Dockland: Smokestacks and Slums: In the Shadows of British Industry, by Cedric Greenwood

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Reviewed by Gill Davies

I was intrigued by the title of this book, which didn’t announce itself as a traditional industrial history, and by its format – it looks rather like a photograph album and has a handsome silver cover. The reasons for the title and its appearance soon became clear. The book has a particular emphasis on what remained of the infrastructure of industrialisation at the time when it was becoming redundant and neglected or destroyed. It concerns a disappeared landscape, the “shadows of British industry,” as it appeared to the author when he first began taking photographs. It is an enthusiast’s book, based on a lifelong fascination with the visual reminders of Britain’s industrial past. Greenwood started taking photos as a boy in the late 1950s and from them he has compiled a very personal record of industrial scenes across Britain.

The structure of the book is rather personal too, arranged in sections that gather together his travels and enthusiasms, with vivid memories of times and places along with more factual and technical details. Thus there are sections on “Railways and Canals”; “Wharves and Warehouses”; “Streets and Slums”; and a final section bringing together observations on different kinds of industrial heritage: “Watermills and Windmills”; “Industrial Architecture”; “Non-Industrialised Ports”; and “Good Industrial Housing”.

Most of the photographs are the author’s though there also some taken by friends who share his enthusiasm. They do not provide a comprehensive survey of Britain’s industrial past – it depends where he went on his travels – but they are a rich source. One nice touch is that he often remembers where and when (and why) he took a particular photograph, recalling journeys as a schoolboy by bus and train from Oxford to Liverpool, and later visits to Scotland and the north of England with his wife. Consequently, some cities and towns are extensively represented, others omitted, and Greenwood does not claim this is a comprehensive survey. He covers Liverpool and Birkenhead, parts of London, ship-building in Glasgow and Barrow, the coal mining heritage of the West Cumbrian coast, and much more. And there are also less expected industrial sites like malthouses in East Anglia, Cornish tin mines, ports at Whitstable, Faversham and Gloucester, Kentish mills and so on.

Although it is not how a “serious” historian of the these landscapes would organise their material, this personal account, led by the images, is a pleasurable and informative read, including as it does knowledge of sites accumulated over a lifetime. Greenwood opens his account with a brief commentary on 19th and early 20th Century industrialisation and urbanisation and his thoughts about why British industry declined in the post war years. In an interesting section on wharves and warehouses he is critical of the destruction of London dockland and its replacement by the “skyscraper office blocks, luxury flats, marinas and an airport” of a place called ‘Docklands’ which has “no ships, no cargoes, no stevedores and no porters – in fact not a very interesting place at all and the social order has changed from the workers to the whizz kids and the wealthy.” In contrast, Liverpool escaped the grasp of metropolitan and international capital. The Albert Dock and its warehouses survived because of neglect and were restored “as monumental features of Liverpool waterfront with multiple new uses.”

While bemoaning the fact that landscapes familiar in his youth have often been replaced by the dull or utilitarian, the author recognises the harsh facts and consequences of industry for the people who lived and worked in these settings.  And he is immensely knowledgeable about the underlying technology necessary to keep docks, railways, warehouses and mills going. He accompanies the photo of Seacombe Dock, taken on a “glorious summer’s evening on 15 August 1962,” with a description of the hydraulic power station “built in 1863 to work swing bridges, lock gates, cranes, capstans and warehouse lifts and hoists through a system of underground high-pressure water pipes”, adding that its “smokestack [is] disguised as a clock tower in the style of an Italian campanile.”

Around the middle of the 20th century, I was born in Lancashire in a terraced house facing the high wall of a monumental cotton spinning factory. It operated day and night shifts and only closed down for maintenance during Wakes Week. At night through the bedroom windows you could see the lights and hear the rhythm of the looms. Close up, there was the smell of oil and cotton. During the day, workers sat out on the fire escapes five storeys up eating their lunch, escaping the heat and humidity. In school we studied cotton and coal and the mills and mines were still working, creating employment for both men and women. That world has gone. Reading Greenwood’s book brought much of it back – and I suspect his audience may well be people with similar responses or memories. But I think he also succeeds in showing people who weren’t alive then what it looked like before so much was demolished, left as wasteland, built over, converted into warehouses or flats.

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Cedric Greenwood,   Dockland, Smokestacks and Slums: In the Shadows of British Industry (Silver Link Books, 2023). 978-1857945928, 175pp., hardback.

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