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GRIMSBY DOCK _MG_9972 | by siandara
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The Docks are a dominant feature both of Great Grimsby's geography and economic history, and the Dock Tower, rising 309' above the town, looms over Grimsby and Cleethorpes as a stately reminder of this. Perhaps ironically for such a monumental structure it has been redundant for most of it's life, and as such a doubly suitable symbol for a declining industrial town. In the past it has been proposed that it be dismantled, and only the prohibitive cost has prevented it. Though had such a thing been attempted the people of Grimsby would surely have been up in arms, such is the pride held in the tower.


This pride is by no means misplaced. Despite being a functional, industrial building, it was designed and built with an eye for grace and elegance which marries the schools of British Industrial architecture with more classical Renaissance and Moorish influences. The result is tall graceful building, reminiscent of a hugely oversized minaret, but in the red brick of Victorian Railway buildings. The main body of the Tower, which housed the pumping mechanisms for the dock's hydraulic lock gates rises 224', yet at it's base is only 28' square. The main body tapers imperceptible to 26' before flaring out to form a balcony, 200 feet above the town, which held the Tower's huge water tanks. Above this is a second section of the tower, like the first in miniature rising another 57' topped with an octagonal Lantern House a further 37 ft tall. The last 100' of the building are purely decorative.


Though Grimsby is famed for it's fishing the Tower was not part of that industry that made the port a boom town as many people believe. Grimsby was founded upon commerce not fishing, and the Tower formed part of the original commercial dock complex, and both the Tower and Grimsby's thriving commercial traffic have survived the towns meteoric economic expansion and decline.


At the time of it's construction in 1849 it was the highest building in Lincolnshire and the tallest brick built building in the country, while its single cast iron spiral staircase was the longest in the world1. It is a landmark visible as soon as one surmounts the Wolds twenty miles away at Caistor, and one of the first sights for sailors coming into the Humber (though now the nearby Titan Chimney is more of a signpost for sea traffic).


Local legends suggest that the Tower is "Built on cotton wool", that exactly one million bricks went into its construction and that the staircase within has a step for every day of the year. And anyone on the South Bank who lives within sight of the tower can call himself a Grimbarian, even if he lives outside the town limits.


The Docks


Early History


When the first settlers came to Grimsby the town was just boulder clay, rising up at the edges of the salt marshes of the Humber estuary. This was an ideal spot for sea trade, saltmaking and fishing, and on these things the town established itself.


The Haven was Grimsby's original natural dock, a small inlet which ran the length of what is now the Alexandra Dock to the Riverhead and on south towards the Wellow area. During the construction of the Riverhead Shopping Centre in the early 1970's and Freshney Place in the early 90's the original 12th and 14th century waterfronts were uncovered here, though now, sadly, they lay amongst the foundations of these neo-vernacular temples of Mammon.


Trade in the Middle Ages was good, but by the 17th Century had floundered as the Haven began to silt up. To revitalise trade, and the town, the nearby River Freshney was diverted into the Haven in 1697. However ships could still not land in this harbour, so keels were required to transport goods from ships into the Haven. Because of this while Grimsby had gone into decline Hull Docks had thrived, and in order that Grimsby might take the surplus of this trade and Act was passed in 1796 to form the Grimsby Haven Company and Johnathan Pickernal of Whitby was commissioned to draw up plans for the new docks, and the Haven became a six acre locked dock in 1800, and was to prove to be of great use in the Napoleonic Wars.


The Railways and the Cofferdams


The construction of the Dock Tower came with the Amalgamate Act of 1846 and the formation of the Grimsby Dock Company, which formulated the plans for a railway into Grimsby and the construction of a new commercial dock and, for the first time, a fish dock. Designed by J M Rendall the two docks were to be built on land reclaimed from the Humber by the construction of a huge cofferdam one and a half miles long, enclosing some 138 acres of new ground and forming a small peninsula. The cofferdams were built by Messrs Lynn of Liverpool. Starting in the spring of 1846, three dams of fir piles were sunk and infilled with chalk and clay, wharves and embankments constructed so that excavation of foundations could be made.


In 1848 the Railway was completed connecting Grimsby to the industrial centres of the North. And the docks themselves were begun, built this time by Messers Hutching, Brown and Wright. In addition to Rendell's docks the Grimsby Dock Company commissioned a low power hydraulic water tower to power the huge lock gates of the various docks.


On April 18th 1849, with the dams in place and the railway in place, Prince Albert came to lay the foundation stone of the new dock walls. The Prince Consort arrived onto the dockside in a railway carriage pulled not by an engine, but by teams of navvies employed in the docks construction. A public park, Prince Albert gardens, was built at the docks entrance, overlooked by a statue of the Prince himself. With the formalities dispensed with construction of the central pier on which the Dock Tower stand was begun.


The Tower


Building the Tower


The commission to build the Great Grimsby Hydraulic Tower went to a Mr. J.W. Wild. The design fell to Wild upon his return from his grand tour of Egypt, the Mediterranian and the Middle East; some of his notable public buildings were erected in Alexandria and Tehran, and the mark of his travels can be seen in his design. The Tower is based primarily upon the 'Torre de Mangia' clock tower of the Palazzo Pubblico, in Siena, Italy, but Wild combined the feel of this building with the grand scale of the obelisks of Egypt and the minarettes of the great mosques to produce a building of terrific grace, power and beauty.


The central pier between the locks upon which the Tower now stands was constructed at the same time as the locks themselves. The pier area was excavated to a depth of 10', whereupon 35' long fir piles were sunk as foundation and the excavated area capped with 2 ft of concrete. The pier sides were lined with spiked firs and the stone walls laid against them, the blocks 5 1/2' x 4 1/2' and 2' thick were then faced with 6" thick York stone flags. A hardcore foundation then filled the internal cavity - rubble, clay and concrete and only then was the ground laid for the building's 28' x 28' footings.


As stated earlier, local legend suggests that the tower was built on cotton wool, the origin of this lays in another apocryphal story. During the laying of the foundations for the building problems were incurred when the excavations kept filling with water, no amount of bailing seemed to help, when someone suggested soaking the water up using bails of sheep's wool kept in a dockside warehouse. The bails were employed and found successful, and some say the bails are supposedly there to this day beneath the hardcore footings.


The walls that stood on those footings were 28' long and 4' thick and rose a clear 224' 9" to the top of the main tower, by which time they had tapered to an exterior dimension of 26' square and 3ft thick. At this point the building flares out into the beautiful 'balcony' which gives the building much of it's character. It was here 247' up that reservoir tanks holding 30,000 gallons of water were installed. This amount of water a such a height created 100psi of pressure. Above this was the ornamental second tower (57') and lantern House: (37' 10 1/2") which give the building its archetectural grace and symmetry.


The bricks from which the building is constructed were manufactured on the site, the clay dug from the marshes which are still a major feature of the town. And so the building sprang from the earth on which it stands, it defines Grimsby not only because of it's imposing presence, but because it is built from it's very soil. It is supposed to be the tallest brick built structure in the world.


The building of the Cofferdams, the Tower and the two docks cost a total of £1,050,000.


Using the Tower


The Dock Tower began it's working life in 1952 when the Royal Dock was completed. The Dock Tower provided hydraulic power for both the lock gates and the operation of 15 cranes along the dockside. The lock gates were made from Oak, Teak and Mahogany and were over 30' high, and require two people to operate them during the 2 and a half minutes it took for them to open. The Tower also provided the fresh water for the whole of the dock site. The source of the Tower's water was a well sunk directly down into the chalk bedrock, deep beneath the bolder clay on which Grimsby stands. This fresh water rose up the tower through a cast iron pipe 200 feet, where it was pumped into a tank by two 10" diameter force pumps on a 25 horse power engine. This gave enough constant hydraulic pressure to suit the docks needs back in the 1800's, and the Tower went on to witness the opening of Grimsby's original fish dock (1857), Fish Dock No. 1(1866), Fish Dock No. 2(1878), Union Dock (1879) and the Alexandra Dock (1880) servicing their needs for power.


After two years of operation the Docks and the Tower were officially opened in October 1854 by Queen Victoria. The Queen was accompanied by Prince Albert and the Princess Royal who rode to the top of the tower on the wooden lift inside. Following her visit the Tower became something of a tourist attraction, and visitors could take the 225' lift ride for 6d.


In 1892, with the advent of electricity, a second tower was built. This was a small 78' accumulator tower which was capable of providing 8 times as much power. This small castellated building was built in a sympathetic design on the pier to the east of the Dock Tower, where it still stands. After less than 50 years in service the Dock Tower was redundant.


In the slightly unhinged fashion of working class men, on various occasions men have dived from the Tower into the Dock, for no better reason than public spectacle. This practice has declined in popularity since the days of human flies, but remained an infrequent but memorable act of bravado until recently.


The design and construction of the tower was given a great accolade when it remained structurally unscathed in the 1931 Dogger Bank earthquake the strongest recorded in this country. The tower swayed but did not stray in the quake on the 7th of June 1931 which measured 6.1 on the Richter scale and whose epicentre was 50km off the coast on the Dogger Bank - the ports' neighbouring fishing ground - and some 21km below sea level. A Hull woman died of a heart attack in the quake and Filey Church spire was twisted, and the quake was felt in Ireland, Denmark and France, but this pencil like structure remained intact. Perhaps the cotton wool cushioned the blow.


Naturally however the Tower did, and does, need occasional maintenance - a process not without note. In the past, while maintaining the building, sleeplejacks have had to built scaffolds which would hang down precariously from the tower's viewing stage. Postcards of the nineteen thirties show the repair work of the period, with such a three tier scaffold, in progress. One incident occurred between the wars when one steeplejack collapsed on the scaffold during an inspection of work, the logistics of getting him in off the scaffold and down the tower would these days be the stuff of 999 TV documentaries but at the time were taken in the stride of the dock workers on hand, used to dealing with accidents both on boats, in the graving docks and in the filleting sheds.


As trade in the port grew apace, the role of the tower was essentially as a valuable landmark for those coming into port. And the ornamental lantern house was used as beacon to guide shipping. The Tower continues to guide shipping in it's way, it's only functional use now being the platform for various radio aerial and satellite dishes. While the port became the busiest in the world the role of the tower as a tourist attraction became of much less importance and the lift was removed before the second world war.


Having survived the earthquake, the tower went on to survive the bombing of Grimsby town and docks. During the second world war it survived bombing because of it's usefulness as a sighting post for traffic, this time not maritime but aerial traffic, the Luftwaffe using it as a reference point to fly due west to Liverpool, and so evaided bombing the tower itself. In 1948 a plaque was unveiled by Admiral Holt, dedicated to the crews of the mine sweepers which operated from the port during WWII. Eventually in 19?? the immense water tanks were removed from the top of the tower.


Now the building is once again an attraction, though it's current owners, Associated British Ports, are somewhat reluctant to allow access to the building for safety reasons - the cost of adiquate supervision would be prohibitive. Open days are now organised a couple of days a year by the Grimsby Rotary Club2 and visitors can once again go up the tower - now only to the first level - but after climbing two hundred feet up the single spiral staircase, the first level is enough for most! The view is still marvellous, with Grimsby town spread out beneath and the Lincolnshire Wolds to the south, the Humber Bridge off to the west and Spurn Point and the North Sea off to the North east. For those who wish to emulate the brave divers of ears gone by, visitors are even invited to jump off the Tower - although now attached to an abseil rope.


Over the last twenty years the building has been recognised as one of cultural importance and part of our industrial heritage. Various preservation orders have been placed upon it at both a local and national level, it now being a grade one listed building. A the town as, finally, seen fit to illuminate the building at night. Marvellous.


The tower can be found on the quayside, accessed from the end of Eastside Road, Westside Road or North Quay. 500 yards from New Clee or Grimsby Docks Railway Stations. OS ref TA 278 113.3


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Taken on March 6, 2010