Nine Elms

Iona Ramsay

From the seventeenth century, Nine Elms attracted a steady flow of trades and manufactures, the Thames then providing the only effective means of transporting heavy goods. The arrival of the railways from the 1830s encouraged growth, and the area thereafter became well-known for a varied concentration of factories, workshops and wharves. The Nine Elms riverfront, which sits to the east of Chelsea Bridge, became increasingly associated with large-scale public works and utilities, for water, gas and electricity, so much so that by the late nineteenth century, the area had been completely engulfed by industry [1].

The first public works was the waterworks of the Southwark (& Vauxhall) Water Company, established in 1840–1, Nine Elms having been selected as an ideal site from which to draw drinking water from the Thames for the people of south London. The second was the gasworks of the London Gas Light Company, established beside an old tide-mill pond in the 1850s as an outstation, but greatly extended soon after to become the company’s main works [2].

The largest consumers—Nine Elms Gasworks and, later, Battersea Power Station—took the logical step and built their own riverside jetties fitted with hydraulic cranes, enabling private fleets of sea-going vessels to bypass the Port of London and unload at will. There were also private coal-wharves and depots along the Victorian and Edwardian riverfront, usually comprising little more than a quay for unloading, sheds for storage, and stabling for horses and delivery carts [3].

A great deal of importance was attached to riverside transport well into the nineteenth century – until the advent of containerisation. The river itself was a source of employment, supporting watermen and lightermen, barge-owners, ships’ breakers, even fishermen. It is highly likely that many of these tradesman would live aboard their vessels whilst carryout out jobs – possibly the earliest examples of living afloat on the tidal Thames.

Industrial expansion continued at Nine Elms until about the 1960s. The Second World War accelerated industrial decentralization, many firms minimising their London sites or relocating out of the city altogether to avoid high rents and labour costs.

Added to this, the heavy bomb damage suffered in Battersea, the   proposals to segregate residential and industrial zones in London's reconstruction, the office boom and rise in service industries, and the general post-war decline in British manufacturing—all made Battersea’s riverside an unattractive prospect for industrialists in comparison to the New Towns and Development Areas elsewhere.

Those firms that remained hung on into the 1960s and 1970s but economic conditions worsened and the ascendancy of containerization, the disappearance of London’s river borne trade and the closure of the docks finally killed off industry at Nine Elms [4].

Houseboats began to populate disused sites at Nine Elms in the 1980s, first at the old gasworks jetty (now known as Nine Elms Pier) and then later at a small disused dock just east of the jetty, now named Tideway Village. Although the moorings are situated next to one another, they are nevertheless distinct communities with their own individual histories. Nine Elms Pier is the larger, older mooring, with approximately twenty boats (as well as the main jetty which is home to a community garden and a swimming pool), and Tideway Village the smaller, home to just three boats.

As a physical structure, Nine Elms Pier is one of the few remnants of gas and coal-based industry in the area. The 360ft concrete jetty had been constructed in the late 1940s as part of a £7 million reconstructed programme to the newly nationalized North Thames Gas Board. The steel and concrete jetty was to take the biggest of the North Thames as Board’s new fleet of diesel-class colliers and an associated coal-handling plant, capable of unloading a 2,600-ton ship in a single tide. Begun in 1948, the new facilities were inaugurated by the Duchess of Kent in May 1952 [5]. An article from ‘The Engineer’ in August 1952 reported on the ‘interesting piling procedure’ used to install the jetty, which could withstand loads of 110 tons [6].

However, as Britain began to turn its back on coal-based ‘town’ gas, manufacturing plants like Nine Elms were phased out. The last shipment of coal to the wharf was in January 1970, after which point the cranes were removed and the structure went into disuse [7].

It is believed that the first residential boats began to occupy the jetty in the early 1980s. Newspaper cuttings reveal that Nine Elms had boats in 1983. Mark and May Hale arrived at the pier in 1985 with Rockland - one of the first residential boats at the pier. The residents on the pier in 1985 were effectively the start of the houseboat community that still thrives at Nine Elms today.

The jetty was rechristened with its present name ‘Nine Elms Pier’ in 1992 when it was bought out by Nine Elms Pier Limited, a company set up as a cooperative by residents to deal with the moorings Nine Elms Pier Limited, which is owned by a number of shareholders leases its rights to the mooring from the Crown Estates and the Port of London Authority [8]. It also pays an annual fee to the Port of London Authority for a River Works Licence.

While the legal rights to the pier remain secure, the Thames Tideway Tunnel works have temporarily displaced a number of residents – and as the works pick up, and the decibel level increases, more residents may be forced or choose to leave. The tunnel works will take place for five to six years – a significant interruption and source of insecurity to the residents of Nine Elms Pier [9]. The Tideway Tunnel is scheduled to complete its works in 2021.

The vast concrete pier, which has a small swimming pool and communal garden, lends itself to community life. Iona Ramsay, who has lived at Nine Elms for just over three years, refers to the community as the best part of living at Nine Elms, describing her neighbours as “lovely, lovely people” and referring to numerous parties and summer barbecues [10]. This sense of community also extends to Tideway Village, whose residents also use the pier and are familiar with their neighbours at Nine Elms Pier. Iona lives on what is perhaps the smallest residential boat on the Thames, a converted lifeboat from an Italian cruise ship named ‘Rising Sun’. Iona described a “love and hate” relationship with her boat, which requires lots of maintenance and care, but admitted that “I still wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Owen Houlston, another pier resident, has referred to living afloat as “like being on holiday” and enjoys the closeness to nature [11]. He said that “I feel connected to the world in a way I didn’t feel in most houses.” However, he does find many annoyances with living afloat, including constant maintenance and movement caused by river traffic. When asked for three words to describe living afloat, Owen said “annoying but nice”.

Asked to comment on his experience of living afloat, Mark Hale writes: “Moving afloat was essentially a lifestyle choice for May and myself - allied with a strong desire for affordable space that we could adapt for living as we wanted - being young architectural students at the time, in the early 80's.

We started our life afloat owning and living aboard a tiny 27 foot narrow boat which we converted and finally outgrew - thereafter upsizing to the other extreme with Rockland (a Thames lighter) in 1985. Although we were boating novices at the time, we were enthusiastic, and Rockland seemed to us like a really big solid barge, offering lots of space and potential - a good call as it happens because we have been happily living aboard for approximately thirty years - and it's still it is an ongoing lifestyle project!

Finding Nine Elms Pier was a lucky break - it was the first residential mooring we came across,  advertised in the Exchange & Mart just a few weeks after we bought Rockland. We did what we always advise other aspiring boat people not to do - we bought a boat without a mooring!

Nine Elms Pier [or Nine Elms Jetty as it was known then], started with just a few boats back in the mid 80's, at around the same time that some of the remaining steel infrastructure on the jetty was being dismantled and scrapped and it has since slowly evolved into the residential marina it is today, centred around the original old concrete jetty. Rockland arrived at Nine Elms Pier in 1985 and is the earliest of the original houseboats that remain on the pier today.

From shaky beginnings, the boat owners initially set up as a boat owners association - to help manage and furnish what was then an emerging residential boating community surviving with only very basic facilities. After a number of years and some pretty major legal activity and a few lucky breaks, a core group of around seven or eight of the established boat owners were able to contribute the funding required to kick-start investment in proper services, safe access and pontoon mooring facilities, whilst also forming a company to acquire the pier and manage and grow the moorings and facilities to gain a more sustainable footing with more houseboats and more residents - culminating in the thriving houseboat community we have at Nine Elms today.”

Tideway Village was similarly bound up in London’s industrial trade and was originally the site of a coal dock for the local Nine Elms gas board. Coal barges would moor in the dock to supply coal for the local gas works. However, the site was bombed during the Second World War and after 1945 it was progressively neglected, becoming a largely derelict site after the closure of the gasworks in 1970 [12]. In 2001, when David Waterhouse first came across it, there were no boats moored there, just a few old supermarket trolleys floating around. 

It was at this time, in 2001, that the first residential boats arrived. David Waterhouse had lived for a short time on the Battersea Barge, an entertainment venue moored just downriver of Tideway Dock. It was after living there that he was inspired to develop the dock into a space for houseboats. Another individual also had the idea to live afloat at the dock at the same time and they simultaneously sought permissions to moor there.

Tideway Village was thus founded in 2001, after various approvals and licenses were obtained from the riparian owners, the Port of London Authority and the Environment Agency. The two boats that arrived in 2001 (St Michael and Newark) were shortly joined by a third (Layla) in 2003. The Battersea Barge also continued to exist as a venue and from time to time functions as a community meeting space for residents of both Nine Elms Pier and Tideway Village.

Tideway Village was created as an autonomous community mooring, partly with the aim of providing affordable central London accommodation, but also to create “village life in the city” [13]. David had previously lived in a showman’s wagon whilst farming in Cornwall, so said that the move afloat was “not a massive change, but more of a progression”.

After enduring significant negotiations regarding the rights to the mooring from the coal works, rights to the land from the gas works, and planning permission from Wandsworth Council, Tideway Village was again caught up in battles with St James Property Development over rights to the moorings and potential eviction [14]. St James Development specialises in building luxury flats, and had already successfully evicted houseboat residents at a Chelsea Bridge Wharf development. The company planned to do the same with Tideway Village, replacing the boats with a floating garden that could offer amenable views to the buyers of flats in a new luxury development, which would be onshore overlooking the area of the moorings. However, Tideway Village residents joined with Nine Elms Pier residents and many others to campaign against this eviction, starting a blogspot and petition (which gained over two thousand signatures) to raise awareness of their cause, as well as hosting ‘open days’ in which the public could come and visit the boats and lobby the offices of St James' to make their case. The campaign found support in the mayor’s office, which “recognised the unique nature” of the houseboat communities, according to David Waterhouse [15].

Although the moorings are now safe, there have been some changes to living conditions at Tideway Village with the St James riverside construction, which is still in fact underway. Whilst some of these changes have been positive, such as the construction of a new Waitrose supermarket meaning that houseboat dwellers can more easily do their grocery shopping, others have been less pleasant. Two large towers overlook the floating communities and have changed the patterns of sunlight for its residents, effectively blocking it for parts of the day. Though the towers have been constructed thoughtfully to allow intermittent sunlight, rather than blocking it completely, this is nevertheless a change to everyday life at the moorings that some view as unpleasant.

Despite this, Tideway Village retains some of the rural flavour that David desired when he first moved afloat. He built a small island just off the end of his boat, which is now a nesting site for swans, and can be seen from his daughter’s bedroom window. Although there are some hazards, David thinks that overall the river is a lovely environment for children. He explained that “we get a certain rocking but it’s more of a gentle rock, which is great for sending children to sleep”. His daughter “for the first nine months was in a cradle hanging from the ceiling so she used to rock with the boat, which was very good for sending her to sleep.”

Notes:

[1] The Bartlett, UCL.2013. Survey of London. Chapter 8. P 19. 
[2] Ibid. p7
[3] Ibid. p.8
[4] Ibid. p.11
[5] Ibid. p 19
[6] ‘Coal Handling Plant at nine Elms Gad Works’, The Engineer, August 8, 1952.
[7] The Bartlett, UCL., 2013.. Survey of London. Chapter 8, p 19.
[8] Interview with David Waterhouse, London, 28 April 2016
[9] Ibid.
[10] Interview with Iona Ramsay, London, 28 April 2016
[11] Interview with Owen Houlston, London, 28 April 2016
[12] www.batterseagasholders...
[13] http://narrowboatworld.com/ind...
[14] Interview with David Waterhouse, London, 28 April 2016
[15] Ibid.