London's Lost Docks [DVD]
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(Oct 01, 2009)
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The London Docks was the busiest commercial port in the world. The Thames was packed with ships of all descriptions heading for the docks - the gateway to the Empire. The quaysides and wharves hummed with activity, and the clang of metal filled the ship repair yards. By the 1980s, this world had been swept away and transformed beyond all recognition. Using unseen archive film, this is the story of the docks, and of the people who lived and worked there.
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A lot of the footage is very "noisy" and unclear, some due to its age, but the poor quality of the 1980s aeriel footage seems difficult to explain.
The DVD starts off with an aeriel tour of the river and the remains of the docks on the north bank as they were in the 1980s. It starts with a look at Tower Bridge and traffic passing through the open bridge, including some terrific paddle steamers. It then goes on to show recordings of Port of London Authority tours into the Royal Docks. I had no idea that the PLA did pleasure tours of the docks, and they must have been terrific. Again, it is very fuzzy but it is excellent to see swing and lift bridges in motion, tug boats moving into position, barges and lighters, and the endless lines of commercial ships up against the quays and the vast cranes. A stunning black and white film from the 30s shot from the paddle steamer Isle of Arran by a cine society shows a hand-operated lighter in action, sailing barges on the Thames, tugs and Thames scenery before moving into the Royal Docks where various ships can be seen. Next, horse-drawn barges are shown from the 1920s on the Regent's Canal, a lock is shown being filled, a fabulous tram and other 20s vehicles are captured at Whitechapel, tracts of East End housing are glimpsed and scenes from Billingsgate fish market are excellent. Next, the train systems of the Beckton gasworks, Woolwich and PLA bases are shown. The Woolwich ferries are then put under the spotlight, with colour footage of the remarkable paddle steamers built between 1920 and 1930. 1959 footage shows trolley buses, in colour, at Woolwich. Paddle steamer enthusiasts will not be disappointed. Golden Eagle is shown on a run down to Southend, in black and white, and Medway Queen is shown briefly too, as are the Duke of Devonshire (renamed Consul) and the lovely Queen of the South.
The DVD wraps up with the film by Lewis Coles. Lewis Coles was a Kodak cameraman and a film that he shot in the late 1950s is the longest of the pieces on the DVD, starting at Westminster and recording dock scenes along the way, as far as Tilbury. It is also the best record of the docks on the DVD. The quality of the film is fairly good, and the scenes shown are terrific, capturing the everyday scenes of life in the docks, ships moving in and out of the docks and at berth, some being loaded and unloaded, steam blowing in the wind, empty barges nudged out of the way by the ubiquitous tugs, timber on quays, bridges opening, cranes and trains, and smoke everywhere. It is truly fascinating to see all the shapes and sizes of barges, boats and ships that were still using the Thames in the late 50s.
The narration provides top-level information about what the footage records, including ship names, ship functions and key landmarks. However, for the Lewis Coles film, no commentary is provided as the DVD makers decided to allow the film to speak for itself. Sadly the quality isn't quite good enough for me to make out the names of some of the ships, so a bit of narration (or opt-out subtitles) might have helped with that.
The emphasis is less on the docks than on the Thames, but apart from a brief look at pleasure steamers, the emphasis is squarely on commercial traffic. For those expecting to see a variety of docks, the Royal Docks are most heavily represented and others, like the Surrey Commercial Docks, are only shown in the Lewis Coles film.
The quality of the film generally isn't very good, but the fact that it exists at all is great, and it is well worth viewing. For someone who only moved into the area 20 years ago, this is all sadly long gone. The Surrey Commercial Docks were closed only a few years after I was born. Although I have many books about the area, there is nothing like seeing what something is like in motion. It's the next best thing to a time machine. I enjoyed it enormously, although not without regrets for things lost.
Its running time is 55 minutes.