"The docks are impossible to describe," wrote Paul Verlaine in 1872. "They are unbelievable! Tyre and Carthage all rolled into one!" To the French poet, the bustling docks of London symbolized cosmopolitanism and innovation.
The docks were indeed engineering and commercial marvels. Nineteenth century London was the richest city in the world, its wealth chiefly derived from overseas trade. It was an age of seemingly limitless expansion, accompanied by a succession of wet docks moving progressively eastward along the river. It began with the digging of the Great Howland Dock in 1697, but expansion truly picked up pace in the 19th century with the construction of eight major dock areas, continuing into the twentieth century with the King George V Dock built in 1921.
Cutting across the base of the great thumb of land lying west of Blackwell Reach, the West India Docks effectively made the Isle of Dogs just that – an island. Swing bridges, dock gates, and walls erected to prevent theft from warehouses made public transportation to the docks sparse, adding to the sense of isolation and ‘otherness’ of local residents. Geographically isolated from the rest of London, the docks stretched for eight miles east of Tower Bridge. It was, as Verlaine hinted, practically a universe unto itself.
But then came the worldwide switch to container shipping, which required deeper harbors for larger vessels and easy access to highways, both of which the docks lacked. As historian Michael Leapman notes, London’s role as a major international port ended "with astonishing suddenness." In 1964, the docks handled a record-breaking 61 million tons of cargo, but just a few years later the West India Dock closed, rapidly followed by the London Docks, St. Katherine Docks, and the greater part of the Surrey Commercial Docks. By 1970, the once vibrant docklands had become an industrial wasteland.
The question was, what could be done with over five thousand acres of abandoned dock areas, almost half filled with water?
The most westerly of the docks, St. Katharine’s, was soon converted into offices, shops, a hotel, and a marina. With its prime location near the Tower of London, this complex was an immediate success. The cost of real estate in London proved to be the spur to redeveloping other dock areas. Rupert Murdock, for one, decided that the operating costs of his newspapers based in Fleet Street were too high, and thus the exodus of London’s printing plants to Wapping and Rotherhithe began.
At the same time, a few urban pioneers began to convert old warehouses into apartments, capitalizing on the magnificent views of the river. However, though various committees and consultants made suggestions, there was no central plan for Docklands, and the land in the public sector was owned by disparate entities such as the Port of London Authority, British Rail, and local councils.
This piecemeal supervision ended in 1981, when the London Docklands Development Corporation was formed. Most of the area was declared exempt from property taxes between 1982 and 1992, and generous incentives were set up to attract investors and developers.
One worrisome obstacle to the revitalization of the area was its isolation. Lacking decent transportation links, any plan to develop Docklands was doomed to failure. Over the next decade, the building of the Docklands Light Railway, the extension of the Jubilee Line, and the construction of a regional airport addressed this need, along with several major new roads and additional ferry routes on the river.
Lest I give the impression that the resurgence of the Docklands was one unimpeded triumphal march, I should mention that there was and perhaps to some extent still is considerable resistance to various schemes to develop the area. For one thing, local residents objected being excluded from the planning, and in one memorable protest released sheep and bees at the groundbreaking ceremony for Canary Wharf. The protestors wanted to draw attention to the fact that few jobs would be created for local residents – and they succeeded in making their point.
Other difficulties concerned financing. In the case of Canary Wharf, the original arrangement fell apart when various partners disagreed over how to share costs. Shortly afterward, the project was taken over by a Canadian company, Olympia and York. Mindful of the necessity of taking local concerns into account, this group had better PR but again ran aground financially as the world property market collapsed in the early nineties. Delays in developing the Jubilee Line extension also compounded the project’s problems. It seemed that Canary Wharf was doomed to become a white elephant, a cluster of vainglorious buildings standing half empty by the water. The project once again changed hands, bought in 1995 by an international consortium.
It was the completion of the Jubilee Line, jumpstarted by ambitious plans for the Millennium celebration, which helped put Canary Wharf back on track. In 1993, the working population of Canary Wharf was around 7,000, but by 1997 it had grown to 21,000, rising to over 64,000 by 2004. This increase reflected not just the success of Canary Wharf but also the strengthened role of London as a financial center, now handling approximately one-third of the world’s financial dealings.
A view of Canary Wharf from Rotherhithe
It also had something to do with the "Big Bang" in 1986, which converted the Stock Exchange into the International Stock Exchange, allowing the merging of banking and brokerage firms, eliminating fixed commissions, and introducing electronic trading. With over 600,000 people employed in London in banking and allied services, suffice it to say that the City of London alone could not handle the explosive growth following the "Big Bang." Many new enterprises and branches of existing firms moved to Canary Wharf, which has been dubbed a "mini Manhattan."
Predictably, with some of the biggest names in finance concentrated in one area, Canary Wharf soon drew the sort of attention it would rather not. In 1996, the IRA bombed a garage near Canary Wharf Tower, killing two and wounding 100. Just last November, the London press featured a story that MI5 had foiled a plan by al-Qaeda to fly airplanes into Canary Wharf Tower, although specific knowledge of a planned attack was denied by the government.
Alighting at the Canary Wharf tube station on a sunny June afternoon, I felt much like Verlaine did when he first viewed the docks. Some of the world’s leading architects and designers had a hand in creating Canary Wharf, and the futuristic Underground station was recently voted "London’s favorite tube station." Outside the station, a central area with a corridor of green space is flanked by modern office buildings, including a trio of skyscrapers with the 800-foot pyramid-topped Canary Wharf Tower in the center. (When Prince Charles was shown Cesar Pelli’s plans for the tower, he characteristically remarked, "But why does it have to be so tall?")
I strolled through the lunchtime crowds gathering at outdoor cafes, making my way to the plaza at Cabot Place, a fine place to watch people pass by. I felt like a lone tourist adrift in a world of purposeful business people, but as I’ve never aspired to be either purposeful or business-like this was something I relished rather than felt self conscious about.
After strolling over a graceful floating bridge spanning a former dock, I made my way along a section of old warehouses converted to trendy shops, restaurants, and a museum. After visiting the Museum in Docklands and making a few inquiries there about recommended sights, I hopped on the Docklands Light Railway. As the sleek elevated train snaked through the area, I glimpsed new projects rising alongside Canary Wharf, with immense cranes and other signs of ambitious construction.
Getting off the train at Island Garden, I walked to the waterfront. There’s a fine view across the Thames of Sir Christopher Wren’s handsome Royal Naval College flanking the Queen’s House, but an even better view is gained by crossing the Thames on foot. No Biblical powers are required as there happens to be a foot tunnel running under the river here. It was somewhat spooky walking through the nearly deserted tunnel, my footsteps echoing down the yellow-tiled and somewhat claustrophobic tunnel, but I exited safely on the other side of the Thames at Greenwich, just next to the Cutty Sark. After admiring her elegant lines, I walked through Greenwich Park up to the Old Royal Observatory at the summit of the hilltop.
By then the sun was low in the horizon, but I had a splendid panorama of a good part of Greenwich, the Docklands, and the City further beyond. From this faraway vantage point, the din of the city was inaudible, yet I knew just a short distance up the River Thames, that liquid heart of the great metropolis, London awaited.