Skip to main content
First Word

A historian maps the traces of a bygone industry

Near Northeastern’s campus in London, a former ivory warehouse tells the story of a changing culture.

By Erick Trickey

Amid the sweeping brick architecture and cobblestone paths of London’s St. Katharine Docks complex, the elephants are easy to miss: tucked near a back entrance, high above eye level. But the five-foot-long stone creatures are dramatic when you see them — standing atop the brick columns of an old gate, their tusks reaching skyward. “Ivory House,” reads a plaque under each one. 

“You could easily be forgiven for walking past them,” says Olly Ayers, a history professor at New College of the Humanities at Northeastern in London. “They’ve been chipped away over the years and they’re not particularly of any artistic value.” Yet the elephants are a clue to a challenging piece of history — the legacy of the ivory trade — and, for Ayers, a case study in how to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about the past in a fast-changing urban landscape. 

Ayers’ interest in the 200-year-old complex began when he learned that St. Katharine Docks would become his new workplace. This past summer, NCH announced its move from its old home in Bloomsbury to Devon House, a 20th century building within the renovated docks, near the Tower of London. “I was thinking, ‘How are we going to be good neighbors here? What does it mean to be a meaningful part of this community?’” Ayers says. “As a historian, my take on that was that we need to have a clear-sighted sense of this area’s past, and what it means, and how we can position ourselves within it.” 

So he created an online story map, recounting the sweeping history of St. Katharine Docks — the last of a series of wet docks built in London between 1800 and 1830. Ivory House, the sole remaining 19th century warehouse on the site, got its name from the commodity that passed through it for decades: ivory tusks of African elephants that were slaughtered by the tens of thousands, to answer British demand for ivory billiard balls, cutlery handles, piano keys, and decorative ornaments.

St. Katharine Docks not only tells a story about Britain’s industrial heritage, but how older cities around the world evolve.

At the peak of Ivory House’s trade, which lasted roughly from the 1850s through the 1930s, the warehouse handled 200 tons of ivory a year — the tusks of 4,000 elephants. Photos of Ivory House’s open floors from that era show people working among long rows of tusks, measuring, checking, and weighing the ivory. “As a human being in 2021, thinking about the state of the world and humans’ impact on it, these are completely sobering, quite tragic, horrible, upsetting images, to see ivory laid out on the floor like that,” says Ayers. 

Ivory House’s trade declined along with the British market for luxury goods in the 1920s and 1930s, Ayers says. In World War II, Nazi bombers destroyed more than half of the buildings at St. Katharine Docks. The site lay neglected, in ruins, until redevelopment began in the 1970s. 

Today, says Ayers, St. Katharine Docks is “a thought-provoking clash between past and present.” Posh coffee shops and wine bars bustle amid remnants of the docks’ industrial past. Ivory House’s once-sprawling floors are now subdivided into luxury apartments; one-bedroom and two-bedroom flats go for $1 million to $2 million. “It’s like a millionaires’ playground, and now a students’ playground as well, and it’s quite jarring in some ways to take a step back and reflect on, what is this place’s history?” says Ayers. “I find it intriguing, actually, how quickly things can be forgotten.”

Through Ayers’ eyes, St. Katharine Docks not only tells a story about Britain’s industrial heritage, but how older cities around the world evolve. “What do industrial cities do when the industry is either very, very different, or has disappeared entirely?” asks Ayers. “No city has really got an answer to that.”

In a sense, Ivory House’s new life as luxury housing resonates with its past as a way station for luxury goods — and with a moment when humans are reexamining our relationship with the natural world. The ivory trade, Ayers notes, was part of a wider late-19th-century interest in other raw materials from animals, such as tortoise shell and ostrich feathers. “People were using the natural world to enrich themselves, or to protect ideas of affluence and class,” he says. “That does raise some wider questions about how we use natural resources, and what’s legitimate, and what’s essential for us, and what’s completely unessential. And that’s a very live question.”

Published on

Big Idea

How Minneapolis mapped its own history of racial segregation

The Mapping Prejudice project revealed how inequities can endure — and inspired changes in the law.

By Ha Ta