In its early years the West India Docks were receiving around 500 ships each year, 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, minimalizing 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.
The success of the West India merchants in obtaining their Act of Parliament immediately prompted other general merchants to instigate their own dock system. A year after passing the West India Dock Act Parliament approved the raising of finance for the creation of a second group of docks. These were to be at Wapping, a short distance east of the Tower. They were named the London Docks, emphasizing that they were closer to the City than those being constructed further east at the Isle of Dogs. The Act gave the company a 21-year monopoly on the importation to London of tobacco, brandy, wine and rice, except from the East and West Indies.
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 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”.
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. 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’.