35 Years of Photographing the Lea Valley – Part 1 by Mike Seaborne

I took my first photographs of the River Lea in 1982. I had just started working in London - at the Museum of London – and was starting to explore the Capital’s industrial history.

Whilst there was still quite a lot of industrial activity in London in the early 1980s, it was clear that much of it was soon to disappear. This was particularly evident in docklands following the closure of the docks and the establishment, in 1981, of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC).

In this, the first part of the article, I will focus on the tidal Lea from Bow Creek to Stratford. This is where I took my earliest photographs of the river and where significant changes have occurred since the 1980s. In part 2, I will look at the Bow Back Rivers, both before and after the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and the River Lee Navigation through Old Ford and Hackney Wick to Walthamstow Marshes.

1982. The railway bridge over the Lea that once connected the Stratford - North Woolwich line with the East India Dock.

2005. Orchard Place, located in the isthmus formed by the eastern loop of the Lea at Bow Creek. Until 2006 this was the site of Pura Foods Ltd, a manufacturer of edible oils and fats. The site has since been redeveloped for housing and is now called London City Island.

1982. View looking west from Silvertown Way towards the Lea and, in the distance on the other side of Bow Creek, Blackwall Power Station.

The Lea to the north of the A13 still retains much of its industrial character, though this is rapidly changing, particularly on the west bank where new housing is being built. On the east side new businesses have moved in where once there were, amongst other things, both a power station and a gas and chemical works.

1983. Junction of Manor Road and Stephenson St., which leads into a large industrial estate on the east bank of the Lea north of the A13. This area once contained a gas and chemical works as well as the power station, but both of them have now gone.

There is still an inlet on the east bank of the river that forms a small dock where barges used to bring coal for the nearby gasworks. This is Gasworks Dock - also known as Cody Dock - and after many years of dereliction it is now undergoing rehabilitation by the Gasworks Dock Partnership who are developing it as a quarter for creative industries and a place to celebrate the diverse ecology and industrial heritage of the River Lea.

2017. Cody Dock rejuvenated. ‘Corlea’, a tug built in North Woolwich in 1933, used to haul coal barges up the Lea to Hackney Power Station. It is now a houseboat.

2015. ‘DNA DL90’, a sculpture made of shopping trolleys arranged in the shape of a double helix. This was created in 2003 by Abigail Fallis and is located on the east riverbank about halfway between Cody Dock and Bow Locks.

At Bow Locks the tidal river meets the River Lee Navigation and the Limehouse Cut canal. To the north of the locks the old river divides into several channels known as the Bow Back Rivers. These wind their way through Stratford and what is now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The present Bow Locks were installed in the early 1930s together with a slender footbridge made of reinforced concrete.

2017. View looking south from Bow Locks. The tidal River Lea is on the left and new housing (centre) has been built on former industrial land between the river and the Limehouse Cut canal.

1983. The Three Mills were still being used as industrial premises in the early 1980s. The House Mill (left) is now owned by The River Lea Tidal Mill Trust Ltd. who plan to restore the building, which is Grade 1 listed, and reinstate the heritage machinery to working order.

2017. The mills were powered by seven water wheels driven by the ebb and flow of the tidal Lea.

2016. Three Mills Lock on the Prescott Channel, opened in 2009. This lock effectively cuts off the Bow Back Rivers, which run through the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, from the tide, thus opening them up for recreational use.

2014. Old and new alongside the Waterworks River at Stratford

1982. Orchard Wharf, situated on the western loop of the Lea at Bow Creek, with the bulk of Blackwall Power Station looming in the background. The ship on the right is the ‘Peter P’, owned and operated by JJ Prior (Aggregates) Ltd. who shipped sand and gravel from Fingringhoe in Essex. The wharf was compulsorily purchased by the LDDC in 1990 to construct the western approach to the Lower Lea Crossing

2016. The old railway bridge still survives!

2015. Housing under construction on the site of Pura Foods Ltd. The isthmus formed by the western river loop (centre) is now the Bow Creek Ecology Park and carries the Docklands Light Railway flyover towards Canning Town Station.

1983. Silvertown Way was built over the old Victoria Dock Road south of Canning Town Station in 1933-4. This was Britain’s first flyover and was also an early example of reinforced concrete construction. This section was demolished in the early 1990s and replaced with a new flyover to connect with the Lower Lea Crossing.

1983. The tidal Lea, looking north from the Canning Town Flyover (A13). The power station - West Ham ‘B’ - closed in 1983.

2005. Cody Dock, formerly used by boats delivering coal to the Imperial Gas and Chemical Works.

2017. The river at low tide north of Cody Dock.

1983. View from the footbridge at Bow Locks, looking southwest along the Limehouse Cut canal.

2017. View looking north towards Stratford from Bow Locks.

One of the Lea Valley’s most important industrial heritage assets lies between Bow Locks and Stratford. This is the Three Mills at Bromley-by-Bow, an ancient milling site recorded in the Doomsday Book. The present buildings date from the late 18th century and one of them, the House Mill, is the largest surviving tide mill in the world.

1983. View looking north along Three Mills Wall River (one of the Bow Back Rivers) towards Stratford High St.

Technical Note

I have used many different formats and cameras over the years. The photographs from the 1980s shown here were all shot on black & white film with either a Canon FTb 35mm SLR or a Mamiya C330 6x6cm TLR. The black & white images from the early 2000s were also shot on black & white film using a Cambo Wide 5”x4” camera.

All the colour photographs, and the one black & white panorama, are digital and were taken with an Olympus OM-D EM-5. The panoramic images are composed of several overlapping frames stitched together in Photoshop.

All the photographs in this article are the copyright of Mike Seaborne and are not to be reproduced without permission.

Contact: mickey_vista@yahoo.co.uk