London Beyond the Border: Sounds and Songs of the Royal Docks
MSCTY x Royal Docks
London Beyond the Border: Sounds and Songs of the Royal Docks
Essay by Rebecca Morrill + Guy Tindale
Wandering around the Royal Docks on a Sunday morning in the late autumn of 2020 during London’s second Covid-19 lockdown, one is struck by quiet and absence, calling to mind the moment nearly forty years ago when the surviving cranes finally fell into disuse and the warehouses and mills were shuttered and abandoned. In the near silence, amid the few remaining structures that hint at its industrial heyday, it is hard to imagine the bustle and noise of the Docks’ past. But the reality of this landscape is more complicated, and these relics and their echoes tell but one chapter in a much longer story.
A view of the docks panorama.
The soundtrack to much of this area’s history would, in fact, have been a natural one: breeze through the reeds and over open stands of birch and alder, the lapping of the tides, with choppy waves further into the Thames. Birdsong and calls. Other sounds were heard too. Ancient gravel banks, long buried beneath peat and silt, bear traces of scattered human settlements dating back at least to the Bronze Age (2,500–800 BCE).
The inhabitants were most likely sustained by fishing, but they also shaped the land, with shelters, wooden tracks and embankments making life possible in the marshes. A 17-foot canoe, found during the excavation of the Royal Albert Dock, tells us that this was a place where people and cargoes moved by water millennia ago. So one might also have heard voices, splashing oars, noises of construction. Later the Romans saw this stretch of river as key to defending Londinium, setting up a lookout at Gallions Point, just east of what is now the Royal Albert Dock. The colonists brought their coins and Samian pottery from France. Large whalebones found in Beckton suggest that food was coming from far afield too, a millstone demonstrates that flour was being made, and burial places indicate a population that had put down roots. Different voices, then, and noises of manufacturing and trade, influenced by more distant places across the ancient Empire.
One of the peculiar things about this place is that these manmade sounds were then hushed for a long time. An empty fen, the Plaistow Marshes, extended from the villages of East and West Ham to the river, with a single road following an ancient towpath. The Domesday Book (1086) records an isolated hamlet at North Woolwich, but by the later Middle Ages this had vanished too, possibly in a flood. By the eighteenth century, there was only a single dwelling, the forebodingly named Devil’s House, between Bow Creek, west of the Royal Docks area, and Barking Creek to the east.
When change came in the following century, it was sudden, and driven by events elsewhere. A decision made in Westminster, the Metropolitan Building Act of 1844, forbade ‘harmful trades’ anywhere west of the River Lea. This was the impetus three years later for the London Iron Works to expand its shipyard into what was to become Canning Town. In 1852, Samuel Silver established a rubber factory on empty land along the banks of the Thames, and a new workers’ settlement called Silvertown sprang up around it. International demand for innovations such as steamships and insulated telegraph cables soon caused factories to mushroom, bringing vast wealth for the entrepreneurs, but squalor, danger and disease to those living in the slums of what the Times newspaper had dubbed ‘London Beyond the Border’.
Another change imposed from above was the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the outcome of a political struggle that is now largely forgotten, but which was as bitter as any in our lifetimes. Removing tariffs from foreign wheat made it economical to bring grain from Canada or Russia. Bread became cheaper in the cities, although British agriculture suffered and the nation gradually became more reliant on imports. This coincided with developments in shipping, and as the transport of larger cargoes of cereals became viable, so too did the idea of importing other commodities at this scale and over vast distances. Old sugar plantations in the Caribbean were reopened, now worked on by indentured labourers from Asia, while huge tracts of land in Argentina and Uruguay were turned into British-owned cattle ranches. All of this would necessitate new docks, built on a scale the world had never seen.
The person who spotted this historic moment was an engineer called George Bidder. In 1847, he built a single railway line from Stratford to North Woolwich, across what was still empty wilderness. Even in an age of speculative building, the project was seen as reckless and attracted the name ‘Bidder’s Folly’. But this folly connected the shoreline of London Beyond the Border to the mainline network, and seizing the opportunity, Bidder bought all the whole area – which he aptly named ‘Land’s End’ – between Bow Creek and Gallions Reach. Three years later, his workers began to dig the Victoria Dock.
Sounds of steam hammers, excavators, pumps, whistles, and a growing multitude of workers. All silent now, yet the Cyclopean scale of Bidder’s project is evident as you look down from the elevated pedestrian footbridge over the Victoria Dock (1998) or stand by the fourteen remaining Stothert and Pitt cranes (now Grade II Listed structures). This dock alone had 2.25 miles of quays (four enormous stone jetties have now disappeared) and could accommodate all but the largest ships. Unlike the rest of the Port of London, or the larger docks in Liverpool, it was connected directly to the railways, and its machinery used the latest hydraulic technology throughout, as well as a newly assembled army of dockers. Being 8.5 miles downstream from Tower Bridge gave it a great commercial advantage, which was entrenched over the coming decades as the Royal Albert Dock (1880) was added, now open to the river some 11 miles closer to the North Sea than the old Pool of London. By the time the King George V Dock was added to the complex in 1921, the Royal Group of Docks was the largest enclosed harbour in the world, the ebb and flow of the Thames arrested over an expanse of 250 acres, running nearly three miles from end to end – about the same distance as Marble Arch to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The Docks’ silent basins still bear witness to the engineering feat of taming the mighty river. Somehow the watery landscape has a paradoxical solidity: today’s developers must work around what Bidder simply willed to be transformed. There is also a paradox of authenticity: what the Docks once were seems more real than what they are now, even though connecting with that past reality aurally is hard to imagine. The ambient sounds today – the periodic roar of planes taking off and landing at London City Airport (opened in 1988), the hum of building services, steam venting from the sugar refinery, the now-aging rattle of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR extension towards Beckton opened in 1994) – do not quite fit. Being by the Thames, there is still the breeze and the waves, though there is little birdsong these days: airport staff use bird-scaring devices including signal pistols, rockets and acoustic distress calls to deter birds and avoid potentially dangerous aircraft bird-strikes.
The Royal Docks have been the fulcrum of economic and industrial forces on a vaster scale than the river, and far harder to contain. The peak of British Empire saw further expansion, with more names associated with its prosperity commemorated in place names. Canning, the first Viceroy of India and suppressor of the ‘Mutiny’ of 1857 had given his name to the town by the Lea. Just north-east of the docks, in East Ham, Simon Adams Beck founded the Gas Light and Coke Company in 1880. As Beckton, this would become the largest gasworks in the world, supplying the whole of North London. Meanwhile, Silvertown had become home to Henry Tate’s sugar refinery in 1877; that of Abram Lyle opened four years later (the two never met, displaying a fierce rivalry typical of industrials of the time).
Henry Tate (1819–99) was regarded as an enlightened employer, who began to develop amenities for workers, such as Tate’s Institute (1887–1933), a social club and dance hall. Later, the Brunner Mond soda works (1893) took a similarly paternalistic approach. In contrast, the eponymous Samuel Silver had sought and resolved to win an industrial dispute that was to make Silvertown a proving ground for modern trades unionism. Dock and factory workers were considered unskilled, and therefore unable to negotiate fair wages: their only option was to withdraw their labour altogether. A twelve-week strike in 1889, led by activists including Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl) and Tom Mann (trade unionist leader), was unsuccessful, but the victorious Silver, who paid the money he had saved as dividends to his investors, attracted public scorn. Later that year, a strike involving 100,000 dockers led to a breakthrough for the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union. Working people now began to enjoy real political power as the Labour movement gathered pace. The local constituency, West Ham South, elected James Keir Hardie as Member of Parliament in 1893, who formally established, the Labour Party the following year. The dockers’ leader Will Crooks became one of the first Labour members of London County Council, and as chair of the LCC Bridges Committee campaigned successfully for road tunnel at Blackwall and the foot tunnels at Woolwich and Greenwich.
The history of Docklands is often recounted simply as that of the white working class. Thinking of Tate’s Institute, we might imagine a musical monoculture of East End Music Hall and popular songs. In fact, London’s Docks had long been ethnically diverse, and this was emphasised around the Royal Docks by the growing sugar trade. Workers from Europe arrived knowing only one word of English – ‘Tate’ – and the import routes themselves brought people from the Caribbean, West Africa and well as Malaysia and Fiji. In the mid-nineteenth century, Canning Town was home to the largest Black community in Britain. Another aspect of any port is its transient community of seafarers, together with those stranded semi-permanently by lack of work. The British merchant fleet relied, as it had for centuries, on low-paid indentured sailors from Somalia, Yemen, Gujarat and, especially, Bangladesh, who were known as ‘lascars’, an old Portuguese term. The word is preserved: Lascars Avenue is a short section of Royal Albert Way. It is not much of a place, serving an anonymous office development and standing for an anonymised community, whose voices remain silenced in most histories of the area. Mandarin Street and Oriental Road offer only the vaguest hints of past colonial circuits, these uncomfortable memories erased in favour of mythologised tales of exploration and adventure: Magellan Boulevard, Atlantis Avenue and the anodyne monument to the Jamestown Colony in nearby Blackwall.
The more prosaically named Mill Road in Silvertown leads to the largest structure in the Royal Docks apart from the airport runway and the docks themselves. Three gigantic flour mills, two now demolished, were constructed at the start of the Twentieth century so that imported grain could be processed immediately after unloading. The Cooperative Wholesale Society Mill (1901) was followed by Joseph Rank’s Premier Mill (1904) and in 1905 by the colossal Millennium Mills. Designed and built by William Vernon & Sons of Birkenhead, it would ensure their prime flour could reach the bakeries of the south of England. The brand name ‘Millennium’ had been coined after Vernon won the Millers’ Cup at the 1889 International Bakers Exhibition. From a perspective of the 2000s, this might seem like an odd choice of name – the negative press around the nearby Millennium Dome (now the 02 Arena) has possibly tainted that word in architectural circles forever – yet the word points to another meaning of ‘millennium’, not seeking to measure the past but rather looking forward to an enduring future of peace and plenty, and in this case, premium white bread.
Royal Victoria Dock Footbridge.
Hopes for a golden age were soon interrupted. During the First World War, the Docks were suddenly seen to be a lifeline for the country, not a channel of profit. The surrounding factories were turned to military production, disregarding the risks to those living nearby. Against the advice of its managers, the Brunner Mond works at the foot of Mill Road began to distil TNT. At 6.52pm on 19 January 1917, fifty tons of high explosives were accidentally detonated. Eyewitnesses reported a flash and a blast so deafening as to be inaudible, though it was heard as far away as the King’s estate at Sandringham, Norfolk, 100 miles distant. Red hot debris started huge fires across the river at Greenwich and windows were blown out in the West End. Miraculously, only 73 people perished in Silvertown: most were downstairs that early evening as the tops of their homes were torn away. (Devastation on a similar scale was repeated a little over two decades later in September 1940, when Silvertown and Canning Town bore the brunt of the Blitz in its opening days, the devastating bombing of Hallville Primary School causing what is now thought to be the single greatest loss of life on the Home Front).
Despite the turmoil of the Great War, the Docks continued to thrive. By 1921 even the largest passenger liners could berth at George V Dock. In the same year, Tate and Lyle merged (Henry and Abram now long deceased) to form an even more powerful conglomerate and Millennium Mills – repaired following the Silvertown Explosion – was taken over by Spillers, eventually being enlarged and rebuilt in its current Art Deco Style in 1933. The General Strike in 1926 only went to show how significant the Royal Docks had become to the national food supply and how far the government would go in defending their owners’ interests, when the navy was deployed. Halfway through the Royal Docks’ working life, this must have seemed a time for consolidation and pursuing new opportunities. Indeed, annual trade continued to increase until the early 1960s. Yet by 1981, all of this activity had ceased.
The closure of London’s Docks is often solely blamed on containerisation, an innovation that the rival docks at Tilbury could handle. While the Royal Docks were too shallow to be a container port, the decline was also to do with the UK’s changing patterns of consumption. Containers carried finished consumer goods, not raw commodities. Since the blockades and rationing of the World Wars, there was a concerted move towards long-term national self-sufficiency. Sugar came increasingly from East Anglian beet farms rather than sugar cane imported from the Caribbean, there was more domestically-grown wheat, and premium fresh meat can from British-raised cattle and sheep rather than frozen imports. Already in the 1960s, the demand for another bulk import – tobacco – was beginning to wane. Politics changed too, turning Britain towards to Europe rather than the Commonwealth for trade. Once again in the history of this landscape and soundscape, transformation was rapid, drastic, and driven by choices made elsewhere. Yet the sudden silence was felt profoundly at a local level.
To those of us who remember the bitter end of many of Britain’s industries, the strikes and battles, and the mass unemployment and social problems that followed, it is hard to believe that these changes occurred nearly forty years ago. What have the years since meant, with their more tenuous hold on the authentic? Echoing the engineer George Bidder, pioneers who saw the potential of this unwanted wilderness were quick to exploit the landscape. In a short time, three very different cult films were shot here: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) saw the CWS Mill transformed into a dystopian mega-bureau, while the nearby Beckton Gas Works, a genuinely dangerous location of scattered asbestos and seeping heavy metals, doubled as Hue, Vietnam, in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, shot in September 1986. Perhaps most iconic was the production two months later of The Last of England, Derek Jarman’s lo-fi dream allegory of social apocalypse, with a soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner, Andy Gill, and Barry Adamson among others. Partly filmed against the backdrop of a now-derelict Millennium Mills, its non-narrative and anti-historical assemblage of staged tableaux and found footage disturbed any sense of closed meaning: this ambiguity, rather than the film’s post-punk aesthetic, was perhaps the greatest challenge to the cool logic underlying the Royal Docks next metamorphosis into an outpost of ‘London Docklands’.
A very different kind of artistic intervention was staged in 1988, with Jean Michel Jarre’s spectacular son et lumière mega concerts. ‘Destination Docklands’ consciously embraced the redevelopment agenda, a floating stage in the Victoria Dock anticipating more permanent spectacles. Projected images – again focussed on Millennium Mills – World War Two searchlights, and a firework display (which cost more than Jarman’s entire budget for The Last of England) offered a neatly prepackaged recollection of the Industrial Revolution and the War (apparently the only stories worth telling about the area), culminating in a utopian vision of the coming decade. Thirty-two years on, it remains substantially unrealised. While the idea of spectacle was dusted down and rehashed in similar vein at the 2012 Olympic ceremonies nearby, the only tangible connection with the concerts today is the brooding hulk of the mill.
It is too easy to dismiss Jarre’s concert as corporate and superficial compared to Jarman’s vision (its worth remembering that he was not above popular culture himself: that autumn he had directed the music video for The Smiths’ song Ask, on the same stretch of quayside). If the latter is now judged to have greater artistic integrity, neither has a greater claim to authenticity. In fact, the ‘real’ musical and cultural life of the Royal Docks is little documented and hard to pin down. And whose culture are we talking about? That of white working-class dockers? Women in the munition factories? Sugar refiners and their families relaxing at Tate’s Institute? Lascars with a local heritage dating back centuries?
Both Jarman and Jarre’s interventions illustrate their moments, less than two years apart but separated by an accelerated moment of redevelopment. During this time, London City Airport opened; over the next two decades (1987–2005) the DLR evolved to connect it to the outside world.
The Elizabeth Line is planned to open in Royal Docks by 2022, although initially without a station serving the airport. (It is hard to imagine that George Bidder would have built things in this order, and certainly not at this pace, while those who mocked his ‘Folly’ would surely have taken amused glances at the Emirates Air Line.) To many residents and developers alike, the airport now seems a problem to be worked around, rather like the redundant docks themselves but without any potential as an attractive vista or recreational space.
Other developments have been more successful: ExCeL London, the city’s largest exhibition hall and conference centre was designed by Moxley Architects and opened in 2000, with a 2010 extension by Grimshaw. In 2020, it was temporarily converted into a NHS Nightingale Hospital. The Crystal, designed by WilkinsonEyre and opened in 2012, will soon to be home to Mayor of London’s office. The move from the current City Hall building at the More London site (near Tower Bridge) was announced in November 2020. There have also been housing projects that have at least attempted to create new mixed, sustainable communities, albeit most of the new-build ‘luxury’ flats, complete with individual balconies and sound-proofed glazing to cope with the noise from the airport, sell for prices beyond the reach of many of the existing local residents. Dotted across the landscape are fragments of valued industrial heritage, such as the still-functional Impounding Station (1912), the preserved ‘D’ grain silo (1920), and of course, Millennium Mill. Newer structures like the Patera Building (1980–82) are now of historic interest. Beneath the junction of the Victoria and Albert Docks, the Connaught Tunnel (1878) will be the only pre-existing underground section of the Elizabeth Line. Much has been demolished however, often clearing land for developments that have yet to materialise. Of the domestic and communal past of Royal Docks, which never sat comfortably with the idea of ‘heritage’, very little remains.
Where a river’s ebb and flow is pent up, things around it become less stable; and the idea of one aspect being more authentic than another makes little sense in such an artificial landscape. Beneath its dramatic stillness relentless processes are at work, some so halting they are hard to notice, others so loud they cannot be heard. Nothing is truly permanent: even more recent structures are shifting or slipping away, and what does remain does not remain what it was. This is a place where London’s true nature is fully exposed, as a place of constant change and instability. It is a contested site, a global nexus of people and trade, and of forces that both enrich and erode. Elsewhere in the capital, this is dressed up by a more convincing sense of ‘the past’ that tempers ambition and newness, presenting an ecosystem of architectures that has evolved slowly over generations. Whereas people who saw the Royal Docks close could well have met those who witnessed them being built not so many decades before.
West of the sugar refinery and facing the river is an attractive green space called Thames Barrier Park. A Millennium Project that may well be enjoyed long after that supposed turning point passes out of memory. Beyond the park lies the Barrier itself (designed by Rendel, Palmer and Tritton and built from 1974–84), whose startling forms and stainless-steel finish are still arresting enough to still look futuristic. Opened soon after the Royal Docks closed, it became a technological iconic just as its hinterland was being forgotten. The floods of 1953 washed away the settlement at Creekmouth, caused to Royal Docks to overflow, and swamped Canning Town. While there was only one fatality in London, it was clear that the Thames had not been tamed. The project to protect the capital from disaster was millennial in another sense, being designed to withstand a once-in-a-thousand-year inundation. The Barrier has prevented lesser floods 193 times since it was built, and even with a changing climate and rising sea levels, it is expected to remain effective until the 2070s. Standing by the Barrier on a quiet autumn morning, there is of course no sign of activity, and just a sound of breeze and lapping waves. There are echoes of an ancient human presence here, one that seeks not to tame the river, but to live with it.
MUSIC FOR FASHION MUSEUM
PASS IT ON:
MSCTY_11 x 11_REFLECTIONS
by RICHARD FOSTER
11 tracks from 11 years of MSCTY
Live Listening Session
MSCTY x The Royal Docks [LONDON]
Alberto Duman and Joy White
London Beyond the Border: Sounds and Songs of the Royal Docks
by Rebecca Morrill + Guy Tindale
DEEP TIME [Video by Al McSween]