Magazine article History Today

Docklands - a Private City?

Magazine article History Today

Docklands - a Private City?

Article excerpt

* On May 28th, 1992, the company of Olympia and York, developers of Canary Wharf in London's Docklands, went into administration owing the banks 550 [pounds] million and in need of a further 600 [pounds] million to complete the first phase of construction which included the jubilee Line extension. The failure sent a frisson of fear through the financial world as a property Goliath was felled. Coverage of the |disaster' appeared daily in the media as analysts conjectured as to the effect the company's collapse would have on the property world, stock market and international financial scene. Little was made of the socio-economic impact the failure would have on the local community, but then its plight was not the stuff of headlines. Docklanders were there, as they always had been, to be used and abused by the forces of trade and finance, by the needs and whims of the market and society.

It was the growth of industry and empire that necessitated the creation of the eight-and-a-half square miles that we know today as Docklands. In 1800, in recognition of the nation's interests, and against the opposition of those self-interested parties who had a monopoly of the Legal Quays, Parliament decreed that London's docks should be enclosed and extended. Laying the foundation stone for the West India Dock, William Pitt said that the project was an undertaking which, under the favour of God, shall contribute stability, increase and ornament to British Commerce'. In rapid succession, between 1802 and 1806, the West India, London and East India Docks were opened for business. In 1826, in order to satisfy the discontent of those who were opposed to the privileges enjoyed by the existing dock companies, the St Katherine Dock was opened on a 'compact site', between the Tower of London and the London Dock. The passing of the Warehousing Act in 1803 had ensured the building of bonded warehouses to accommodate the increasing number of imported goods under reasonably secure conditions.

At St Katherine the restrictions of the site were overcome by the construction of warehouses which were seven storeys high |with vaults, which rose on iron columns sheer from the dockside'. No thought was given to those forced to risk their lives in order to load and unload the empire's wealth by working the wheel, by standing on narrow ledges winching huge cargoes, weighing as much as 5cwt, into the jowls of the ever hungry warehouses or by playing the part of manual cranes, raising 3,675 lbs in just over two minutes. Lives were lost at work and in the desperate scramble for it.

The Times said of the St Katherine's development that:

In clearing the ground for this magnificent speculation 1250

houses and tenements were purchased and pulled down -- no

less than 11,300 inhabitants having to seek accommodation

elsewhere ... giving additional impetus to industry and

enterprise among other capitalists.' The earlier dock developments made homeless some 1 1,000 dockside dwellers. in each case compensation was paid to the freeholders and leaseholders, not to the residents. A template for making homeless the poorest, in order to develop the docks for the benefit of the wealthy was thus established.

The construction of the docks was all but complete the end of the first half of the century but increased trade and industry demanded more warehousing facilities. As usual those with least recourse to resistance were affected. The Medical Officer for Limehouse recorded in the 1860s that, 'the London Dock Company have pulled down not less than 400 houses in Shadwell, the homes of not fewer than 3,000 persons of the poorer classes'. in addition to direct dock development there was the need to improve the transport system; the West India Dock and East India Dock roads were built, the canal system, linking Limehouse to the centre of London and to the Grand Union Canal which flowed to the Midlands, was constructed and the rail network was nearing completion. …

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