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A Visit to Surrey Quays

A Visit to Surrey Quays

This set of maps of the Surrey Commercial Docks was published in May 1905, soon after completion of a decade-long project – carried out by the engineer who built Tower Bridge, if that gives a sense of its importance – which doubled the size of Greenland Dock. I can only spot one set of these maps in an institution, held in the British Library, so it is rare in any form, but I was attracted by the way it was issued as a promotional item in a smart leather wallet, 'presented with the compliments of the Thomson Line'.

There is a detailed map of the dock complex, and several others with a larger extent which locate the Surrey Docks in the context of the Port of London. The maps are overprinted in red, with big arrows pointing proudly to the Thomson Line offices and warehouses, and the berth allocated to the company. Most of the Surrey Docks have been filled and redeveloped for housing, but the southwestern corner of Greenland Dock still exists, so I thought I'd get the Thames Clipper to Surrey Quays and take the map home.

It was low tide when I arrived, so I made a short detour down to the foreshore at the foot of the Dog and Duck stairs before going on to the docks. Like the Dog and Duck pub (flattened by a flying bomb in 1944) Greenland Dock was more or less razed to the ground by the Luftwaffe. Virtually nothing left above ground survived a decade of dereliction in the 1970s, and the attentions of planners in the 1980s. The modern flats are presumably 'inspired ' by the lost warehouses, but obviously belong to the decade which gave us Breakfast Television Centre in Camden. However, the dock itself is substantially intact, and with a little imagination I think it's possible to feel the noise and bustle of the Edwardian dockside.

The Dundee-based Thomson Line merged with the Cairn Line in 1908. Thomson carried a limited amount of passenger traffic to New York and Canada (via Southampton), and also imported Canadian livestock. I associate the old Surrey Docks with timber (from the Baltic as well as Canada) and grain, and I’d assumed that refrigeration was sufficiently advanced by 1900 to make importing livestock unnecessary, but I’ll revise my ideas and add a sprinkling of hopeful emigrants and whole herds of lowing cattle.

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