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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Surrey Commercial Docks:  Rise, Fall and Aftermath

Map of the Surrey Docks 1927

The Surrey Docks began with the construction of the Howland Great Wet Dock at the very end of the 17th century in the south east of the Rotherhithe peninsula. When the docks closed over 250 years later, the Surrey Commercial Docks covered 85% of the peninsula with a total of nine docks and six timber ponds.  

 

Almost 100 years after the Howland Great West dock was built, the Grand Surrey Canal was built which had an entrance to the Thames at the north west and ran roughly south east then south before veering south west to Peckham then on to Camberwell, running through what is now Burgess Park.  By 1811, the Howland Great Wet Dock, today called Greenland Dock, was owned by the Commercial Dock Company. The Grand Surrey Canal Company, realising there was more money to be had in building and managing docks than in canal transport, became the Grand Surrey Canal and Dock Company.  Put simply, the Commercial Dock Company and other companies that it acquired owned and developed the docks east of the Grand Surrey Canal and the Grand Surrey Canal and Dock Company did the same west of the canal. The two companies competed with each other in undercutting prices to a foolhardy extent which threatened to ruin both companies until 1865 when the two companies merged to form the Surrey Commercial Docks Company.  Not just this company but all the dock owning companies in London were taking senseless financial risks at a time when efficient operation of the docks was essential for London's merchants.  In 1908 the government established the Port of London Authority and all dock companies put into public ownership.  

 

The docks were devastated by bombing during World War II and by the late 1960s, marine cargo transport had moved towards the less labour intensive system of containerisation which required deeper docks than those at Rotherhithe.  New terminals were built at Tilbury and Felixstowe especially to accommodate container ships.  The Surrey Commercial Docks, no longer profitable, closed.  The docks themselves were mostly filled in by the Port of London Authority and Southwark Council, and plans were made regarding the area’s future.**  In 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation was formed and took charge of the regeneration of the whole London Docks area.  A controversial organisation at the time, the LDDC was respectful of the docks’ history and commemorated its heritage at a time when there was less emphasis on conserving an area’s past.  

The dock had become known as Greenland Dock by the 1760s as by then the Greenland whaling trade had established it as their base.  Timber was to play a large part in the life of the Surrey Docks and by the end of the 18th century Greenland Dock was handling this and also grain and other foodstuffs.  Larger docks were built on the Isle of Dogs in the 1860s which were able to accommodate larger ships and, with an eye on grain cargoes, the Surrey Commercial Docks Company now embarked on rebuilding and extending Greenland Dock.  The refurbished dock was 2250 ft long.  Before expansion, the Grand Surrey Canal was beyond the dock’s western boundary, but now the dock was extended way beyond the canal so that canal traffic coming from the Thames had to cross the width of the enlarged dock before continuing onwards.  The exit of the canal was where the sports centre is located today.  With an eye to increasing the handling of foodstuffs, in particular dairy produce from Canada, refrigeration units were built and the Surrey Commercial Docks Company did indeed manage to win contracts from two Canadian lines by seriously undercutting competitors’ rates.

 

Greenland Dock is a huge expanse of water with a marina and a watersports centre that offers sailing, windsurfing, canoeing and kayaking. It's over twice the size of the original Howland Great Wet Dock, named after the family who owned and built it.  It was built not as a commercial dock for handling cargo but as a safe shelter for ships to berth  where repairs and refits were carried out.  

Greenland Dock

Surrey Water, formerly known as Surrey Basin, also remains. As mentioned above, the owners of the Grand Surrey Canal soon realised there was greater profit in operating docks than in operating a canal, and increased the width of the canal to form the Grand Surrey Outer Dock and the Grand Surrey Inner Dock which in time became known as Stave Dock and Russia Dock respectively.  To accommodate the larger iron ships which had been introduced in the 1840s, the entrance to the canal from the River Thames was moved a little upstream to accommodate a larger lock built in 1860.  This gave access to the triangular shaped Surrey Basin which led to a dock (later called Albion Dock) to the south west and to the Grand Surrey Outer Dock and the Grand Surrey Canal to the south east. The Surrey Basin and the lock were filled in by the Port of London Authority in 1967 but were restored by the LDDC and renamed Surrey Water.  Some of the lock machinery, though inoperable, can still be seen under the red bascule bridge that is similarly disabled, no longer able to lift up from its hinge.

 

When the LDDC restored the Surrey Basin, they also created a narrow water channel that runs from the basin to Canada Water, formerly called Canada Dock. This decorative pedestrian walkway called Albion Channel cuts through the former site of Albion Dock and the dock wall has been retained on one side.  The channel is very active with waterfowl, in particularly coots, ducks and moorhens, who are provided with small planted floating islands for breeding.  Don’t go too near when there are coot chicks in the nest or you’ll have a very aggressive coot parent to deal with!  The rubble that was cleared when digging Albion Channel was used to create Stave Hill on the site of the former Stave Dock, also home to an ecology centre.  Russia Dock, named after the source of much of the timber that was handled by the Surrey Commercial Docks, was filled in, landscaped and is now a woodland park.  Part of the dock wall has also been retained here.

Surrey Water Lock Surrey Canal entrance Albion Channel Russia Dock Woodland

Entrance from the River Thames

Bascule Bridge and lock gates

Albion Channel

Russia Dock Woodland

In addition to the docks that loaded, unloaded and sometimes stored goods there was also the need for ponds to store imported timber.  Handled by highly skilled deal porters there was a huge requirement for timber not only in 19th century London for use in the house building boom but also for onward shipping to other parts of the world.  There were three inter-connected timber ponds that extended north from Greenland Dock to the river and called Lady Dock, Acorn Pond and Lavender Pond.  The channels between docks and ponds were narrow and often caused congestion so in 1862 a new lock was built from Lavender Pond to give direct access to the River Thames. The lock was closed in the 1920s and a pumping station built to maintain water levels within the docks.  The pumping station is attractive and looks to come from an earlier age than the early 20th century.  In 1988 it became the Lavender Dock Pumphouse Education Museum part of which was devoted to local history. Despite being popular and winning awards, the museum was closed by Southwark Council, a victim of cutbacks.  

Lavender Pond Pump House 1

Lavender Pond Nature Park

Lavender Dock Pumphouse

There were more timber ponds in the south west and in 1876 two of these became the new larger Canada Dock. A short channel led into Albion Dock to the north and at the southern end only a very short channel separated the new dock from Greenland Dock when it was enlarged a few years later.  New grain warehouses were built at Canada Dock that could store 35,000 tons of grain imported not only from Canada but also the Black Sea ports.  

Canada Water cut

Cut between Canada Water and

Albion Channel

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Unlike the regeneration of docklands on the northern bank of the river, little commerce and industry were created in the former Surrey Docks area with the exception of the shopping centre and Harmsworth Quays which was a printing works for the Harmsworth Group of Newspapers.  This has now been acquired by British Land and there are proposals for a mix of new residential and a new Campus for Kings College London.  Much of the area of the former Surrey Docks is now covered with new houses and apartment buildings, comprising both social housing and privately owned.  With open water and many green areas, it makes for a very pleasant and peaceful place to live and visit.

Dockmasters Office and Clock Tower

Former Dockmaster's Office and Clock Tower, built 1892, in Surrey Quays Road.  Grade II listed.

Source:  Stuart Rankin, A Short History of the Surrey Commercial Docks

Greenland Dock 1910

1910

Greenland Dock was not filled in when the docks closed and the iron tracks that the crane ran on are still there.  None of the warehouses or other buildings remain and the housing, mainly flats, that surround the dock have been recently built.  It remains an impressive sight and very tranquil.

Albion Dock 1910 Russia dock 1910

Albion Dock and Russia Dock 1910

** Southwark Council acquired the land after the closure of the docks and made ambitious plans for the regeneration of the area.  Work had commenced by the late 1970s when the government proposed a corporation be set up to develop the docklands areas.  A film was made in around 1978 that explained Southwark Council's proposals for the area.  The London Docklands Development Corporation was established in 1981 and took over the regeneration.  

Surrey Commercial Docks logo

Surrey Commercial Docks logo, 1960s

map

After the docks closed, a large area of Canada Dock was filled in and Surrey Quays Shopping Centre and car park built.  The remaining area of dock was renamed Canada Water.  A new station for the Jubilee Line and now London Overground was built, and a new library opened in 2011.  The old channel from Canada Dock to Albion Dock was retained and now feeds into the newly created Albion Channel.  Like Albion Channel, Canada Water is home to many waterfowl including a pair of swans.  

Canada Wharf Grebes