Archaeology, Archaeology digital, Archaeology Research

Surrey Docks

I recently did a little work in the Surrey Quays area, and I have to admit the whole area is fascinating. The most exciting thing is how drastically the landscape has change in the last fifty years. I wondered how I was going to communicate this without just ranting about it… and then I found that you can create your own content on googlemaps!

So turn back the clock to the 1960s, and the docks would have looked like…

How amazing is that? Each of those blue polygons (if they don’t load, try loading the full post) represents one of the different Victorian docks or ponds. As you can see, only Greenland Dock, South Dock and part of the old Canada Dock (now Canada Water) survive. But fifty years ago the whole area was a mass of docks and ponds, wharfs and warehouses.

Nothing of that landscape survives today. Now it’s houses, parkland, and a little lighter industry. At the end of the 1960s the docks closed as a result of the change in shipping practices. The advent of containerised shipping (apparently a US invention during the Vietnam war) facilitated larger ships which required deep water docks, putting Surrey Commercial Docks (as they were then known) out of business.

It seems like the docks languished out of use for a decade before the government established a redevelopment program that filled them in (apparently using the area for landfill). Today the finished redevelopment seems to have been very successful and much-needed. Of course, I don’t know how much of the original Victorian warehousing was sacrificed for the development (now re-branded as Surrey Quays), but there are a good smattering of listed buildings still preserved in the area. And as it turns out (see comments below)  the majority of the buildings were apparently open storage sheds for timber. Which reminds me that the ‘ponds’ (smaller areas of water) were frequently used for the storage of timber – by letting it it sit in the water it was prevented from seasoning too quickly (apparently desirable – I have to admit to being a little ignorant of this!).

However, I still wish I’d been able to see the area before the redevelopment. I’m sure it would have been pretty sorry for itself by the 1960s (having suffered extensive bomb damage during World War Two), but we have nothing comparable left today.

It should also be noted that the Surrey Docks were demolished and redeveloped before PPG16 (the archaeology legislation) that would probably have made extensive recordings of the area a necessary condition of planning permission. As a result, the docks were bulldozed and filled in without any records of the structures being made, so the that part of the areas history really is gone forever.

Unfortunately Surrey Docks is just one of many London trade landscapes we’ve lost or have suffered extensive changes, which includes the Upper and Lower Pools, Millwall and West India Docks, Limehouse and Royal Docks. Although most of the survived World War Two, the 1960s really was the watershed point that saw the end of London as a Port.

[Incidentally, on that front there is some hope – the Thames Gateway Project may see the development of a deep water port on the north bank of the Thames to the east of London – though it is dependant on foreign funding.]

This post has followed on from the work on the Upper Pool docks area, so in tribute to another of London’s lost landscapes I thought I’d include a little bit of history of the area….

Okay, so I haven’t written this bit yet… but I will have it up as soon as I get the chance! Things have been very hectic at work as I have decided to take on the Spitalfields area, where there has been a program of around 20-30 excavations since the 1970s, some on a very large scale. The area is very intense archaeologically, so I’ve barely had time to breath!

4 thoughts on “Surrey Docks”

  1. Hi

    By way of brief introduction I have lived in Rotherhithe for nearly ten years and am currently doing a PhD in Egyptian prehistory at UCL. I too am fascinated by the area and have added a number of “heritage” posts to an otherwise photographic record of one of the parks which was created over some the former docks and pools (details entered in the “Website” field on this form.

    Lots of elements of the original dockland landscape do survive, if you know where to look for them, and there is an excellent book on the subject which gives two heritage walks around the area to enable those interested to locate them (Martime Rotherhithe History Walks by Stuart Rankin).

    Archaeological excavations have taken place since the redevelopment and have successfully revealed a number of interesting additional details. Detailed records from the dockland days also enable partial recreation of the area.

    Sorry – I am a real enthusiast on the subject! It was lovely to find your blog and the overlay of the original docks and ponds on the modern view of the area.

    Kind regards

    1. Hey, thanks for dropping by! I’m glad you liked the overlay – I have just discovered the fun of googlemaps 🙂 I’m horribly jealous you’re studying for a PhD 😉
      If you have any details of the excavations (where I might find more info, titles of publications, or just dates and the names of who did them) I’d be interested.

  2. There weren’t many warehouses in the docks area. I have a more detailed map of the docks from around the 1920s, and they’re mainly surrounded by open timber sheds rather than warehouses.

    It’s a really interesting overlay, thanks for putting it online.

  3. The bibliography for the blog is at:
    It has all the heritage references that I have used so far, but I haven’t got hold of everything yet because I have only written history posts which reach as far as 1825, after which it all gets seriously complicated. The two that will probably interest most are:

    Evans, Sarah Jane, 1987
    Rotherhithe’s Royal Palace. History Today; Jul87, Vol. 37 Issue 7, p3, 2p, 1 black & white photograph

    Heard, K with Goodburn, D. Investigating the maritime history of Rotherhithe: Excavations at Pacific Wharf, 165 Rotherhithe Street, Southwark. Museum of London Archaeology Service, Archaeology Studies Series 11

    There are a couple of excellent books about the docklands in general which show terrific photographs of the Surrey Commercial Docks when they were operational, and I can give you the best available titles of those if you are interested.

    O/S maps of the area are also available and chart the area in the late 1800s and 1900s. It is fascinating to see how the moasic of docks and ponds actually evolves.

    As Mike says, architercturally speaking this area was characerized mainly by somewhat disposable warehouses rather than the wonderful brick-build Georgian and Victorian examples of other, more important docks on the north of the river that handled expensive and dutiable goods. Some of the river-fronting buildings were terrrific, some of which survive, but most of the buildings destroyed for redevelopment were of no architectural merit. Many of them were still standing, after a fashion, when I moved in here. Years ago I was commissioned to do a photo-record of the derelict Birkenhead docks and there is simply no comparison between those lovely buildings and what remained on Rotherhithe.

    The docks themselves, on the other hand, and the equipment which went with them, were often feats of engineering magnificence. Hydraulic lock gear still survives in situ, some of the docks and ponds have been preserved, and many of the original features of the area can, as I said in my earlier post, be located. If you like industrial archaeology, this is a great place to be.

    PhD? If I start screaming I may never stop. It was great when I started but getting closer to submission I feel that I may be losing my tiny mind. A common symptom if an informal survey of any of my friends is anything to go by. I don’t think that anyone departs from a PhD entirely sane, but I hope that I’m wrong!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s