THE DOCK THAT NEVER WAS
This article is about a scheme for a vast dock proposed for Greenwich in the 1850s. If it had been built there would have been no room for the Millennium Dome or anything else on Greenwich Marsh.
‘Angerstein’ is a name which keeps cropping up in the East Greenwich area. It originates with the romantic figure of John Julius Angerstein – a Russian financier with mysterious, possibly illustrious origins. He spent a long working life in the City of London and lived at Woodlands, now the Greenwich Local History Library. He died in 1823 but his family was to have an influence in the area for many years to come. They owned much of the land on the eastern side of Greenwich Marsh. John Julius had one son, John, born in 1 773, who lived much of the time in Green- wich. One of his sons was William, born 1812.
In 1851 John Angerstein planned a railway to run from the North Kent Railway as it emerges from the tunnel underneath Blackheath into a chalk pit before Charlton Station. The line opened in 1852 but had already been leased to the South Eastern Railway for operation. The line was, and remains today, entirely a goods line. When it was completed William Angerstein had succeeded to John’s interests. It was a time when railways were being built throughout the area and huge docks constructed on the north bank of the river.
The records of local landowners on Greenwich Marsh show a number of approaches to them by railway companies. The Mercers’ Company owned a small piece of land to the south of the peninsula and they recorded approaches in this period from several railways who wanted to build over, or near, it. In December 1852 both they and Morden College were approached by the South Eastern Railway, in connection with an extension of Angerstein’s railway line and a plan to join it both to Blackwall via a ferry and the Greenwich Railway. This seems to have come to nothing. A year later the Mercers were approached by the Charlton and Blackwall Railway and at the same time it was suggested that a dock should be included in the plan. The matter rested there until 1857 when an application was made to Parliament for a large dock to be built on the Greenwich peninsula.
In the late 1850s Greenwich saw an astonishing number of Parliamentary elections and the dock and these elections seem to have some connection. Local people and local industrialists threw themselves into this succession of election campaigns – one of the most assiduous was Coles Child. Child was a coal merchant who worked with Morden College to develop the area around Pelton Road.’ In the 1850s he was also a director of the South Eastern Railway.
It might be assumed that the South Eastern Railway was behind the great dock scheme for Greenwich Marsh because on the plans it is called the ‘Greenwich and South Eastern Docks’. However – whatever the actual connection with the South Eastern Railway – it was proposed by a legally separate company – which means that any records are difficult, or impossible, to trace.
Plans of the proposed dock show an enormous scheme, which would have taken up most of the land on the peninsula. There was to be a large dock running north- south down the whole length of the land. This structure was to have been in a T-shape so that the main north-south dock was met by another at right angles with entrances at Enderbys Wharf to the west and the other end in the east where it would also have met the Angerstein Railway. The Engineer was George Remington who had worked on a number of railway and dock schemes and for a while been Engineer to the Imperial Gas Company.
The dock scheme was noted with great approval by the ‘Kentish Mercury’ in 1858. Their leader writer spoke of the miserable time people were currently having in Greenwich ‘the silence is only broken at intervals by the sepulchral sound of the wheels of an empty omnibus. Even as you see some active pedestrian approaching the public baths, from having nothing else to do, his gloomy countenance renders it doubtful whether he is about to enter for the purposes of ablution or to drown himself. ‘A Reader’ wrote to the Mercury: ‘At last there seems a chance of poor Greenwich being resuscitated and rising from the ashes. I and others have hailed the advent of the Greenwich and South Eastern Docks.’ Thus the Dock was being presented as part of a package and together with The North and South Metropolitan Junction Railway, also planned, it would change everything – make travel throughout the capital easy and bring peace and prosperity to a Greenwich which was seen to be losing out to neighbouring areas. In June 1858 a deputation of Greenwich gentlemen had lobbied the Board of the South Eastern Railway to bring improvements to Greenwich and in October of that year a similar delegation was headed by the local MP, William Codrington.
At the same time in 1858 another election was under way. One of the candidates was William Angerstein. At that time two members were elected to parliament by Greenwich voters – although both were usually from the Liberal Party. Sometimes the election contest itself was also between two Liberals. Greenwich had had some interesting candidates and Members of Parliament. In February 1857 a by-election had been called because one of the sitting members, the Deptford industrialist, Peter Rolt, was in receipt of a Government contract. His place had been taken by Sir William Codrington. In March a General Election was called and Sir William was re-elected, together with John Townsend. Codrington, the son of an Admiral, was himself a distinguished soldier who was to eventually be appointed Governor of Gibraltar. Townsend was a local man who had risen to prominence as an undertaker and auctioneer. He had run a flashy campaign, which had got him the candidacy and won the election. In due course his election expenses were examined and he was declared bankrupt. As a result another by-election was called in February 1859. Townsend decamped to Canada where he became a national figure with a theatrical background. In his place David Salomons was elected. This was something of a triumph since Salomons had previously been elected in 1851 in Greenwich but had been unable to take his seat because of his Jewish faith. By 1859 the law was changed and Salomons, who in the intervening period had been the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, was elected with popular support at the by-election.
In April 1859 a General Election was once again called and at this Salomons was reelected, along with William Angerstein who had stood against him (albeit both were Liberals) in the by-election. Plans for the dock and the railway therefore were proposed in a very heightened political atmosphere. The fact that candidates stood for the same party but against each other made it only possible to run campaigns on the basis of personal attacks.
In November 1858 the official notice for the Parliamentary enabling bill to allow the docks to be built appeared in the ‘Kentish Mercury’. Another notice announced a railway line from Charlton Station to the bottom of Maze Hill and eventually joining the London and Greenwich Railway – thus solving the problem which had existed for many years of getting the railway from London through Greenwich Park. It must be said, however, that the route between Maze Hill and Greenwich Station was not specified. A third notice was for the North and South Metropolitan Junction Railway – a complicated bit of legislation, which claimed to join everything up with everything else.
At around the same time a meeting was held in the Ship and Billet pub at East Greenwich. This was to hear a report from a delegation which had been to ask William Angerstein two questions – had he said he opposed the docks, and what support did he intend to give to them? Angerstein denied that he had said he was against them – or rather said he was not opposing them. Asked if he would become a shareholder, he gave no reply despite admitting that it would make him £25,000 better off. The meeting, led by Mr Whiteway – Coles Child’s partner – then passed a resolution that Angerstein ‘forfeits all claim to support from electors of the Borough’.
In those days votes were not secret and in the run-up to any election the ‘Kentish Mercury’ was happy to print lists of voters’ names along with their voting intentions on their front page, week by week, as the election approached. The 1 great question was, of course – where did the candidates for Parliament stand on the issue of the dock? On 2nd December as the by-election was announced. ‘Straight’ wrote to the Mercury and enquired whether the candidates would ‘put their hands in their pockets and assist projects’. The Mercury’s leader writer was happy to point out that some 40 acres of land, which would be needed to build the dock, were owned by William Angerstein. ‘A Reader’ protested that it was important to ‘know the bona fides of our candidates’ and another reader spoke of ‘poor Greenwich’ and the needs for ‘measures not men’. ‘Climax’ proclaimed ‘let us give everything to get old Greenwich out of the mire. Let us have the docks!’ An offer was made for Angerstein to go onto the Board of the Dock Company, and this he declined.
Coles Child published a statement about this in the Mercury in which he specifically attacked Angerstein’s vagueness in expressions of support. He would he said, remove his name from the list of Angerstein supporters. It was the beginning of a barrage of letters on the subject from Coles Child. On 9th February he wrote an ostensibly personal letter to Angerstein asking if he intended to make a present of the land to the Dock Company – if not, what other support would he give? All of this was printed in the Mercury together with a number of other letters attacking Angerstein and with partisan editorials thrown in.
On 12th February Angerstein made a speech attacking the ‘dastardly nature’ of Coles Child’s behaviour and suggested that hecklers at the meeting were employed for that purpose. The meeting broke up in ‘utmost confusion’. Angerstein lost the by-election – but no doubt Salomons won for other reasons.There were many other issues on the minds of the electorate beyond the docks and Angerstein’s behaviour – not the least Salomons would have enjoyed popular support on his return having been prevented from taking his seat eight years earlier It was known by then that another General Election was likely and that the second sitting member, Codrington, intended to resign. Already the candidates and their supporters were getting ready for the next campaign. The confrontation over the docks was not repeated. Salomons was relected together with Angerstein. At the end of May a meeting was held in Greenwich with the new Members present to discuss the depressed state of the town and possible ‘regeneration’. The usual suggestions were made – a regatta, a band to play in the park a general brightening up of things. One man called out ‘What about the docks?’ – apparently trying to find out what was going on. The only reply was that he should be removed from the meeting – ‘Throw him out!’.
No more was heard of the great Greenwich Dock scheme – apart from a half- hearted revival in the late 1880s. At this stage it is difficult to understand the motives of Coles Child and his supporters. Did he want most to get the dock scheme through, or to embarrass Angerstein? Was there some hidden agenda, which is not immediately apparent? Perhaps we will never know.
Most of this article is based on items taken from the ‘Kentish Mercury’ with some input from archive material in London Borough of Greenwich Local History Library and Kent County Archives. Coles Child’s work in Greenwich has been covered by Michael Kerney in ‘The ‘ Development of an Early Victorian Artisan Estate in East Greenwich’ Trans. Greenwich and Lewisham Antiq. Soc. 1983/4. His personal life is covered in J.L. Filmer’s’The Bromley Palace and Coles Child. Lord of the Manor of Bromley’, 1846- 1873, Bromley Local History, No.5, 1980. “A Plan for a tunnel across the river at Greenwich is mentioned in the-East London Observer’ of 22nd October 1881. The same newspaper for 14th October 1882 mentions that the building of docks on the Greenwich Marshes ‘would interrupt the southern approach to the proposed Blackwall Tunnel.’ An earlier tunnel scheme was proposed in1874 An article entitled -Mr Angerstein’s Railway’ by John Hilton was published in ‘Bygone Kent’ Vol.20 No.2, February 1999.
Plan of the dock is an adaption from a tracing of a plan in KCC archive. Redraw thanks to Chris Grabham
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