London was founded on the Thames nearly 2,000 years ago as it was an ideal location for sea trade, and it’s still the UK’s largest seaport which is now the topic of a free exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.
The exhibition looks at the past couple of hundred years, when trade took off and changed the very shape of London as huge docks were carved out of the landscape to handle ever-larger volumes of ever-larger ships. It was the age of Empire, and London was the centre of the world, as is shown on the huge poster that opens the display, showing the world with London in the heart of an Imperial trading nation.
Tie Up Loose Ends – Used to mean finishing off a project or task, this relates to the rigging on boats needing to be checked and secured before setting sail.
Apart from the obvious cargos, of sugar and spices, timber and tobacco, there were rather odd cargos some of which are included in the display, including a lump of whale poo – which was used to make perfumes of all things.
The docks were a mixing bowl of the rich Brits who often traded off the fruits of Empire alongside the sailors who came from across the empire, so statues of slave traders could side alongside homes for “lascars”, as men from Asia and Arabia were known.
Skyscraper – The name given to the highest sail in a ship, long before it was applied to buildings.
Do look at the many drawings and early photos, and the docks were then as multi-cultural as the rest of London is today. Not that many people outside the docks would have known about the human melting pot that filled the docks, as they are sealed off from the rest of London, often with high brick walls and gates.
At their peak in the 1950s, there were nearly 31,500 registered dockers working within the fortress walls of London’s docks.
The docks, although close to the City were often a total mystery to Londoners, and in a way, that remains true today. Although the docks moved east with the arrival of the containers that killed off the manual labour in the old docks, London is still the UK’s largest dock in terms of tonnage handled, and yet most of us have no idea of the huge cargo handling facilities downriver.
Had your chips – Meaning your luck has run out, one theory is that this originates from dock workers being allowed to take home offcuts of timber, or ‘chips’, a perk that could be withdrawn if too many were taken.
The exhibition though is mainly about the pre-1970s decline, when the docks were a hive of humanity, and much of the exhibition is about the people who worked the docks, from the manual labour implements used to shift sacks of cargo to the “knocker uppers” who went around the streets in the mornings to wake up sleepy dockhands and get them to work on time.
Plenty of oral history is included here, along with lots of Pathe news film clips, and even in some boxes, replicas of dock smells.
Ton – A ‘tun’ was originally an English unit of liquid volume, rather than weight. Casks, known as ‘tuns’, typically held 252 gallons of wine – and this became a measure of a ship’s capacity.
As an exhibition of dock history, it’s pure eye candy to have a lot of maps of the old docks showing off the area before the 1970s decline, with vast snake-like lines of railways filling every gap that was left between the water and warehouses. Not just old docks though, as the gigantic London Gateway docks in the Estuary get a look in as well.
The London Gateway is roughly the same size as the Isle of Dogs, which is huge for something that isn’t that well known.
On the other hand, while mostly filled in now, the Rotherhithe docks were so extensive that there wasn’t much land left and the map on show makes it look more like an archipelago of small islands than part of London.
Cock-up – Meaning a mistake, the earliest theory of origin is in reference to leaving the yards of a ship (the horizontal bars which sails attach to) at untidy positions, ‘cocked’ at an angle.
The exhibition is based on the archives of the Port of London Authority, the century-old organisation that manages the tidal Thames and it’s their archive that largely fills the display. Away from the stories of the dockers is the story of the Authority and how it promoted London’s docks as the best place to trade goods from across the world, and commissioned classical art to show off the docks.
There’s contemporary art here as well, as the docks have appeared in computer games, as well as so many movies that the list on display barely scratches the surface of what could have been chosen. A modern piece of art by Susan Stockwell looks at the things of trade, consumerism and empire, representing fleets of boats made from banknotes sailing on a sea of coins.
The cut of your jib – The shape of a ship’s jib sail was used to identify its nationality, indicating whether it was hostile or friendly. Now the phrase is used to express a like or dislike of someone’s general appearance.
Overall, the exhibition gives a really good overview of the history of the docks and each section in it could fill an exhibition in themselves so this is a good teaser of the depth of human history of the thousands of people who worked to supply London and the world, with food and goods.
With the news filled with stories about a shortage of freight lorry drivers and ships stuck outside seaports for a lack of space to unload, it’s also an unexpectedly timely exhibition.
Laid out in a room full of old wooden cargo boxes, the exhibition, London: Port City opens tomorrow and is free to visit at the Museum of London Docklands in Canary Wharf until 8th May 2022. You should prebook free tickets to visit the museum from here in advance.
Aloof – Adapted by English sailors from the Dutch word ‘loef’ (windward), this meant to maintain distance from something by pointing the ship high to the wind. It has come to describe someone who is emotionally distant.