White Hart Dock | Boat sculptures pay tribute to a lost riverside hub
Today, wooden boat structures give a clue to the hidden dock, which has existed in some form for centuries.
The River Thames has always been the life blood of London, but before the rise of motor vehicles, it was a dominant way to travel. The river was a hub of industry and transport, with factories, wharf, docks and stairs lining its quaysides. As our demands on the river changed in the latter half of the 20th century, the volume of wharfs and docks has dramatically shrunk.
One remaining dock that has managed to survive is White Hart Dock in Vauxhall. With a road separating the dock from the Thames, it would be easy to miss it if you walked past. However, today there are modern boat sculptures giving a clue to what lurks behind. Situated at the junction of the Albert Embankment and Black Prince Road, there has been a dock or slipway at the site since the 14th or 15th century. On a 1767 map, White Hart Stairs are marked just a short distance south from the famous Horse Ferry embarkation, an ancient river crossing. At the time, Black Prince Road was named Lambeth Butts and led from White Hart Stairs to Kennington Palace (which existed from 12th to 16th century). By the early 19th century, the riverside end of Lambeth Butts had become Broad Street, with White Hart Stairs a popular drop off for water transport.
In 1868, the Albert Embankment was constructed by London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, creating a riverside road and walkway and allowing for the construction of piers for the many large-scale industrial premises, along with improving flood defences for the regularly flooded Lambeth. Prior to construction, White Hart Dock was a draw dock, but was rebuilt facing south. With the main road in between the dock and the Thames, boats would have to pass at an angle at low tide to access it (see a 1872 photo of the newly-built Albert Embankment with the tunnel leading to the dock). Around the same time, many other inland docks were built for Lambeth and Vauxhall factories, including the Royal Doulton potteries. It is believed the White Hart Dock served the Lambeth and Salamanca soap works, although was deemed for public use.
To those disembarking at White Hart Dock in the mid 1800s, one of the first things they would see was the enticing Crowley’s Alton Ale Wharf. The pub chain was run by the Alton Brewery, founded by a Quaker family from Alton, Hampshire. The Crowleys were early pioneers of the traditional pub lunch, offering a glass of ale and a sandwich for 4 pence. Charles Dickens had commented on the popularity of Crowley’s Ale Houses throughout England. Their signature offering grew so famous, the Crowleys had to take out an advert warning Londoners that the Ale Wharf at Vauxhall was their only genuine London branch, accusing rivals of opening “ale and sandwich” venues. (Check out a 1869 photo of the Crowley’s Alton Ale Wharf overlooking White Hart Dock).
The dock’s decline began in the 20th century as industry started to move away from the river. During World War II, the dock was used as an Emergency Water Supply, with the letters EWS still visible today on a sign from the period. In 1960, the local council Lambeth sought parliamentary powers to close White Hart Dock as it hadn’t been used by commercial vehicles for many years. However, the closure was never realised, but the dock continued to lay unused.
After decades of neglect and uselessness, in 2004 Berkeley Homes purchased the land adjacent to the dock for development of a luxury apartment block. It was agreed, the surrounding environment should be enhanced, including White Hart Dock. A public art panel was established and the public invited to give feedback on six shortlisted proposals for the space. Sheffield artists Handspring Design won the commission with their ornamental boat-themed sculptures in 2009. Made of sustainably sourced, FSC English oak, the dock is now crowned by bow-like arches, with boat shaped benches facing the river. The dock itself is enclosed by high brick walls, with flood gates at one end. Peering over the walls you can see the slipway and under road tunnels leading to the river.
- White Hart Dock, junction of Albert Embankment and Black Prince Road, Vauxhall, SE1 7SP. Nearest station: Vauxhall. To find out more about the artwork, visit the White Hart Dock website.
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