Some of Conrad's finest writing in The Mirror of the Sea describes the New South Dock - the original name for the South West India Dock.
The West India Docks
This New South Dock (it was its official name), round which my earlier professional memories are centred, belongs to the group of West India Docks, together with two smaller and much older basins called Import and Export respectively, both with the greatness of their trade departed from them already...
|The West India Import Dock in 1817. © NMM|
At one time they must have been full of good old slow West Indiamen of the square-stern type, that took their captivity, one imagines, as stolidly as they had faced the buffeting of the waves with their blunt, honest bows, and disgorged sugar, rum, molasses, coffee, or logwood sedately with their own winch and tackle.
|The West India Docks in 1810. © NMM|
The South West India Dock
New South Dock was especially a loading dock for the Colonies in those great (and last) days of smart wool-clippers, good to look at and - well - exciting to handle. Some of them were more fair to see than the others; many were (to put it mildly) somewhat over-masted; all were expected to make good passages; and of all that line of ships, whose rigging made a thick, enormous network against the sky, whose brasses flashed almost as far as the eye of the policeman at the gates could reach, there was hardly one that knew of any other port amongst all the ports on the wide earth but London and Sydney, or London and Melbourne, or London and Adelaide...
|The Cutty Sark (1869) in Sydney Harbour. © NMM|
the sight that could be seen five-and-twenty years ago of a large fleet of clippers moored along the north side of the New South Dock was an inspiring spectacle. Then there was a quarter of a mile of them, from the iron dockyard-gates guarded by policemen, in a long, forest-like perspective of masts, moored two and two to many stout wooden jetties.
|The South West India Dock. © NMM|
Fifty hulls, at least, moulded on lines of beauty and speed - hulls of wood, of iron, expressing in their forms the highest achievement of modern ship-building - lay moored all in a row, stem to quay, as if assembled there for an exhibition, not of a great industry, but of a great art.
|Merchant ships and HMS President in the South West India Dock. © NMM|
Their colours were grey, black, dark green, with a narrow strip of yellow moulding defining their sheer, or with a row of painted ports decking in warlike decoration their robust flanks of cargo-carriers that would know no triumph but of speed in carrying a burden, no glory other than of a long service, no victory but that of an endless, obscure contest with the sea...
|South West India Dock. © NMM|
And for a good quarter of a mile, from the dockyard gate to the farthest corner, where the old housed-in hulk, the President (drill-ship, then, of the Naval Reserve), used to lie with her frigate side rubbing against the stone of the quay, above all these hulls, ready and unready, a hundred and fifty lofty masts, more or less, held out the web of their rigging like an immense net, in whose close mesh,
black against the sky, the heavy yards seemed to be entangled and suspended.
|A damaged photograph of the HMS President in the New South Dock. © NMM|