Weird words that used to ring around London’s docks in their trading heyday will be revived again for an art installation at a major waterside regeneration project.
Esparto Powder, Sweepwashers’ Dirt and Drugget* alongside dozens of other rich phrases comprise the typographical installation at London Dock, the 1,800 home development at Wapping.
Trading Words will be officially unveiled on Wednesday (February 22) and will be accompanied by a pop-up exhibition that runs until April.
Artist Gordon Young, in conjunction with graphic designer Andy Altman of Why Not Associates, drew the list from historic rates and tariff-books which list the goods imported and exported via London over the last 400 years.
The lists include such commodities as the more obvious “ale” or “pickles”, as well as more peculiar goods such as “dragon’s blood” which was a treatment for stomach bugs as well as a varnish for instruments; or “bear’s grease” which was popular in the 19th century and widely believed to prevent hair loss, originally made from the fat of the brown bear.
Trading Words is the first work in London for Young who is renowned for his large-scale installations, including The Comedy Carpet in Blackpool. The artist specialises in creating public art works which become part of daily life and reflect his passion for literature and poetry.
He said: “The lists and inventories of items, which had crossed the site over the past centuries, are so lengthy that they seem to stretch into infinity and beyond.
“They came into existence because every word had a value attached. Andy and I distilled the words into a confection which made us curious and think of them as a poetic representation of this immense tide of things from all over the globe which happened to accumulate in this spot in east London.”
At the heart of London Dock is the Grade II listed Pennington Street Warehouse which once stored rum, tobacco and other high-value goods imported into the docks.
It will be the commercial heart of the development, brought back to life with an mix of shops, restaurants and offices. The warehouse is currently home to the Rum Factory artists’ studios, which opened in June 2015 and houses over 100 artists, designers and makers.
In December 2016, developer St George saw the first residents move into London Dock. As the development progresses, further sections of the installation will be unveiled and, on completion, the installation will span the full length of the development and include more than 1,000 words.
*10 dockers' weird words or phrases
This is often listed in dock records as “Sweepwashers’ dirt, containing bullion”. A sweepwasher would extract the residue of precious metals from the dirt (sweepings) of gold or silver refineries.
Esparto is a fibre produced from Stipa tenacissima or Lygeum spartum, two grasses native to southern Europe and northern Africa. Esparto can be used for making baskets, ropes and paper, but not in powder form; therefore it is possible that in the tariff-books of the London docks, esparto referred to other plants such as couch grass, extracts of which were used for medicinal purposes.
Part of a matchlock or flintlock gun that holds the burning fuse or flint and applies it to the gunpowder.
A coarse woollen cloth, formerly used for garments and later used in the production of rugs and tablecloths.
ERGOT OF RYE
A fungus which grows on rye as well as other cereals such as wheat and barley. It is the source of a number of compounds used in pharmaceuticals, as well as of mycotoxins, which can be fatal to humans. Ergot alkaloids were the source for the original synthesis of LSD, the hallucinogenic drug, in the 20th century.
Natron has had a wide range of uses throughout history, including in the preparation of medicines and soap, as a salt, in the ancient Egyptian mummification process, and as a source of its constituent minerals. Its composition is a mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate, sodium bicarbonate and small quantities of sodium chloride and sodium sulphate.
The stony residue from a furnace, forge or kiln. Clinkers could also refer to a type of pale-coloured Dutch brick used for paving.
Coarse blankets or cloths, typically made of wool or goat’s hair, from the Indian subcontinent.
The swim bladders of fish, which help them to control buoyancy. They would have had a variety of commercial uses during the history of the London docks, such as in the production of glue, isinglass (for the clarification of beer) and collagen.
A bright red resin or gum used primarily as a varnish or dye. It can be obtained from a number of different plants, including Daemomorops draco, a species of palm. Some medieval encyclopedias claimed its source to be the blood of elephants and dragons who had perished in combat.