Friday, 21 July 2017


Last weekend saw us on one of our occasional visits to Docklands. Every time we strike out East, I am amazed by how much there is to see and promise myself that we will go more often, but given that Docklands is in London and we live in London, it's a surprisingly long way to travel and we keep putting off. The result of all our procrastination is that it was not until now that we visited the Docklands Museum, housed in one of the few of the original warehouses to have survived since the docks opened in 1802.

No 1 Warehouse, West India Quay  (Photo: PLA website)
It’s a fascinating glimpse into a vanished world. I thought I knew about the London docks and their importance in the 19th century, but I really had no idea just how huge the network of docks was. The map below (published in 1882) gives some idea of the size of the port.

River Thames with the Docks from Woolwich to the Tower
For almost a century and a half the docks in London made it a major commercial centre. For much of that time, this was the busiest port in the world. I do recommend a visit to the museum. It's free and open every day, and it gives a fascinating insight into the docks and their effect on London.

Until the docks were built, ships in the Thames moored in the river and their cargoes were carried ashore on barges known as "lighters". The men who rode these barges were called lightermen. Once the docks were built it looked as if there might be no business for the lightermen. The docks were built with their own warehouses which had a monopoly on cargo on the dock estate. However the lightermen negotiated a law giving them free access to the docks which meant that cargo owners could have their cargo shifted to warehouses outside of the docks. Lighters continue to be used through the 19th-century. We were very lucky in seeing some in action on the Thames at the weekend as part of the Thames Barge Driving Race. It gave us some idea of the amazing physical demands of this way of life.

The reason for making our trip this weekend was because it was a rare opportunity to visit the River Police Museum in Wapping. The River Police (originally the Marine Police) were set up in 1798 and proudly claim to be the first police force established in Britain, ahead of the City of Glasgow police in 1800 and well before the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. Their museum is a random collection of things that interest police who work on the river. I’m pretty sure some of it will interest most people.

I find that in museums like this, it can be the little oddity that sticks in the mind. Expect my next book to feature a nib wiper.

Public spending cuts mean that the River Police have now been reduced to a single station, but they continue to operate as they have for over 200 years.

The docks in my books

The London of my books was a huge port city. When we first meet John Williamson, he's a sailor and in Back Home he returns to the docks when he wants to find men to help him in some nefarious undertakings. He can't get into the new walled docks, designed specifically to keep people out, but he meets sailors in the warren of streets around them. The docks were the centre of a maritime community and there is an excellent exhibition about 'Sailor Town' in the Docklands Museum.

Back Home, like all my books, is not easy to get hold of at the moment. I've just moved from Accent to Endeavour. Endeavour should have my books back online in about three months. Feel free to bombard them with emails telling them how much you are looking forward to buying the books as soon as they come out again.

No comments:

Post a Comment