Ships from all over the world used to berth at the Docks to unload their cargoes - grain, meat and tobacco among them. Here is a glimpse of that era.
"A Walk Through the Victoria and Albert Docks"
Extract from London-over-the-Border Church Fund Grand Historical Bazaar Handbook 1914
By J. G. BROODBANK - Chairman of the Dock and Warehouse Committee of the Port of London Authority.
"During the last ten years there has been a marked revival in this country of the Imperial spirit. The seed was sown in the English nation when the adventurers of the Elizabethan period stepped out into the world to see what was to be seen and to take what could be taken. Fortunately the moderns are not guided by the buccaneering impulses of the 16th century, and without making invidious comparisons we may fairly claim to say that the ideals of the true British imperialist of to-day show a considerable advance on those of his ancestors. Those ideals are varying, but underlying them is a real desire for co-operation in the best interests of everybody in the British Empire.
How can this co-operation best be achieved? Undoubtedly it is greatly assisted by the exchange of neighbourly and pleasant sentiments and acts; but to my mind not the least practical method is that of the exchange of goods, in other words, by the relationships created by trade.
If this point is a good one, then the Victoria and Albert Docks can be reckoned as one of the chief elements in the promotion of the imperial ideal, for there is no place in the whole of the British Empire where so many goods are brought in from the Colonies and overseas possessions, and where so many goods are sent out to those parts of the Empire.
The Victoria and Albert Dock system is the largest in the world. From end to end is a three mile walk, and the total length of quays available for shipping to lie alongside is nine miles. One often sees reference to the River Quays of Antwerp, and very frequently there is a comparison disparaging to London. The total length of these Antwerp Quays is only equal to those on the north side of the Victoria and Albert Docks, while the depth of water is on the average considerably better in our Docks. The area of the water exceeds 180 acres, and for the further information of those who delight in figures I may state that there are about 1,400,000,000 gallons of water pent up in these Docks - more than enough to give every person in London a small swimming bath to himself. By powerful pumps, the water is maintained always at a level of 2 ft. 6 ins. above high water, spring tide level. This means that when it is low water in the river the water in the Docks is some 23 to 24 feet above the river level. Much of the land in East and West Ham is about 6 feet below the level of high water, and therefore considerably below the level of the water in the Dock.
We next come to the P. and o. Company's berths, where there will probably be three P. and o. steamers, and everyone in Canning Town and elsewhere knows them. No line is more associated with the name of India and Australia than this famous company.
This line has within the past year or two absorbed a Colonial line famous in years gone by and known as Lund's Blue Anchor Line. Since absorption the fleet has been remodelled and large modern steamers have been introduced.
Now cross the dock at Manor Way Bridge, and there will be found the home of the Shaw, Savill and Albion Line to and from New Zealand. The largest vessels using the dock, such as the "Athenic" and "Corinthic" of 12,0OO tons run in this line, and come home with thousands of bales of wool, and often as many as 100,000 carcasses of frozen mutton, with hemp, gums, and many varieties of goods.
The large American steamers of the Wilson and Furness Leyland Line and the Atlantic Transport Line are the next to meet the view, and probably two or three vessels will be discharging from Baltimore, New Orleans or Philadelphia.
The next berths are occupied by the steamers of the Blue Funnel Line, some of the largest that use the Docks coming from the East and from Australia, and Pacific Coast ports.
Proceeding past the dry docks and along the cutting we now re-enter the Victoria Dock. Passing the huge Flour Mills belonging to Joseph Rank, Limited, and Messrs. W. Vernon and Sons we come to one or two vessels which have brought bulk grain from the River Plate or Black Sea, of which some 600,000 tons come into London every year, and you will notice the grain coming out of a shoot into barges in a continuous stream. The grain is sucked up out of the hold by pneumatic power into a floating elevator, is weighed by an automatic machine, and then delivered into the barge loose or in sacks as required.
You will next find a British India Liner from India or may be from Queensland.
Time and space fail me to speak of the other lines, of the colliers, of the oil ships, or of the cable-laying steamers engaged in laying the lines of communication by which we daily speak to the Colonies. The variety and the extent of the work done is sufficiently obvious from what I have said.
Most of the cargoes that arrive go away by barges to various parts of the Port, including the Port Authority warehouses higher up in the river. But there are three kinds of goods which it is found convenient to store at the Victoria and Albert Docks in large quantities; these are grain, tobacco and meat. There is little of interest to the general public in the storage of grain. Tobacco fills a large space in the Victoria Dock; in fact the whole of the tobacco in public bonded warehouse in London is at the Victoria Dock. To-day there are 21,000 tons in stock, the largest stock on record. The Balkan War is partly responsible for this. Tobacco has been safer in London than in Constantinople or Sofia. Including the duty, which every smoker knows is about three-fourths of what he pays the tobacconist, the sum of nearly £10,000,000 represents the worth of the tobacco in the Victoria Dock."
(Originally published as Local Studies Notes No. 65 by Newham library service)