When local historians in Greenwich learnt that the Millennium Dome would be built on Greenwich Marsh, some of us began to ask – what about the dry dock? Would there now be a chance to find out more about it? On maps from the last century there is a large dry dock at the tip of Blackwall Point but in an area inaccessible to the public for many years. It had been filled in at some time by the gas company but perhaps now this, mysterious, dock could be uncovered and explained. Alas, this was not to be. Pleas for information were ignored – polluted land was cleared and in that process, we presume, the remains of Blackwall Point Dry Dock went unexamined and unrecorded.
There was quite definitely only one dock at Blackwall Point on the tip of the Greenwich Peninsula, although some maps show three marked, bizarrely, as ‘Blackwall Pine Dock’ – leading some researchers to think that this was a special dock built for timber, rather than just one graving dock with a misheard name.
The Dock was constructed in the late 1860s. In 1868 the Greenwich Board of Works had been asked for permission to build a ‘graving dock’ by Messrs. Lewis and Stockwell. Shipbuilding and ship repairing were massive industries on the Thames at this time but there is very little information about some of the firms. I would indeed like to know more about Alfred Davis Lewis and John Alfred Stockwell. As shipbuilders they had been established for some years. Perhaps they had begun as barge builders since, in 1865, South Metropolitan Gas Co., had bought an iron barge from them for £632.10s. They had had a works on Bow Creek, where, earlier in 1868, they had built a steam yacht for Major Brandram – presumably one of the Blackheath resident Brandram family whose chemical works were in Rotherhithe and Shad Thames. This yacht had been built ‘under the superintendence of F.J.Delaney, of
Greenwich’ and perhaps his influence on the company encouraged them to move south of the river.
The site chosen was owned by the defunct gun manufacturers, the Blakeley Ordnance Co. who by that time ceased activity. Was the site chosen the ‘Shipbuilding and Engineering Yard’ advertised for ‘a very trifling rent’ earlier in 1868? This was in Blackwall Lane and had a river frontage of 800 feet where ‘the nature of the shore is peculiarly adapted for launching’. It has a ‘substantial wide jetty’ and would provide space for ‘the construction of vessels of the Warrior or Northumberland class’. On site were ‘smiths and finishing shops, a large shearing, pressing and punching shop, mould lofts, counting house, etc.’
The new dry dock seems to have been constructed on previously unused ground slightly to the east of Blakeley’s main site. An OS map of the late 1860s shows the Blakeley Co.’s factory with Blackwall Lane on its eastern boundary, at that time going down to the river at Blackwall Point. To the east of this the river wall appears considerably inland with a large area of marshy ground marked as ‘liable to flood’ with a number of drains and river outlets along its length. In late 1868 Lewis and Stockwell asked Greenwich Vestry permission to ‘stop up an ancient highway’ – presumably the end of Blackwall Lane. The vestry was currently involved in legal action with the Board of Works against Messrs Maudslay’s activities in ‘stopping up’ a footpath but nevertheless they were happy to let Lewis and Stockwell go ahead subject to the usual legal process. They commented that ‘the application did not appear to excite much interest’ and that they should ‘give every facility to persons proposing to … carry on shipbuilding’ and only one vestryman complained about ‘giving up these old rights in a hurry’.
Thus, in order to build the dock the end of Blackwall Lane was closed and the dock constructed between what had once been the line of Blackwall Lane and the flooded area of the marsh, inserting it into the one piece of hard ground left on the eastern edge of the marsh. A section of marsh to the east was then enclosed for a landing stage and wharf and at the far end of that a range of buildings was placed. It seems to have been built and been in operation by the early 1870s.
We have however very little idea of what its construction was or the building materials used, and, now, of course, we will never know. There are no known photographs or drawings of the dock in operation. From drawings in the National Gas Archive it can be deduced that its internal dimensions were 467 ft in length and 66 feet wide, and very little more. On these drawings the only building marked is a ‘latrine’. A plan in the London Metropolitan Archive also gives very little away, except to mark some ‘capstans’.
By 1881 there was on site, in addition to the dock, ‘punching and rolling sheds, blacksmith’s shop, boiler house, fixed machines store, engine and boiler house, saw mills and an office building’. A very substantial establishment and one of which Greenwich could be proud. Despite the shipbuilding orders it was always clear that the dock itself was a ‘graving dock’ and to be used for ship repairs. In 1873 ‘six steamers for Brazil’ had been ordered from Lewis and Stockwell at Blackwall but it seems likely that ship repair work was in fact Lewis and Stockwell’s main business.
The dock was said to be able to take ships of 2,000- 3,000 tons and repair work was done through contract with various shipping lines – they gave as an example ‘P&P Steamers’, although this might be a misprint for ‘P&O’. They employed 200-250 men on site and claimed to have a 24 hour turn round period for repairs. They also claimed to specialise in high class paint work on ‘gentlemen’s yachts’ – for instance, they had said they had done the
gilding on the private yacht of W.H.Smith, book seller and First Lord of the Admiralty, no less.
Other works began to move around them – Forbes Abbott and Lennard brought their new tar distilling process to the area and to ‘artificial manure’ works – ‘Mockfords’ and ‘Biphosphated Guano’ soon joined them. None of these, as we shall see, smelt very good and the new shipbuilding and repair works must have had some doubts about these new neighbours.
Soon however it appeared that a new and much much bigger neighbour would take up a site nearby – and like a cuckoo grow and grow to take over everything else. The South Metropolitan Gas Co., based in the Old Kent Road, had been looking for a new site for some time. They wanted to built a very large works which would take over the gas manufacture to fulfil the needs of an expanding market and at the same time allow old and inefficient works to be closed. They liked the look of the large expanse of unused marshland at Greenwich and began to make preparations to build their new works there.
There were, of course, a number of objectors to this – among them Lewis and Stockwell. By 1881 Mr. Stockwell was no longer involved and in his place was a Samuel Hyam. Both he and Lewis gave their addresses as in Westbourne Park area of West London. They argued very strongly that the value of the shipbuilding works would be greatly decreased by the gas works and demanded compensation – so loudly indeed did they demand compensation that one wonders if there was another reason for the clamour and a need for a quick disposal of the site! They put forward as evidence the high class nature of their paint work and the problems which would be caused by coal dust in the air.
The gas company contested this strongly and their lawyer made some remarks which today would be seen as unacceptably racist with regard to Mr. Hyam and his business methods. George Livesey, the Gas Company chairman, gave evidence himself on the sort of work carried out in the graving dock. He said that he had seen a large ship in it which had ‘touched a rock somewhere and injured her stern post’. This repair was ‘rough work’ and he said he had never seen ‘delicate work, painting of colours, decoration and upholstery’. All of this was to no avail and the House of Lords ruled that the Gas Company must buy the graving dock from Lewis and Hyam along with some of the other surrounding works.
In due course the gas works was built and the gas company began to wonder what to do with the graving dock. Initially they rented it out for £1,850 pa to a company called Pascoe and Wright, another firm of ship repairers. Within three years they had defaulted on the rent. In June 1884 – a month after the rent had fallen due – a ship, the SS Richmond Hill was damaged while undergoing repairs. Due to the ’non-opening of the valves the caisson was blown up by the water’. In the consequent inrush of water the ship’s bows were forced into the dock end and this section had to be rebuilt in concrete. By early 1885 the matter of the rent was in the hands of solicitors.
Two years later the dock was being rented by a the Dry Docks Corporation of London, another ship repair company. They wanted to buy the dock and the South Met. Gas Company provided a mortgage. Within a year the Corporation had defaulted on the mortgage and the dock was back with the gas company. At this point they put the dock up for sale by auction but there were no bids. Another four years passed.
In 1892 South Met. gas received an offer of £650 pa rent for the dock – less than a third of the rent asked eight years previously! John Stewart and Co. were another local boiler and marine engine building company. They were based north of the river, at Blackwall, and are known to have made engines and fitted out tugs and yachts. No doubt they would have found the graving dock, opposite their main works, useful for this type of work.
By 1892 the Blackwall Tunnel was under construction and was planned to pass very nearly underneath the dock. Because of the tunnel it was agreed with Stewarts that initially they would pay £1,000 for three years. The gas company thought that after this time the dock would worth a great deal more and that they would then be able to raise the rent. In three years time, 1895, the situation was still not resolved and the lease with Stewarts was renewed at the same level. In 1900 the gas company gave up and agreed to sell the dock to Stewarts for £10,000 down and £12,000 in seven years time. No doubt they thought they had seen the last of it!
John Stewart himself died in the early years of the century and after that the business failed. By 1910 it was in the hands of the Receiver who contacted the gas company again. South Met. were sufficiently interested to have the property valued and decided to buy it as long as the price was no greater than £10,000. What happened next is not clear – perhaps the Receiver found another buyer – but it was not until 1917 that negotiations resumed. This time the purchase price was £21,000 and no more was heard until 1927 when the dock seems to have passed into the ownership of the Port of London Authority. In 1928 the gas company bought it from them for £30,000.
What did South Met. Gas Company do with the graving dock once it was back in their ownership? They turned into a reservoir for 3m. gallons of water to supply the gas works and its two associated chemical works. At this time they seem to have undertaken a vast amount of work to secure it and the only available picture seems to show it with a strong reinforced concrete bracing. The dock was divided with what were described as ‘decantation walls’ allowing for two large clean water bays. The water came from the river and was admitted via penstocks fixed at various tide levels on the face of a weighted dam. It is understood that in the National Gas Archive near Manchester are a series of photographs which show some of this work which was undertaken for the company by T.S.F.Gibson.
It took only a matter of a month before disaster struck again in the shape of high tide which damaged the old dock/reservoir once again. The damage was repaired and the new reservoir continued in use. South Met. seem to have tried to make it a pleasant feature of the works.
The reservoir had a fence round it decorated with life belts ‘SMGCo. Blackwall Point, EG’. They also kept the capstans from the dock which were repaired and left as a feature of the waterfront. A plaque explained their origins.
The reservoir eventually fell out of use and was filled in some time after the second world war and gradually it was forgotten. A capstan remained on the river front and a photograph of it is in the local history library slide collection. In the early 1980s the gas works itself closed and the part of the site where the dock had been became home to a collection of unsavoury industries – many of them concerned with heavy haulage. In between their sites woodland sprang up and soon trees and birds began to replace the retort houses and tar stills. Some of us, interested in local history, began to find holes in the fence. One day, busily trespassing, I nipped behind a tree to avoid being seen by a lorry driver, to my surprise I stumbled on a capstan, broken, semi-derelict with the remains of a brass plaque. At that stage I had no idea what it was but it was clear that sooner or later a juggernaut would roll over it without noticing. I rang the Museum in Docklands and they took steps to recover it. Soon it will an exhibit in their new museum.
The capstan will be the only reminder of the old dry dock – gone along with all the rest of London’s ship building and repair industry. The chance to excavate and photograph its remains has now been lost as has the hope of finding out why it never was a success.
This account has been compiled from archive material in the National Gas Archive, the London Metropolitan Archive and from Co-partnership Journal. Photographs of the dock in the National Gas Archive were not available for copy at the time this article was prepared.