Victorian London - Thames - Docks - Warehouses

Bonded Warehouses. - The most important of these are the warehouses of the East and West India, and London, St. Katharine, and Victoria Dock Companies.
    EAST AND WEST INDIA DOCK COMPANY'S WAREHOUSES - the general description of which will serve mutatis mutandis for the others also - employ daily 500 men, and frequently as many as 700, and have stowage space for about 30,000 tons of produce. They are fitted throughout with steam lifts, hoists, hydrants, and other machinery, and are in direct telegraphic communication with each of the Company's docks.
    The articles stored in the small warehouse in Billiter-street are, in proportion to bulk, among the most valuable known to commerce. On the top floor is a large collection of Japanese and Chinese goods, all arranged for the inspection of the brokers, through whose hands they are to pass to the trade and the public generally. Another large collection of similar articles is to be found on the floor below, the remainder of which is divided between the spice department and that devoted to ostrich feathers, the show of which for the monthly sale averages £80,000; a single day's sale having been known to realise considerably more than £40,000. On the floor below again is the carpet store, crammed to the ceiling with rugs, carpets, and mats, from India, Persia, China, Turkey, and elsewhere, to the annual value of many thousands of pounds. With these come also the bird skins: dark purple merles, soft-tinted little green parakeets, ibises, sacred and otherwise, humming-birds, jungle-cocks, and a score or two more, consummating in a large store filled entirely with peacocks' skins dried whole, with their long sweeping tail-feathers still attached. On this floor, too, are hundreds of huge cases of immortelles from the Cape; pigs' bristles, black and white, from India; beads, professedly Indian, and certainly imported thence, but painfully suggestive of an origin somewhat nearer home. Below on the first floor is the store of ivory and tortoiseshell, the latter massed in bins in the thin, irregular scales in which it is taken from the back of the turtle. At the edge of each bin a sample scale is stuck on end, so that the light from the window shines through it, showing the characteristic marking. The pieces in which the yellow ground predominates are bought chiefly for the Japanese market, where they command a very high price up to as much as 45s. a pound, for working up into mosaic and inlaid ware ; a large proportion of the lower shell, or "yellow-belly," finding its market in the same quarter. In another part of the same floor is a large store of "loggerhead," an altogether inferior shell, of a maximum value of about 10d, a pound, imported solely for the purpose of adulteration. To the uninitiated mind the adulteration of tortoiseshell is a process which would hardly suggest itself. The idea, however, becomes more feasible when it is understood that every comb is built up of at least two, and sometimes three thicknesses of shell - the original scale being not very much thicker than stout brown paper- cemented together by pressure under the action of heat. A thickness of loggerhead interposed between two specially thin scales of real but inferior shell, converts the whole into a piece of apparent "tortoiseshell," only to be detected by the initiated eye. The collection of ivory is one of the most interesting as well as one of the most valuable in the building, containing tusks from all parts of India and Africa; some of then, of only a few ounces, some ranging to the enormous weight of 150 lbs. with, a length of 6 or 7 feet. The huge curly tusks from Siberia, some of them, with a spiral of nearly a turn and a half, would, if straightened out, run to considerably greater length ; but these are merely the mortal remains of an extinct species, supposed to have finally shuffled off this mortal coil at least 2,000 years ago. A curious variety is the Gaboon, from the West Coast of Africa, which in one important respect inverts one chief characteristic of its kind. Ivory as a rule commences its career a delicate white, yellowing into brown with advancing years. Gaboon ivory begins of a lightish amber tint, but has a tendency to wear white by handling and exposure. Another noteworthy feature is the evidence afforded by the African imports of the quarrelsome nature of the elephant in that part of the world. It is, comparatively speaking, almost a rare occurrence to get a sound tusk from Africa; whilst the number of broken stumps which form the bulk of the supply bear unmistakable witness both to the number and the severity of the conflicts in which their pugnacious proprietors have been involved. The ground floor is devoted chiefly to drugs and essential oils.
    Close by in Fenchurch-street is another enormous warehouse, or rather series of warehouses, belonging to the same company, five floors in height, besides basement and cellars. It is the largest drug warehouse in the world, and is also the largest establishment for warehousing, examining, and repacking, or as it is technically termed "working" tea, silk, shawls, cigars, and other important articles of commerce. Of tea else receipts during one month have run as high as 165,000 packages, averaging from 50 to 60 lbs. weight each, and the deliveries to 70,000, with a stock in hand of some 300,000 packages. Of silk the store-rooms contain at a time between 9,000 and 10,000 bales, averaging in value from £80 to 90 each. The rooms in which it is worked are fitted with blinds, it being found that the exposure of silk to light and warmth results in appreciable loss of weight. There are six sales of silk a year. Of silk piece-goods there are also six sales, with four of cotton piece-goods ; the average stock being about 60,000 pieces. Of Cashmere and other Eastern shawls there are two sales. In cigars the East and West India Dock Company have almost a monopoly, dealing with upwards of eighty per cent, of the total imports into London. The show floor is the highest in the warehouse, the remainder of the large warehouse, set apart exclusively for this article, being occupied by the stock, averaging some 5,000 cases. The "working," which consists of unpacking every case and examining its contents, item by item, is, with the weighing, sampling, and other operations, carried on at the top of the building under the constant supervision of Custom House officers. Small quantities of tobacco are also at times stored here, but this does not form an important or even an ordinary branch of the bushiness of these warehouses. The drug department is of immense size and capacity, containing probably the largest store in the world of gums of all descriptions, isinglass, gamboge, shellac, jalap, ipecacuanha, rhubarb, &c. &c. Of ipecacuanha-root alone the stock at times reaches a value of from 12,000 to £15,000, whilst the average value of the stock of rhubarb may be set down as about 25,000. The public sales in the drug department are fortnighthy; the show-rooms, In which samples are previously exhibited, being 160 feet long, surrounded by a gallery roofed with glass. At the further end a corner has been cleverly converted into a most valuable museum containing several thousand specimens from all parts of the world of the various articles dealt with in the department.
    The Crutched Friars warehouse is a large building surrounding a quadrangular court-yard, and consisting of six storeys, each containing eight rooms, and filled from top to bottom with teas of various descriptions. It was originally constructed in the beginning of the century by the now defunct East India Company. The upper floors are set apart for Indian and the lower for Chinese teas ; the enormous increase which of late years has taken place in the importations of the former class forming a striking feature in the statistics of the stores. The cellars are fitted up with a half deck, thus largely increasing the amount of stowage room here devoted to fancy shells, mother-of-pearl, green ear, Japan ear, bull mouth, &c., with hides, leather, skins, straw- plait, shellac, lac dye, and cochineal. This warehouse has two very fine show-rooms : one for shells, and the other for the other articles housed in the store.
    The Jewry-street warehouse is specially devoted to the storage and working of indigo, about two thirds of the whole importations of which into London is here dealt with. It is a large building five storeys in height, built round a quadrangular court- yard, and is separated from the Fenchurch-street store by Northumberland- alley, but the huge system of cellars joins on to that of the Fenchurch-street cellars. The cases of indigo are weighed, bulked, and tared immediately on arrival, samples drawn for display in the show-rooms on the top floor, where they are ranged in narrow paper trays upon long rows of tables, the rooms being lighted by skylights so arranged as to afford the sunless north light, dear to all handlers of colours. Public sales are held every three months, the average at each sale being 8,000 cases. From the purely picturesque point of view this department is one of the most curious in the establishment. The whole of the vast range of stores, walls, floors, roofs, stairs, and even windows, are tinted by the constant cloud of dust thrown off by the never-ending manipulation of thousands of tons of indigo in one deep uniform tone of blue. If you put your hand on a balustrade to aid you in mounting the long flights of stairs the palm of it is forthwith dyed as blue as a patch from an Italian sky. The very light as it forces its difficult way through the thickly-powdered glass is as blue as Major Bagstock, and the whole general effect of the dark blue caverns through which flit here and there mysterious dark blue shadows in strange flowing garments and fantastic head-gear is as that of some merman's haunt in the fathomless abysses of the deep blue sea. So inevitable is the operation of the indigo-laden atmosphere of the place upon anyone who ventures into it, that special provision, has to be made for those members of the trade on whom falls the duty of examining samples similar to those which have to be adopted by the visitor to a mine. A large lavatory on the ground floor of the principal indigo warehouse is surrounded a series of small cupboards, in which the members of the trade deposit on arrival the garments of ordinary out-door life, donning in their stead a complete suit of blue linen shirt, blouse, trowsers, and nightcap; the latter on a truly Brobdingnagian scale with deep sides and ample curtain not unlike the quaint structure formerly known as a sun - bonnet, surmounted by a paper cap, sometimes plain, more often fashioned into a very fair resemblance of an episcopal mitre. The general effect of the costume is on the whole perhaps rather comic than becoming, but habit takes off the edge of the keenest jest, and the indigo purchaser thus got up passes about his task with as business-like a gravity as though habited in the straightest of frocks and the stiffest and mount irreproachable of cravats and collars.
    The whole of this enormous stock of goods is conveyed in the locked vans of the company from their landing-place an the docks, and on arrival unpacked case by case, and bale by bale, and carefully examined within a view to any possible damage received either before shipment or en route. The examination does not extend - as some may think it might perhaps with advantage be extended - to any question of quality or adulteration, but simply to that of condition. Any damage found is at once reported to the chief superintendent of the establishment, and by him subjected to a careful investigation, the result of which is forthwith communicated to all parties interested. The statement so furnished is very complete, showing not merely the amount of damage done, but the way in which has occurred, and whether during the voyage or in the making up for shipment.
    One safeguard against competition almost as great as that of possession, is to be found in the enormous summons for which security has to be given to the Customs in respect of goods under bond. The security furnished by the East and West India Dock Company amounts to no less a sum than 60,000. Of course these dutiable goods have to be kept carefully distinct from those upon which no duty charged. Every store in which such goods are warehoused is kept constantly under lock and key, and no variations is permitted in the distribution of dutiable and free commodities among the different portions of the establishment without the special written authority of the Commissioners of Customs.
    Of course the utmost possible precaution is taken to prevent any purloining or unlawful re moval of goods, and so minute is the supervision exercised, it is believed to be impossible for an ounce of tea or a solitary cigar to find a means of surreptitious exit. The general public are not admitted to the building at all, or only with a special order from the secretary of the company, or from a broker or other person interested in the goods actually on the premises.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881