Monday, 26 October 2015

Museum of London Docklands

No.1 Warehouse, West India Dock Rd,
London E14 4AL
Thursday October  22 2015

This museum is an offshoot of the Museum of London,  using the very generous space of the West India dock warehouse for its substantial display which effectively covers the history of London as a port.

The house style is very reminiscent of that of the Barbican site with a mixture of displayed historical objects/reproduced documents, some short audio-visual presentations and reconstructed room, or in this case street, displays so you wander over wooden and cobbled floors as appropriate. The Museum occupies four floors with the main displays on 3 & 2, admin and generous meeting venues on 1 and commercial and play opportunities on the Ground Floor. I will leave Jo to explain the many pleasures of the Mudlarks scheme to which she has often brought her grandchildren. This may be the most suitable destination for children as I bumped into several somewhat scared toddlers who described parts of the exhibitions as ‘dark and spooky’.
Great cities need rivers or bays (be they commercial or not), and London of course has both the river and a long history of thriving commerce and trade which passed through the variously situated London ports. With international trade comes settlers from overseas and the start of a diverse city population.

The entrance lobby by the lifts shows how the building used to be with a model of a rowing skiff – how imports/exports were taken up and down the river, as this building was used for both loading and unloading.  Being part of the Roman Empire until the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410 this part of the River Thames was where the Romans chose to build their port. The Saxons favoured further upstream – Aldwych/Strand way and not till 900 or so did trading return to this area. The Danes/Vikings were active sailors and traders but found it difficult to get their large ships under the one bridge built to cross the Thames.  By the time the Normans had been in London a 100 years or so they decided to import some smart Caen stone for a first stone bridge.  For me one of the star exhibits of the Docklands museum is a large scale reproduction of London Bridge, with the individual buildings identified one side for the 14th century the other for a later period. It is atmospherically lit and conjures up the range of purposes the buildings on the bridge were used for. From the very beginning ships have always been charged to dock and unload and there have been  ‘inspectors’ of  said loads, otherwise known as customs officers – the Museum reminds us that Geoffrey Chaucer’s job was exactly that and  it must have been easy for him to conjure up the range of his ‘pilgrims’ from the types he met in his working life…  With the imports came the rats and with the rats the ‘Black Death’, which had already taken many lives in Europe, spread in London too.

The Trade Expansion gallery includes models of ships, which have a tendency to make me glaze over whereas small coins and finds of the era are more evocative...  Interestingly as early as 1393 the Lord
Mayor of London was given responsibility  for the Thames and managing the potential clashes between the need for food, conservation and trade.

Following the steady growth in enterprise and trading thanks to the opening up of new trade routes, the 16th and 17th centuries saw the growth of the major Merchant companies, including of course the East India Company, and the concomitant growth of the Insurance companies, such as Lloyds, famously founded in a Coffee house and reproduced here, both in models and re-enacted videos…   In many ways they had the monopoly on trade for nigh on 200 years and at some point their  ships became too large to dock so far in – hence the building of warehouses at this point of the river and the need for watermen to bring down the stock from where the ships actually berthed.

This building was used for trade with what used to be called the West Indies , that is the Caribbean, for which the main commodities were sugar and ‘slaves’. This section of the museum has been built up and the experiences of the enslaved peoples carefully explained and well documented in pictures, in testament from the period and most impressively in a ‘Sound & Light’ installation which runs every 20 minutes or so. The displays painstakingly follow the lives and experiences of the captured communities of West Africa and their journey to work on sugar plantations of the Caribbean … The numbers but of course not the names are there for all to see, and this was the main destination for several school parties. Marking the beginnings of the human rights movements there were some moving statements from the various debates around the Abolition of Slavery.
As trade increased there needed to be improvement in the port facilities – inevitably this lead to massive scale demolition of the houses and shops of those who worked along the river and for the port – the displacement of the poor and working classes to make way for commerce and larger more impressive buildings is of course a never ending story in London, and repeats itself through the centuries as with today’s shortage of affordable housing (by which I mean social housing not fancy rental).

By the time we reach the industrialisation of England building of all sorts is happening – above ground the bridges spanning the Thames proliferate (sending the bigger ships, now iron clad and steam and coal driven, eventually out to Tilbury) and underground Brunel’s tunnel at Rotherhithe (been there blogged that) and Bazelgette’s sewerage system to replace the open sewers and put an end to the ‘big stink’ and cholera outbreaks.   London called itself the warehouse of the world and most of the industry was located river or port side – the Third Floor recreates ‘Sailor Town’ with lodgings, chandlery, shopfronts for ‘letter writers’ and of course the taverns.
At this point you see how the warehouse might have been with weighing scales, piled up tools, cooperage (barrel making), wheelbarrows and porterage trolleys scattered near the huge doors , which presumably look out over the water of the dock. The tobacco trade was huge and wines and spirits one of the oldest businesses, doubtless all still in the hands of the same few families?!

The Docklands at War is what you might expect – the port was a major target for the Luftwaffe and while trade had been re-located to the Clyde for the duration the docks still suffered badly, as did the nearby residential areas, which for many years had received little attention with commerce taking priority. With fewer ships docked for commerce once the plans were in place the dockyard was used for building sections of the Mulberry harbours (portable ports so to speak) used with great success in the D-Day landings.

After the bustle and success of the previous centuries, the post-war decades were bleak. Labour relations between management and dockers deteriorated and a third of all warehousing had been damaged. The 1953 floods which led to loss of life downriver in Essex prompted those with foresight to build the Thames Barrier(1974 completed 1982),  which while  saving London from flooding realistically  put paid to any heavy river traffic, as real port business moved to Tillbury and even Harwich. Things seemed so deserted that the media equivalent of squatters moved in – namely the various pirate radio ships. The Museum very aptly names these three decades post war as the ‘phoney development’ with slow progress on re-development –however come the LDDC (London Docklands Development Corporation)  and a very different new area emerges.  You may not be in agreement with the area becoming another financial district but it has  given renewed purpose to one of London’s oldest parts. With the regeneration came the transport and the now very familiar Docklands Light Railway, which to all intents and purposes runs ( and looks?)  like a Lego train – driverless.  It had been my intention to visit the Crossrail bit of Canary Wharf station which will come 2017 bring even more people to this part of London but so absorbing had been my visit that there was no time left . The lesson here is do not underestimate the time needed to absorb yourself in the story of London’s river and port and people  (to a lesser extent).

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