From Millwall Graving Dock to Clippers Quay

The word graving is an obsolete nautical term for the scraping, cleaning, painting or tarring of a ship’s hull. Originally, when ships were much smaller, the hull could be exposed by beaching the vessel, or by tilting it at an extreme angle (a method known as careening).


More practical, and necessary when ships became too large for these methods, was the use of a graving dock – a narrow basin into which a ship could be floated, and its water removed after the entrance to the basin had been sealed.

One such graving dock was completed in Millwall Docks in 1867 on the site of the medieval Chapel of St Mary (later Chapel House Farm). A drawing made in 1857 shows a few remains of the chapel and later farm before it was demolished.


1870. A caisson is a floating box-like structure which can be flooded to make it sink, serving as a gate to seal the dock. When the Thames was at low tide, water was drained from the dock via culverts into the Thames (the flow controlled by the penstocks).

Later, it became more common for graving docks to be named dry docks, probably reflecting the nature of their operations, when graving (associated more often with wooden ships) was replaced by general ship repairs.

Survey of London:

Opened in 1868, the dry dock was said to be the best on the Thames. It was certainly one of the largest, at 413ft long by 65ft wide at the entrance (90ft inner width at ground level), with a depth of 25ft. It is founded on a series of inverted brick arches on concrete, with a walling system comparable to that of the wet docks.

1891. Goad fire insurance map (British Museum)

The graving dock was leased by various ship-repair companies over the years (leased from the Millwall Dock Company and later the PLA when they became responsible for London’s docks) before reverting to the PLA in 1967.

1926 (Daily Mirror)

Circa 1930. A sailing ship entering Millwall Graving Dock

1947. In the background, East Ferry Road and a glimpse of the Mudchute. In the foreground, bomb-damaged buildings belonging to McDougall’s. Bottom-right are a few air-raid shelters.

Its most famous ‘visitor’ was the Cutty Sark in 1951, towed there for refitting in preparation for mooring off Deptford as an exhibition ship in connection with the Festival of Britain (article here).

1951. Cutty Sark in Millwall Graving Dock

1951. Cutty Sark in Millwall Graving Dock. In the background, a shed belonging to W. Badger.


The previous photo shows that some houses in Hesperus Crescent and Thermopylae Gate had a good view of the graving dock, and one resident with a keen interest in the history of the Isle of Dogs – Lucy Reading – took many photos from the back of her house of ships in the dock, including the following two.

1946 (estimate). Photo: Lucy Reading, Island History Trust

1960s. Photo: Lucy Reading, Island History Trust

Land to the east of the dock (between the dock and East Ferry Road) was occupied by various companies whose activities were related to ship-repair and marine engineering, including Harland & Wolff and W.Badger Ltd (who operated there from 1947 until their liquidation in 1981).

Circa 1965, at which time all buidings east of the dock (left in this photo) were occupied by W. Badger. Ltd.

Survey of London:

Closure of the dry dock was proposed in 1966, as it was losing money. Ship-repairers failed to persuade the PLA to lease it, and it was closed and flooded on 30 October 1968. The site and the 25-ton crane were subsequently used for a barge berth.


The West India and Millwall Docks were formally closed in 1980. In 1983 Mike Seaborne took these photos of a derelict W. Badger’s shortly before demolition.

1983. Photos: Mike Seaborne

Mike also captured this image of the Millwall Graving Dock caisson lying dry after being  hauled out of the water in 1984.

1984. Mike Seaborne

Millwall Graving Dock was redeveloped as the Clippers* Quay housing estate, with construction starting in 1984. Wikimapia:

Clippers Quay was one of the first private estates to be built in the regeneration area of the London Docklands in the early 1980s. It is a marina development of 258 leasehold units, which are a mixture of terraced houses, maisonettes, flats and 16 flat blocks laid out in typical London-square style.

* Shouldn’t there be an apostrophe in there somewhere? Clipper’s or Clippers’ (depending one whether it’s a reference to one or multiple clippers)?

Construction of Clippers Quay seen from McDougall’s silo building (shortly before it was demolished)

The Observer, 23rd June 1985

1988 or later (estimate) Photo: Ken Lynn

1988 or later (estimate) Photo: Ken Lynn

The moorings for small boats are the property of surrounding home owners, but they appear to be rarely used for some reason.

The laminated timber bridge built across the head of the dock, shown in the previous photos, was later found to be unsafe – in large part due to vandalism – and access to it was blocked. It remained disused until its removal in 2021.

2021. Removal of Clippers Quay bridge. Photo: Silvia Colloseus.


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21 Responses to From Millwall Graving Dock to Clippers Quay

  1. Jan Hill says:

    Mick, thanks for a very interesting piece. My dad, Will Price worked for Badgers as a Ship Repairer in the 1950/1960s. Until I read your article I had no idea where the Graving Dock was!

  2. Pete Norris says:

    The wiki page on Millwall Dock suggests there were intended to be 6 of these graving docks (same wording cut & pasted on various sites). As usual they don’t include any source for this. From a cursory look at the layout of the Millwall Dock at that end it looks like a row of them could easily have been put in next to the one built. Are there any early plans or articles that show extra graving docks planned ? It wouldn’t be unlikely that ambitions were scaled down once the bills started coming in… there’s a rather grand painting of Brunswick Wharf showing two huge warehouses designed by James Walker (second president of the Institution of Civil Engineers) of which only one was ever built.

  3. David Smith says:

    Thanks for the article and all the research and photos, very interesting.

  4. brian gilbert says:

    Ditto the above,every day is a learning day regarding these articles.

  5. Neil S says:

    Can’t thank you enough for this article, Mick. This is just around the corner from where I live. I love all your articles and especially those about the former uses and existences of my immediate surroundings. Was it definitely 2021 the bridge was removed from Clippers Quay? I moved to the Isle Of Dogs in June 2020 but somehow don’t remember it! Thank you for taking so much time to share so much history of the area. I really appreciate it.

    • Thanks Neil. I’m pretty certain it was 2021. I found Silvia’s photo in the Canary Wharf Resifents Facebook group, along with the date of posting (if you are a member, you can find it too)

  6. Alastair Cowe says:

    This is so interesting to me. My grandfather worked at the graving dock, sometime around the late 1930’s Granny spoke of how filthy the overalls would become!

  7. Norm Taylor says:

    When I was driver training many years ago, we used to go to a pub where Tessie O’shay was appearing, in the Isle of Dogs. We walked through the tunnel under the River to get there. It was a great night for a change and we always enjoyed it very much.

    Norm Taylor, now in West Australia. ________________________________

  8. Bill wiseman says:

    Wonderful read, thank you.

  9. ingym23 says:

    Thanks for this article Mick. We lived at Clippers Quay from 2002 for a couple of years and our little one bedroom flat there was our first family home. When our son was born in summer of 2004 there was family of cygnets on Tern Raft 2.
    Such happy memories.
    Thanks for sharing your fascinating research.

  10. George Rollinson says:

    The ship that appears in the dock with the snow covering is the General Post Office’s Monarch. She was delivered March 1946 and she appears in Millwall Dock later in the year on the site Britain from Above. This would date the photo as post 1946.

  11. Norman Taylor says:

    I always enjoyed visiting The Isle of Dogs When we were visiting via the pedestrian tunnel.

  12. John Chesson says:

    A great article as always Mick . Thanks very much .

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