Fred. Olsen & Co. and the Millwall Docks

My thanks to John Bryant for bringing to my attention some photos he had received from Fred. Olsen & Co.; and also my thanks to Fred. Olsen & Co., especially their UK employee Annette Cassar who kindly went to the effort of asking the Oslo office if I might also use the photos.

Anyone living on the Isle of Dogs in and around the 1970s will not fail to recognise these long sheds in Millwall Docks, visible as they were from East Ferry Road and blocks of flats in the area…

Millwall Docks from Kelson House, 1980s

Photo: Jim Howe

J and K Sheds – as they were formally named by the PLA – were built in 1969 in collaboration with the Fred. Olsen & Co. shipping company.

1980s

The company was founded in Oslo in 1849 by three brothers, Fredrik Christian, Petter and Andreas Olsen. After losing 23 of their 44 ships during the First World War, the company rapidly rebuilt their fleet in the 1920s and expanded their activities into the Mediterranean and Canary Islands.

In 1937 they built new warehouses on the south quay of West India Import Dock for the unloading of their ships bringing fruit from the Canary Islands. At their request, the PLA renamed this section of south quay, Canary Wharf (click here for an article on its history).

A few years later, World War II started and the company again suffered great losses:

When Norway was attacked 9 April 1940 the ships of the Fred. Olsen Lines were spread over half the globe. Every vessel that was not actually in a Norwegian or enemy occupied port immediately went into allied war service. The war losses were large. By the end of the war in 1945, 28 ships had been lost, i.e. the half of  the shipping company’s fleet. The foreign activities during the war years were managed by Thomas Olsen.

– Fred. Olsen & Co. history (http://www.fredolsen.com)

Post-War reconstruction of their fleet included the building of fast ships with large refrigerated holds for meat, fish, fruit and dairy produce. Also an innovation at the time was that they were constructed for fully mechanized handling of palletised cargo.

We take pallets for granted these days, but these simple transporting aids – developed by the US military during World War II – had a revolutionary impact on dock operations as they allowed cargo to be (un)loaded far more quickly. Apart from the obvious cost savings, the speedier handling was particularly important for a company that was shipping fresh food products that needed to be kept cool. They also meant that far fewer men were needed to handle a ship’s cargo, which led to the redundancy of many dockworkers.

Canary Wharf, 1930s. Before the introduction of pallets – loading bananas into a train in the transit shed.

In the early 1960s, Fred. Olsen & Co. began discussions with the PLA about building new berths and warehouses which were better suited to the handling and storage of palletised cargo. One area being considered was the east quay of Millwall Inner Dock, close to East Ferry Road.

Circa 1960

At the time, this area consisted of a loose collection of sheds of various sizes which were becoming increasingly less suited to the handling of the cargo of large, modern ships.

1963. East Quay on the right. Click on photo for full size. (Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

Also shown in the previous picture is the temporary barge bridge which provided pedestrians with a connection between the western and eastern halves of Glengall Grove. An iron swing bridge formerly crossed the Inner Dock at this point, making it possible to drive the full length of Glengall Grove.

In 1937, the PLA stated their intention to replace the bridge, but World War II interfered with these plans. After the War, the PLA – who had never been happy about the public crossing their land – began hinting that they wanted to end this possibility. Inevitably, this led to discussions between the PLA and Poplar Borough Council (who were strongly in favour of retaining the crossing), discussions which contributed to the delaying of redevelopment of the east quay. Survey of London:

A scheme for the redevelopment of the east-quay berths was approved in 1963, but deferred until the north- and west-quay works were complete and the question of the Glengall Grove right of way had been resolved.

The resolution, after considering different ideas (including even a tunnel under Millwall Docks), was a high-level footbridge. The proposed bridge appeared in early sketches of Fred. Olsen & Co.’s ideas for the new sheds.

Early ideas for the proposed new sheds on the east quay of Millwall Inner Dock. (Image from document provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

A later artist’s impression was based on actual plans, and thus shows more or less the bridge, berths and sheds that were eventually constructed.

(Image from document provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

The Glass Bridge – as the footbridge would quickly be named by Islanders – opened in 1964.

1964. Construction of Glass Bridge

P Berth – to the right of the Glass Bridge in the artist’s impression above – was the first berth to be constructed, in 1965-6, with the PLA meeting the cost of the berth and Fred. Olsen & Co. meeting part of the cost of the shed (and thereafter also paying rent and wharfage costs).

1967. P Berth and Shed are left of the Glass Bridge. (Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

Survey of London:

There were 11 manually operated 20ft-square sliding doors to each main elevation. Goods were transferred from ship to shed entirely by fork-lift truck, without quay cranes or tracks, one of the first such facilities anywhere. Fred Olsen Limited used the berth primarily for the Canary Islands fruit and tomato trade, previously centred at Canary Wharf.

(Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

The absence of quay cranes is very obvious in the following photograph of P Berth – compare it with the crane-filled M Berth on the other side of the Glass Bridge.

(Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

(Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

(Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

(Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

(Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

(Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

Every year since 1947, the city of Oslo has presented the people of London with a Christmas tree ‘as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45′. Naturally, with a Norwegian company operating out of the Millwall Docks, the tree was transported by Fred. Olsen & Co (for more details click here). On more than one occasion the tree was unloaded by Bill Howe, whose son Jim kindly let me use this photo…

Bill Howe (Photo courtesy of Jim Howe)

Business sign of Fred. Olsen & Co. (registered in the UK as Fred Olsen Ltd.) at Millwall Docks

In 1968, Fred. Olsen & Co, turned their attention to J, K and M Berths, where they planned to build not only new sheds but also a passenger terminal (until that time, passengers’ facilities were to be found in P Shed).

The passenger trades in the North Sea have long traditions in Fred. Olsen Lines and was strengthened by the new sister ships “Braemar” and “Blenheim” in the beginning of the 1950ies. The two combined cargo, car and passenger vessels “Black Watch” and “Black Prince” for UK / Canary and ferry services in the North Sea came in 1966.  The latter was later developed into Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines.

– Fred. Olsen & Co. history (http://www.fredolsen.com)

Construction of K Shed – with demolition of former M Shed taking place in the background. (Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

Construction of J and K Sheds (top and bottom, respectively). Photo: Port of London Authority

The passenger terminal was one of the earliest designs of now well-known architect, Norman Foster, architect of (amongst many other buildings) 30 St. Mary Axe, aka ‘The Gherkin’.

1968 visualisation of passenger terminal.

One of the challenges for the design was that the passenger terminal was not to interfere with quay operations. To achieve this, the passenger and Customs halls were accommodated in a semi-circular aluminium tube which was raised on concrete columns above the quay.

(Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

(Photograph provided by Fred. Olsen & Co, Oslo)

Another innovative feature of the development, and probably indicative of Fred. Olsen & Co.’s company culture (as it would be called these days) is the office and dock workers’ amenity block. Survey of London:

The building was designed after consultation with the workforce to provide the best facilities for dock workers in the Port. Olsen also aimed to provide good architecture, and appointed Norman Foster Associates.

Office and amenity block.

The building was placed in the gap of 90ft between J and K Sheds. This caused no operational inconvenience as vehicles could drive through the sheds …. On the ground floor there were lockers, showers, a restaurant and a recreation room for 250 dockworkers; the first floor had offices for up to 80 staff.

The following photo shows the completed sheds and passenger terminal (just right of the Glass Bridge). It also shows that the demolition of Millwall Central Granary is taking place, which indicates that the photo was taken in 1970.

Completed Fred. Olsen & Co. sheds and passenger terminal

The Blenheim

The Blenheim (Photo: Pat Jarvis)

Dockers with not enough work to do were occasionally asked to don a wig and join the Olsen Line’s theatre dance group which provided entertainment to cruise passengers. (I might have made that bit up).

Less than 10 years after the opening of the new berths and sheds:

In 1976, financial difficulties, disappointing trade and labour problems caused Olsen to move to Southampton. The sheds were operated by the PLA as the Canary Islands Terminal until 1980.
– Survey of London

It was hardly surprising; more or less everybody knew that Millwall Docks would not be open for commercial shipping for much longer, and that larger ships would prefer to load and unload further down river. Fred. Olsen & Co. had no way of knowing what would happen to the area after the West India & Millwall Docks closed, but – seeing how the area has developed into a major financial centre with high land prices and every square foot being built upon – it is unimaginable that a shipping company could have continued doing business there. Southampton was also a better choice for a company wanting to develop its cruise business.

And, what happened to Fred. Olsen & Co.’s buildings?

The Passenger Terminal

The passenger terminal is derelict in the following photo. The lights of the Glass Bridge are burning, but much of the glass has been broken, and it would not be long before the bridge is closed and demolished. The much-praised passenger terminal, designed by Norman Foster just a few years earlier, was also demolished around the same time.

Circa 1980

1980s

J Shed

Survey of London:

J Shed (Olsen Shed 1) was refurbished and extended in 1984 by Maskell Warehousing. The value of the site increased to such an extent that the building was demolished and the site redeveloped as Harbour Exchange in 1987–8.

Photo montage of the interior of a former  Fred. Olsen & Co. shed (I am not sure which one, but it is possibly J Shed)

P Shed

The Glass Bridge had been closed by the time of the following photo, and the signboards state that ‘Olsen Sheds 2 and 3’ are part of the ‘Enterprise Zone’ and available for redevelopment.

1982. P Shed (L) and K Shed (R) Photo: Chris Hirst

Redevelopment, as is usual on the Isle of Dogs, meant demolition.

1980s. From left to right: J Shed, K Shed and the site of the demolished P Shed.

K Shed

In 1984–6 K Shed (Fred. Olsen & Co.’s Shed 2) was converted as the London Arena, aka London Docklands Arena.

London Arena

Even though it was paying a peppercorn rent to the LDDC, the London Arena struggled to make a profit and closed in 2005, to be demolished the following year – the disappearance of the last (albeit by now unrecognizable) remains of Fred. Olsen & Co.’s sheds.

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