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Between London Bridge and Tilbury, Essex, is the world’s largest system of docks. It is under the control of one organization—the Port of London Authority. Many of these docks originated more than a century ago, when far-sighted engineers successfully tackled the problem of planning a great tidal port


THE NEW DRY DOCK AT TILBURY is 752 ft 5 in long and 110 feet wide at the entrance. The centre of the sill is 37 ft 7 in below high-water mark.

THE greatest system of docks in the world, which attracts cargoes from every port in the Seven Seas, fringes the ten-miles stretch of the Thames between the Pool of London and Woolwich, with an outpost, Tilbury Docks, farther seaward. In 1936 the arrivals and departures at the Port of London reached a total of 61,132 vessels, with an aggregate tonnage of 62,151,310 (net register). The gross value of the cargoes (imports, exports and transhipments) handled during this period was about £470,000,000.

Dockland is a world of its own. The huge, bewilderingly complicated dock system is not a thing of yesterday, nor was it originally planned as a whole, but it came into existence piecemeal. Unification was brought about only in recent years, with the formation in 1909 of the Port of London Authority, often referred to as the P. L. A. Since that date the commerce of the Port has increased by more than 60 per cent.

The beginnings of the London docks — using the term to cover the whole P.L.A. dock system, and not restricting it to the “London” Docks situated at Wapping — date back only to the earliest years of the nineteenth century. Before that era, although there were many so-called “docks” along the Thames, some of whose names still survive, these (with two exceptions — the Greenland and Brunswick Docks) were merely slopes running down to the water, alongside which small ships could discharge cargo, or up which, in emergency, they could be hauled.

Except in such a region as the Mediterranean, where there is virtually no rise and fall of tide, dock basins must be provided with lock gates, so that ships can load and unload in security, unaffected by tide or current. Without docks or, in default of these, incessant and expensive dredging, sizable craft can come alongside the jetties only at high water, and, if they remain, will ground at low water. At some tidal ports (Limerick, for instance, on the Shannon) where the bottom is soft mud, this does not involve damage to the hull. In the early days of the Australian wool trade, for example, it was no uncommon sight to see a big wool clipper laid alongside a shelving beach to load as though she were an open boat, and shored up there with half her copper visible at low water. In general, however, a port without docks is of little more value, for commercial purposes, than an open anchorage.

The origin of the London docks may be traced back to the “legal quays” established, under royal charter, in Queen Elizabeth’s reign. These consisted of various quays, all on the northern side of the Thames and between London Bridge and the Tower. It was enacted that no goods whatever (except fish) were to be loaded or discharged anywhere else in the Port of London and, even at the “legal quays”, only by daylight. In those days, when monopolies of all kinds were a valuable royal perquisite, nobody saw anything unusual in such an enactment; but it gave rise to a vast, methodical system of Thames-side smuggling and pilfering which flourished and spread for over two centuries. It received its first effectual check with the building of the West India Docks and “London” Docks in 1800-05. In those days, as now, the tide swept up and down the Thames estuary twice a day, causing much inconvenience t o craft alongside the quays and to those, less fortunate, which were compelled to lie out in the stream and use lighters. Its behaviour, particularly when a strong east wind blew straight into the shallow, trumpet-shaped mouth of the Thames Estuary, sometimes proved (and still remains) difficult to predict.

TILBURY DOCKS were built in 1882-86, nearly twenty-six miles downstream from London Bridge. The main dock, its three branches and the tidal basin have a total water area of 104 acres. In 1929 a new entrance and lock were provided to the west of the system, and a floating landing stage, 1.142 feet long, was built out into the Thames.

So far as can be traced, the first of all London docks was excavated at Blackwall in the middle of the seventeenth century. It is mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary (January 15, 1661), and seems to have been a small basin, about an acre or a little more in extent, provided with lock gates and used by the King’s ships when fitting out after having been launched. It eventually formed part of the Brunswick Dock when this was built in 1789.

Between the building of this little dock at Blackwall and the much larger Greenland Dock (1695) intervened a most alarming event. In those days the embankments along the lower Thames reaches were far from trustworthy. In 1676 a particularly high tide, backed by a strong north-westerly gale, forced a breach at Limehouse and scoured a new and much shorter channel right across to Blackwall (traversing the site of the present West India Docks). It completely isolated the so-called Isle of Dogs (now again a peninsula) and shortened the total length of the Thames by more than two miles. This, in itself, was an improvement; but to have retained the new channel would have meant the silting-up not only of Limehouse and Blackwall Reaches, but also of the new Royal Dockyard at Deptford, which lay between them. The breaches were therefore hastily filled and the embankments strengthened until the Thames resumed its usual course, past Deptford and Greenwich. A later attempt to short-circuit, by a canal, the waterway round the Isle of Dogs met with no better success.

The end of the seventeenth century witnessed the building of the first large London dock. This survived almost unaltered for nearly two centuries. The Greenland Dock, originally known as the Howland Great Wet Dock, was built at Rotherhithe by private enterprise in 1695-1701. It was 1,070 feet long and 500 feet wide, and had a depth of 17 feet water over the sills of the lock gates at high water. The proprietors pointed out with modest pride that they could accommodate 120 merchant ships of the largest size “without the trouble of shifting, mooring or unmooring any in the dock for taking in or out any other”, and that, holding 288,712 tons of water when full, their dock was “ much larger than the famous Bason of Dunkirk or any pent water in the world.”

Not long afterwards, England was visited by the Great Storm of November 26, 1703. The first Eddystone lighthouse was blown bodily off the rocks into the sea, with its architect and his men, and a whole fleet was driven from its shelter in the Downs to swift destruction in the North Sea. Every ship then at anchor in the Thames was blown ashore. Yet the sum total of damage sustained by the shipping in the Howland Dock was the splintering of a single bowsprit. For its time, it represented a considerable feat of engineering, and it is to be regretted that we know so little about the methods used. Presumably, the site of the lock gates was protected from the premature entry of water, either by piling or by a temporary embankment. The whole of the excavation must have been effected by manual labour, the spoil being removed in barges.

IN TILBURY DRY DOCK on September 27, 1929. On that date the dock was opened and the P. & O. liner Moldavia a twin-screw steamer of 16,556 tons gross, was dry-docked, with the aid of the special leading-in gantry guiding the bows as shown.

The Howland Dock did not prosper. It was too far from the “legal quays” up river to be of much commercial advantage. Although well equipped for masting and repairing ships, it was no better off in this respect than its privileged neighbour, the Royal Dockyard at Deptford. Howland Dock changed hands in 1763, and was adapted to deal with the ships of the whaling trade — hence the name “Greenland Dock” by which it came to be known. With the advent of gas lighting and the consequent decline in the demand for whale oil, it dealt chiefly with timber and grain cargoes, and eventually came to form part of the Surrey Commercial Docks. When at the end of last century this system came to be rebuilt, a new and enlarged Greenland Dock was built on and round the site of the former dock of that name.

The story of Dagenham Breach illustrates the problems confronting the early dock engineers and Thames Conservators. For centuries past the north bank of the Thames near Dagenham had been regarded as dangerously weak. After the great Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden had repaired, in 1621, a breach there, he erected a sluice gate, opening only at low water, across the mouth of Dagenham Creek. In 1707, however, the combination of a Thames swollen with rain, an abnormally high spring tide, and a strong north-easterly gale, wrecked his sluice completely and left the whole of the Dagenham and Havering Levels covered at every tide.

Because of the rapid scour, the breach soon widened from a narrow opening, which a few cartloads of bricks could have closed, to about 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep at low Water. Beyond lay an area of more than 1,000 acres completely spoiled for any useful purpose; and the silt which came pouring out of the gap formed a shoal a mile long, blocking half the width of the river. There was no knowing where the mischief would stop — and every effort made to close the breach seemed doomed to failure.

After the private enterprise of the local landowners had exhausted its funds, an Act of 1714 enabled the work to be done at public expense. Two contractors who successively undertook it failed and went bankrupt. In 1715 the breach, now eight years old, was wider and deeper than ever, and it looked as if the whole engineering talent of England was going to be permanently baffled by a hole in a river bank.

The problem was solved by John Perry, an Englishman who had spent many years in Russia, supervising various of Peter the Great’s vast projects. He was the first man to realize that Dagenham Breach would never be stopped unless the tidal current which continually ebbed and flowed through it could be diminished, since otherwise it washed away the foundations of every dam as fast as they were laid.

Human Water-Rats

At two points a little downstream, Perry drove in piles and built pairs of sluice gates, communicating with the flooded area. These, when completed, were left fully open, and hence reduced the scour through Dagenham Breach itself to a fraction of its former amount. It was now possible, although risky, to dam the breach itself by piling from both sides — every foot of ground painfully gained being at once made good. It took three hundred men five years and £40,000 to dam the breach. This once accomplished, however, Perry simply shut his auxiliary sluices and reclaimed most of the drowned land by pumping. It was a difficult and creditable piece of work.

By the end of the eighteenth century the exactions and the thefts practised at the expense of those who consigned cargoes to and from the Port of London had reached the proportions of a public scandal. The “legal quays”, to begin with, had long been hopelessly inadequate. Their total frontage was only 1,400 feet. Bristol, with a vastly smaller amount of traffic to cope with, had 4,000 feet. The law protected the owners of those quays from competition, yet it imposed no restriction on what they might charge. The Port Authority (the City Corporation), if compelled to intervene in any dispute between shipper and wharf owner, almost invariably supported the latter. The lack of quay room also deflected an immense volume of commerce to other ports and compelled the great majority of the ships still using it to lie in the stream, loading and discharging by lighters. Moreover, quays, lighters and the river itself swarmed, by day and night, with human water-rats in unexampled profusion. By 1800 the annual loss from theft, in the Port of London, was anything up to £1,000,000.

THE PORT OF LONDON comprises the greatest system of docks in the world. Nearest to London Bridge (to the left, not shown) are St. Katharine Docks and the group known as London Docks. The only docks on the south side of the Thames are the Surrey Commercial Docks, at Rotherhithe. Of these, Greenland Dock occupies the site of the first real dock to be built in London. Known as the Howland Great Wet Dock, it was built between 1695 and 1701. West India, Millwall and East India Docks come next downstream. The “royal docks’’ comprise Royal Victoria, Royal Albert and King George V Docks, which, with a water area of 247 acres, form the largest enclosed dock system in the world. Across the entrance to Royal Victoria Dock runs Silvertown Way. Tilbury Docks are shown on the map near the top of this page.

In 1793 there appeared a remarkable little pamphlet, On Wet Docks, Quays and Warehouses for the Port of London, written by one William Vaughan, a director (and afterwards Governor) of the Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation. Vaughan urged, as a remedy for all the existing evils, the building of dock basins at St. Katharine’s, Wapping, Rotherhithe and the Isle of Dogs. How intelligently he had studied the subject may be judged from the fact that within thirty years there were docks upon all of those sites. He followed up his pamphlet by prolonged and incessant agitation among the shipping interests. In a surprisingly short time (two years) he had induced a representative body of these to petition Parliament for leave to build docks at Wapping, and to cut a new channel across the Isle of Dogs to Blackwall.

Although Great Britain was then at war with France, the petition attracted much attention in Parliament. Finally, after much lobbying, Royal Assent was given to two Dock Bills. One enabled the West India merchants to build two docks and a ship canal across the Isle of Dogs, and became law on July 12, 1799. The other, the original scheme for docks at Wapping, became law on May 23, 1800.

The “London” Docks at Wapping — begun in 1801, completed in 1805, and still, after a century and a quarter of development, in full use and busier than ever before — must be regarded as the earliest modern docks built in the Port of London. It is true that their contemporary rivals, the West India Docks, were begun in 1800 and opened in 1802, but Vaughan and his associates in the Wapping scheme had faced the original opposition and had done much valuable pioneer work before the building of the West India Docks was even contemplated.

The original “London” Docks were designed and built by John Rennie. Rennie’s design comprised a series of docks, but only the principal one — the Western Dock, 1,260 feet long and 960 feet wide — was built in his lifetime. This work was the first in which steam power (in the form of two 50 horse-power engines and several smaller ones) was used on an extensive scale for pumping, pile-driving, grinding mortar and hauling materials. In other ways, too, the work proceeded along lines now standardized.

Ill-Starred Ship Canal

Cofferdams were used in building the lock gates. All the retaining walls of the basins and connecting passages were built with slightly curved convex faces, and given a thickness of 6 feet.

Rennie took a lifelong interest in his docks, and he put forward many suggestions for their improvement. He was in advance of his time, however, and the dock proprietors were notably behind it. His proposal for tramways all round the quays, to speed up the handling of goods, was turned down, as was his plan to install steam cranes. It is scarcely credible, but perfectly true, that hand-worked cranes were the rule at the “London” Docks until the Port of London Authority took them over in 1909.

These docks now comprise six basins — Hermitage Basin, Western Dock, Wapping Basin, Tobacco Dock, Eastern Dock and Shadwell Basin — with just over two miles of quays and a total water area of 35 acres.

Although completed as long ago as 1802, the two original great West India Docks remain recognizably the same to-day, but the warehouse facilities have been improved and the basins deepened. Originally, they consisted of two enormous docks, each 2,600 feet long, running almost across the Isle of Dogs from Limehouse to Blackwall, side by side. The northern of the pair, the Import Dock, is 500 feet broad, and the Export Dock 400 feet broad.

South of the Export Dock was a ship canal, the City Canal, connecting Limehouse Reach with Blackwall Reach, and able to pass ships of 500 tons. As might have been foreseen, it was a financial failure. It saved merely a two miles’ detour round the Isle of Dogs, against which had to be set the delay of two lockings and the expense of employing manual labour to haul through the canal. In 1829 it was sold to the West India Dock Company and converted into a timber store. It was entirely rebuilt between 1866 and 1870 and became the present South West India Dock, equalling the original two in size and capacity. Part of the vacant space still available for docks at the south end of the Isle of Dogs was occupied, later, by the Millwall Docks, opened in 1868.

The West India Docks comprise five basins — Import Dock, Blackwall Basin, Export Dock, Junction Dock and South Dock — with four miles of quays, and a water area of 97 acres. The two Millwall Docks have a water area of more than 35 acres.

Unlike all the other London dock systems, the Surrey Commercial Docks were never planned as a whole. They represent an amalgamation of several distinct enterprises which happened to be neighbours. They are also the only docks on the south side of the Thames (at Rotherhithe).

Apart from the old Greenland Dock, dating, back to 1695, they were chiefly built or planned in the first quarter of the nineteenth century — when canal projects were booming, and before such schemes had been peremptorily stopped by the advent of railways. The most ambitious project, put forward in 1825, was for a “Grand Ship Canal” from London to Portsmouth, with a possible extension to Southampton. The promoters asserted that their surveys had demonstrated the practicability of connecting Portsmouth Harbour with the Thames by a tidal canal, without any locks, and navigable by the largest ships then afloat. A more modest plan, the Surrey Canal, was to connect Rotherhithe with Epsom — but the portion completed, and still existing, never got farther than Camberwell.

Tangle of Docks and Basins

Other promoters obtained Parliamentary powers for the building of various small commercial docks in the district. The result of all these enterprises was to convert the Rotherhithe area into a tangle of docks and basins, arranged on no regular plan. Much has been done of recent years, since the Surrey Commercial Docks came under the Port of London Authority, to unify their working, but the fundamental remedy, complete reconstruction, is probably impracticable on account of the huge expense involved.

At present, the Surrey Commercial Docks comprise eleven docks, with auxiliary basins and connecting passages. They have over eight miles of quays, and a water area of 134 acres. St. Katharine Docks were built in 1825-27. Twenty years earlier, the promoters of the “London” Docks had selected Wapping as their site, thinking it impossible to get any closer to the City. But St. Katharine Docks lie westward of the “London” Docks. They consist of three small docks, with a water area of ten acres and 1,650 yards of quays.

The East India Docks at Blackwall, designed, with the “London” Docks, by Rennie, are earlier in date (1803-06) and considerably more extensive, although much smaller than their near neighbours the West India Docks. They consist of three basins, with a mile and a half of quays and a water area of 31 acres.

THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE ENTRANCE INVERT in the 550-feet section of the entrance lock to King George V DockThe Royal Victoria, Royal Albert and King George V Docks, the largest three of the London docks, are situated on the north side of, and parallel with, the long straight stretch of the Thames extending from Bugsby’s Reach to Gallions Reach. With their connecting passages they have an aggregate water area of 247 acres — the largest enclosed dock system in the world.

THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE ENTRANCE INVERT in the 550-feet section of the entrance lock to King George V Dock. The entrance lock is divided into two compartments, 550 feet and 250 feet long, the width being 100 feet.

The first of the three, then called Victoria Dock, was opened in 1855. Designed primarily to meet the needs of the fast-growing cargo steamers, which found the older up-river docks inconveniently small, it was originally provided with a series of projecting jetties on the northern side. In recent years the spaces between these were filled in to provide more room for warehouses. A tidal basin at the western end gave access to the Thames at Bugsby’s Reach, and it was originally intended to build a canal from the eastern end to Gallions Reach. When this connexion was ultimately made, however, it took the form of a second and larger dock — Royal Albert Dock, opened by the Duke of Connaught in 1880. At the same time, Victoria Dock was given the prefix “Royal”.

Last of the three comes the magnificent dock — one of the finest and best-equipped in the world — opened by H.M. King George V and Queen Mary on July 8, 1921. Slightly smaller in area than the others, it can accommodate much larger ships, the dimensions of its entrance lock being 800 feet long and 100 feet wide. The locks of the other docks are 325 feet by 80 feet for Royal Victoria Dock, and 550 feet by 80 feet for Royal Albert Dock. The natural depth in the basin of King George V Dock is 35½ feet below Trinity House high-water mark, and is increased by pumping to 38 feet. Much lower down the river, nearly twenty-six miles from London Bridge, are Tilbury Docks, built in 1882-86 by the East and West India Dock Company to offset the commercial advantages offered by the rival Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks.

The design was a novel one — a main dock with three branch docks, separated by jetties, running out of it at right angles. Considerable extensions have been made, and a new (western) entrance has been added by the Port of London Authority. Tilbury Docks have miles of quays and a water area of 104 acres.

Port of London Authority

What is probably the most important event in the history of the Port of London occurred in 1908, for in that year the Port of London Act (1908) received Royal Assent. This Act substituted the control of a single body, the Port of London Authority, for the statutory powers previously exercised by the various Dock Companies and others. The Act represented the result of several years negotiation. In 1899 the Dock Companies, finding their revenues dwindling and expenses mounting, had sought Parliamentary powers to levy, for the first time, dues on barges entering their docks. Their Bill was hotly opposed, and rejected. The Government soon afterwards appointed a Royal Commission to report upon the whole question of improving the Port of London. The result of this report was the Act of 1908 and the establishment, on March 31, 1909, of the P.L.A.

The commerce of the Port of London has increased by nearly two-thirds of its total amount in 1909. For this there are several reasons besides the elimination of wasteful competition — reasons based on positive, well-planned, and much-needed improvements.

In the first place, the approaches to the Port and the main channel of the Thames have been extensively deepened and widened, so that facilities are now available for virtually every ship afloat except a few of the largest. From the seaward limit of the P.L.A.’s jurisdiction — a line joining Havengore Creek, Essex, to Warden Point, Kent—to Tilbury (some twenty-five miles) there is now a good navigable channel with a depth of at least 30 feet at any state of the tide. The channel in the 10-miles stretch from Tilbury to Coldharbour Point has a depth of 30 feet at low water over a width of 1,000 feet; and from Coldharbour Point to the Royal Albert Dock entrance the channel is still 27 feet deep at low water, with a width of 600 feet. For another four miles up, as far as the West India Docks entrance, it averages 600 feet wide and 20 feet deep at low water. Beyond this it remains wide and deep enough to let large ships enter the Pool.

SHIPPING IN SOUTH DOCK, the southernmost of the West India Docks group. To the left is the Grantully Castle, a twin-screw vessel of 7,592 tons gross. South Dock has a water area of more than 36 acres and its quays measure more than a mile. The Port of London altogether comprises 4,246 acres of docks and 50 miles of quays.

Click here to see the photogravure supplement to this chapter.

You can read more on “Handling 2,000,000 Tons of Coal”, “London’s Dockland Highway” and “World’s Largest Graving Dock” on this website.

You can read more on “London’s Link with the Sea” in Shipping Wonders of the World

The Story of London’s Docks