Wool Warehouses

Import and export

Many Docklands warehouses were dedicated to a single imported product, of which from the late-19th to the mid-20th century wool was pre-eminent. Wool was originally a British export, and of key importance to the national economy. Until the reign of Edward III it could only be exported from designated ('staple') ports, including London. But the emphasis shifted to exporting worked cloth - a 1337 edict prohibited the export of raw wool and encouraged Flemish and other weavers to come to England - and seven years later the import of raw wool was permitted.

In the 19th century, most wool came from Australia and New Zealand (from Spanish Merino sheep, which were best-suited to local conditions). It was sold on the London market, but went elsewhere - to British manufacturers mainly in Yorkshire and Gloucestershire, plus onward exports to the Continent (about 40% by the 1920s). Imports also came from South Africa, South America, the Falkland Islands, China and the Middle East, including specialist products - cashmere, camel's hair, goat's hair and mohair - and sheepskins.

Wool sales began in 1821 at Garraway's coffee-house in Exchange Alley, Cornhill, in the City [left]. Rebuilt after a fire in 1748, this was where Titus Salt, the Bradford mill magnate, had come to persuade (unsuccessfully) his mentor John Hammond to join him in his project to use alpaca wool from Peruvian llamas, which he had found languishing in a Liverpool warehouse, to weave high-quality cloth – a success story told here. Garraway's was rebuilt a second time in 1874, and a plaque marks its site.

Around 1870 sales moved to the Wool Exchange in Coleman Street, and again in the 20th century to the new Fruit and Wool Exchange in Brushfield Street, Spitalfields, under the control of the Associated London Selling Wool Brokers (nine firms in all) - a site [right] due to be redeveloped. The six-weekly sales lasted for two weeks, with auctions each day at about 3pm. Brokers took samples, about 1lb of wool, from each lot, which comprised several bales; a catalogue was produced, and buyers toured the warehouses to inspect the lots.

Fleeces were lightly compressed, using fly-presses, for transport to the nearest port, where hydraulic dumping presses further compressed the bales for shipping. On arrival in London the straps securing the bales were released, allowing the bales to expand to their natural size. They were transferred to the wool warehouse in the docks or to one of of those in private hands.

The London Docks' own warehouse was huge, with well-lit showrooms on the top floor. The Illustrated London News of 31 August 1850 reported:

The vastly increasing importance of the Colonial wool trade for some years past has induced the directors of the London Dock Company to enlarge very considerably the warehouse appropriated to the reception of this article, and to provide therein long ranges of glass roofing, whereby most superior accommodation is gained on all the floors for the advantageous inspection of wool when placed on show.

The accompanying view of a portion of the interior exhibits the convenient adaptation of the floors for stowing and shewing wool. The public sales of wool occur every six weeks, and are attended by dealers and manufacturers from Yorkshire and other counties, as also by buyers from the Continent.

Every bale, when on show, is Inspected by drawing out a portion of wool, which, after examination, is thrown on the floor; which to a stranger has a most extraordinary appearance, so much lying on the gangways, that the parties inspecting it frequently walk knee deep in loose wool.

The sales of wool in the London Dock warehouses alone vary in quantity from 15,000 to 25,000 bales at one time. The machinery employed is capable of housing 3000 daily; and the accommodation for delivery will admit 1500 to be disposed of in one day. These operations give employment to 200 men, exclusive of clerks and foremen. The importation of wool annually at the London Docks is 130,000 bales, the value of which is £2,600,000.

Charles Dickens Jnr's Dicken's Dictionary of the Thames (1881 edition - this 1879 work had annual editions until 1896) reported

The wool warehouses and show floors in this [London Docks] and the St. Katharine Dock are the largest in London, and are not only in close proximity to the City, but have direct telegraphic communication over special wires with the Wool Exchange in Coleman-street. The wool warehouses form a great group by themselves, the separate houses being connected by numerous bridges, and occupying no less than 6½ acres of ground, with a floor area of about 28 acres. They embrace the E Warehouse in the St. Katharine Dock, and the Crescent, New Wing, New Warehouse, West Quay Shed, No. 7 Warehouse, and North-East Shed in the London Dock, the last of these being set apart for low-class wools. They are fitted both externally and internally with elaborate hydraulic machinery for housing and delivering the wool, as well as with reading, writing, and refreshment rooms, lavatories, &c., for the convenience of the trade, and being carefully constructed with a view to the securing the much desiderated northern light, enable the wool to be seen to the best advantage. They can house at one time 100,000 bales, and show simultaneously 24,000 bales. The Crescent Warehouse, moreover, in the London Docks is in direct railway communication with the import sheds of the Victoria Dock, from which the new arrivals of wool can thus be transferred at a single operation. The following table will show the total number of bales allotted for public sale in the wool warehouses of this company, with the corresponding totals for the whole of London at three years intervals for the last 17 years:

London & St Katherine
Docks Co.
Total London
1862 92908 333801
1865 167800 459679
1868 268273 685915
1871 230342 771198
1874 247945 826492
1877 327801 1006213
1878 306485 1055301
1879 to 30 June 195652 580883

An attempt to set up a wool warehouse at the Millwall Dock failed because it was too far away from the Wool Exchange.

The two major local firms were Browne & Eagle, and Gooch & Cousens.

Brown and Eagle had offices of Leman Street and two large five-storey warehouses in Backchurch Lane built between the late 1880s and the turn of the century, on opposite sides of the street, linked by a tunnel under the road and three bridges across the street: Holland & Hannen were the architects of the later buildings. 'A' warehouse, on the western side, was divided into five 'risks' (the technical term from insurance law for an area of a warehouse) and 'B' warehouse, on the eastern side, had nine risks. Both had loops served by large hydraulic wall-cranes supplied with power from the London Hydraulic Power Company's mains. They also stored bales imported through Tilbury in the Commercial Road warehouse at the LT&SR goods depot, now demolished. Now known as The Woolhouse (Grade II listed), 74 Backchurch Lane was converted  - with a sixth floor added - first for office use (1998-2003) and then as flats. The second series of Dragon's Den was filmed here.
The 1889 building at 101 was converted into ofices in 1998-99 as the New Loom House [left] and is also Grade II listed.

In 1882 Gooch and Cousens (later listed separately as Thomas Gooch & Sons and Charles Hughes Cousens & Co) built their five-storey warehouse of eight risks, grouped around a central yard, with loops and wallcranes on the street side. It is on the south side of The Highway (just within our present parish boundaries) between Breezer's Hill and Virginia Street. They had another warehouse, of similar date, too the east of Breezer's Hill with two risks of five storeys and three more, along Pennington Street, of six storeys with a yard on the east side. Both these warehouse groups are shown, on Goad Fire Insurance Plans, to have had steam boilers in basements under the yards, to provide steam to the crane winches. Together they could store 30,000 bales, and the showrooms were large enough to display 5,000 bales. In 1935 there were electric lifts to the show floors. Cousens also had premises on Leman Street.

In 1913 the value of imported wool was £21.5m (compared with £13.5m for tea). By 1954 wool had fallen to third place - £54.8m, after tea at £106.5m and crude oil at £63.9m. Trading patterns had changed with two world wars, and more wool was purchased direct from farms (which in Australia had grown in size).

See further the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society (GLIAS) newsletters, from which some of this information is drawn.

Telford's Yard

Around 1985 Gooch's warehouse on The Highway was converted by architects CZWG to provide 68 apartments and 14 commercial units around the central court, with a 24 hour concierge service. It was named 'Telford's Yard', since the construction of St Katharine's Docks in 1828 was designed and overseen by the famous civil engineer Thomas Telford (the architect of the warehouses being Philip Hardwick). The project was reviewed in the Architects' Journal 1987 (vol 185).

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