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