Monday 18 November 2019

Museum in Docklands opens


For those of us who have been involved with the Museum in Dockland for so many, many years the fact that it appears to be opening – at last – is an occasion for some amazement and relief. I can’t remember when I first learnt about the Museum – it must have been at some time in the early 1980s – and at that time the project was well under way.  I used to go to the Docklands History Group meetings and hear about how everything was progressing.    Buildings in what we used to call the Gwilt Warehouses on the West India Dock Quay had been identified – in those days they were massive, towering above the empty docks.  Chris, Bob and Alex were in Cannon Workshops and soon they also had a huge warehouse up in the Victoria Dock – and it was quickly filling up with potential exhibits.  As workplace after workplace closed down so a team of lads would be sent out in one of the Museum trucks to get whatever they could. 

One day, sometime in the mid-1980s, I squeezed through a hole in the fence down on the old East Greenwich Gasworks site. I hid in the bushes as juggernauts thundered past. Suddenly I realised that I was beside an old wooden capstan – mounted on a block with a plaque.  It had come from the old dry dock, now under the Dome, built by Stockwell and Lewis in 1871.  South Metropolitan Gas Company had bought the dry dock and preserved the capstan – it had stood as a riverside feature in gas works, carefully preserved, until our generation had forgotten it and abandoned it.  I rang Bob Aspinall right away and the lads and the Museum truck came over.

Then everything started to go wrong.  I was working for Docklands Forum – an organisation which monitored redevelopment and regeneration in Docklands – and we kept a close watch on progress with the Museum.  I can’t go into a lot of detail here – if I can even remember – all the setbacks and heartaches over the next fifteen or so years.  Funding bids came and went, as did potential sites. The office and archive moved to the Poplar Business Park in Prestons Road.  The Victoria Dock warehouse became ‘out of bounds’, Chris had a heart attack, Alex got a new job within the Museum of London – and Andy Topping joined the team, to very good effect.  Some exhibits were dispersed to other museums.

But after all, after all these years – and there has been doubt in the last few months – the Museum is to open.  Back, as originally planned, in the warehouses on the West India Quay  - now tiny buildings among giant office blocks – and everything has a different name to what it used to have in the 1980s.  I went round the Museum last year – it was terrific and everyone must go, and tell their friends. Congratulations, particularly to Chris Elmers and Bob Aspinall – thanks for sticking with it.

--- and the Greenwich capstan  --- it’s one of the main exhibits!




Saturday 24 May 2003

On the day of the opening the Museum in Docklands will have free admission.  Annual tickets will be available for purchase. Adult annual ticket £5 Concessions annual ticket £3 Children under 16 FREE   DLR - West India Quay -   Jubilee Line - Canary Wharf  There is a restaurant called 1802, a separate cafĂ© and a shop.

The twelve galleries of the Museum in Docklands trace 2,000 years of London’s river, port and people -

Thames Highway from the Roman settlement of AD43 and the Saxon town beneath Covent Garden to the historic ports of Norman and Medieval London excavated at Billingsgate and Lower Thames Street. 

Trade Expansion - As London’s port activities grew new trading companies like the East India Company emerged. Visitors can wander through a recreation of a Legal Quay from the 1790s and the influence of overseas visitors, including Pochohantas and Prince Lee Boo, is explored.

Rhinebeck Panorama -Discovered rolled-up in the attic of a house in Rhinebeck, New York, the Rhinebeck Panorama presents a balloon’s eye view of the upper pool of London c.1810. 

Coming of the Docks -An exploration of the Isle of Dogs (1802), Wapping (1805), Blackwall (1806) and Rotherhithe (1806/12) reveals the vast new trading dock complexes built in the early 1800s to resolve the problems of overcrowding, theft and pilferage in the old river port. Original plans, engineering drawings, pictures and artefacts uncover the engineering and entrepreneurial enterprise in detail.

City and River - Opened for trade in 1803, the warehouse in which the Museum now stands once stored coffee, pimentos, sugar, molasses and rum. A recreated rum vault provides a glimpse into the skills of coopers working in No 1 Warehouse under the watchful eyes of Customs Officers, and the gallery examines the story of sugar.  An 1807 model of the Lord Mayor’s state barge, together with the bright red livery and silver arm badges of the Waterman’s Company, are seen close to engravings of the Thames during the last Frost Fair of 1814. 

Sailortown Set in the early evening, visitors wander along early 19th century gas-lit alleyways, past a chandler’s shop window and sailor’s lodging houses, glimpsing views of the murky Thames between buildings. 

First Port of Empire & Warehouse of the World - The introduction of hydraulic power and the change from wooden to iron shipbuilding transformed the lives of those who worked in the docks. The struggles of organised labour is explored through the 1889 Dock Strike, and beam scales, garbling knives and tobacco presses, and contemporary film footage from the historic City of Ships (1938) shows working practices that have now vanished forever. 

The capital’s links with the British Empire and the cultural diversity of London’s East End are shown in What in the World, a touch-screen interactive which traces commodities along trade routes and back to their country of origin.

The River Thames Gallery - A number of traditional Thames vessels, including an 1880s double sculling pleasure craft and a 1925 Port of London Authority Waterman’s Skiff, are shown alongside displays exploring the work of sail makers, riggers, ship chandlers, leisure boat operators and divers and reveals some of the skills required for navigation, moorings and salvage operations.  A major extract from City of Ships (1938) shows a lost world.

Docklands at War - Introduced by the Black Saturday film, which incorporates rarely seen film from the Fire Brigade and captured Nazi extracts show the preparations made in London and Berlin for the first few days of the Blitz. 

New Port New City - Just 20 years ago much of Docklands was an area of decline and dereliction.  Competition and containerisation signalled the end of the up-river port.  As port activities moved downriver the older docks, warehouses and riverside industries closed down.  Although still at the centre of world trade, the area is now unrecognisable as the former port, as new transport infrastructures, the gentrification of riverside warehousing and the architectural spectacle of Canary Wharf create a new and equally dramatic cityscape.

Mudlarks' gallery In this interactive gallery specifically for under elevens. 

No comments: