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Remaking London’s Docklands

Charlie Clemoes
London

London’s Docklands has changed beyond recognition in the past few decades, something which the 1979 film The Long Good Friday predicts with remarkable prescience.

Photo of the Canary Wharf from Greenwich. (Author: Matthew Kimemia; License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

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London’s Docklands has changed beyond recognition in the past few decades, something which the 1979 film The Long Good Friday predicts with remarkable prescience.

Twenty minutes into the 1979 film The Long Good Friday, Bob Hoskins’ character Harold Shand makes a speech about the business opportunities afforded by the recent emptying-out of London’s Docklands. The setting is a swanky boat party travelling along the Thames and the audience is well-to-do. Framed by Tower Bridge, Shand begins by loudly exclaiming that “I’m not a politician. I’m a businessman, with a sense of history, and I’m also a Londoner, and today is a day of great historical significance for London.”

He isn’t exactly a businessman, more a mob boss trying to go legitimate, but the rest of what Shand says is more or less right, this was a very significant moment in the history of London, and though he doesn’t say that much more, the rest of his speech is a remarkably perceptive articulation of the shift that was about to take place in London’s economy at the time: from heavy industry and shipping trade to property development and financial services.

A Container-Shaped Coffin

As a previous article discussed, this shift was brought about by the widespread introduction of the shipping container and the adoption of a new approach to manufacturing known as ‘just-in-time’ (JIT) or ‘lean’ manufacturing. Containerisation and JIT brought about a decline in the inner-city warehouse and created a huge empty space in the places where many traditional ports once stood, a situation which Shand greets eagerly: “We’ve got mile after mile, and acre after acre of land, for our future prosperity. No other city in the world has got, right in its centre, such an opportunity for profitable progress.”

Again, Shand wasn’t wrong. During the 1970s, London’s Docklands rapidly declined as a result of containerisation because it was unable to handle the large ships which soon dominated the container system and nor was the rest of the area’s infrastructure properly suited to the rapid movement of goods, since it was too close to the centre of the city. By the time the film was being made, most of the docks had closed and the shipping trade had moved down the Thames to Felixstowe.

Canary Wharf Rises from the Ashes

This rapid disappearance of a once thriving industrial centre had the inevitable effect of decimating a once thriving local culture. Later in the scene, Shand laments that “this used to be the greatest docks in the world at one time,” describing the long queue of ships that ran up the Thames “eighty or ninety ships in here at one time… all the way from Gallions Reach right the way down to Tilbury”. That’s a distance of 27km, from the mouth of the Thames to where London City Airport now sits.

Just a few years after Shand’s speech, the “opportunity” he identifies was realised in the form of the Canary Wharf financial district and the developments that surrounded it. On the face of it, the transformation was a success. Around 120,000 people work in the financial district, compared to 80,000 employed in the docks at their post-war peak. But very few of those new jobs went to the community that had lived and worked in the Docklands area for generations, except in the form of the most menial work, “cleaners, baristas, prostitutes” as Owen Hatherley wrote in a 2012 Guardian article. What’s more, the newcomers to the area pushed the cost of living up for those who remained, tuning the area into a place of striking inequality.

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The three tallest skyscrapers in Canary Wharf, London, as viewed from Cabot Square. (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Outdated Strikes Back

Shand’s short speech also contains another final prediction that ended up coming true. “Our country’s not an island anymore,” he says after his opening line “we’re a leading European state, and I believe that this is the decade in which London will become Europe’s capital, having cleared away the outdated.”

London did become Europe’s capital and the likes of Shand did manage to clear away the outdated (i.e. heavy industry, the shipping trade, working class culture etc.), at least temporarily. But as we’ve found in the past few years, those supposedly outdated elements of London and British life have now repaid this cold indifference with a hard Brexit.

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