Elephants at St Katharine's Dock
Friday 24 February 1995
Opinions may vary but not many people fail to shudder at mention of the ivory trade. Elephants are such inoffensive creatures that killing them purely for profit seems to be a particularly despicable activity.
In the past, Londoners proved oblivious to such moral scruples and were only too happy to make full use of ivory as a commodity. Piano keys, knife handles and hairbrushes were all grist to the slaughter.
The ivory trade was based in St Katharine's Dock, which was built in the 1820s. Before its construction, a community of some 10,000 people had lived here in the shadow of the Tower of London. In a staggering display of forced migration which would have done Stalin proud, the inhabitants of this 23-acre site were brutally evicted in favour of docks and warehouses.
With a horrible irony, St Katharine's was never successful as a commercial venture. The dock entrance proved too small for the ever-larger vessels of the 19th century. In fact if one stands by the dock entrance today it is difficult to see how even a moderately proportioned pleasure boat could have got in.
St Katharine's Dock was closed for good in the Sixties but its upstream position on the fringes of the City meant that it was ideal for conversion into a marina. Shops and restaurants also sprang up inside the old warehouses, while the unspeakably ugly Tower Hotel was erected close to the riverside.
One of the restaurants is the so-called Dickens Inn, housed in a wooden building of about 1780 which pre-dates the dock and shows the inflammatory conditions in which traders originally stored their goods. Opposite is the brick Ivory House of the 1850s, with a fine clock tower and powerful cast-iron columns.
But you simply can't divorce architecture from function. The presence of the two grey elephants who stand mute and sad by the main entrance to the dock is a reminder of the beastly horrors which human beings can often inflict.
The elephants are on the gate pillars in St Katharine's Way, E1
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