History on the River Thames

Tilbury passenger landing stage opening ceremony

Speech by Ramsay MacDonald (Prime Minister), 1930

'My lords, ladies and gentlemen, I owe you this afternoon double thanks. First of all I owe you thanks for the very beautiful present: this memento which you have been good enough to give me. Again and again have I looked upon its original in its position at His Majesty's Treasury and I have wondered whether, as the result of the sumptuous salary with which you indulge the office I hold, I might be able, not as a memento of a pleasant day, but as a memento of a hard life, to present myself with something of the kind. Lo and behold! With that curious mystic insight, which is the possession to such a great degree of all good Scotsmen, you have read my thoughts, and this afternoon I take away with me as a gift from the Port of London Authority a very beautiful imitation of what I have longed so often to possess. (Cheers.) I thank you for a very pleasant day. Both you, Lord Ritchie, as representing the Port of London Authority, and Sir Josiah Stamp, as representing the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company, have gone up enormously in my estimation. For years I have been looking for people who can control the weather, and today I have found them. There has been only one cloud in the sky and that, Lord Ritchie, was when you reminded me that not all of your guests can be described as enthusiastic supporters of the present Government. That is perfectly true. I sadly confess that you have told the truth. I am not sure that even the Labour Government is quite satisfied with itself. When I turn to my good friend who sits on my right, Lord Inchcape, I find embodied in him what I am afraid is a very common symptom, as a humanitarian he is with us, but as a business man he is always criticising us. All I can say, Lord Ritchie, is this, you are perfectly right; go on. The Government needs lots of criticism, but with an occasional Friday off such as you have provided for those of us who are here today.

'Coming down the River what memories were awakened in my mind. The story is told of a Cockney meeting an American who was rather boastful - a very unusual characteristic (laughter) - and saying to him, 'You are talking about the Mississippi and the Ohio, what are they? Water. But what is the Thames? Liquid history.' (Cheers.) It is a moving stage on which some of the most romantic scenes in our history have taken place, and it is not dead yet. It is perfectly true that enterprise of modern commerce and wealth have changed the scene, but how many of us this morning did not picture the old English sailors going out in search of the unknown? How many of us bore them company as we came down the River today? There is no highway in the world, either on the land or on the sea, that is fuller and more crowded with colourful pageantry than the river Thames from London Bridge to the sea.

'This is not the first experience I have had of a Customs House Baggage Hall. I am fond of landing-stages and you have added to the romance of them today. There is no place in the world to which I go with more expectation or with a lighter heart than to a landing-stage. It is perfectly true that this is the first experience that I have had of a great feast and pleasant company in a Customs House Luggage Hall, for a Customs House Luggage Hall is usually the most forbidding place of all. There are officials in uniform oozing out visibly from behind a counter and demanding, 'Have you anything to declare?' When you have a couple of hundred cigars, or something of the kind, tucked away in a corner of suitcase, you look with fear and trembling at three or four suitcases and wonder which one of these the eagle-eyed representative of the Government is going to pick upon. When by the malignant guidance of an impartial fate he has fixed upon the right one - the wrong one for you - your knees begin to tremble and your civic rectitude begins to accuse your troubled conscience.

'May I confess that I, the Prime Minister, have gone through this, and that, however great the pains and penalties of being Prime Minister may be, I here and now within these walls declare that there is no greater piece of generosity shown to a public servant of the State than that which allows me now to leave the deck of a ship and go straight to the train. I landed in Southampton a short time ago in a state more or less of decrepitude. I was met by a Customs House Officer who was taking me to my place in the train without passing me through one of these halls. I said, 'Why are you not asking me if I have anything to declare?' He replied, 'Oh, that is all right.' I had just landed from America and I said I had two bottles of champagne, three bottles of 1820 brandy, and one bottle of pre-war Scotch whisky. (Laughter.) I had been very ill on the way across, and they feared, perhaps, the changes of health for the worse that very often happen to innocent passengers on the Atlantic, and require to be provided against very carefully, lest it be a very inanimate person who lands on the dock at Southampton. He smiled, and, looking at me, took my sober truth for a Scottish joke. (Laughter).

There is no greater calamity that can overtake a Scotsman than that to be taken as serious when he is joking and as joking when he is serious. That is a common calamity, a common experience, Lord Ritchie, of our people. Nobody understands a Scottish joke except a Scotsman, and there is no more conclusive proof that we are the chosen people in the eyes of God than that common experience that we have. (Cheers).

'Well, Lord Ritchie, I have saved, for the first time in my life, a P & O ship from coming to rack and ruin.'

Lord Inchcape: 'Thank the Lord!'

Prime Minister:

'That is the worst of Lord Inchcape. When he gets benefits he always attributes them to the Lord. (Laughter.) I have tried to persuade Lord Inchcape that he owes me something for salvage for that ship. Can I persuade him to pay me? Not at all. I have offered to him - and he knows perfectly well that whatever he thinks of the Labour Government, when he gets the word of the Prime Minister that word is good - I have offered to him fifty percent of the commission for salving the Mongolia. Will he budge? No. The very last thought in my mind was that the Treasury should benefit from his failure to hand over to me my due reward for what I have done for him today.

'May I congratulate from the bottom of my heart all concerned with this beautiful building? From the moment I stepped in to this room I have felt that there was something sacred about it. The proportions, taste, and design are a magnificent effort of the artist's brain. When people from a foreign land come here, and this is the first building they see, they will feel that London is not a miserable ramshackle, racked-up affair. There is dignity, great calm, beauty and idealism in the simple walls and proportions of this building where we have been meeting this afternoon. I congratulate with all my heart Sir Edwin Cooper, who has been the architect. I find that the clock tells me that in seven minutes we ought to be out of this building and, much as I should like to go on speaking, I must stop. I cannot, however, conclude even this broken speech without referring to the great engineer who has been in charge of the wonderful development of the Port of London. When I remember the old docks, the old disorganised River, I cannot help thinking that, though it appealed to the eye of the artist, it was letting down London. The time has come when the old-fashioned way of doing things has gone, and when, in order to meet competition, and in order that our country may keep its share of the trade of the world, organisation must take the place of disconnected business enterprise. Fortunately there was an engineer who was capable of turning the changes and evolutions of time into an organisation. It was Mr Palmer who produced this wonderful organisation. (Cheers.) I have a long list in front of me of what has happened since. I shall spare you a recital of it, but Mr Palmer has shown himself to be one of the Napoleonic engineers, one of those men of large conception, with a big, powerful, comprehensive mind, one of those men who can not only dream dreams and see visions, but can embody his dreams in plans and his visions in achievements.

'We are here today opening this Landing Stage and opening this building, starting for active operations great works which are the result of the combined genius and enterprise of the London Midland & Scottish Railway Company and the Port of London Authority. May the whole thing flourish, may thousands and tens of thousands of people come and go in hopes of a new life, go in hopes of great explorations in lands abroad, come back with wealth and contentment, health and vigour, as the result of their departures, come back to help the old country to carry on the traditions we have inherited and win new laurels in future enterprise, commerce, power and respect!' (Applause.)


  • The P.L.A. Monthly of June 1930.