Category Archives: Visits

Guided Walk and Visit: Bow and the Raw Materials Exhibition by Jill Napier

Perhaps less historically glamorous than Spitalfields or Whitechapel at present, Bow is a fascinating area at the far end of the Mile End Road.  Both Bow and neighbouring Bromley grew up as settlements close to ancient fords on the River Lea. Bow was probably named after a “bow” shaped bridge built in 1110 by Matilda, wife of Henry 11. She needed to cross the River Lea to survey her own estate lands and to visit Barking Abbey. The Bow crossing superseded the Roman crossing at Old Ford and led to Stratford – literally “the paved way to the ford”.  In 1966-7, the Greater London Council (G.L.C.) built the current bridge and flyover leading from the Blackwall Tunnel.  It is hard to believe that both Bow and Bromley – the latter was always the lesser settlement – were once rural hamlets of great charm and desirability on the far outskirts of the City.

St Mary’s Parish Church, Bow. Photograph by Sue Flockton.

The land seems to have been quite marshy.  In 1311, the people of Bow petitioned for their own chapel of ease rather than take the awkward and muddy journey to St Dunstan in Stepney.  In 1719 St Mary’s became a parish church in its own right.  Isolated now on a traffic island opposite the Nunnery gallery, it once formed part of a street of historic buildings, all of which have disappeared. We were able to visit the Church and view the parish room designed by C.R. Ashbee, who ran the Guild of Handicrafts from a 17th Century house lower down Mile End Road towards the City. Appalled by the destruction of historic Bow in the late 19thC, Ashbee started the Survey of London in Bow in 1896 with the intention of recording the fine buildings being demolished at that time to make way for the new factories and worker housing.

The Nunnery Gallery run by Bow Arts since 1996 is on the site of one of these historic mansion houses dating from the 17th Century.  Sophie Hill, the Director, introduced us to the current exhibition there, called “Raw Materials.”  She explained that this was an Heritage Lottery Fund funded project created to look at the vanished industrial heritage of the Lea Valley. It focused on wood with a special emphasis on the furniture trade.  The exhibition presented an evocative mix of objects – furniture, tools, printing blocks for wall paper – archive materials, maps and photographs as well as oral testimonies and the work of a commissioned artist, Silke Dettmers who created new pieces especially for the exhibition.  There were also carefully crafted pieces from the Building Crafts College in nearby Stratford – a training college sponsored by the Carpenters Company, which owned lands in Stratford nearby on the Olympic site and whose name is remembered in the nearby Carpenters Road.

The River Lea, which runs close by Bow, was edged with large timber yards – for example, Gliksten & Sons Ltd, E. Sherry, James Latham Ltd, and Bambergers.  All took in timber supplied from the Surrey Docks and brought up the River Lea by canal.  It was used in a variety of ways – for packing cases, building materials and matchsticks.  The project looked particularly at the production of furniture in the East End. It traced the history of small scale factories in the Shoreditch area, often run by immigrant Jewish families, to the development of large scale concerns – most particularly Lebus which moved from small premises in Curtain Road to a vast factory site next to the River Lea at Tottenham.  Lebus was once a supplier of furniture to all corners of the British Empire, a maker of aeroplanes in two World Wars and a major supplier and developer of Utility Furniture.  An enlightened and major employer in the area, it did not survive the 1970s and very little remains on site.

Blue plaque commemorating Annie Besant and the Match Girls Strike. Photograph by Sue Flockton.

Bryant and May were also a major manufacturer in the Bow area producing matches on site from 1862 to 1979. Two Quakers set up the business using Swedish technology and bringing both timber and chemicals down the River Lea.  Poor working conditions and dreadful exploitation led to the Match Girls Strike of 1888.  The present vast red brick complex was built as a new factory in 1910-1911 and produced 10 million matches a year. When it closed in 1979, the buildings were eventually re–developed as The Bow Quarter by O.R.M.S. Architects in 1987. Today it houses 733 one and two bed room apartments. We were able to look beyond the gates and visit the courtyard to view inside the complex.

The walk continued past the nearby tram shed built by the London County Council in 1907-8 and now used as a bus station. On the corner of Fairfield Road – so named after the annual Whitsun Fair re-located to Bow from the west End in 1764 but closed in 1862 – stands Poplar Town Hall. One of the important public buildings located on Bow High Street, it is now used as office space and a café. Designed by Clifford Culpin in 1938, it is a reminder of Bow’s proud past and association with the Docks. Mosaics above the entrance show wine, sugar and other Empire produce.

Across the road, stands Bromley Public Hall which was the former vestry hall for nearby Bromley and is now the Tower Hamlets Registry Office. The nearby Police Station at 111 Bow Rd was built in 1903 and added to in 1937-8. The Thames Magistrates Court stands opposite replacing an older Court House and designed by Phillip Arrand in 1990.

The Bow area was once the site of three railways. There are hints in the names of streets and in the name of The Little Driver pub – although not everyone agrees on the latter. The nearby Tredegar Terrace, rebuilt as a training school for nurses in 1911, was once the home of Joseph Westwood.  A builder of iron ships and bridges across the Empire, Westwood is buried in a grand tomb in Tower Hamlets Cemetery just down the Mile End Rd.  He is a reminder of the importance of Bow in the past, when it was once not just a place to pass through en route to leaving central London.

To visit the Raw Materials website go to

Our many thanks to Jill for organizing and hosting a really excellent day.


Bow Quarter. Photograph by Sue Flockton.




Our new Summer Term programme is now available

Our new Summer Term programme of visits and walks is now available.  See our Programmes page.  Thanks to everyone who has volunteered to organize and lead each of these.  It is going to be a great summer with plenty to see and do.   Short summaries of our visits and walks will be posted afterwards, but if you would like to join us for our visits on a Monday morning between 11am and 1pm, please see our Join Us page – we would love to welcome you.


Emirates Air Line. Source: Nick Cooper at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

A Guided Tour around DP World’s London Gateway

Today our group left the past behind and came face to face with the future.  Tours to London Gateway for special interest groups have to be made by arrangement in advance, so our thanks to  Peter for both suggesting and organizing it, and to the London Gateway team for making it all possible and providing us with such an excellent visit.  We had a marvellous day.  As usual, you can click on the photographs to see a bigger version.

IMG_7751London Gateway is DP World‘s brand new deep sea container port and logistics park, both of them simultaneously in use and under construction on the Thames near Stanford le Hope.  Stanford-le-Hope is about 20 miles east of London, easily reached by train, and the leg from the station to London Gateway took about 10 minutes by coach.   We arrived at the site headquarters, a bright, light-filled building, via approach roads that were beautifully planted and maintained as part of DP World‘s commitment to the area.  Every roundabout was a miniature horticultural work of art.   We left the coach to meet Rachael Haylock-Jones, Environmental Manager for DP World London Gateway.   Rachael stayed with us throughout the visit and began with a presentation that gave us the background to London Gateway, explained its current status and described all the plans for its future.  The entire project is an ongoing balancing act between Britain’s needs for ever-improving goods handling and distribution solutions, DP World‘s own business plans, the need to detect and record archaeological heritage, and the multiple requirements associated with the management of the highly complex local environment and its wildlife.

Gateway website

The London Gateway website

DP World is the world’s third largest global operator of container terminals.  DP stands for “Dubai Ports,” and the flagship property is at Jebel Ali Port in Dubai.  At the moment they have 66 operational port and terminal interests in 31 countries.  Their normal operating model is to set up and run a concession within an existing port as a tenant on someone else’s property, but at London Gateway a new model has been established.  Here they own the entire business from the ground up, and are working with other companies to develop facilities on the land.  The operation is divided into two basic areas: the deep sea port and the logistics park.  The need for a new port on the Thames has emerged from at least 2000 years of use of the river for cargo transportation.  In the 1960s containerization changed the way in which goods were transported, stored and distributed, improving efficiencies, reducing labour and creating an explosion in global sea trade.  More and bigger ships were built, and the inner London docks and and associated sections of the river soon became incapable of handling ships that deep and wide.  Instead of trying to modernize inefficient London docks, new cargo handling terminals were built further downriver.

London Gateway 3D visualization

Copyright DP World London Gateway

London Gateway is the natural outcome of this process, building on multiple new needs.  Ships continue to increase in size, with the most recent building of ships capable of handling between 18,000 and 21,000 containers.  In the next few years there will be around 200 of these new “giants of the sea,” and Britain needs to be capable of handling both the ships and their massive cargoes.  There is also a growing demand for reduced traffic on roads (due to both congestion and fuel emissions), better use of train links, and more efficient cargo storage.  P&O looked at establishing a port at the site and purchased the land formerly owned by the Shell Haven Oil Refinery from Shell. Then in 2006 DP World acquired P&O and that’s when work really began on looking at what was needed and how it could be implemented. One of the problems that London Gateway seeks to resolve is the transportation of cargo into London itself, without diverting it out to hubs in other parts of the country, which is both inefficient and increases traffic on roads.  The “London Gateway Masterplan” seeks to create a “future proof infrastructure” just 25 miles from central London, bringing vessels closer to Britain’s largest consumer market, with site distribution facilities on-site.

Quay cranes

Quay cranes, newly imported from China, each 138m high

An Environmental Impact Assessment was carried out, which was clearly a massive piece of work, planning permission was granted in 2008 and work started in 2009.  The first part of the project involved planning for the substantial remodelling of the natural environment, including deepening of the Thames channel along a 100km stretch, and land reclamation in order to expand the land available for the Deep Sea Port with its planned seven berths supplied with vast quay cranes, and a Roll-On Roll-Off (RoRo) facility, together with a good road and rail infrastructure.  It is hoped that rail transport will account for 33% of the goods moved out of the port.  The accompanying Logistics Park will provide a supporting infrastructure, with some services developed in partnership with DP World and other buildings leased out to companies providing complementary services.  At the moment only two of the berths are operational, the RoRo facility has not yet been built, and the logistics park is very much still under construction, so this is a gigantic work in progress over 460 acres.  The deep sea port only opened in November 2013 and the Logistics Park opened for business in May 2015.  As well as the deep sea port and the logistics park, facilities belonging to Shell still occupy part of the land owned by DP World but still operated by Shell.  There are also wildlife areas, farmed land and two ecological zones, and these have required considerable investment in their own right.


Water features and green areas supplied for local wildlife, with the deep sea port in the background

The handling of environmental concerns was a major part of the project Masterplan, and has involved some fairly staggering logistical and engineering activities, which Rachael has said continue to cost millions to implement and maintain.  The site was owned by the Shell Haven Oil Refinery until the late 1990s.  There were considerable problems with land contamination, and this was handled in two stages.  In the first instance Shell initiated a programme of land remediation before the land was sold, but to be suitable for the purposes of London Gateway further land remediation had to be undertaken by DP World.  Following the granting of a Harbour Empowerment Order on 16th May 2008, the dredging of the channel in the Thames for new ships was a major undertaking and required constant environmental checks throughout the process.  DP World are responsible for the quayside and up to 60m beyond it, beyond which the Port of London Authority are responsible, so ongoing environmental issues to do with dredging and water quality fall under the jurisdiction of both, with maritime monitoring taking place throughout the dredging process.  The two new quay walls are down to 49m deep and the edges of the quayside are bound by tie rods and are built on vibro-compacted reclaimed material.

Low density grazing farmland

Low density grazing farmland

As part of the environmental agreement, DP World had to relocate wildlife on land to be developed, and provide two habitat compensation sites.  The existing wildlife, including birds, Great Crested Newts, water voles, snakes and a variety of other species (over 35,000 of them) were trapped and relocated to a number of suitable areas in the south of England, whilst others could be moved more locally, which includes 58 ponds for the Great Crested Newts.  10km of special multi-species exclusion fencing was erected to stop wildlife returning, and this requires constant maintenance – and even then some crafty individuals manage to find their way through.  There was even a water vole hospital constructed on site, because they had to be captured, checked and vaccinated before being released into new habitats, which consist of specially established drainage ditches planted with wild foliage.  The land reclaimed from the Thames meant the destruction of mud flats, much used by wading birds, so this needed to be replaced.  Of the 74 hectares comprised by two habitat compensation sites, Stanford Wharf Nature Reserve was completed in 2010 and the other, on the south bank of the river, is about to be initiated by causing a breach of the sea wall to allow land to be flooded and a new sea wall to be built, to be completed later this year.  Webcams at the first of the sites shows a number of wading bird species using the area.  Ongoing fisheries monitoring is also taking place.   Along the north of the side there is a margin of low density grazing farmland owned by DP World but maintained by a local farmer.

Stanford Wharf Roman saltern

Stanford Wharf Roman saltern. Copyright DP World London Gateway

Archaeologists were also given access to the area under development, including a watching brief on the dredgers themselves, and a number of very interesting discoveries were made, including the remains of a Junkers 88 aircraft shot down in 1942, the partial remains of a sunken paddle steamer, the wreck of the 1665 HMS London and a variety of unexploded bombs and ordnance.  On the land being redeveloped a considerable amount of prehistoric, Roman and later remains were found, most importantly allowing the reconstruction of a remarkable Roman saltworks.  Wherever possible, the archaeological remains have been allocated to museum collections, and DP World have produced two glossy and informative booklets about the work:  Time and Tide:  the Archaeology of Standford Wharf Nature Reserve and Archaeology from the Sky: The Air War over the Thames Estuary (the latter available to download as a PDF here).  A summary of the excavation report of Stanford Wharf is also available as a PDF.

London Gateway is particularly pleased that most of the dredged sediments from excavation of the new channel are kept on site and are being used for all sorts of projects, including the original land reclamation project (the reclaimed land being known locally as “New Essex”), and the future raising of surrounding land to protect from flood risks.  200,000 tonnes are retained and used on site; only 350 tonnes have been sent to landfills.  In addition, all the aggregate needed on site was imported by sea and offloaded onto conveyor belt systems, and is again stored on site.

IMG_7778Although at the moment there are around 450 employees, it is envisaged that around 8000-10,000 people will eventually be employed by London Gateway, doing something to replace the local employment vacuum caused by the closure of the Shell Haven works in the 1990s.  Although some experienced managers and supervisors have been brought from other sites, many employees are recruited and trained as specialists on site, apprentice schemes have been initiated in the fields of engineering, business and I.T., and a full administrative infrastructure is growing as the site moves through the project management stages and will eventually meet full operational requirements.  At the same time, all DP World employees are involved in what they term corporate sustainability, which essentially involves personnel in local volunteering, charity work and close co-operation with schools.

IMG_7811With Rachael still in charge, we went back to the coach and took a tour of London Gateway, beginning with the Deep Sea Port.  It is really difficult to convey how impressive this was, and the photographs really give very little impression of either the sheer scale or movement of the operation.   To put the size of the operation into context, the deep sea port recently handled the largest ship ever to come down the Thames.  At 400m long UASC Barzan was a considerable tourist attraction and you can see a time-lapse video of her being unloaded here.   With a much smaller ship being unloaded whilst we were there at one of the two operational berths, we were able to get a real feel for both the way in which the cargo arrived at the port, and how it was handled from ship to lorry.  The terminal is semi-automated.  The massive overhead Quay Cranes (imported rather spectacularly from China) sit over the ships and remove the containers one by one onto human-operated straddle carriers which load the containers onto modules operated by automated cranes.  This reduces labour and improves safety.  Finally the containers are dropped elegantly onto the lorry trailers.  There are magnetics in the ground which offer the potential for automating the straddle carriers in the future.   That all sounds very clinical, and indeed it is all so new and shiny that it positively sparkled on a sunny day like today, but the sheer speed of everything and the unfailing accuracy of the delivery of containers onto the trailers is deeply impressive.  It is difficult to know where to look next as you watch gigantic machines gliding at high speed, their cables lifting, lowering and placing enormous containers as easily as though they are marshmallows.  Everything spins, whirs and glides, and it all works so beautifully and in total harmony.  Truly splendid.

IMG_7840We finished up with a drive around the logistics park, some of which is already built and operating, some of which is waiting for new tenants, and some of which is very much under construction, like the new UPS building.  One of the advantages that DP World negotiated for was a Local Development Order (LDO) for the park.  This means that all warehousing, distribution hubs, storage units and R&D facilities can be built without additional planning permission provided they are constructed within the parameters set within the LDO.  That means that new facilities can be proposed, built and put into service very quickly, allowing the rapid development of the London Gateway site.

IMG_7807I am sure that Joseph Conrad, who lived in Stanford-le-Hope, and began his career in the British Merchant Navy would have been both impressed and approving.  He had a fervour for maritime ambitions.  And the Victorian engineers, whose work we have been admiring so much recently, would have loved it.  This is exactly the sort of colossal scale of enterprise and achievement that they would have applauded.  Finishing on a trivial note, looking at the London Gateway website I particularly liked the “Where’s My Container” link.  It makes the usual online retailers’ logistical issues (e.g. “where’s my DVD”) look rather small-scale by comparison!

For more, there are some videos of the site on the DP World website at

Sincere thanks again to Peter Luck, Rachael Haylock-Jones, DP World and our coach driver.  It was a brilliant experience.


London Gateway Medley

London Gateway Medley



Today’s Guided Tour to Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

Today’s visit was to Tower Bridge.  It is such a familiar landmark of London’s heritage and a major component of her tourist industry that it is difficult to think of it as something that needs real investigation, but some of us found that even though it is right on our doorstep we knew much less than we probably ought to.   Tower Bridge is an icon of both Victorian engineering and architectural ambition.  As with a lot of Victorian architecture there is an ebullience and sense of celebration in the architecture and ornamentation, combined here with the glossy precision and pride in the sheer scale of the engineering. The latter, the power of the hydraulics, came over vividly in the guided tour.

Our guide was Danielle, who was an entertaining and informative repository of knowledge about the bridge and its history.  Tower Bridge was formally proposed in 1876.  Over 50 designs were submitted, some of which are on display in the walkways. The winning design was by Horace Jones, the City Architect, working in collaboration with engineer John Wolfe Barry and required five different contractors to build it.  Queen Victoria didn’t like the open-sided proposal that would have shown the inner metalwork and it was therefore enclosed in the Gothic revival shell that has been preserved today, giving it an appearance that is part building, part bridge.  The bridge took eight years to build, much longer than planned, due the discovery of an air pocket in the river bed when construction began on the first tower.  When complete, the bridge featured two bascules, two halves of the bridge that rock back to open (the word comes from the French “see-saw”).

An earlier design of Tower Bridge by Sir Horace Jones in 1878.

An earlier design of Tower Bridge by Tower Bridge’s designer Sir Horace Jones, 1878.  Copyright RIBA Collections

The towers that give the bridge its name were built to a sufficient height to support raised walkways.  It wasn’t realized that the bascules would open and close so quickly (they took 60 seconds to lift), and the walkway was therefore considered to be vital to allow people to cross the river whilst ships were passing, even though road traffic would have to wait until the bascules were lowered.  The height of the walkways was determined by the height reached by the bascules when open.  The walkways could be reached by stairs, but also, quite remarkably for the day, by hydraulic elevators.   The walkways were closed in 1910 partly because they were no longer used for crossing the river, but mainly due to the various illicit activities taking place in them.  Today glass has been installed within the network of metalwork that makes up the walkway sides, but in the past the were completely open to the elements.  A rather more startling innovation is the glass that has been installed in the floors.  Apparently capable of taking the weight of seven elephants, visitors can walk over the glass and look down to the road below.  An awful lot of visitors were walking very carefully around it, but everyone was fascinated by it.  It must be a very special sight when the bascules are lifted and ships pass beneath.

The steam-powered hydraulics that powered the bridge  could lift the bascules in 60 seconds, operated by a bridge driver.  Today’s engines are slower, doing the job in 90 seconds.  It is the same story with the elevators, which use exactly the same shafts as the Victorian ones but are now modern and powered by electric-hydraulic engines but are slower than they were in the Victorian period.  The stairs are still in place and in use (206 per flight) and are just as they were in the 1800s.

Engine rooms

Engine rooms

The Act of Parliament that allowed the bridge to be built makes it illegal for it to be closed against any ship over 10m tall.  When it was first built there was no schedule for ships.  When a ship needed passage, the bridge was opened, and it could open up to 200 times a day.  Today, however, a bridge lifting has to be booked 24 hours in advance and only opens up to four or five times a day when the river is at its busiest, and more usually once or twice.  A useful by-product of scheduling bridge lift times for tourism is that the Tower Bridge website publishes opening times in advance.

One of the many unexpected facts that Danielle imparted was that Tower Bridge has not always had its current red, white and blue colour combination.  It was changed in celebration of the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 1977.  Prior to that it was chocolate brown, the colour that still covers most of the interior metalwork.   Another fact was that there are around 2 million rivets holding the metalwork together.  The metal doesn’t touch brick at any point in the internal structure, because the two materials expand and contract at different rates and the structure would be completely undermined if the two were to be in contact. Danielle also talked about health and safety and the protocols for ensuring an accident-free life during the raising of the bascules.  In the 1800s a man with a piece of rope was the only mechanism for stopping traffic and on one occasion, in 1852, the man with the rope failed to do his job, and a double decker bus had to fly from one bascule to the other when the bridge began to rise with the bus still on it!


One of the Tower Bridge Boilers

Walking from the south tower to the engine rooms we paused at what seemed like a fairly random part of the bridge, where Danielle pointed out the white uprights that connected the steel chain with the bridge.  These are actually gigantic screws.  It was thought that the bridge would sink considerably into the riverbed under its own weight, so screws were added to the bridge to enable engineers to lower the road, should it sink.  Remarkable.  The screw threads can still be clearly seen, if you know that they are there to look for.

The engine rooms contained things of beauty.  The  bascule lifting mechanism system was designed and installed by Hamilton Owen Rendel.  It was powered by water stored in hydraulic accumulators. Water was pumped at 750 psi into the accumulators by two steam engines.  Although fully functional pieces of machinery, the engines were designed not merely to work perfectly but to look wonderful and were painted in the colours of the coat of arms of one of the contractors.  The brass and copper work were elegantly crafted and furnished with decorative details because, as Danielle explained, there was real pride not just in the quality of the work but in its appearance too.

Tower Bridge emblems

Tower Bridge coat of arms and the colours chosen for the Queen’s Jubilee  in 1977

It was all strongly reminiscent of the superb steam engines in the London Water and Steam Museum in Kew, one of our previous visits.  In both cases we were provided with access to magnificent pieces of Victorian engineering excellence, with all the architectural and engineering flourishes that provided these enormous and complex machines with a very particular sort of beauty.

Many thanks to Sue for arranging it all, particularly as it had to be done so far in advance and required a lot of organizing.  Thanks too to our guide Danielle for an excellent tour of Tower Bridge.

For more about Tower Bridge, see the detailed Wikipedia entry.  For details about the Coat of Arms of Tower Bridge see the website.  For some splendid photographs of Tower Bridge under construction, see the article on the Daily Mail about the discovery of the photographs in a skip.


Cutaway with elevator

Cutaway painting of Tower Bridge from the Tower Bridge Experience exhibition, with the bascules raised and the elevator highlighted in red.


Today’s Visit to the Water and Steam Museum at Kew

The museum from the outside.

The museum from the outside. Photograph copyright the London Museum of Water and Steam.

Today’s visit was to the London Museum of Water and Steam at Kew Bridge.  The museum is a painless 25 minute train ride from Waterloo and a two minute walk from the station.  The building itself is an absolute treasure, the original Kew Bridge Works dating to 1838,  a gently imposing monument to Victorian industrial ambition.  The internal space has been well organized and very attractively fitted out.  It is filled with marvellous things from Roman terracotta pipes to a modern washing machine, via a glorious collection of steam and electric pumps.

Our group was divided into two and we had two excellent guides, who talked us through key components of the museum’s displays.

I am sure that most of us had never wondered about the materials that carried our water beneath the houses and roads of London.  The Romans used clay-based terracotta.  The next most popular carrier was elm-wood (and there’s a great model showing how it was hollowed out and the resulting pipes connected).  Lead pipes introduced a frighteningly harmful element into the water supply, and an experiment in Cotswold stone turned out to be highly porous and therefore as leaky as a sponge.  Iron and steel were popular fabrics, but today plastics of various sorts are preferred, although specialized materials are used when plastics are not appropriate.  Whoever would have thought that pipes could be so fascinating?

The most staggering and truly awe-inspiring of the many sights to be seen are the gigantic Victorian pumps, one of which was three storeys tall, the staircases leading between the different levels themselves works of art.  With decorative flourishes and a lot of brass, as well as a somewhat surprising number of features based on Classical temple design, they were built not merely to do vital work, but they were crafted to look good too.  One of the steam pumps is the Harvey & Co of Hayle 100-inch engine, which is the largest surviving single cylinder beam engine in the world, and which started pumping water in 1871.

The Maudeslay engine, which began pumping in 1838.

The Maudeslay engine, which began pumping in 1838. Photograph copyright the London Museum of Water and Steam.

Another interesting aspect of our guided tour, one of too many to list, was the story of London’s water itself.  Water, of course, has not always been subject to the same standards of cleanliness insisted upon today, and the museum explores some of the problems associated with polluted water, including cholera epidemics, and the steps that were taken to clean it up.

Even today the problems with the management of the household waste that finds its way from our sinks and dishwashers into the sewers is fairly horrific.  Fats and oils in pots and pans that are scraped not into dustbins or poured into jars but are cleaned in our  kitchen sinks will always arrive eventually in our all-important subterranean network of sewers.  Once there, the fat does not dissolve or wash away, but builds up to form unmoving barriers.  These must be moved away manually, by people with shovels.  The photographs were horrendous, a real shock, and if anything was needed to motivate one to deal responsibly with household fats and oils, the photographs of these horrors being manually shovelled in the sewers should be sufficiently persuasive.

Today’s visit was a splendid insight into a world that some of us knew very little about.  The museum’s website has information about days when you can see the pumps working, and that seems like an opportunity that just cannot be missed!

There is a lot of great information provided throughout the museum on information boards, but perhaps the best explanatory tools were the interactive scale models that represented some of the highly complex steam engines, which allow visitors to manipulate levers to see cause and effect in action.  There are YouTube videos showing some of the pumps in action at and at For anyone wanting to know more about the development of steam, there’s a good page on Wikipedia.  And for anyone interested in cholera in London, the Cholera And The Thames website has a lot to offer.

Our Visit to HMS Belfast

HMS Belfast by Alvesgaspar. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Our second group outing took us to the HMS Belfast, a trip that was enjoyed by all, thanks to the ability to access so much of the ship and take in all aspects of how she functioned as a complex and incredibly successful symbiosis of men and machines.

Some of us had visited before and for some it was the first time, but it is one of those places that can be revisited with considerable enjoyment many times.  The surrounding views over Tower Bridge and the Tower of London add to the pleasure of a visit, with plenty of places to spend time afterwards.

Belfast mechanismHMS Belfast was one of ten Town-class light cruisers and was launched on 17th March 1938, just in time to see service in the Second World War.  She collided with a mine in 1939, after which she underwent repairs for two years, and was upgraded at the same time.  Amongst other tasks in the war, she accompanied Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union.  She also saw service in the Korean War in the 1950s, following which she was refitted.  She was eventually taken out of service in the mid 1960s, and was preserved for the nation thanks to the efforts of the HMS Belfast Trust (following government rejection of proposals to save her).  She passed into the hands of the Imperial War Museum in 1978.

There were so many things to take in, but two things that seemed to strike all group members were just how many people were squeezed into such tight spaces and how much of the ship was dedicated to the most complex of engineering works. The ship was an incredibly complex network of machinery and communications.   The emphasis was on functionality, the job that Belfast was built to do.  Some of it had not changed much since Napoleonic ships of the line, with special areas put aside for cooking, sail-making, crew and officer quarters, and the on-board hospital and surgery.  But the modern technology was staggering.  It was all beautiful to behold: shining, glossy, intricate and lavish.  Genius in action.

Belfast engineAs well as the original parts of the ship, there were exhibits showing how Belfast had operated and the role she had played during her career, which spanned both her political and wartime history and engaged with her role as an important piece of social history. Perhaps even more importantly, we were given insights into the people who served on Belfast, and what Belfast meant to those people.  This was not just a warship, it was a community.  Belfast was described by her crew as “a happy ship.”  That was a powerful thought with which to say goodbye when we left.

The icing on the cake was that we visited on VE Day, and were able to sit on the Thames Path in the sun to wait for the eight guns to fire from the first two turrets.  The noise was quite amazing, fire flared from the barrels and there was a sense of real celebration amongst the passers-by and those who were sitting in anticipation.  It was a spectacle worthy of the occasion, and well worth the wait.


The Port and River Archives at the Museum of London Docklands

MusLondonDocklands LogoThe Museum of London Docklands is an excellent resource in its own right, and very much worth the visit for anyone interested in London’s docks and her riverine history.  But there is a component to the museum of which many people remain unaware.

Accessible by appointment only, the Port and River Archives form one of the most important resources for the docks and many aspects of the river that we have in London.  The Port and River Archivist, Vicky Holmes, gave us a splendid introduction to the archives over a two hour period, which was barely enough time to comprehend the sheer scope of the collection.  Dividing our introduction into two parts, Vicky first delivered a truly fascinating presentation about every aspect of the archives.  She began with a summary of all the subject matters that the archives do and do not have, before moving into explaining some of the categories of material that are present in the archives, and how these are being researched, indexed and conserved, and how we, the general public, can request help with the archives and access material in person.  In the second half, Vicky had laid out in the Study Centre various samples of books, pamphlets, collections of minutes, brochures, maps and so much more.  Some of these dated to the formation of the docks, whilst others were far more recent, including details of the campaign to prevent the building of Canary Wharf.   And there was everything in between.

It was a splendid introduction to a repository of primary sources that contains so much research potential that it will doubtless feed authors of books and academic papers for decades to come.  There is also a library which, also by arrangement, can be explored.  There is no online catalogue at the moment, for either the archive or the library.  Details on how to contact the Archive are on the Museum of London Dockland’s Port and River Archive page.

With thanks to Vicky for doing such a marvellous job of introducing us to something that will doubtless be of use to many of us in our own future research.