Ship and Whale, Rotherhithe. © Geoff Howard 1975.
From Nairn’s London, Ian Nairn, 1966 ( revised 1988):
Mostly a terrible disappointment, with the dock buildings low and mean, and the horrible pre-war flats along Rotherhithe Street meaner still. But just once the conglomeration of utilities cracks into poetry, and it takes a bit of finding. In Gulliver Street, off Redriff Road, is a pub called the Ship and Whale. Beside it, a walled alley leads south. Walls give way to wooden slats with intermittent views of barges – if you run fast enough they coalesce like a movie strip. The slats in turn lead to a swing bridge, just a few feet higher than the rest, and the whole place suddenly unfolds. This is the main entrance to the dock, the Thames is only a few feet away, and the view all round the clock is water and ships, with the domes of Greenwich inflecting the horizon.
From the forward to Rotherhithe Photographs, 1971-80 by Geoff Howard:
Rotherhithe was a riverside village to the east of London in medieval times, but the real development of the area started with the major dock building in the first half of the 19th century; these docks were amalgamated into the Surrey Commercial Docks in 1864. Surrey Docks are only a part of Rotherhithe, but people tended to use the two names almost interchangeably. Surrey Docks underground station is at the south end of the docks; Rotherhithe Street itself follows the bend of the river Thames around the north side of the docks. Rotherhithe Street – the longest street on London – or was it in England – bordered by high walls hiding the docks, with just occasional gaps at a gate or bridge, with glimpses of water or warehouses, and like all the surrounding streets mostly deserted, a ghostly, uninhabited feeling, broken by small estates of council flats, a few pubs, some newsagents or little corner shops. The river on the other side of the road, often just a few steps down to the water.
While these photographs date from 1971 to 1980, the majority were taken between 1973 and 1975. It was the time after the closure of the docks in 1969 but before the complete redevelopment of the whole London docklands area, north and south of the river Thames, during the 1980s.
In 1978 Sally Williams of the Whitechapel Art Gallery put on a small exhibition of my work entitled Rotherhithe Photographs in the front gallery, and it is from those pictures that this book originated. The exhibition felt like a sort of completion to my project; I had done the things which had originally struck me and had made the area special. However, I continued to photograph from time to time, and in 1980 Tony Garrett of New Society magazine asked me to photograph the Downtown area for a story entitled Closedown in Docklands. When the London Docklands Development Corporation got round to the area south of the river, everything changed. What I had found there was gone, and I stopped photographing Rotherhithe. If I went there, I got lost; there were new roads everywhere. The mysterious passage which started beside The Ship and Whale pub and ran alongside the river, which had been for me the secret heart of the area, now no longer existed. And I still wonder, whatever happened to Dave and Carole? But the painted wall on which they marked their years together is gone too.
The lives here were more than 30 years ago. So much has changed and vanished. Time really is the strangest thing.
Town of Ramsgate pub, Wapping Old Stairs. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
From Unknown London, W.G. Bell, 1919:
Wapping High Street in the days of Nelson’s wars possessed upwards of one hundred and forty ale-houses. In a recent perambulation I was not able to count ten. Together with these reeking drink shops, inexpressible in their squalor and dirt, were other houses of resort which one may deftly pass by without too curious enquiry. In the gloomy slum area at the back, the inner recesses of the hive, mostly dwelt the people who lived, quite literally upon the sailor, and they formed the greater part of the population that was herded here. Every tavern kept open door to welcome the mariner with wages in his pocket.
You may land at the Old Stairs still … The ‘Town of Ramsgate’ stands at the head of the Stairs, where it has stood these past two centuries or more for the refreshment of sailors. Wapping was the busiest centre of the seafaring life of the port of London. Of the many landing-places, the deserted Old Stairs and the New Stairs, nearer the City, alone survive. And you may tramp Wapping from end to end without recognizing a sailor man.
Nearly a hundred years later, Bell’s assessment of Wapping remains valid, although these days the eeriness of its riverside enclave has a particularly 21st Century quality. Wapping High Street’s narrow pavements teem with joggers: driven young (or young-ish) men and women who appear from nowhere, pounding behind you silently before speeding past towards … what? Apart from the joggers, you may see a few tourists who make the journey to visit the pubs and riverside sights, and it is undeniably true that at certain times (dusk in November, for example) the environs of Wapping Old Stairs retain an impressive atmosphere: catnip for Dickens-fanciers armed with much-thumbed copies of Our Mutual Friend. However, in cold, hard daylight, the perfectly made-over warehouses and tastefully integrated new-build developments dispel memories of Dickens and recall instead the preoccupations of a more modern London writer: J.G. Ballard. Modern Wapping could be a starting point for one of his forensic studies of fear within insular communities, wherein the hot-house social conditions unleash perversity and violence behind the security gates of the ‘executive development’. In the 1970s, he set such a dystopia downriver, in a tower block that might have been designed by Erno Goldfinger (High Rise); but the make-over of ‘heritage’ environments, the loading-bays transformed into penthouses, offers a more contemporary setting for a Ballardian nightmare.
Ultimately, perhaps, the unnerving quality riverside Wapping possesses today is that of a ghost seen walking in the noonday sun: the ghost of London.
… for The London Column.
The Thames opposite the Royal Hospital, Greenwich. Photo © David Secombe, 2001.
From The Gentleman’s Magazine, January 10, 1832:
The inhabitants of Greenwich were amused by a man walking under the surface of the water in the Thames immediately opposite the Royal Hospital. A craft was moored off the stairs to which was affixed a ladder, down the steps of which the exhibitor descended to the water. He was dressed in a manner so as to exclude the water from penetrating, and upon his head he wore a sort of helmet which covered his face, and in which were two small bull’s eyes, whereby he was enabled to see. During the exhibition he remained under the water nearly twenty minutes.
David Secombe writes:
As far as I can tell, the above photo of a stricken Bart Simpson was taken exactly where the event described in this clipping from The Gentleman’s Magazine took place. One can only imagine the amount of sheer ordure than the intrepid aquanaut would have waded through in the course of his heroic feat, which took place over a quarter century before Joshua Bazalgette began his improvements to London’s sanitation by directing raw sewage underground and downstream.
The buildings under construction on the Isle of Dogs are for Barclays Bank and HSBC, appropriately charmless additions to London’s skyline. What Bart was doing in the Thames, I don’t know.
… for The London Column.
Middle of the Thames, west of the Barrier. Photo © David Secombe, 1997.
David Secombe and Katy Evans-Bush write:
The current wave of Olympic propaganda serves as a reminder of what was lost when the facilities in the Lea Valley were built. A sweetly romantic backwater of the Lea, a wild and mysterious haven for wildlife and Londoners alike, an oasis within the eastern London industrial sprawl, has been swept away in favour of a corporatised theme park. Canal boat dwellers on the River Lea are fighting draconian tightenings of rules and increases in fees from British Waterways that will break up a longstanding community and render them effectively homeless – an attempt to make the river suitably anodyne for the tourists (and presumably pave the way for future commercial ventures).
As usual, the destruction of the irreplaceable is described by its proponents as ‘regeneration’, offering ‘opportunities for business’, etc., etc. Bit by bit, we continue to lose that older, gentler, more open and more intimate city, in favour of a controlled, corporate-sponsored environment.
The new Olympic desert is the second time in recent years that a locally important riverside enclave has been destroyed under the flag of ‘national pride’. In the late 1990s, it was south-east London’s turn to get its sanitised corporate make-over, in the run-up to the Millennial fiasco at ‘North Greenwich’ (i.e. Bugsby’s Reach). The Dome was created on a stretch of industrial wasteland, yet there was an intriguing riverside community thriving in the vicinity – including, ironically (see Tuesday’s post) a young Damien Hirst, planning his bid for domination of the world’s art markets from a ménage-a-trois in a riverside cottage. Clearly, this Ealing comedy-like backwater was going to be out of place next to Blair’s vaulting dome, and was duly vapourised – except for a ‘picturesque’ riverside terrace, which was retained within the Dome’s landscaped environs: thus is young Damien’s home preserved.
The gentlemen in the above photo were members of a boating club located a few hundred yards downriver of the Millennium site. The club was too near the Dome, then under construction, for the comfort of the planners, and was duly cleared as part of the riverside ‘improvements’. And what exactly have been the long-term benefits of the Millennium Village?
(See also: Domeland series, starting here.)
… for The London Column.
The Thames, looking east from Hungerford Bridge, 2010. Photo © David Secombe.
From 23 May Tate to Tate, a new boat service on the river Thames, will be available for gallery lovers. The service, which runs every forty minutes during gallery opening hours between Tate Modern and Tate Britain, will be launched on 22 May by The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. The boat also stops at the London Eye.
The Tate to Tate boat service, operated by Thames Clippers, is a state-of-the art 220 seat catamaran with specially commissioned exterior and interior designs by leading artist Damien Hirst. The boat is sponsored by St James Homes, a property developer.
David Secombe writes:
Now that Damien Hirst is the richest artist in the world (proof if any were needed of the global success of that strange London-based phenomenon known as ‘BritArt’), it seems entirely fitting that ‘the fastest’ commercial vessel on the Thames, ferrying passengers to and from the world’s most popular – some might say populist – art gallery, bears one of his patented designs. The Tate boat is decorated with Hirst’s bright, multi-coloured dots, and travels between those twin bastions of culture, Tate Modern and Tate Britain – the former fashioned from a derelict power station, the latter built on the site of a penitentiary.
For good or ill, Hirst seems to be the artist who best embodies his time; one can’t imagine a Bacon Barge or a Rothko Raft, whereas our Damien’s spotty pleasure cruiser – made possible by a property consortium – seems completely, depressingly, apt.
(The London Column has not yet felt the siren call of the current Hirst exhibition at the Tate, but you can read a response to the Sotheby’s extravaganza of 2008 on Baroque in Hackney. For another view of Hirst and his influences, see: http://www.stuckism.com/Hirst/StoleArt.html.)
The Thames: Upper Pool, 1962. Photo © Estate of Evelyn Hofer.
V.S. Pritchett writing in London Perceived*, 1962:
Twenty-three miles of industrial racket, twenty-three miles of cement works, paper-mills, power stations, dock basins, cranes and conveyors shattering to the ear. From now on, no silence. In the bar at thre Royal Clarence at Gravesend, once a house built for a duke’s mistress, it is all talk of up-anchoring, and everyone has an eye on the ships going down as the ebb begins, at the rate of two a minute. The tugs blaspheme. One lives in an orchestra of chuggings, whinings, the clanking and croaking of anchors, the spinning of winches, the fizz of steam, and all kinds of shovellings, rattlings, and whistlings, broken once in a while by a loud human voice shouting an unprintable word. Opposite are the liners like hotels, waiting to go to Africa, India, the Far East; down come all the traders of Europe and all the flags from Finland to Japan. You take in lungfuls of coal smoke and diesel fume; the docks and wharves send out stenches in clouds across the water: gusts of raw timber, coal gas, camphor, and the gluey, sickly reek of bulk sugar. The Thames smells of goods: of hides, the muttonish reek of wool, the heady odours of hops, the sharp smell of packing cases, of fish, frozen meat, bananas from Tenerife, bacon from Scandanavia,
Before us are ugly places with ancient names where the streets are packed with clownish Cockneys and West Indian immigrants, the traffic heavy. Some of them on the north side between Tilbury and Bethnal Green are slums, dismal, derelict, bombed; some of them so transformed since 1940 by fine building that places with bad names – Ratcliff Highway and Limehouse Causeway and Wapping – are now respectable and even elegant. The old East End has a good deal been replaced by a welfare city since 1946. We pass Poplar, Stepney, Shadwell, Deptford, Woolwich, the Isle of Dogs – where Charles II kept his spaniels – and now mostly dock, with the ships’ bows sticking over the black dock walls and over the streets. We pass Cuckold’s Point, where one of the kings of England gratified a loyal innkeeper by seducing his wife. Until the sixteenth century – according to the delightful Stow, who said he “knew not the fancy for it” – a pair of horns stood on a pole there, a coarse Thames-side warning, perhaps, of the hazards that lie between wind and water.
The Thames, we realize, was for centuries London’s only East to West road or, at any rate, the safest, quickest, and most convenient way that joined the two cities, one swelling out from the Tower and the other from Westminster. And there is another important matter. It is hard now to believe as we go past these miles of wharves and the low-built areas of dockland where one place now runs into another in a string of bus routes, but this mess was once royal. The superb Naval College at Greenwich is the only reminder. It is built on the site of the Palace of Placentia, where Henry VIII, the great Elizabeth and Mary were born. Here was the scene of the luxurious Tudor pageants, the banquetings that went on for weeks, the great wrestling bouts, the tournaments, the displays of archery. It is from “the manor of East Greenwich” and not from Westminster that the charters to Virginia and New Jersey were given in the seventeenth century. It is odd that London began as a collection of manors and that the word “manor” is still thieves’ slang for “London”. At Deptford, nearby, was the Royal Naval Dockyard where all the Tudor ships were built – Drake’s Golden Hind was laid down here. One can see the reason. It is not simply that the Tudors liked building palaces, just as the aristocracy liked building mansions that vied with those of the kings. It is not simply that English monarchs have been a restless lot, although that is true too. The plain reality is that a monarch who has been churched at Westminster needs money; he has to get it from the City; the City gets it from ships and trade, and that trade and its ports must be defended by navies. Deptford and Greenwich were close to London’s fortune, where the goods came in, whence the adventurers sailed, and where the attackers attacked.
* © 1962 and renewed 1990 by V.S. Pritchett. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.
[Special thanks in assembling this week’s feature are due to: Jim McKinniss; Mark Giorgione of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California; Andreas Pauly at the Hofer Estate; and Carl Scarbrough at David Godine. D.S.]
The Dome under construction, seen from Bugsby’s Reach. Photo © David Secombe 1997.
From A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain*, Owen Hatherley, 2010:
As recently as fifteen years ago, this place was called Bugsby’s Marshes. Downriver from Greenwich, with its baroque masterpieces and gift shops, a moonscape of blasted, smoking industry: the largest gasworks in the world, an internal railway ferrying goods and effluent from the river out to the suburbs, and a catalogue if toxic waste, known from the early nineteenth century as an area of ‘corrosive vapours’, something only added to by the autogeddon of the Blackwall Tunnel which sweeps a roaring fleet of cars under the Thames at rush hour.
In the post-industrial city, what we do with these places, with their memories of the grotesque mutations that ushered in its industrial precursor (after moving production out to China), is to clean them up and make them safe for property-owning democracy. Accordingly, by the 1990s this by now unproductive wasteland was ready for redevelopment, after a mammoth decontamination effort. Just over the river is an example of what this could have been like, the Canary Wharf development on the Isle of Dogs, where dead industry was rebranded in the 1980s as the ‘Docklands Enterprise Zone’. Architecturally, it was given the treatment pioneered in New York’s post-industrial Battery Park, a postmodernist simulation of a metropolis that never truly existed, populated by banks and newspapers. It even used the same architect, Cesar Pelli. Yet after the early 1990s recession, perhaps this as considered rather foolhardy for the Peninsula: at this point Docklands’ Stadtkrone at Canary Wharf (‘Thatcher’s Cock’ as it was nicknamed)was an empty, melancholic monument to neoliberal hubris, as opposed to today’s rapaciously successful second City of London. Something else had to be done: the ‘entertainment’ variant of the same schema swung into operation.
* published by Verso. © Owen Hatherley 2011.
See also: Flotsam and jetsam no. 5