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? writes Mary Mills…
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 and perhaps now this, mysterious, dock could be uncovered and explained. Alas, this was not to be and what remains of Blackwall Point Dry Dock lies partly under the Dome, unexamined and unrecorded.
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. As shipbuilders they had been established for some years with a works on Bow Creek – but their shipbuilding activities can wait for another article.
The site chosen for the dry dock had been used by the defunct gun manufacturers, the Blakeley Ordnance Co. Is it perhaps the ‘Shipbuilding and Engineering Yard’ advertised for ‘a very trifling rent’ earlier in 1868? This was advertised as being in Blackwall Lane with river frontage and a ‘substantial wide jetty’ and would provide space for ‘the construction of vessels of the Warrior class’. Warrior is the huge warship built in 1859 just across the river from the Dome and now berthed in Portsmouth as a tourist attraction.
In late 1868 Lewis and Stockwell asked Greenwich Vestry permission to ‘stop up an ancient highway’ – presumably the end of Blackwall Lane. The dock was built and in operation by the early 1870s. By 1881 there were also ‘punching and rolling sheds, blacksmith’s shop, boiler house, fixed machines store, engine and boiler house, saw mills and an office building’. It was a very substantial establishment of which Greenwich could be proud.
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 employed 200-250 men there 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.
Soon however it appeared that a new and much, much bigger neighbour was moving to a site nearby – and one which would 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 build a very large gas works which would 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. They argued very strongly that the value of the shipbuilding works would be greatly decreased by the gas works and demanded compensation. 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. George Livesey, the Gas Company Chair, gave evidence himself on the sort of work which he understood was carried out in the graving dock. He said that he had seen a large ship there 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 along with some 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 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 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. 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 based north of the river.
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. However three years later in 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!
By 1910 it was in the hands of the Receiver who contacted the gas company again. South Met. had 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. 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. 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 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 although a capstan remained on the river front. 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 heavy haulage firms. 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.
It now stands in a corner of the Museum in Docklands. They seem to have very little idea of its past and last time I asked after it told me that they thought it came from ‘the gas works’. The trouble is that the only gas works they knew about was Beckton! I hope they have remedied this now!
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 what remained for the dry dock has now been lost, as has the hope of finding out why it never was a success.
The Greenwich Industrial History Society meets once a month.
All welcome. Please see
greenwichindustrialhistory.blogspot.com/ for current news and events.
• 14th May Mike Clinch Underground Kent
• 11th June.Tracy Stringfelllow & Charlie MacKeith. Jacobean Vistas and public conveniences, Meeting will be in the Studio not the Bakehouse
• 15th October David Waller. Men of Iron – Maudslay
• 12th November Pieter Van der Merwe A Great Light in
the East (End): Gas and the Royalty Theatre, Stepney’ 1816 This will be held in the Studio not the Bakehouse
Meetings held at 7.30pm at the
Old Bakehouse, Bennett Park SE3 (rear of Age Exchange)
There is no parking.