A Brief History Of London Before The Docks

The banks of the river Thames have attracted people to settle there since the arrival of primitive peoples to these islands. From Bronze and Iron Age people, to Celts and Romans, from marshy ford to heart of Empire, the Thames has acted as a magnet for settlement and trade. The first settlers could well have arrived by dugout canoe or coracle from the continent following the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. There can be little doubt that soon after the first settlement the first traders arrived by boat, seeking the sheltered anchorage of the Thames and thus was born the Port of London.

The Thames, once a tributary of the river Rhine in the days of Britain being a rocky outcrop on the northern coast of Europe, was not then the river we know now. Wide, shallow, flowing gently over marsh and swampland, this would have been the site that greeted Julius Caesar and his Legions in 55 B.C as he surveyed the land for a suitable spot to cross the Thames on his conquest of Britain. It is widely believed that he forded the Thames at Westminster, pausing on an island, or eot, in mid stream. It scarcely seems possible now that the tourist multitudes that throng Westminster Bridge, high above the  mighty river below, could once have waded knee deep across to the other side.

Permanent settlement probably started with the arrival of the Romans as occupiers in 43 A.D. under the general Aulus Plautius, who built the first London Bridge, (and as recent excavation has shown, only yards away from the present day London Bridge).

The Romans were also probably the first to begin the task of shoring up the banks of the river, so that their ships from far flung corners of their Empire could dock and unload their cargoes of wine, pottery, fish oils, olives and of course soldiers. The historian Tacitus commented in A.D. 61 ‘was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels’. It is from the Roman Londinium that the city derives its modern day name.

Following the departure of the Legions in A.D. 410 the city, was then largely abandoned, with the arrival of the Angles and Saxons. These people, largely from a farming background, eschewed settling in a walled city, although they did establish settlements outside of the walls. It is from the settlement of Waeppa’s people that Wapping is thought to derive its name. As time went by these settlements grew, until by the time of the 8th century Ludenwic, the Saxon name for London, was, as the Anglo Saxon chronicler Bede recorded , once again, ‘a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea’.

The Saxons were skilled boat builders and the birth of the Royal Navy can be traced to the ships that Alfred the Great built to defend the country from the deprivations of the Norse raiders, which began in the 8th century. It is during Alfred’s reign ( 871-899 ) that the next expansion of the port began, until in Canute’s reign ( 1016-1035 ) the capital was taxed at one eighth of the total wealth of the country, such had been growth of the city

The 11th century saw the port as the base of the Navy and also the establishment of the Thames as a center for shipbuilding activity, centered on Blackwall. The next millennia was one of almost continuous growth, with the Thames being steadily being embanked into what we see today.

The bridging of the Thames obviously restricted the size of ships that could navigate underneath it. The area adjacent to the bridge was known as the Pool of London, originally being  the stretch of the Thames forming the south side of the City. Later it more generally referred to the stretch of the river in between the bridge and Rotherhithe. In order that access to the Pool for shipping was not obstructed a new pedestrian connection between Wappingand Rotherhithe was constructed not as a new bridge but as a tunnel, (in 1908).

The Pool of London is divided into two parts, the Upper Pool and Lower Pool. The Upper Pool consists of the section between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, whilst the Lower Pool runs from Tower Bridge to Cherry Garden Pier in Rotherhithe. It was this area that was of vital importance to London as a Port.

By the 18th century the river was lined with nearly continuous walls of wharves and jetties, stretching for miles along both sides of the river, and hundreds of ships moored in the river or alongside the quays. The congestion was so extreme that it was famously said that it was possible to walk across the Thames without getting your feet wet, simply by stepping from ship to ship. It is this congestion, together with the increasing size of the ships, that gave rise to  the building of the docks. Another factor was the sheer volume of theft, whether from the ships, the lighters, from quayside or warehouses. Parliament was lobbied and in 1799 the West India Dock Act was passed, the first of many such Acts.

The Docks

With reference to the sketched map that follows, and working eastwards from Tower Bridge, there now follows a short description of each of the docks.

1. St Katherine Dock 1828-1969
The St Katharine Docks, which are situated to the east of Tower Bridge, were the closest docks to the City of London. They were built on the site of the former church of St Katherine’s, ( a plaque commemorates this ). 11,300 people were displaced, with 1250 houses and tenements pulled down. St Katharine’s, designed by Thomas Telford, comprised two connected basins, the east dock and the west dock. The docks were linked to the river through an entrance lock, nearly 200 feet in length, fitted with three pairs of gates. The wet docks comprised nearly 12 acres. Warehouses, six storeys high and supported by heavy Tuscan columns, were built on the quayside so that cargo could be unloaded directly from ships into the storerooms. The warehouses were up to 500 feet long and up to 165 feet deep. St Katharine’s Docks were used mainly for valuable cargoes, such as ivory, shells, sugar, marble, rubber, carpets, spices and perfumes. Many of these cargoes were brought in by barge from the lower docks. The docks have now been redeveloped for leisure and residential use.

2. London Docks 1805-1968
The London Docks are situated about half a mile downriver from St Katharine Docks at Wapping. Opened in 1805, the entrance to the dock was from the Thames at Shadwell. The facilities at Wapping took up an area of nearly 90 acres, of which 35 acres consisted of water, and there were almost 2.5 miles of quay and jetty frontage. The docks were surrounded by a high wall and had room for more than 300 vessels. The  warehouses, four storeys high, had space for over 200,000 tons of goods. The dock was used by short-sea traders, carrying cargoes such as tobacco, dried fruit, canned goods, ivory, wool and spices.

3. Regents Canal Dock 1820-1969
East of the London Docks lay the Regent’s Canal Dock, designed by John Nash, at Limehouse, of about 10 acres. Opened in 1820, it connected Regent’s Canal with the Thames. It is now known as Limehouse Marina. This dock was one of the first to use hydraulic power. A small pumping station was built on the west side of the Commercial Road locks. A steam engine was used to pump water into a system of mains that supplied the cranes and other hydraulic machinery. A basin was also built where canal boats could wait for the right state of the tide before passing through the locks.

4. West India Docks 1802/06-1980
On the Isle of Dogs, to the east of London Docks, lay the West India Docks, designed by  William Jessop. The site comprised an import dock of 30 acres of water and an export dock of about 24 acres. Together, they had space for more than 600 large ships. At each end of the docks was a basin connecting them to the river, with locks to control the flow of water between the docks and the Thames. Locks were also constructed in the cuts joining the docks with the basins. Ships entered on the Blackwall side of the basin and the lighters went in at the Limehouse end. Five-storey warehouses were also built.

Whilst initially built for the West India trade, the docks later handled general cargoes. South of the import and export docks was the South Dock, which was opened in 1870, (formerly the City Canal, built so that vessels could avoid sailing around the Isle of Dogs). The West India Docks have now been transformed, and are dominated by the huge towers of Canary Wharf .

5. Millwall Docks 1868-1980
The Millwall Docks, situated on the Isle of Dogs to the south of the West & East India Docks, dealt mainly in grain and timber, from the Baltic. The dock area was dominated by the Central Granary, which occupied the north-western corner, and its associated pneumatic grain elevators. By the 1920s, Millwall Docks had been linked with the West India Docks by new cuttings. At that time the docks contained 160 acres of water and seven miles of working quaysides. The facilities were further upgraded in the 1950s and 60s.

6. East India Docks 1806-1967
Eastwards, downriver, of  the West India Docks were the East India Docks. Opened in 1806, the docks originally served the East India Company’s trading interests in India and other parts of Asia. The docks consisted of parallel import and export docks with a basin and locks connecting to the river. In later years, the 31 acres of water at the docks, were used by ships such as those from the Ellerman Line, Union Castle Line and Blue Star. In the 1920s, new facilities were built for the handling of frozen meat. The export dock was badly bombed during the Second World War and filled-in.

The Royal Docks

The Royal Docks, at the time the most modern of their kind, formed the largest area of dock space in the world. Although now empty and deserted, (save for London City airport in their midst), they are still an awe inspiring sight. They comprised:

7. Royal Victoria 1855-1980
Opened by Prince Albert in 1855, the Royal Victoria Dock was built slightly to the east of the mouth of the River Lea and covers almost 100 acres of water, incorporating several new features.
Five finger-jetties projected into the dock from the main quays, to aid quick delivery of cargoes, after sorting into barges on the opposite side of the jetty to which the ship was berthed. There was also a tidal basin at the western end, with ships entering the basin via a lock from the Thames.
The Dock was also the first in London to be directly connected with the national railway system, which allowed imported goods to be moved around the country much faster than before. The dock was also the first to be equipped with hydraulic machinery and lifts to raise ships. The dock was extensively rebuilt in the late 1930s and closed to commercial shipping in the early 1980s.

8. Royal Albert 1880-1980
To the east of the Victoria Docks is the Royal Albert Dock, at the time it was opened it was the largest dock in the world. It was designed to take ocean-going vessels of up to 12,000 tons. At 1.75 miles, it is staggeringly long. It contained more than 16,500 feet of deep-water quays. It was connected to the Royal Victoria Dock by a lock. The entrance to the dock was via a large lock and basin at Gallions Reach. There were single storey transit sheds rather than warehouses, to emphasize the fast turn around for ships. It was also the first London dock to be lit by electricity. The main cargoes handled at the Royal Albert Dock were tobacco, chilled and frozen meat, grain and general cargo.

9. King George V 1921-1983
To the south of the Royal Albert Dock was the King George V Dock, (known simply as KGV). It was the last of the docks to be completed, in 1921, and is over 4000 feet, with nearly 3 miles of quays. The entrance lock from the river, the largest in the Port of London, was 800 feet long and 100 feet wide. Through it passed the ships of the Blue Star Line, British India Steam Navigation Company,  Albion Line and P&O group. Ships of up to 30,000 tons could be accommodated in the dock. The largest ship ever to use it was the 35,000-ton RMS Mauretania in 1939, which narrowly squeezed in.

10. Surrey Commercial Docks (incorporating the Greenland Dock and Eastern Country Dock) 1807-1969
The Surrey Docks were the only docks situated on the south side of the river, opposite Limehouse.  The Commercial Dock Company had purchased the Greenland Dock at Rotherhithe in 1807. It was used for the North European trade in timber, hemp, iron, tar and corn. The company eventually owned all the docks built at Rotherhithe over the following 70 years. The interconnected complex of docks, basins, timber ponds and waterways of the Surrey complex extended for over 150 acres of water, and were surrounded by nearly five miles of quayside. Apart from the Greenland Dock and East Country Dock, in which general cargo from many countries was unloaded, they were devoted to the handling and storage of timber.

Dock Companies

The docks were set up by Acts of Parliament and the running of them by private companies. These were:

West India Dock Co 1799
East India Dock Co.1803 (These two amalgamated into the East & West India Dock Co in 1838)
London Dock Co 1805
St Katherine Dock Co 1825(These two amalgamated in 1864, and then with the Victoria Dock Co )
Victoria Dock Co  1850
Surrey Commercial Dock Company 1864
Millwall Dock Co 1868

A brief excerpt from ‘My Oyster’

A description of life in Rotherhithe docks and a journey to New York on SS St Louis in 1901, by William George Atkins. Click to read.

Maps of the Docks

As they were . . .

Map of London Docks

. . . and as it is today . . .

The Docks and Family History

There were many types of occupation to be found in the docks. From watermen & lightermen, to stevedores and dock labourers, clerks to carmen, customs officials to crane drivers. Some, like the watermen & lightermen, were members of a guild, and as such there is a wealth of surviving records. The vast majority of men however belonged to no such organisation. Indeed the bulk were not even employees, but casual labourers, hired at the daily ‘call on’, for a few hours or a days work. The Dock companies did have some permanent employees (‘perms’) though, as has been noticed in the local parish registers.

There is therefore no central source of information for family historians researching ancestors who worked in the docks.

The Museum in Docklands holds some surviving records, particularly for permanent staff employed by the Port of London Authority after 1909. Prior to 1909 there are some records for permanent staff employed by the private dock companies. These are mostly for administrative staff. Please consult the Museum’s website, using the link on our links page, for more on this. Please note that the Museum does not take requests for information by telephone, nor does it undertake detailed research on behalf of family historians.

From the late 19th century there is a very good chance that your ancestor would have belonged to a trade union. The Transport & General Union absorbed most of the smaller unions and their records are held at the University of Warwick. Please refer to the Union Ancestors website on our Useful Links page for more on this.

Free Water Clause

Not as you might think a scheme for providing Londoners with free water! The lighterage trade existed to transfer cargo from either ship to shore, or ship to ship. ( Please see the Waterman & Lighterman page of this website for more on this ). Not unnaturally there was considerable anxiety on the part of the lightermen, never known for their reticence in petitioning Parliament, when it became clear that the docks were going to be built.  The dock owners were intent on charging the lightermen for accessing the docks, but the West India Dock Act of 1799, and each subsequent Act, had the ‘free water clause’ inserted into it, giving the lightermen access to the docks without charge.

Port of London Authority

By the end of the 19th century competition between the various dock companies was cutthroat. Not only were they competing with each other but with the wharf owners too. Small profits meant a lack of investment coincided with rapid technological change. The importance of the Port of London was deemed by the Government to be of national significance so a Royal Commission was set up in 1900. It reported two years later but it was not until 1908 that the Commission’s recommendations were passed as the Port of London Act, 1908. For the first time the working of the Port as a whole was addressed, with the various undertakings and powers of all the remaining dock companies, the function and powers of the Thames Conservancy below Teddington, and certain duties of the Watermen’s Company transferred to a new body, the Port of London Authority, which continues in existence to this day.

The riverside wharves however remained outside of the jurisdiction of the Authority and the Free Water Clause was retained, ( much to the relief of the lightermen ).  This served to keep competition healthy. It was with a renewed sense of confidence that the Port entered into the 20th century, a period that saw the Port at its busiest. This confidence reached its zenith with the opening of the King George V dock in 1925, which together with the Royal Albert and Royal Victoria docks, made the Royal Docks the largest area of enclosed water the world has ever seen.

The Demise of the Docks

As ships grew ever larger so the docks became ever less suited to their needs. The Thames itself could also not support the increasing size of the ships. A third factor was the advent of shipping containers and the lorries to carry them. This meant that there was no longer a need for warehouses to house cargoes unloaded from ships holds.

New deep water facilities downriver at Tilbury took some of the work, but the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich have captured most.

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Further reading

London Labour & London Poor,  by Henry Mayhew
Dockland Life : A Pictorial History 1860-2000, by Chris Ellmers & Alex Werner
Dockland: An Illustrated Historical Survey, by R J M Carr (Editor)
Looking Back: A Docker’s Story, by Joe Bloomberg
A Tale of Two Ports – London & Southampton: London and Southampton, by Sir Ronald Swayne
Dockland Apprentice, by David Carpenter
Port of London Shipping: An Era of Change by Geoff Lunn
Tales of London’s Docklands, by Henry Bradford
The Great Dock Strike 1889, by Terry McCarthy

Most of these titles can be purchased from our Bookshop