Saint Katharine Docks

Part of the deal when it comes to being a maritime culture is that most of your trade is done by boat as well. London has no bay, only a river, so for centuries boats pulled up along the river wall to offload goods from around the world.

A (pretty lousy) picture of a ship that wasn’t used for freight and wasn’t in Saint Katharine Docks. This is Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. However, cargo ships of the day weren’t that far off from this, so you get the idea.

Unless you were on a particularly big boat, and then you moored in the channel and were offloaded by barge, or lighter.

As the British Empire grew, so too did its trade, and its ships. At the end of the Eighteenth Century, the need for additional (and protected!) dock space was realized and construction began on deep wharves cut away from the riverbank.

Northern approach to the Tower Bridge, not far from the docks

Over the next hundred years, nine enclosed docks were built, protected by locks to maintain the water at a consistent level so tall ships could moor alongside the warehouses and offload directly. Collectively they were a huge financial success, and helped London become the largest trading port in the world.

So influential were they in their time that many authors of the era – Charles Dickens, I’m looking at you – featured the docklands in their writings.

Coat of arms featuring Saint George’s Cross, one of the three crosses that make up the flag of the United Kingdom. With the red sword included, it makes up the flag of the City of London.

Because warehouses were built dockside, many docks became specialized in particular types of cargo. Some catered only to timber or grain. Others coal or oil, or even whale blubber. Saint Katharine Docks specialized in wool, sugar, and rubber.

If you were a dock worker, you would show up at a particular pub each day, and hope that the foreman chose you to work. If you were chosen, you would work, you would earn money, and you could use that money to eat. If you weren’t chosen, well…

…odds were good that you did none of those things.

The, uh, hind end of the Golden Hind. Get it? Hind? Ahh, well, it’s Thursday.

It motivated workers to develop their skills, to stand out and be memorable enough to get chosen consistently. It worked this way almost until the closure of the dock system in the 1960s.

But as many trans-pacific shipping fleets have learned with the Panama Canal, the size of your ship is limited by the size of your locks, and as trade vessels continued to grow, they outgrew the docks to the point where the protected moorings were no longer viable.


So their role changed. Now, they are a great place for Britain’s elite to park their yachts. Being from San Diego, I can appreciate the need.

Saint Katharine Docks has been extensively redeveloped; the old warehouses are now shops, restaurants, and flats. Several pedestrian drawbridges were installed, and a special mooring was built for a very special boat.

Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Barge

The three of us stood on the embankment for a while, watching the boats and listening as the lockmaster coordinated yachts coming and going. By today’s standards the dock is very small, so a significant amount of shuffling was necessary to get one boat out while another was coming in. We stood and watched until they had to open the drawbridge to let a boat through.

I thought it had a long prow so Her Majesty could walk out and wave, but no, that space is for the oarsmen. Monarchs are conveyed only by human power, apparently.

I’d say Queen Elizabeth II probably qualifies as British Elite.

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