London Docklands Museum

For us, the weekend is a time to get out and about and visit some interesting places. It’s also a time when chores such as shopping and laundry have to be done, so time has to be managed carefully. We were hoping to travel out of town today but as the weather looked rather gloomy, we decided it would be a good idea to get the shopping done and put off the major expedition until tomorrow, hoping the weather will be better.

P1470138
Ancient Docks
The cranes still stand though disused

We did our shopping in the morning and in the afternoon went to the Docklands. This is where much of London’s waterborne trade goods arrived or started their journey across the globe. Sailing ships came here and then the steamships. Dockers loaded and unloaded the ships and skiffs and lighters crisscrossed the docks carrying goods to and from the warehouses.

High walls and terraces
High walls and terraces
The buildings are old, new and a mixture of both

All that activity ceased when the docks could no longer survive and trade took other routes. Fortunately, the area was not left to rot and then to be built up piecemeal by greedy developers. It has been redeveloped in a reasonably sensitive way, I think. It is now a place of offices, of banks, insurance companies, designers and media…

A mixture of building styles
A mixture of building styles
Canary Wharf overtops everything else

Nonetheless, it is a place of contrasts, some buildings are the old wharfs and warehouses, modernized, of course, and others are newly built. People who work there probably become used to it but I always feel there is something science-fiction about it, as though it a carefully made film set rather than a real place. That is not to say that I do not like it. On the contrary, I am grateful that the dreadful excrescences that disfigure other parts of London have been stopped from invading.

The tallest building in the above photo, with its characteristic pyramidal top and flashing light, is referred to by most people as Canary Wharf, though in fact Canary Wharf is the name of the area in which it stands, the old West India Dock on the Isle of Dogs, once the busiest port in the world.

Spotlit by the sun
Spotlit by the sun
West India Quay

Our destination was was building in West India Quay that is conveniently picked out in the above photo by the sun acting as a spotlight.

The pontoon bridge
The pontoon bridge
It bounces when people walk on it

We crossed from Wren Landing by the pontoon bridge. As you go across you have fine views but if you want to photograph them, you have to wait until no one is crossing because footfalls make the bridge bounce!

A broad esplanade
A broad esplanade
Lined with old warehouses

The bridge brings you to a broad esplanade, lined one one side by what were once warehouses and on the other by the dock. The old buildings, modernized, now serve other purposes. Some are cafes and restaurants and one is…

The Museum of London Docklands
The Museum of London Docklands
Where to learn about docklands and much of London’s history

… the Museum of London Docklands, our destination. As the name suggests, it covers the history and development of London’s docks from the earliest times until now.

Statue of Robert Milligan
Statue of Robert Milligan
Credited with the founding of the West India Docks

In front of the museum is a statue of Robert Milligan (1746-1809), a prominent merchant and moving spirit in the founding of the West India Docks. The bronze plaque shows Britannia, with a rather masculine face, being greeted by three putti and what I take to be a figure symbolic of foreign nations anxious to trade with Britain or perhaps to seek her aid. (Sculpted by Richard Westmacott, 1813.)

Waterman's skiff
Waterman’s skiff
For carrying goods or people on the Thames

Admission to the museum is free and photography is allowed without use of flash, a restriction I am happy to accept. The museum is very large, consisting of a ground floor cafe and shop, two upper floors of exhibitions and a basement containing the Sainsbury Study Centre. The recommended route is to walk up the stairs – or take the lift – to the top floor and work your way down.

Old London Bridge
Old London Bridge
Different parts of the model reflect different periods in its history

The museum is big, very big, but very well laid out. If you follow the direction indicators, you follow the Docklands from ancient times to the modern day. Information is conveyed by videos, wall displays, models (such as the large one depicting old London Bridge at various stages in its history), mock-ups and genuine articles from the past.

Articles from the past
Articles from the past
Pocahontas and a leopard flask

As examples of objects from the past, the above photos are of a figure of Pocahontas from about 1750, probably a display from a tobacco shop in Jamestown, Virginia, and of a water flask from Benin in the shape of a leopard, dating from the 1500s.

Sailor Town
Sailor Town
Everything the sailor needs when he comes ashore

The most elaborate mock-up and the most atmospheric is Sailor Town. As this is a passageway between two parts of the museum, you can’t avoid it but why would you want to? It represents a narrow dockside street in a past age, probably in the days of sail, a place that sailors would frequent between voyages. There is a pub, a lodging house, a ship’s chandler (see above) and even a shop selling exotic animals – peering through the gloom you can see the heads of two camels confined to a small enclosure.

Zig-Zag Clock
Zig-Zag Clock (c. 1940)
Used by convoys of Allied ships during the Second World War

Because of their crucial strategic importance, it was only to be expected that the docks would come under heavy enemy attack during the Second World War. Bombing caused huge damage and terrible loss of life. There is an extensive section of the museum devoted to the Docklands during wartime. My favourite exhibit here was this “Zig-Zag Clock”. Ships supplying Britain with essential food and materials during the war gained some protection from German U-boats by travelling in groups called convoys. To make themselves less of a target, the ships would change direction at intervals in a manoeuvre called “zig-zagging”. Each ship would be issued with a “zig-zag clock”, set to ring a bell at certain times. When the bell rang the ship would alter its course.

SilverTiger by Modigliani
SilverTiger by Modigliani
OK, not quite – just another self-portrait

The Docklands Museum needs more than an afternoon to explore it thoroughly, though there is pleasure and interest to be had from dipping into it here and there as we did. The best approach would be to take a topic – such as wartime Docklands or overseas trade – and explore it thoroughly. Either way, there is scope for many visits. Just as well it’s free!

The Hibbert Gate
The Hibbert Gate
A replica (2000) of the original West
India Dock Gate

We left the West India Dock by the Hibbert Gate. This is a modern replica of the original gate to the dock. It was opened by Mayor of London Ken Livingstone in 2000. It is topped by a scale model by Leo Stevenson of the 405 ton West Indiaman, the Hibbert, which sailed from this dock between 1785 and 1813. It was named after George Hibbert, a slave trader, who played a principal part in the development of the docks, though the ship carried rum, sugar, coffee and hardwoods. (The pigeon below the gate is hoping for some more of the biscuit I had just shared with him!)

A pair of coots
A pair of coots
Sailing in the dock

Along the way we encountered a pair of coots sailing about in the dock. (Some more biscuit went to them. I need more biscuits.)

Willoughby Passage
Willoughby Passage
Can we get out this way?

We left the dock by walking through Willoughby Passage. At the end there is a pair of closed gates. We were not sure we could go out this way but just as we reached them, the gates opened automatically. Outside, there was a button marked “Press me” for people wishing to enter.

Man with Arms Open
Man with Arms Open
A familiar denizen of Docklands

While waiting for the bus home, we took photos of this by now well known Docklands figure, the Man with Arms Open, by Giles Penny (1995). Whether he is in despair, or seeking aid from heaven, or even, as some suggest, in ecstasy, no one knows. I tried to photograph his face but he is very tall and even by holding my camera above my head, I could do no better than the picture on the right.

Model of the City Barge 1807
Model of the City Barge 1807

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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4 Responses to London Docklands Museum

  1. Big John says:

    I’m old enough to remember what was left of ‘the docks’ after WW2 and knew people who lived in the area. These dockers only ever saw the Thames when they were at work because no homes for the workers were built on the river-front, only warehouses. It was a ‘rough’ area and most families lived in streets of terraced houses with a pub “on every corner”.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I wonder what has happened to those communities whose members worked on the docks. Have the people found other work in the area or have even the streets of houses disappeared, replaced by modern riverside blocks of offices and prestige accommodation?

  2. WOL says:

    Have the docks moved farther down the Thames? (Gravesend?) or to other ports entirely? The model of the city barge you have pictured is a beautiful piece of workmanship. It was interesting that you made the comment, “I always feel there is something science-fiction about it.” I only knew about Canary Wharf as it was featured as a setting for several exciting episodes of the latest (but one) incarnation of Dr. Who — there is a “Battle of Canary Wharf” which is a significant event in the Whoverse. A well designed museum is always a delight. Hopefully, you’ll show us more of it.

    I like your slide show feature. Your blog does not really convey how very sharp and crisp your photos are. However, this is very apparent in the slide show.

    • SilverTiger says:

      That’s an interesting – and useful – comment about the photos. So thanks for that.

      I think that the docks have simply gone out of use because modern container shipping doesn’t need such extensive facilities. The trade can now be handled in fewer and smaller ports.

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