Ivory House was built in 1858 and is the only original warehouse still standing in St Katharine Docks today. It was restored to its current state in 1973, and today houses a mixture of shops, restaurants and high-end luxury apartments with stunning city views.
This original warehouse became popularly known as the Ivory House due to the vast quantities of ivory that passed through it. At its peak in the 1870s, nearly 200 tons of ivory covered its floors annually, amounting to almost 4000 dead elephants. Aside from ivory, the warehouse also handled other luxury imports such as perfume, shells, and wine in the expansive basement vaults.
Until the late nineteenth century, London was the principal importer of ivory. Five hundred tons were imported into the capital every year, mainly from the East and West coasts of Africa. Smaller tusks were sent on to India to make bangles, toys, and board games. The larger softer tusks were shipped to famous carving centres in Germany and France where they were carved into ornate pieces such as crucifixes, paper cutters and delicate napkin rings. London itself used the ivory to produce piano keys and billiard balls. There was also a thriving industry in Sheffield making elegant cutlery handles. Most of these were luxury items made for the elite of Victorian England and the rest of Europe, as symbols of affluence.
England's trade in ivory is slightly older than its trade in slaves. It was first brought to England in the 1600s along with gold from West Africa. At this time, trade was still quite primitive and England's ivory imports were comparatively low at 5 tons per year. In this period, the aim of this trade was to buy cheap and sell dear. Merchants sought to obtain maximum gold and other valuables, such as ivory as cheaply as possible and then sell these items on in Europe at the highest possible price. By the early 1800s, with Britain's growing technological superiority and the Industrial Revolution, the nature of trade and the economy changed dramatically. Britain was no longer simply buying and selling the ivory but instead it began to import the ivory as a raw material, process it into the napkin rings and the bangles, before selling these goods back to its own colonies and into continental Europe. This reaped a far greater return than simply trading in the raw material. The processing of raw ivory is just one example of what was happening in all spheres of emerging capitalist society.
There is much to learn from Britain's industrial development in considering development today. Remarkably, contemporary political discourse identifies trade as critical to developing countries – "let Ghana grow coffee beans, we buy them", for example. However, the ivory story during the developing days of Victorian England makes plain that the real wealth and development of a nation lay in the processing of materials and the extra value added through the labor involved, not in trade per se. This is something that both the fair trade and free trade debates today seem to overlook.