St. Katharine’s Dock
Worn-out Whistles with Pocket’s Full O’ Tanners
Christmas comes and goes bringing with it snow, blizzards and some of the worst winter conditions Britain has seen for fifty years. Businesses close as do schools, motorways grind to a crawl, everything momentarily seizes up. Then, as fast as it arrived the snow thaws. It has been a little over a month since I saw Dave though we have communicated via E-mail and phone. One weekend as I am cleaning out my garage; I get a call from Dave. It is Sunday and he is off to London; he asks do I want to meet up? An hour or so later we are drinking cappuccinos near Tower Bridge.
There is no rain today. It is nippy but not overly cold and the sun is shining from a crystal blue sky that casts weak shadows onto the city’s tired tarmac and pavements. The Tower of London gathers tourists and sightseers; crowds hanker to have family photos taken with the old building as a backdrop. To its side Tower Bridge preens supreme and magnificent, its imperial head gazes down like an overlord on the throngs below. There is no finer sight than this: London’s twin monuments muscling in on the Thames as it cuts its ribboned way through the capital of England.
Dave and I play catch-up, discussing work, family, music and football. We have already decided to retrace our steps to enable us to take in the rest of London’s Docks.
St. Katharine’s Dock, with its ornate gateway that displays two elephants astride twin columns, is the first place we enter. Dave clicks away like a dervish. I scribble some notes. Today’s ‘Dock’ is nothing more than a tourist attraction that hides its history behind a façade of water. The shape of the place is pretty much as it was and some of the buildings too but by and large this has been completely re-developed to suit the City workers that reside here.
Originally St. Katharine’s was a church, in 1148. It was founded by Matilda the daughter of King Henry 1st in loving memory of her sons Stephen and Eustace both of whom had died as infants. Matilda was the first Queen of England although she only reigned for a matter of months. History doesn’t forget this fact but it seldom speaks of it. The church she had built was named St. Katharine’s by the Tower due to its close proximity to the Tower of London. Not only was it a place of worship but it also functioned as a hospital. Surrounding the church would have been a gaggle of squalid, narrow lanes that housed vagabonds and prostitutes (a fine place for Vigor and Duffy then) that strung around the building with names of dank dominion: Cat’s Hole, Pillory Lane, Dark Entry, Shovel Alley a set of tenements to shame the rest of London. It was a mark of the selfish nature of that age St. Katharine’s remained as a church until 1865 when, as the Empire reached its height, the church was knocked down and replaced with another, smaller dock for ships to unload at. They used to refer to these slums in the sixteen hundreds as a Rookery.
None of this is evident now; all vestiges of the past have been idly replaced as commerce and common decency have come into play. The small bridges, with water lapping at their stout feet, are all that there now is of this one time hive of industry. It still makes for a splendid sight to visit even if there is only a whisper of its past to be heard, a ghost of its history to be seen. St. Katharine’s never proved a great success as a dock as it was too small and couldn’t handle larger vessels. Due to its limited commercial success the dock was amalgamated with neighbouring London Docks and then the PLA (Port of London Authority) took over virtually all of the docks in 1909 including St. Katharine’s. The Second World War so badly damaged the old docks that they effectively never operated as before and were fully closed down in 1968.
Today St. Katharine’s is a flourishing area with residential properties hobnobbing with offices; shops exchange customers with the restaurants and a large hotel leans over the marina watching while the yachts bob and bluster on the water. It is every bit the co-opposite success of its predecessor with its popular leisure facilities, so much so that failure now seems a long distant memory. There is even, close by, St. Katharine’s Pier which provides a river bound transport service that cruises down the Thames to Westminster.
Dave and I take our notes and photos, staking our tiny claims for posterity, and then we move on, heading back down The Highway and onto Shadwell Basin, Limehouse and The Isle of Dogs.
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.