For the publication onto the London Shoes website this week – I decided to take advantage of the unusually warm and sunny weather, and venture across the ‘Water’ in the direction of ‘Sarf’ London (e.g. the dark side) to check out a particular place of London’s historic old docklands, that I had never visited before – and I’m glad that I did as it is a really scenic and tranquil place – and well worth a visit.
This week’s blog is all about “Greenland Dock” in Rotherhithe, London SE 16.
Greenland Dock was the oldest of London’s riverside docks – and fortunately, a good proportion of it still survives today.
Work to excavate the Dock started in 1695 – and it was finished in 1699, when it was formally named as the ‘Howland Great Wet Dock’ after a Streatham landowner John Howland who had previously owned the marsh lands that were originally there.
When it was first built, the Greenland Dock covered an area of roughly 10 acres. It was expanded over the following decades, to the extent that in its heyday its dimensions ended up covering an area of 22 acres, with a depth of 31ft and a length of 2,250ft.
Initially, the Dock had no involvement in the transportation of goods etc – its purpose was for the ‘re-fitting’ of the ships belonging to the large East India Company – however, by the mid 1700’s it had become a base for Arctic whalers.
The whaling ships would come in from Greenland and whale blubber would be boiled up in ‘boiling houses’ situated on the quayside of the Dock, to make oil. This oil was then used for things such as lamps – for machinery lubrication – or for soaps. The left over bones of the whales were then used in the manufacture of umbrellas and ladies corsets.
As a result of this whaling activity, the dock was re-named ‘Greenland Dock’.
However, the early 1800’s saw a rapid decline in the whaling industry and as a result, trade at Greenland Dock began to suffer.
In 1806 the dock was sold to a wealthy Greenwich timber merchant. Timber (also known as ‘Deal’) then dominated Greenland Dock for the next 100 years, and huge warehouses were built to accommodate timber storage – also small ‘cuts’ and ‘ponds’ were excavated between Greenland Dock and the other docks in the area, to enable easy movement of cargo.
One such ‘sub-dock’ was ‘South Dock’ which was opened in 1811 right next to Greenland Dock and was connected to it by a small channel called the ‘Greenland Cut’. South Dock also had its own lock which gave it direct access to the Thames.
By this time at least 80% of the Rotherhithe area of London was occupied by docks – there was Russia Dock – Quebec Dock – Canada Dock – Norway Dock, all named because of the countries they were trading with – and there were also smaller docks such as Albion Dock – Acorn Dock and Lavender Dock – and the entire dockland peninsular area was commercially known as “Surrey Docks”.
During the 1800’s and beyond, Greenland Dock handled the majority of the trade in Scandinavian and Russian (Baltic) timber.
Greenland Dock and its surrounding docks that dealt with timber – had a completely different working culture to the docks north of the River on the Isle of Dogs. The movement of the timber arriving at the dock was dealt with by the much in demand and essential ‘Deal Porters’ – dock workers who specialised in carrying huge loads of deal (e.g. timber) across their shoulders and who wore special headgear to protect their heads from the rough wood.
Also, vast quantities of ‘Grain’ transported from Canada, was the other prominent cargo handled at Greenland Dock.
As a result of this increase in business, the dock was enlarged in 1904. The expansion created a large entrance lock and a depth of 31 feet allowing much bigger ships to enter, such as Cunard A class liners carrying cargo and passengers between London and Canada.
In 1909 Greenland Dock, along with all of the other London docks, were amalgamated, and came under the management of the Port of London Authority.
Business was booming and everything was ticking along nicely until WW2, when Greenland Dock and its immediate neighbour South Dock, as with all the other London docks – took a massive hit from German bombers during the Blitz.
Greenland Dock was very badly damaged – with most of its warehouses and dockside equipment completely destroyed – and because ‘timber’ was its main product, the fires that ensued, ravaged everything in sight.
However, following the war – Greenland Dock did manage to get itself back up and running again – but the gradual introduction of new transportation methods such as ‘containerisation’ soon signalled the beginning of the end for Greenland, and the other London Docks.
The ‘deal porters’ jobs and other docker related jobs started to slowly fade away, and by 1970 the Greenland Dock had fallen into disuse and was eventually was closed.
Greenland Dock then stood derelict for at least a decade until 1981 when the “London Docklands Development Corporation”(LDDC) bought and took over Greenland and the other surrounding docks in the area.
Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s the entire ‘Surrey Docks’ area, was extensively re-developed. The majority of the docks situated there were filled in and thousands of new residential homes and apartments were built in their place – and the area was renamed as ‘Surrey Quays’, which also now has its own overground railway station.
Greenland Dock and South Dock, although reduced in size, remained in situ. Greenland Dock was converted into a water sports centre and a mooring for houseboats, whilst South Dock was converted into a Marina, which is today the largest in London.
Today, this old docklands area of South London is dominated by luxury residential properties, such as the Greenland Passage development and the gated New Caledonian Wharf.
The streets surrounding Greenland Dock reference the past life of the area, with names such as:- Greenland Quay – Deal Porter Way – Capstan Road – Finland Street – Norway Gate – Ropemaker Road – Onega Gate – Brunswick Quay and of course there is Canada Water tube station.
Although there are no longer any of the old dockside warehouses, many of the old docks quayside fixtures and fittings remain such as:- capstans – the swing bridge over the lock leading out to the Thames – the lock sluice mechanisms – the original ‘Tide Gauge House’ at the entrance to the dock – the old lock-keepers house, plus many more smaller fixtures connected to the old days.
Apart from watersports, one of the other main attractions of the dock today is its wildlife – with birds such as coots, grebes, swans, ducks, cormorants, Canada geese and herons – all regular visitors to Greenland Dock.
Keeping in line with its whaling history, Greenland Dock also has the ‘Moby Dick’ pub – a 1980’s built boozer that provides its punters with a lovely scenic view across its waters – and, after a good few hours exploring the old dock sites – it was the obvious place for me to go, to enjoy a couple of mandatory ‘cheeky’ ones sitting in the Autumn sun – and very pleasant it was too.
So – Greenland Dock, just a short hop across the River from Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs – served by either Canada Water tube station or Surrey Quays overground station – it’s a location rich in dockland history, and a really great place to spend a few hours.
Hope you enjoy the accompanying photos.