In one corner of Canning Town station rises a memorial that’s vast in both size and significance. Hewn from the iron hull of HMS Warrior, then clad in dozens of concrete panels, each in turn covered with a cascade of calligraphic prose, it is an elegy to an organisation, a trio of industries, and a way of life long gone.
The Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company lived for almost 100 years and died two years before Britain went to war (in part thanks to the threat from someone else’s ironworks and shipbuilding). The First Lord of the Admiralty, a certain Mr W Churchill, refused to step in to save the company in 1912 when work dried up.
But the football club established for the works’ employees, Thames Ironworks FC, did survive and still does, under the name it adopted to allow it to hire professional players. And it was the management and supporters of that club who, many decades later, helped commission and fund the creation of this memorial. Fittingly, they get a special mention:
By my count that’s at least two lasting contributions West Ham United have made to the culture of the nation; the other being their popularisation of this beautiful song.
As for the memorial, the designer Jamie Troughton and engraver Richard Kindersley must take the main honours for realising West Ham’s dream and turning an idea into something so defiantly solid. The concrete panels were apparently so expensive that Kindersley and his helpers could not, or more accurately weren’t allowed to, make a single mistake. And they didn’t, even if it meant it took three weeks for the inscriptions to be completed.
Their collective effort is stunning and soaring. Its calligraphy whirls and shimmies around three flights of steps, not merely bringing but whipping and rocketing the past back to life.
My only regret is its location. It’s tucked away at the far end of the concourse, on the way to Canning Town bus station, and very easy to miss. I speak from experience: I only found it on my third visit. But Iif I’d been a bit more patient I probably would have worked out what to do – for example, ask someone where it was.
Rather wonderfully, the very latest chapter in the evolution of London’s public transport – the magnificent Crossrail – has resulted in some of the Ironworks’ remains being uncovered. Slices of old London do have this habit of poking through into the here and now; at Canning Town one of them has achieved permanence at last.
The official history of the Jubilee line extension notes that the memorial drew a lot of local interest on its opening in 1999. It also reveals that former Archbishop of Canterbury and now full-time reactionary George Carey did the unveiling. He was born nearby, so his involvement was not entirely spurious.
I wonder if he ever passes this way nowadays, and if so what he makes of the memorial’s sparkling reams of inclusive, enlightened sentiments.