The Life and Works of John Rennie (7 June 1761 – 4 October 1821)

Old East Dock Warehouses, Leith

Mark Watson

The stacks of warehouses between Commercial Street and Old East Dock in Leith repeat the form of John Rennie’s London Docks (1801-06) in Wapping. Although most of the London Docks are now lost to redevelopment, Tobacco Dock remains – a single-storey and groin-vaulted basement supporting broad timber roofs on cruciform iron columns. The Leith Warehouses are comparable to West India Docks of 1802-3 (now the Docklands Museum) by Jessop, followed by Telford’s St Katharine’s Dock near Tower Bridge in the 1820s, as regular ranges of multi-storey wet dock warehouses. The next instances outside Leith and London seem to be Albert Dock, Liverpool, in the 1840s, and in Scotland the quite different sugar warehouses of James Watt Dock, Greenock of 1886.

John Paterson was resident engineer in Leith, but the similarity to London Dock shows Rennie’s guiding hand. 32 bays are arranged in blocks of 7, 5, 7, 6 and 7 bays, with party walls between and gabled dormer hoists to each block. The western part of this was Bond 42, latterly occupied by MacDonald and Muir, who had the Glenmorangie brand. The external regularity of the Leith warehouses was intended to be similar to London’s but was compromised by delays in completion and by infilling of the gaps between stacks in slightly different styles.

The Western block was bonded stores numbers 35, 46 and 48, and had applied lettering: ‘HIGHLAND QUEEN’ and ‘MACDONALD & MUIR BONDED STORES’. These are now Ocean Apartments, after adaptation in 1998. The end stacks appear to be built to the Rennie and Paterson template, but the central portion has more closely spaced windows. A substantial part of this was rebuilt internally with steel and concrete, and a concrete block top floor, following a Zeppelin attack in April 1916.

Inside the Eastern block, brick groin-vaults at basement, or at ground level in central parts, are supported on stone piers. The top stones broaden out to start the vaults of brick, which have a steeper incline at basement than at ground floor. The end bays are flanked by barrel vaults to restrain lateral forces. They do not have the chamfering seen at London’s Tobacco Dock. Above the abutments stone piers rise through the building to take the valleys of shallow M-shaped roofs, spanning 43 feet (13.1m) internally. The rest of the floors are supported on ashlar piers giving way at upper levels to timber posts. Stone saddles transfer some loads to avoid crushing of the wooden beams at Bond 42. Also still to be seen in some ground floor restaurants are monolithic stone pillars with chamfered corners.

The space between the first and second stacks was filled by the Carron Company in 1820. For this Thomas Brown, architect, designed five more closely spaced bays and a pedimented hoist (transplanted 6 bays to the left in the conversion). The painted legend CARRON COMPANY LTD WAREHOUSE was just still discernible to the docks. Carron warehouse has three barrel vaults of 16’ (3.2m) span in the basement, extended forward of the wall line above, and stone piers 1’ 8” (0.5m) square supporting the valley of the M-roof. On each of the upper floors were 8 cast-iron Doric columns (32 in total), presumably cast at Carron Ironworks and the oldest known use of cast-iron in a warehouse in Scotland, although iron was already being employed in textile mills. They now stand upside down nearby and demonstrate the effects of freeze-thaw action where rainwater had been allowed to fill them. In the space of about 15 years confidence had grown in the use of iron columns as a substitute for thick stone pillars. Rennie would surely have approved.

A considerable distance to the quay edge had been taken by single storey transit sheds, for more rapid transhipment than was desirable in a multi-storey bond. They still featured in a photograph of 1933, when the docks contained water but were little used. Conveying a waterside ambience, a shallow water feature has been formed between the real quayside and the warehouses, which were extended in the 1990s as restaurants at ground level. Having become very derelict, and with restricted headroom, airy office spaces were formed in the east warehouse by taking light through the attic floors to supplement the 4th floor windows. Thus the embodied energy that went into building the warehouse is saved by adaptive re-use.