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.

When the West India Dock and London Dock companies gained the right to create their docks with bonded warehouses merchants of the East India Company decided to follow, at their traditional base further downriver at the marshy Blackwall area. The Act that approved the creation of the East India Dock Company gave it a monopoly of 21 years for the import and export of goods to the East Indies and China. A grand ceremony for the opening of the East India Docks was held in August 1806.

As the three new dock systems were being constructed on the north bank of the Thames the same was happening on the south side of the river, on the Rotherhithe peninsula between Southwark and Greenwich. Whereas each of those on the north bank were created by a single company, what gradually evolved into the Surrey Commercial Docks were developed by competing companies, mostly comprised of whale, timber, and grain merchants. Over the following decades the dock companies at Rotherhithe continued to expand and amalgamate until by the early 20th century their operations formed a patchwork of basins that covered 85 percent of the peninsula.

By the end of the first decade of the 19th century the Port of London had expanded significantly, with three dock systems on the north bank of the Thames downriver of London and several individual docks at Rotherhithe. Not only was the congestion on the river greatly eased but London had become an entrepôt port through which cargoes were able to pass on their journey from one part of the world to another. There was thereafter a lull in the creation of new docks until they were joined by the St. Katharine Docks, which opened in 1828.

Sources include: John Pudney ‘London’s Docks’; Fiona Rule ‘London’s Docklands’; Arthur Bryant ‘Liquid History’; John Summerson ‘Georgian London’; Liza Picard ‘Victorian London’; Jerry White ‘London In The 19th Century’; N. Draper ‘The City of London and Slavery: Evidence from the first dock companies, 1795-1800’.

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