Disease and Health Care in the Port of London by Sheila Dobner

On Monday Sheila talked to us about the development of health management in the Port of London.  We have previously heard about the hospital ships, which took smallpox patients from the population of London to isolate them on the river down at Dartford. They were not dealing specifically with those who worked the port.  The ships finished in 1904 due to the high cost of maintenance and limitations of space, and the service was brought ashore to the Joyce Green Hospital. Along with the Orchard and Long Reach Hospitals these were known as the River Hospitals, which were used as fever hospitals and for casualties in two world wars. They were demolished in 2000.

Services for Seamen

Dreadnought Hospital (source: Portcities)

The Dreadnought Hospital at Greenwich was set up to treat seamen and also began as a ship in 1821, originally named the Grampus.  The hospital came ashore in 1870, inhabiting the vacant infirmary building of the Royal Naval College. It housed around 250 patients and also handled urgent medical cases from the local community. The policy of the hospital was to provide help and care for “all distressed seamen”. This included seamen of all nationalities passing through including Indians, Swedes, Norwegians, Africans, Chinese and Americans. In 1877 the hospital opened one of the country’s first training schools for nurses. The Devonport Nurses Home still stands in Greenwich. The hospital was funded through charitable donations and subscriptions so fundraising events and flag days were an important source of income. Illnesses which the hospital treated included broken bones, dysentery, typhoid, ulcers, wounds, rheumatism and venereal disease. During the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel in the 1890s the Dreadnought acted as unofficial first-aid post for labourers injured during the building works. The building company Pearson later acknowledged that support by helping to raise £400 towards the hospital’s funds. After the First World War the society opened its first convalescent home at Cudham in Kent. A major sanatorium for seamen who had tuberculosis (TB) was built in Hampshire in 1921. As shipping on the Thames declined in the 20th century, the hospital fell out of use and finally closed in 1986. The building more recently became the library of the University of Greenwich (building work at the moment). The Dreadnought Medical Society however still exists, based at Guys and St Thomas’s and is part of the NHS, providing special services for merchant seamen and their families.

The focus of the port had moved away from Greenwich so the foundation stone for a new hospital for the care of merchant seamen was laid on 15th July 1889 by the Prince of Wales (later King George V). The Royal Albert Dock Hospital was officially opened on 24th June 1890 by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).  It was a branch of the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital.  The Hospital had two general wards of 5 beds each, a 2-bedded isolation ward and 2 single rooms, an Out-Patient Department, dispensary, kitchen, post-mortem room and an ambulance house.  Located in Connaught  Road, near the western entrance to the Royal Albert Docks, it was managed by the Seafarer’s Hospital Society and was open to the general public.  However, it dealt mainly with injuries acquired by dock workers.  The dockside buildings suffered from subsidence, with the foundations collapsing, so in 1937 the Hospital moved to new premises, built at the cost of £68,100, at a site donated by the Port of London Authority in Alnwick Road, Custom House.  It was officially opened by Queen Mary in 1938.  The new Hospital had 55 beds and an Out-Patients Department, including a fracture clinic, a rehabilitation centre and a VD unit.  A Nurses’ Home had also been built.  In 1948 it joined the NHS and became known as the Albert Dock Seamen’s Hospital.

Tropical Diseases

The Albert Dock Seamen’s Hospital has an important role in the history of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as it was here that it was founded by Sir Patrick Manson, the Director of the Hospital, in 1899. It was set up to treat British colonial administrators for malaria and other diseases. In 1920 it moved to Endsleigh Gardens in central London, moving in 1929 to its present site off Gower Street, where it is renowned for its postgraduate teaching and research into diseases such as HIV/aids, Malaria, TB, Ebola, and Zika.


The “Lima” quarantine flag. Source: Wikipedia

When a ship was known to be carrying a disease or was arriving from a port where an epidemic had broken out, it was delayed the disembarkation of passengers, or the unloading of cargo until the ship seemed to be free of disease. It was first used to keep out the plague after the Black Death hit Europe, also cholera, yellow fever. The term comes from the Italian quarante from the period of 40 days for which ships were detained.

The first quarantine station on the Thames was at Stangate Creek, near Sheerness. Ships flying the quarantine flag were detained here under guard. Quarantine  at the time had only limited effect, for a number of reasons.  Chief amongst these were that bacteria and viruses were not discovered until the late 19th century so transmission of disease was little understood; quarantine was not enforced well enough; inspections were carried out by customs officials rather than doctors; and healthy people on board were at risk of infection.

In 1872 the Port Sanitary Authorities (PSAs) were created to increase the effectiveness of quarantine measures. They had the power to inspect incoming vessels and their cargoes, and the duty to investigate any health problem connected with the port. The City of London took on this responsibility for the Port of London. The area covered included the whole of the Tidal Thames from Teddington Lock in the west and the lower Medway -94 miles in all.

In the beginning, the PSAs concentrated on disease control, as infectious diseases were still a very serious threat to public health. With the increase in numbers of immigrants, the PSAs carried out medical inspections of new arrivals (especially those the authorities described as ‘low-class aliens’).  As with the earlier quarantine ships, the Port of London PSA carried out much of its work lower down the Thames. In 1883 the Corporation built an isolation hospital for sick and quarantined seamen at Denton in Gravesend. Neither the patients nor the ship owners was charged for care and treatment.

Quarantine continued until 1889, when the Infectious Diseases Prevention Act was passed, giving medical officers the authority to board and inspect the ship’s crews and passengers.  The Act also introduced regulations to deal with cholera, yellow fever and plague.  Vessels arriving from a foreign port (most European ports were exempt) were subject to inspection.  Any persons with an infectious disease were removed, together with their belongings and bedding, and taken by launch to Denton (a pier and pontoon were added later to the site, so that the Hospital was accessible at all stages of the tide).  In 1905 some 36 patients were treated at the Hospital.

A Samaritan Fund was set up to help destitute seamen whose clothes and possessions had been destroyed during the disinfection process. The Hospital was maintained by the Port Sanitary Authority (whose title was changed to the Port Health Authority by the Public Health (London) Act, 1936) and funded by the Corporation of London from its corporate funds until 1920, when its costs were defrayed by the rates and an Exchequer grant.

The hulk Hygeia, moored off Gravesend since 1922, from which all incoming ships were inspected, was used as a quarantine station and a base for the launches. She also contained accommodation for the boarding medical officers, who provided a service 24 hours a day. (The wooden ship was replaced in 1935 by an Admiralty lighter made of steel which had been built in 1918.  She was renamed the Hygeia.)

Port of London Isolation Hospital 1954. Source: Dartford Hospital Histories

During the 1930s the Hospital was enlarged and, by the end of the decade, consisted of various one- and two-storey buildings.  The administration block  also contained the Medical Officers’ quarters, 12 rooms for the nurses (including one for Matron), and accommodation for the kitchen and laundry staff.  The wards consisted of a cubicle block with 8 cubicles, each for two patients; a typhoid block of two wards – one with 18 beds and one with 6 beds; and a smallpox block of two wards with 6 beds each for sea-borne cases of smallpox, with accommodation for two nurses.  The disinfecting station contained two baths and three showers, with a laundry and equipment for steam disinfection.  A caretaker’s cottage and an outbuilding for the gardener’s stores completed the campus.  The staff employed were a part-time Medical Officer, a Matron, 3 nurses, a cook, 4 maids, a caretaker, a laundress and a gardener.  The Hospital was normally under the control of the Deputy Port Medical Officer of Health.  Between 1930 and 1936 about 50 to 60 patients a year were admitted.  The patients were not only seamen, but also passengers (male and female), dockers, stevedores and any others working ashore in the Port Health Authority’s territory.  Diseases treated included chickenpox, measles and German measles, diphtheria, smallpox (only 2 cases during the 1930s, in 1935), mumps, malaria, bubonic plague, typhoid, scarlet fever, enteric fever, dysentery, scabies, tonsillitis, pyrexia, septic throat, impetigo, hepatitis, colitis, angina, jaundice and eczema.

During WW2, the Hospital suffered serious bomb damage in 1940 and was closed for bed cases, although the disinfection unit remained open.  In February 1942 the Admiralty requisitioned the site for use as a treatment centre for servicemen with venereal disease and parasitic infections (scabies).  Two Nissen huts were built in the grounds for this purpose.

The Hospital reopened in August 1947, when it had 32 beds.  In the same year the City of London Corporation applied for it to be disclaimed from the National Health Service on the grounds that it provided a unique service, while the Seamen’s Hospitals did not admit women or dock workers, only professional sea-farers.  The application failed and the Hospital joined the NHS in 1948, grouped with the Seamen’s Hospitals under the control of the South East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board.  Patients were still brought to the Hospital by ambulance launch.  The Medical Officers had various quarantine launches at their disposal – the  Howard Deighton, the Alfred Roach, the Alfred Robinson and the Frederick Whittingham.  The Humphrey Morris, bought in 1962, had a consulting room, with accommodation for two stretcher cases and three ambulant patients.  By 1966 the Hospital had 20 beds and, by 1971, 8 beds.  It closed in 1976.  Services moved to Joyce Green Hospital.

This wonderful video from 1948 shows a Port of London Authority. Health Ship P.L.A. health ship meeting an infected ship and offering assistance, fumigating the ship with cyanide.

The Port Health Authority Today

The London Port Health Authority is the largest port health authority in the UK. They are responsible for all port health functions on the Thames, including the ports at London Gateway, Tilbury, Thamesport (Isle of Grain, formerly Port Victoria), Sheerness and  London City Airport.  Functions include:

  • imported food and feed controls
  • infectious disease controls
  • food safety and hygiene, including water quality
  • environmental controls, including noise, refuse, and industrial emissions
  • a 24-hour standby service for infectious disease control available every day of the year

The staff of the London Port Health Authority work at various offices in the district, together with launch crew who operate the Authority’s launches, Lady Aileen and Londinium III, a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB), a smaller RIB and a work boat. Staff include the Port Health and Public Protection Director who is based at Walbrook Wharf in the City of London, local Port Health Managers, Port Health Officers, official veterinarians, technical officers, Port Health Assistants, and Support Assistants.  They  use the services of public analysts, consultants in communicable disease control and Boarding Medical Officers, together with the services of Public Health England.

Dockers and their families

Albert Dock Seamen’s Hospital. Source: Wikipedia.

Dock work was always dangerous and relied largely on muscle power. In the port, safety was a low priority and accidents were common. Manoeuvring large, heavy objects between ships and shore via narrow gangplanks which might be slippery with ice and muck was fraught with danger. Men could be drowned or crushed, falling between the hull of the ship and the dock.  The dock area was often a chaos of men and vehicles. Grappling hooks were dangerous implements being swung around. Cargoes could fall from nets or slings being winched to and fro. Cranes, winches, tractors, locomotives and platform trucks were further hazards.  Cargoes were often of dangerous substances. Bags containing asbestos, iodine, phosphates, guano, lead or cement, would frequently burst, showering the men with their noxious contents. Within the holds of the ships, barrels and chests would be dislodged, crushing men beneath them. There was little in the way of protective clothing.

With increased competition in the 19th century, corners were cut. Dockers were on low wages often paid by quantity of goods shifted and dock owners were piling on the pressure. New labour coming in from the countryside and from Ireland was inexperienced in handling cargoes. The work was dangerous, dirty and tiring and accidents were inevitable. One more recent docker recalls “I’ve had chaps working with me down a ship’s hold that never handled a hook or done a job down a ship’s hold in their lives. On one occasion, put on sugar, and I gave him a hook…And said “now put your hook in there”, and I’m saying that, as he did so he went literally – bashed his hook right through the middle of me hand. I’ve still got a little hole there now. Almost pinned me hand to the bag of sugar.”  Neither the wharfingers nor the dock companies provided any health care for their workers. Most port workers had no income if they were unable to work at any time. A permanent injury or fatal accident could put the whole family in the workhouse, or leave them with the option of begging or crime.

The first casualty hospital in Poplar was built in the 1850s, thanks to the Quaker banker and philanthropist Samuel Gurney and William Money Wigram, partner in a shipping line. Gurney decided to set up the hospital after the notorious death of a labourer injured at the East India Docks. The man died on the way to the London Hospital at Mile End, the nearest hospital to the docks. It was clear that many deaths could have been avoided had medical facilities been available on the spot.  The former Custom House, across the road from the entrance to East India Dock entrance was purchased and transformed into the new Poplar Hospital in 1855/8? At first it catered only for the male workers at the port, but it was later expanded to provide general facilities for the Poplar district. A new wing, including wards for women, was added in 1891-4. At one point, it was estimated that a dozen new cases were being treated at the hospital every hour of the day and night, and the hospital bore a plaque “in grateful recognition of the splendid services rendered by the Hospital to the Staff of the London and India Dock Company, since the Hospital was established”.

Poplar Borough Council published its Official Guide to the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar in 1927, and reported that: “Accidents in the Port of London, in the docks and shipping, amongst the factories and the engineering works, are of frequent occurrence, and often of the most terrible character … immediate attention to the injured is often a vital consideration.”

The hospital suffered bomb damage in 1941 but didn’t close until 1975. In 1982 it was demolished to make way for new houses – the old Victorian buildings and limited space no longer suitable for the demands of modern medicine, though the people of Poplar would miss their local hospital. But by then of course, the docks were all but dead and the NHS had taken over.

Hawksmoor’s Docklands Churches by Fran Bulwer

Fran’ s talk on Monay was on Sir Christopher Wren’s pupil, the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, with particular focus on four of his churches in the Docklands. A scheme to extend state-sponsored church-building, which had started with Wren’s 52 City churches after the Great Fire of 1666, was revived in 1711 under Queen Anne with funds for 50 more churches in the new suburbs, paid for by a tax in London-bound coal. These churches would reaffirm Anglicanism as the national religion in areas with high numbers of dissenters and different Protestant groups, seen as something of a threat to the established Church.

St Anne's Limehouse. Photograph by Sue Wallace CC BY-SA 2.0

St Anne’s Limehouse. Photograph by Sue Wallace CC BY-SA 2.0

Hawksmoor led the Commission into selecting, buying and surveying appropriate land and then overseeing the designs, construction, quality and cost of the building project. The number of churches was soon scaled back to twelve for financial reasons. He designed six himself, worked on two with John James, who did two himself, while John Gibb did one and Thomas Archer two. Eleven of the twelve are still in use today, although not all for their original purpose.

St Alfege’s, Greenwich was the first of the churches in Thameside areas and was to replace a collapsed medieval church on the site. It shows Hawksmoor’s characteristic boxy nave and classical references. It was restored after serious WW2 bomb damage and survives today in central Greenwich, unfortunately next to a very busy one-way system.

St Anne’s Limehouse, with its very high tower – the design of which was transposed from St Alfege – was designed as a Thames shipping landmark with its illuminated clock regulated from Greenwich and its naval ensign constantly flying from the tower. While restored externally in recent years, the interior is not in prime condition but it remains as an imposing reminder of the role of the Church in Docklands communities.

St George-in-the-East in Wapping was built for a rapidly growing, mixed class port community which became increasingly poor and multi-cultural during the 18th and 19th centuries, providing much material for Dickens, Conan Doyle and sensationalist newspapers. It was badly damaged by the Luftwaffe in 1941, along with much of Wapping, and the shell of Hawkmoor’s original church now contains a small 1950’s church within the old nave.

Christ Church Spitalfields is the most flourishing of the churches in East London today, thanks to its location next to the recently renovated Spitalfields Market on the edge of the City. Although damaged by fire and changed in the mid1800’s and threatened with demolition in the 1970’s when nearly derelict, it now looks magnificent after many years of restoration and flourishes as a church and concert venue with a popular crypt cafe.

St George’s Bloomsbury and St Mary Woolnoth in the City are also doing well after restoration work.

Hawksmoor had a remarkable career and London, Oxford and Yorkshire all continue to enjoy the masterpieces of Wren’s ‘draughtsman’, who never quite achieved the fame of his more illustrious master but was surely his equal in originality and style. His style was despised for many years after his death in 1736 but his genius is now fully acknowledged.

Our visit to the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Our sincere thanks to Perdita Jones for providing us with such excellent material on our visit.  Tower Hamlets Archive is situated on Bancroft Rd E1 in a building constructed in the 1860s as the Vestry Hall for Mile End. Mile End Workhouse – now the site of a hospital – stood next door. The building became a library for the Boroughs of Stepney, Poplar and Mile End in 1900. The original building was extended in the 1930s to include a children’s library and a lecture room. The storage area on the first floor, which now accommodates periodicals and some objects, formed the original lending library; a gramophone library was added in the 1960s. The building remained in use as a public library until 2005 when it was replaced by the modern Idea Store Library at Whitechapel. A very ornate plaster painted and gilded ceiling has recently been repaired and conserved in the main reading room.

Stewart's Dry Dock on the right and Glen Terrace on the left; the bowsprit of the barque Milverton overhangs the dock wall Manchester Road, 1918. Copyright: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Stewart’s Dry Dock on the right and Glen Terrace on the left; the bowsprit of the barque Milverton overhangs the dock wall Manchester Road, 1918. Copyright: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

The library and archives serve those interested in family and local history, school and university students, planning authorities, solicitors, businesses and even TV researchers – most recently for “Call the Midwife” and “Life in the Victorian Slum”- and sometimes a celebrity or two – eg Tracey Emin. The collection is a large one; very well organised and catalogued. The library holds over 20,000 printed books and pamphlets dating from the 17th Century to the present covering a wide range of different aspects of Tower Hamlet’s History. There are over 400 boxes of cuttings – many of which date to 19th Century. Over 30,000 images – mainly photographs-  include street scenes arranged alphabetically, with the remainder of the collection arranged by subject.

The map collection consists of over 4000 items dating from Elizabethan times to the present and includes large scale OS maps, street plans, parish and estate maps as well as transport maps. Specific items include the Booth Poverty Maps, Map of the Jewish East End, Bomb damage maps and maps locating air raid shelters. Various local newspapers are held on microfiche, together with parish registers and some London trade directories. There is additionally an audio- visual collection of over 100 oral history recordings as well as videos and DVDs of local interest.

Tower Hamlets Archives has been involved in projects of local interest involving the Somali community, archiving shopfronts and signs and looking at Fish Island in the advance of development. It runs a programme of events and mounts regular exhibitions concerned with local history.

We were very fortunate to be introduced to some special items – some of the Whiffin Photographic Collection, the Island History Archives, the Ledger Book of William Cubitt, pamphlets and reports concerning the development of the Isle of Dogs (1970s) and some early maps and plans of the West and East India Docks. This was a fascinating morning and we would like to thank Perdita Jones, the Outreach Officer, for facilitating our visit and giving us such an excellent introduction to all that is on offer. The archive and library is open daily Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (late night until 8pm) and on Saturdays (1st & 3rd in the month). It is well organised and very welcoming – a fascinating place to spend a lot more time!

With repeated thanks to Perdita Jones, Outreach Officer, who gave us an introduction to the building’s history, the library and archives collection as well as arranging for us to view selected items from both collections, and to Jill Napier for arranging the visit.


The East End 1911 by Jill Napier

June 1911 saw the Coronation of George V and Queen Mary and Alexander Baron imagined the impact of the event in his novel about the East End (King Dido, published 1969):

“The great breweries of the Whitechapel Rd. put up their chains of electric lights…schoolchildren had a week’s holiday…families tramped up West to see the sights or crowded on to penny buses…even the old folk in the workhouse got an egg for breakfast”.

George Sims. Photograph by Ellis and Waller. Public Domain.

George Sims. Photograph by Ellis and Waller. Public Domain.

From June to September temperatures reached 100 degrees in the shade and a long hot summer of industrial and civil unrest accompanied it.  Dockers and railway workers in London came out on strike in solidarity and sympathy with those in Liverpool and South Wales. Schoolchildren went on strike and 40,000 women demonstrated for women’s suffrage on the streets of London. Thousands of troops waited in readiness in London to deal with discontent.

The census taken on 2nd April showed that 1% of the population owned 70% of the nation’s wealth. The top 5 occupations were domestic service followed in order by agriculture, coal mining, building and cotton manufacture. 5% of children aged 10 – 14 years worked to help their families survive. A much fuller set of census questions makes a much more detailed look at contemporary lives possible for the first time – including the lives of people in the East End.

Contemporary resources also add to the picture – and in some cases, photographic evidence really gives us just that – an image. Like all sources, however, these should be treated with some caution. Middle class commentators – and these were the educated and the informers – were fascinated by life in the East End. It was so very alien and different from their own – but these people obviously had agendas and interests of their own to investigate and promote. Some interesting examples are:

George Sims was a playwright, poet and journalist.  He made money from three volumes of investigative journalism. His illustrated articles on all aspects of “ London Life” were published in 1902/3.

Maude Pember Reeves was a Fabian Socialist and feminist, a New Zealander married to a high ranking civil servant, who was intent on exploding the myths about poverty among the working classes. Her book “Round About a Pound a Week” (1903) used information from working class women to demonstrate the daily struggle to survive on very little.

Jack London was an American journalist who went undercover to discover the lives of the homeless and destitute. Stepping off the train at Stepney he mixed with slum dwellers and wandered the streets to doss houses and workhouses. He published his account together with some 86 photographs as “People of the Abyss” in 1903.

Horace Warner was the son of a wealthy wallpaper manufacturer, and a Sunday School teacher in Spitalfields with the Bedford Institute. His dignified photographs provide us with first hand images of East End children: their homes, the streets in which they lived, their work and such amusements as they had.

From these sources, amongst others, it is possible to form a picture of the East End at the beginning of the 20th Century – to look at housing and homelessness, the day to day business of surviving, at the work of women and children and at employment (regular, casual and sweated) or the lack of it.  It should be noted that this was the year that the Liberal Government under Asquith fought hard for unemployment benefit against Balfour and the Conservatives and finally got it in November of that year.

One of the key events of 1911 – now often forgotten – took place on 3rd January at the very beginning of the year. The Siege of Sidney Street reveals interesting aspects of the condition of the East End – issues surrounding immigration, tensions and lawlessness as well as the role of London – especially East London – as a refuge and a base for radical activity. The besieged premises at 100 Sidney Street accommodated a collection of recent immigrants in premises rented out as a lodging house, but owned by a very respectable landlord resident in Hove. A young Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, arrived to take charge of the police siege in person and ordered in the troops. Sight seers crowded roof tops nearby and Pathe news produced one of its earliest ever news reels to record the event.

No wonder then – as the editorial of the East London Observer lamented a week later – there was no likelihood that the streets of the Stepney and the East End would play host to any part of the forthcoming Coronation Processions.


Lecture: Indian Seafarers – Connecting Histories by Georgie Wemyss

The Port of London Study Group  was delighted to welcome visiting speaker Georgie Wemyss of the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging of the University of East London.
Georgia’s talk was entitled ‘Indian Seafarers: Connecting Histories’, her attempt to link the movement of Indian sub-continent seafarers over the last 400 years to London and elsewhere in the world.

While some great discovery voyages are widely commemorated, such as the 400th anniversary of the voyage to Jamestown in 2006, others are passed over when they involve aspects of trade and colonialism that we no longer wish to celebrate or even talk about. Hence the silence that accompanied another anniversary the same year, the founding of the East India Company. Not discussing its role may result in ‘a bundle of silences’ and the risk that the original function of the London Docks will be forgotten, including the role played by seamen employed by the company from modern-day Bangladesh, mainly from the district of Sylhet, known as lascars.

Lascars at the Royal Albert Dock in London. PLA Magazine 1936. CC BY-SA 4.0

Lascars at the Royal Albert Dock in London. PLA Magazine 1936. CC BY-SA 4.0

Numbers of lascar and other non-British sailors were limited to 25% of a ship’s crew from the 1660’s and no lascars were allowed to settle in England; the EIC had to repatriate them to India. However, there are records to indicate that some did remain in London and after 1806, when the East India Docks opened, around 1,000 were arriving annually in London. By 1855 and the advent of steamships these numbers reached 4,000 annually. They lodged in the areas of Poplar and Limehouse, close to the East India Docks in lodging houses with Malay and Chinese seamen. Their position in London was not legal but they were supported by mission charities, the EIC and P&O and were probably largely ignored.

Lascars were employed on naval ships during World War 1 and some were killed in action and are listed with their fellow British sailors on the memorial stone in Trinity Square Gardens. 50,000 Bengali seamen were on British ships in WW2 while 3 million Bengalis died of starvation during the war as food was diverted from there to support food supplies to Britain.
Although lascars worked with white British seamen, their working conditions, food, accommodation and pay were deeply unequal and a strike to improve their situation in 1939 resulted in imprisonment for the ringleaders to try and put down the industrial action. Conditions and pay did improve by 1946 but inequalities remained. A recent find of crew photos from different shipping lines provides a record of lascar seamen in the first half of the century.

After the War many Bangladeshi seamen and other new migrants from Bangladesh moved to the mill towns of the North of England to work in the cotton mills. As these closed, some returned to London to set up restaurants and other businesses.  Bangladeshi women were often alone in Bangladesh while their menfolk were away at sea or left to cope alone if they had been killed in action, and their role is less known.  However, the movement and settlement of lascars in other port cities, like New York, are the subject of several published studies.

If you are interested in finding out more about Georgie Wemyss’s work you can download many of her papers from her Academia page at https://uel.academia.edu/GeorgieWemyss (registration with the site is required, but is free of charge).

Exhibition: Lansbury Micro Museum – New Horizons 1950s – 1980s

A Victoria and Albert Museum special exhibition is taking place at the Lansbury Micro Museum, looking at the development of a neighbourhood built on a 30 acre site following both pre-war neglect and bomb damage.  It was custom designed to coincide with the 1951 Festival of Britain. an included 500 homes, 2 schools, 2 churches and a new market were proposed for the 30-acre site which had suffered from extensive bomb damage and years of pre-war neglect. Here’s an excerpt from the New Horizons web page:

We are pleased to announce that the next instalment of the exhibition series Neighbourhood Number Nine launches at the end of this month at the Lansbury Micro Museum. The exhibition New Horizons 1950s – 1980s considers the changing nature of the Lansbury neighbourhood over four tumultuous decades in the East End, addressing the impacts of industrial modernisation, declining docklands and the strategic relocation of communities to New Towns outside of London. The opening of the exhibition will be celebrated with a walking tour, panel discussion and drinks reception on Saturday 25 February 2017.

Container Cargoes, Royal Victoria Docks 1964.  Source: Museum of London via Lansbury Micro Museum.

Container Cargoes, Royal Victoria Docks 1964. Source: Museum of London via Lansbury Micro Museum.

The first exhibition at our Micro Museum in Poplar focused on the founding ideals of the Lansbury Estate and the role it played as a ‘model’ neighbourhood during the Festival of Britain in 1951. Its aims were to reveal the original aspirations for the area in the aftermath of the Second World War and explore the ongoing significance of the Estate as a microcosm of planning ideas for London.

The exhibition New Horizons 1950s – 1980s takes this exploration further, investigating how dramatic changes in local industry, population and transport links shaped the neighbourhood in the decades after the Festival closed. The display reveals how the fortunes of the local community were influenced by a complex web of political and planning ideologies – reaching far beyond the boundaries of the estate itself.

See much more about the exhibition, together with directions, opening hours and contact details, on the New Horizons web page at:

The Lansbury Micro Museum website, with details about the project and its aims, is at:


Robert Milligan: Founder Of The West India Docks And Slave Owner by Ian McBrayne

Robert Milligan by Sir Richard Westmacott

Robert Milligan by Sir Richard Westmacott. Source: Public Monuments and Sculpture Association

Outside the Museum of London Docklands, where our group meets, is a statue of Robert Milligan, a merchant who was the driving force behind the creation of the West India Docks.  The siting of the statue gives rise to some embarrassment because of Milligan’s ownership of slaves on his plantations in Jamaica.  Ian has been delving deeper into Milligan’s life, and on Monday he shared his findings with us.

Milligan was born in 1746, the son of a Dumfries innkeeper.  It is possible he was brought up by relatives in Jamaica, more likely that he went there as a young man around 1768.  He owned two sugar plantations, worked by a total of over 500 slaves, but whether he inherited them or bought them is unknown.

Milligan was a founder member of the Kingston Chamber of Commerce, which later became the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce and still operates today.  This is an early example of Milligan’s public service; he was a prolific contributor, but always to causes which furthered his interests and those of his kind.  While in Jamaica, he was a partner in the firm of Dick and Milligan, probably slave factors who bought slaves from arriving ships and sold them on to plantation owners on the island.

He is recorded as the father of two children by a mixed-race woman called Mary Slaughter.  She was probably one of his slaves, but the relationship does not seem to have been close enough for him to emancipate her and her children.  In 1779 he left Jamaica to live in London, and two years later married a Scottish woman called Jean Dunbar.  At this time he was living in the City, where he became partner in two merchant firms, Milligan and Allen and Milligan and Mitchell.  He was almost certainly trading in sugar and rum, possibly partly from his own plantations, which remained in his possession until his death.

Golden Vale, Jamaica by James Hakewill. Source: Wikisource

Golden Vale, Jamaica by James Hakewill. Source: A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica, on Wikisource

By the late 1780s, Milligan was very active in the London-based Society of West India Planters and Merchants.  The Society survives today as a charitable institution, the West India Committee, but then it was a key focus for opposition to plans to abolish the slave trade.  He appears to have had a significant reputation as a man with knowledge of Jamaica: in 1795 he was called in to advise the Government on the handling of a rebellion by escaped slaves on the island, and in 1807 he gave evidence to a Parliamentary Committee on trade with the West Indies.

As the 18th century ended, London’s West India merchants were increasingly concerned about the time taken to load and unload ships on the river and the massive pilferage taking place.  In consultation with East End magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, Milligan and the Society were instrumental in establishing the Thames River Police, the country’s first recognised police force and now Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police.  Milligan and the Society also promoted the Parliamentary Bill which enabled the creation of the West India Docks.  The foundation stone was laid in 1800 and the docks were opened in August 1802.

Rosslyn House by William Henry Prior. Source: The Underground Map (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rosslyn House by William Henry Prior. Source: The Underground Map (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1805, Milligan bought Rosslyn House, a substantial villa in Hampstead, and three years later added the equally grand Cotswold House in North Cerney, Gloucestershire.  He was now at the peak of his career: famous, admired, wealthy and comfortable.  But in 1809 he died, and was buried in Hampstead churchyard beneath a tombstone bearing a very luke-warm epitaph from his family.  He and Jean had eight children.  One of the five boys fought at Waterloo; two others died young on a trip to Jamaica.  The eldest daughter married Thomas Hughan MP, another anti-abolitionist.  When slavery was abolished in Jamaica in the 1830s, the man who then owned Milligan’s plantations received over £10,000 in compensation.

The statue on West India Quay was put up in 1813 by Milligan’s fellow directors in the West India Dock Company, with a plaque inscribed with fulsome praise for his role in the docks.  It was made by the noted sculptor Richard Westmacott.  It originally stood inside the Hibbert Gate, the main access to the import dock, but as trade in the docks increased it became an obstruction, and in 1875 it was moved to stand on the central pier of the main dock gates.  In 1943, that pier was pulled down, again to help the flow of traffic, and the statue went into store.  In 1997, it was re-erected in its present position.

We know little of Milligan’s character.  His deeds do not endear themselves to modern sensibilities.  But he was a man of his times and earned his place in history.  Our group felt that the historic interest justified the continuing display of his statue in such a prominent position.