“Whither, O splendid ship” is the opening line of Virginia Woolf’s essay The Docks of London in which she describes the scenes a ship would see coming upriver into the Port of London: liners and steamers, decrepit warehouses, wall-paper and soap factories, cranes and rubbish barges.(1) All this hustle and bustle only increased over the centuries and more space was needed to accommodate the multitude of ships bringing in their wares from all over the world. Whole neighbourhoods were flattened to make way for new docks and warehouses, or as Joseph Conrad would say, “when the trade had grown too big for the river came the St. Katherine’s Docks and the London Docks, magnificent undertakings answering to the need of time.”(2)
St. Katherine Docks takes its name from St Katharine’s by the Tower (full name: Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St. Katharine by the Tower), which was a medieval church and hospital next to the Tower of London. It was founded in 1148 and grew into a village mainly filled with ‘the poor’, but the hospital and some 1250 houses had to be demolished in 1825 to make way for the new dock development. Where the poor went is anybody’s guess, nor did anybody think it necessary to give them compensation; that all went to the owners of the houses.
The docks were designed by Thomas Telford in the form of two linked basins, the East and West Docks, accessed via an entrance lock from the Thames and a central basin. Soil that was dug out for the dock went to Vauxhall Bridge Road where “a portion of the site formerly occupied by the Neathouse Gardens was raised to a level with Pimlico” and to the drained reservoirs of the Chelsea Waterworks Company west of Tothill Fields.(3) The Docks were officially opened on 25 October 1828.
Conrad describes how a budding seaman had to make his way to St. Katherine Docks to be examined before he could become a second mate.
At that time the Marine Board examinations took place at the St. Katherine’s Dock House on Tower Hill, and he informed us that he had a special affection for the view of that historic locality, with the Gardens to the left, the front of the Mint to the right, the miserable tumble-down little houses farther away, a cabstand, boot-blacks squatting on the edge of the pavement and a pair of big policemen gazing with an air of superiority at the doors of the Black Horse public-house across the road. This was the part of the world, he said, his eyes first took notice of, on the finest day of his life. He had emerged from the main entrance of St. Katherine’s Dock House a full-fledged second mate after the hottest time of his life with Captain R-, the most dreaded of the three seamanship Examiners who at the time were responsible for the merchant service officers qualifying in the Port of London.(4)
June 1846 had been an exceedingly hot month as can be read in Alathea Hayter’s A sultry month. Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 and a report on the effects of the heat and an example of the disparate items that were offloaded onto the quays of St. Katherine Docks can be found in a report in the newspaper of the 18th of that month.
– The heat was so intense during the Fête Champêtre at Sion-house, on Tuesday, that many of the guests suffered severely from its effects, and looked as jaded on their return as if they had been haymaking instead of merry-making, or as post-horses on the evening of the Derby-day.
– A further arrival of Ice has taken place from the United States of America. A ship named the Ilizaide has arrived in the St. Katherine’s Docks from Boston with an entire cargo, 664 tons weight of the article. The article is in large blocks, and in an excellent state of preservation.(5)
The iconic Dickens Inn that stands on the dockside is a reconstructed wooden warehouse that may already have existed in the 1700s. The original building stood a bit further east than its present location and had been clad in brick to conform to the look of Telford’s warehouses. When that original site was needed for another redevelopment in the 1970s, the original timber structure was rediscovered and the building saved from demolition and moved to its present site.
(1) Virginia Woolf, ‘The Docks of London’ in The London Scene: Five Essays , pp. 7-15.
(2) Joseph Conrad, ‘London’s River’ in The London Magazine, vol. 16 (1906), p. 488
(3) H.B. Wheatley, London Past and Present, vol. 3 (1891), pp. 426 and 523.
(4) Joseph Conrad, Chance (1914; rprt 2002), p.8.
(5) London Daily News, Thursday 18 June 1846.