One of the most exciting things about history is that it can be found everywhere. When I first started working on the St Katharine Docks (SKD) project, I was looking forward to the opportunity to look into both the local and global history of a particular location, one that sat just next to the Tower of London for over a thousand years. Having grown up in New England, I’ve always enjoyed visiting some of the oldest Anglo-colonial buildings in the United States, and these memories were the basis for why I wanted to become a historian. Working on the SKD project brought me back to these roots of thinking locally.
I think the sheer length of time that SKD existed and its participation in the major events of London’s history was most fascinating and surprising for me. I knew going into this project that all parts of London have a very long history, but hearing how the current Master of the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine still has the same title and holds the same power as was bestowed on Saint Katharine’s by Queen Matilda in the twelfth century gave me goosebumps. As I was crafting the slides on SKD’s early modern history, the fact that it was home to a large portion of immigrants that shaped trade in London during iterations of its imperial growth, whether it be beer, ivory or otherwise, was also impressive. Sitting east of what is now downtown London, it was witness (and survivor) to the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire just one year later, the bombings during the war and the smog that coated the town in the 1950s. It is enthralling to see how the names of streets have remained for hundreds of years, but the contemporary era of SKD’s lifespan is now modern infrastructures and scenic tours around the Thames.
Working on this project was an engaging way to merge the digital humanities experience of working with maps and data. It also reinforced the awesomeness, in many senses of the term, of uncovering and sharing local history. Just pausing to reflect on where we are and what has happened here over hundreds of years is, in my opinion, one of the most fun parts of studying history and producing public history.