St. Katherine's Docks

Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'St. Katherine's Docks', Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878), pp. 117-121. British History Online [accessed 17 June 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "St. Katherine's Docks", in Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878) 117-121. British History Online, accessed June 17, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "St. Katherine's Docks", Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878). 117-121. British History Online. Web. 17 June 2024,

In this section



St. Katherine's Hospital—Its Royal Benefactors in Former Times—The Fair on Tower Hill—Seizure of the Hospital Revenues at the Reformation—The Dreadful Fire of 1672—Three Luckless Gordon Rioters—St. Katherine's Church—The only Preferment in the Right of the Queen Consort—St. Katherine's Docks—Unloading Ships there—Labourers employed in them—Applicants for Work at the Docks—A Precarious Living—Contrasts.

Before entering the gate of St. Katherine's Docks, where great samples of the wealth of London await our inspection, we must first make a brief mention of the old hospital that was pulled down in 1827, to make a fresh pathway for London commerce. This hospital was originally founded in 1148 by Matilda of Boulogne, wife of the usurper Stephen, for the repose of the souls of her son Baldwin and her daughter Matilda, and for the maintenance of a master and several poor brothers and sisters. In 1273, Eleanor, widow of Henry III., dissolved the old foundation, and refounded it, in honour of the same saint, for a master, three brethren, chaplains, three sisters, ten bedeswomen, and six poor scholars. Opposed to this renovation, Pope Urban IV., by a bull, endeavoured in vain to reinstate the expelled prior and brotherhood, who had purloined the goods and neglected their duties. And here, in the same reign, lived that great alchemist, Raymond Lully, whom Edward III. employed in the Tower to try and discover for him the secret of transmutation.

Another great benefactress of the hospital was the brave woman, Philippa of Hainault, wife of that terror of France, Edward III. She founded a chantry and gave houses in Kent and Herts to the charity, and £10 in lands per annum for an additional chaplain.

In after years Henry V. confirmed the annual £10 of Queen Philippa for the endowment of the chantries of St. Fabian and St. Sebastian, and his son Henry VI. was likewise a benefactor to St. Katherine's Hospital. But the great encourager of the charity was Thomas de Bekington, afterwards Bishop of Bath and Wells, who, being master of the hospital in the year 1445, obtained a charter of privileges, to help the revenue. By this charter the precincts of the hospital were declared free from all jurisdiction, civil or ecclesiastical, except that of the Lord Chancellor. To help the funds, an annual fair was to be held on Tower Hill, to last twenty-one days from the feast of St. James. The district had a special spiritual and a temporal court.

Henry VIII. and Katherine of Arragon founded in this place the guild or fraternity of St. Barbara, which was governed by a master and three wardens, and included in its roll Cardinal Wolsey, the Dukes of Norfolk and Buckingham, the Earls of Shrewsbury and Northumberland, and their ladies. In 1526 the king confirmed the liberties and franchise of this house, which even escaped dissolution in 1534, in compliment, it has been supposed, to Queen Anne Boleyn, whom the king had then lately married.

In the reign of Edward VI., however, all the meshes of the Reformers' nets grew smaller. Now the small fry had all been caught, the lands of St. Katherine's Hospital were taken possession of by the Crown. Greediness and avarice soon had their eye on the hospital; and in the reign of Elizabeth, Dr. Thomas Wylson, her secretary, becoming the master, surrendered up the charter of Henry VI., and craftily obtained a new one, which left out any mention of the liberty of the fair on Tower Hill. He then sold the rights of the said fair to the Corporation of London for £466 13s. 4d. He next endeavoured to secure all the hospital estates, when the parishioners of the precinct began to cry aloud to Secretary Cecil, and stopped the plunderer's hand.

In 1672 a dreadful fire destroyed one hundred houses in the precincts, and another fire during a great storm in 1734 destroyed thirty buildings. During the Gordon riots of 1780 a Protestant mob, headed by Macdonald, a lame soldier, and two women—one a white and one a negro—armed with swords, were about to demolish the church, as being built in Popish times, when the gentlemen of the London Association arrived, and prevented the demolition. Macdonald and the two women were afterwards hanged for this at a temporary gallows on Tower Hill.

The church pulled down to make way for the docks (religion elbowed off by commerce) in 1825, was an interesting Gothic building, (exclusive of the choir) 69 feet long, 60 feet broad. The altar was pure Gothic, and the old stalls, of 1340–69, were curiously carved with grotesque and fanciful monsters; the organ, by Green, was a fine one, remarkable for its swell; and the pulpit, given by Sir Julius Cæsar (James I., vide our chapter on Chancery Lane), was a singular example of bad taste. Round the six sides ran the following inscription:—

"Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which he had made for the preachin."—Neh. viii. 4.

The chief tombs were those of John Holland, Duke of Exeter, his duchess, and sister. This duke fought in France in the wars of Henry VI., and died in 1447. He was High Admiral of England and Ireland, and Constable of the Tower. We shall describe his tomb when we come to it in Regent's Park, in the transplanted hospital, where it now is. Gibbon, the herald, an ancestor of the great historian, was also buried here.

The Queen Consorts of England are by law the perpetual patronesses of this hospital, with unlimited power. This is the only preferment in the gift of the Queen Consort. When there is no Queen Consort, the Queen Dowager has the right of nomination. The business of the establishment and appointment of subordinate officers is transacted in chapter by the master, brothers, and sisters. Among the eminent masters of this hospital we may mention Sir Julius Caesar, Sir Robert Ayton, a poet of the time of Charles I., and the Hon. George Berkeley, husband of Mrs. Howard, the mistress of George II. A curious MS. list of plate and jewels, in the Harleian Library, quoted by Dr. Ducarel, shows that the hospital possessed some altarcloths and vestments of cloth of gold and crimson velvet, green damask copes, and silken coats, for the image of St. Katherine. The Duke of Exeter left the church a beryl cup, garnished with gold and precious stones, a gold chalice, eleven silver candlesticks, &c., for the priests of his chantry chapel.

St. Katherine's Docks were begun in 1827, and publicly opened in 1828—a Herculean bit of work, performed with a speed and vigour unusual even to English enterprise.

The site of the docks, immediately below the Tower of London, is bounded on the north by East Smithfield, on the west and south by Tower Hill and Foss-side Road, while on the east they are separated from the London Docks by Nightingale Lane. The amount of capital originally raised by shares was between one and two million pounds, and was borrowed on the security of the rates to be received by the Company, for the liquidation of which debt a sinking fund was formed. Independently of the space actually occupied by the docks and warehouses, the Company possess freehold waterside property of the value of £100,000, which they were obliged to purchase by the terms of the Act of parliament, and which yields a large annual rental, capable of very considerable improvement. In clearing the ground for this magnificent speculation, 1,250 houses and tenements were purchased and pulled down—no less than 11,300 inhabitants having to seek accommodation elsewhere.

The area thus obtained was about 24 acres, of which 11½ acres are devoted to wet docks. The first stone was laid on the 3rd of May, 1827, and upwards of 2,500 men were employed on the work of construction from day to day.

The second ship that entered was the Mary, 343 tons, a Russian trader. She was laden with every description of Russian produce, and exhibited on board the pleasing spectacle of forty veteran pensioners from Greenwich, all of whom had served under Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar.

The permanent establishment of persons employed about the dock was for a long time only 100 officers and 120 labourers.

The last report of the Company in June, 1873, showed the earnings for six months had been £546,345 11s. 1d.; the expenditure (exclusive of interest on debenture stock, &c.) to have been £348,479 11s. 2d.; showing a half-year's balance of £197,865 19s. 11d. The number of loaded foreign ships which had entered the docks during the previous six months had been 696, measuring 468,629 tons. The goods landed had been 261,117 tons, and the stock of goods in the warehouses was 309,819 tons.

Mr. Mayhew, in his "London Labour," has some valuable notes on the unloading of ships in these docks, and on the labourers employed for that purpose:—

"The lofty walls,"says Mr. Mayhew, "which constitute it, in the language of the Custom House, a place of special security, enclose an area capable of accommodating 120 ships, besides barges and other craft.

"Cargoes are raised into the warehouses out of the hold of a ship without the goods being deposited on the quay. The cargoes can be raised out of the ship's hold into the warehouses of St. Katherine's in one-fifth of the usual time. Before the existence of docks, a month or six weeks was taken up in discharging the cargo of an East Indiaman of from 800 to 1,200 tons burden; while eight days were necessary in the summer, and fourteen in the winter, to unload a ship of 350 tons. At St. Katherine's, however, the average time now occupied in discharging a ship of 250 tons is twelve hours, and one of 500 tons two or three days, the goods being placed at the same time in the warehouse. There have been occasions when even greater dispatch has been used, and a cargo of 1,100 casks of tallow, averaging from 9 cwt. to 10 cwt. each, has been discharged in seven hours. This would have been considered little short of a miracle on the legal quays less than fifty years ago. In 1841, about 1,000 vessels and 10,000 lighters were accommodated at St. Katherine's Dock. The capital expended by the dock company exceeds £2,000,000 of money.

"The business of this establishment is carried on by 35 officers, 105 clerks and apprentices, 135 markers, samplers, and foremen, 250 permanent labourers, 150 preferable ticket labourers, proportioned to the amount of work to be done. The average number of labourers employed on any one day, in 1860, was 1,713, and the lowest number 515; so that the extreme fluctuation in the labour appears to be very nearly 1,200 hands. The lowest sum of money that was paid in 1848 for the day's work of the entire body of labourers employed was £64 7s. 6d., and the highest sum £214 2s. 6d.; being a difference of very nearly £150 in one day, or £900 in the course of the week. The average number of ships that enter the dock every week is 17; the highest number that entered in any one week in 1860 was 36, and the lowest 5, being a difference of 31. Assuming these to have been of an average burden of 300 tons, and that every such vessel would require 100 labourers to discharge its cargo in three days, then 1,500 extra hands ought to have been engaged to discharge the cargoes of the entire number in a week. This, it will be observed, is very nearly equal to the highest number of the labourers employed by the Company in the year 1848."

"Those persons," says Mr. Mayhew, "who are unable to live by the occupation to which they have been educated, can obtain a living there without any previous training. Hence we find men of every calling labouring at the docks. There are decayed and bankrupt master butchers, master bakers, publicans, grocers, old soldiers, old sailors, Polish refugees, broken-down gentlemen, discharged lawyers' clerks, suspended Government clerks, almsmen, pensioners, servants, thieves—indeed, every one who wants a loaf and is willing to work for it. The London dock is one of the few places in the metropolis where men can get employment without either character or recommendation; so that the labourers employed there are naturally a most incongruous assembly. Each of the docks employs several hundred hands to ship and discharge the cargoes of the numerous vessels that enter; and as there are some six or seven of such docks attached to the metropolis, it may be imagined how large a number of individuals are dependent on them for their subsistence."

The dock-work, says Mr. Mayhew, speaking of the dock labourers, whom he especially observed, may be divided into three classes. 1. Wheel-work, or that which is moved by the muscles of the legs and weight of the body. 2. Jigger, or winch-work, or that which is moved by the muscles of the arm. In each of these the labourer is stationary; but in the truck-work, which forms the third class, the labourer has to travel over a space of ground greater or less in proportion to the distance which the goods have to be removed.

The wheel-work is performed somewhat on the principle of the tread-wheel, with the exception that the force is applied inside, instead of outside, the wheel. From six to eight men enter a wooden cylinder or drum, upon which are nailed battens; and the men, laying hold of ropes, commence treading the wheel round, occasionally singing the while, and stamping time in a manner that is pleasant from its novelty. The wheel is generally about sixteen feet in diameter, and eight to nine feet broad; and the six or eight men treading within it will lift from sixteen to eighteen hundredweight, and often a ton, forty times an hour, an average of twenty-seven feet high. Other men will get out a cargo of from 800 to 900 casks of wine, each cask averaging about five hundredweight, and being lifted about eighteen feet, in a day and a half. At trucking, each man is said to go on an average thirty miles a day, and two-thirds of that time he is moving one and a-half hundredweight, at six miles and a-half per hour.

This labour, though requiring to be seen to be properly understood, must still appear so arduous, that one would imagine it was not of that tempting nature that 3,000 men could be found every day in London desperate enough to fight and battle for the privilege of getting two-and-sixpence by it; and even if they fail in "getting taken on" at the commencement of the day, that they should then retire to the appointed yard, there to remain hour after hour in the hope that the wind might blow them some stray ship, so that other gangs might be wanted, and the calling foreman seek them there. It is a curious sight to see the men waiting in these yards to be hired at fourpence an hour, for such are the terms given in the after part of the day. There, seated on long benches ranged round the wall, they remain, some telling their miseries and some their crimes to one another, whilst others doze away their time. Rain or sunshine, there can always be found plenty to catch the stray shilling or eightpence. By the size of the shed you can tell how many men sometimes remain there in the pouring rain, rather than lose the chance of the stray hour's work. Some loiter on the bridges close by, and presently, as their practised eye or ear tells them that the calling foreman is in want of another gang, they rush forward in a stream towards the gate, though only six or eight at most can be hired out of the hundred or more that are waiting there. Again the same mad fight takes place as in the morning.



If you put the vessels belonging to the port of London at 3,000, and the steamers at 250 or 300, and the crews of which at 35,000 men and boys, it will be seen that the dock labourers required must be very numerous. Mr. Mayhew calculated that beside the great wealth of our docks there flows a parallel current of misery: a single day's east wind sometimes deprives 2,500 dock labourers of a day's living. He puts the men of this class at about 12,000 (it is, perhaps, even more now), and proves that their wages collectively vary from £1,500 a day to £500, and that 8,000 men are even thrown out of employ by a wind that prevents vessels coming. It is a terrible proof how many of our population live on the very brink of starvation, and toil, like men in a leaky boat, only to keep off death.

In no single spot of London, not even at the Bank, could so vivid an impression of the vast wealth of England be obtained as at the Docks. Here roll casks of Burgundy, as they rolled in the reign of Edward III., on the eve of Poictiers; and there by their side are chests of tea, marked all over with turnpike-gate characters, fresh from an empire where no English factory existed till the year 1680, after many unsuccessful efforts to baffle Portuguese jealousy; and near them are bales of exquisite silk from Yokohama—a place hardly safe for Englishmen till 1865. So our commerce has grown like the Jin, who arose from the leaden bottle, till it has planted one foot on Cape Horn and another on the Northern Pole. "How long will it continue to grow?" says the mournful philosopher. Our answer is, "As long as honour and truthfulness are the base of English trade; as long as freedom reigns in England; as long as our religion is Protestant, and our Saxon nature energetic, patient, brave, and God-fearing."