By HAROLD NICOLSON
THE Port of London Authority, as we know—or as we ought to know—is a statutory undertaking, publicly owned, self-governing and self-supporting. As an institution, it represents an interesting
and instructive compromise between nationalisation and capitalism ; it is a perfect example of the public utility corporation. The area over which it rules is enormous ; its functions are various, intricate and of immense importance. Its authority extends over seventy miles of the River Thames, from a point below Teddington Lock to an imaginary line drawn from Havengore Creek in Essex to Warden Point in Kent. It possesses five well-equipped docks between London Bridge and Tilbury,, covering an area of 4,183 acres, with a water area of 712 acres and with 44 miles of quayage. The Port deals normally with something like 62 million net register tons of shipping and 44 million tons of import and export cargo. More than one-third of Great Britain's overseas trade is dealt with in the Port of London. In the Royal Docks alone there are eleven miles of deep-water quays ; these docks can claim, with their 237 acres of water, to be the largest enclosed docks in the world. The value of its properties is estimated to exceed thirty-nine million pounds. Such statistics, although most impressive, are apt to be bewildering. On a fine June morning last week I sat upon a deck-chair in the sunshine mugging up these facts from a neat little folder with which I had been supplied. The yacht ' St. Katharine' was moored at Tower Pier. We had been invited by Sir John Anderson, chair- man of the P.L.A., to spend a day visiting the vast enterprises which he and his colleagues control. At 10.30 precisely the ropes were cast off, a bell tinkled in the engine room, and the ' St. Katharine' began to throb with life. The grey mass of the Tower of London, with its sad little windows, slid slowly past us ; the sunshine was shadowed momentarily as .we slipped under Tower Bridge. What would all these statistics look like when I saw them in terms of ships and quays and cranes?
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My mind sped back to a night in 194o when, returning late from Westminster, I had seen the eastern sky shine scarlet and orange in the glow of flames. The outline of Tower Bridge showed sharp and black against the conflagration ; even so must Pepys have gazed in horror at the destruction of the city that he loved. Yet on this fine June morning seven years later it was not an impression of disaster that was conveyed ; it was an impression of forceful re- covery. A warehouse here and there showed blank windows against the sky ; from time to time one would see piles of rubble and flattened sites ; but one was impressed, not so much by the vast areas which had been ruined, but by the amount that had been reconditioned or remained. There was the ' Prospect of Whitby,' a little lonely perhaps, but still retaining its Charles Dickens look. That murky aperture in the wharf marked the exit of the Regent's Canal, whose waters, having sparkled gaily past the lawns and laburnums of Regency London, ended dolefully in Thames-side mud. And then suddenly the majestic frontage of Greenwich Hospital opened its perspectives, giving us a white glimpse of the Queen's House and of the dome of the Observatory above. Past Millwall Docks we glided, past the East India Docks, past Silvertown and Woolwich, and eventually we reached the Royal Docks, the Victoria Dock, the Albert Dock, the King George V Dock. And there, by a little gateway into a lock, we entered.
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Our little yacht slipped easily through the lock, through which, I was told, the ' Mauretania ' had once crept with only eight inches of space to spare. And then we found ourselves in the wide succes- sion of internal docks, and the silence of our passage down the river was changed to the clangour and clatter of an enormous fac- tory. Two hundred and four ships,. I was informed, were in the Port of London that morning ; in the docks themselves there were
as many as eighty-six ships of five thousand tons or over. There to our right was the ' Highland Princess ' of the Royal Mail Line, gay and powerful ; there at the end of the dock was her sister-ship the ' Highland Monarch,' with painters busy on her sides. There was the Maloja,' being refitted after serving as a troopship ; there was the Pilcomayo ' freighted with coffee from Brazil ; and there the ' American Farmer,' her funnels gay with striped red and blue, having well survived her salvage. Rows of cars were parked along the quay side, freight trains jangled and shunted, men on bicycles and large red trams waited patiently for the swing bridges to close, and dock superintendents, with ledgers in their hands, stood watching with poised pencils. Upon each quay the cranes reared their delicate necks, packed as close to each other as spiles in a spile fencing, and dominated by the ' London Mammoth,' which can lift a load of 150 tons. Around us rose the clatter of hammers beating upon iron. Here were a group of men riveting an enormous boiler with terrific din ; here, perched high upon small wooden slings, were other men striking violent blows upon the resounding expanse of a large funnel ; and as an undertone to all this the cranes jostled and hummed, the freight trains jangled. Slung up there upon a lonely board a man, with a small pot of paint hanging from his swing, was patiently daubing the sides of a great yellow funnel. The great ships towered motionless above us ; dark faces here and there stared out of port-holes ; from time to time our own engine bell would tinkle as we turned ; and behind the large iron facades were rows of untenanted cabins, with their bunks showing steel mattresses, and pink silk shades to their reading-lamps.
Slowly we slid out of the lock again and into Gallions Reach. A silence fell upon the ' St. Katharine ' and we descended to the saloon to eat. When we came up on deck again we were approaching Til- bury ; a tang of sea-weed was in the air and on each side of us spread the sunlit fields of Kent and Essex. And then we turned back again and sped swiftly in the afternoon sunshine back to Tower Pier. These successive contrasts between noise and silence, between the inert and the active, between mobility and immobility, between placidity and action, always produce a confusion in the head. It was only later that I could arrange my bewildered impressions and interpret the succession of contrasting images which I had absorbed. It is a valuable thing, I felt, that such vast enterprises should be entrusted to corporations publicly owned The Port of London Authority is composed of eighteen elected representatives of ship- owners, merchants and other users of the Port and of ten represen- tatives appointed by Government Departments and by public bodies. They have power to choose their own chairman and vice-chairman. It is surely a wise thing to place the control of such a vast public utility service in the hands of experts who are representative of the interests, both governmental and commercial, which are so directly involved. It is a method and a solution which I for one should wish to see more widely applied. The national importance of this great service is too determinant to permit of competing private interests ; the technical nature of its problems render it unsuited to purely departmental administration. An excellent compromise has been devised.
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But that was not the only impression which I gained. I felt that the Port of London, with its vast installations, will, whatever happens, remain a vital international asset, a central channel for the inter- change of goods and services. I felt that it constituted a symbol of the national wealth which we shall one day recover ; a symbol more- over of that energy and skill which in the past has rendered us the foremost of all mercantile and sea-faring races, and which in the future will gradually restore to us something at least of our old, prosperity and power.