Thursday, April 28, 2016

The 1875 Albion Dry Dock at the former Decathlon site

I have updated this post since I first wrote it on 9th April 2016, with information provided most generously by the Museum of London Archaeology's Magnus Copps, who came to the site on the 27th April 2016 to explain the site, its past and its future.  He provided some excellent new information about the brick work, the use of concrete and the structure that sat over the dry dock from at least 1914.  Thanks too to Kate Mensforth for organizing the sessions.

The dry dock shown to the left has become quite a local celebrity in the last month, but for those who are new to this topic, a warehouse-type structure that was formerly a Decathlon sports store was taken down as part of plans for a new development that will sit along the edges of the former Canada Dock (now Canada Water) and the former Albion Dock (now Albion Channel).  During the work to establish foundations an old dry dock was rediscovered, and is really well preserved.  Thanks to the developers for the new viewing platform outside the entrance to the remaining Decathlon.  Climb up a short flight of stairs and you have a perfect view of the site, with the remains of the late 19th Century dry dock clearly visible at the far side of the site.  It is really quite huge!  Wonderful to have the opportunity to see something so splendid emerging so unexpectedly from the ground, and in relatively good condition.

Click on any of the photographs to see a bigger version.

The parallel development of the two dock systems.
Davies map 1843
The dry dock is essentially part of the story of the amalgamation of two dock companies, the Grand Surrey Canal and Docks Company and the Surrey Commercial Dock Company.  The first commercial dock to be built in London was the Howland Great Wet Dock, which was begun in 1699 and opened in 1700.  Greenland Dock sits over the area that was once occupied by the much smaller Howland Great Wet Dock.  The dock passed through different owners until it was eventually purchased in 1807 by the specially-formed Surrey Commercial Dock Company, and new docks and timber ponds were built in a line to the west, each flowing into the next.  At the same time, the Grand Surrey Canal Canal company had been formed in 1801 to build a canal that eventually reached Croydon and Peckham.  It opened in 1804 but was by no means the commercial success that its investors had hoped for, and the success of the nearby docks encouraged the Grand Surrey Canal Company to ask for permission to start building docks.  This being granted in 1811 the company and immediately started using the canal infrastructure to create a dock system of its  own which, running east to west, was more or less parallel to that of the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, with whom they were now in serious competition.  Accordingly, the Grand Surrey Canal Company eventually changed its name to become the Grand Surrey Canal and Docks Company.  Price wars followed, undermining both companies, and the decision was taken to amalgamate them into one large company, which became the Surrey Commercial Dock Company in 1864.  The situation at this time is reflected in the 1868 Ordnance Survey Map.  [This history is the short and simple version, but you can read more about the full and rather complicated story on my previous posts, which I have listed at the bottom of this one.]

The old cut from Main Dock (renamed Albion
Dock) into the old Albion Pond.
Godfrey Ordnance Survey Map of 1868

Click to expand.
Following the amalgamation of the two companies, various decisions needed to be made about the future of the docks.  One of the first things to change was the name of individual docks and timber ponds, with Main Dock being renamed Albion Dock.  Links were made between the formerly separate dock systems, with new cuts and locks between the two, but more ambitious plans were being rolled out.  The dry dock is not shown on the 1868 map, but it is on the 1894 map, and this is because it appeared as the result of major engineering works to expand the dock system.  The second even more considerable difference between the two maps was the addition of Canada Dock, connected to the older Albion Dock of 1860.  The course of Albion Dock is today marked by Albion Channel, the small canal that links Surrey Water (formerly Surrey Basin) and Canada Water.  In 1875 Canada Dock was created, a vast, strangely shaped and ambitious piece of engineering that carried the dock over the area now covered by the shopping centre and car park, established specifically to handle the vast new iron vessels and their high-volume cargoes.  It became the biggest dock in the system at this time.  This area had been in use as timber ponds.   

As shown on the map to the left, a cut connected Main Dock and Albion Pond.  A bridge passed over the cut, but there are no archaeological traces remaining of that bridge to show what it looked like, and there are no known photographs of it surviving.  

The dry dock showing the new Canada Dock
together with the place where the old cut was,
replaced by the dry dock, in red, and the
new cut between Albion Dock and Canada
Dock in green.
In the new scheme, Canada Dock replaced Albion Pond and most of Canada Pond, but Quebec Pond and Centre Pond were retained to its east.  Canada Dock had to be connected to Albion Dock, just as Main Dock had been connected to Albion Pond, in order to link it into the rest of the network.  

The original cut from Main Dock into Albion Pond shown in the red circle on the map above was far too small to be suitable for the new, larger ships that Canada Dock was built to handle.  So the old cut  was closed at its southern end and converted into the dry dock that we see on the Decathlon site, making excellent use of the former link between Main Dock and Albion Pond.   This is shown on the map to the right in red.  A new entrance, much wider and longer, was established to its west to link Albion Dock and Canada Dock, and is also clearly visible on the 1894 map, marked in green on the map to the right

So we know that the dry dock dates to roughly 1875, which is why it is not on the 1868 map but is so clearly shown on the 1894 and 1914 maps as a dock in the bottom edge of Albion Dock.   It was around 4.5m deep.  I would guess  that it was used for repairing barges and lighters that were essential to the loading and unloading of cargo from the ships that used the docks.  Full automation never took over in the Surrey Commercial Docks, and in spite of large cranes along many of the wharves barges and lighters were part of the permanent dockland landscape of Rotherhithe, an essential but often battered component of cargo handling. The dry dock probably remained in use until quite late in the history of the docks prior to their closure in 1970.  It was still above ground during the construction of Canada Water tube station, which took its name from the surviving square corner of Canada Dock, and was captured in a photograph in 1996 (see the photo at the end of this post).  The dock must have been filled in and buried shortly after that.

Given that the Albion Dock dry dock has been buried for around 20 years (or more probably because of it), it is in remarkably good state of preservation.  The photos on this page show that it was made of at least two types of brick.  The pale beige stock brick along the sides belongs to the original cut between Main Dock and Albion Pond.  When it was converted to a dry dock black engineering brick was added at the lock end, a type of brick that was in common use around the docks in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The black engineering brick was often used on corner pieces of docks and locks, and particular properties that made it valuable for this purpose.  Where the modern rectangular block of grey cement now stands were a pair of lock gates.  At the opposite end cement was used to block and reinforce the former cut to create a dry dock.  Cement was a new material at this time, and most uses of it had been somewhat experimental up until around 1870.  At the dry dock it was poured into an armature of wooden planks (a technique called "shuttering") until it was set, leaving unmistakeable marks of the planking along the sides of the concrete, clearly visible in one of the photographs below.  Given that it has survived for over 140 years, this early use at Albion dry dock can be said to be a firm success!  On the 1914 Ordnance Survey map an additional black line surrounds the dock, and this shows the outline of an open-sided structure that was built over the top of the dry dock.  A photograph of it (or a newer version of it) survives from 1975. 

The dock has been professionally surveyed and recorded by the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), who have a watching brief to monitor the site.  

As to the future, we were told different things at the 6pm and 6.30pm talks by the representatives of the development.  At the 6pm talk the woman told us that the dry dock will be preserved in the basement of the new development, but although it will not be visible it is possible that guided tours will be available.  At the 6.30pm talk a man, this time, said that it would be sealed beneath concrete and would not be available to visit.  So who knows?  I daresay we'll find out after the building has been built.  At least MOLA has been given access to survey it.

The photographs below were taken during April 2016.

And from the London Docklands blog, here's this wonderful photograph from 1996, showing the water-filled dry dock at far left, roughly half way down the photo in the green area during the construction of the Canada Water tube station.

With thanks, as usual, to Stuart Rankin's booklets about the history of the area, and to Magnus Copps from the Museum of London Archaeology for coming to talk to local residents about the site on 27th May 2016.


To find out more see some of my earlier posts:

The development of the Surrey Commercial Dock system 1609 - 1909
A history of the Commercial Dock Company: A history of Norway Dock and the timber ponds 1811 - 2014
The development of Albion Dock and the timber ponds of the Grand Surrey Dock and Canal Company

The establishment of Canada Dock by the Surrey Commercial Dock Company in 1875


Simon said...

I came across this article by chance, and have visited the site. I remember this dry dock as a child, my father was in charge of Southwark Sea Cadets and our old boat shed was situated behind the dry dock. It was before Albion & Quebec Dock were filled in and Canada Dock part filled in preparation for the shopping centre build, estimate late 1970’s. I could never understand why it was covered over 20 years ago, it still had the lock gates intact, edging around the dock with metal fence posts leading down the steps, and mooring rings. The pump house was to the front right hand side corner as you face out the dry dock. On the bottom were (or still are) 3 or 4 large timber trestles probably 18” square timbers that the barges sat on when the water was pumped out. It is wonderful to see that it will be preserved to show the past and present history of the area, shame though it will be hidden from public view. I have a photograph that shows the lock with the Metal Canopy over its entirety. A great article to read on its history and how it was formed with the concrete shuttering, probably explains why it never had the typical granite edging.

Andie said...

Thanks so much for this - it is absolutely super to have an insight from someone who actually remembers it as it was. Trying to recreate history from the mortal remains is nowhere near as good as hearing what it was really like from people who were around it every day. I keep meaning to go and photograph the inlet to the dry dock, which still exists in Albion Channel, and to see what else I can find that relates to it in the current landscape. I would love to see the photograph of the canopy if you don't mind sharing it? Great to hear from you.

Simon said...

Hello Andie,

I have finally found this photograph on an old PC, so can email it create a link to upload, let me know.