PMWT: What was your most memorable project? Why, and what role did you play?
Max: Well this really is a dip into the archives and a trip down memory lane! I've had lots of "memorable" projects, but the following is perhaps the most memorable - and not just because it was the basis for my recognition as a Fellow of the great UK Institution of Civil Engineers. The project was a construction contract for the reconstruction of the western lock entrance to the Royal Victoria Docks in the 1960s. First as deputy and then as Agent ("Construction Manager" in today's parlance), I was responsible for what was then described in the Contract Journal of the day (10/13/66, p755) as a "heavy, dirty and often exasperating £1.5 million contract by John Mowlem and Co. Ltd." The Royal docks are situated in the heart of East London, or at least they were until converted to commercial and residential use in recent decades.
Of course, £1.5 million was a lot of money in those days and, like today's projects, not nearly enough. But aside from the technical challenges there were a lot of other exciting goings on like strikes, unofficial walkouts, break-ins and constant labor bargaining with a labor force recruited from one of the toughest areas of London. And all of that is to say nothing of being rammed and shot at with a sawn-off shot gun while transporting the weekly payroll from the local bank to the pay office on the site. The thieves, who were never caught, did not get the money but my car was a total wreck.
But enough of that - some pictures tell a better story.
Figure 1: View of long-abandoned Western Entrance to RV docks prior to start of contract
Figure 2: Work gets under way with heavy lift derricks and heavy piling rigs
Figure 3 shows that the lock has been "dewatered", and the sides of the old lock walls are being supported by temporary concrete "struts". In the foreground is a large form being prepared for the first concrete pour to the new lock sidewalls. The form is 22 feet tall and the concrete will be poured all in one "lift". The form needs to be very strong, as it will be supported in only two places - at the top and bottom. This is one of several innovations for which I was responsible.
Figure 3: The dewatered lock and support to the aging walls
Figure 4 shows the 10-ton form being lifted into position and, when in place and secured, will enable the wall to be cast in a single continuous 18ft deep pour. Quite an innovation in those days of "5 ft. lifts".
Figure 4: Lifting the "Big Form" into place
Figure 5 shows excavation of the lock floor to a new lower depth below the temporary shoring is well under way.
Figure 5: Excavation for the new lock floor well under way
Figure 6 shows precast concrete lock gate hinge receptacle units being lowered into position. This approx. 11' 6" long unit weight about 5 tons, required in-place accuracy of internal curved surface 20 +/- 1/32 inch and was another innovation I introduced. The total height of the gate quoin will be 38 ft when completed.
Figure 6: Lifting a precast concrete quoin unit into place
Figure 7 shows the lifting of the first of the 120-ton lock gates into position at high tide. This was a delicate high-tide time-constrained activity and a great relief when both leaves were in place. You cannot argue with Mother Nature!
Figure 7: Lifting the 120-ton lock gate leaf into position
It was also a great relief when we saw that the gates fitted and were watertight, see Figure 8!
Figure 8: Finished lock filled to brim and under test
Figure 9: Aerial view of site at high tide in the river Thames during the peak construction period
The old entrance was originally opened in 1853 and closed in 1957 when the condition of the walls and gates were considered to be unsafe. The reconstruction took a total of four and a half years and was completed in 1967. However, within a decade or so the whole of the Royal Victoria docks system was abandoned and the entrance permanent closed. All cargo activities were transferred to Tilbury, many miles down stream, and the whole of the dock area turned over to real estate development.
The planning, engineering and execution was a great success but, in the event, the same could hardly be said of the economic foresight resulting from a rapidly changing transportation technology and shifting economic environment.