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St Katharine Docks
St Katharine's Way, London, UK
associated engineer
Thomas Telford
Ove Arup & Partners
date  3rd May 1826 - 25th October 1829, September 1970 - 1981, 1995 - 1997
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Docks/Slipway  |  reference  TQ338804
ICE reference number  HEW 58
St Katharine Docks are the furthest upstream of all the London historic docks, located on the north bank of the River Thames just east of Tower Bridge. Much of the docks and surviving buildings are Grade II listed. The area and its buildings were redeveloped in the 1970s and 1980s but the dock structures remain.
The St Katharine Docks site occupies about 10 hectares. The massive excavations necessary for the project displaced some 1,250 households and required the demolition of St Katharine’s Hospital (founded 1148) and the 14th century St Katharine’s Church. Thomas Telford (1757-1834) designed the docks, as he said, with the idea of reducing "Lighterage and Pilferage", and indeed they were surrounded by large wall. The docks are Telford’s only London project.
Telford and architect Thomas Hardwick (1792-1870) prepared the scheme in 1824, and St. Katharine Dock Company obtained an Act of Parliament in June 1825. Contractors began excavating in May 1826 and completed excavation in 18 months, using up to 2,500 labourers. The construction work took only two and a half years, despite failure of the river cofferdam in 1827.
The docks and quays are founded on gravel, so Telford had the excavation lined with "artificial concrete" — one part blue lias lime and eight parts coarse sand — 300mm thick. The masonry walls of the docks are built with integral counterforts (internal buttresses) and are founded on caulked timber sheet piles 4.3m long and 230mm thick. The masonry was pointed and grouted to ensure its watertightness.
The complex consists of an entrance lock with gates, an entrance basin and two main docks, one to the west (opened 1828) and one to the east (1829), each covering 1.6 hectares. The two docks were surrounded by six large brick warehouses (completed 1852), built right on the dock edges, with colonades of massive cast iron Tuscan columns around their perimeters. Also in 1829, a new quay was built on the river frontage for steamboats. The Dockmaster's House stands on the east side of the entrance lock, and a purpose-built office building for the Dock Company stood in the northwest corner (now gone).
The entrance lock is 54.9m long, 13.7m wide and 7.6m deep. Its three pairs of gates leads from the river to the 0.8 hectare entrance basin. The entrance lock is constructed in brick with hollow masonry quoins for the gate posts.
To maximise the number of ships passing through, this lock was kept filled with water using six double-action pumps driven by two 60kW Watt steam engines working inside an engine house on the east bank of the lock. The pumps were 900mm diameter, with a 1.4m stroke. Water was drawn through a 1.1m diameter pipe from a 2.4m diameter masonry lined well, fed from the river by an enclosed masonry culvert 51.8m long, 2.4m wide and 2m high. This was laid 600mm below the low water spring tide level.
Hardwick's original six-storey warehouses each measured 143m long, 42.7m wide and 22.9m high, with storage vaults below ground. Their proximity to the edge of the quays speeded up transfer of loads between dock and ship. Inside, timber floors supported on grids of cruciform cast iron columns were used above the brick groin-vaulted sub-floors.
The warehouses continued to be modified and replaced during the working life of the complex. The main warehouse that can be seen today is Ivory House (warehouse I), which dates from 1860 and was designed by George Aitchison Snr (1825-1910).
The docks handled luxury goods, including tea, wine, spices, rubber, wool, marble, ivory, shells, feathers and perfumes. But the main commodities were tea and wool and at the time London handled some 40 percent of Britain's wool trade. The entrance lock, basin, west dock and associated warehouses opened to trade on 25th October 1828, and the east dock opened exactly a year later.
A 7.3m wide cast iron horizontal-swing bridge was built over the entrance lock, though no trace now remains. Another bridge, a wrought iron footbridge built in October 1829 by Thomas Rhodes (1789-1868), was located between the basin and the east dock. When ships needed access, the two halves of the bridge were withdrawn into recesses in the masonry abutments. The bridge remained in place until 1993, when it was moved a short distance and conserved (still in use but not as a retracting bridge).
The whole area was badly damaged during World War II (1939-45). Hardwick's and Aitchison's warehouses were damaged, many beyond repair. The east basin suffered the worst damage and most of its buildings were subsequently demolished. The company office building was also destroyed. In 1957, the entrance lock was rebuilt with new gates.
The docks had been designed for sailing ships and with the advent of larger steam ships, and then container vessels, the relatively small size of St Katharine Docks proved impractical. The development of huge Tilbury Docks in the 1960s sealed their fate. As trade had dwindled, St Katharine Docks was used as a storage depot. By 1968, when the docks closed, there were 116,000 sq m of warehouse space.
The Port of London Authority sold the whole complex to the Greater London Council for £1.7m. In 1969, the council granted a 125 year lease to Taylor Woodrow, specifying a mixed use development. This became the first regeneration scheme carried out post-War on a redundant dock complex. Several buildings were retained, notably the Dockmaster’s House, and Ivory House, but three warehouses on the west dock were not considered economically viable and were demolished.
Work began in September 1970. Engineer for the project was Ove Arup & Partners, working with architect Renton Howard Wood Levin Associates (now RHWL). The development included a new hotel, offices, apartments, shops and restaurants.
The east dock was finally redeveloped in 1995-7, also under the guidance of architect RHWL, who now occupy offices in Ivory House.
Architect (first six warehouses): Philip Hardwick
Architect: George Aitchison Snr
Architect (1970 onwards): Renton Howard Wood Levin Associates (RHWL)
Resident engineer (1825-8): Peter Logan
Resident engineer (1828): John Hall
Resident engineer (1828-30): Thomas Rhodes
Assistant resident engineer (1826-8): Thomas Rhodes
Contractor (docks): George Burge
Contractor (excavation and warehouses): Bennett & Hunt
Contractor (1970-81): Taylor Woodrow
Lock and dock gates original machinery: Joseph Bramah & Sons
Research: ECPK
"Concrete in the redevelopment of St. Katharine Docks" by Cheryl Davis, Taylor Woodrow Services Ltd, in Concrete Construction, May 1981
"St. Katharine Docks" by Thomas Telford, in Life of Telford, Vol.1, pp.148-159, January 1838
"St. Katharine Docks Conservation Plan" by TFT Cultural Heritage, prepared for St Katharine's Investments LP, November 2005
reference sources   CEH Lond

St Katharine Docks