The Museum of London Docklands in the Canary Wharf area was like a 2,000 page history book with a steady stream of pop-up illustrations. In other words, it was both enticing and mind-numbing.
Canary Wharf was too. It’s guide/retail directory promised, and delivered, SHOPS, RESTAURANTS, CAFES, BARS, SERVICES & OFFICES. MoLD was somewhat hidden among its 5 malls, banks, corporate offices, and quays in a beautifully restored row of one-time sugar warehouses on the Isle of Dogs.
The free-to-enter Museum of London Docklands attempted to tell me every single fact ever learned about this part of London and wow me from the minute I stepped off the elevator on the 3rd level. I was quickly informed that its port has a long, event-filled history that is still being discovered thanks to archaeological work and ongoing research covering 5 different locations and 2,000 years of trade.
A Waterman’s skiff stuffed with barrels and Brazilian coffee bags greeted me. These small boats provisioned ships, helped with docking, and were used until 1978. I was awed by the Rhinebeck Panorama, an 8 feet long watercolor harbor scene once displayed in a circle for paying curiosity seekers to step into. The equivalent of an early 19th century IMAX experience, this Panorama was found in 1941 lining a barrel of pistols in a loft in Rhinebeck, New York. Next I entered a cornucopia of detailed displays.
Thames is one of England’s oldest landmark names. The first recorded historical reference to this river’s first port, Londinium, was made by Julius Caesar about the time that the Romans muscled in. A virtual flood of illustrations and details followed this information, like “In AD 60, the Roman writer Tacitus described Londinium as ‘an important centre’….later that same year, Londinium was burnt down in a native rebellion led by Queen Boudica.” See what I mean?
When Rome collapsed, so did Londinium. However, by AD 600, a new port named Lundenwic (wic meaning market) was growing on the Thames’ bank. Etc. Etc. Etc. About the time I reached London Sugar and Slavery, my eyes were glazing and I was already experiencing brain-freeze.
Several major fires, invasions, plagues, and bridges later, I was down on the next level. Between City and River, 1800 to 1840, and First Port of Empire, 1840-1880, my senses revived as I entered creepy Sailortown, a recreated 19th century London street complete with urine smell. Jack the Ripper would have felt right at home among its menacing shadows. Many doors were ajar promising murder and/or mayhem on the other side. There were lice-infested lodgings, scary pubs–what a sailor who probably didn’t speak English would experience in 1850 London when it was the world’s largest port. If cholera didn’t kill him, up to 80,000 prostitutes, the exact number hard to calculate, were waiting in public houses to steal his possessions and sexual health.
If you have a deep, deep interest in the history of London as a port and at least a week to spare, this place will be a 5 Compass dream-come-true. For me, 4 Compass.