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The Thames Navigation Service in action (PLA)

St Katharine Dock House on completion in its architectural context (RIBA)

The Glass Bridge's opening span in operation (

The landward side of M shed showing the first floor loading platform, overhead cranes and roofline (unrecorded site)

The heavy engineering of the Blue Bridge (geograph_1839274)

The planetarium within the School of Navigation - note the compass directions marked on the coaming of the dome (unrecorded site)

The LASH vessel Cape Fear (here as Austral Lightning) was built just after Acadia Forest; the gantry at the stern holds a lighter barge (

At night the prescient look and construction of the Fred. Olsen building is apparent (unrecorded site)

Tide and technology: Dockland's last wave

The decline of physical trade in London’s dockland – the singular an older, more complete term than that which emerged a generation ago – was manifested in a rolling programme of closures that moved through the Port of London from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. This is popularly assumed to have occurred unopposed by owners and operators alike, but a significant effort was in fact made by both to extend the life of the capital’s commercial wharves using architecture, engineering and technology to embrace and even anticipate trends. For over ten years this yielded a succession of innovative and often advanced structures, and when closures did occur they happened notwithstanding this exertion rather than in its absence. Although that decade did turn out to be dockland’s last as a working port, it is a hidden history that deserves salvaging.


To help dockland contribute to Britain’s recovery after 1945, the Port of London Authority (PLA) began an extensive programme of clearance and repair ‘without financial limit’, according to one worker. Later some dock entrances were rebuilt to modernise aging structures and permit larger vessels to use them, and more efficient alternatives to brick and timber warehouses were explored – pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete was used as early as 1952 and this was followed by a new generation of transit sheds at the end of the 1950s. Lightweight tubular steel trusses and metal sheeting created tall volumes with column-free interiors and very large doors that were optimised for consolidated packing and mechanised handling. This last was accomplished by forklift truck, an import from America to which Britons had been exposed during the war. The handling of liquid cargoes was also changing; wine was now being pumped in bulk rather than moved in bottles, for example, which was faster and used less labour. Some tanks in dockland held more than three quarters of a million gallons.  


To further support the Port’s activities the Thames Navigation Service commenced in 1959, employing short-wave radio and radar to improve ship safety, and the PLA’s new diesel-electric floating crane arrived from the Hague in 1963. The main boom of the London Samson had a capacity of 60 tons and there were several auxiliary lifting devices. Very accurate positioning was enabled by Voith Schneider propeller units, a pre-war German invention that imparts both direction and thrust by rotating a cluster of vertical hydrofoil blades which are themselves able to rotate individually.


In a conspicuous display of confidence the PLA commissioned a new administration building for itself at St Katharine Dock, the closest of the enclosed docks to central London, in the shadow of Tower Bridge. St Katharine Dock House (1963-65) was contemporary, indeed Brutalist, in style but architects Andrew Renton & Associates also took care to respect the massing and articulation of the adjacent 19th century warehouses that had survived wartime bombing, which were five-storey buildings above iron quayside columns. The new block was thus of the same height, also had its ground floor set back behind a colonnade and featured regular fenestration, though it was made of reinforced concrete throughout rather than the brick of the originals. Fair-faced, facetted concrete columns formed the colonnade and the façade was assembled from pre-cast concrete panels with splayed window openings. These were of exposed aggregate and included a floor of double-width bays. Inside, a lobby and cantilevered, open-tread stair led to offices for the PLA and its police force, recreation rooms and a computer suite. Certain spaces benefitted from two light wells with glazed walls. An insertion of unusual sensitivity for the period, St Katharine Dock House won several awards and was an important project for Renton, who had recently left Basil Spence’s practice.


The much larger dock complexes on the Isle of Dogs downstream also received attention in this period, as did related facilities for the general public on the Island.


For decades pedestrians had been able to cross the Millwall Inner Dock on a swing bridge that continued the line of Glengall Road but this had needed replacement even before the war; after it, only a roped barge could be provided. Amidst tensions over the principle of public access through a technically private dock, the PLA eventually authorised a spectacular high-level enclosed walkway with lifting span (1961-65) that stood thirty feet above ground level and stretched for almost a quarter of a mile across the basin, linking the housing estates either side of it. Reached by lift and stairs, nine concrete towers supported the walkway and the 113-foot-long, hydraulically-powered bascule rose almost to the vertical to allow larger ships to pass. The structure was quickly dubbed the Glass Bridge.


The Port of London was thriving, handling a greater tonnage of cargo in 1964 than at any time in its past. It was in this buoyant atmosphere that architect Cedric Price, theatre director Joan Littlewood and Labour politician Tom Driberg settled on Glengall Wharf, not far from the Bridge, as their preferred location for the Fun Palace (1964), a project they had been carefully nurturing for some time and which now received detailed coverage in New Scientist. As much a programme for social improvement as it was a building, the Palace would enable visitors to write, make art, learn craft skills or do anything else that they desired within a flexible physical framework that was to reshape itself automatically in response to those using the space through feedback from punched cards. Revealingly, given the location, Price described the Palace as a “large, mechanized shipyard in which various structures could be built from above by means of gantries, travelling cranes, and intermediate beams”. Although the Palace would remain a paper project its principles emerged in the Inter-Action Centre Price built in Kentish Town a few years later and the Pompidou Centre in Paris by Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini with engineer Peter Rice the following decade.


Just to the north was M shed (1965-67), designed by the PLA’s own engineers and Harris & Sutherland and the ultimate evolution of the general-purpose dockland warehouse. A very large (530 feet by 150 feet) concrete box formed from pre-stressed waffle slabs rather than conventional beams, it comprised two double-height floors for cargo in transit crowned by a third floor for longer-term storage. Aluminium sheeting over latticed tubular steel trusses yielded a roof composed of multiple barrel vaults, from each of which projected an overhead crane on the landward side. These, along with a vehicle ramp serving the first floor, cantilevered handling areas on the dock side (each shallower than the one below) and sizeable sliding doors allowed multiple cargoes to be worked independently from two or more ships in quick succession.


On the east side of the Island Manchester Road bridge (1967-69) was in one sense merely the newest span to carry traffic across the entrance to the West India Dock but it was also the most impressive. Though based on traditional counterbalanced Dutch drawbridges, it had a span of 110 feet, was  made of box section steel rather than wood and had conjoined booms. Operation was by twin electrically-powered hydraulic motors. A control cabin was mounted high on one of the support towers (which were themselves twelve feet square) and the partly prefabricated components had to be installed by floating crane when delivered from Glasgow. It is universally known as the Blue Bridge.


Such investment by the PLA contradicts the accepted view of a myopic and moribund organisation, then, and others, too, believed in a viable future for the docks as this time. The City of London Polytechnic’s new School of Navigation (1966-70) occupied a bombsite near Tower Hill. By Hubert Bennett of the Greater London Council’s Department of Architecture and Civic Design with its education architect Michael Powell, the Modernist building contained a wealth of equipment for its specialised role. This ranged from the simple (a mast on the roof for signal flag training) through the advanced (closed-circuit television for group instruction, actual and simulated radar sets) to the lavish, namely a planetarium fitted with a state-of-the-art Japanese star projector for teaching astronavigation. Rather more earthly but still important was the Corporation of London’s Minories car and lorry park (1968-70) across the road from the School, another Brutalist block fashioned from heavily sculptured concrete and designed by the City’s own architect, E.G. Chandler. It had space for over 600 cars in the basement and on three upper levels and fifty lorries could be accommodated on the double-height ground floor, a provision clearly aimed at serving the docks.


Back on the river progress was also made by the shipping companies who used the Port. Speaking in Parliament in December 1967 the transport minister noted that lighterage, the practice of moving unpowered barges between dockside and ship by oar or tug, ‘no longer fits the requirements of transport in modern times’ and so exactly two years later the Acadia Forest, the world’s first LASH (Lighter Aboard SHip) vessel, duly arrived at Sheerness. A built-in 500-ton gantry crane straddled stern booms to lift from the water a specially-designed, standardised lighter barge weighing 350 tons; it then travelled forward to place the lighter on the deck, before returning for another. As many as 75 lighters could be carried. Intended to serve individual quays but with transoceanic capability, LASH lighters on the Thames were worked as far west as Brentford dock.


One Norwegian line ordered new, fast ships for freight (loaded palletised, another American innovation, through quay-level hatches by fork lift trucks carried aboard for the purpose), cars and passengers, a flexibility that kept them in work year-round. The same firm then partnered with the PLA to build three vast new sheds (each measuring 600 by 200 feet) near the Glass Bridge and hired young British architect Norman Foster to design for it the Fred. Olsen staff amenity building and passenger terminal (1968-70). A two-storey infill block between two of the sheds fulfilled the former function; office, recreation and changing spaces were equipped with pneumatic tubes, colour television and foot-operated taps respectively, a level of provision unheard of in the sector. Architecturally a tinted, heat-reflecting glass façade specially made in the United States wrapped a structure of castellated steel beams that were left exposed. Services and fittings also borrowed from American precedents and were similarly treated, and there was a bold use of colour throughout: green floors, brown cores, purple handrails, yellow fittings. Built immediately afterward was the small passenger and baggage terminal, a semi-circular tube elevated on tall steel columns to keep the quayside free for cargo and reached by ramp and conveyor belt. It was assembled with dry-fit precision from commercially-available components, though some of those were actually designed for entirely different markets. All of these characteristics were prototypical of the emerging High-Tech movement.


On the other side of the Island the newly-merged concern Freight Express-Seacon Ltd pressed ahead with redevelopment of an existing wharf to handle steel from Europe. The London Steel Terminal (1976) was dominated by a parallel pair of reinforced concrete structures well over 100 feet high that cantilevered beyond the shoreline by the same amount. This allowed a gantry crane suspended between the frames to reach the holds of berthed ships, whilst the mass was necessary to cope with the weight of the ‘coils’ (rolls) of steel. A year later the PLA, central government and two councils began to plan a move of London’s famous fish market from its historic site near London Bridge to much larger premises on the northernmost quay of West India Dock. After an extended wait for financing to be confirmed, New Billingsgate Market (1977-82) by Newman Levinson & Partners was established within an existing but radically remodelled shed. This was stripped back to its structure and 19-metre-tall yellow steel masts installed, from which a tubular-steel space-frame was suspended to provide additional covered area. This was sheathed in yellow corrugated metal cladding, which was also used to re-roof the main block. It was refaced in red brick with historicising, early Post-Modernist touches that recall Horace Jones’s City of London building.


This was the last of the schemes that sought to sustain London’s historic dockland – West India Dock itself closed even as construction of the new market started, with the Royal Docks to the east doing so the year this finished. Local authorities and private individuals had already turned to regeneration, building a community sports centre atop a filled-in dock, turning a warehouse into shell-and-core apartments and establishing a small business centre inside a former workshop. Modest interventions like these though merged with the first built results of the London Docklands Development Corporation familiar from that popular history, and were ultimately dwarfed by what followed.


Change is seldom easy and often fought. Although little now remains, what the PLA and others achieved in dockland’s final industrial years should be recognised for the intelligence and insight it represents.


Posted 11 December 2021



Billingsgate merges straightforward design with architectural flourishes, bridging two eras (London Ducklings)

Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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