London is undeniably one of the world’s most important financial centres, and although the City of London has traditionally been at the heart of London’s finance industry, Canary Wharf has today joined it as a place to come where fortunes can be made or lost at the press of a button.
It hasn’t always been like this of course. The area referred to as Canary Wharf is located on the Isle of Dogs and includes the former West India Dock, the first dock to be built in London.
Built purely to handle trade with the West Indies, it still has the same basic layout as when it was built in the early 19th century, but the name ‘Canary Wharf’ didn’t come into existence until 1937 when a warehouse was built at North Dock to handle fruit from the Canary Islands.
In 1802 the North (import) Dock was the first part of the West India Dock scheme to be built, followed 4 years later by the Middle (export) Dock. The South Dock was completed much later and was never really intended to be part of the set-up.
From those early days London expanded into the largest and busiest docks in the world, and although there are no cargo ships here now, the excellent (and free) Docklands Museum in one of the former warehouses on the North Dock quayside will tell you all about the fascinating history of London’s docklands.
The building of the West India Dock goes back to the time when Britain’s expanding empire brought with it an increase in trade, resulting in the Thames becoming overcrowded with cargo boats from all over the world. Not only was it congested, it was also an unofficial source of income for light-fingered cargo handlers who did plenty of trade of their own in the nearby hostelries.
West Indian trading merchants spearheaded by Robert Milligan decided to do something about it and so construction on the secure purpose-built import dock began.
Rum, coffee, and sugar were amongst the main goods to be imported and the quayside gained the nickname of ‘Blood Alley’ thanks to the sacks of sticky raw sugar that cut the dock workers hands, necks and backs to shreds.
Standing proudly in front of the Docklands Museum is a statue of Robert Milligan, and not knowing much about him, I thought I’d try and find out a bit more.
It turns out that he was a Scottish merchant and ship owner who brought sugar from his plantations in Jamaica to London, and there’s no doubt that the main reason behind his enthusiasm for building the West India Dock was to create a safe and secure environment for his ships and cargo.
At the time the docks were built it was considered a colossal achievement, and secured a monopoly on the import of West Indian goods for the West India Dock Company for years to come.
It’s no wonder then that his fellow traders thought it a good idea to commemorate his achievements, and so they commissioned Richard Westmacott to produce the statue which was unveiled on this spot in 1813.
What the plaque on the statue doesn’t tell us though is that Robert Milligan made his fortune by employing slaves on his plantations, and he still had 526* slaves working for him when he died in 1809 (*from the 1811 Jamaica Almanac).
Since its unveiling, the statue has been moved several times to other locations around the area, but in 1997 it was decided to bring it back to its original position.
No doubt those responsible for bringing it back to where it started out believe it’s where it should be, but perhaps it might now be a better idea to bring it into the museum alongside the ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’ exhibition which shows how heavily involved London was in the Slave Trade.
Life for the dock workers and their families wasn’t too great either. Generations of the same family lived together in back to back houses in poverty, thanks in part to irregular work – and when there was work, it was hard graft.
Here’s a quote from Allan Clelland who was the Limehouse Medical Officer for Health in 1857 – “ We lose one half of our children before they have emerged from infancy….When the habitation of such children is an overcrowded dilapidated tenement in some close ill ventilated court or alley furnished with an undrained closet surrounded by untrapped sinks and festering heaps of filth, we find ourselves astonished not that so many die, but that so many survive”.
Whatever the hardships, the East End had a strong sense of community spirit, which was needed more than ever when the docks became a prime target for the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. The real damage was done however, both commercially and socially, when larger ships required deeper water. After the war, new docks and container ports were built in the Thames estuary and along the North Sea coast making the West India Dock obsolete.
Not only were the docks, wharves and warehouses no longer required, neither were the dockers, their families and their houses either. By the 1980s the West India Docks, along with many others, had become a desolate wasteland, and plans were drawn up for a regeneration programme.
The first phase of development was carried out by a company called Olympia and York which was owned by Paul Reichmann of Toronto.
This Canadian connection gave its name to the focal point of the whole new Canary Wharf project at Canada Square, with ‘One Canada Square’ becoming the first major skyscraper in the area. Completed in 1991, it was the tallest building in the UK and remained so until The Shard took over that accolade in 2010.
For the anoraks amongst us One Canada Square was designed by Cesar Pelli and stands at 800ft high (240m) including the pencil-shaped pyramid pinnacle on the top.
One Canada Square is the tallest of what I think of as the ‘Big Three’ around the square – the other two being the HSBC Headquarters and the Citigroup Building, both of which are 655ft (200m) high.
The Canary Wharf Estate is currently owned by the Canary Wharf Group and covers an area of almost one hundred acres stretching from West India Dock Road to the north side of the South Dock, and from Westferry Circus in the west to Cartier Circle in the east. In between are a multitude of offices, restaurants and shopping malls that employs over a hundred thousand people.
Life in the old docks and the new financial district couldn’t be more different. The docks are still here, but the slums have gone and replaced by apartments that cost a fortune, but it’s easier to make a fortune now.
The water is much cleaner and anglers can be seen fishing for flounder, plaice or bream and even seals have been spotted in the North Dock.
There are no major roads through the area as the Tube and driverless Docklands Light Railway transports commuters in and out of the area with the minimum of fuss, and makes for a more peaceful environment than you might have imagined. Art installations and public events complete the picture.
This utopian dream of the planners doesn’t tell the whole story though. When commuters leave for their weekend in the suburbs, the area becomes almost too quiet.
The character and characters of the old docks have been replaced by a new world of shiny people that, for all its faults, was a community that had soul.
The capitalist world that we live in has its advantages and disadvantages, but investment can be managed in different ways. Investment in projects like Canary Wharf can make some people very wealthy, but if some of this wealth was to find its way into making a better world for everyone on the planet and the planet itself then I think that would be the best investment of all.