Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

A guest post by London Historians founder member Peter Stone. Dock Life Renewed – How London’s Docks Are Thriving Again, by Niki Gorick.

docklife renewedThis wasn’t quite what I was expecting. A new book about the docks they said, would I like to review it? Dock Life Renewed – How London’s Docks Are Thriving Again. Ah, so a new work about Tilbury Docks; maybe even some information about the new London Gateway container port. But wait… no… don’t go away… bear with me… It turns out this is nothing of the sort.
A quick recap about London’s docks. London’s trade was thriving, the Thames became congested, so between the beginning of the 19th century and the early 20th century a series of large dock complexes were created along the river to the east of London. Ships got ever bigger, so each new dock was constructed deeper and wider. Eventually there were seven or eight sets of docks, depending how you count them. The Royal Docks, the last to be completed, were (and still are) massive, the world’s largest area of impounded water. Everything was going swimmingly for a while. There were 31,000 registered dockers in 1955. By the end of the ‘50s trade in the Port of London was brisk. New facilities that replaced those destroyed in the Blitz, and new machinery made things more efficient.

Then in the 1960s everything began to change. Some clever people in other countries realised you could put cargoes in metal containers of a standard size in which goods could be transported from factory to distribution point. Bang! Gone at a stroke was there a need for thousands of workers to manhandle boxes and sacks. No more worries about ships being stuck in port every time those cheeky-chappy dockers called yet another wildcat strike. Brilliant. Except if you worked in and around the docks.

In a very short time, one by one, each of the docks and riverside wharves began to close, unable to handle container traffic. Early on, the venerable East India Docks, which could trace its history back to the early 17th century, disappeared, leaving today just a large pond and a few preserved walls. Eventually Tilbury, far downriver, was left as the only viable and working set of docks. East London was left as a strange place. It seemed to consist of vast areas of forlorn spaces, separated by acres of unused water. Old men hung around in pubs looking sad and forgotten. The younger ones had all moved out to Romford, daily commuting into town as black cab drivers. It set the scene for ‘The Long Good Friday’ film, which if you haven’t seen it, you should.

Then, one day Minister of Aviation Lord Heseltine took a plane down the Thames Estuary to survey a new airport that was never actually built. As he flew, he wondered about the large tracts of disused land in East London he could see below. It stretched over several London boroughs, who bickered about what to do next. In the meantime, the Port of London Authority was selling off the space at knock-down prices to gain cash for the dockers’ redundancy payments. In 1981, remembering his flight, Heseltine, by then Secretary of State for the Environment, took matters out of their hands by creating the London Docklands Development Corporation to manage the transformation of 6,000 acres of derelict land.

It took decades, but the area certainly has been transformed, with shiny office and apartment blocks now lining the waterside, and boat marinas in three of the former commercial docks. In his forward to Dock Life Renewed Lord Heseltine writes: “I would not have predicted virtually any of the big changes that the development corporation created”. Change was not always simple and linear: some of the first generation of new Docklands properties have come and gone, such as the London Arena or Limehouse Studios. Much of historical importance was wiped away, including the buildings of the former London Docks at Wapping. No doubt some of the previous Docklands residents were unhappy at the mass influx of banks and ‘yuppies’. Many people do not now feel sympathetic with the developments of relatively expensive residential housing that line the river and docks. Nevertheless, the current government believes it to be of sufficient success to have recently announced London’s Docklands as the template for 12 new ‘investment zones’ around the UK.

Dock Life Renewed is a celebration of some of the positive aspects of the transformation, shown in colour and black & white photographs. What makes the book interesting is that those shiny offices and apartments of modern Docklands are only the backdrop. Niki Gorick instead focusses on the daily life of the people living and working on and around the water. This is a record of everyday life in the docks as it is now, taken over a period of 18 months. Each page provides us with an excellent photograph, together with descriptive text, of the people who maintain the docks and the boats, of houseboat dwellers, and of vessels large and small coming, going, and out of the water. I particularly liked the pages focussed on boat maintenance and restoration, and on houseboat dwellers. (OK, I’m biased: I lived for many years on a vintage boat and spent much time on its maintenance). Each page is a snapshot of an ongoing story. Where appropriate she has also helpfully provided accompanying website addresses for further information. Gorick concentrates on the three most vibrant of the docks: St. Katharine’s, next to the Tower of London; the former Surrey Commercial docks at Rotherhithe; and the former West India Docks at the northern end of the Isle of Dogs, what many will think of as Canary Wharf. (She sensibly avoids the vast Royal Docks, which by comparison now seem rather soulless and under-used).

Niki Gorick has a keen eye for fascinating subjects. The book is clearly a love affair with the people and waterborne activities around the area where she lives. As a publication it is beautifully presented in a large format that will look good on any coffee table, and Londonist writer Matt Brown provides a well-written introduction that provides context. It wasn’t what I was expecting… but what a delight.

Dock Life Renewed: How London’s Docks are Thriving Again (160pp) by Niki Gorick will be published by Unicorn on 4 April 2023, with a cover price of £30.


Peter Stone is the author of The History of the Port of London – A Vast Emporium of All Nations. He is a trustee of the Docklands History Group that meets at the Museum of London Docklands. His many articles on aspects of London history can be found on his website www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk.

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