This week our guided walk included an unexpected adventure: our trip started with a ride on the Emirates Airline cable car, which took us from North Greenwich to the Royal Victoria dock to enjoy the views of the Thames, the Thames Barrier and the docklands areas.
Arriving at Royal Victoria Dock, we strolled along the water side towards the Excel centre. The Royal Victoria Dock was built on Plaistow marshes – a place of smuggling, illegal prizefights, gibbets and prison hulks on the river. The1844 Metropolitan Building Act restricted the use of populated areas for noxious industries so the area became attractive to such industries. The land was acquired cheaply and industrial development began with the building of the North Woolwich Railway (from Stratford) which opened in 1847. The Victoria Dock was constructed 1850-55 and was designed to take the new large iron steamships. The indented shape gave increased docking space. It was equipped with hydraulic lifting machinery, newly introduced by Sir William Armstrong, which gave it an advantage over existing docks. The entrance was from the west (now blocked by Silvertown Way) and land was bought to the east in order to build the Albert Dock and an eastern entrance. “Royal” was added to the names in 1880 when the Albert opened. Stothart and Pitt cranes from 1962 remain as a feature of the redeveloped dock. The Royal Docks specialised in the import and unloading of foodstuffs and were lined with granaries and refrigerated warehouses. The docks closed in 1981.
Near Excel we viewed the Dockers statue by Les Johnson, installed 2009, and the remaining warehouses which were mostly bonded stores for tobacco. Here also is the Transporter Bridge designed by Lifschutz Davidson in 1997. Originally it was planned to have a passenger cabin underneath. However the lifts no longer operate, so we continued along the dockside to view more of the dockside features. Overlooking the dock are the Spillers Millennium Mills built between 1933 and 1954 and was one of many granaries which lined the Royal Victoria Dock. It has been derelict for many years, but there are plans for development into flats. Within the dock itself, ships include Lightship 93, built in 1938 at Dartmouth, ordered by Trinity House in 1938 built by Philip & Son of Dartmouth and named Light Vessel 93. She is now privately owned and is used under her present name as a photographic studio. The nearby SS Robin is the world’s oldest complete cargo-carrying steam coaster and the last of her type in the world. She was built in 1890 at Orchard Yard, Bow Creek, on the River Lea and was restored between 1974 and 1975 by the Maritime Trust.
The DLR from Prince Regent station took us via Canning Town to Pontoon Dock station, with views of Silvertown and the Lyle’s Golden Syrup factory. Founded by Henry Lyle, the factory amalgamated with Tate in 1921 to become Tate and Lyle’s. Lyle Park nearby was given to the workers and local people by Henry Lyle 1924. Inside are the gates from the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding yard in North Woolwich. Silvertown itself was named after Stephen Winckworth Silver who opened his India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph works here in 1852. Many other industries in Silvertown included several manure works, Knights Castile soap, James Keiller’s preserves, and Silvertown lubricants (which refined Russian crude oil). Charles Dickens described the area as “a refuge for offensive trades, oil burners, varnish makers, printers-ink makers and the like”.
In 1917 Silvertown was the site of the terrible Silvertown explosion. The Brunner Mond Chemical Works here made soda crystals from ammonia and caustic soda. During WWI they were asked to convert to produce TNT for the war effort. They were reluctant as there were 30,000 residents in the area, a school and a church, but eventually had to agree. On Friday Jan 19th 1917 a fire started in the melt pot room and caused the largest explosion ever experienced in London. 69 were killed and 2000 made homeless. The blast was heard on the south coast. It was probably caused by poor safety procedures. The memorial to the victims has now been moved into the new housing development at Royal Wharf and was too far to walk to on this occasion.
Pontoon Dock station gives good views over the area. Pontoon Dock was originally the Victoria Graving Dock for ship repairs. It was equipped with a revolutionary ship lift and opened in 1858. The ship for repair was lifted out of the water on pontoons by hydraulic jacks, and lowered into the repair docks. By 1896 the ships were too large and this dock closed. Another notable feature is D-Silo, a former Grain silo, built of reinforced concrete 1920. Bulk grain was lifted from ships and barges into the central silo and 2 side towers by bucket and suction elevators.
From here we entered the very attractive Barrier Park with its 400 metre long “green dock” (never actually a dock). The park was developed by LDDC and opened in 2000. It was built on one of the most polluted sites –PR Chemicals. Decontamination took years. At the riverside there is a Pavilion of Remembrance to civilians who died in World War II. Here we viewed the Thames Barrier, constructed 1974-82 and became operational 1984, before returning to the park café for lunch.
We all thank Sheila for an excellent and superbly thought out walk. It was scenic at both the start and finish and thoroughly interesting in between! A true microcosm of 19th Century east London. The café overlooking the park made a relaxing place to finish.