In 1148 Matilda Queen of Boulogne bought land in the parish of St, Boltoph near the Tower of London and established a charitable hospice there with a master, brethren, sisters and thirteen poor persons. She gave the hospital a mill with the attached land and an annual rent of 20 pounds.
Queen Matilda conferred the perpetual custody of the hospital onto the priory, but reserved the choice of the master for herself and all the queens who would follow her, creating a bond across time between herself and successive queens of England. The Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St. Katharine by the Tower was established.
Unusually for that period the sisters of the Chapter had equality with the brothers and in the 15th century St Katharine’s had a musical reputation equal to that of St.Paul’s. During the reformation the foundation was spared by being under the protection of the Queen Mother and in 1442 the precinct became a ‘Liberty’ having its own officers, court and prison, and was removed from the Civil and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of the City of London.
The Liberty of St. Katharine’s was a crowded tangle of narrow lanes and streets containing in addition to the Foundation, about 1000 houses and a brewery. The houses which surrounded the Hospital were of the lowest class, small tenements and cottages, with inhabitants both English and foreign, more in numbers than in some cities in England.
Some names of the streets and alleys such as Dark Entry, Cat’s Hole, Shovel Alley, Rookery and Pillory Lane, characterise the neighbourhood. This area served by the Church and Hospital was rough and lawless; the home of many who were classed as prostitutes and vagabonds. The district attracted numerous people who wished to be free of restrictions imposed by the City Guilds in order to work at their various trades. Surprisingly, despite extremely crowded living conditions, the mortality within the Liberty during the Great Plague was half that of the adjacent precincts.
St. Katharine Docks took their name from the former hospital of St Katharine by the Tower which stood on the site and was earmarked for redevelopment by an act of parliament in 1825. The work commenced in May 1827 and some 1250 houses were demolished together with the medieval hospital of St. Katharine. About 11 thousand inhabitants mostly port workers lost their delapidated homes but only the property owners were able to receive compensation.
The docks were designed by the engineer Thomas Telford and to create as much quayside as possible were arranged in the form of two linked basins both accessed via an entrance lock from the Thames. The dock warehouses designed by the architect Phillip Hardwick surrounded the basins for easy loading and included a peninsular warehouse for the storage of valuable goods such as perfume, precious stones and ivory, hence the title ‘I’ warehouse. Special treatment was afforded the design of this warehouse with the inclusion of a campanile and bell tower in recognition of the sanctified nature of the site and to appease those who accused the developers of desecrating a religious monument. This warehouse remains until today. The new dock was opened in October 1828 but was not a great commercial success as was hoped being unsuitable to accommodate the increasing size of cargo ships.
The removal of the Ancient Hospital from what had been its home ground for 7 Centuries was hotly contested. It was strongly argued that the particular financial resources rightly belonged to the part of East London that was By-the-Tower-of-London and that it consisted of an endowment for the benefit of the poor and needy within the Liberty of St. Katharine’s. Despite vigorous lobbying the case was finally dismissed by the House of Lords in 1880.
St. Katharine Dock was successful in the servicing a smaller class of clipper and was famous being the dock for Captain Scott’s ship The Discovery along with many other adventurous voyagers until it was severely damaged in the London blitz during world war two completely destroying the warehouses around the Eastern basin where the land remained derelict until 1990’s. The surviving dock premises were considerable but apart from the basins being used by a Naval Cadet school, the buildings remained vacant.
In the 1960’s, the arrival of swinging London brought the site of St. Katharine by the Tower once again into the limelight. The burgeoning of industry and culture during this minor revolution was accompanied by a scarcity of rentable free space due to new laws on the rights of tenure. It affected mainly small businesses just starting, artists seeking studio space and individuals looking for temporary work space, photographers, designers and the like.
By pure chance Peter Sedgley, an artist painter was visiting a friend who had a small yacht moored in St. Katharine’s Eastern dock. It was in 1967 and as it happened was the only and last vessel to be there as the docks were closing. Sedgley was overwhelmed by the sensation of this environment and had a wild idea or inspiration that here might be a solution to his own private need for a studio to be combined with the possibility of other artists who he knew were looking for space. Following official inquiries Sedgley along with Bridget Riley, Peter Townsend and others founded a charity, this time for the benefit of needy artists to acquire studio premises at affordable rents.
Space Provision Artistic Cultural & Educational, S.P.A.C.E. was established and through the good offices of the new dock owners, the Greater London Council, Desmond Plumber the leader of the GLC proposed a lease for a peppercorn rent of 500 pounds per year to use ‘I’ warehouse and ‘The Match Shed’ a large ancillary space, for 2 years.
The deal was done and at the beginning of 1968 the artists began moving into the premises. The doors of St. Katharine Dock were once again open. Some hundred artists were to occupy space at St. Katharine’s together with periodic rehearsals by musical groups, ie, the Floyd and Soft Machine. Countless exhibitions were realised for the painters and sculptors during this period and subsequently a film was made to document the project.
In ‘I’ warehouse, later named ‘I’ Site, accommodation for ancillary trades was made, these were a screen printing workshop, an electronics buff for advice and a fibre glass specialist for the assistance of sculptors in that media. The basins were ideal for those artists currently working with Inflatables.
The open spaces were sometimes available for helicopter trials, the derelict buildings used for fire brigade practice and once the Rolling Stones made a photo-shoot with a crane for a new album. Film companies regularly used the dock landscape for scenic backgrounds.
For two years activities in this corner By-the-Tower were prolific. The events proved the viability of the original hopes and inaugurated SPACE Studios for the benefit of creative artists and their public in future developments elsewhere.
The example shown by the interventions were influential to other artists and groups, not necessarily by copying directly the form of the project but more by inspiration to create their own specific solutions. In 1976 SPACE and sister company AIR, the Artist Index Registry were amalgamated under charitable status as Art Services Grants Ltd which continue diligently to provide their special and invaluable services.
Resulting from commercial redevelopment the current composition of the site displays hotels, offices, bijou apartments and a collection of nostalgic images to its Dickensian past.
Peter Sedgley (b. 1930) is one of the founding member of Space Provision Artistic Cultural Education (SPACE) and Art Information Registry (AIR) Information Center for the Arts.