Tag Archives: Rotherhithe

Great Fires of London and the West India Docks

The River Thames and the new West India Docks

From Ordnance Survey First Series 1805

Jamaican sugar planters sometimes struggled to get their produce back to England. Freight rates were often high, ships sometimes in short supply and of course they could be lost at sea. Along with a developing banking industry, the eighteenth century saw the growth of insurance, and new companies sprang up that would insure a cargo against loss. If you have London ancestors you may find them in the Sun Fire Office records, which are held at the Guildhall in London, and indexed on the National Archives online.

Fire was, and is, an ever present risk and it was especially so for warehouses storing Jamaica’s main exports of sugar and rum which are both highly flammable.

I remember stories in my childhood of how the bombing of the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery at Greenock in the second World War caused a fire that could be seen from many miles away. Two decades later a fire in a bonded whisky warehouse in Glasgow remains Britain’s worst peacetime fire services disaster. Wooden barrels stored on wooden racks in an old building with a high wood content burned furiously, and the vapourising alcohol caused an explosion that blew out the sides of the building and cast debris and barrels of flaming liquid onto the firefighters below. Both sugar and alcohol explode at high temperatures, scattering fiery material to start further fires.

Such was the nature of two disastrous London fires in the eighteenth century. You may remember I wrote a while ago about Captain Stephen Blanket who sailed supply ships to Jamaica and ended his life with a comfortable fortune as a merchant, living in Princes Street Rotherhithe, which ran at right angles to the river Thames. There, shortly after his death, a kettle of molten pitch, used for caulking ships and other waterproofing jobs, boiled over and caught fire. The fire spread and destroyed over 200 buildings along the river front at Rotherhithe. The buildings would almost all have been built of wood, many old and dilapidated and many containing flammable materials arriving from abroad or waiting to be despatched. Such fires could be difficult to put out and were sometimes long lasting – after the Great Fire of London in 1666 materials smouldered in cellars for many months afterwards, bursting into flame again when air reached them.

An even more disastrous fire happened at the end of the eighteenth century on the opposite side of the river at Ratcliff. In July 1794 another pitch kettle fire, at Cloves barge builder’s yard, ignited a cargo of saltpetre, an ingredient of gunpowder, in a riverside barge. This sent exploding fragments high in the air over a wide area and before it was finally put out the fire had destroyed 453 private houses, more than 20 warehouses and other large buildings and several ships on the river. The buildings destroyed included offices of the East India Company. Although largely forgotten now, it was London’s worst fire between the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz.

Add these risks to the constant threat to merchants’ profits from the pilfering of their cargoes as they were unloaded on to smaller boats in the overcrowded river Thames and rowed ashore to be manually handled into storage, and you can understand the pressure for a new solution to London’s booming international trade.

The need for new docks had been mooted for some time and in the end a large number were built on both sides of the river, but the most brilliant of these were the West India Docks which utilised a bend in the river at the Isle of Dogs to create an industrialised cargo handling system on a scale that had not been seen before. Ships coming up river entered the docks from Blackwall Reach, unloaded their cargoes directly into huge brick built warehouses and then left via Limehouse Reach having loaded a new cargo. The whole site was secured by a continuous high brick wall.

This view of the proposed West India Docks and City Canal is by W. Daniell and was painted in 1802 when construction had already begun. It looks west towards the City of London. In fact the final layout of the docks was rather different, with three broad docks rather than two docks and a canal, and it was further modified later in the nineteenth century to make use of the new railway technology and steam powered cranes.

A survey sponsored by English heritage and published in 1994, when the docks had reached the end of their useful life, can be viewed on British History online and it shows the vast scale of the eventual project.

One spin-off of the West India Dock Company was the founding of the Imperial Insurance Company, ever mindful of the risk of fire.

Little now remains of this huge and wonderful feat of civil engineering and mercantile ambition – replaced by London’s Docklands offices and tower blocks, the symbol of a different age of ambition. Its history is preserved in the Docklands Museum, housed in these few remaining buildings.

Stephen Blankett – A Captain on the Jamaica run


Ships in Kingston Harbour c.1745

I first came across Stephen Blankett when he was mentioned in the Lee letters as captain of the Landovery, the ship in which Robert Cooper Lee sailed to Jamaica.  I was curious to know what might be discovered about such a man and amazed to see how much I could find out armed with only the name of the ship and her captain’s surname.

Stephen Blankett must have been born about 1705, or perhaps a little earlier, for he married Elizabeth Born in 1726 at St Marylebone by Vicar General’s licence issued on the 15th of September.  He may have come from a family of Thames lightermen, the skilled sailors of small boats who plied their trade in London’s river ferrying goods to and from larger ships anchored there, and acting as a river taxi service for passengers wishing to avoid London’s crowded  streets, or to cross from one bank of the river to the other.

Stephen and Elizabeth settled in Maidenhead Court in Wapping where the first six of nine children were born between 1728 and 1738, and baptised at the church of St John at Wapping.  About 1740 they moved across the river to Rotherhithe where three more children were born and baptised at St Mary’s Rotherhithe.  Living so close to the river was obviously ideal for someone who earned his living from the sea.

The first official record I have come across for Stephen Blankett and his ship the Landovery is in 1740 when for several months they were held in port, fully loaded and ready to sail, but unable to do so because no convoy was available to protect them on the voyage to Jamaica.  On June 25, 1740 the Landovery was waiting at Deptford, and the Sheldon under Captain William Bird was moored nearby at Gallions Reach.  By the 4th of July it was reported that The Industry a stores ship, with William Clarke as Master, was at Blackwall and due to leave for Spithead and then Jamaica with a cargo similar to that of the Sheldon and Landovery.  Official papers recommended that she should sail with the same man of war as the other two ships.  On the 7th of  July Stephen Blankett arrived at Spithead and wrote to request orders to sail.

However the National Maritime Museum holds a letter written in early October from “the owners of the Sheldon, Landovery and Industry transports who have been ready to sail for 3 months. Captain Renton, who was due to convoy them, sailed in July. Commodore Anson sailed on the 18th Sept without them. They claim demurrage from that time and ask for a special convoy.”  In four months the ships had only travelled as far as Portsmouth.

Sailing in the Caribbean carried with it the risk of hurricanes and in 1749 several ships leaving Jamaica in early September suffered severe damage, the Landovery however, leaving on the 1st from Pig Bay had escaped.

Throughout the 18th century, apart from the hazards of the weather, ships regularly faced the danger of capture by privateers, or opposing navies.  This posed particular problems for the colonists in the Caribbean islands who were far from being self-sufficient, unlike those on the mainland of North America, and who were over dependent on imported supplies.

Jamaica had virtually no indigenous manufacturing and imported a huge range of necessities.  The cargo of a ship like the Landovery would have included items such as barrels of salt beef and pork; casks of butter from Ireland (its rancid flavour on arrival being something of an acquired taste!); beer and wine; oil for lamps; clothing and shoes; rolls of cloth; pots and pans; powder and shot; copper stills for rum making and sugar boiling equipment; iron collars and shackles for restraining slaves; agricultural tools for working the plantations; high quality ready-made carpentry such as window frames for planters’ mansions; and luxury items such as tea, furniture, silverware, oriental silks and porcelain.

And of course there were passengers such as the young Robert Cooper Lee.  We sometimes underestimate the extent to which people travelled to and fro across the Atlantic during the 18th-century, and it was common for merchants and planters to make trips back to Britain on business, for families to travel “home” perhaps to visit England for the first time, for sick colonists to travel back to Europe in the hope of regaining their health, and for quite young children to be sent to England for their education. On the outward voyage there would also be young men (and they were mainly men) off to seek their fortune, and particularly in the early part of the century indentured servants who had sold their labour for a fixed term and hoped to gain independence and some land at the end of it.

The convoy eventually sailed, but in November 1744 the Westminster Journal was again reporting that the Jamaican convoy had been held in port since April for want of a naval escort.  It must have been a considerable relief to everyone concerned when the War of the Austrian Succession came to an end in 1748 and for nearly a decade the seas were a little safer – until the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1757.

It was common for Jamaican ships to be named after the estate which they supplied, and there was a Landovery estate in the parish of St Anns, so it is likely that the original owners of the ship were the owners of the Landovery estate.  Stephen Blankett may have had a share in his ship, or he may simply have made use of the opportunities it provided.  Either way by the early 1760s we find him trading as a merchant in his own right when ‘Stephen Blankett and Company of Rotherhithe’  based at Princes Street, owned a ship called the London, a vessel of 300 tons armed with 18 carriage and 4 swivel guns.

The Landovery herself seems to have had a chequered history during the 1750s. In November 1753 returning from Jamaica under Captain Miller, she was listed as lost off Boulogne and 20 crew were reported drowned. There may in fact have been more men on board than normal, for another newspaper reported that she had picked up the crew of the  Charming Betty sailing from Dublin to Bordeaux which had been run down by a Dutch dogger heading from Cork to Nantes. It seems possible the Landovery was successfully salvaged. At the time  “forty puncheons of rum and some planks of mahogany” were recovered, and in October 1756 the Leeds Intelligencer reported that a ship of the same name sailing from Liverpool to Jamaica under Captain Johnson was captured and taken to Havre de Grace.

By the time Stephen Blankett made his will in 1762 he was a relatively wealthy man able to leave much stock and personal property to his wife Elizabeth, and to request that she should sell enough of his investments in the 3% consols to provide each of his children with £500.  Blankett died at 26 Princes Street Rotherhithe in March 1765 and was buried at St Mary Rotherhithe on the 29th of March.

In June of 1765, two months after the death of Stephen Blankett, Princes Street in Rotherhithe, was largely destroyed in a terrible fire caused when a pitch kettle boiled over.  More than two hundred houses, numerous warehouses and other buildings were destroyed and 250 families were made homeless.

Of Stephen Blankett’s nine children, at least five lived to grow up.  William became a shipbuilder, Lydia married John Beach a mariner of Princes Street, Esther married Samuel Meek a ship owner, and Elizabeth married George Dominicus an East India merchant.

John Blankett (1741-1801) following his father to sea, had an interesting naval career. At one point condemned to death in Gibraltar for a murder, he was later reprieved and attempted to gain support for various voyages of exploration but was turned down in favour of Captain Cook.  By 1799 John Blankett had become a Rear-Admiral and commander of the Leopard. He died on the Leopard near Mocha on the 14th of July 1801.  According to the Dictionary of National Biography, he was described as ‘an unusually good linguist, having a perfect mastery of French, Italian, and Portuguese. Seen by many as a good officer and an accomplished and amiable gentleman, he was criticized by others for his bad temper and eccentricity during his last days in the Red Sea.’

Elizabeth Blankett outlived her husband by a decade, and was buried at St Mary Rotherhithe on the 8th January 1775.