The large peninsula on the east side of London that forms a great southward loop of the Thames is the Isle of Dogs. It is today dominated by the vast gleaming towers of the financial district that is generally known as Canary Wharf. In the shadow of those skyscrapers, at the centre of the ‘island’, is the large inverted L-shape body of water that is Millwall Dock. For over a hundred years it was, along with its larger neighbour the West India Docks, a major part of the Port of London.
The first great London dock-building boom occurred during the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century, when the West India, London, East India and Surrey Docks came into being. Given twenty-one year monopolies (or having the specialty of unloading timber in the case of the latter), their creators prospered. When the exclusive rights ended, developers and financiers saw an opportunity to create the St.Katherine Docks in the 1820s. Thereafter business became more competitive. Profits fell, eventually leading to amalgamations of the dock companies.
Despite the fragile finances of the docks there were still those who believed an opportunity existed for new entrants, particularly after the repeal of the Corn Laws that once again brought imports of grain to the port. The West India Docks had opened across the north of the Isle of Dogs at the beginning of the century yet fifty years later most of the centre of the peninsula, around the hamlet of Millwall and the medieval church of St.Mary, remained as undeveloped, windswept, agricultural land. Along the riverside were small independent wharves owned by shipwrights and maritime businesses.
In the late 1850s one of the Millwall wharf-owners, oil merchant Nathaniel Fenner, had the idea of creating a T-shaped enclosed dock behind the wharves, with the central basin leading northwards towards the West India Docks. His dock was to be connected to the river by locks to both the east and west of the peninsula. Fenner’s business model was different to earlier docks in that its quays would be let out to individual businesses to operate their own warehouses. The idea at Millwall was that surplus space would attract factories and shipbuilding yards, each paying rent to the company. He commissioned the engineer Robert Fairlie to draw up plans but, needing capital for the project, contacted the more eminent engineer William Wilson. Wilson submitted the plan to Parliament and attracted the interest of further developers and engineers. Fenner and Fairlie had in the meantime been sidelined so they raised objections to the Parliamentary Bill. In order to pacify them, Wilson and his partners paid the originators of the scheme substantial sums of money, with Fenner given a seat on the Board of the newly-formed Millwall Freehold Land & Dock Company.
Financing for the project proved more difficult than anticipated. (The long-established East & West India Dock Company were already struggling to raise more than half a million pounds in order to transform their City Canal across the Isle of Dogs into a new south dock). Two hundred and four acres of land were acquired in order to create fifty-two acres of dock and one hundred and fifty-two acres of wharves and warehouses. The company was forced to enter into finance arrangement fees that increased the amount to be raised but did not achieve the objective. Plans were scaled back to two basins and altered to make the project more affordable. Work to create the Millwall Dock began in 1866 and completed in a year and a half, employing three thousand construction workers and steam-powered pumping engines to drain the marshy land.
When completed, the Millwall Dock had an unusual thirty-six acre inverted L-shaped basin, with an entrance to the river on the west side of the peninsula. It was the first of the docks to be created with a dry dock, of four hundred and thirteen feet in length. The planned entrance to the east never materialized. While ships were beginning to grow larger, the Millwall Dock was opened with an entrance lock of only eighty feet in width, which could never be enlarged, forever restricting the size of vessels that could enter.
As with the earlier Victoria Dock, Millwall had rail connection from the beginning, the first to accommodate passengers. By that time a branch of the Blackwall Railway passed through the West India Dock down to its terminus at North Greenwich station at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs, serving the Millwall quays en-route. Steam locomotives were banned from the West India Docks as a fire precaution however so trains were pulled by horses on the Isle of Dogs section of the railway in the early years.