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Old Butlers Wharf in Bermondsey: working practices

by Eric Webb, former manager, written in 1988


I have often been asked "What is a Wharfinger"? It is really quite simple. The dictionary says "Someone who manages a Wharf".

It is rather sad that a London Wharfinger is now virtually an extinct species, and can no longer be found on the banks of the Thames. This is for obvious reasons: the high cost of dock labour coupled with special facilities required to handle modern methods of transportation of goods, and the congested roads in the centre of London.

Butlers Wharf, where I worked, was situated in Bermondsey Shad Thames, just east of Tower Bridge and opposite St Katherines Dock. It was one of the largest firms of public wharfingers on the Thames, second only to Hay's Wharf. A public wharf, like the Docks, was purely a service industry as none of the goods we handled and stored were owned by us. However we played a very important part in commerce as a link between importers of goods (mainly foodstuffs) and buyers and distributors.

Butlers was established in 1893, just before Tower Bridge opened, which made access to and from the City comparatively easy. The wharf was originally financed by tea plantation agency houses in Mincing Lane who wanted to warehouse their tea and rubber as near to the City as possible - where the brokers could inspect the teas they were selling, and buyers could collect within reasonable distance, bearing in mind that it was all horse-drawn traffic in those days.

The tea plantations in India and Ceylon were developing rapidly, and the Wharf supplied a need for handling their teas in London. Over the years we always had a very close link with the tea industry. [See Eric's endnote below.]

The Wharf, in my day, had a frontage of about 1000 feet on the Thames, and this included two berths that would each take ships up to 350 feet. in length. There were some 50 warehouses and sheds. Many were fire proof reinforced concrete structures used for transit floors and warehousing. The narrow streets around the Wharf caused problems, even with horse-drawn vans that had to stand and load outside a warehouse loophole in the road. So, with the advent of large lorries and trailers, the position was becoming impossible.

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Butler's Wharf in 1925

I started at Butler's Wharf in 1925, and was posted to its City Office situated in Eastcheap. Living in the south of London, I came into London Bridge station each morning - and walked across the Bridge. The Pool of London was usually a hive of activity, particularly on a Monday morning, when ships that arrived during the weekend were working at the wharves on either side of the river. At the top of the tide, Tower Bridge would open from time to time, and tugs with their attendant string of barges, would be very much in evidence. Arriving at the City side of the Bridge, I was met by the fish porters, carrying boxes of fish from Billingsgate on their heads to the waiting vans, protected by their leather headgear. Slime coming from the corners of their boxes made it a hazardous journey to the office and, when they slammed the boxes onto the vans, you had to "jump quick". The fish lorries and vans were supposed to be away from the main thoroughfare by 9 o'clock, but they were still loading well past that time.

What a difference now! The Pool of London is dead except for a few passenger boats going to Tower Pier and Greenwich. Tower Bridge seldom opens, and there is only the H.M.S. Belfast to remind us of the shipping that used to fill the Pool of London, and even Billingsgate has moved away from the City.

The work carried out at the Wharf was divided into two separate departments:

Fire protection at Butlers Wharf

I was a surveyor to the London Wharf & Warehouse Committee which was formed by the Fire Insurance Offices following the fourth Great Fire of London in 1861. We were responsible for the fire protection and prevention and insurance rating of all the docks, wharves and warehouses from Teddington to Tilbury and within a six mile radius of the Royal Exchange north and south of the River Thames. The fourth Great Fire was so great that it set the Thames on fire caused by drifting candlewax and flotsam, and the fear was that it would set the City afire. The then Chief of the London Fire Establishment - Captain Braidwood - was killed when a warehouse wall in Tooley Street collapsed. There is a plaque on a wall in Tooley Street to this effect. Braidwood was regarded as a hero by all who knew him.

As a young man, I surveyed Butlers Wharf many times in my career to check that fire protection and prevention arrangements were in order. I found great interest to learn of the many trade activities that were carried out in the wharves. I learnt a lot about the tea trade and was fascinated by the brotherhood of the wharfingers. Sadly the LWWC no longer exists, and I watched with sadness the march of time in goods handling and the demise of all the riverside activities I had grown to love and were a part of my working life. All my plans and reports and those of my predecessors are now safely lodged and archived in the library of the City of London Guildhall.

I think that this library has now moved a little further afield, but still accessible to Dockland researchers. My name is on the contribution display board at the Docklands Museum at West India Dock. I am one of three surviving fire surveyors left.

John Schofield

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The work - shipping

Cranes are the mainstay of dock work, and originally all our cranes were hydraulic. In my day, the quay (luffing) cranes were supplied by Stothert & Pitt, to lift 30 cwt., but we had two capable of lifting 5 tons. For anything above that we would use the ship's gear. Before accepting a ship, we had to check its draught and length.

On a good tide there would be 25 ft. of water at the Wharf, but this would drop to 17 or 18 ft. in a neap tide. The berths were originally infilled with chalk and did not silt up with Thames mud when in regular use. At low water ships were on the mud and any danger of a ship not floating was avoided by means of blowers which produced jets of hydraulic water under the ship to break the vacuum. There was never any chance of a ship not rising, but a sudden movement of a ship could cause damage to the mooring ropes, the piles protecting the quay, and indeed the ship itself.

We concentrated on cargoes from the Mediterranean, mainly fresh fruit, which was collected quickly for the markets at Spitalfields and Covent Garden. The summer months were quiet, but we got busy in the autumn with shiploads of trays of seedless grapes from Greece and Cyprus, followed by dried fruit for the Christmas market - currants from Piraeus and sultanas and figs from Izmir. The ships brought thousands of bags of figs which, in the warm hold, got very sticky and messy to handle. I often wondered what they were used for, unless it was to make "Syrup of Figs"! These ships could bring 1000 tons or more of dried fruit all of which had to be sorted to mark. Citrus fruit from Spain kept us very busy until the spring and also Israeli oranges and grapefruit, which were arriving in increasing quantities in the 1960s - each ship carrying 20-30 000 boxes of fruit.

The Israeli fruit in those days was mostly carried in Scandinavian ships and their very hospitable captains liked to entertain all concerned in the discharging arrangements - agents, brokers, Israeli Marketing Board - to lunch on board. There was always plenty to drink and plenty of "Skolls". The lunch finished at about 4 o'clock. As you can guess, when I attended, I had to be very careful!

The ships we handled also carried a certain amount of general cargo - and, although the Chief Officer produced a stowage plan, it was not always very accurate. On one occasion, there was a coffin on board a ship from Spain in No. 2 hold. The undertakers were all ready in attendance, but the body could not be found - until a cry came up from one of the dockers, "Here he is Governor - the bugger has been standing on his head all the way from Valencia".

We had unusual ships from time to time. We loaded the "Maga Dan" in 1956 when it was taking and Fouks and his explorers with the equipment for the Antartic Expedition. On that occasion the Queen came down to the Wharf to bid them "God Speed". No! I was not presented - that honour was reserved for our Chairman!, but we did have to provide a toilet for the Lady in case things became urgent! The Managing Director's toilet was ear-marked, but before it was passed OK a new seat had to be obtained. In point of fact, it was never used.

At the time of the Coronation of the Queen in 1952, hotel accommodation was in short supply, and a Spanish liner called "Guadalupe", 450 ft. long was berthed alongside the wharf, and served as a floating hotel for some 2 - 300 passengers during the celebrations. Of course, the berth bad to be specially surveyed and enlarged to take the ship, which was the biggest and longest recorded at the wharf.

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The work - warehousing

The other side of the wharfinger business involved storage of bonded and free goods in our warehouses, and London wharfingers played an important part in preparing imported goods for sale in the Mincing Lane markets. The goods were collected from the docks by barge and brought to the wharf.

As already mentioned, Butlers Wharf specialised in handling tea from India aid Ceylon. Some 400 000 chests were landed at the wharf in the course of a year. Each chest had to be sorted to mark and specie, weighed, bored and sample drawn [sic] .After boring the bung tins were inserted to stop the tea running out. You can see these on empty tea chests. The tea sample was taken so that the brokers could check that the tea in the 'break' was uniform, and each chest was marked with its weight, number and ship rotation, so that each chest could be identified for delivery. The teas were then auctioned by the brokers on samples and weights supplied by the wharf.

Other commodities like cocoa, coffee and sugar were stored and weighed for the terminal markets. We handled all kinds of spices. Pepper was imported in quite large quantities. Especially when someone tried to corner the market, the price went sky high, and everyone around Singapore scraped the barrel to send pepper to England - and that was the end of the ramp, with many red faces. Of course care had to be taken that no spices were stored anywhere near tea.

Rubber was another commodity in which we specialised which we, handled for the rubber estates in Malay in the form of smoked sheet, crepe and rubber latex.

A public wharfinger would issue warrants which represented the goods stored, and these were readily accepted by Banks and Buyers without question, as the goods themselves.

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Concluding remarks

In the late 1960s the red light began to show in the dock and warehousing industry. You could call it the "Transport Revolution". To make matters worse, the labour government brought in the Decasualisation of Dock Labour, which cut out all casual labour in the major ports in this country. Each employer had to accept x number of dockers, according to their history of employment. Although this sounds fine in theory, in practice it did not work because of the fluctuating demand and seasonal nature of the work. [See Eric's endnote below.]

Costs rose in the whole of the Port of London, and shipping companies began to look around for cheaper means of discharging and loading their ships which, as far as we were concerned, meant that smaller ports like Dover, Portsmouth and Shoreham took a lot of our work. Roll-on, roll-off traffic was beginning to take over, especially for inter-continental traffic. Movement of goods by containers on purpose-built container ships was gradually taking over, which obviously saved labour in handling, and eliminated damage and pilferage to cargo. Apart from what I have already said, the situation of the wharf, with its narrow streets and many old buildings, though structurally sound, were not built for modern cargo handling, nor for modern transport.

To retain as much of the traditional work as possible in serving the various commodity markets, two inland warehouses were opened, one at Avonmouth and one at Greenford. These were single storey sheds with good road access, capable of handling goods on pallets, and dealing with containers brought in by lorry. Other depots have since been opened round the country which are proving a great success.

The wharf closed in 1972 and the warehouses and wharves have been, and still are being gutted and converted into luxury flats. Four years ago [1984] a 2-bedroom flat at the Wharf, facing St. Katherine Dock, was on sale for 260,000.

I hope I have not bored you by telling you about my job, but I can tell you it was a most interesting occupation, with never a dull moment; but, to quote from Tennyson:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new".


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Annotations handwritten as endnotes

I should just explain:

If you have photographs of working practices at the Wharf, the webmaster would very much appreciate knowing about them

1. A consignment of tea from a tea estate consisted of one or more invoices. Each invoice represented a batch of tea that had been processed in the estate and indicated the number of chests and weight of the various species or breaks as we called them - the species were: Orange Pekoe, Pekoe, Broken Pecoe, Fannings, Dust. Blenders like Brook Bond bought what they wanted at the tea auction and bought the various species from various countries to make their PG Tips.

2. You must realise that Wharf employees had no control over the ships, their time of arrival, tide, weather etc, and it was virtually impossible to get continuity of work.

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Photographs of Butler's Wharf

Photographs of the wharf in action are from the 1940s and are courtesy of Southwark Local Studies Library. I took the modern ones myself. The top photo has a different source and its own special dedication.

Butlers Wharf, Bermondsey, 1920s

In memory of John William Davies (1853-1928), one time chief engineer at Butlers Wharf, from his grandchildren

Butler's Wharf, Bermondsey, 2002 Bermondsey: the restaurants at the front of Butler's Wharf
The size of Butlers Wharf can be visualised from this recent photo taken from the opposite site of the River Thames This close-up shows the restaurants which now nestle under the canopy overlooking the Thames. Tower Bridge can be seen in the distance.
Bermondsey: Butler's wharf in the 1940s    Bermondsey: Butler's wharf in the 1940s
Bermondsey: Butler's wharf in the 1940s
Bermondsey: Butler's wharf in the 1940s
Bermondsey: Butler's wharf in the 1940s    Bermondsey: Butler's wharf in the 1940s
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