Post-war Camden Town

John Walker at Purfleet Wharf.

Purfleet Wharf before 1945

The scene was hardly to change until 1939

John Walker, cartage contractor, occupied Purfleet Wharf, now the wharf next to Dingwall’s, for twenty years, from 1925 to 1945. From 1937 the firm also had offices at 248 Camden High Street. At the end of the Second World War, the firm ceased to trade and in 1946 T.E. Dingwall took over. They were packing case manufacturers, bringing in timber by barge, converting it into packing cases and shipping them out again by barge. Most of the wood moved only a couple of hundred feet on land.

While the firm found plenty of work in the years immediately after the war, like the rest of Camden Town industry, they faced economic change, but their trade did not change. It simply disappeared. The change was in our manner of transporting goods. Instead of individual packing cases, which would be broken up as firewood when they reached their destination, container ships appeared. Goods were packed in bubble wrap and reuseable plywood cases and then moved in containers. The market for packing cases fell sharply. This change took a number of years, but the disaster was sudden.

The Great Freeze

In the winter of 1962-63 there was a great freeze, with canal boats fixed stationary in the ice for six long weeks. Materials for industry, which had been delivered regularly week after week for decades, failed to arrive. Coal for power stations; goods for export; boats needed to carry away the daily household and factory rubbish; all were immovable. By the 1960s canal transport was already finding it more and more difficult to compete with road and rail, but at the end of this six weeks the canal trade was dead. Firms which had had to wait for vital supplies stuck somewhere in some unknown canal, immediately transferred their custom elsewhere. It is very seldom that one can pinpoint the exact time when an industry collapsed. The sacking of a medieval town could destroy its clock-making trade, but there were other clockmakers in other towns. Most industries peter out and disappear over time. There had been canal freezes before and the canals had survived, but this time there was a predatory road haulage industry ready to pounce and this six weeks of ice killed off canal transport all over the country.

A few individuals working with one or two boats, continued for a few years, but Limehouse Dock was full of empty boats, silent and left to rot. A number were taken to a large lake in the Midlands and sunk.1 Two were scuttled in the third wharf at Dingwall’s and the whole wharf filled in. Its position can be seen by looking across the Lock from the Gothic lock-keeper’s cottage. The dock wall changes from old stone to modern concrete.2 Inside are the two boats, in a sort of Viking funeral, mourning the death of King Canal.

A few boats were adapted as trip boats. Some were bought cheaply and converted into house-boats, permanently moored to the banks and now part of the local community. This typifies what happened to the canals as a result of the freeze. Canals became cleaner, emptier, silent: places of relaxation and leisure instead of industry. Gradually the towpaths, which had been closed to the public like all other industrial sites, were opened up as pedestrian walkways. Now they provide miles of tranquil cross-country walking, away from the traffic. The only interruption may be from cable companies, networking the country with their cables without destroying the streets.

 In these conditions, T.E.Dingwall’s sold the end of their lease to Northside Developments and the Camden Lock we know today was born.

++Last two paragraphs reduced to one sentence


  1. Eric Reynolds

  2. John Dickinson

World War Two

Gilbeys Desert Camden Town
and Move to Harlow