The new London docks of the early 19th century

The West India Docks looking west towards London, 1802, by the artist William Daniell. To the right is the import dock, with the export dock in the centre. On the left is the City Canal, which was constructed by the City of London Corporation at the same time as the docks. It was intended to be a short-cut to avoid the passage around Greenwich Reach to the south of the Isle of Dogs. It was a failure and in 1870 was converted into a third basin for the West India Docks.

During the Tudor period the unloading of goods arriving in London was restricted to a few wharves within the City of London on the north bank of the Thames. As trade increased throughout the 18th century the river increasingly became clogged with ships. Cargoes sat unprotected on quaysides waiting to be processed by Customs and carried to their destination within the City. It was not a satisfactory situation for merchants and ship owners.

The expanding British Empire and improving manufacturing techniques, and an increasing population, created an immense amount of commerce during the 17th and 18th centuries compared with previous times. Trade with the colonies and other parts of the world was such that congestion in the Port of London reached a new peak, even at the time that the nation was engaged in the Napoleonic Wars when almost the entire Continent was closed to British shipping. Yet due to ancient regulations, created at the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century in order to ensure efficient collection of customs duties, all imports landed at London were obliged to pass through a small number of ‘Legal Quays’ between London Bridge and the Tower of London within the City. By the latter part of the 18th century this had created a troublesome bottleneck. When it was their turn, cargoes were offloaded from the ships onto lighters, to be transported up the river to a wharf where duty could be paid. Wharves on the South Bank and St. Katharine’s, known as ‘Sufferance Wharves’ were additionally licensed for lower-value goods. Yet still, hundreds of ships lined up along the centre of the river at any time waiting to unload at the quays, a process that could take weeks.

As ships waited to unload, a significant proportion of cargo was stolen by gangs that preyed on the unguarded moored vessels. Goods standing on crowded and chaotic quaysides were also at risk from criminals, sometimes in collusion with Customs officers. The magistrate, social reformer and statistician Patrick Colquhoun published his Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis in 1796 in which he proposed the creation of a police force for London. He was introduced to John Harriott who, understanding the scale of criminal activity on the river, proposed a specialist force. That led to the creation of the Marine Police Establishment, based at Wapping, the forerunner of London’s Metropolitan Police.

While the introduction of the Marine Police Establishment went some way to protecting cargoes, it did not solve every problem. In 1793 William Vaughan, a London insurer and heir to West Indian plantations, published his treatise On Wet Docks, Quays and Warehouses for the Port of London, with Hints Respecting Trade. Vaughan’s ideas started a campaign to create a new wet dock off the river. Enclosed docks off the tidal river were not new to London: The Brunswick yard at Blackwall had originally been created by the East India Company in the early 17th century, followed by the Howland Wet Dock at Rotherhithe, but those were to shelter and repair ships. Vaughan’s idea was for a dock to load and unload cargoes and to protect the goods within their high walls. It was the start of a vast network of docks that would transform the area to the east and turn London into a major trading city.

A subscription was launched in December 1795 that promised £800,000 from 634 subscribers, headed by two City aldermen, George Hibbert and Sir John Eamer, together with Vaughan. The proposal was to create a dock at Wapping. Hibbert was a West India merchant and opponent of the anti-slavery movement. Eamer was an alderman of the City, married to the daughter of a sugar refiner, who would go on to become Lord Mayor in 1801.

The plan to divert trade downriver and away from the Legal Quays was initially opposed by the City of London Corporation. They profited from the wharves along their stretch of the river and represented the interests of all those involved, such as wharf owners, Thames lightermen who ferried cargoes from ship to shore, porters who carried the goods from the quayside into the City, and others who worked at the wharves such as coopers.

In 1796, under increasing pressure, particularly from importers of sugar and rum from the West Indies, Parliament formed the Select Committee for the Improvement of the Port of London, which included Prime Minister William Pitt, to consider the problem. Ideas were invited for reform of the port and eight separate schemes were considered.

A large proportion of the goods arriving in London was sugar and rum produced on the slave-plantations of the British West Indian colonies, particularly Jamaica and Barbados. The merchants involved in the importation, together with absentee plantation owners living in England, were a powerful lobby group known as the West India Planters & Merchants. As a body they ensured their interests were protected and fought against any threat to the slave trade.

The idea of an enclosed dock greatly interested the West India men so in 1797 they formed a committee to consider the matter. They agreed that a wet dock was their preferred solution but across the top of the Isle of Dogs instead of Wapping, in partnership with the City of London, and exclusively for the West India trade. That alienated the merchants and ship owners who were not involved in the West India trade and resulted in a split of the original subscribers into two groups: on one side were most of the West India merchants, in alliance with the City Corporation; and other merchants and ship owners in the other camp who sought docks open for all trade.

Thus, two Bills were presented to Parliament to create new docks on the north side of the Thames to the east of London. The West India Dock Act was passed in July 1799 to create docks at the Isle of Dogs, and the London Dock Act in 1800 for docks at Wapping. Each of the sets of docks was to be created as private enterprises by the West India Dock Company and the London Dock Company. In return for its investment the West India Dock Act stipulated that, for a period of 21 years, all ships bringing goods from the West Indies were obliged to be landed at the West India Docks, with the exception of tobacco. Similarly, the London Dock Act stipulated a monopoly for 21 years on the landing of all tobacco, brandy, wine and rice, except any from the West Indies.

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