By Ben Pedroche
London’s mighty river holds many secrets. It’s been the final resting place for the crew of many a stricken boat, for scurrilous pirates, and for the victims of countless suicide and murders.
It’s where all of London’s sewage was once dumped (and to a certain degree still is), and below its murky waters is where many of the most incredible feats of Victorian engineering were constructed.
The Thames is also where you can find the relics of London’s industrial heritage. Even in the most popular tourist spots you need only wait for the tide to go out to see what gets washed ashore. There are old tyres, rusting chunks of metal and broken timber, and all manner of detritus from long-lost industries.
You can even find entire structures along the banks of the river, rotting away as time and nature slowly take hold. I’ve always been intrigued by the stories behind these derelict and forgotten sites, but it was only while researching my book that I realised just how many of them there are.
Most of the old timber and metal structures you can still find along the river were once used as jetties where huge boats could be moored while delivering coal from the north. The coal was used to fire the boilers inside London’s many lost power stations and gasworks.
There are some familiar examples still intact today, including the large structure alongside the mighty remains of Battersea Power Station. This can be seen in full glory thanks to the pop-up park currently open at the power station site, including its two cranes. According to the plans, they will be preserved as part of the redevelopment of the power station.
Others are less well known, but just as big. Follow the Thames Path near to Glaisher Street in Deptford and you’ll find a huge wooden jetty quietly rotting away. This is essentially all that’s now left of Deptford Power Station; London’s first mega-sized power plant and one of its most important. It closed in 1983 and was demolished several years later.
Further along the river, and easily visible from the Deptford site, you can find a similar disused jetty, this time made of metal. It once helped supply coal to fire the boilers of Greenwich Power Station. Not strictly lost – the power station is used as an emergency back-up facility should there be a major power outage on the London Underground – the jetty has been out of use since the station was converted to run on oil, and later gas.
Towards the west, you can find a similar abandoned coaling jetty along the river, near to the up-market Chelsea Harbour/Imperial Wharf development in Sands End, Fulham. It was once used by a fleet of collier ships owned by Fulham Power Station, which closed in 1978.
Close by is Chelsea Creek, where the shore is awash with spoil and rusted metal from Lots Road Power Station, which powered the Underground from 1905 until being decommissioned in 2002.
These are just a few of the things you can find when you talk a walk along the Thames. There are many more, in particular around the Greenwich Peninsula area, other parts of the Docklands and in Woolwich.
They propose something of a conundrum for property developers. It’s easy to demolish an industrial site on dry land, but to remove a structure from a river is far more costly and time consuming. Most are left to deteriorate, while others have been turned into nature reserves. For now though they stand tall as a reminder of a London that has largely been forgotten.
All of the sites listed here and many more are included in my book ‘London’s Lost Power Stations and Gasworks’, out now.