Regeneration in the 1970s – 1990s


Brian Redhead presenting Southwark Council's plans for Rotherhithe on Thames News in the late 1970s

Brian Redhead presenting Southwark Council’s plans for Rotherhithe on Thames News in the late 1970s

Ian Greeves in his book London Docks 1800-1980 says that of the various plans for Rotherhithe after the docks closed, there had been four serious contenders: A rail terminal for the Channel Tunnel, a trade mart, a venue for the 1988 Olympics and an airport for vertical take-off aircraft.

Under Council Leader John O’Grady, however, Southwark Council decided to retain South Dock and Greenland Docks, whilst mixing residential and light industrial usage, together with the provision of a shopping centre.  They had already made several advances in that direction in the 1970s, when the government decided that the London Docklands Development Corporation should take over the development of the docks.  Thames News covered the story (available on YouTube), giving Southwark Council officers the opportunity to demonstrate what had already been achieved and describe their future plans in a programme called Southwark’s Pride (circa 1978).  Journalist Brian Redhead presented the show in which an impressive amount of work already completed was introduced.  It was explained how drains and sewers had been put in, new housing had already been erected with more planned, and an area of open space (now Russia Dock Woodland) had been built into the plan.  Greenland Dock was to be the recreational centre for the area and Rotherhithe peninsula was to become “a super area.”  The land had been purchased in three packages, with Greenland and South Docks purchased in 1976 for £2 million.  Ian Greeves in the above-mentioned book says that it had already been decided that South Dock should offer a combination of moorings and housing.  By 1977  the Surrey Commercial estate had been fully purchased by the council.  In the above video, the Borough Architect Leon Robinson described how experience from other large housing areas was being incorporated to build “low rise homes with individual gardens” rather than tower blocks “where families seem to be dispersed in the sky” and emphasized the importance of building communities for families and incorporating open spaces and places for children to play.  The oldest residents were given the first opportunity to take up the new homes should they want to.

South Dock before development

A view of South Dock not long before it was developed, as it as featured in Thames News on television at the time (see below).

The proposals were not without opposition.  In a Thames News television report now available on YouTube, the presenter explains how Southwark Council’s preferred option (by now a familiar phrase to local residents today) was to restore the existing buildings, fill in South Dock and build 300,000 sq ft of new industrial units.  The councillor interviewed said that what they needed was new jobs, not “a playground for the rich.”  He argued, understandably, that the most sensible option should be to build on the area’s industrial past, to develop it.  The footage of South Dock on the video is interesting in its own right, but it is also a very useful piece of political history of the area.

The Council lost the fight to retain control of the development on the land it had purchased, and the plans passed into the hands of the London Docklands Development Corporation.  The LDDC built on the Council’s vision, believing that it was possible to change the market’s perception of the area and “overcome the disadvantages of the location” to become a successful enterprise.  Looking at South Dock today, and listening to the arguments about a new development that seeks to maximize the value of the Thames-side location, it is educational to realize that the location of the Surrey Docks were ever considered to be a disadvantage for residential development.  The LDDC got it right, although I can completely understand the opposing case.

LDDC press releases about the development of Surrey Quays. An index from the LDDC website.

LDDC press releases about the development of Surrey Quays. An index from the LDDC History Pages website.

The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), which operated between 1981 and 1994, had already achieved success in its Canary Wharf developments on the Isle of Dogs, converting it into a high rise base for businesses, in spite of considerable opposition from local residents.  Their work at Rotherhithe followed that success, but thankfully they envisioned it as a very different proposition from what they had achieved at Canary Wharf.

Although the LDDC had few financial resources of its own it did own land and was therefore in a position to work closely with developers to regenerate the barren landscape that followed the docks.  A lot of surrounding post-war buildings were abandoned and completely derelict, and these were knocked down by the LDDC.  The vision for Rotherhithe was rather different from its plans for the Isle of Dogs, and focused primarily on the development of the area for residential purposes, with some light industry and a new mall-style retail centre.  The entire concept was in direct contrast to the tower blocks of Canary Wharf, and was instead conceived as a low-rise light-filled area with open green zones, a woodland park with an open green, water features, wide paths, and cycle tracks, and an ecological park.  Together they cross from one part of Rotherhithe to the other and are much loved by residents.  Many of the surviving features of Rotherhithe’s ship-building and dockland heritage were restored and integrated into both residential and green areas and some were Grade 2 listed.  As Brian Edwards says in London Docklands, the character is “more village-like than urban.”

Harbour Master's office

Harbour Master’s office

South Dock, enclosing a considerable body of water, was considered to have potential attraction for residents.  Wide open areas of water, redolent of peace and full of reflective light, are  always attractive to people looking for peace and quiet near London.  But at the same time, the LDDC realized that South Dock had the potential to combine both residential and commercial functions.

With a view to supporting the marina, one of the LDDC’s first projects at South Dock was to commission the lock control building, which overlooks the hydraulically operated lock at South Dock.  Built by Conran Roche between 1986-9 it looks remarkably like a very short air traffic control tower with a bowed control room and reflective glass, on a cantilevered pedestal.  A boat yard was established along what is now the Thames Path, providing a hard-standing for ship renovation and repair.   The marina was provided with berths for both residential and non-residential boat owners and was swiftly populated with a fascinating mosaic of different boat types, all shapes and sizes.

South Dock in the 1990s

South Dock in the 1990s

London had long been in need of a decent sized marina, for both temporary and residential moorings, along with the boatyard services that would support not only the marina but other vessels using the Thames.  In 1988 the LDDC put out a tender for the development of the marina.   The results were announced on September 22nd 1988, and the job was given to Skillion PLC (with Marina Holdings Ltd, which had been successful at Hoo Marina in Gillingham, and Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners).   It goes on to say “South Dock Harbour will be the first fully serviced commercial marina in Docklands.  The total development will bring exceptional recreation and leisure facilities to the people who live, work in and visit the surrey Docks, and generate significant employment.”

The 1988 press release mentioned above talks about two Edwardian buildings, a canal office and the PLA Police station.  It is likely that the canal office is the tiny 1902 building on Rope Street, which sits on the old path of the Grand Surrey Canal, but I have so far been unable to find where the PLA Police Station was located or what it looked like.  the LDDC press release makes it clear that the intention was for the building to be preserved but I can find no details as to why this didn’t happen.  More research required!

Residential developments were also swift to follow the LDDC’s appointment.  Their masterplan included the imposition of limits on the height of the buildings surrounding Greenland and South Docks.  Thames-facing developments could be built to eight storeys, whilst inner developments could not exceed four.  Brian Edwards explains that the objective was “one of forming focal points and entrances into the area,”  the outcome of which was to encourage movement throughout the area and between the new housing developments.

The South Dock warehouses on the downriver side along Plough Way as they were in the 1990s. Photo (with permission) from the Wibbly Wobbly.

The South Dock warehouses on the downriver side along Plough Way as they were in the 1990s. Photo (with permission) from the Wibbly Wobbly.

One of the earliest residential building developments was Baltic Quay at the end of South Dock.  People purchasing apartments in the landmark building must have been taking a huge gamble on the potential success of the Rotherhithe venture, with the ugly derelict 1950s or 60s warehouses  still standing, great gaping eyesores amidst the optimism of the LDDC’s plans for regeneration.  These warehouses on the east side of the dock were still in place when the London Docklands Development Corporation began to redevelop South Dock.  Falling on the Deptford side of the Southwark-Deptford border, which ran along the eastern side of South Dock’s quay, they fell outside of the London Docklands Development Corporation’s dockland regeneration remit, and were therefore not knocked down until some time after other derelict warehouses had been demolished.  Although the docks themselves were closed to shipping in 1969, many of the warehouses continued in use, and some of the South Dock warehouses were employed as bonded warehouses.  Containers of goods were delivered and stored there prior to distribution.  The photograph above shows the warehouses as they were shortly before they were abandoned, but they were much worse in the early 90s when I first saw them with wide hollow entrances to the starkly desolate and rather alarming wind-tunnel interiors, their floors covered in debris and shattered glass, broken windows rattling in the wind.


Baltic Quay

The Baltic Quay complex was built by Lister Drew Haines Barrow, opening in 1990. Visible from miles around and always recognizable due to its vast arched roofs, it is probably the most distinctive and imaginative of all the tall buildings on Rotherhithe. When it was built it was envisaged as a combination of office space, studios and shops with apartments above, but the demand for residential space far exceeded that of commercial offices and, apart from the ground floor, the office space was converted for residential use by Barlow Henley Architects.   Eventually the office space on the ground floor was also converted to apartments.  Baltic Quay will be covered on another post.  Contrary to the 1980s masterplan’s guideline for buildings not to exceed four storeys, it reaches fourteen storeys. Its external steel metalwork was first painted  in a lively combination of blue and yellow, making it bright and welcoming, but more recent counsel clearly decided that this was a bad idea and it is now uniformly pale grey. The photograph here shows it after it was given its London-grey colouring.

Swedish Quays

Swedish Quays

On the West side, with views overlooking both South Dock and Greenland Dock, a smaller and very different complex was built between 1985  and 1990 by David Price and Gordon Cullen, named Swedish Quays.  Although rather more conservative than Baltic Quay, mainly due to its smaller scale, its brick construction and deep brown colouring, it still stands out as something somewhat different from the normal bricks-and-mortar style the dominates dockland and canal-side developments throughout the country thanks to its cream rendering, tall columns, interestingly arranged glass panels, arched windows at the top of the buildings and something of an echo, however elusive, of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  The complex is entered via gates that lead into courtyard areas with trees and gardens.  The architects were so pleased with their achievement that they installed stone plaques flanking the entrance with their company  name and the build date.

Winsock Close

Winsock Close

When the warehouses on the east side of the dock (shown above) were pulled down, they were replaced with the three-storey residential complex that remains today, overlooking South Dock on the one side and leading off Plough Way on the other (shown on the above before-and-after photograph). These are now Winsock Close and Transom Close.

Opposite, the complex known locally as Rainbow Quay was added next to Swedish Quays on the upriver side of the dock on Rope Street.

When the LDDC had completed its work it handed over the reigns to the London Borough of Southwark.  Responsibilities were officially transferred at midnight on 19th/20th December 1996.

Later, three-floor apartments were built over their garages behind the dock office at the Thames end of Rope Street. Their appearance, with facades consisting of  wood-lined curved bays on the two lower floors and top recessed floors above, are unusual and not to everyone’s taste, but they are wonderfully distinctive and contribute diversity to the array of local architecture.


The Thames end of Rope Street

Rainbow Quay

The Rainbow Quay apartments on Rope Street

South Dock Marina crane

South Dock Marina crane

Balitc Quay in the days when the metalwork was still painted yellow

Balitc Quay in the days when the metalwork was still painted yellow