Deserted Royals for Sale

The last ships to be loaded and unloaded in London’s Royal Docks were still chalked on a board in one of the dock offices when I photographed it in the summer of 1984, although they had all left by October 1981, almost 3 years earlier.

The docks themselves were virtually deserted, though there were still a few ships tied up, some stranded there due to financial problems with their owners, and a few smaller boats apparently awaiting repair or rusting to pieces.

One or two small businesses were still operating within the dock estate, but essentially the huge area of water and dockside was deserted, and in two days of photographing inside the fences that still guarded it I saw only two people.

One was a single rower practising on the 1.4 miles of open water of the Royal Albert Dock, who I’m not sure even noticed me as I took his photograph as he sculled up and back, the second a man working for a fork-lift truck company with whom I stopped to talk, and who posed for a picture. There were a couple of security guards for the whole site – roughly a mile and a half long and a third of a mile wide – and we talked briefly as they read my letter permitting entry – but they stayed in their office by the gate.

I wrote just a few weeks ago about photographing there in Royal Docks – 1984, and won’t repeat all that again, though I see I’ve chosen some of the same pictures to illustrate this post. The image above has a certain interest for me other than in the wallpaper with its ship design and the view of the docks with the curtain blowing in the wind, from a technical viewpoint. As you are probably aware from the shadow of the curtain it was taken with the aid of flash, something rare for me at the time.

Nowadays with the Nikon this would be so simple to do that about the only thing I would have to do would be to put the SB700 flash unit into the flash shoe, turn it on and press the button. i- TTL BL balanced fill flash would sort everything out automatically, and I would see the result immediately and perhaps tweak my standard -2/3 stop setting on the flash if I felt it necessary and retake the picture.

Back then, things were different. The Olympus SLR  camera I was using had a flash sync speed of 1/60 second. It was I think taken on ISO 125 film, so the first step was to take an exposure reading through the window for the outside scene and determine the aperture that was needed.  At least by this time I had an electronic flash  (an advance that has gone unnoticed by popular journalism which still thinks that celebrities are photographed with the aid of flash bulbs) but you had to work out the aperture required for a given subject distance from the guide number.

This left me with the impossibility of using two different apertures for the same exposure. One standard way to get over this was to reduce the power of the flash by holding a handkerchief in front of it, but handkerchiefs don’t come well calibrated. And you only knew if you had got it right when the film came out of the developer.  I think this image was my first success.

Later I bought a meter that could record both flash and ambient light, and flashes too became more controllable, and using flash became very much easier and more dependable, although it was really only with my first Nikon DSLR that fill flash became a simple routine.


Silvertown By-Pass  bow-string bridge opened in 1935,  demolished 1990s


Ship’s names were written on the dockside for Lascar workers


A jacket left hanging on a peg when the workers left the docks in 1981

The Deserted Royals is now available for download as a PDF from Blurb, who seem also to insist that a print version is on sale. The PDF is £3.99 as a download, the soft-cover version is £30 and postage will add another five or six pounds.  I hope later to be able to supply it for UK customers direct from me at a lower cost.

There is a preview available on Blurb which shows around half of the 90 black and white images in the book.

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My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated are by Peter Marshall and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

To order prints or reproduce images

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