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London’s Docklands: An Illustrated History by Geoff Marshall, 168 pages, fully illustrated. The History Press, £20. Guest review by LH Member Roger Williams. 

61CVrv8LqnL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Ten years on from his illustrated guide to London’s Docklands, Geoff Marshall has come up with a fresh look at the docks’ history in a large format paperback packed with photographs, many of how things look today, with a 22-page section in colour.

This is a practical volume, with a clear map, designed to help navigate the streets as they relate to both existing buildings and and long-gone docks. Panels labelled ‘What is there to see?’ lead among other places to the Great Eastern slipway on the Isle of Dogs and to the shelter for labourers waiting for their ‘call on’ by Greenland Dock gates.

The first four chapters deal with the history of the port of London from Roman times to the opening of the King George V Dock in 1921, creating the largest concentration of impounded water in the world, and to the regeneration that followed the decline. Chapters then go from dock to dock, followed by themed chapters that cover industry, shipbuilding, railways and canals, famous voyages, churches and pubs. The high points of history, the dock strikes, the Tooley Street fire and the Silvertown explosion, are explained.

A Blue Badge Guide, a London Historians member and a former research chemist, Geoff Marshall has clearly pounded the streets. Thorough in his fact finding, he gives details of how sugar is still refined by Tate & Lyle at Silvertown, and how the French government bought 16,000 tons of Peak Freans biscuits from the Bermondsey factory in 1871, for a hungry population emerging from the Siege of Paris.

Other tidbits are the origin of the name Horsleydown as the place where King John’s horse decided to lie down, while total immersion baptisms at this point on the river gave their name to Dipping Alley. Some dockside occupations are familiar, others not. There are, for example, the Bank Rangers who policed Surrey Canal and ‘Blondins’, deal porters who knew how to balance planks of wood when unloading them.

The speed of change in Docklands that began several decades ago has not halted. Archaeology may benefit from developments, with finds such as the porcelain manufactory at Limehouse, but as residential blocks go up around Canary Wharf, encroaching on the remaining water, and industrial buildings around Bow Creek and Orchard Place fall beneath the dead hand of high-rises that take no account of their riverside advantages, it is important not to lose sight of a whole culture that once energised the river. Geoff Marshall’s book is a great asset in ensuring that this does not happen.

– Roger Williams

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