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The port and river collections are a unique repository of objects and documents that track the history of the Thames and London as a working port over the centuries.
The collection contains material from London’s docks, the river Thames and riverside industries. The Port of London Authority collection was transferred to Museum of London in 1975. It contains historic items that were collected by the East and West India Dock Company in the 19th century, especially commodity samples from all over the world.
The PLA material includes cargo handling equipment and dock trade tools. The bulk of the collection was acquired between 1979 and 1990, the period that saw the closure of the West India and Millwall Docks and the Royal Group of Docks and the beginning of the redevelopment of Docklands.
Traditional Thames craft include a PLA watermen’s skiff (c.1930), the West India Dock skiff, Thames (1934), Hammerton’s Ferry skiff and the Pax (c.1900).
Objects reflect every aspect of the loading and unloading, the handling, sampling and processing of commodities in the port. They include winches and cranes, hand trucks and carts and many varieties of dock hook. Weighing equipment ranges in size from the large beam scales to desktop scales for weighing individual cigars.
Material in this category includes ship’s compasses, sextants, marker and mooring buoys, ship and tug pennants, anchors, diving and salvage gear, including the traditional helmet, canvas suit, weighted boots and hand-powered fresh-air pumps.
A range of Thames river craft, sailing ships and steamer models form part of the collection. Important models include the Lord Mayor of London’s barge by Searle & Co., a City of London Harbour Master’s skiff, Brewers, Chester, and Galley Quay in the City of London, c.1850 and two large 1870s half-models of HMS Northumberland built at the Millwall Ironworks.
This part of the collection is very comprehensive. It includes material relating to barge and boat building, cooper’s and carpenter’s tools, chain testing machinery, engineering pattern-making tools with a large selection wooden patterns, paint and colour making equipment, paper and board making, rice milling, rigger’s and sail-makers’ equipment, shipwright’s tools and ship-chandler’s and tinsmith’s equipment.
Objects relate to a wide range port and river professions including customs and excise officers, dock police, trade union officials, surveyor’s, railway workers and dock administrative staff. There is a very large group of signs and notices that relate to port and river work. Items from London’s 18th and 19th century Greenland and South Sea Whale Fisheries include a try-pot, harpoons, scrimshaw and whale bone.
The port and river collections include material from the Docklands Archive Forum and Joint Docklands Action Group, which shed light on community action during the period of regeneration in Docklands from the 1980s to 2000s. These have not yet been fully catalogued so access may be limited in some cases. Various topic files of secondary material are held on the local area, labour relations, regeneration etc.
The Port of London Authority Archive is held on the same site as the port and river collections, at the Museum of London Docklands.