Silvertown: The derelict wasteland right under London's nose

Published 10th July 2017
View gallery
10 Pictures
silvertown london 21 plane 2
Silvertown: The derelict wasteland right under London's nose
Written by Paul Talling, CNN
Paul Talling is the author of "Derelict London" and the blog of the same name. He leads guided walks around Silvertown and surrounding areas.
Nearly 15 years ago, while living in East London, I started taking my camera on all-day walks off the beaten track, visiting the city's little known -- and unexplored -- deserted wastelands.
Out of all the derelict places in London, none has fascinated me more than Silvertown, an isolated former industry hub east of the River Lea in the borough of Newham. Until recently, it was the only place in London that I could identify blindfolded due to the smell in the air -- a sweet sugar, or the dubious aromas of the few remaining industrial plants in the area.
When I first came across it, all that remained open were a small number of shops that had seen better days, and a little-used railway station, which eventually closed down in 2006. None of my friends in nearby Canning Town would venture over to Silvertown, thinking it too rough.
Every now and then I would enjoy a drink in Cundy's Tavern, the last remaining pub, since closed and replaced by flats. Cundy's was hanging on in its final days, with slashed seats repaired with gaffer tape and hand-written signs advertising strippers. The handful of drinkers in there were always amiable and told me all the local gossip and stories about the area's thriving past. This motivated me to find out more.

'A place of refuge for offensive trade establishments'

Wrought iron gates guard the entrance to Silvertown. The area is named after Samuel Winkworth Silver, who opened a waterproof clothing factory there in 1852.
Wrought iron gates guard the entrance to Silvertown. The area is named after Samuel Winkworth Silver, who opened a waterproof clothing factory there in 1852. Credit: Gina Soden for CNN
Silvertown is east of the River Lea, at the point just before it meets the Thames. In the 19th century, as part of the Essex parish of West Ham (the area became a part of London in 1965), the area's businesses and homes were not regulated by the strict London planning regulations introduced in the 1844 Metropolitan Building Act.
In 1857, parts of this outlying territory were damningly described as "a place of refuge for offensive trade establishments turned out of town, -- those of oil-boilers, gut-spinners, varnish-makers, printers' ink-makers and the like" in the now-defunct weekly magazine Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens.
The area was dubbed Silvertown when, in 1852, Samuel Winkworth Silver relocated his waterproof clothing factory from Greenwich. A number of fertiliser and chemical works soon sprang up, and housing was rapidly constructed to accommodate workers. Companies of a sweeter disposition also set up shop in the area, including James Keiller & Sons, makers of marmalade, and the sugar refiners Tate & Lyle.
Many buildings in Silvertown have stood vacant for decades.
Many buildings in Silvertown have stood vacant for decades. Credit: Gina Soden for CNN
The area was further boosted by the opening of the Royal Docks -- first the Royal Victoria Dock in 1855, followed later by the Royal Albert Dock in 1880 and the King George V Dock in 1921. The docks were a great commercial success, becoming London's principal docks during the first half of the 20th century.
But that good fortune wasn't to last. In 1917, an explosion at the Brunner Mond factory, which the was being used to purify TNT during WWI, killed 73 people, injured more than 400, and destroyed 900 homes. Then, during WWII, the Royal Docks and Silvertown suffered severe damage from German shelling. Both recovered after the war, but their decline was imminent.

Resurrecting a ghost town

With the rise of containerization, the docks closed in 1981, leading to high levels of unemployment in the surrounding communities. Some of the factories continued along (Tate & Lyle, for example, still runs the largest sugar refinery in the Europe from Silvertown), but much of the area fell into dereliction, including local shops and pubs. Many of its original inhabitants moved out further east into deepest Essex as their old home succumbed to fly-tipping and neglect.
But now a spectacular rebirth is underway: In 2015, the Newham Council approved a £3.5 billion ($5.3 billion) redevelopment plan led by the Silvertown Partnership, a coalition of two property developers and an investment bank.
Regeneration will mean a host of new housing, including the 3,385-unit riverside Royal Wharf development that is nearing completion. Across the way, Spillers Millennium Mill has already seen work done to remove asbestos, preparing for its future as home for 150 businesses.
However, there is still a ways to go. All amongst dusty vacant plots covered in lilac buddleia -- Britain's unofficial national flower of abandoned sites -- you can still find plenty of dereliction around the edges, from old factory yards to Georges Diner (they never added an apostrophe to the sign), a former greasy spoon once popular with dockers. Then there's the Graving Dock Tavern that served its last pint over a decade ago, but still soberly stands up aside the sooty verges.
One piece of land has a dilapidated Newham Council sign that proclaims "Acquired for Regeneration." As regeneration takes hold, it stands as a sort of cynical reminder of the slow speed of progress: The contact telephone number begins with the 0171 -- an area code phased out 17 years ago.