Five secrets from Royal Docks history

Forgotten Stories

Five secrets from Royal Docks history

As Join the Docks festival draws to a close, we're uncovering some of the area's hidden gems and less-known corners.

Few people know the Royal Docks like Colin Grainger. From playing on abandoned bomb sites as a child growing up in North Woolwich, to over 40 years as editor of the Newham Recorder, Colin knows these streets and waterways like the back of his hand. He’s also captured countless memories of the area through meticulous interviews with those who experienced them first hand. Here he shares five of his favourite stories.

Canning Town’s answer to Coca-Cola
Rathbone Market

First up, a secret kept for over a century. Just off the A13 in Canning Town is today’s Rathbone Market. Among the most famous stalls of the past was a herbalist run by George and Anne Moody.

The pair opened shop in 1909 making potions for everyday ailments, including ‘Rathbone’ skin ointment in tins, ‘Rathbone’ cough mixture in bottles and other concoctions.

Eventually George Moody formulated a recipe for making a drink from sarsaparilla, a medicinal root said to help purify the blood. The brew was served hot in winter and huge blocks of ice were put into the water barrel to cool it in the summer. A famous drinks firm offered money for the recipe, but the family declined. Over the years, many have requested it, but it remains a family secret.

A teenage undertaker caught up in wartime intrigue

Even in the funeral business, there are moments of humour. In Canning Town, one secret would do justice to the writers of Dad’s Army — part of a serious story that remained secret for generations.

Stan Harris, of T Cribb and Sons, still sometimes makes an appearance as a funeral director to this day, now in his 90s. During World War II, Cribb’s shop and stables were among the few things left standing in the Royal Docks after four years of heavy bombing. Then aged 16, Stan and his bosses were surprised one day when trucks full of soldiers began arriving.

For months the men stayed, refusing to say why they were there. Then suddenly they vanished as quickly as they arrived. Locals discovered their mission the following morning as they sat around the radio. The BBC Home Service announced, “D-Day has come. Early this morning the Allies began the assault on the north-western face of Hitler's European Fortress.”

Stan Harris

Stan Harris (left) with his uncle, Tom Cribb.

The largest liner the docks have ever seen
King George V Dock

Travel to where Woolwich Manor Way crosses the entrance to King George V Dock. On this spot in 1939, 100,000 people witnessed the RMS Mauretania become the biggest ship in history to enter the docks.

This marvellous moment inspired many to work in the docks or at sea. My father Bill Grainger, 92, recalled, “You could reach out and touch the Mauretania. It was one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed in my life. It took your breath away. We were cheering and clapping. Sun Tugs towed the ship into the Gallions Reach dock entrance, some at the bow and others guiding at the stern.” There were just a few feet to spare on either side of the 35,655-ton vessel.

Woolwich Manor Way then and now

The RMS Mauretania entering King George V Dock; photo: Newham Archives and Local Studies. The view from Woolwich Manor Way today, looking north into the dock; photo: Sam Bush. Header photo: Kiron Ponnath.

The set for Sting’s first solo album
Woolwich foot tunnel

If you walk underneath the River Thames into the pedestrian tunnel that links North Woolwich and Woolwich you’ll find another secret location, where music superstar Sting busked in 1984!

I was a news editor for the Newham Recorder at the time and dispatched a reporter and photographer after having been tipped off by a friend. Today, performers invite you along to such things. But then we were refused entry to the tunnel.

It was only years later I found out more. He was singing ‘Moon Over Bourbon Street’. The song is about a vampire in New Orleans, and Sting was inspired to write it after reading a book called Interview With a Vampire. He asks a passer-by for 50p as a joke near the end of it. The track was on The Dream of The Blue Turtles, his debut solo album.

A pub haunted by history
North Woolwich

At the top of Pier Road in North Woolwich, you will see new flats going up where the Royal Pavilion Hotel and pub once stood. This venue had the best view of the Thames, both up- and down-river.

Locals tell how the pub was haunted by a ghost in the 1970s and 80s. Ron Slight and his wife Eileen ran the ‘Pavi’ from 1976 to 1986. The couple and regulars were all convinced it was haunted by a ghost called Fred. Eileen told how the ghost once stopped a record that one of the barmaids had been repeatedly playing on the jukebox at Christmas. Her niece, Davina Dupey, told the story, “When my aunt was talking about Fred and people did not believe her, he took a glass, held it in mid-air, and shattered it!”

Learn more about the Royal Docks history at the Our Docks afternoons on Sunday 22 September and Sunday 29 September.

Read the full story behind Colin Grainger's history secrets here:
Canning Town’s answer to Coca-Cola
A teenage undertaker caught up in wartime intrigue

The largest liner the docks have ever seen

The set for Sting’s first solo album

A pub haunted by history

The view up-river

Looking west from the Woolwich Ferry. Photo: Sam Bush.