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Royal Docks history: From unwanted marshland to London’s next financial centre

PUBLISHED: 11:00 16 November 2016

The marshlands by the River Lea in 1786      Picture: Newham Heritage

The marshlands by the River Lea in 1786 Picture: Newham Heritage

Archant

Romans, railways, mega-ships, Nazi bombs, whales, planes, socialism, sewers, cows and plenty more – the Royal Docks has seen just about everything in its colourful history.

Royal Albert Dock in 1914    Picture: Newham HeritageRoyal Albert Dock in 1914 Picture: Newham Heritage

It might be on the verge of yet another revolution after Asian developers signed a £1.7billion deal last week to turn it into the financial centre of the “London of the future”, but not too long ago it was barely used marshland.

As late as 1800, there was just one family in the area – living in a property called Devil’s House – but it had previously been home to farmers and fisherfolk.

“There was a Roman road and ferry point at what is now Gallions Reach,” Dr Toby Butler, who leads the history programme at the University of East London, said.

“Before then, during the Bronze Age, there was a community where Royal Docks Community School is,” he said of the Prince Regent Lane comprehensive.

Cumberland School pupils being told about plans for the Docklands in 1988     Picture: Newham HeritageCumberland School pupils being told about plans for the Docklands in 1988 Picture: Newham Heritage

But Dr Butler stressed the area was “on the edges of the hinterland” – including during the Medieval era, when the whole of what is now Newham was known simply as “Hamme”.

“It was good for grazing,” he said. “But it was highly prone to floods and really not the first place you would want to build things.”

And then the railways came.

In 1847, a decade after Queen Victoria took the throne, the engineer George Parker Bidder built a railway between Stratford and North Woolwich in what critics branded “Bidder’s Folly”.

The future of the Royal Docks    Picture: ABPThe future of the Royal Docks Picture: ABP

But Mr Bidder had the last laugh – the marshland he bought up around the line was soon paying huge returns as factories moved to the area after a ban on “harmful trades” in London.

“Samuel Silver was one of the first to arrive in 1852 when he brought his waterproof clothing factory,” Dr Butler said.

His factory soon gave Silvertown its name and, Dr Butler explained, “lots of little communities” began to emerge in the area.

“When the Victoria Dock is dug in 1855, that’s huge,” he said. “You then get ships from all over the world coming in.”

King George V Dock, no. 19 gate, the site of London City Airport in 1986            Picture: Newham HeritageKing George V Dock, no. 19 gate, the site of London City Airport in 1986 Picture: Newham Heritage

New arrivals from South Asia – lascars – also began to settle around this time, adding to a bustling community of workers.

When in 1880 the Royal Albert Dock was opened – the “largest bit of man-made enclosed water in the world”, Dr Butler said – the area was an essential cog in the British Empire and highly prosperous.

“There was a distinct working community then, which ran 24 hours, and for those who had jobs there were good wages,” he said.

But there were simply too many people and too few jobs, leading to unemployment and worker exploitation – and ultimately to the likes of Labour MP Keir Hardie winning votes in the Docklands.

Following a profound economic change in the country during the 1960s and 1970s, the Docks began their inexorable decline.

“When they shut down, there was a huge shift – one by one, the pubs started to close,” Dr Butler said. “And there was a big influx of migrants from around the world taking advantage of the cheaper housing in the area.”

And then that was that – the area languished for some years but, with the opening of London City Airport in 1987 and now the arrival of Chinese investors, the same old story could be repeated.

“I hope it works,” Dr Butler said.


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