At the time of the British Empire, Docklands was the epicentre of global trade. Museum of Docklands tells the fascinating story of the port of London from Roman times until today. Hidden away from the main tourist route, this is a treasure for families visiting London with children.
Straddling the wealth of Canary Wharf on one side and the East End on the other, the location perfectly connects the polarised worlds which are at the heart of the Docklands’ history. The building is even an artefact in itself: a 200 year old warehouse which once stored the exotic cargo that had been shipped over from the West Indies and beyond.
Inside, the Museum of Docklands gives a chronological history of the London’s relationship with the Thames, which is just as coloured by the people whose lives were enmeshed in its story as it is by the objects it exhibits. Starting with the Roman settlement and surging all the way to its regeneration as a financial district, the Museum of London Docklands brings to life the powerful forces of trade, immigration and commerce that moulded so much of London and the East End, confronting both the glory and the suffering that lies within these themes.
Although there are artefacts a-plenty, don’t expect rows and rows of old coins dulled behind glass. Instead, the museum makes a tremendous effort to use the space in imaginative and innovative ways, from using cinema, audio and interactive screens to building life-sized replicas of places as they once were. Smells even supplement the sights and sounds, giving you a truly sensory experience of the history of the life that grew up in the Docklands area around the river Thames.
The River Was Full
The rise of Docklands really took off in the 18th century. London had seen tremendous growth in trade, with more than 10 000 vessels arriving and departing every year. Ships anchored up in the Thames, with smaller barges helping unload goods over to wharves and warehouses along the river. It was simply no more capacity left with the river crammed full of ships and the handling of cargo taking too much time.
The docks helped London continue the expansion in trade providing large, secure and sheltered anchorage increasing the capacity of the port. Museum of Docklands is located in an old warehouse from 1802 by the side of West India Docks. This is one of the first docks that was built at the beginning of the 19th century to support the lucrative sugar trade from the West Indies.
Scandinavians in the Docklands
With all the international trade, Docklands was a place where many nationalities met. In the 1860s a thousand Norwegian ships arrived in London every year, many unloading their cargo at Surrey Commercial Docks on Rotherhithe which specialised in timber imports. A Scandinavian community formed in the area, even establishing their own churches like the Norwegian Seamen’s church (where our children are christened). If you’re interested in the city’s Scandinavian historic connections, check our post about the Viking sites of medieval London!
The Excellent Mudlark Gallery at Museum of Docklands
The Mudlark Gallery in the Museum of Docklands is a great indoor play area for kids! And certainly, a lot more fun than it was back in the days when the original mudlarks were sifting through filth along the Thames foreshore to try to find something of value… Sessions are free but need to be reserved either on-site or through their webpage. If not visiting during weekends or holidays we normally just show up and there are tickets still available.
This is one of our regular spots and we like it because it’s highly interactive and engaging for younger kids. Living by the Thames it’s great for us parents to learn more about the rich history of the Docklands. The gallery is divided into different zones all playing on a maritime theme. Note the soft play area is for children who are under 1 metre tall. Our favourite activity here is probably loading cargo and playing with the boats in the water area.
Here you can get a feel for how a typical street would look like in the docks back in Victorian London. It’s a reconstruction of Wapping’s underbelly in the mid 19th century, featuring narrow alleys on dimly-lit cobbles where you can peer into the kinds of alehouses and abodes that once would have been crowded with sailors.
This brilliant re-imagination appeals to the child within and serves as a potent reminder of how far museums have come since the ‘museum-legs’ days when they were seen as a chore. Our daughter loves dressing up in costumes and visiting during Christmas we got some nice shots. On the same floor, you can also find lots of other interactive elements, our toddler enjoying the wooden railway most of course!
London’s Murkier Side
This Museum of Docklands doesn’t shy away from the murkier sides of London’s past, dedicating much of its space to documenting invaders, pirates (including a real example of a gibbet cage which their dead bodies would hang in over the river as a warning!), slums, sewage and disease. The transatlantic slave trade is now, quite rightly, honoured with a new permanent gallery called London, Sugar & Slavery which captures the twisted ideology and the tragedy of the triangular trade through objects, visuals and music.
The Blitz, which did much to demolish the area whilst Britain’s empire was likewise being eroded forever, is brought to life through air raid shelters, photographs, film and oral histories. As we know, the area was never to be the same again as it ceased to become London’s port and the livelihoods of the East End ‘dockers’ diminished with it.
Pick up a Museum Adventure Bag
Also, make sure to check out the adventure bag that you can pick one up for free from the front desk when you arrive (£5 refundable deposit). In addition, there are word games, activity sheets and trails to be explored. Also, make sure to check their website for events being organised.
If your kids like animals, Mudchute Farm is not very far away. Also, Greenwich is just on the other side of the river where you can find plenty of child-friendly attractions such as the Maritime Museum and Greenwich Park Playground. Thames Path is great for kids shielded as it is from traffic, whether it is for walking, cycling or scooting.
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