The PLA inherited the East India Company warehouse at Crutched Friars and obtained powers to clear the surrounding area containing eighteenth century houses, the whole to be used for the creation of a new headquarters. The leading architect, Sir Aston Webb, organized a competition for a design and the one chosen was from Edwin Cooper. John Mowlem & Company began construction in 1913 but there were delays from the start, not improved by the outbreak of war. Lord Devonport laid the foundation stone in June 1915 and the building was finally opened by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, in October 1922. Occupying a complete City block, the imposing building still stands beside the Trinity House headquarters, looking down Tower Hill onto the Tower of London and clearly seen from the river. Cooper’s clever design consisted of a rectangular square, cut back at forty-five degrees on one corner to give an elevation facing Trinity Square. The grand classical entrance features Corinthian columns, three storeys high, topped by a massive tower with a giant figure of Father Thames. A huge rotunda, with a larger diameter than the dome of St Paul’s and claimed to be Europe’s largest unsupported concrete dome, stood within the central atrium, connecting to offices on the four sides and maximizing light internally. For decades the Trinity Square HQ housed large numbers of bowler-hat-wearing clerks, female typists, and telephone operators, who rarely, if ever, visited the docks. A telephone exchange was installed in the headquarters from the beginning and it had an extensive network that linked it to the docks.
The PLA’s first Chief Engineer, Frederick Palmer, was tasked with proposing plans for works to make good on previous neglect and to upgrade the PLA’s docks. In his report submitted to the Board in December 1910 he divided the plan into three programmes based on their importance and urgency, with the total cost estimated at over £14,000,000. As the work was getting underway Britain declared war on Germany and that was to cause serious disruption to the plans. Much work was started but progress slowed as men were diverted into the armed forces or other war-related activities and materials became scarce.
Ships continued to increase in size and at the beginning of the twentieth century some were too large for even the Royal Albert Dock, which was restricted to those of 12,000 tons and 500 feet in length. Prior to their demise, the East & West India Company had planned to create a new Royal dock. The Act that created the PLA gave them powers to acquire land to the south of the Royal Albert Dock and that was where the new dock was sited. Contracts were placed in 1912 but work slowed down during the Great War. In 1918, when the Admiralty was in need of additional dry-docking facilities, a new priority was given to the planned dock. Displaced residents were provided with 204 newly-built homes on the west side of Prince Regent’s Lane, opposite Beckton Road recreation ground. The King George V, the most modern dock in the world at that time, was finally opened by the King, accompanied by Queen Mary, in July 1921. The combined size of the three Royal Docks measured 230 acres, the world’s largest surface of impounded water, with eleven miles of quays. The George V was to be the last of the great London docks to be opened and the only one fully created under public ownership.
As the country returned to normal following the Great War, the PLA’s upgrading and improvement programme resumed. It was by then highly modified from Palmer’s original plans due to the increasing size of ships. Major improvements were carried out to all the docks during the 1920s and 1930s including creating passages between the West India and Millwall docks and converting some timber ponds in the Surrey Commercial Docks to form the deep-water Quebec Dock. An increasing portion of investment, however, was directed further downriver, to the Royal Docks and Tilbury.
Mechanization and the Great Depression of the early 1930s reduced the overall number of people working in the Port from 52,000 in 1920 to 34,000 in the latter 1930s. By then the Port of London, after more than a century of expansion and with the world’s largest man-made enclosed dock system, had reached the end of its growth, the maximum size it would ever achieve. An estimated 1,500 wharves, jetties and yards lined the river between Brentford and Gravesend. Every port in the world was served, either directly or by trans-shipment and the Port was more complex than it would ever be again in the future. The combined docks and wharves were the nation’s principal storage centre for goods of many varieties. Around 100,000 men were dependent, either directly or indirectly, for employment. In 1938 thirty-eight per cent of the UK’s trade passed through the Port, an all-time high that was never to be achieved again, with 63 million tons carried. During that period 50,000 ocean-going ships arrived each year, coasters were making 15,000 round trips, 250 tugs worked on the river, as did 10,000 lighters and 1,000 sailing barges. Three hundred thousand passengers arrived or departed annually. Larger ships primarily used the enclosed docks while coastal and Continental trade operated from riverside wharves. Twenty-eight graving docks operated for repairing ships.
In the following forty years the world would go through dramatic changes, however, as would the methods by which the world moved its goods. The majority of the PLA’s docks closed in the 1970s and 1980s. Tilbury still survives but was privatised in 1992. In 1988 responsibility for pilotage on the river was transferred to the PLA from Trinity House. The PLA, now based at Gravesend, continues to be very active in the management of the tidal river.
Sources include: Sir Joseph Broodbank ‘History of the Port of London’; Arthur Bryant ‘Liquid History’; John Pudney ‘London’s Docks’; D.J.Owen ‘The Port of London – Yesterday and Today’; Nigel Watson ‘A Century of Service 1909-2009’.
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