Geoff’s Docklands History reveals pirates and Elizabethan smugglers on the Thames
- Credit: Mike Brooke
Geoff Marshall was a student when he got the bug about Docklands more than half-a-century ago.
Now the retired research scientist has put his passion into words with his new book about the history of the London Docks.
Yet he can’t see himself ever having worked in the docks.
“I wouldn’t make a good docker,” he admits. “People love ships and the docks like they love steam railways—which doesn’t make you want to be an engine driver.”
He has spent years researching his labour of love in the Guildhall and Port of London Authority archives and at the British Library thumbing through old documents and reference books.
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The 77-year-old first became fascinated by the docks as a student at Imperial College in the 1960s and living in Kensington.
He was drawn by their history, the famous voyages that set off from the Thames such as James Smith sailing for Virginia from Blackwall in 1607 which led to the first English colony in the New World, or Christopher Jones in the Mayflower sailing from the same quayside on November 9, 1620, to pick up the Pilgrims from Southampton.
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His book also chronicles the Elizabethan adventurer Martin Frobisher setting sail in 1576 in search of the North West Passage and the explorer James Cook discovering Australia and Hawaii who lived at Shadwell and worshipped at St Paul’s parish church along Ratcliff Highway.
There were also infamous figures like Captain William Kidd executed at Wapping in 1701 for piracy on the High Seas.
“All this history is what drew me to Dockland,” Geoff reveals. “I came at weekends just wandering around, when the docks were still open. It reminded me of my roots in the Black Country.”
Geoff has delved back to Roman times and Saxon London.
But it’s the Elizabethan era he sees as the biggest change on the Thames when the ‘legal’ quays got more crowded as trade increased.
“This led to smuggling which became a big problem for the Elizabethans,” his research found.
“Elizabeth I decreed all goods must be landed in daylight at the ‘legal’ quays in the Pool of London. But there was congestion and delay—so ships landed downriver at Wapping and Limehouse where night smuggling became rampant.”
Merchants were losing money. More than two centuries on, the enclosed docks began to appear. The first was carved out of the Isle of Dogs with construction starting in 1802 and opening four years later during the Napoleonic Wars. This was followed by the London Docks at Wapping, then the Millwall and Surrey Docks, with the last opening at St Katharine’s by the Tower of London in 1828.
“But Docklands today is more about the community,” Geoff tells you. “There was conflict when the docks closed before Canary Wharf was developed because dockland people weren’t keen for their community vanishing and being replaced by the new financial district.”
The docks remained idle for several years after the closures from the 1960s to the 80s. Michael Heseltine, the Trade Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, summed it up flying over London looking down to see “this vast, desolate area”.
Geoff recalls: “Nobody really knew what to do with it. The community wanted homes and suitable jobs. But Heseltine and the government wanted redevelopment in the national interest.”
There were protests with sheep and bees let loose at Docklands Redevelopment Corporation meetings, a ‘Death of the Docks’ precession with a coffin carried through the streets and a protest ‘armada’ that set sail from the Isle of Dogs to the Houses of Parliament.
“But the conflict sort of worked out,” Geoff recalls, with mixed feeling about the docks.
“I do miss the old atmosphere. But the ships have gone. It was another world.”
He is often seen nowadays wandering the quayside at the preserved Shadwell Basin in what was once the bustling London Docks.
Yet equally exiting to Geoff is Canary Wharf, the spectacular night skyline along the Thames which adds a new chapter to the story of Docklands.
Illustrated History of London’s Docklands, by Geoff Marshall (History Press: £20).