ROYAL DOCKS AREA
The Royal Docks are made up of three docks – the Royal Albert Dock, the Royal Victoria Dock and the King George V Dock built between 1880 and 1921 on what were riverside marshes in London’s East End. The Victoria and Albert docks were built by the London & St Katharine Docks Company, to accommodate large ships that could not comfortably traverse the bend further upriver around the Isle of Dogs. Named after royalty the three docks collectively formed the largest enclosed docks in the world, with a water area of nearly 1 km2. They were a great commercial success, becoming London’s principal docks during the first half of the 20th century. They specialised in foodstuffs, with rows of giant granaries and refrigerated warehouses all along the quays with three miles of water crowded with ships, tugs and lighters.
(picture from Royal Docks Trust http://www.royaldockstrust.org.uk/rdhist.htm)
The Docks have played an important role throughout history: bringing colonial wealth (or plunder) into the heart of London, with the streets around the docks home to many immigrant dock workers well before London was considered ‘multi-cultural’. A great fictional account of the area is Melanie McGrath’s ‘Silvertown’.
Life was tough in the docks. Most of the work was organised on a casual basis with workers queuing every day in hope of employment. One important historic event was The London Dock Strike which broke out on 14 August 1889. Led by socialists like John Burns and Tom Mann, with Eleanor Marx as secretary to the strike committe, the dockers’ struggle captured the public imagination. Colonel Birt, the general manager at the Millwall Docks, gave evidence to a Parliamentary committee, on the physical condition of the workers:
The poor fellows are miserably clad, scarcely with a boot on their foot, in a most miserable state … These are men who come to work in our docks who come on without having a bit of food in their stomachs, perhaps since the previous day; they have worked for an hour and have earned 5d.; their hunger will not allow them to continue: they take the 5d. in order that they may get food, perhaps the first food they have had for twenty-four hours
An estimated 100,000 took part. Their strike lasted 5 weeks, demanding changes to casual work arrangements (they demanded a minimum of 4 hours per day) and for a minimum wage of 6 pence an hour (the ‘dockers’ tanner). Perhaps, most importantly, the sheer numbers taking part captured the imagination of Victorian England and helped draw attention to the problem of urban poverty. The strike is widely considered a milestone in the development of the British Labour Movement.
Outside the Excel there’s a wonderful monument to the original Royal Dockers; a 2.5 tonne bronze statue, one of the largest in London. The bronze figures are 9 feet tall. The three figures depicted are local men with links to the docker community: John Ringwood, Mark Tibbs and Patrick Holland.
(for more information see http://www.newhamstory.com/node/838)
The Royal Docks suffered severe damage in the blitz of World War II and while they recovered after the war they suffered a steady decline from the 1960s onwards. Having survived longer than any of the other upstream docks The Royals finally closing to commercial traffic in 1981. The closure brought hardship to Silvertown and the local area. The London Development Corporation set up to regenerate the area. London City Airport was constructed in 1986, the runway sited on cleared what were grain warehouses and cranes. (http://www.royaldocks.net/)
Today the dock warehouses have been developed into prime real estate developments
In 2011 the one hundred and twenty five hectares of the Royal Docks were granted Enterprise Zone status to help attract jobs and businesses to the area. Development continues, and is hotting up. In 2014, Singapore owned Oxley Holdings joined with Ballymore UK to set up a new waterfront township of Royal Wharf, with 3385 new homes planned for over 10,000 new residents to the Docks. Which brings the story of the Dock somewhat full circle – it’s still a bustling place for international trade today as the 19th Century working docks were. And even the Royal Victoria Dock itself, the most developed of the three docks, has new development plans. Proposals for a floating village on 15 acres of water are currently in process, in the stretch of water beneath the Emirates cable car. The floating village takes its inspiration from similar projects at IJburg in Amsterdam and Hafen, Hamburg.
If you have just moved in, you’ve arrived at a time of escalating change and development in a part of East London that has always been buzzing with life.