Thursday, October 2, 2008
St. Katharine Dock
Toward the end of the twentieth century, because of technological changes in world shipping, the St. Katharine Dock area near London’s Tower Bridge was forced to alter its function after more than a thousand years as a trade center. That adaptation of building use foreshadowed a universal trend in which former warehouses became (usually luxury) apartments. For that reason, and because of the model cargo handling and storage design that it represented in the nineteenth century, St. Katharine Dock is worthy of a place in any list of architectural achievements.
The Saxon King Edgar (reigned 959–975) granted 13 acres (about 5 hectares) on the site to several knights. Because they were permitted to use the land for profit, that gift laid the foundation for foreign trade. In 1125 the property and its small dock passed to a convent and a hospital was established; twenty-five years later Queen Matilda endorsed the Royal Foundation of St. Katharine. Wharves were later built along the tidal inlet, and the area became known as St. Katharine Dock late in the sixteenth century. It was in the eighteenth century that the Thames was changed from a relatively quiet river into the major commercial thoroughfare into the heart of London, center of world trade. Some sources claim that up to 800 vessels at a time were moored in the Pool of London, and market forces generated the 8.5 square miles (22 square kilometers) of the city’s Docklands. Made at great social cost, the transformation was empowered by legislation: the West India Dock Act of 1799 authorized the first enclosed docks; the London Dock Act followed, authorizing a dock at Wapping. Between 1802 and 1806, the West India, London, and East India Docks became operational. The St. Katharine Dock Act was passed in 1825, and the following year the St. Katharine Dock was opened between the London Dock and the Tower of London.
The engineer Thomas Telford was commissioned to build the new dock and faced the constraint of a very small site. Assisted by Thomas Rhodes, he designed a unique system of two connected basins—the East Dock and the West Dock—that provided maximum wharf frontage. They were linked to the Thames through a 180-foot-long, 45-foot-wide (45-by-14-meter) lock with three gates, and steam engines maintained the dock water level above that of the river. One of the largest engineering projects ever seen in London, at times employing 2,500 men, St. Katharine Dock took two years to construct. The neoclassical dock offices and especially the six-story warehouses, designed by the architect Philip Hardwick, were also revolutionary. Constructed virtually at the wharfside, they enabled cargo to be unloaded directly from ship to storage, saving time and reducing pilfering. Because they backed on the access roads, the warehouses also did away with the need for a boundary wall around much of the dock. The West Dock warehouses were completed by 1828 and those around the East Dock a year later. The largest were 470 feet long and 140 feet deep (144 by 43 meters). In all of them, squat, cast-iron Doric ground-floor columns supported vaulted brick and iron floors and the superstructure; the walls were of gray London bricks. The window frames were also of cast iron. St. Katharine Dock was officially opened on 25 October 1828.
Although it was celebrated as an engineering, architectural, and commercial triumph, not everyone would have agreed. The London Times reported that the acquisition and clearing of the land for this “magnificent speculation” led to the demolition of 1,250 houses and tenements and the displacement of 11,300 residents. Freeholders and leaseholders were compensated, but not the dispossessed. And when philanthropic housing schemes were finally introduced in the 1840s, the benefits were only for people with regular incomes.
The dock originally handled exotic, valuable international cargoes. The company provided incentives for fast turnaround of vessels, and with competitive charges and low land-transportation costs, it enjoyed early prosperity. In 1852, Hardwick’s associate George Aitchison built two more warehouses. At their peak they were capable of “accommodating 120 ships besides barges and other craft.” But London had overdeveloped new docks, and St. Katharine’s share of the traffic soon declined until it was left with only coastal and cross-channel traffic. Financial difficulties followed, and in 1864 the St. Katharine and London Dock Companies merged to take over Victoria Dock. Between the two World Wars, because ocean vessels were too large to berth there, St. Katharine Dock became a convenient storage facility close to the city of London for goods that were carried by lighters from vessels downstream. The dock and warehouses were badly damaged by incendiary bombs in the Blitz of 1940, and were never fully repaired. Upriver docks were far too small to deal with container vessels, and in the 1960s the Port of London Authority began to locate its functions at Tilbury.
In 1968 the Greater London Council (GLC) closed St. Katharine and London Docks and announced its plans to replace them with houses. The warehouses were in use until 1969, when the GLC acquired the site and invited redevelopment proposals. Seven developers presented plans for a trading and leisure facility, and the project was awarded to the Taylor Woodrow Property Company. They proposed (and built) a mix of privately and publicly owned apartments, a five-star hotel, a trade center, office buildings, restaurants, shops, and a marina, with a total of about 5,000 tenants and residents.