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Commercial Road goods depot, Whitechapel

by Tim Smith [originally written 1979, re-typed with annotations January 2000 but without taking account of later fieldwork]


The Commercial Road Goods Depot was built by the London Tilbury & Southend Railway (LTSR) in 1886 to cater for traffic from Tilbury Docks. The depot included a large warehouse, used by the Dock Company, which was demolished towards the end of 1975 to make way for a computer centre. The opportunity was taken to carry out a largely photographic survey of the complex in June 1975. Further visits were made to the remaining sections in 1977 and this description is based on the results of these surveys.

The depot was located at the western end of Commercial Road, E1, behind the Gunmakers' Company's Proof House, NGR TQ 341 813 (Commercial Road entrance). The warehouse and the main part of the goods depot were bounded by Gower's Walk on the east and Lambeth Street on the west. Between the depot and Commercial Road, to the north, was the Gunmakers' Company's Proof House, a listed building that still stands. The main roadway entrance was at the junction of Commercial Road and Goodman's Stile. A junction was made with the London & Blackwall line on what is now Pinchin Street (TQ 344 809) and a viaduct carried the spur to the depot, crossing Back Church Lane and Hooper Street. A somewhat older warehouse south of Hooper Street was also the property of the LTSR together with a Goods Office in Leman Street.


Of those docks built in the early nineteenth century only the West India were later adapted to rail access. The London & St Katharine Docks were designed for access by horse and cart and, with one minor exception, remained unconnected to the rail network. By mid-century the railway system had undergone its major development and ships were increasing in size. These older docks found they could not compete with the rail-connected docks further downstream. The opening of the Royal Albert Dock by the London & St Katharine Dock Company on 24 June 1880 came in a period of intense competition. A decade later, financial disaster had brought cooperation between the dock companies and lead, ultimately, to the formation of the Port of London Authority (PLA) in 1909. 1

But in 1880, the East & West India Dock Company (E&WIDCo), determined to outflank its rival by building a new dock at Tilbury. Essential to their scheme was a quick and cheap method of transporting goods from Tilbury to London. Already the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway (LTSR) had a line to Tilbury (opened in 1854) 2 which passed alongside the site of the new dock. It was natural, therefore, that the E&WIDCo should approach the LTSR with a scheme for a rail link from the docks to London. After much internal wrangling the LTSR agreed to provide rail services to and from TIlbury and to build a new goods depot and warehouse in Whitechapel.

Powers for the construction of the goods depot and its connecting branch were included in an Act of 1882 which also authorised the lines from Barking to Pitsea and from Southend to Shoeburyness as well as a reorganisation of the LTSR Board. 3 The provisions of the Act included the usual ones protecting the interests of various parties. Also included was provision for the construction of two new streets, Pinchin Street and Hooper Street, and the maintenance of Jones' Buildings as a right of way across the site. The Great Eastern Railway Company's (GER) coal drops which were in the way of the approach viaduct were to be re-sited at the LTSR's expense. They were rebuilt south of the main line in Cable Street.

Various agreements were entered into by the two companies. The first one, dated 8 November 1883 was known as the Principal Agreement, subsequent ones being the First Supplemental, Second Supplemental etc. 4 Several clauses of the Principal Agreement related to arrangements at Tilbury, a minimum passenger train service, trains from Tilbury to foreign lines, transfer traffic to the West India Docks and coal traffic to Tilbury. The clauses which concern us are those relating to the goods depot and warehouse. The Dock Company guaranteed that a minimum annual tonnage of 200000 tons would be carried between Tilbury and Whitechapel at 4s6d per ton. Any shortfall was to be paid for by the E&WIDCo at the same rate less the cost of carriage and of tolls due to the GER for use of the London & Blackwall line to reach Commercial Road Goods Depot.

Clause 10 of the agreement stated that the Railway Company shall provide a London Goods Depot of a character suitable for the requirements of the traffic with sufficient road access for vehicular traffic to Commercial Road in direct connection with the Railway Company's system. The LTSR also agreed to build warehouses furnished with the necessary machinery which they would lease to the E&WIDCo for 99 years. Plans of the depot and warehouse, signed by Arthur L Stride, engineer of the LTSR, and A Manning, engineer of the E&WIDCo, were attached to the agreement.

An Act of 1884 confirmed the LTSR's powers to build the depot whilst removing certain restrictive clauses of the original Act. 5 For example, the right of way known as Jones' Buildings, which would have bisected the site, no longer had to be maintained.

The first plans of 1882 were rejected by the Warehouse Improvement & Wharf Committee because the areas between fire resistant walls, the risks, were too large. The original five risks were reduced in size to form eight risks which met with approval, being agreed by the Committee in October 1883. 6 The depot as built differed in detail from the agreed plans, as will be described later.

The site chosen for the goods depot lay between Commercial Road and the London & Blackwall line, west of Back Church Lane and Gower's Walk. At that time Hooper Street did not exist. Lambeth Street, which bounded the site on the west, led from Little Alie Street to Hooper Square. The whole area was a conglomeration of dwellings and workshops, small factories and pubs. Several small streets and yards disappeared to make way for the depot, including Wells Yard, White Bear Court, Gower's Place, Well's Place, Conant's Place and Everard's Place. It was a cosmopolitan area, as indicated by the names of some of the occupants. In particular it was a haven for exiled Germans; there was a Lutheran church (sittings for 260!) in Hooper Square. The landlord of the Brunswick Arms in 1851 was one Christopher Schnackenburg.

How much this area changed between 1851 and 1881 can only be guessed at. The National School in Gower's Walk (also known as Gower's Walk Free School) had one John French as its superintendent and the Whitechapel Free Press, a printing school next door was run by the same John French. Thirty years later, Samuel Hodsoll was superintendent and printer. Hodsoll seems to have been French's assistant in 1851. Muhn and Muller, sugar refiners, were neighbours of Henry & George Dutfield, licensed carmen. The craftsmen included, in 1881, a cooper and a builder but a hat manufacturer and a coach painter had both moved. 7

The most awkward occupants, from the LTSR point of view, were perhaps the Gower's Walk Free School and the Whitechapel Free Press next door, where children were taught printing. A new school was built in Goodman's Street; the architect was Ernest Lee and the builders were Kirk & Randall, who were the original contractors at Tilbury Docks. Temporary accommodation for the school was provided in Great Alie Street from April 1884. The Trustees of the school asked 15000 for the site but reluctantly settled for 11000, and received payment on 19 November 1885. The site for the new school cost 6000 and the building was erected for 4230. 8

In 1886 the Trustees learned that the LTSR were to erect warehouses, 100 feet high, which would obstruct light from their new printing house. The Trustees attempted to prevent the warehouses being built but the LTSR refused to give way. Consequently the Trustees threatened to take out an injunction in the Court of Chancery. The next annual report of the Trustees laments the building of the warehouse which had seriously damaged the schools by detraction of light and air. The school sought compensation but had not received any by 1890.

The LTSR also had difficulty with two chapels on the site, or more particularly with their burial grounds. Besides the Lutheran church in Hooper Square there was a Seventh Day Baptists Chapel in Gower's Row. Both had burial grounds. In 1884, Parliament passed the Disused Burial Grounds Act which prevented developers from removing bodies. 9 Powers for the enforcement of this Act were vested in the Metropolitan Board of Works who at first opposed the LTSR's plan to build over the two burial grounds. 10

The First Supplemental Agreement between the E&WIDCo and the LTSR, dated 3 December 1885, deals with the non-provision of a luncheon-buffet at Tilbury Dock station and an exchange of land at Tilbury. It makes no mention of Commercial Road Goods Depot. By the end of 1885 the LTSR were well aware that their goods depot and warehouse would not be ready in time for the opening of the dock.

Tilbury Dock opened in grand style on 17 April 1886. To the dismay of the E&WIDCo but perhaps fortunately for the LTSR, shipping lines were reluctant to take advantage of the new facilities. 11

Commercial Road Goods Depot officially opened on the same day as Tilbury Dock, 12 even though the warehouse was still under construction. 13 The goods depot beneath must have resembled a builder's yard and its use as a goods station would be extremely difficult. As a result the two companies disagreed on the interpretation of certain clauses in the Principal Agreement relating to the opening of the goods depot and warehouse. The LTSR maintained that they were obliged only to provide a train service for the opening of the dock and not to complete the warehouse. A compromise was possible due to the lack of traffic to the docks. The minimum traffic guarantee was reduced to 100000 tons for April 1886 to April 1887. 14 To provide interim accommodation for the Dock Company pending completion of the new warehouse, the LTSR had purchased a wool warehouse in Hooper Square from Messrs. Hyatt Parker & Co in November 1885. 15 These premises included No 137 Leman Street which became the LTSR Goods Manager's office, replacing an earlier office in Goodman's Yard, and continued in that role until LMS days. From 1888 the Hooper Street Warehouses, as they became known, were used by C H Cousens & Co, wool warehouse keepers, until 1925. 16

The new warehouse was built by John Mowlem & Co and was taken over by the E&WIDCo in August 1887. By October it was in use for the storage of tea. 17 The heavy capital expenditure incurred in the building of Tilbury Dock and the absence of traffic brought the E&WIDCo into the hands of the Receiver. In 1888 a working agreement was entered into by the E&WIDCo and the London & St Katharine Docks Co with the setting up of a joint operating committee. New minimum traffic levels were agreed with the LTSR, 120000 tons for each of the first three years and 150000 tons per annum for the next two years before rising to 200000 tons per annum. Already in 1887 classified rates had been introduced; 2s9d per ton for flour, grain, oil cake, seeds, rice, hides and skins; 3s0d per ton for wool collected from up-town warehouses; 3s3d for parcels of dates, dried fruit, American Provisions etc and 4s6d for general goods. 18

In 1896 agreement was reached for handling traffic from Hamburg for the Perlbach Line at reduced rates, including free storage for up to 14 days at Commercial Road. The Street Level goods depot seems to have been used for this traffic which included glucose, flour, grain, potatoes and onions. 19 In 1908 a similar agreement was reached for John Cockerill Line traffic. For the minimum traffic guarantee purposes goods handled at less than the 4s11d (1908) rate counted as a fraction of a ton, For example, if the rate charged was 4s0d per ton each ton was regarded as 0.725 tons for the minimum traffic guarantee. 20

The first quarter of the twentieth century saw the formation of the Port of London Authority (PLA) in 1909 and the grouping of the railways in 1923 when the LTSR became part of the London Midland & Scottish Railway Company (LMS). Prior to this, in 1912, the LTSR had been absorbed by the Midland Railway Company which made several rearrangements to the goods depot, probably around 1915. A third hydraulic wagon hoist was added and the buffer stops at the north end of the depot were removed to extend the tracks into the small north yard. These are described later. 21

The year 1922 saw new traffic rates agreed, 7s3d for Continental traffic (Perlbach and Cockerill) and 8s0d for other traffic. An uncarried tonnage rate of 2s3d was agreed although the Midland Railway asked for 4s6d per uncarried ton. Subsequently the guaranteed tonnage was reduced to 175000 tons in 1927 and further to 150000 tons in 1930. Finally between 1939 and 1947 the guaranteed tonnage was dropped, the PLA making a token payment to the LMS instead. By 1952 at least part of the depot was being used by the General Post Office for parcel post but the PLA were still advertising warehouse facilities in 1963. 22

Closure of both warehouse and railway goods depot took place on 3 July 1967. Rail traffic was diverted to King's Cross goods depot or to the Victoria & Albert Docks goods depot. 23 A variety of concerns have occupied various parts of the building since 1967. The Upper Rail Level goods station became a car park which closed on 21 February 1975. During the last three months of 1975 most of the goods depot and the whole of the warehouse were demolished to make way for the National Westminster Bank's computer centre.

As a goods depot and warehouse for Tilbury Dock traffic Commercial Road seems never to have lived up to its expectations; it was a bit of a white elephant. But the Low Level goods depot, under the arches, assumed a totally different role during World War II. Known as the Tilbury Shelter it became home for thousands of East Enders finding refuge from Hitler's bombers. Its story has been told by Tom Harrison in his book Living Through the Blitz which captures the spirit of the time, though the memories of those he quotes are betrayed by inaccuracies in the vivid detail. Part of the warehouse was twice damaged by bombing and was rebuilt with a flat roof in 1942. 24

The southern part of the depot with its hydraulic pump house still awaits its fate. The Hooper Street Warehouses also still stand but in an advanced state of decay. Meanwhile, the main part of the site has acquired its new computer centre, with a circular brick gate-post in Goodman's Stile as the only reminder of Commercial Road Goods Depot. [Note the wool warehouses had been demolished by 1980. No 137 Leman Street was, by then, a cafe. During the 1980s the rest of the depot was demolished and houses built on the site, south of Hooper Street. All that now survives is the hydraulic pump house, listed Grade II — TRS]

General Description

The arrangement of the depot was somewhat complicated by the fact that the main line into Fenchurch Street is carried on viaduct above street level. Thus the main part of the goods station was at first floor level, an inclined roadway giving access to it from the street. This confused the Warehouse Improvement & Wharf Committee who always called it the ground floor and the street level appears as the basement or arches in their documents. For this reason we shall use the Midland Railway terminology of "Upper Rail Level" and "Street Level" as being more convenient. 25 (The arrangement of the depot is shown in figures 2 & 3 [of article in London's Industrial Archaeology Vol. 2 1980] which are based on the Midland Railway plans of 1915 and show the depot substantially as we found it, but with railway tracks restored.)

Basically there was a 200-foot wide railway viaduct, running north-south, above part of which was built a four storey warehouse about 500 feet long and 90 feet high from the street level (ie including the viaduct and four warehouse floors). On the viaduct immediately below the warehouse was the main goods station with railway yards to the north and south. Underneath the viaduct was a street level goods station and storage area. The south yard was divided by Hooper Street which was bridged by a slightly skewed span of riveted plate girders. South of Hooper Street the spur to the main line swung through 90 degrees, crossing Back Church Lane (skew bridge now removed) and following Pinchin Street to reach the junction. To the west of the south yard, on the south side of Hooper Street, there is a two-storey listed building which housed stationary steam engines and boilers for the supply of hydraulic power to the depot. South of that is the rather complicated Hooper Street Warehouses, built before the railway depot and used as a wool warehouse until purchased by the LTSR in 1885.

The small yard to the north of the main warehouse had a two-storey red brick office block in the north west corner together with some smaller, more recent office buildings. The inclined roadway led from the Goodman's Stile entrance gate around the back of the office block and into the Upper Rail Level goods station. A second roadway led from the same gate, through the Street Level goods station to emerge in Hooper Street, under the bridge.

The Viaduct

North of Hooper Street were three separate brick arch viaducts, connected by spans of riveted plate girders of I section to produce a composite viaduct some 170 feet wide at the south end and diverging to about 210 feet wide at the north end. There were 28 segmental arches, each of 25 feet span, along Gower's Walk, six south of the warehouse, three north of it and nineteen beneath it. Along Lambeth Street there were only 25 arches since that viaduct went only as far as the north wall of the warehouse because the inclined roadway was immediately to the north. Under the warehouse the arch piers were each 5 feet thick and encased cast-iron columns upon which similar columns rested. Under the end walls of the warehouse the piers were 7 feet 10 inches thick; elsewhere they were 3 feet thick. The viaducts were built of yellow stock brick with an infilling of concrete rubble and facings of red and blue engineering brick. The piers were continued up to the warehouse facade as pilasters of blue engineering brick. Lengthways the nineteen bays of the warehouse corresponded to the nineteen arches underneath. Crossways there were four bays. Whereas the north facade, facing Commercial Road, was largely symmetrical, the south facade was not due to the shortening in width of the viaduct and the west-side bay. The central viaduct was approximately parallel to that on the east side, but the one on the west side diverged towards Commercial Road.

South of Hooper Street there was a similar arrangement of brick arch viaducts running north-south and connecting plate girder spans. East of Back Church Lane a standard brick arched viaduct, of the type common to this part of London, carried the approach tracks. The arches along Pinchin Street were let to various tenants. The whole of the viaduct structure seems to have been completed by January 1886. 26

The Goods Station

The goods station occupied the street level (under the arches) and the Upper Rail Level (first floor). In the early years of the depot when traffic from Tilbury was far lower than had been anticipated by the E&WIDCo, most goods from Tilbury were probably handled at the Upper Rail Level. Indeed the Street Level seems to have been largely unused until 1890 when the LTSR began storing second class goods there. An earlier plan for storing indigo in the six northern bays was abandoned but that area in the north-west corner seems to have been separated from the rest by brick partitions right from the start. Browne & Eagle Ltd seem to have used both this area and part of the area south of Hooper Street for storing wool until 1895 when they moved to new premises in Back Church Lane. The Dock Company kept their tea vans in the Street Level depot, and quantities of Canadian cheese were stored there in the 1890s. Cheese was also kept south of Hooper Street and at one period in 1896 was even stored temporarily in the main warehouse on the first floor because of lack of space under the arches. Also stored under the arches were toys and fancy goods. 27 Some small arches between the north-east wagon hoist and the Gunmakers' Company's Proof House seem to have been used for storage of fibres in 1896-97 but later these arches housed mess rooms and a switchroom.

The likelihood is that in these early years the Street Level was not fully equipped to handle goods traffic and that some tracks and platforms were added later. Certainly there was evidence of rearrangements being made to the Street Level platforms. But the original intention must have been to expand the goods station into the Street Level since the original plans show three wagon hoists and two were installed. Ultimately there were three wagon hoists. One, still in situ, was to the south of Hooper Street and is not shown on either the 1896 or the 1913 OS plans. It appears on the Midland Railway plans of 1915 and was probably installed around that time. The other two were at diametrically opposed corners of the Street Level depot, north of Hooper Street. One was in the north-west corner of the north yard and had been dismantled by the end of 1975. The other, in the south yard, close to the west side of Hooper Street bridge, was still in situ in August 1977. Both are shown on the 1896 OS plan. They are described in detail elsewhere.

There were at one time three railway tracks in the Street Level depot, underneath the three brick viaducts. The piers of the main arches were pierced at right angles by secondary, semi-circular arches, 16 feet span and 12 feet 6 inches height to crown, through which the railway tracks ran. At some stage the railway track under the central arcade fell into disuse and the floor was raised to the level of the loading bank (platform) at either side. At the south end of the depot the position of the track could be seen in the planking of the bank floor; the normal direction of the planks was east-west whereas the raised portion had planks running north-south. This railway track crossed Hooper Street on the level and can still be seen in the road surface as can the railway track on the east side which did likewise. The west track ended north of Hooper Street one bay south of the wagon hoist. At the time of writing there is still, in Hooper Street, the notice exhorting passersby to Beware of capstan ropes and moving trucks.

North of Hooper Street there were two transverse railway tracks on the Street Level, one in the middle of the depot, the other at the southern end, each connecting with the north-south lines by means of wagon turntables. The space beneath the girders to the east of the central arches was taken up by a roadway paved with granite setts which entered the complex in Goodman's Stile and continued south to Hooper Street where there was a pair of large wooden doors. Between the roadway and the east track there were platforms beneath most arches. These cannot always have been in the same positions since there were large double doors leading to Gower's Walk at arches with platforms.

Except for a small section where the west track ended, the area between the roadway and Lambeth Street north of the transverse track was, as previously noted, bricked off from the rest of the depot and was therefore inaccessible. A number of small businesses were using these arches, gaining access from Lambeth Street.

South of this area, between the roadway and the west track was a raised loading bank or platform forming a large storage area. The small section south of the other transverse track was partly raised on a platform which has since been removed revealing setts. There were some offices and, in the roadway, a weighbridge with a hut containing the mechanism. The steelyard was clearly marked Midland Railway.

South of Hooper Street the arrangement was very similar, but with railway tracks of street tramway section in the setts of the roadway. There were two transverse tracks connected to the other tracks by wagon turntables, A loading area for carts only, in the south-east corner, had access from Back Church Lane and was separated from the rest of the depot by a loading bank. Access to the Hooper Street Warehouses could be gained from this part of the depot and there was also access to the boiler room of the hydraulic pump house.

The main goods station occupied the Upper Rail Level directly underneath the warehouse. There were three loading banks each stretching the whole length of the building and located so as to straddle a row of columns supporting the warehouse floors. A fourth row of columns was situated between the west bank and the west wall. There were eighteen columns in each row, making nineteen bays in all, each approximately 30 feet wide. The columns were directly above the piers of the arches of the Street Level. At the west side a roadway paved with granite setts gave access from Commercial Road by means of an incline which ended at a point about one third of the length of the building from the north, the gradient being about 1 in 18. This roadway entered the main gate in Goodman's Stile and immediately divided, the left hand road curving east down into the Street Level depot, the right hand road curving round the office block and entering the Upper Rail Level in the north-west corner. The remains of a weighbridge could be identified midway along the west wall; the bridge itself was in situ but the mechanism had been removed.

Each loading bank was arranged so as to have one face adjacent to a spacious roadway and the other adjacent to a railway track. So that road vehicles could have access to all the depot the two central loading banks were split and there was a paved crossing over the central railway tracks. Elsewhere these two tracks were ballasted, as was the track along the east wall. All other railway tracks were of street tramway section and laid between the setts of the roadways. Moveable wooden sections originally closed the gaps in the banks but the ban on the west side had been extensively rebuilt, the wooden section being removed. There were additional longitudinal railway tracks set into the roadways but no transverse tracks.

On the banks, many bays were numbered but those with lifts were not. Loading and unloading of vehicles probably took place only at the numbered bays. Apparently the Warehouse Improvement & Wharf Committee favoured brick tops to the platforms but the LTSR insisted on wood decking to reduce damage to goods by throwing them off on to a hard surface. 28

On the 1896 and 1913 OS plans the railway tracks between the two central platforms are shown terminating at buffer stops and there is a section of platform connecting the two main ones behind the buffers. At the time of our survey the platforms were not joined and the tracks extended into the north yard where a transverse track connected all the longitudinal tracks using wagon turntables. These changes were planned and probably executed by the Midland Railway in 1915. Three of these turntables were in situ but the fourth had been concreted over. They were 12 feet diameter and were of two types; one type had a single track the other had two tracks at right angles. Catches were provided to lock the turntables into position.

The Warehouse

The four-storey warehouse was built around three large lift wells. Each floor was sub-divided into smaller storage areas, risks, by means of brick partition walls and each risk had heavy iron double doors with padlock. We have already seen how the original plans had to be modified to meet with the approval of the Warehouse Improvement & Wharf Committee. Eventually a plan for eight risks separated by fir resistant walls was accepted. The five largest risks were further sub-divided into two, making thirteen separate rooms on each floor. During 1886 the E&WIDCo decided to use the top floor for showrooms where buyers could examine and sample tea. Accordingly, they proposed to have only four rooms on the top floor but were persuaded to retain two longitudinal dividing walls. In all, therefore, there were eight rooms on the top floor and thirteen rooms on each of the other three floors, making 47 rooms altogether. 29

We did not have access to all rooms since part of the warehouse was in use as a bonded store. One room entered, on the top floor, had a wood and glass partition behind which were offices. There were also offices on the first and second floors which were lit by gas in 1888. In the north end, particularly on the west side, there was evidence of the 1942 rebuilding. For example, rolled steel joists, by Dorman Long, Cargo Fleet, had been substituted for the original circular cast iron columns. The nine northern bays had a flat roof of concrete covered with loose chippings whilst the other bays each had a ridge roof of slate over wood planking, supported by tension rods.

Evans and Swains flooring, which consisted of wood planks fastened to close set timber joists usually plastered on the underside, was used for its fire resistant qualities. But the E&WIDCo failed to plaster the underside of the timbers. In some parts the floors were covered with asphalt. 30 Floor loading notices around the warehouse read 2 tons per sq yd. The total storage area for the four floors was 358000 square feet. 31

The intention had been to use cruciform section cast iron stanchions which, on the goods station platforms, were to have been encased in terracotta. But Stride, the LTSR engineer, found that such stanchions would not support the weight of the warehouse. His first solution was to seek permission to build dividing walls with steel plates separated by an air space. This plan was abandoned in favour of hollow brick division walls which were said to be in course of construction upon this principle in July 1886. 32 What happened next is unclear but the final arrangement was that circular cast iron columns were used throughout. Those on the goods station level were not encased in terracotta.

The columns in the goods station all bore the date 1886 but the riveted plate girders which they supported bore the date 1887. Both columns and beams were made by Arrol Bros, Germiston Iron Works, Glasgow. At roof level the east-west beams were lattice pattern, elsewhere I section beams, strengthened at intervals with ribs, were used. Where rebuilding had taken place I section rolled steel joists replaced all earlier ironwork.

The outer walls were substantially built and faced with dark red and blue engineering bricks. The iron framed windows were surmounted by segmental brick arches with limestone dressings. There are several references in the minutes of the Warehouse Improvement & Wharf Committee to the use of kiln wire to protect the windows where there were other warehouses on the opposite sides of Gower's Walk and Lambeth Street. There was evidence of loading directly from the warehouse into carts in the street but cranes and catheads had been removed apart from one cathead in Gower's Walk where there was also a control cabin.

There were several large water tanks on the third floor but their use could not be ascertained. On the north side of the building there was a door at first floor level but the outside staircase which must have given access to it had gone. Also gone was the balustrade shown on an early photograph of the south end of the building. 33

The warehouse seems to have been used exclusively for imported goods and goods to be re-exported, particularly tea; the goods station was used for both imports and exports. Consignees would be advised of delivery of goods at the warehouse which would wait there for collection, though some transportation seems to have been carried out by the Railway and Dock Companies.

By October 1887, tea was being stored in the two upper floors. The tea came from India and Ceylon in chests (1 cwt 14lbs — 57.2 kg), half chests (2 qtrs 14lbs — 31.8 kg) and boxes (1 qtr — 12.7 kg) and was bulked, that is mixed together to obtain an even quality, at the warehouse. There used to be two hydraulic powered tea bulking machines but we found no trace of them. The tea was then packed either in tins or packets for inland distribution or re-export. In Hooper Street, on the west side of Hooper Street Warehouses yard, there was a tin box factory which might have had a connection with this trade. 34

The Dock Company abandoned a proposal to concentrate its indigo traffic at Commercial Road. The plan included accommodation on the first and second floors for indigo brokers, with storage in the Street Level arches. But the indigo remained at Jewry Street. 35

From 1888, twenty six rooms were allocated for tea and general storage whilst the remaining twenty one rooms were listed as wool warehouses. Insurance tariffs for the two categories differed. Wool had to be stored in such a way that a space of 8 inches was left between the wool and the dividing walls. Iron rails were fitted to ensure this happened. Bales of wool arrived at the docks held together with iron bands which were removed at the docks. The bales had swollen to their normal condition when they arrived at the warehouse. 36 At this time Britain was a net importer of raw wool, some 350 million pounds being imported in 1891. 37

During 1890, the Dock Company began to use the wool divisions for tea and envisaged that eventually all the wool sections would be devoted to tea. By 1896 wool was once again being stored and a set of complicated rules were devised to allow a certain amount of flexibility on the part of the Dock Company regarding what was stored where.

From time to time other goods were stored temporarily, often to relieve the arches below. Flour was kept on the first floor during 1888. Liquorice, bark extract, glue, tinned goods and pickles in No 10 Division enraged the Wharves & Warehouse Committee who ordered their removal and asked for (the Dock Company's) assurance that no more such goods will be taken. In 1896 Canadian cheese was stored temporarily on the first floor and the same rooms were used in December of that year for toys. But the main use of the warehouse was for the storage of tea.

For a while in 1888, the Dock Company used Nos. 67 & 68 Lambeth Street, opposite Commercial Road Goods Depot, for storing castor oil. 38


There were several lifts connecting the two goods station levels with the warehouse floors above. On the Upper Rail Level all the lifts were grouped on the central banks, around three large wells which penetrated all the warehouse floors. Two wells were each equivalent to two bays whilst the third extended over three bays. The bays at either side of the wells had balconies at each floor level, each balcony extending round three sides of the section with the well on the fourth side. The lifts were either in the well itself or in one of the adjoining balcony bays.

The older lift shafts were protected by wooden planking arranged vertically around a wooden frame. Others were built of brick. One of the older shafts contained a staircase in place of a lift. There were two other staircases from the Upper Rail Level to the warehouse but these were cast iron structures in the wells. There were two modern elevators, one of which was curiously labelled No 4 Elevator; these were both located on one of the central platforms. Originally the lifts were hydraulically powered but latterly this had been replaced by electric motors. On the top floor next to one of the lifts there was a small box-truck inscribed with paint PLA Test Truck / 1 ton 2 cwt 37 lbs. A 20lb weight stood next to it.

Other Buildings

Besides the main warehouse there were several other buildings associated with the depot. Hooper Street Warehouses deserve their own report but must be mentioned here because of their association with the railway depot from 1886. The warehouses abut upon the west side of the south yard immediately south of the hydraulic pump house. There is road access from Hooper Street via a yard along the west side and the narrow lane called Mill Yard forms the southern boundary. Doorways open onto the railway arches on the east side and into Mill Yard. The warehouse has six storeys plus basement although some of the upper floors at the north end have been lost through war damage. At least three distinct periods of building can be distinguished. The central part, with an exceptionally strong cast-iron floor construction, is tentatively dated to the 1850s. The northern part, with timber floors, has brick window heads which are ornamented with Sgraffito decoration, and is probably circa 1870. This date is supported by documentary evidence in the form of a plan dated 1872, possibly drawn to show the alterations. A section at the south end also has this style of decoration and is probably of similar date. The southern wing of the earlier part was altered at the same time, or soon after. Lastly, a yard near the southern end was bridged across and four storeys built above it. Although it was certainly a wool warehouse by 1872, the structure suggests that the original purpose of the building was different. 39 [It was probably a sugar refinery — TRS] Associated with this warehouse was the LTSR Goods Office at 137 Leman Street.

Apart from the hydraulic pump house, which is described later, the largest of the other buildings was the Superintendent's Office, a two-storey block arranged around the north-western corner of the north yard. This red brick building with a gabled roof of slate and tall chimneys, was built between 1896 and 1913. The original office was a simple single-storey affair as shown on the 1887 photograph. At the east end of the range a covered staircase (open in the 1887 photograph and on the 1896 OS plan) led from the main entrance to the north yard. The office building contained little of note, save for a dead cat and a few empty meths bottles. A door marked Private turned out to be the lavatory. Three smaller offices along the western wall of the north yard were used by Cotteril's, Perlbach's and the police. At the main entrance stood two huts, one for the railway police and the other for the Dock Company police.

There were several smaller offices and huts around the site. The Upper Rail Level goods station had a collection of 14 small buildings on and around the loading bays, including offices for Customs, Dock Company, Number Takers, Ostend Office, Shipping Office, Delivery Office and another police office. The weighbridges each had an associated wooden hut containing the mechanism, despite their being indoors.

The Yards

The small to the north of the depot, covering about a third of an acre, allowed transverse movement of wagons and also accommodated one of the wagon hoists. As it was paved with granite setts it could also be used by road vehicles. The larger south yard extended over some three acres and was dissected by Hooper Street which was spanned by a plate girder bridge. There were several sidings including one with an ash pit and water crane for the locomotives. There was no locomotive turntable. The arrangement of sidings was altered around 1915 when the third wagon hoist was installed. There were some small buildings and huts in the south yard, including a workshop and a platelayers' forge but these had disappeared by the time of our survey when most of the track had been lifted.

Train services to and from Tilbury was provided as required with a journey time which shall not exceed two hours. Special box wagons were used for fine goods such as tea. General cartage to and from the depot seems to have been undertaken by the LTSR, within a radius of six miles, but the Dock Company provided vans for tea. 40 There were no stables in the depot but some of the arches of the approach viaduct along Pinchin Street were used as stables, presumably by the LTSR but this is uncertain. 41

The Hydraulic System

A hydraulic power system was provided to work wagon hoists, numerous capstans, cranes and lifts. Water was pumped to a high pressure at a central point and transmitted via high-pressure mains to power machinery which would today be powered by electric motor. The pressure was regulated and energy stored by weight-loaded accumulators in which huge weights were allowed to rise and fall on a column of water inside a cylinder. In 1886 the London Hydraulic Power Company was in its infancy, their first pumping station being opened at Bankside in 1883. 42 So the LTSR provided its own pumping station, in common with most other railway companies in London. 43

In Hooper Street, where the pump house was situated, there was no convenient supply of water, unlike at LHP pumping stations which were all grouped around the River Thames or the Regent's Canal. So a closed circuit system was adopted. The evidence for this lies beneath one of the wagon hoists from where a low-pressure return pipe follows the high pressure pipe back to the pumping station. [During development work on the site to the south of the pump house a bored tube well was discovered. It probably supplied water to the boilers of the wool warehouse but no doubt there was a similar well for supplying top-up water for the hydraulic system as well as the pump house boilers. TRS 28/1/2000]

The Pumping Station

A distinctive two-storey red brick building to house boilers on the ground floor and two stationary steam pumping engines above was erected on the south side of Hooper Street, west of the bridge, on the site of the former German chapel (TQ 341810). The accumulator tower was adjacent, north of a 125-foot high chimney which has been demolished. 44

The style of the warehouse matched that of the warehouse but with some semi-circular headed windows in the accumulator tower. Suggestions have been made that the chapel building was adapted for use as an engine house but this was not so as can clearly be seen both in the structure of the obviously purpose-built building and by reference to the relevant OS plans. There was, for example, a pathway between the chapel and the wool warehouse whereas the back wall of the pumping station is flush with the warehouse wall for part of its length.

The Engine Room

Two 150hp horizontal steam engines were used to pump water into two accumulators. 45 The make and type of engines is unknown since they were removed together with their boilers and pumps, before our survey. [They were twin tandem compounds, like those at Tower Bridge, by Sir W G Armstrong, Mitchell & Co, who had the lowest tender. — PRO LTSR Minute Books]

The engine house floor was on two levels, at the base of the engine beds and at their top. Most of the upper floor, probably of iron grille or chequer plate, had been removed. From the clutter around the engine room it was apparent that the room had also been used as a workshop by the hydraulic fitters. A couple of capstan maintenance records found in an office in the north-east corner indicate that there might have been two fitters employed there in the 1950s. The last entries on these records are dated December 1957 and January 1958, perhaps indicating the demise of the pumping station? [No, the station was closed in the 1920s after which power was bought from LHP. The two accumulators were retained. TRS]

The high roof of the engine house was in the form of a clerestory and was supported by a steel truss frame. Along the south wall, just below roof level, was a large water tank some 57 feet long by 3 feet wide and perhaps 3 feet deep, capable of holding some 3000 gallons. This was the header tank for the high-pressure pumps.

The two engine beds suggested that the engines were of the horizontal type, each with a flywheel at the south end. More than that could not be ascertained from our cursory visit, all other details coming from written evidence or being deduced. A third block on the east side of the building might have supported a third engine installed later but the evidence is inconclusive. The block itself had partially collapsed. Only two engines appear on the fire insurance plans of 1889 so perhaps this block carried auxiliary equipment.

A double door gave access to the goods yard and an iron spiral staircase to the boiler house has been removed.

The Boiler House and Accumulators

The engine room floor was supported by four semicircular brick arches within each of which had been placed on Lancashire boiler. All four boilers had been removed before our survey but the remains of the brick settings gave some indication of their size and type. [The boiler settings have now been removed — TRS] There was a wide area in front of the boilers with subsidiary arches piercing the brick piers. A common flue, 3 feet 3 inches wide by 5 feet high, ran along the rear of the boilers to the base of the 125 feet high chimney. The boilers were about 27 feet long by 7 feet diameter, in brick settings with sandstone flags laid along the ledges on either side and on top of the common flue. Dampers were provided at the far end of the boilers at the outlets to the flue. The coal store, under an adjacent section of the railway yard, was separated from the boiler room by a portcullis style of iron gate. Coal requirements were probably of the order of two or three wagon loads per week, the coal being fed into the store via a chute from the yard above.

A gap in the brickwork gave access to the accumulator tower which still contains two weight-loaded accumulators. The weight-cases are each about 9 feet diameter and made of riveted iron (or steel) plates. The tower is a little over 50 feet tall. The size of the accumulator cylinders could not be measured. The tower is rectangular in plan, with internal dimensions about 19 feet by 10 feet, measured from a Midland Railway plan. [The weight-cases have since been removed revealing the cylinders — TRS]


Steam locomotives were not allowed in the goods depot. 46 No doubt this was to reduce the risk of fire and to avoid the problems of smoke and steam which would be difficult to disperse, unlike in a passenger station where a high roof was usually provided. Although the viaduct in the depot was more substantial than that of the main line, weight restrictions may also have played a part since the viaduct also supported the warehouse.

Capstans (or horses) were more convenient than locomotives for moving single wagons for short distances as would be necessary in and around the depot, and they avoided the need to keep a locomotive in steam for such intermittent duties.

Wagons were moved using hydraulic shunting capstans. Many could be found around the depot. At least two survive south of Hopper Street [ie in the bit which survived well after demolition of the rest of the depot, but which now has also been demolished. — TRS] Most were Armstrong turnover capstans with a safe working load of 1 ton 5 cwt. 47 They could be tilted about a horizontal axis so as to give access to the hydraulic motor underneath. The water supply was taken through one of the trunnions so inspection could be carried out without having to disconnect any pipework. Operation was by a single spring loaded foot pedal, as no reverse is required on a capstan. When capstan ropes were required to pass round corners, when turning wagons on turntables for example, unpowered fairleads were provided as guides.

Most capstans had bulbous heads but there was one mushroom shaped capstan in the south-west corner, serving the track from the wagon hoist, on the Upper Level. There were several notices in and around the depot warning people to Beware of capstan ropes and moving trucks. One of these was in Hooper Street. The LTSR Act of 1884 stipulated that only horses could be used to move wagons, one at a time, across the street. The LTSR had to provide lookouts, and road traffic had preference over rail. But at sometime during the depot's history, perhaps early on, horses must have given way to capstans.


In the Upper Level goods depot each platform had a number of hydraulic cranes of 1-ton and 2-ton capacity, arranged alternately along it. Altogether there were nine 1-ton and twelve 2-ton cranes in varying states of preservation. The best examples were complete except for chains and hooks. The load was raised by means of a vertical hydraulic jigger in the stem of the crane and to which two sheaves were attached. The cylinders were 5 inches and 6 inches diameter for the 1-ton and 2-ton cranes respectively. Chains passed around these sheaves and others fixed to the stem and jib in such a way as to raise the load when the ram moved upwards. Slewing of the cranes was achieved by means of two horizontal hydraulic cylinders and rams placed side by side in a small pit in the platform. Vertical sheaves, to which the rams were attached, were linked by means of a chain passing round two more sheaves mounted horizontally and forming part of the crane stem. The controls consisted of two levers beside the platform pit. Presumably these opened and closed valves in the hydraulic supply pipes. The pit was protected by removable wooden covers.

Small plates on each crane were inscribed with its capacity and an identification number. The remains of two similar cranes were found in the Lower Level, north of Hooper Street.

South of Hooper Street there is one crane in situ but it is of a different design. A maker's plate attached to the stem shows that it was supplied by Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd, of Elswick Works, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This means it was installed between 1897 and 1928, Its capacity was 5-tons. [This section of viaduct has been demolished and built over. The fate of the crane is unknown].

A photograph of the depot, probably taken around 1913, shows six large wall-cranes on the Gower's Walk side of the warehouse. 48 At the time of our survey there were none but there was a control cabin, made of wood, high up on the warehouse wall. Also in the photograph is a large 25-ton crane, just outside the warehouse in the south yard. This stood on a concrete plinth of about 15 feet diameter.

The Wagon Hoists

Railway wagons could be moved between upper and lower levels on one of three wagon hoists, all of which were similar. The original plans of the depot show three wagon hoists but all are in different locations to those actually provided. Two are shown at the north end of the depot, one in the yard but at right angles to the one built there, and one inside the depot on the west side next to the inclined roadway. The third is shown in the south-west corner, north of Hooper Street, close to the position of the one built there, but again at right angles to it. Both those in the yards would have needed wagon turntables for access to the hoists and this might be why they were swung round by 90 degrees. Clearly only two were initially provided, in the north-east corner and in the south-west corner. The hoist in the centre of the south yard, south of Hooper Street, was installed later, probably around 1915 since it appears for the first time on the Midland Railway plan of that date and is not shown on the OS plan of 1913.

All the hoists were similar in design but the newest one was in the best condition and was examined in some detail. The platform of the hoist was 25 feet by 12 feet. This is a generous size as until very recently the normal UK wagon (either open or box) did not exceed 20 feet over buffers. This suggests that it was designed with the expectation of having to handle larger wagons, or that it was designed for overseas train ferry wagons. The first idea would imply that the hoist was comparatively modern and agrees with a date of during or after the First World War.

There are two single stage cylinders under the centre of the platform, mounted vertically. One has a ram of 12 to 14 inches in diameter and the other one of 5 to 6 inches diameter (it was not possible to measure these accurately due to water in the pit). The large cylinder obviously provided the main lifting force. The function of the smaller one was that of a hydraulic counterbalance, though the need for this is uncertain since the large cylinder would be capable of lifting at least 40 tons. A loaded wagon would not exceed 20 tons (16 to 18 tons is more typical of pre-grouping wagons). Indeed, one of the other hoists bore a plate reading 20 Tons Reg. No P1832. The platform probably weighed 10 tons. So this means that the large ram alone has plenty of capacity. As will be seen from the diagram the small cylinder was permanently connected to the high-pressure supply and capable of balancing a load of 7 to 10 tons (based on 800 psi), ie the weight of the platform.

The arrangement of the valves used to activate the hoist is shown in figure x. The two valves were contained in a single block. Opening the raise valve allowed high-pressure water from the supply pipe to pass to the ram cylinder. Opening the lower valve connected the water in the cylinder to the return pipe and the weight of the platform was then sufficient to force the water back along the return pipe. The two valves were operated by a single shaft, turning this one way works the raise valve, turning the other way works the lower valve, the central position gives a stop facility. All this equipment was located in a basement chamber alongside the hoist, but a system of chains and levers allowed control from the high level. The function of the small -inch pipe is uncertain. There must have been some means of pumping rainwater out of the pit, and it is possible that the -inch line worked a small hydraulic pump in the bottom of the pit. The fact that the pit was half full of water meant that it was not possible to see if and where the various pipes connected to the cylinders. Presumably the 1-inch pipe was the one connected to the small balance cylinder.

The piped return meant that the low-pressure water did not go to waste, as was normal with customers of LHP. This was probably because the pumping station, unlike those of LHP, is not near any convenient water supply and a closed loop system was, therefore, essential.

The platform was raised and lowered inside a framework of four vertical riveted plate girder runners of I section. These were well greased. Some of these runners had been replaced by RSJs on some hoists. Midway along each side was a vertical, rectangular tube with a hole in the side near the top. This was cross-braced to the top of the runners which projected some 10 feet above the higher rail level. On the earlier hoists the railway tracks at the top and bottom had moveable stop blocks of iron to prevent wagons approaching the pit when the platform was not in the correct position. On the newer hoist this was achieved by two long heavy baulks of timber, one at each end of the platform. These had originally been connected to the platform by chains passing over high level pulleys. Unlike hoists at other goods depots in London, these hoists do not appear to ever have had any roof or shelter of any kind.


The warehouse, and everything to the north of it, was demolished at the end of 1975. There remains one circular brick gate post in Goodman's Stile. The viaduct south of the warehouse and along Pinchin Street is in situ as is the bridge over Hooper Street, but Back Church Lane bridge has gone. The hydraulic pump house in Hooper Street is listed, Grade II, but contains little in the way of equipment except for the two accumulators. No 137 Leman Street is a cafe and the Hooper Street Wool Warehouses stand derelict. [In 2002 only the hydraulic pumping station remains. The approach viaduct can still be found on Pinchin Street. — TRS]


Commercial Road Goods Depot was purpose built to handle a volume of traffic that initially did not materialise. At the time of its building it was one of the largest and most up-to-date depots in London incorporating all the latest goods handling equipment. The depot was not substantially altered during its lifetime, apart from the reparation of war damage, though it did undergo several internal rearrangements. The archaeological evidence seems to bear out the written sources consulted, in particular that the goods depot opened in 1886 and the warehouse in 1887. Also it seems fairly certain that the Street Level was used for storage at least until 1897 and possibly until 1912. There are, no doubt, many documentary sources which could have been consulted to add to the story, but these have been left for others to pursue.

In its last years the depot served many functions, not the least was as a doss house for the many vagrants of the district. Their empty meths bottles littered everywhere from the offices to the wagon hoists. Sadly, one of them met an untimely end when the hut in which he was sleeping was bulldozed during the demolition.

Now the site of the depot is a huge building site encompassing the streets to the west as well. Such is the scale of modern building that a building which must have dwarfed its neighbours right from the start and been the pride of the LTSR and the Dock Co would itself be engulfed by its successor.


In these notes the following abbreviations are used:

1. For a general history of the Port of London see D J Owen, Port of London Yesterday and Today, 1927; and J Pudney, London's Docks, 1975.

2. H D Welch, The London Tilbury and Southend Railway, 1963

3. 45/6 Vict Ch 143 London Tilbury and Southend Railway Act of 1882

4. TI(P)

5. 47/8 Vict Ch 135 London Tilbury and Southend Railway Act of 1884


7. OS 1:1056 Plan of 1875; Kelly's Post Office Directories, various years

8. Annual Reports of the Gower's Walk Free School, 1884 to 1890 (in Tower Hamlets Local History Library); The Builder, 11 July 1885

9. The Builder, 10 Jan 1885, 24 Jan 1885 and 18 April 1885

10. 48/9 Vict Ch 167 Metropolitan Board of Works (Various Powers) Act of 1885; A set of photographs in the Tower Hamlets Local History Library collection shows the Baptist Chapel and demolition of nearby houses.

11. J Pudney, op cit

12. H D Welch, op cit


14. TI(2)


16. Kelly's Post Office Directories for appropriate years


18. TI(3)

19. TI(4)

20. TI(5)

21. Midland Railway plans of the depot, dated 1915 and in the possession of the National Westminster Bank

22. T B Peacock, PLA Railways, 1952; PLA Handbook, 1963

23. C R Clinker & J M Firth, Register of Closed Passenger Stations and Goods Depots in England, Scotland & Wales; PLA Magazine, 1967

24. T Harrison, Living Through the Blitz, 1976; Whitechapel Art Gallery catalogue of paintings Stepney in War and Peace by Rose L Henriques, June 1947

25. Midland Railway Plans of 1915






31. Guide for the use of Visitors to the Docks and Warehouses, published by the London & India Docks Joint Committee, 1897


33. Guide for the use of Visitors to the Docks and Warehouses, published by the PLA, 1913

34. Goad Fire Insurance Plans, London V, October 1889 but with revisions.



37. Wool and Manufactures of Wool, published by the Bureau of Statistics, Treasury Department, Washington D.C., 1894


39. Wharf and Warehouse Committee plan, Guildhall Library MS 75627/33. In the 1860s the Leman Street address (No 78 at that time) is listed as Chas. & J F Bowman, sugar refiners.

40. TI(P); MWIWC

41. Goad F I P

42. I McNeil, Hydraulic Power, 1972

43. GOAD FIPs, The Builder, 1883 Vol. 45 page 414

44. Aerial photographs in Tower Hamlets Local History Library appear to show it was demolished sometime before 1964.


46. Photograph in Guide for the Use of Visitors...PLA 1913, shows a notice to this effect.

47. There is a photograph and description of this type of capstan in McNeil.

48. Guide for the use of Visitors to the Docks and Warehouses, published by the PLA 1913

© GLIAS, 1980