St Katharine’s Dock—Ugly Duckling that turned into beautiful Marina, says Chris

Chris West and the historic Ivory House

Chris West and the historic Ivory House - Credit: Archant

The historic docks at St Katharine’s-by-The-Tower closed more than 40 years ago is to have its story chronicled for the first time in a new book tracing its roots back to a Mediaeval priory that was founded in the 12th century.

Chris West studies 1820s plans of proposed docks that were to replace St Katharine's Monastery, long

Chris West studies 1820s plans of proposed docks that were to replace St Katharine's Monastery, long before Tower Bridge was built - Credit: Archant

It’s a daunting task for Chris West, who hopes there may still be people in east London connected with the docks who can recall working there and perhaps have old snaps or memories.

Fire crews battle to save St Katharine's at height of London Blitz, 1940

Fire crews battle to save St Katharine's at height of London Blitz, 1940 - Credit: Archive

But time is running out. He wants to publish the book for this year’s Thames Festival in September.

“No-one has written a complete history of St Katharine’s—it’s been forgotten,” Chris points out.

“If I was writing about Tower Bridge it would have worldwide appeal. There are thousands of books on it.

“I want to see St Katharine’s back on the map, the little-known dock next to the famous Tower Bridge, an ugly duckling that has turned into the beautiful marina.”

The language teacher and former Buckinghamshire county council officer, now living a stone’s throw from the docks, regularly walks its quays taking notes, studying the original 1824 plans for the docks that destroyed a Medieval church, monastic hostel and 1,250 houses, making thousands homeless—Chris thinks around 3,000 people, although some historic estimates put it as much as 11,000.

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The priory had enjoyed protection of the reigning queen’s patronage for 800 years, back to Henry I’s wife Matilda.

Descendants of Saxon noblemen had sold land on the waterfront next to the Tower of London to Holy Trinity Priory at Aldgate, founded by Matilda in 1108. Matilda came up with the idea of a monastic hostel by the river for pilgrims and Crusaders, rather than them taking up room at the monastery itself. Monasteries were getting fed up with passing Crusaders dropping in all the time. A hostel by the river was more convenient.

But the Crusaders’ pit-stop soon became a religious community in its own right when seasoned travellers began setting down roots there.

Three brothers and three sisters in Holy Orders ran the monastic centre on a majority vote—this was early English democracy!

Four centuries on, Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries in the Reformation when he broke with Rome of the 1530s, but kept St Katharine’s after his second wife Anne Boleyn interceded—stuck her head out, as it were!

St Katharine’s, he realised, was a nice little earner with its river wharf trading with the Flemish, importing beer brewed from hops which eventually replaced traditional English ale at the time.

The writing, however, was on the wall of St Katharine’s by the 1820s after Queen Caroline had fallen out with her husband the Prince Regent, who became George IV. The brethren had dared to write to His Majesty saying he was not being nice to their patron.

George was trying to divorce Caroline when he became king in 1820. He needn’t have bothered—she died the following year.

But he still felt miffed at the priory’s “cheeky letter” and allowed its church and monastic hostel by The Tower to be demolished to make way for the new docks.

“The closure was highly controversial with huge opposition,” Chris explained. “A very sad ending ceremony followed.”

The docks, however, were the Big Picture. They were needed with Britain’s expanding empire. Thousands of ships would queue up in the Pool of London waiting to unload at the crowded wharves, sometimes queuing for weeks. You could almost walk across the Thames from ship to ship.

St Katharine’s Docks opened 1828, best known for trading in luxuries, rum, sugar, silk and feathers. Most of the world’s ivory and even walrus tusks passed through.

But surprisingly it was not a commercial success, despite being the nearest docks to the City.

“It never really made mega bucks,” Chris explains. “It was too small. The entrance lock was never deep or wide enough for big ships.”

Men on smaller vessels would have to take their cargoes, lightening the loads, which led to the term ‘lightermen’.

St Katharine’s took a bashing during the London Blitz, when the “largest fire ever” put the East dock out of action, with its combustible rum and sugar warehouses. It never properly recovered in the post-war years and went into terminal decline, its lock gates closing for the last time in 1968.

Yet the closure of St Katharine’s was the catalyst for the regeneration of the whole of Docklands, including the London, Millwall and Royal docks, leading to the creation of Canary Wharf, London City Airport and the DLR.

The late Peter Drew from Taylor Woodrow had the vision. His company won the bid from the PLA with his design of how he could turn the 23-acre prime site into a luxury marina.

Yet the monastic tradition that seemed to have vanished with the coming of the docks remains alive in the East End today.

The relics from the original Medieval church can be found today at Limehouse, where the Royal Foundation of St Katharine was re-established.

The Foundation runs residential religious courses and acts as a hotel for tourists and those on the move, just like the pilgrims in the Middle Ages.

The tradition of Royal patronage stretching back almost 1,000 years also continues. The Master of St Katharine’s, the Rev Mark Aitken, was appointed in January by the Queen, a lineage custom that started with Good Queen Matilda.

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