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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of Trinity Buoy Wharf in London’s Docklands

What is Trinity Buoy Wharf?

Trinity Buoy Wharf is a centre of culture and arts built on an empty, derelict dockland in London’s once-great port on the River Thames.

Trinity Buoy Wharf

Trinity Buoy Wharf History

At this watery junction, where the River Lea meets the River Thames, stands London's only lighthouse. Over the centuries, hundreds of vessels have been wrecked in the Thames estuary. This lighthouse, though, wasn’t built to guide river traffic. It was an experimental venture, employed for the development of new electric lighting technology by the pioneering scientist Michael Faraday.

The son of a blacksmith, Faraday grew up in Southwark and received a rudimentary education. His family were very poor – he recalled once being given a loaf of bread which was expected to feed him for a week! He was apprenticed to a bookbinder at the age of 14. At the turn of the 19th century, books remained expensive commodities, so Faraday eagerly took the chance to read the volumes he was binding. Over his seven-year apprenticeship, he read a wide variety of texts that inspired a lifelong passion for science, including articles in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry. With little formal training, Faraday became a greatly respected chemist and physicist. You will discover more about his achievements as you explore the Wharf.

But how did Faraday, one of the most respected intellects of his time, end up working at a grimy industrial site at the edge of London? The answer reflects the civic importance of scientists in 19th-century Britain. Faraday was employed by the government to improve the safety of British waters. Trinity Buoy Wharf was home to engineering workshops where buoys and lighthouse mechanisms were designed and built, bringing Faraday’s expertise in great demand. It was here in the 1840s that Faraday developed the lenses used in maritime lighting, and invented a chimney which solved the problem of condensation from oil lamps, thereby increasing the light they could produce.

This wharf was built at a time when the British Empire was steadily expanding. Steam power had arrived and trade routes were opening up across the globe; many of the routes ended here, at the Port of London. Trinity Buoy Wharf must therefore have been a bustling and noisy place, filled with the cries of dockers and sailors, and the rancid smell of the river, which Faraday called a ‘fermenting sewer’. The docks, teeming with vessels navigating their passages, could also spell danger: when ships collided and men fell overboard, the water was so polluted that many sailors were poisoned before they could reach dry land.

As with most of the docklands, the Wharf had become derelict by the early 1970s, due to the decreasing importance of coal as a domestic and industrial fuel and also the introduction of the shipping container system. London’s docks couldn’t accommodate the much larger vessels that transported the new containers, so in the space of ten years, a whole economy and associated way of life vanished.

In the 1990s the Wharf was redeveloped as a centre for cultural and artistic activity, and now includes studios for people in the creative industries, workspace for those who provide transportation on the river, and spaces for arts events. Unlike much of the Docklands regeneration – with its oppressive and dehumanising corporate architecture and lack of any real community feeling – these historic buildings have been preserved and brought to life for a new generation. In a pleasing irony, the Container City at Trinity Buoy Wharf has been built from the very containers which once threatened its existence.

After you visit, take a walk through the neighbouring East India Dock Basin. Long gone are the days when sailing ships unloaded their cargoes from the East Indies; it is now a clean and calm wildlife reserve. If he saw the site now, Faraday wouldn’t believe his eyes.

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