During the early part of the 19th century British farmers were competing with cheaper imports of foreign grain. The government of the time, dominated by land-owners who profited by higher agricultural prices, reacted by passing the Corn Laws, imposing high duties that effectively ended grain imports. The corn issue became a crisis during poor harvests in Britain at the same time as the great potato famine in Ireland of 1845. The following year the Corn Laws were finally repealed. Thereafter grain became one of the major imports into the Port of London.
Despite the fragile finances of the existing docks there were still those who believed there was an opportunity for new docks, particularly after the repeal of the Corn Laws. The centre of the Isle of Dogs, around the hamlet of Millwall and the medieval church of St. Mary, remained as undeveloped, windswept, agricultural land. Along the riverside were small independent wharves owned by shipwrights and maritime businesses. In the late 1850s one of the Millwall wharf-owners had the idea of creating an enclosed dock behind the wharves. The Millwall Freehold Land & Dock Company was formed but financing for the project proved more difficult than anticipated. Plans were scaled back and altered to make the project more affordable. Work to create the Millwall Dock finally began in 1866 and completed in a year and a half.
Even at the time of its opening, the entry lock to St. Katharine’s had been too small for the largest vessels. As ships became ever bigger with the introduction of iron-hulls and steam engines, fewer freighters were able to access the dock. Under financial pressure, in 1864 the St. Katharine Docks and neighbouring London Docks merged into the London & St. Katharine Dock Company and the combined company acquired the Victoria Dock.
There was a similar merger in the same year at Rotherhithe. The numerous docks there had been created by a number of independent companies but acquisitions had reduced that to two by the 1860s. In 1864 they merged and the Surrey Commercial Dock Company was formed, embarking on a programme of linking the various basins. They opened a further basin in 1876 named Canada Dock after the country with which ships traded, with warehouses to hold 35,000 tons of grain. By around that time they had 46 acres of sheds for timber. Their combined docks covered 85 percent of the Rotherhithe peninsula.
When the Victoria Dock Company obtained their Act of Parliament in 1850 it included the option to acquire additional land to the east. That plan was never implemented and the land was eventually purchased by the Victoria Dock’s new owners, the London & St. Katharine Dock Company. The Suez Canal opened in 1869, increasing the amount of business with Asia and the Far East carried in large ocean-going ships. Liverpool, with superior facilities for larger steam ships, was prospering at London’s expense. The London & St. Katharine therefore decided to expand the facilities at Plaistow.
In April 1879 the company received royal assent to name their massive new basin the Royal Albert Dock after the Queen’s late consort, with its older, smaller sister renamed as the Royal Victoria Dock. One-and-three-quarter miles long, 490 feet wide, and an entrance depth of 36 feet, the Royal Albert had 16,500 feet of quays. The largest ships of the time could be accommodated, with a massive entrance lock capable of accepting vessels of up to 12,000 tons. Ships could enter from the river at Gallions Reach in the east. Linked at its western end to the Victoria Dock, even ships from the latter could therefore avoid the journey along the tidal river at Woolwich Reach.
The Royal Albert was the first London dock to be lit by electricity, with lamps on 80 feet tall poles, allowing round-the-clock working. The cranes were hydraulically powered. Railway lines ran alongside each quay allowing cargoes to be directly loaded into wagons. The tracks ran into the company’s sheds where they sank below the floor surface, allowing goods to be easily unloaded. The quays were lined with hydrants to provide berthed vessels with fresh water. Ships could be repaired in either of the two dry docks on the western edge of the south quay. By then international travel was increasing for the general public and a passenger terminus was established adjacent to the dock, together with the Gallions Hotel.
The new Victoria Dock was opened in June 1880 by the Duke of Connaught, son of Queen Victoria. It specialized in grain and, after refrigeration was introduced, frozen meat, fruit and vegetables. The Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks together created a gigantic artificial waterway through Plaistow. In the following decades the means to easily import raw materials and export finished goods attracted many manufacturing and service companies to the area, creating a new industrial suburbs of London that only a short time before had been desolate marshes.