Monday 19 September 2011

Open House (2): Royal Victoria Dock

When steamships began carrying cargoes to London, they really needed larger, deeper facilities than the Pool of London could offer. The result was a vast, state-of-the-art dock further east on Plaistow Marshes: the Victoria Dock. This was the first built specifically for steam vessels.

The result was impressive: opening in 1855, the dock had five jetties providing nearly three miles of quays. Its entrance lock was over 24 metres wide and, thanks to hydraulic machinery, could open in a minute and a half. Warehouses and cranes lined the edges; originally, many were specially adapted to handle either meat or tobacco. Later, the dock dealt with a great deal of fruit and had specific facilities for some such as bananas; it was also a centre of flour milling. Such had been its success that the Albert Dock was added in 1880, and both were given the prefix 'Royal'.

There were also bad times here: the worst was the Silvertown Explosion of 1917. A TNT factory exploded, destroying a large area and killing 73 people. The cause was uncertain, but there was strong criticism of such a dangerous industry being carried on in a built-up area.

In 1981 the dock closed. Once at the forefront of dockyards' moving further east, it now fell victim to the same process as vast container ships used the even larger facilities of Tilbury. The Royal Victoria became a residential and leisure space, with one side occupied by the huge Excel exhibition centre. The Millennium Mills are a solitary, near-derelict reminder of the industrial buildings once all around; they are now rather incongruous among the shiny new flats and newer construction. The cable car across the Thames will terminate at one corner of the Dock; nearby, the Siemens Sustainability Pavilion is being built.

Our boat tour of the dock was part of a project which aims to reconnect local people with the docks. The River Princess is owned by a charity who plan to use it to provide training for those who want to work on the water as well as educational trips. These will allow people, especially school groups, to see the natural and built history of this fascinating area of London.

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