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Marking 40 years since its inception, urban historian Mike Althorpe aka The London Ambler explores the legacy of the LDDC for The London Society. In the third of his three part virtual season of walks charting architecture, landscape and change he looks at buildings and development around Beckton and the Royal Docks. Roger Cline reports. (image above (c) Chris Lambert)

Although the early London Docks were located close to the City from The Tower to Limehouse, the East India Company did build Brunswick Dock over the river from the site of the Millennium Dome around 1660 This was mainly used for building and fitting out of ships. Mike Althorpe, The London Ambler, introduced us to the Royal Docks that were built downstream from the Brunswick Dock as the size and quantity of ships made the upstream docks too crowded.

He showed us the impressive street entrance to East India Dock through its high walls built to stop pilfering of the valuable cargoes. Although the gate is no longer there some of its plaques are displayed on the remains of those walls. The East India Dock opened in 1806 using the Brunswick Dock as its Export Dock, with a new Import Dock beside it further inland and a Tidal Basin providing access from the River to each of the Docks.  Their building was prompted by the rival West India Dock company which had built their docks on the Isle of Dogs. Mike showed us the Daniell prints of the docks in largely open country bordering the River.

Mike did not mention it but the London to Blackwall Railway was developed between Fenchurch Street and the Brunswick Dock, initially cable hauled to avoid cinders from the chimney of steam locomotives setting fire to ships’ rigging . Although designed for freight, it became a commuter line, adopting steam locomotives as their fire safety was improved. The docks continued but were severely hit during WW2 and the Export Dock was filled in to support the new Brunswick Power Station in 1956, looking like the younger brother of Bankside Power Station now reborn as Tate Modern. The Brunswick power station did not survive long, being re-developed for housing in the 1980s, known as Virginia Quay to commemorate the departure site of the adventurers to set up Virginia as a British colony.  We saw a memorial designed by Wendy Taylor, recycling a plaque from the 1920s. The problem with piecemeal redevelopment of sites for housing has meant that the walkway along the river bank has privately-owned sections which are either closed to the public or at least closed at night-time (which hindered Mike wanting to take early-morning photographs).

The East India Docks closed in 1967 and the LDDC redevelopment produced ‘pompous post-modern new offices’ (as described by Simon Bradley in Buildings of England), the most notable being the Financial Times printing  block of 1988 with a window wall showing off its printing  machines. Recent refurbishments of the area have reintroduced water features to hark back to the dockland origin

The River Lea joins the Thames at Bow Creek where its winding shape defines a finger of land now supporting tower blocks of flats and Island City which used to contain noxious industrial buildings and Trinity Buoy Wharf with its training lightship but now has more blocks of flats with the end of the promontory leased out by the LDDC an ecology park with buildings formed by shipping containers and a Faraday Museum. As a general rule the LDDC did not ‘put people first’, aiming to make the area a new financial centre with motorway-type roads and poor pedestrian facilities - getting over the Lea on foot involves walking on the narrow verges of high-speed roads.

The Royal Docks proper are on the eastern side of the Lea, Royal Victoria Dock having been opened on former marshland in 1856 with railway lines for moving freight, the rail lines extending to North Woolwich on the Thames shore and Beckton where there was a large Gas Works.  The North Woolwich line originally ran across the River entrance to the Dock on the level, but the conflicting rail and ship movements caused the track to be diverted to between the Victoria and the later Albert Dock to the east (and when that line also conflicted with ship movements between the two docks the rail line was put into the Knott tunnel below the ship passageway – the tunnel now being used again, after decades of redundancy, for the Elizabeth Line).

Initially the northern wharf of the Victoria Dock had piers projecting into the water but they were removed when the length of ships increased (and now the northern shoreline has been moved some way south to provide more building land). The dock is very long (and the Albert Dock even longer) which again makes north/south pedestrian communication difficult. The LDDC built a stylish Royal Victoria bridge, originally intended as a transporter bridge, but ending up as a footbridge with a deck at high level to allow access for sailing ships. This requires pedestrian lifts at either end which Mike complained were recently out of order and the sailing ship facility in the dock has never been used (in your reviewer’s experience the lifts have rarely worked since the bridge was built).

When the Royal Docks were built, housing for the dockers was built to the north and the land to the south was used for industry. After the docks closed the LDDC developed the land immediately to the south of the western end of Victoria Dock for housing (Britannia Village), working initially in conjunction with the Peabody housing charity. Housing built since the closure of the LDDC is of poorer quality. Mike praised the retention of the Stothard & Pitt cranes along the dockside to echo the heritage of the area, but your reviewer believes the original cranes were scrapped and the current structures are replacement non-working replicas put in on the original crane tracks as an afterthought.

The LDDC’s most prominent commercial building is the Excel exhibition centre with the roof supported by masts and cables around the outside of the building to give an unobstructed floor area inside. It was planned in 1985 but only opened in 2000 due to financial problems. It attracts the protest lobby every time an Arms Fair is held there.  Mike mentioned the Wilkinson Eyre building which is now to be used as a new City Hall (in place of the interestingly-shaped but impractical 1990 building by the south end of Tower Bridge)

There are still some sites to be developed, notably around the Millennium Mills and Platoon Dock to the east of the Victoria Bridge. The flour mills were built from 1905 in concrete on a massive scale and form a hazard to planes using City Airport – some have been demolished already.  In the meantime the area has been used for film scenarios (Kubrich’s Full Metal Jacket about the Vietnam War, for example). The Platoon Dock building had a short after-life as a Night Club and hosted Jean Michel Jarre’s Destination Docklands light show. Finance and the communication difficulties due to the lack of river crossings are the probable reason for the delays – interestingly there was no mention throughout the presentation (that your reviewer heard) of the East London River Crossing.

The area along the northern bank of the River is Silvertown, named after the Silver rubber company founded there. The 2008 financial crash stopped most of the redevelopment there although Barrier Park and one strip of flats had already been built. The redevelopment of the site of the Mond explosive works as flats is underway (unfortunately wiping out the commemoration of the Silvertown explosion of 1916 (not mentioned by Mike)). Barrier Park is of an interesting French design with a sunken strip of planting leading to a look-out at the Thames Barrier, but the spectacular computer-controlled fountains were soon vandalised (for the scrap value of the fountain nozzles) and at your reviewer’s last visit were still not working. The plan was for the planted strip to continue northwards to the Victoria Dock, but whether this will be incorporated into the Platoon Dock development remains to be seen. The Tate & Lyle sugar refinery is still operating (and there is a Lyle Park) but the planned tower blocks of flats (Silvertown Quays) elsewhere along the river bank (with more gates along the river path) are still to come.  Silvertown will not get a station on the Elizabeth Line which is a hindrance to successful redevelopment (and early plans for the Fleet Line and the Jubilee to serve the area were cancelled). SS Teulon’s muscular St Mark’s Church is deconsecrated but in community use.

London City Airport uses the strip of land between the Albert Dock and the later King George V dock, It was promoted by Reg Ward of the LDDC and opened in 1987, much against local objections (due to noise and sterilisation of a large land area); the Government wanted the area to have a broader-based service economy to give employment for former dockworkers. The STOL flights are controversial and may not remain viable in the face of global warming. Mike compared the scheme with the dock area of Amsterdam which was redeveloped as dense housing with marinas

Beckton was a very marshy area with the Northern Outfall Sewage Works and the Gas Light and Coke Co’s works on the river bank, both from the 1860s, and East Ham football stadium. When Newham Council was formed in 1965 the area plan was for council housing with which the LDDC agreed, with a barn ASDA store and a sports complex. The housing style could be said to be Arts & Crafts meets Frank Lloyd Wright with a replica Globe Theatre home for the elderly. Ambassador Gardens has neo-classical crescents and squares. Later private developers brought more quirky styles and a three-times increase in population. The inevitable cuts in council spending brought closure of the dry ski slope on a waste heap, although it still provides a vantage point in an otherwise flat landscape. Commercial development of Royal Albert Wharf around the DLR depot is still unfinished, which may be due to planning blight over the indecision over the East London River Crossing.

Cyprus on the north bank of the Albert Dock now has the spectacular University of East London campus designed by Ed Cullinan. One Victorian Arts & Crafts survivor of the Dock Era is The Gallions Hotel, by TR Wagstaff for the P&O Steamships, where passengers for India and elsewhere in the Orient would stay before boarding their liner.    

 The presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session. The answers have been incorporated into the above account at the relevant places