The East India Docks

This photo shows the large entrance gate to the East India Docks on East India Dock Road as it was at the turn of the 20th century. On the right is the original northern entrance to the Blackwall tunnel, which had opened in 1897.

For 150 years the East India Docks were one of London’s main Thames dock complexes. They were originally created at the start of the 19th century for the loading and unloading of the East India Company ships trading with the Far East.

The East India Company was formed by London merchants at the very end of the 16th century to fund voyages to the Far East to source spices and other exotic goods. Their first sailing of a small fleet of ships departed from Woolwich in 1601. Over the following 200 years and more the company grew into Britain’s largest and most successful trading organisation.

The company initially hired existing ships but soon began commissioning the construction of its own, which were built at Deptford, near the royal naval docks. As business grew, larger ships were required so between 1614 and 1619 they created their own ship-building yard at Blackwall. With an increasingly antagonistic and Puritan Parliament, however, for several decades from the 1630s the company suffered financial problems and it ceased building its own ships. The yard at Blackwall was sold in 1653 to the shipwright Henry Johnson.

The yard must have expanded later in the century because in January 1661 Samuel Pepys wrote: “we took a barge and went to blackwall and viewed the dock and new wett dock which is newly made there, and a brave new merchantman which is to be launched shortly, and they say to be called the Royall oake”.

A century later the yard was owned by John Perry and was then known as the Brunswick Dock, a popular name in the 18th century because the Georgian kings of Britain were also the Dukes of Brunswick in Germany. The Perry family expanded the site to cover eight acres. They used the wet dock for repairing and masting of ships and a noticeable feature from that time was the 120-foot high masting shed in the centre of the dock complex. Many ships that fought in the wars against France in the late 18th century were built at Perry’s. The dock was also a base for whaling ships, with warehouses for the storing of whalebone and blubber. Blackwall was still an isolated and rural area and the dock was surrounded by trees to act as a windbreak.

The silks and spices brought back from the Far East by the East India Company were very valuable so from the latter part of the 18th century the company developed a complex of secure warehouses at Cutler Street, just to the east of Bishopsgate. Their returning ships moored in the open river at Blackwall and ferried goods from there on smaller 100-ton barges.

While the company stored their valuable goods at the Cutler Street they also had storage facilities elsewhere. One type of merchandise they imported was saltpetre, which is a main constituent of gunpowder. It is highly flammable so the company stored it away from the City at Shadwell in a warehouse that opened in 1775. In 1794 a fire started in a nearby barge-builder’s yard and spread to the East India Company warehouse. The resulting explosion and fire went on to destroy 630 buildings and left 2,700 people homeless, making it London’s most devastating event between the Great Fire of London and the Second World War.

From the early 19th century tea was stored at a warehouse at Crutched Friar, at the top of Tower Hill. That building was eventually inherited by the Port of London Authority when they came into existence at the beginning of the 20th century and it was where the PLA built their grand headquarters.

The Thames became congested with ships during the 18th century and there was a great deal of theft while they waited to unload in the Pool of London. Therefore, at the end of the century, London’s shipowners decided to create off-river docks where ships could be securely unloaded. It resulted in the creation of the West India Docks and London Docks. Each was surrounded by large warehouses and high walls. An earlier scheme by the East India Company in 1786 to open their own enclosed dock had been abandoned because of opposition from vested interests. However, after ships of the West India trade moved into their own docks in 1802 river pirates began targeting East India ships after ships.

A new proposal to create a third set of docks came from a group of shipowners involved in the East India trade, led by Robert Wigram and John Woolmore, rather than the East India Company itself. An Act of Parliament to create the East India Docks was passed in July 1803, giving the new docks a 21-year monopoly on any goods arriving from the Far East. The East India Dock Company was formed to undertake the scheme and an initial offering of £200,000 of shares was issued, mostly purchased by East India merchants and shipbuilders.

The dock company purchased Brunswick Dock at Blackwall that had been sold by the East India Company in the 17th century, which by then was owned by John and William Wells. An additional 65 acres of the adjoining Bromley Marsh to the north was acquired in 1803 from the owner Robert Peers and 30 acres from George Hyde Wollaston. Further land to the east was purchased from James and Thomas Mather. The total cost of land purchase, including the Brunswick Dock, was a little over £65,000.

The East India ships were the largest on the Thames, with some of around 1,500 tons. At the beginning of the 19th century nearly 100 East India ships sailed from London each season, with the number and size steadily increasing. They arrived and departed at various times during the summer months, carrying goods of high value but little bulk. This compared with West India ships that departed and arrived together in convoys and carried bulky sugar and rum of low value. Thus, there was no need for the East India Docks to be as large as that required for the West India for unloading. The site covered about 60 acres, with around half covered by water.

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