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Scandinavian seamen in London

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Scandinavia and London

The countries of Scandinavia

Map of Scandinavia
View full size imageThe main countries and ports of Scandinavia. © NMM
Scandinavia is a collective term for five countries in northern Europe: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland. The first four have strong historical and cultural links, and speak very similar languages. 

Their political histories were also varied. Scandinavia was the home of the Vikings, who  conquered large parts of England and settled or traded as far afield as Russia and Sicily.

In modern times, Norway belonged to Denmark until 1814, and was then ruled by the King of Sweden until 1905. Finland belonged to Sweden until 1807 and then to Russia until 1917. Iceland was ruled by Denmark until 1945.  

The Christian IX (1874).
View full size imageThe Christian IX (1874). © NMM

The Scandinavian countries had small populations and were relatively poor before the 20th century.

Denmark had fertile land and developed livestock and dairy farming, while Sweden developed a small but significant engineering industry.

Norway, with its long coastline and poor soil, was particularly dependent on the sea. Fishing became more important than farming, while Norwegian shipowners built up a huge merchant fleet - one of the world's largest - in the 19th century.

Exports to Britain

A model of the Finnish cargo barquentine Frideborg (1866).
View full size imageA model of the Finnish barquentine Frideborg (1866). © NMM
Britain was a very important export market for all the Scandinavian countries. Norway, Sweden and Finland exported huge quantities of timber, while Denmark exported meat and dairy products.  

The timber ships 

A Danish timber barque, by Samuel Scott.
View full size imageA Danish timber barque, by Samuel Scott. © NMM
Scandinavian timber ships had been coming to London for centuries. The trade was already established long before the Great Fire of London in 1666. The subsequent rebuilding of the City created a huge demand for timber.


Three-masted barque Lalla Rookh at Stave Dock, Surrey Commercial Docks.
View full size imageThe Finnish barque Lalla Rookh at the Stave Dock, c. 1900. © NMM
On any single day before 1914, there were dozens of Scandinavian timber ships in the Surrey Commercial Docks. These were all older sailing vessels, usually bought second hand.


Other trades

The Arendal (1855).
View full size imageThe Arendal (1855). © NMM
The small Scandinavian ships were versatile vessels, carrying varied cargoes to British destinations.

Several ships brought Norwegian ice to the Regent's Canal Dock, and many vessels could be seen all around the British coast. 

The passing of the sailing ships

Lifebelt from the Norwegian vessel Bokn of Stavanger.
View full size imageLifebelt from the Norwegian vessel Bokn of Stavanger. © NMM
During World War I, Norway, Sweden and Denmark were neutral, but hundreds of Scandinavian vessels, including many regular visitors to London, were sunk by German U-boats and mines.

After the war, the Scandinavian shipping lines finally phased out their remaining sailing ships. 

The switch to Tilbury

The Dagny (1963).
View full size imageThe Dagny (1963). © NMM

Imports of timber and timber products from Scandinavia continue to this day.

Scandinavian vessels brought timber and other goods to London right up until the end of the inner London docks.


Timber piled up at the South Dock.
View full size imageTimber at the South Dock, c. 1960. © NMM
With the closure of the Surrey Commercial Docks, imports of timber, timber products and paper from Scandinavia switched to Tilbury. These are carried in containers where possible, but most timber is still handled in the conventional way.



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