London’s maritime trading history has left a lasting cultural legacy on the city as well as 200 years of physical and commercial impact
Where were the first skyscrapers? Anyone guessing Chicago or perhaps New York would be very wrong indeed. For they were not buildings at all but sails on tall-masted ships – just one of the surprising nuggets gleaned from the exhibition London: Port City at the Museum of London Docklands.
Drawing on the archive of the Port of London Authority (PLA), this informative show is appropriately situated in a former sugar warehouse at West India Docks, in what was London’s first enclosed dock system.
As might be expected, the exhibition is packed with impressive statistics on the size and success of the port over 200 years from the end of the 18th century, and of details of the nitty-gritty of port life and trade, processing everything from baby elephants and spices to Persian carpets and ambergris, a waxy substance formed in whale intestines and used in perfumes. Including what was once the biggest closed docks in the world (The Royals), the port covered eight square miles. By 1930, one million tons of produce was housed in the PLA’s dockside warehouse at any one time.
London: Port City is also thought-provoking and reflective, aiming ‘to get people thinking more critically about the prosperity of the port,’ according to curator Claire Dobbin. We learn that one quarter of the crew on British ships were ‘lascars’ (from the Indian subcontinent, the Arab world and South Asia) and that there were missions in London supporting sailors from these places, many of whom were destitute between voyages. There is consideration of how promotional, widely-circulated maps and posters trumpeting the success of British trade were very much not the whole story, and how as the UK’s largest port its historic success was inextricably bound with the empire, and along with it the sugar trade and slavery. Appropriately there is reference to the removal of the statue of merchant and slave owner Robert Milligan last year from its plinth outside the museum.
‘We want people to leave the museum and see London with fresh eyes, and realise the cultural as well as the physical impact of the docks on the city,’ says Dobbin.
Although this thematic exhibition mostly steers clear of the built environment legacy, it does include archive plans of the various docks that were, we learn, often the reference for the design of ports around the world. West India Docks (1802-1980) were the first purpose-built docks. The Royal Victoria Docks (1855-1981) were particularly innovative as the first in London to use hydraulic power, to accommodate large steam ships, and to connect to a national rail network. The smallest was St Katharine’s Dock (1828-1968), designed by Thomas Telford.
Through vintage photographs and artefacts, the displays are good on conveying the sheer diversity of roles undertaken at the docks, from clerk to diver, shipwright to rat-catcher. Although the fortunes of the port were inextricably linked with those of London, it was, we learn, very much a city within a city. Even when employing more than 30,000 workers, the port was not a public place, and was largely hidden from the majority of the capital’s population. Similarly nowadays, most Londoners are entirely unaware of the less labour intensive container-port activities under way out at Tilbury and beyond that the DP World London Gateway port, established in 2013. A live tracker display showing the movement of vessels on the Thames today is fascinating – although the relative handful of ships visible would pale in comparison with the busy waterways in the heyday of the port.
There is much to enjoy, including the human stories such as ‘knocker-upper’ Mary Smith who spent 20 years waking up port workers early in the morning with the help of a pea shooter in the times before affordable alarm clocks, and a section on the ports as locations for films and video games and for leisure. There is sensory experience in the smell section, where you can sample port smells such as spices and if you dare, pungent animal skins. But perhaps the biggest fun is to be had with the hands-on installation of dock-related terms and names that have infiltrated our everyday vocabulary. There may no longer be thousands of dockers on the Isle of Dogs unloading ships, processing and storing the goods, but dockers and mariners have left their mark on how we all speak in the host of references to ropes, sails and ships, from cut of your jib to cock-up, and many, many more.
London: Port City, until May 8, 2022, Museum of London Docklands, West India Quay, London E14 4AL