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Book Review, NRJ 68.1

March 07, 2023 2:37 PM | PAUL R MITCHELL (Administrator)

Shipping on the Thames & the Port of London During the 1940s-1980s: A Pictorial History

By Malcolm & Reg Batten

Reg Batten was a professional photographer who worked for a London photography business. He had a lifetime interest in shipping; especially that on the nearby Thames River. After retiring in the mid-1970s he began to visit the Port of London to photograph its marine activity. He continued to do so until 1983. Now his son Malcom has organized Reg’s photographs as well as some of his own in a handsome picture history published by Pen & Sword Transport.

The photos in the 223-page book are organized topically into chapters; each chapter dealing with a different type of shipping. There are also a number of brief essays on topics relating to the docks and the shipping that visited them. The book is printed on glossy paper and the photographs that usually take up half or all of this large format book are crisp and clear. The range of dates given in the book’s title, 1940-1980s is somewhat of a misnomer. Readers will find few photographs of subjects before the 1970s.

After the usual introductory remarks, the book begins with an essay about The Port of London Authority, (PLA) the organization founded in 1909 to manage the huge collection of enclosed docks along the Thames River; the largest in the world. The book includes a series of maps showing the docks. It took considerable effort on my part to mentally stitch these together into an understandable whole. Entered and exited by a series of locks these very large impoundments allowed vessels to dock, unload and load unaffected by tides in the river. While the essay nicely explains the history and organization of the PLA, I wish that the author had included more technical details of the operation of the locks and impoundments that they served. Another interesting essay described in better detail the central hydraulic system that the PLA built to operate the hundreds of cranes along the waterfront.

By far the largest chapter deals with photographs of “Cargo Shipping;” Thames barges, general cargo ships, tankers, coasters, colliers, container ships, and so on. Most of these pictures are formal portraits taken from the bow or stern quarter. This is understandable as Mr. Batten would not have had access to take photographs on board. Of interest to ship modelers is the overall appearance of these working vessels. While it seems that many modelers want to add realism with dirt and rust, most of those that Mr. Batten photographed appear to be well maintained. Of particular interest to me are several photographs of the Lykes LASH (Lighter Aboard Ship) vessels. These American-flagged ships competed against container ships in the 1980s.

The rest of the book includes chapters on Passenger Ships, Service Vessels, and other miscellaneous visitors to the port. I especially enjoyed the more detailed photographs of the smaller service vessels. Most spectacular are the photographs of the very large floating cranes owned and operated by the PLA. One is shown lifting the steam locomotive Flying Scotsman into the hold of a ship for a voyage to Australia. One of these large floating cranes would be an unusual and interesting subject for an ambitious modeler.

Economic change is often bittersweet, and the book reflects this. The vibrant activity around the docks and the coming and going of handsome, well-maintained ships has been replaced with upscale high-rise housing incorporating vestiges of the area’s industrial past, entertainment venues, and even an airport. But the Port of London has not died. Where it once sprawled for twenty plus miles along the Thames from the Tower of London to Tilbury, it has now been concentrated at its downstream end around Tilbury.

Readers with an interest in late twentieth-century shipping will appreciate this wonderful collection of photographs taken during the time when the industry was being transformed from transportation of traditional break-bulk to containerized cargo.

  • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Transport, 2022
  • 9-3/4” x 11-1/4”, hardcover, 228 pages
  • Extensive photographs, maps. $60.00
  • ISBN: 9781399018401

Reviewed by: C. Roger Pellett, Duluth, Minnesota

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