… and then I found that you can create your own content on googlemaps!
So turn back the clock to the 1960s, and the docks would have looked like…
How amazing is that? Each of those blue polygons (if they don’t load, try loading the full post) represents one of the different Victorian docks or ponds. As you can see, only Greenland Dock, South Dock and part of the old Canada Dock (now Canada Water) survive. But fifty years ago the whole area was a mass of docks and ponds, wharfs and warehouses.
Nothing of that landscape survives today. Now it’s houses, parkland, and a little lighter industry. At the end of the 1960s the docks closed as a result of the change in shipping practices. The advent of containerised shipping (apparently a US invention during the Vietnam war) facilitated larger ships which required deep water docks, putting Surrey Commercial Docks (as they were then known) out of business.
It seems like the docks languished out of use for a decade before the government established a redevelopment program that filled them in (apparently using the area for landfill). Today the finished redevelopment seems to have been very successful and much-needed. Of course, I don’t know how much of the original Victorian warehousing was sacrificed for the development (now re-branded as Surrey Quays), but there are a good smattering of listed buildings still preserved in the area. And as it turns out (see comments below) the majority of the buildings were apparently open storage sheds for timber. Which reminds me that the ‘ponds’ (smaller areas of water) were frequently used for the storage of timber – by letting it it sit in the water it was prevented from seasoning too quickly (apparently desirable – I have to admit to being a little ignorant of this!).
However, I still wish I’d been able to see the area before the redevelopment. I’m sure it would have been pretty sorry for itself by the 1960s (having suffered extensive bomb damage during World War Two), but we have nothing comparable left today.
It should also be noted that the Surrey Docks were demolished and redeveloped before PPG16 (the archaeology legislation) that would probably have made extensive recordings of the area a necessary condition of planning permission. As a result, the docks were bulldozed and filled in without any records of the structures being made, so the that part of the areas history really is gone forever.
Unfortunately Surrey Docks is just one of many London trade landscapes we’ve lost or have suffered extensive changes, which includes the Upper and Lower Pools, Millwall and West India Docks, Limehouse and Royal Docks. Although most of the survived World War Two, the 1960s really was the watershed point that saw the end of London as a Port.
[Incidentally, on that front there is some hope – the Thames Gateway Project may see the development of a deep water port on the north bank of the Thames to the east of London – though it is dependant on foreign funding.]
This post has followed on from the work on the Upper Pool docks area, so in tribute to another of London’s lost landscapes I thought I’d include a little bit of history of the area….
Okay, so I haven’t written this bit yet… but I will have it up as soon as I get the chance! Things have been very hectic at work as I have decided to take on the Spitalfields area, where there has been a program of around 20-30 excavations since the 1970s, some on a very large scale. The area is very intense archaeologically, so I’ve barely had time to breath!