Regular reader PW of East Sussex, UK, writes to berate me for failing to feature any examples of beauty connected with waterborne transport. It’s not because there aren’t any, as the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland and Foreign Office Architects’ Yokohama International Port Terminal in Japan, to name but two, illustrate. Then there are the ones for which public domain photos are maddeningly elusive, for instance the old Ocean Terminal at Southampton, UK. While that building is proving difficult, Southampton does have another example of attractive transport infrastructure, which provides this week’s entry and will hopefully satisfy those who want to see maritime transport get a look-in. There are two of them, and they are excellent examples of the sort of thing this blog likes best: structures which don’t particularly need to look attractive, but on which someone has spent time and effort ensuring that they do.
I give you Southampton Docks Gates 8 and 10.
As recently as the spring last year, both gates were threatened with demolition, until statutory heritage organisation English Heritage stepped in at the last moment to give them official protection via Grade II listing.
The two gates, virtually identical in design, are simply gateways protecting access roads in and out of the docks. Plain gates would have functioned equally well, but would have failed to demonstrate the pride that the owners of the Docks had in their operations. Built sometime between 1933 and 1934, the gates are notable not only for the care and attention taken with their design, but what they exemplify about changing architectural tastes at one of Britain’s big railway companies.
The reason for the gates’ distinctive appearance lies in their then owners, and the history of the docks themselves. Originally a fairly contained operation, the docks grew massively after the London and South Western Railway reached Southampton in 1839, giving speedy connections to London. With a stronger balance sheet than the Southampton Docks company, the L&SWR bought the Docks in 1892 with an eye to expansion, and by the 1920s, Southampton Docks had become the country’s leading passenger port. Ownership by a railway company resulted in Southampton Docks being exceptionally well served by trains, not just the freight trains normal at a large docks, but passenger trains too. The Docks were littered with passenger railway stations serving the various terminals used by the ocean going liners which linked Britain to the rest of the world. There was even a station dedicated to the terminal which served the second most glamorous mode of transport of all time (after the airships), the Flying Boats.
The London and South Western Railway was absorbed into the Southern Railway in 1923 as part of the great reorganisation of the various British railway companies which existed up until that point (the “Grouping”). The Southern Railway immediately started planning an extension of Southampton Docks to the west of the existing berths, with construction of the enormous Western Docks beginning in 1927. By 1933 the Western Docks were complete, and new gates were needed for the access roads. So it was that that a railway company’s architects’ office was responsible for the design of gates at a port.
The gates were constructed at the exact moment that chief architect James Robb Scott, and the Southern Railway in general, were undergoing some sort of Damascene conversion, moving away from the staid neo-classicism which had previously defined the company and embracing instead the modernity of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne (as seen on new signal boxes, stations and even electrical control rooms). Hastings station, built in 1931, was distinctly neo-Georgian (although constructed around an extraordinary octagonal ticket hall). Bishopstone station (1936) and Surbiton station (1937) are defiantly Art Deco/Moderne (much more successful in the latter case than the former). The two Dock Gates embody the change from one style to the other. English Heritage notes their “stripped classical design” that also features “Moderne detail”.
The two brick piers on either side stand on concrete plinths, with the brickwork rusticated (i.e. the bricks are arranged to give the effect of larger stones; so far, so classical). The piers support a concrete beam some 18m wide, which features a projecting cornice and moulded panels containing the berth and gate numbers in a serif typeface; again, so far so classical. But the moulded concrete capitals at the top of each brick pier are very Art Deco/Moderne, as is the stepped surround and projecting hood for the clock in the middle of the concrete beam. Look closely and you’ll see the clockfaces themselves are absolutely Art Deco. Originally, three iron piers within the arch divided the space below into two pedestrian entrances and two vehicle entrances, all with their own iron gates. These piers and gates have completely vanished from Gate 8, while only the outer two piers and gates survive at Gate 10.
The large lettering on the gates originally read “Southern Railway Docks” (see here for a picture of Gate 8 in its prime, complete with full set of iron gates) but currently reads “Associated British Ports”. When Britain’s railways were nationalised in 1948, ownership of Southampton Docks passed to the British Transport Commission. The Commission’s port responsibilities were spun off to the (still nationalised) British Transport Docks Board in the 1960s, which was eventually privatised as Associated British Ports in the early 1980s.
The gates are not, it has to be said, in the best of condition these days. The clocks are broken, and the original iron gates themselves are partially or completely missing. The tidy design of the gates has been ruined by the insensitive application of modern signage.
You have to feel for Associated British Ports, who have been lumbered with two gates that they never wanted anyway. For Associated British Ports, the gates are (quite literally) a barrier standing in the way of progress. In early 2012, the company announced that it wanted to demolish the two gates because the maximum height of loads which can pass underneath them is a restrictive 4.95m. It suggested the gates cause delays to traffic, and that demolishing them would give the opportunity to improve security arrangements at the two entrances to the Docks.
There was a local outcry though, and applications to English Heritage to list the gates before they could be demolished; these fell on sympathetic ears as it turned out, so the gates were saved.
Associated British Ports now has to spend money on the gates to keep them in a reasonable state of repair, even though I’m quite sure there are plenty of other things the company would rather spend that money on, and things which would probably have a rather better financial return. Nevertheless, the company seems to have grudgingly accepted to the continued presence of the gates it wanted rid of, quoted at the time as saying, “ABP is of course happy to respect the decision and will take the existing infrastructure into account when planning any future developments”.
If the gates aren’t exactly Associated British Ports’ favourite structures, those of us who admire the effort the Southern Railway put into making two quite ordinary gates extraordinarily attractive, can be genuinely pleased at their retention.
All that remains is to say that although I did try to find out if there was a similar Gate 9, I cannot for the life of me get hold of that information…
How to find Southampton Docks Gates 8 and 10
The green arrow marks Gate 8, on Herbert Walker Avenue
The green arrow marks Gate 10, on Southern Road
Bibliography and Further Reading
Southern Daily Echo article on demolition plans for Gates 8 and 10, 21 April 2012, here
Southern Daily Echo article on the saving of Gates 8 and 10, 22 May 2012, here
The passenger railway stations of Southampton Docks, from the Disused Stations website, here
English Heritage listing record for Gates 8 and 10, here