“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968

Thursday, 26 July 2012

A Rotherhithe afternoon.

I suppose that these days there are people who visit the Rotherhithe Peninsula and think that  Canada Water and Greenland Dock are water features thoughtfully provided by the architects and developers of the many blocks of luxury apartments that now grace the area. The truth is of course that these now sterile and meaningless bits of water are the last sad reminder of the Surrey Docks. This was the hub of London's timber trade with planks of sawn timber from the Baltic and Canada plus huge logs of tropical  hardwood being unloaded into barges for transhipment to the wharfs of London River and the small ports of the estuary. The Surrey Docks was the whole reason for Rotherhithe. Right into the sixties this area was a hive of activity that supported a host of small industry as well as the docks themselves. But the writing was on the wall. Truth be told "The Surrey" was even then a very cramped and old fashioned  group of docks. This combined with containerisation and the long term plans to move the docks industry downriver and leave the capital itself to the developers and the service sector meant that the Surrey Docks was closed for good in 1969 and not long afterwards the process of filling in the docks was started. Like other dock areas Rotherhithe went into a long period of decline. The closing of the docks devastated  communities and did away with a whole way of life. Only slowly have the various riverside areas found a new role and it has been a change not without problems and certainly has benefited some people more than others.
I don't get down to Rotherhithe much these days but yesterday I spent a very pleasant afternoon drinking in the Angel just a stones throw from the site of the old docks. We sat watching the visiting yachts manoeuvring and my companions remarked about how busy the river was. I thought that it looked dead and soulless and could not begin to describe what the view would have been fifty years ago.  I fell into conversation with a local man and we talked about the river of our youth, politics and how our lives had panned out. One interesting point that this guy made was that although he was only too aware of the downside of gentrification he also felt that at least the area was finally recovering from years of neglect and decay. The tough dockers and lightermen, the tally clerks, riggers, bargemen and tug skippers have all gone and I can but  hope that this new Rotherhithe will treat kindly the grandchildren and great grandchildren of all those long gone workers who so shaped my view of the world.

1 comment:

Journeyman said...

Funnily enough as an aspiring history teacher, I have just spent three lessons with 13 year olds - teaching them about docklands. Comparing pictures of Canary Wharf today with the docks in the 1930's blew their minds. Coming from a long line of watermen & lightermen I was proud to do this - and it is a great way of telling the story of empire and slavery, the industrial revolution - and of course the dock strike..