Layers of London: A New Heritage Project


There’s an article on the Birkbeck website about the launch of a new heritage project.  The idea is to link different maps and other together to enable you to see how London has changed over time.  It is an ambitious project, and they are looking for volunteers.

A major new project, Layers of London: mapping the city’s heritage, will bring together digitised heritage assets provided by key partners across London. These assets will be linked in an innovative new website which will allow people to interact with many different ‘layers’ of London’s history from the Romans to the present day, including historic maps, images of buildings, films as well as information about individual Londoners and families over the centuries. These layers will be added to by the public, who will be able to upload historical information of different kinds.

This project has been awarded funding of £929,800 by the Heritage Lottery Fund, made possible by National Lottery players. An additional £600,000 is coming from matched funding and other contributions.

Layers of London, which began with a pilot project in 2016, explores how London has changed over its history, and how Londoners have adapted and responded to those changes.

See more on the above websites.



The Thames Barrier. By Tony Keen

The Structure

The Thames barrier. Photograph by Tony Keen

The barrier is 520 metres long, about quarter of a mile. It has 2 main deep water channels and 8 smaller ones.   Each of the main gates weighs 3,300 tons and, when raised, each is the height of a 5-storey building. The river bed to the top of a main gate pier is the height of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square.  It protects almost 100 square miles of Central London.  As at March 2014 the barrier had been raised 174 times, half of which was to alleviate river flooding and fluvial movement of sediment in the river bed.

Concept and Design

Sir Hermann Bondi reported after the 1953 flood, where almost 300 people lost their lives, that a movable barrier or dam across the Thames was essential. A competition resulted in a winning design by Charles Draper.  He constructed a working model in 1969 with the turning gates based on the gas taps of an oven in his parent’s house.  The machinery on the piers was to be housed in flat roofed sheds but the architects came up with a stainless steel dome based on the open bow door of a cross channel ferry.  The barrier was begun in 1974 and opened by the Queen in 1984 at a cost equal to £1.5 billion in today’s money.

Underspill and Overspill control tidal flow by releasing inland river water into a lowering outbound sea tide and vice versa when hightides are expected from the North Sea. The underspill through a raised gate gap of 50mm (2inches) travels at 80mph and attracts hundreds of sea birds to feast on the fish caught by the rushing oxygenated water.


    m.v. Sand Kite after it collided with the Thames Barrier. Source: The Liquid Highway

  1. The barrier was raised twice on 9th Nov. 2007 to protect against a storm surge in the North Sea equal to the 1953 flood level.
  2. The barrier was raised for 16 hrs in Aug. 1989 to assist with the Marchioness recovery.
  3. The barrier has survived 15 boat collisions without serious damage including the one below.
  4. In October 1997 the dredger “Sand Kite” struck No. 5 pier in thick fog. She was carrying 3,300 tons of sand/aggregate and, with her bows split open, swiftly sank. There was little damage to the barrier, the ship was salvaged and the gate was operational in 10 days. The cargo is still washed around the river today.

The Tidal movement and increasing sea levels

Inside the Thames Barrier. Photograph by Tony Keen.

The effects of tidal movement and increasing sea levels are most complex subjec.  Aware of the potential impact of flooding in all our minds, I have endeavoured to explain a little more.  One must be aware of different measurements (i.e. metres, feet, mm), wind pressure, tidal flow, barometric and a host of other factors. Confusing to say the least.

The highest tide ever recorded is 25.8 feet.
• 2013. We had the largest tidal surge, (since1953-when over 300 died)
• A “spring” tide occurs every 14 days, when Earth, Moon and Sun are in alignment.
The Barrier can close one gate in 15 minutes. All gates in 90 minutes.
• Predictive tides and warning can increase the time to 9 hours.
• The largest barrier gate is 61.5 m long (200 feet) . The gate is 20m fully closed-overall height (66 feet) with 4m (13 feet) below the river bed and 16m (53 feet) from the river bed to the top of the closed gate
Tidal Flooding is a constantly monitored and natural event. Low tide is approx. 7m (23feet) deep to river bed and high tide approx. 15m (49 feet). This gives us predictably high water of around 25.8 feet.
• The calculation takes the highest tide ever recorded to within 3 to 4 feet of the barrier top.

Other matters such as the ice caps, global warming, thermal  and landscape changes, water course and flood plains, rainfall and water tables etc are all within the DEFRA 2009 plan.

The Thames barrier’s anticipated life span is 90 years (1980 to 2070).

Clement Attlee – MP for Limehouse 1922. By Ann Evans

Clement Attlee. Source: National Archives INF 14/19

On Monday 9th October Ann Evans introduced us to the truly fascinating story of Clement Attlee.

In 1905 aged 22, Attlee, with his brother Laurence, set off from Putney station and travelled to Stepney Green.  Within a few steps of the station, they entered a very different world. Attlee described travelling along the “ weary waters sad and brown…. Threading the close packed reaches of the town” as they headed towards “ squalid tenements of ill renown”.  This was the dark heart of “Outcast London”.  The East end of 1905 was densely populated by dockworkers, casual labourers and notorious for unemployment, poverty, crime and disease.  As the “Observer”, stated in 1944, Attlee “went left by going east.”

The two Attlee boys were headed to the Haileybury Club, an institution founded by their old school, for boys between the ages of fourteen and eighteen.  It was at the boys’ club that Attlee began his intellectual enquiry into the problems of poverty that confronted him in the East End. He read widely and came to the conclusion that the Poor Law system had failed its purpose miserably. Little had changed since the 1830s, when it distinguished between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.  The deprivation and poverty that he experienced while working with slum children changed his political views. He felt that private charity would never be able to alleviate this poverty and that only direct action by the state would have any serious effect. He converted to socialism and joined the Independent Labour Party in 1908.

A street in Limhouse.

Attlee joined up in September 1914. He served in the Gallipoli campaign, holding the line at Lala Baba. He became an admirer of Winston Churchill despite the failure of the action.  He later served in the Mesopotamia Campaign in Iraq, where he was badly wounded.  His final service was in France.

After the war Attlee re-immersed himself in local politics. He became mayor of Stepney in 1919.  The council under his leadership tackled slum landlords, appointed health visitors and sanitary inspectors, worked to reduce infant mortality and took action to find work for returning unemployed ex-servicemen. He expressed his feelings in his poem Limehouse, written in 1912.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, before the break of day,
I hear the feet of many men who go upon their way,
Who wander through the City,
The grey and cruel City,
Through streets that have no pity,
The streets where men decay.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, by night as well as day,
I hear the feet of children, who go to work or play,
Of children born in sorrow,
The workers of tomorrow,
How shall they work tomorrow Who get no bread today

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, today and every day
I see the weary mothers who sweat their souls away:
Poor tired mothers trying
To hush the feeble crying
Of little babies dying
For want of bread today.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, I’m dreaming of the day
When evil time shall perish and be driven clean away
When father, child and mother
Shall live and love eachother
And brother help his brother
In happy work and play.”

In 1920 he wrote in The Social Worker: “In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some periods to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may, be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community.” In 1922 Attlee was elected as MP for Limehouse.  In 1935, George Lansbury resigned after delegates at the Labour Party Conference supported sanctions against Italy for its aggression towards Abyssinia.  Baldwin announced an election in November 1935, with no time for a leadership contest, Attlee agreed to be interim leader. After winning 38% of the vote, Attlee stood for the leadership against Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood. Attlee was elected as a competent and unifying figure.

Statue of Clement Attlee. Public Domain.

Attlee remained as Leader of the Opposition when the Second World War began, convincing the Party to go into Coalition Government. Attlee stood with Churchill at his lowest ebb, sharing a joint conviction that government had to function efficiently, if generals were to succeed in the field, Churchill, never forgot, “Mr Attlee is a great patriot.” In 1945 Attlee presented to the electorate, an agenda of social patriotism, based on the “Social Insurance and Allied Services” report, drafted by the Liberal economist William Beveridge. In this, Beveridge identified five “Giant Evils” in society, squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. It proposed widespread reform to the system of social welfare. It was widely popular and formed the basis for the welfare state, the expansion of National Insurance and the creation of the National Health Service.

In the 1945 General Election Labour won by a huge landslide, winning 393 seats in Parliament and a majority of 146.  When Attlee went to be appointed Prime Minister by King George VI, the laconic Attlee and the tongue-tied King stood in silence, Attlee finally volunteered the remark, ”I’ve won the Election.” The King replied , ”I know, I heard it on the Six O Clock News.”  Attlee’s Government brought in to law, the National Insurance Act and National Health Service, as well as the 1944 Butler Education Act and Family Allowance Act – it signalled the move from a welfare system based on means testing to one premised on universal provision. The long held wish, expressed in The Social Worker, written in 1922, was realised.

The East End of London had been the inspiration of Clement Attlee. The dreadful living conditions of its population, had moved him from a comfortable middle class world, into radical socialism.   His politics were ones of deep ethical conviction. Inspired by the needs of the people of Limehouse and the East End, he successfully established the Welfare State.


Port of London Study Group – Autumn Programme

Our new Autumn Term programme of talks by both group members and visiting speakers is now available.  See our Programmes page.  It lists all the presentations and visiting lecturers lined up for January to March. It is looking like a really great term ahead.  Short summaries of all our presentations will be forthcoming after they have been delivered, but if you would like to join us for each two hour session on a Monday morning between 11am and 1pm, please see our Join Us page – we would love to welcome you.

The Thames Barrier. By Aleem Yousaf, Wikimedia CC-BY-SA-2_0


Surrey Docks and Royal Victoria Yard walk by Sue Littledale

Our walk started at Canada Water, a small freshwater lake and wildlife reserve in central Rotherhithe that was once the site of a nineteenth century ‘timber pond’.  Originally constructed by the Grand Surrey Dock and Canal Co., ‘Canada Pond’ was absorbed into the much larger Canada Water Dock which opened in 1876.

Riverside warehouses, Deptord

Riverside warehouses, Deptord

This dock was built by the newly formed Surrey Commercial Dock Company to handle large iron vessels specialising in the thriving Anglo-Canadian trade of grain and timber.  When the trade finally fell away and the dock closed in the 1970s the whole area was regenerated.  A small section of the dock was retained for the wildlife reserve but most of it was filled in and now sits under the Surrey Quays Shopping centre and car park.

The walk continued round the lake and down a passage leading to Surrey Quays Road and thence onto Redriff Road, which overlooks Greenland Dock.  Here we passed a large red lifting bridge which once covered a waterway cut from the Greenland Dock to Canada Dock.  Greenland Dock itself is arguably the most impressive reminder of London’s dock history.  Originally called the Howland Great Wet Dock it was built in 1699 as a re-fitting base where ships could be repaired and berthed in a sheltered anchorage.  From the 1720s, Greenland whalers also used the dock and extensive usage by the whalers led to its’ renaming as the Greenland Dock.

In 1806 the dock was sold to William Richie, a Greenwich timber merchant and founder of the Commercial Dock Company (1807).  In 1904 it was greatly expanded and the lock enlarged to provide access for ships up to 15,000 tons. We walked round the dock to the point when the Grand Surrey Canal, built in 1810, once passed on the western side en route to its exit in the north of the borough.  When the Greenland Dock was extended across the route of the canal all cargo destined for its Surrey wharves came in through the Greenland Dock and entered the canal through a new lock introduced on the southern side.

We left Greenland dock via Greenland Quay and turned left into Plough Way.  Passing the site of the old Baltic quay we entered South Dock, which is now a marina.  This dock, built in 1807–1811, was originally called the East Country Dock.  It was renamed in 1850 when the Surrey Commercial Dock Company purchased and enlarged it.  Severely damaged during the Second World War, it was drained in 1944 and used as a workshop to manufacture components for the famous Mulberry Harbours. It then re-opened but struggled to survive and in the 1980s it was developed as a marina.

1888 plan of the Victualling Yard. Copyright National Archives.

1888 plan of the Victualling Yard. Copyright National Archives.

Leaving South Dock we crossed Plough Way into Grove Street and the entrance a few yards down to the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard.  Grove Street appears to have changed its name more than once.  Originally called Grove Lane, it then became Grove Street.  For a brief period in the late 19th century, at the bequest of Queen Victoria, it was renamed Victoria Street at the top and Albert Street at the bottom.  Grove Street was home to many of the victualling yard employees.

The yard itself and the work carried out by the Victualling Office is described in some detail in Sue’s presentation of 13th March this year.  Our walk gave members the opportunity to see at first hand a number of buildings erected in the late 18th century when the Admiralty officially moved the Victualling Office and all its activities from Tower Hill to Deptford.  The first of these buildings, all of which are now listed, is the main entrance gate off Grove Street.  Built circa 1768, probably by Samuel Wyatt, it remains virtually unchanged, although the entrance now has two white arches joined by a lamp holder instead of its original large iron gates.

Just inside the gate is the Colonnade Building, built some ten years later to accommodate naval officers.  The attractive two blocks of two storeys, named for their imposing colonnades, would have been occupied by naval officers who were civilian employees of the Navy Board, not sea officers.  In the 1960s they were converted into flats by the Greater London Council.

The Terrace, Deptford

Walking eastward through the Pepys Estate, a social housing complex built by Lewisham Council, we came to an elegant row of houses, simply called ‘The Terrace’, which was built in 1791.  The terrace of 7 houses, each with three stories and a basement, was also converted into flats with some internal features remaining.  According to an 1888 plan of the yard, which can be viewed at the National Archives, each house was allocated to one of the senior yard officials.

Continuing along Longshore past the terrace we soon came to the riverside which still retains some of its eighteenth century features, not least the river wall itself which is also a listed historic ‘building’.  The wall had collapsed during the Napoleonic Wars and was rebuilt by John Rennie in 1816.

Turning right along the riverside we quickly reached two fine large warehouse buildings.  Historic England records that they were built in 1781-98 and that ‘the inner returns of the buildings and 3 bays of main fronts, were formerly the Commandant’s House and the Administrative Offices’.  The 1888 plan of the yard shows that the rest of the buildings were given over to the bakery and biscuit lofts on one side and an implement and raison store on the other.  This contradicts the widely held belief that these two buildings were in fact rum stores.  On the riverside, facing these buildings, are the Royal Victoria Yard River Gate and stone steps with wrought-iron gates between stone capped piers.

Turning away from the river and walking down between the two warehouses we passed 3-5 Foreshore, the last of the listed buildings which was previously a stable block.  Many of the old buildings on what was eventually a 35 acre site have vanished without trace.  However, those that remain – when studied alongside the detailed 1888 plan of the yard – provide a vivid picture of the yard at the end of the Victorian era.

All this land was once part of the Red House Estate, owned and nurtured by the diarist and polymath John Evelyn in the 17th century.  It was appropriate therefore to end our walk in Sayes Court Park at the bottom of Grove Street, the small piece of land that is all that now remains of John Evelyn’s famous garden.

The Port of London Study Group moves to a new venue

Canada Water library, built in 2011 and overlooking the remains of Canada Dock. Source: Wikipedia CC-BY-2.0

From September 2017 the Port of London Study Group will hold its Monday morning meetings* at the Canada Water library, which is immediately above the Canada Water tube station on the Jubilee Line.

Once at the heart of the Surrey Commercial Docks in Rotherhithe, Canada Water and the surrounding area have a rich maritime history.  It is the surviving northern section of the much larger Canada Dock, built in 1876 to serve the Canadian grain and timber trade. A short walk away is the Greenland Dock, the oldest riverside wet dock on the Thames.  Originally called the Great Howland Wet Dock, it was built in 1699 as a shelter for refitting ships rather than as a dock for cargo.  Its name was changed in the 18th century when it became the home of whaling ships bringing in their cargoes from Greenland.  It later became the main hub of London’s timber trade for more than a century until the docks closed in the 1970s.  Now retained as an integral part of the community, it is a fitting reminder of an era when the Rotherhithe peninsula was a thriving centre of overseas trade.

*Autumn Term dates: Monday mornings from 1100-1300 from 9th October to 11th December inclusive. Details of the programme will be published on the Programmes page when finalised.

The Surrey Commercial Docks in 1894

The Surrey Commercial Docks in 1894

A Visit to Eltham Palace by Tony Keen

Eltham Palace. Photograph by Duncan, Wikimedia cc-by-2.0

On Monday 26th June, English Heritage welcomed the group to one of their exemplary Jewels in the Crown: Eltham Palace.  Port of London Study Group member Tony Keen is an enthusiastic volunteer at the Palace and was fortunate to arrange the visit on a blisteringly hot summer day.

The group met in the ground floor oak panelled room and Tony produced a time line history of the palace.  It was important to remember that we were in the property of the crown and, with our descendant Queen being the rightful owner.  After the Norman Conquest of 1066 William the Conqueror gave lands at Eltham, south of the Thames, to his brother-in-law Bishop Odo who was also commissioned to produce the Bayeux tapestry.

Eltham was little more than a moated manor house in 12th and 13th centuries but it eventually passed into the care of the Bishop of Durham, Anthony Bek (spelt Antony by the Elthamians.)
Very interesting records are held at Durham cathedral concerning Bek.  Anthony Bek built the moat walls in about 1300 and extended the site with more defensive work, a hall and chapter house.  In 1396 Richard ll built the moat bridge which still stands today, albeit supported by a few centuries of repair.  The great medieval hall was built in 1479 by Edward IV (known as “the sun in splendour”) by his master carpenter, who conceived the magnificent hammer beam roof which is one of the finest surviving oak constructions in Europe.  The Tudors took the palace over in 16th C. with Henry VII spending most of his 24 years reign at Eltham and Henry VIII growing up there with his siblings and heirs.  Charles 1st was the last monarch to favour Eltham. Short lived and in 1646 Cromwell abolished the monarchy.  The palace was ransacked by the Parliamentarian troops and the local populace nicked the lead roof, fine panelling . tessera , tiling and stonework. Thus a period of 2 centuries of decay began.  But all was not lost.

The palace became a farm of 45 acres, incorporating the great hunting park with its Georgian mansion,which is now Blackheath golf club.  The farm developed into gentleman’s accommodation but the crown and local people took a dim view of this, and in 1910 the ministry of public works undertook renovation of the site including the great hall and surviving Tudor façades and foundations.

Our thanks to Tony for sharing his considerable knowledge of Eltham Palace on very enjoyable outing.