Back in the 80’s when the Docklands Light Railway was new, a favourite weekend outing was on the toy-town trains to see the strange new world emerging from the urban wasteland. If asked, I would have told you that, whilst there was some housing, there were no surviving industrial buildings. Turns out that I was wrong; two warehouses survived the blitz and now part of one of them has been transformed into the Docklands branch of the Museum of London. Without the Thames and the trade that she brings there would have been no London and this is the story told in the old sugar warehouse.
Barrels were essential to trade in the days before the cardboard box. Big watertight, hogshead ones for liquids and smaller, airier ones for ginger. A selection of barrels and all the winching paraphernalia needed to move large amounts of stuff from one place to another kick of the displays. As you go around there are many buttons to click to keep the Junior CW’s amused. Sugar maybe sweet but the uncomfortable reality is that the growth in the sugar trade went hand-in-hand with the growth of the slave trade. One gallery is devoted to telling this horrible story. Our arrival at the spice story section coincided with the start of a free talk, so we were treated to animated and interesting tales of cinnamon and tea.
Bombing on Black Saturday all but reduced the Docks to rubble. We sat spellbound by an excellent show that told us about that day and its aftermath. Goods coming in and out of the Docks are only part of the story as stuff was made in the factories that clustered around the area. During the war production was largely turned toward the war effort, some of what was made was so secret that even the factory workers had no idea what they were actually making. It was here that the Pluto pipeline was developed to deliver petrol to the D-Day landing beaches.
Trade is still the lifeblood of the Docklands, only now it is invisible financial wizardry rather than barrels of cinnamon. The story of the transformation of the area over the past thirty years is told. It is a tiny bit unnerving seeing the stuff of news stories presented as history, but the Junior CW’s assure me the twentieth century is history. What doesn’t change is the thrill of sitting at the front of the Docklands Light Railway and pretending to drive the trains.
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