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Port archive project set to unlock London history

David Spence, Richard Everitt, Claire Frankland and Graham Diprose
(L to R) David Spence (Museum of London Director), Richard Everitt (PLA chief executive), Claire Frankland (Musum of London Archivist) and Graham Diprose (Found Riverscape Project Photographer) examine the river panorama
(Click on image to enlarge)

Access to the Port of London Authority (PLA) archive – said to be one of the most significant in London – is set to be unlocked in a three-year cataloguing programme.

The archive runs to over a kilometre of records and documentation covering 250 years of London history. The Museum of London Docklands, situated close to Canary Wharf is starting the process of electronically cataloguing the contents. The work is expected to take at least three years and will ultimately give historians, river lovers and members of the public easier access to the contents.

The PLA archive details the development and running of the London dock system, from its inception in the 1790s to the latter part of the 20th century. Museum of London archivist, Claire Frankland, explained:

“The PLA archive collection is unique. It covers everything from the initial grand development schemes through to the details of day-to-day life in the docks. It is an archive of international significance, an invaluable resource for social, economic and maritime historians, as well as those pursuing interests in local and family history.

“The archive is massive and we are really excited about what the cataloguing process is going to reveal.”

One of the main assets in the archive is a 1937 panorama of the river, covering both banks between London Bridge and Greenwich. In the run up to the centenary, the PLA supported three photographers – Charles Craig, Graham Diprose, and Mike Seaborne who form the London’s Found Riverscape Project – in shooting a contemporary panorama. Now, the PLA has funded preparation of this new digital photographic panorama so it can be properly preserved and added to the archive.

PLA chief executive, Richard Everitt, said:

“The river has been the focus of life in London for over 2,000 years. We are proud to have been part of its history for the last 100 years and be able to share an archive that provides a fascinating insight into the last 250 years of river history. It’s been a story of continual evolution which the 1937 and 2008 river panoramas illustrate. Placing the 2008 panorama in the archive today provides a snapshot of today’s river for future generations.”

Claire Frankland and Richard Everitt
Richard Everitt hands Claire Frankland a bound copy of the latest river panorama
(Click on image to enlarge)

The PLA was created through an Act of Parliament overseen by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill to bring order to the chaos of the busy and congested port of the early 1900s. It came into existence on 31 March 1909 and since then has overseen safety and development on the river.

Today, London remains one of the country’s biggest ports. Cargo handling takes place further downriver, out of sight of London Bridge, but it’s still the major route by which people in the capital and south east England get food, drink, clothes, fuel and luxury goods.

Included in the PLA collection are:

  • 30 boxes of documents relating to the 19th century dock companies
  • 120 boxes of documents relating to the early years of the PLA
  • 140 boxes of documents relating to post-war PLA activities
  • 50 boxes of post-war PLA personnel documents
  • Full range of architectural drawings relating to all aspects of the docks
  • Full range of PLA river charts