The Grimsby Dock Tower, NE Lincolnshire, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Grimsby Dock Tower, NE Lincolnshire, UK

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The Grimsby Dock Tower.

The Docks are a dominant feature both of Great Grimsby's geography and economic history, and the Dock Tower, rising 309ft 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 its 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 224ft, yet at its base is only 28ft square. The main body tapers imperceptibly to 26ft 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 57ft topped with an octagonal Lantern House a further 37ft tall. The last 100ft of the building are purely decorative.

Though Grimsby is famed for its 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 its 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 that's visible as soon you surmount the Wolds 20 miles away at Caistor. It was also one of the first sights that sailors saw 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 1970s and Freshney Place in the early '90s, the original 12th and 14th Century waterfronts were uncovered here. Now, sadly, they lay among the foundations of these neo-vernacular temples of Mammon.

Trade in the Middle Ages was good, but by the 17th Century it 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 an Act was passed in 1796 to form the Grimsby Haven Company. Jonathan Pickernal of Whitby was commissioned to draw up plans for the new docks, and the Haven became a six-acre locked dock in 1800; it 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 JM 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, and wharves and embankments were 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 Messrs 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 18 April, 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 stands was begun.

The Tower

Building the Tower

The commission to build the Great Grimsby Hydraulic Tower went to a Mr JW Wild. The design fell to Wild upon his return from his grand tour of Egypt, the Mediterranean 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 minarets 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 10ft, whereupon 35ft-long fir piles were sunk as foundation and the excavated area capped with 2ft of concrete. The pier sides were lined with spiked firs and the stone walls laid against them, the blocks 5.5ft x 4.5ft and 2ft thick were then faced with 6-inch thick York stone flags. A hardcore foundation then filled the internal cavity with rubble, clay and concrete and only then was the ground laid for the building's 28 x 28ft footings.

As stated earlier, local legend suggests that the Tower was built on cotton wool, and 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, and this is 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 28ft long and 4ft thick and rose a clear 224ft 9inches to the top of the main tower, by which time they had tapered to an exterior dimension of 26ft square and 3ft thick. At this point the building flares out into the beautiful 'balcony' which gives the building much of its character. It was here, 247ft up, that reservoir tanks holding 30,000 gallons of water were installed. This amount of water at such a height created 100psi of pressure. Above this was the ornamental second tower (57ft) and Lantern House: (37ft 10.5inches) which give the building its architectural grace and symmetry.

The bricks from which the building is constructed were manufactured on the site. The clay was dug from the marshes and is still a major feature of the town. And so the building sprang from the earth on which it stands, defining Grimsby, not only because of its imposing presence, but because it is built from its very soil.

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 its working life in 1852 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 30ft-high, requiring two people to operate them during the two 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 long, where it was pumped into a tank by two 10-inch diameter force pumps on a 25 horse power engine. This gave enough constant hydraulic pressure to suit the docks' needs back in the 1800s. 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) and serviced 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 225ft lift ride for 6d.

In 1892, with the advent of electricity, a second tower was built. This was a small 78ft accumulator tower which was capable of providing eight 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 the working class men of the time, on various occasions folk would actually dive from the Tower into the Dock, for no better reason other than for public spectacle. This practice has declined in popularity since the days of these 'human flies', but remained an infrequent but memorable act of bravado right up 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 the UK. The tower swayed but other than that, remained intact when the quake struck on 7 June, 1931, measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale. Its 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 during the quake, Filey Church spire was twisted, and the quake was felt in Ireland, Denmark and France. However, the pencil-like structure of the Tower remained stood upright. Perhaps the cotton wool cushioned the blow...

Tower Maintenance

The Tower did, and does, need occasional maintenance - a process not without note. In the past, while maintaining the building, steeplejacks have had to build scaffolds which would hang down precariously from the tower's viewing stage. Postcards of the 1930s show the repair work of the period in progress, with such a three-tier scaffold. One particular incident occurred on September 10th, 1923, when a Mancunian steeplejack, James Davis, collapsed on the scaffold during an inspection of work and subsequently died. The logistics of getting him in off the scaffold and down the tower would these days be the stuff of emergency TV documentaries. However, at the time, incidents such as this were taken in the stride of the dock workers on hand, as they were used to dealing with accidents 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 a valuable landmark for those coming into port. And the ornamental lantern house was used as a beacon to guide shipping. The Tower continues to guide shipping on its way, its 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 its 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 evaded 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, the immense water tanks were removed from the top of the tower.

Now the building is once again an attraction, though its current owners, Associated British Ports, are somewhat reluctant to allow access to the building for safety reasons; the cost of adequate supervision would be prohibitive. Since 1997 tours of the Tower are now organised a couple of days a year by the Grimsby Rotary Club2, often to coincide with ABP's Dock Open Day, and visitors can once again go up the tower, now only to the first level, but after climbing 200 feet up the single spiral staircase, the first level is enough for most! The view is still marvelous, 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 years gone by, visitors are even invited to jump off the Tower - although now attached to an abseil rope.

Over the last 20 years the building has been recognised as one of cultural importance and part of the UK's industrial heritage. Various preservation orders have been placed upon it at both a local and national level, and it is now a grade one listed building. Also the town has, 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 1133.

1The claim that the building is the highest self-supporting brick-built building in the world is, more than likely, a fallacy. Several such claims were made at the time of Grimsby's expansion by the railway companies while it was the world's premier fishing port. Railway St. foot bridge was often claimed to be the longest footbridge in the world, but at 1/5 of a mile that seems very unlikely.2The Rotary Club are also the source of the very natty little Dock Tower tie-pins you've all been coveting.3Or if approaching by sea 53:34:59 North, 0:04:15 West!

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