At the start of the 19th century the Precinct was a crowded mixture of warehouses, workshops, shops, taverns, merchants’ houses, brothels, and hundreds of poor-quality houses, all laid out in an unplanned fashion. Tobacco was unloaded at the King’s warehouse and a small dock was capable of receiving vessels of up to 300 tons. Residents included watermen and lightermen, ship agents, brewers and distillers.
In the early 1820s a group of influential businessmen considered yet again the possibility of redeveloping the Precinct of St. Katharine as docks and they formed the St. Katharine Dock Company. Although the area was small compared with space available at the existing docks, it had the great advantage of being closer to the vast market of the City of London, in those days still Britain’s greatest manufacturer of numerous types of goods. Their first attempt at passing an Act of Parliament for the creation of docks failed but the company persevered. The promoters of the Bill undertook intense lobbying, while the residents and supporters of St. Katharine’s submitted petitions against the development. Direct competitors, such as the neighboring London Dock Company, also raised their objections.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for the Precinct, however. Queen Charlotte died in 1818. The Prince Regent effectively reigned the country. He was estranged from his wife Caroline who anyway died in 1821 so, for a rare time in its long history, St. Katharine’s lacked the royal protection of a queen consort. General Sir Herbert Taylor, an MP for the City of London, had recently been appointed as Master of the Foundation of St. Katharine and those two positions provided him with the possibility to secure a personal advantage in negotiations with the dock promoters. He agreed compensation of £127,000 to be invested in four per cent annuities for the Foundation, and for the church to relocate to Regent’s Park, including a school, almshouses, and a magnificent house for himself.
The St. Katharine Dock Bill was therefore passed by Parliament in June 1825. Thirteen acres of land were acquired by the dock company and demolition began almost immediately. The Times reported that 1,250 houses and tenements were destroyed – displacing 11,300 inhabitants – as well as the medieval and historic hospital and its 14th century church. The final church service was held in October 1825.
The dock company commissioned Thomas Telford, the eminent builder of canals, bridges and docks, as the chief engineer. His plan was for a central basin that led into east and west docks, a clever use of the relatively small space that could accommodate up to 120 ships. The earth that was displaced in digging out the basins was carried upriver on barges and deposited on marshy land at Millbank, enabling Thomas Cubitt to create the new suburbs of Pimlico and Belgravia on Lord Grosvenor’s estate.
Despite the austere and monumental style, the warehouses at St. Katharine’s, designed by Sir Philip Hardwick, were some of the finest that would ever be constructed in London’s dock system. They were built of yellow-grey London bricks and white stone sills, six storeys tall, and with two levels of underground vaults. They were built directly up to the water’s edge inside the docks and to the roadside on the exterior of the docks. Cranes, fixed to the warehouses and swinging out over the ships’ decks, hoisted cargoes straight into the warehouses without the need for transit sheds and, likewise, lowered goods down to carts in the roads outside the docks. By this method ships could be loaded or unloaded much quicker than the other docks.
With easy access to the City, St. Katharine’s was initially very successful. It specialized mostly in tea from India and wool from Australia, New Zealand and the Falkland Islands as well as a large range of luxury and exotic items from around the world, including ivory, china, ostrich feathers, spices, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl, oriental carpets, raw materials to manufacture perfume, carpets, guano (used as a fertilizer) and tallow (used in soap manufacturing and cooking).
The ending of the early monopolies, together with the opening of the St. Katharine Docks, brought to an end the London dock boom and the high profits of the early 19th century. Free trade and increased competition began to force each of the dock companies to cut the rates charged to ships, as well as paying out lower dividends to shareholders.
Much of the dock companies’ incomes came from warehousing cargoes that had newly arrived or were waiting to be loaded. When Parliament was considering the Acts that permitted the creation of the original docks there was strong lobbying from the City of London. They were protecting the interests of both the wharves that were located along their stretch of the river and the lightermen who had for centuries moved cargoes from ship to shore. Thus a ‘free water clause’ was included in each of the Dock Acts that allowed lighters to freely enter the docks to carry away cargoes to wharves on the open river. During the good times that resulting loss of warehousing income was of small consequence to the companies but became a serious concern once profits were reduced.
With decreasing profits, the dock companies sought ways to reduce costs and it was the workers who suffered most. In the earliest days of the 19th century dockers were employed on a permanent basis. The coming and going of sailing ships was dependent on the weather and was unpredictable. Their arrival or departure could be delayed for days or even weeks, while at other times a large group of ships might arrive at the same time. Certain types of cargo, such as tea, wool, sugar, grain or timber were also seasonal. It was expensive to have a waged staff on standby, whereas as London’s population rapidly increased, particularly with poor, unemployed immigrants from Ireland and the Continent, there was at any time an abundance of available men. To cut costs the docks moved to employing labourers on a casual basis. Thereafter hundreds of men waited outside dock gates each day in the hope of a few hours work at low hourly rates in a system called ‘the call-on’.
Sources include: John Pudney ‘London’s Docks’; Fiona Rule ‘London’s Docklands’; Arthur Bryant ‘Liquid History’; Christopher West ‘The Story of St.Katharine’s’; Catherine Jamison, ‘The History of the Royal Hospital of St.Katharine’; John Summerson ‘Georgian London’; Liza Picard ‘Victorian London’; Jerry White ‘London In The 19th Century’; Milicent Rose ‘The East End of London’; D.J.Owen ‘The Port of London Yesterday & Today’; Ian Friel ‘Maritime History of Britain & Ireland’; Derek Morris & Ken Cozens ‘St. Katharine’s before the Docks’ (London Topographical Society newsletter).