Millwall Dock opened in March 1868. In order to survive, its rates were low from the start, so added further competition to the port but without creating any significant profit for itself. Attempts to attract timber business away from the Surrey Docks were unsuccessful and in the event it specialized in grain from the Baltic, with the finest granary facilities in the Port of London. A financial crisis occurred in 1898 when it was discovered that the dock’s manager had been falsifying the accounts for several years.
In creating an industrial area on what had previously been meadows the original developers were successful, which took place gradually as new businesses arrived and evolved. “[The whole Isle of Dogs] was given up to accommodating heavy industries that had replaced the old riverside crafts of Georgian days, such as boatbuilding in wood and the twisting of ropes by hand” wrote East London historian Millicent Rose. “In the new industrial town of Millwall, cables were manufactured by steam, out of Riga hemp and iron, of a weight suitable for use by the new iron ships. There were cement works, galvanized iron works and refineries of turpentine. The old windmills disappeared from the river-bank, and in the section opposite Deptford they were replaced by the yard of the well-known ship-building firm, Scott Russell & Co.”. The shipyard actually pre-dated the Millwall Dock. It was there that Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s giant steam-ship the Great Eastern, his last major project, was launched after great difficulty in January 1858, the world’s largest steamship until finally surpassed in size forty years later.
Two notable businesses that were based at Millwall, both on the south quay, were Hooper’s Telegraph Works, where from 1871 telegraph cable was produced and loaded directly onto cable-laying ships, and the McDougall’s flour mill. Alexander McDougall began making self-raising flour in Manchester in 1865 following the discovery of a new type of baking powder. His five sons originally built a fertilizer factory at Millwall in 1871 but in the following decades they further developed their site for the milling of their famous flour. The original mill was destroyed in an enormous fire in 1898 and a replacement, the Wheatsheaf Mill, was completed in 1900. Further development took place in the 1930s and it continued to operate until closed by the Rank Hovis McDougall conglomerate in 1982.
As with all the other London docks, Millwall was nationalized in 1909 and thereafter operated by the Port of London Authority. In the 1920s the PLA cut a waterway between the Millwall and West India Docks in order to form a link between them. The Isle of Dogs was subject to extensive bombing during the Second World War, with much damage to Millwall Dock and its surrounding area. The early days of the Blitz resulted in an exodus in the local population yet civilian casualties during the course of the conflict were six times the national average.
The dock was in use for cargo-handling until 1980. The following year the London Docklands Development Corporation was formed to plan the redevelopment of the entire area. Most surrounding buildings were demolished but the water-space retained and in 1997 that became the responsibility of the British Waterways Board and then its successor, the Canal and River Trust.
Sources include: Sir Joseph Broodbank ‘History of the Port of London’; John Pudney ‘London’s Docks’; Fiona Rule ‘London’s Docklands’; Millicent Rose ‘The East End of London’; Mick Lemmerman ‘The Isle of Dogs During World War II’; ‘Arthur Bryant ‘Liquid History’; ‘The Illustrated London News’.
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