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.

The Isle of Dogs, the large peninsula opposite Greenwich where the Thames sweeps south downstream of London, was at that time mostly open meadowland on which cows were grazed, with ship-breakers’ yards, rope-makers and timber merchants along the riverside. The civil engineer William Jessop, who was also responsible for the Grand Junction Canal from the Midlands to London, was commissioned to create the West India Docks. He in turn left much of the work to Ralph Walker. The Scottish engineer John Rennie acted as a consultant and he introduced steam power for both the construction work and the dockside cranage.

Two massive basins were constructed lying side by side in parallel in an approximately east-west direction. The one to the north covered 30 acres and was for ships arriving with imports from the Caribbean, while the southern dock was of 24 acres and used by ships loading with exports. Large locks connected them with the Thames, allowing ships to enter and leave during high tides. Nine huge warehouses flanked the basins, capable of storing the entire annual import of sugar.

In its early years the West India Docks were receiving around 500 ships per annum, with the discharge of goods reduced from at least a month down to three or four days. Discipline and procedures were very strict. A high wall surrounded by a water-filled ditch was built around the complex so that entry and exit was restricted to guarded gates, minimizing theft of merchandise. The West India Docks specialized primarily in sugar and rum. Once weighed and counted the cargo was put into storage within tall dockside warehouses or loaded onto lighters or carts for onward travel to its destinations. Two hundred full-time waged labourers were employed by the company when the West India Docks opened. As they were so distant from London a new remote community began to grow as a working-class suburb at Poplar and on the Isle of Dogs.

A year after passing the West India Dock Act Parliament approved the raising of finance for the creation of the London Docks. These were to be at Wapping, a short distance east of the Tower. Their name emphasized that they were closer to the City than those being constructed further east at the Isle of Dogs. Unlike the West India Docks a significant proportion of the investors in the London Docks were City financiers, including directors of the Bank of England, Russia Company and East India Company, and insurers.

Being closer to the City meant that the London Docks were to displace a more urban area than the West India Docks, at a subsequently higher cost. Two thousand houses, businesses, Shadwell Waterworks, and part of the churchyard of St. John’s Wapping, were to be replaced by the new dock complex. According to later reports 24 ‘inferior’ streets, and 33 courts, alleys, lanes and rows were cleared, providing an improvement to the Parish of St. George’s.

The London Dock Company seriously underestimated the cost of acquiring the land; it had to compete with the West India Docks for bricks; the war with France caused a shortage of manpower; and there was high inflation. All these problems resulted in delays in completing the work, so the cost of construction was much higher than originally planned. Builders were employed seven days a week to accelerate the work but that caused protest from the Society for Suppression of Vice, who enlisted the Bishop of London against “so alarming an evil” of working on Sundays.

When completed, ships entered the London Docks through one of two locks that lead into basins and from there into any of three docks: Eastern, Western or Tobacco. These could hold up to 390 ships at any one time. A third lock onto the river at the western end – the former Hermitage Dock – gave access to lighters. Each dock was surrounded by a spacious quay. Wine and spirits were stored in the vast undercroft of the bonded warehouses covering about 20 acres. The huge tobacco warehouse could hold 24,000 hogsheads (or 5,700 cubic metres) of tobacco. Up to 25,000 bales of wool were sold at public sales each week on the ‘Great Wool Floor’.

Unlike the regime at the West India Docks, there were less authoritarian regulations at the London Docks regarding security, and less regimented than would be at the later East India Docks. One hundred permanent staff were employed at the beginning. Ships’ crews, wine merchants and their agents were allowed to come and go, and it was possible for cargo owners to take samples of alcohol. It was quite normal for privileged individuals with suitable connections to bring a party of guests into the vaults and be escorted around by a cooper to take a glass of each of different kinds of wines and sherries from the many barrels. Management and workers and even seamen would visit the vaults for a tipple known as a ‘waxer’.

In anticipation of the completion of the two sets of docks, the Warehousing Act came into law in 1803. It allowed for goods to be landed and stored in secured warehouses within the new docks, and with duties paid as they were moved out of the docks. Cargoes were no longer required to pass through the Legal Quays and it allowed for goods to be re-exported without duties being paid. It was an idea that eventually spread to all the other ports in the country in the form of bonded warehouses.

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