In the autumn of 1954, I exchanged growing up in sleepy seaside Torquay for the hustle and bustle of London and the start of my working life in HM Customs and Excise.
BY PETER NOBLE (ENGLAND)
At that time, accommodation in central London was hard to find and the Civil Service had established hostels in attractive areas. I had arranged to stay in one opposite the Science Museum in South Kensington. There were many residents of my age from all over the UK and I made many lifelong friendships in the five or so years I lived there. The accommodation was basic and the food unexciting, but it was more than offset by the many sporting and leisure activities organised by the young people. My first venture from the hostel on early Monday morning was to take a District Line train to Monument Station on the north side of London Bridge, overlooking the Upper Pool of London. From there, it was only a few hundred yards to report into the Custom’s Personnel Department in Adelaide House, alongside Fishmonger’s Hall. After a short induction which revealed that my posting would be to the Custom House, on the north side of the Upper Pool, I was taken down steep dark steps to Lower Thames Street. As we reached the bottom, the street noise grew louder and louder from traffic and the frenetic activities of porters and other workers in the famous Billingsgate Fish Market. As we turned towards the market the pavements and road became increasingly slimy from the leaking fish boxes on barrows and fish sellers’ stalls. The porters, some with fish boxes precariously balanced on their heads, were dashing rapidly from the Market Hall to lorries, which would distribute the fi sh all over London. They ‘took no prisoners’ so we dodged here and there to avoid injury and the indignity of slipping to the ground amongst the slime. It was only about 200 yards to make it to our destination, the westerly end of the Customs House. At the point where we would turn right into the building, loud cries of “up the ‘ill” led to small groups of destitute folk scrapping to get their shoulders to porter’s barrows to push them up steep slopes to lorries parked in Eastcheap. At the top of the “‘ill” the porter would dole out a few pence to his helpers. What a dramatic start to my new life!
A VIEW ACROSS THE RIVER THAMES TO ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL FROM BANKSIDE.
As we climbed the stairs to the ‘Dry Goods’ office, the smell of fish was overwhelming which I suppose was inevitable. My first reaction was that at the end of each day I would carry the odours back to the hostel. Surprisingly, I never did! On entering the office through a dimly lit corridor it immediately felt that it was isolated from the ‘Long Room’, which I had been told was the heartbeat of the Custom House.
I was made welcome by the manager, soon known throughout the building and beyond as “Furry Bum”, a nickname given to him by a Customs Officer whom he often irritated. Why “Furry Bum”? He sat on a very big furry cushion! The ‘Dry Goods’ staff with whom I would work seemed aged through the eyes of a 17-year-old. I wondered what I had walked into. However, they were very friendly and quickly absorbed me into their workplace. Each one had lived very different challenging lives tinged with both sadness and joy. Over time, as they got to know me, they revealed their experiences in a way that inspired my ambitions. It would not be long before I would be able to open many doors to experiences in a world that was light years away from growing up in Devon.
In 1941, the east end of the Custom House had been destroyed by incendiary bombs in the Blitz. Fortuitously the ‘Long Room’ in which all Captains and Ships Agents had to report on arrival to declare cargoes and pay ‘Light Dues’ to Trinity House as well as docking and other fees to the Port of London Authority, had survived. The buzz of this activity was added to by a continuous stream until mid-afternoon, of forwarding agents lodging and obtaining certification of import and export cargo documents. The information on these documents would eventually end up in a Board of Trade building in High Holborn, to process vital import/export data to enable Treasury staff to prepare Balance of Payments guidance for Parliament. A visit to this operation was a ‘must do’ for new Customs staff. I recall the overwhelming noise of cards being punched in the processing hall. Looking back, it was the start of mechanising data handling and over the next 20 years or so, it would lead into the electronic computing world we now take for granted.
A LITTLE GIRL SITS ON EMBANKMENT WALL AT LAMBETH BRIDGE AND LOOKS AT THE RIVER THAMES, FEB 1951.
PADDLING IN THE RIVER THAMES ON A MAN MADE BEACH, AUG 1953.
A number of uniformed Waterguard Officer ‘Rummage Teams’ based in Custom House used the Custom House Quay to go to and fro the merchant ships to track down smuggled and prohibited goods. Their work often took them into the bowels of the holds and scuppers and on return, covered in dirt and grease from head to toe, they would use the basic washroom (which they shared with Dry Goods), to clean themselves up with a bar of hard soap and a small issue towel. There were no showers and other facilities we take for granted today!
If the rummage crews found and impounded contraband, the goods would be destroyed in the ‘Queens’ Pipe’ in the Custom House basement. Liquids would be poured down the drain and other goods, mainly cigarettes and tobacco, incinerated. The smell of smoke or the aroma of wines and spirits penetrated every part of the building, ousting temporarily the ever-present Billingsgate fish odours.
In addition to the Rummage Teams, ‘Watchers’ worked out of Custom House on berthing quays around the Pool, to observe the handling of goods subject to import duties and to document and report infractions to Waterguard Officers.
Much of the extensive Custom House basement was an amazing archive of Lloyds of London Shipping Registers. This hidden ‘underworld’ gem was the realm of ‘Paperkeepers’. They never seemed to be working under pressure in their ‘den’ dominated by a full-size snooker table. I often slipped down there to explore Registers as far back as the American War of Independence and the American Civil War. Against the clicking of snooker balls, it was fascinating to track ships destroyed in action from the Mississippi to the St Lawrence seaway or just wrecked by weather and other hazards. The earliest records date back to the War of Independence and the Civil War that gave birth to the USA. Sadly many of the divisions created by those conflicts still exist today. In those times the records highlighted the dangers to ships and their crews as they ran close to the coast or entered river estuaries to reach inland ports.
HMS APOLLO IN THE PORT OF LONDON, DEC 1954.
On the riverside quay in front of the of Customs House, benches in the shade of plane trees, were an ideal place to observe what was going on in the Pool. The monthly cycle of entering the movement of goods in the ledgers was often completed by the 15th day and to fill the days I would often slip down to the Quay to observe. This quiet time was also added to by compulsory overtime on Saturday mornings. This was a leftover 11 years from WW2 days and it was kept going with other curious activities such as a monthly check of long-handled incendiary bomb scoops, with their sand and water buckets used by volunteer night watchers on Custom House roof in the Blitz.
So, looking upstream from the bench there was usually a DFDS bacon and dairy product boat unloading at New Fresh Quay in the corner by London Bridge. On the opposite side of the Thames, there was a line of large warehouses. Some had docking and unloading facilities and others could be accessed from lighters which had been loaded in the lower river docks which could handle bigger ships. Smaller vessels that were able to unload cargo es including Canary Island bananas, were dotted along that side of the Pool adding to the congestion.
It was fascinating to watch lighter men using only the movement of the river currents and a very large stern paddle to move their barges between many small Police, Customs and Port of London Authority launches to and from tugs in mid-river. Butlers, Hays and other warehouses held the ‘dry goods’ whose movements were accounted for in the ledgers in “Furry Bum’s” office. Some of those weighty large leather-bound ledgers had been in use since the late 1800s when the clerks used amazing care with every number they entered. I did my best but could never match their writing skills. All of those warehouses had suffered in the blitz and had been roughly patched up to keep in business. Very little progress had been made to mechanise cargo handling and many stevedores were needed, but because of changing labour needs day by day, their employment was not continuous. This uncertain employment of dock labour resulted in many dockers’ families living in poverty. The continuous desperation in supporting their families regularly led to withdrawal of labour and devastating strikes.
The movement of vessels in and out of the Pool was very much dependent on tidal variations and weather conditions when heavy rain resulted in water levels that overlapped quaysides. I recall the water level outside Custom House rising over the benches under the trees and preventing Waterguard Officers from undertaking their rummaging tasks.
In addition to the ships that docked in the Pool, there was a steady movement of ships, tugs and launches whose destinations were upstream of London Bridge. The largest ships were the ‘flat iron’ colliers that delivered coal and coke to Battersea and Lot’s Road power stations and Wandsworth Gas works by the Oval Cricket Ground. In order to get under London and other bridges, they had to drop their masts and funnel stacks as they passed through the Pool. In WW2, these colliers had to run the gauntlet from the Tyne down to the Thames estuary. They were often supported by Royal Navy armed trawlers, but U-boat and Luftwaffe air attacks took a heavy toll on colliers and their brave crews.
SIX DOCKERS BEING CHEERED AFTER THEY HAD BEEN REMANDED ON BAIL, AT BOW STREET MAGISTRATES COURT, LONDON. THEY HAD BEEN CHARGED WITH CONSPIRING TO INCITE DOCKERS TO ENGAGE IN ILLEGAL STRIKE ACTION, FEB 1951.
Sitting on the benches also made one aware of the state of the Thames. It was full of detritus and foul water from upstream sewage and oil waste and many other nasties from Cargo ships in the Pool and below. At times on windless days the smell of the river was overwhelming. Swirling concentrations of detritus indicated where sewage pipes discharged. One of the worst I recall was just yards from the PLA Quay by the Tower of London where, in the summer holidays, Stepney Council created a sandy beach for children!
In the winter months, between November and February, windless days frequently created swirling smelly pea soup smog across the Pool and beyond. The source was smoke from coal fires in dense housing to the east and south of the river and often lasted for days on end. As soon as I felt the dirty gritty air in my throat, I abandoned cycling to work and travelled to and from work on the District Line.
Moving on from Custom House along Lower Thames Street towards Tower Bridge opened another interesting aspect of the Pool. Keeping close to the river brought me to the walkway in front of the Tower of London. There were always Beefeaters in view and from time to time the raucous calls of the legendary Tower Ravens could be heard. In summertime, there were many overseas tourists taking the ‘must do’ experience of the amazing history of a major London icon.
I enjoyed a stroll along the waterside with many places to sit by one of the old cannons and observe traffic c over Tower Bridge. I recall times when the bridge lift machinery failed with increasingly strong rumours that the cost of keeping it operational could not be met. Today the preservation of the crossing would not be questioned but in the 1950s, its closure was a distinct possibility.
BRITISH RAILWAYS TRUCK.
Up to WW2, there were many steamer services for day outings to Margate and beyond, but by the mid-50s, as the Cockney East End population was diminishing, sailings were confined to August. Jewish communities on the move to north west London and the reduction of dock workers had already begun to change the makeup of East End populations. I first noticed this when the many salt beef delis in Whitechapel began to close.
Just above the Tower, the cobbled open space was a real lunch time ‘go to’ in the mid-50s, with at least two dramatic days of powerful orators in full flight at opposite ends of belief.
On a Monday, Solly Kaye, the Stepney Communist Member of Parliament held forth with a noisy aggressive audience. No side ever seemed to win the furious debates. On a Wednesday, the Reverend Donald Soper, a committed Methodist, preached in the open air both at Tower Hill and on a Sunday at Speakers Corner at Marble Arch. He attracted big crowds with his friendly and humorous chat. Friday was Escapologist’s Day. It was always popular despite repetitive acts and outcomes.
When I felt like a longer lunchtime walk, I squeezed a longer absence from my desk to go on a circular stroll down to Tower Bridge, crossing to the Bermondsey side and turning right into Tooley Street, which ran behind the large warehouses facing north to Custom House. On the bridge it was always exciting to stop for a while to take in the movement of craft, large and small, on both sides. The view back over the river towards St Paul’s Cathedral and the City was always stunning. As I turned right off the Bridge, I would glance briefly eastwards towards the Courage Brewery, sniffing the beery air and taking in the downriver docks. Entering Tooley Street took me into a completely different world to that on the riverside of the big warehouses. It was noisy and full of movement as trucks, cranes, and warehouse dockers loaded and unloaded a huge variety of goods, many of which would eventually appear on import/export forms I would enter into ledgers in “Furry Bum’s” office.
It was an overwhelming noisy and colourful experience as I made my way carefully through the crowded melee of lorries, vans and ubiquitous three-wheeled Scammel tractors and on to London Bridge. Crossing the bridge there was a chance to peer down into the holds of a ship on New Fresh Quay. I then dropped down to Lower Thames Street and on past Billingsgate which was closing down at the end of the market’s working day which started around 2am. As I entered Custom House, I had to slip quietly into Dry Goods just before “Furry Bum” returned from his lunch. He was the ultimate person of habit as to where he went each day and the precise time he would come back. It enabled all of his staff to squeeze a longer lunch break! This completed ‘journey around the Upper Pool’ only just scratches the surface but I trust it will have given a taste of the Pool of London in the 1950s, which is so different from the river today. The changes from the start of my working life are worth recording.
On the City streets the traffic levels have had to be controlled by tolls and road closures. We have gone from one set of traffi c lights at the Bank of England junction to endless traffic and pedestrian crossing lights on virtually all roads. On the pavements there are virtually no more stalls selling fruit, fl owers and magazines urged along by the calls of the stall holders. Of the three evening papers in the 50s, The Star, The Evening News and the London Standard, only the Standard survives. The call “..ar..ews..andard” rang out loud on every corner and approach to stations. The pea soup smog has been replaced by the more harmful traffic pollution. The electronic age computerisation of office work has dramatically reduced the need for heritage buildings such as Custom House which, after 200 years, will be converted to a hotel. Those that have escaped demolition are now hidden by tall office blocks.
On the Riverside, museums, restaurants, and apartments have squeezed out all but a few working warehouses. All the electricity, gas and oil power stations have been closed. Billingsgate along with Smithfield meat and Leadenhall poultry and game city markets have been moved to dreary out of the way business parks. The result is the total loss of the markets as tourist attractions.
The London Bridge of the 1950s had to be rebuilt because its foundations were unsafe. The stones of the old bridge were sold to a city in Arizona and rebuilt as a tourist attraction. The boat traffic is overwhelmingly tourist launches, police and safety craft. Above the Pool, barges are only seen moving refuse to landfill many miles downstream. The only vessel of any size in the Pool is HMS Belfast a WW2 floating museum.