Chapter Four

The New Docks of the Early Nineteenth Century

Much of the great increase in imports into London during the eighteenth century consisted of sugar, rum and other goods from the West Indies. Due to prevailing winds there was a short season from July to October for ships to sail from there to Britain. Such was the congestion when they reached London that sugar could be piled as much as eight hogsheads* high and unprotected on the quayside for lengthy periods, waiting to be inspected by customs officers. That was particularly so during the wars with France when most ships sailed in convoy for their protection and therefore arrived in groups.

Frustrated by the continual refusal of the government, the City of London and other vested interests to address the problems, the West India merchants threatened to take their operations elsewhere. That was a not inconsiderable threat when their business could account for a third of annual trade by value arriving at the Port. Between 1717 and 1785 seven docks had been created at Liverpool, which was not impeded by the ancient monopolies enjoyed by City of London Corporation, wharf owners and the Company of Watermen.

The London insurer and Fellow of the Royal Society, William Vaughan, in 1793 published his treatise On Wet Docks, Quays and Warehouses for the Port of London, with Hints Respecting Trade, describing the problems. His solution was to create tide-free docks between the Tower of London and Blackwall, noting successful examples at Liverpool and Le Havre. In the spring of 1794 he called a meeting of London merchants and members of public bodies, which a year later resolved that wet docks at Wapping were the solution. A petition was started and in 1796, under increasing pressure, Parliament formed the Select Committee for the Improvement of the Port of London, including Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, to consider the matter. Ideas were invited for reform of the Port and eight separate schemes were reviewed. The committee sat for twenty-five days during which time it heard evidence from the wharfingers who owned the Legal Quays, Customs, Trinity House, the East India Company, the Admiralty, shipowners, merchants and lightermen.

Plans were submitted that included better mooring facilities along the centre of the river and many new quays each dealing in goods from particular locations. This solution by wharf-owner Edward Ogle required the government to purchase a large amount of riverside land and was therefore a non-starter. Architect and engineer Willey Reveley’s plan was to straighten the Thames by means of a channel across the Isle of Dogs, with the bends at Limehouse, Greenwich and Blackwall converted into wet docks. The City of London promoted the extension of the existing Legal Quays, a dock across the Isle of Dogs, and another at Rotherhithe. The people of Rotherhithe proposed five docks there. Another idea, submitted by a Mr Spence, Maritime Surveyor to the Admiralty, was for twelve docks either on the Isle of Dogs or either side of the river, each dealing with ships according to frequency of arrival. The London architect Samuel Wyatt proposed a canal through the Isle of Dogs from Blackwall to Limehouse, creating a shortcut whereby ships would no longer have to pass all the way around Greenwich Reach. His idea was to include three new parallel docks there for different types of vessel, with floating wharves. A similar proposal came from one Ralph Walker, accepted as viable by Trinity House.

The West India Docks

The Prime Minister handed the reform issue to a Select Committee chaired by Lord Hawkesbury. They recommended a canal across the Isle of Dogs linked to a system of docks, similar to the proposals of Wyatt, Walker and Vaughan. The West Indies merchant and shipowner Robert Milligan, whose family owned a sugar plantation in Jamaica, brought together a group of investors at the Royal Exchange to form the West India Dock Company in order to create facilities on the Isle of Dogs. (Such was Milligan’s contribution in the final outcome that after the completion of the docks a bronze statue of him was erected at the entrance, which now stands before the Museum of Docklands).

Parliament passed the West India Dock Act in July 1799 to create the new venture as a private enterprise. It was the start of a new era for the Port of London, setting the template for the Acts for the other docks that immediately followed. Over the next hundred years vast new artificial lakes would be created either side of the river behind high walls and out of site of the public in which an increasing volume of goods could be safely unloaded, loaded, stored and repacked. Customs duties on imports could henceforth be paid at these new docks as an alternative to the Legal Quays along the north bank of the river within the City.

The Act of Parliament gave the West India Dock Company the right to raise £500,000 in capital (later raised to almost £1,400,000), purchase almost 300 acres of land to create their docks, and to discharge imported goods and store them in warehouses, thus ending the 250-year-old monopoly of the City’s Legal Quays. In return for its investment, ships bringing goods from the West Indies would henceforth be obliged to land them at the West India Docks for a period of twenty-one years. The only exception was tobacco, which had to be unloaded on the river at the King’s warehouse. The West India merchant, City of London alderman and opponent of the anti-slavery movement, George Hibbert, was the first chairman and he remained so for more than twenty years. The court of directors was to consist of thirteen stockholders, four aldermen of the City and four members of the City’s Common Council. Importantly, the company had the right to draw water from the Thames to fill the docks. It was however forbidden to build or repair ships or operate a dry dock in order to protect other such businesses on the river, a restriction that would be removed seventy-five years later. The Company dockmasters had to satisfy Trinity House they were competent and would have control of the river for an area of 200 yards beyond the dock entrances.

The Act stipulated that the government had the option to buy the freehold of the Legal Quays, for which they paid £468,087. They thereafter derived income from rental on the properties. Owners of warehouses, the City of London Corporation, porters, lightermen, coopers and others were also to be compensated for their loss of business. It took twenty years to conclude agreements and settle all the claims, which finally amounted to £860,000. Lord Gwydyr and others were paid the huge sum of £142,136 (£650 million at current values) for loss of income from mooring chains on the river.

During the eighteenth century Robert Walpole had attempted, but failed, to introduce a system whereby customs duties were paid only when imports left the port. The intention was for London to become an entrepôt port in which goods could be stored in sealed conditions in bonded warehouses, and thus pass through on a journey from one country to another without having to pay duties. This finally came to fruition with Chancellor William Pitt’s Warehousing Act of 1803. As a preventative measure to ensure inbound ships did not land cargoes elsewhere on the river, the hatches were secured at Gravesend and only unlocked once in the dock. The West India Docks and, subsequently, the London Docks, were the first to be licensed to enjoy such a privilege. Thereafter vast amounts of precious goods, particularly alcohol and tobacco could be stored and pass through the Port of London.

The City of London Corporation was initially given the right to acquire the land for the West India Docks. That proved too cumbersome and the task was soon transferred to the Company. They began the process of buying land from the many property owners, which included ship-breakers’ yards, rope-makers, timber merchants and cow-herders. The civil engineer William Jessop, who was also responsible for the Grand Junction Canal, was commissioned to create the docks and warehouses. He in turn left much of the work to Ralph Walker, one of those who had originally proposed the docks. John Rennie acted as a consultant, introducing steam power for the construction work.

The foundation stone of the West India Docks (still visible in the north-west corner of the complex), laid on the anniversary of the passing of the Act, stated in wonderfully idiosyncratic capitalization:

Of the Range of BUILDINGS

Constructed together with the Adjacent DOCKS, At the Expense of

public spirited Individuals,

Under the Sanction of a provident Legislature,

And with the liberal Co-operation of the Corporate Body of the CITY


For the distinct Purpose

Of complete SECURITY and ample ACCOMMODATION

(hitherto not afforded)

To the SHIPPING and PRODUCE of the WEST INDIES at this

wealthy PORT.


On Saturday the Twelfth Day of July, A.D. 1800,











The two former conspicuous in the Band Of those illustrious


Who in either House of Parliament, have been zealous to promote,

The two latter distinguished among those chosen to direct


Which, under the favour of GOD, shall contribute




The VIPs attending the ceremony all travelled in a procession of barges and enjoyed a great feast at the London Tavern in Bishopsgate. It thereafter became the standard venue for dinners related to ceremonies associated with the laying of foundation stones and openings of new docks of the period.

Several problems had to be overcome during the planning and construction of the West India Docks. Firstly there were the negotiations with propertyowners who held out for exorbitant compensation. Tens of millions of bricks were ordered for the construction but by then the London Docks were being created at Wapping and there was competition to receive supply, delaying both projects. There was violent opposition from watermen and porters who foresaw the end of their lucrative plundering and a military guard was laid on to protect the construction. And in July 1802 a coffer dam at the Blackwall entrance broke and eight workers drowned.

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. Two smaller basins, one on each side of the Isle of Dogs, connected the docks to the Thames via locks at Blackwall Reach (for ships) and Limehouse Reach for lighters. The ship lock was of 45 feet in width, with a maximum depth of 21 feet, allowing for vessels of a tonnage of 350 tons.

As sugar and rum arrived from the West Indies it was to be stored at the West India Docks until required. Thus nine huge warehouses, nearly threequarters of a mile long, flanked the Export Dock, capable of storing the entire annual import of sugar and vast quantities of rum. The warehouses were designed by George Gwilt the Elder and his son, also named George. Each of the blocks, five storeys high, contained a series of doors opening to each floor, with a crane above to lift merchandise, a design that became a regular feature of wharves and warehouses thereafter. In the early times cranes were powered by men, some using a treadmill. There was little need for warehousing around the Export Dock as most goods were loaded as they arrived at the docks. Henry Addington, Prime Minister, officially opened the docks in August 1802. The first ship to enter was one named after him, followed by another carrying a cargo of sugar.

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. 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 to three or four days.

Discipline and procedures were very strict. The original Act included the requirement to surround the docks with a tall protective wall, surrounded by a ditch of twelve feet in width and six feet in depth, with no other building to be erected within 100 yards. The wall was immensely strong, built according to Jessop’s design of bricks, made in such a way that they became harder as they aged. A further security measure was that the captain and crew of inbound ships were obliged to leave their vessel as soon as they had berthed, leaving only one officer on board. Only West India Dock staff and revenue officers were allowed to handle the goods inside the docks, and would also accompany the owner of the goods for inspection. Wagons or non-company porters were not allowed within the complex. Much else was also included in the Act regarding security. Once weighed and counted, cargoes were put into storage within tall dockside warehouses or loaded onto lighters or carts for onward travel to their destinations.

As part of the West India Dock Act the City of London Corporation gained the right to create a canal through the Isle of Dogs in order to create a shortcut from Limehouse Reach to Blackwall Reach and save ships the inconvenience of the journey round the peninsula. It was completed in 1805. The reality was that no time was saved after ships were moored up, sails taken down, passed through the locks at either end, hauled through the canal by teams of horses and sails raised again for the short passage to the Pool of London. Tolls barely covered running costs of the City Canal and it instead became a useful berth for ships, particularly colliers, to moor while waiting to enter the port. In 1829 the City sold it to the West India Company. Two years later they obtained approval to transform the canal into docks but they merely widened part of it and used it as a timber pond.

Throughout the mid-nineteenth century there was a general inertia at the West India Docks, with few improvements to the estate. In 1870 the energetic Colonel J.L. du Plat Taylor was appointed general manager and a number of new initiatives were undertaken. The former City Canal was enlarged to become the South West India Dock. Three years later warehouses were erected for the sale of wool and for fifteen years the Company was able to dominate that trade (until finally seized back by the London and St Katharine Docks in 1887). The West India timber sheds were rebuilt to facilitate the handling of heavy mahogany and teak. Hydraulic machinery throughout the docks was also brought up to the highest standards. During the 1870s, under the leadership of du Plat Taylor, the West India Docks were popular with vessels of the colonial and India routes but were thereafter increasingly hampered by their small entrance lock that limited them to vessels of 6,000 tons.


The West India Import Dock shown in an engraving for Walks through London and published in 1817

The ‘free water’ clause

There had been many objections to the idea of creating enclosed docks and ending the monopoly of landing imports at the Legal Quays and sufferance wharves. Amongst objectors were the City of London (who controlled the licensing of lightermen and porters at the Legal Quays), and the numerous independent operators of lighters and other craft who transported goods from ship to shore and between wharves. The Watermens’ Company pointed out that it represented 12,000 men, of whom 4,000 were currently away on board men-of-war. If docks were created, less than half of those currently employed on the river would have work. Lightermen explained the great investment they had in their vessels and equipment and that much of their business would be lost without the need to ferry cargoes to the Legal Quays.

In order to pacify these parties the government included Section 138, the ‘free water’ clause, into the West India Dock Act, as well as those Acts that approved all subsequent enclosed docks. This proviso allowed lighters to freely enter the docks without charge for the purpose of delivering or receiving cargo or ballast, as they could on the open river. Ships were therefore able to enjoy the safety and facilities of an enclosed dock, yet unload overside onto the lighter as an alternative to using the dock’s workers or warehouses. Thus riverside wharves continued to profit from the ever-increasing trade passing through London. In 1840 for example, 735 ships entered the Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe but so did almost 8,000 barges and smaller craft.

In the early years, the docks enjoyed monopolies, so profits were high and the effect of the free water clause was minimal. Much of their income came from warehousing landed goods or those waiting to be loaded. After the monopolies ended and ships were free to unload wherever they chose, the free water clause allowed the many wharves and newer docks to openly compete. The dock owners then found themselves in a position whereby they had to maintain their large warehouses, yet the lucrative income was instead going to competitors who offered lower charges. The dock companies attempted unsuccessfully to have the free water clause abolished in 1855 and again in 1899.

The London Docks

The West India docks were created by and for merchants dealing with the Caribbean, primarily the importation of sugar and rum. At the same time, general merchants who were not trading with the West or East Indies laid plans to instigate their own dock system. Their proposal, with less interest from the City of London and with greater complexities and costs, took a year longer to pass through Parliament. It was to be at Wapping, the area bounded by the river to the south, Ratcliff Highway to the north, Shadwell in the east and the old Hermitage Dock to the west. The scheme was named the London Docks, emphasizing that they were closer to the city than the more remote West India Docks being constructed to the east at the Isle of Dogs.

The Act of Parliament for their creation eventually passed into law in June 1800. Around 200 subscribers were named, including some who had opposed the idea of docks and others who were also involved in the West India Docks. 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, and excluding fruit. The Company was to elect twenty-four directors and managers, to be joined by the Lord Mayor of London as Conservator of the river. The Act set berthing rates for particular classes of ship and their destinations, including Ireland, the Baltic, Spain, Portugal, Newfoundland, the Mediterranean, Africa, and America. The promoters, along with those of the West India Docks, were to compensate the owners of the Legal Quays for loss of business.

At the inaugural meeting of the new company, held in July 1800, Sir Richard Neave was elected as chairman. William Vaughan, who had made proposals for new docks, was appointed to a five-man action committee. The Southwark-born Daniel Asher Alexander, at the time surveyor to Trinity House and designer of lighthouses, was commissioned as surveyor. (Several years later he created the colonnades at Queen’s House, Greenwich in honour of Admiral Nelson). The choice of Alexander was no doubt due to his experience in designing high-security buildings, having previously been responsible for Dartmoor and Maidstone prisons. John Rennie also had a significant involvement while at the same time consulting for the West India Docks. Other engineers involved were the company directors Joseph Huddart (a respected harbour surveyor) and Robert Mylne who had begun his engineering career by designing Blackfriars Bridge. (For decades until his death Mylne held the post of surveyor of St Paul’s Cathedral, and during the time the docks were being completed he managed the arrangements for Nelson’s funeral).

Being closer to the City meant that the London Docks were to displace a more urban area than the West India Docks. 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, 33 courts, alleys, lanes and rows were cleared, providing an improvement to the Parish of St George’s, although much of the village had been destroyed less than a decade earlier in the fire of 1794 described in the previous chapter.

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 and the cost of construction was much higher than originally planned. The foundation stone was laid in a ceremony held in June 1802 attended by the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Builders were employed seven days a week in order 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’. Steam engines were used for draining the works and grinding mortar.

The first ship to enter the docks did so in January 1805, although not all the warehouses were complete at that time. Over the following thirteen years the company applied to Parliament on several occasions to raise further funds and to acquire more land to increase the size of the dock complex.

Vessels entered through one of two locks that led into basins and from there into any of three docks: Eastern, Western or Tobacco. These could hold up to 390 ships at a time. A third lock onto the river at the western end gave access to lighters. Each dock was surrounded by a spacious quay. Wines and spirits were stored in the vast undercroft of the bonded warehouses, created at various times during the nineteenth century and eventually covering about twenty acres, all joined by tunnels. Relief from alcohol fumes was achieved by a ventilation system that was part of the original design. Although constructed primarily of bricks the buildings were decorated with massive blocks of rusticated stone into which were carved sea shells.

The huge tobacco warehouse measured 752 feet by 160 feet and 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’. There was cellarage for 57,000 pipes of wine.* In the early 1820s the London Docks were handling up to 212 ships at a time. Initially 100 permanent staff were employed, later increased to 300, with additional workers taken on as necessary.

Unlike the regime at the West India Docks, there were fewer authoritarian regulations at the London Docks regarding security and it was less regimented than at the East India Docks. 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’. Visitors never failed to comment on the large amount of thick fungus that hung from the ceilings of the vaults. (Henry Mayhew gave a detailed description of a visit to the London Docks in about 1850 in his London Labour and the London Poor).

The East India Docks

The East India Company was in a different situation to other London merchants. It had already been trading as a single body for 200 years, whereas the West India and London Docks were created by groups of individual traders. Their ships, of up to 750 tons, were the largest arriving in the port. East Indiamen often loaded at Greenhithe, between Dartford and Gravesend. Incoming vessels discharged in deep water at Blackwall onto lighters that carried the cargoes to the Legal Quays. After inspection by Customs, the goods were transferred to the Company’s own secure warehouses at Cutler Street. The Company also had the advantage of a well-paid and highly-trained paramilitary force to protect its cargoes.

The East India Company had attempted to open a legal quay for their exclusive use in 1786 but the plan had to be dropped after opposition from vested interests. It took no part in the lengthy fight to create new enclosed basins, yet when the West India Dock and London Dock companies gained the right to create their docks with bonded warehouses, the East India Company decided to follow, to be situated at their traditional base further downriver at Blackwall. The prospectus revealed it had been losing stock to theft in the past three years. It may well have been that thieves, inhibited from stealing goods now destined to the other new and more secure docks, were targeting East India cargoes.

The Act that approved the creation of the East India Docks was passed in July 1803, giving them a monopoly of twenty-one years for the discharging and loading of goods to the East Indies and China, whoever owned the vessel. Ships trading with other destinations were prohibited. Compensation was to be paid to dry dock owners at Northfleet and elsewhere whose business would be diminished. Two hundred thousand pounds of shares in the newly-formed East India Dock Company were easily sold to investors, including some who were directors of the West India and London Docks, and further funds were raised during the development phase. The East India Company reserved for itself the right to appoint four to the Board of the dock company, which initially comprised thirteen directors. At the first meeting, held at Throgmorton Street in August 1803, Joseph Cotton was appointed chairman.

Being the third set of docks gave the East India the advantage of the expertise of their predecessors and the Company commissioned John Rennie and Ralph Walker to carry out the work. A wet dock – Brunswick, also known as Perry’s Dock – already existed at Blackwall. It had originally been created by the East India Company but sold off in the seventeenth century. Since then it had become one of the largest businesses on the river, capable of simultaneously refitting a number of ships. For the expansion into a new dock complex it was reacquired for £35,600 from the then owners, the Wells family, together with sixty-five acres of Bromley marsh.

The original two Brunswick basins were merged to become the new Export Dock, with a larger eighteen-acre dock created in parallel to the north for imports. As work progressed it was decided that a third basin would be needed to hold ships waiting to enter the docks and prevent congestion. The entire dock space could handle 250 ships at any time, somewhat less than the London Docks. The complex was surrounded by 20-foot high walls for security, with a formal gateway of classical design. There was ample quayside but, unlike the West India and London Docks, very little warehousing. Many of the Company’s imports were high value goods, such as silk and spices, which were immediately transported to Cutler Street. The giant Brunswick Dock Masting House was kept as part of the new complex until demolished in 1862.

The biggest challenge for Rennie and Walker in creating the enlarged dock and warehouses was the remoteness of the location, which was only accessible by river, with no road connection to London. It was therefore decided to produce the necessary bricks on the spot and two contracts were placed, each for 9 million bricks. Temporary accommodation had first to be built for the brick makers and contract labourers due to the location’s isolation. Word also reached the contractors of builders at the London Docks being pressganged into the navy for the war against France, so protection from forced enlistment was sought. A steam engine was acquired from Hull to be used for the construction work.

Preparations for the work were lengthy and it was necessary for the dock company to seek authorization to raise additional capital. The first stone was eventually laid by a director, Captain Joseph Huddart, in March 1805. Operations thereafter progressed swiftly. The grand ceremony for the opening of the new docks in August 1806 was attended by thousands of people, including shareholders and nobility. The first ship to enter was the East Indiaman Admiral Gardner, flying the flags of every nation (with France flying below the others) and with the Company’s band on board playing Rule Britannia. It had been preceded by the Trinity House yacht.

The dock’s entrance lock was 48 feet wide, which was adequate to accommodate the largest sailing ships of the time. It was however too small for the larger ships of fifty years later and in the 1870s a second lock was created of 65 feet and the dock rebuilt to accommodate vessels of up to 8,000 tons.

The East India Docks were managed by the ‘Captain of the Dock’ in command of six officers who supervised a hierarchy of waged workers for the loading and unloading of cargoes including 100 ‘lumpers’.

Being isolated from London, the Company built its own hotel at the docks for merchants who had overnight business there. The elegant Brunswick Hotel, located exactly on the meridian line, became well-known in the 1830s for its whitebait dinners. Politicians, fashionable young men and aristocrats, including William IV, would travel out of London to dine. Later in the century emigrants on the way to Australia and New Zealand would stay there while waiting to embark. The hotel survived until it was demolished in 1930.

Commercial Road and West India and East India Dock Roads

Until the early nineteenth century the villages along the north bank of the river to the east of London were linked by former country lanes, most notably Cable Street, Ratcliff Highway and Poplar High Street. They were unfit to carry heavy traffic and to transport goods from the more distant West India Docks into the City so a much larger and direct east-west highway was required. A new, straight and broad road was planned from Aldgate to the gate of the docks. The Commercial Road Company was formed to create the thoroughfare, with income from tolls. The chairman of the company was George Hibbert, who also held the same position in the West India Dock Company. Even before the docks had been completed a map was published in October 1801 to promote the enterprise. It was created by the map-maker and former resident of the West Indies, John Luffman. As well as the docks that were then under construction, the map shows the proposed route passing largely through open fields between, and roughly in parallel to, Ratcliff Highway, and to the south of Mile End Road.

Problems in constructing the road through the suburbs to Whitechapel, including across a churchyard at Stepney, resulted in the Commercial Road not being completed until 1804, two years after the docks were opened. Following the decision to create the East India Docks, the decision was taken to extend the route to that new complex. Thus the Commercial Road went as far as St Anne’s church at Limehouse and thereafter split into the West India Dock and East India Dock Roads. The raising of £10,000 of capital to finance the creation of East India Dock Road was included in a stock issue in 1806 by the East India Dock Company.

Valuable goods were transported along the Commercial Road, particularly from the East India Docks to their warehouses in the City. The Company sent their cargoes in convoys of horse-drawn wagons carrying padlocked containers, accompanied by armed guards. The horses were allowed one five-minute stop on the four-mile journey.

It took a further half a century however before Commercial Road joined Whitechapel High Street, and thus direct to Aldgate and the City. During the interim it reached only as far as Berner Street in Whitechapel and thereafter traffic was required to take a detour through smaller streets. In 1830 a stone tramway was constructed, made from Aberdeen granite, allowing horses to pull heavy wagons of sugar from the West India Docks.

The Surrey Docks

As the three new dock systems were being constructed on the north bank of the Thames to the east of London, the same was happening south of the river, at the Rotherhithe peninsula between Southwark and Greenwich. Whereas each of those on the north bank were created by a single company, the numerous docks, timber ponds and canal on the opposite side covering 300 acres were developed almost side by side by several competing enterprises that eventually merged over a period of time.

In the first years of the nineteenth century the engineer and entrepreneur Ralph Dodd was creating a waterway from the peninsula. He hoped the Grand Surrey Canal would connect the Thames to Epsom, with branches to other towns, and its primary aim was to bring market garden produce to the capital. By 1803 the canal stretched from Rotherhithe as far as Peckham but never extended further than Camberwell. As it was being dug, the shipowner Sir John Hall planned a new dock, created by widening the Thames end of the canal into a basin of three acres. For this, a ship lock of 140 feet in length was opened onto the river at Warlter’s Wharf. The Grand Surrey Basin opened in November 1804 when Hall’s ship the Argo entered.

As we have already seen in the previous chapter, the Howland Wet Dock had been opened at Rotherhithe in 1700. From the 1720s it was used by whaling ships and its name changed to the Greenland Dock. The whaling trade declined in Britain but there was a growing demand for timber for construction of the fast-expanding capital, with 800 ships unloading annually. It was for the importation of softwood from Scandinavia and Canada that in 1806 the wealthy timber merchant William Richie formed the Commercial Dock Company and this acquired Greenland Dock from the Wells family. Richie’s aim, which was never achieved, was to gain the right to a monopoly of the importation of timber, hemp, flax, pitch and tar from the Baltic, in the same way that the other docks had been given such rights for various types of goods or regions. The Greenland Dock was renamed the Commercial Dock in 1810. Between 1811 and 1815 the Company created four smaller basins to the north of the Greenland Dock, later named Norway and Lady Docks and Acorn and Lavender Ponds. Timber was floated in the ponds, as both a method of storage and to remove sap. To emphasize their timber business, the warehouses around the dock were constructed of wood, including granaries made of Canadian pine. Some years later company director Nathaniel Gould wrote of the ‘Esquimaux Indians’ who arrived on timber ships from Canada and paddled their canoes around the dock during the winter months until they could return home in the spring.

Another company also sought the Baltic timber business. The East Country Dock Company opened their own small basin in 1807 to the south of Greenland Dock, holding just twenty-eight ships. The Commercial Dock Company attempted but failed to acquire this competitor, which kept its independence until 1850. When it was finally taken over, the East Country Dock was enlarged, becoming the Commercial Dock’s South Dock, with a new, larger entrance lock onto the river. Yet another company, the Baltic Dock Company, was formed in 1809 by Rotherhithe landowner Joseph Moore but for the purpose of floating timber under bonded conditions instead of as a ship dock. It was a further threat to the Commercial Dock Company and in this case they were successful in acquiring the company and amalgamating the facilities into their own.

Port workers

Prior to the creation of the enclosed docks, the loading and unloading of ships had for centuries been a closed shop, monopolized by various groups known as ‘Ticket Porters’ (so called because they wore the badge of the City of London to show their membership of their brotherhood), Billingsgate Porters, Tacklehouse Porters (who dealt with weighing) and Companies’ Porters. There were frequent demarcation disputes between these different groups. Porters vigorously opposed the creation of the docks, where they would not be employed. Ultimately their protestations were unsuccessful but they received compensation from the earliest of the dock companies. Some of them moved out of the City to work in the new docks.

Cargoes had been discharged into lighters and ferried to the riverbank from the time during the early Middle Ages when ships became too large to moor at London’s quays. This was the work of skilled lightermen. When the river became congested in the eighteenth century it was necessary for ships to moor some distance from the Thames-side wharves. Lightermen became skilled at moving their craft up and down the river using tides and currents and with long oars for manoeuvrability. When the enclosed docks came into being, much of the cargo was carried into and out of the docks by lighter rather than on congested roads. Lightermen were distinct from watermen, the latter being those who conveyed passengers along or across the river by wherry, the predecessors of taxis. With their knowledge and skills, both were liable to be pressed into the Navy during times of war. In the sixteenth century Thames watermen formed the Watermen’s Company guild to offer some protection. An Act of 1700 dictated that lightermen operating between Gravesend and Windsor should also be members of, and regulated by, the Company. Owners of quays between Hermitage Wharf and Wapping were thereafter only to employ qualified lightermen. The creation of bridges across the river, improved roads, and steam trains led to the demise of the watermen’s trade but the continuous growth in cargo business increased the need for lighters. In 1827 a new Act incorporated the former guild as the Company of Watermen & Lightermen of the River Thames. Only those who were members, having served an apprenticeship of seven years, were licensed to ply their trade. Throughout the century numerous anomalies regarding cargo-carrying came into being however, leading to regular adjustments in the rules. A beverage popular throughout the port until the nineteenth century was ‘purl’. It was a mixture of hot beer and gin, flavoured with ginger and sugar, sold from licensed purl-boats – or ‘bum-boats’ – up and down the river, equipped with a brazier. Passing continuously from quay to quay and barge to lighter, the purlmen knew all the news and gossip of the river.

The loading, unloading, warehousing and security in each of the new nineteenth century docks was managed by a dockmaster, sometimes known as the dock superintendent, and below him were hundreds of permanent staff and labourers. He would live in a fine company house overlooking the docks or entrance, as can still be seen beside the riverside lock at the St Katharine Docks. The company secretary managed the office, which was usually in the City. The complexities of importing and exporting a vast range of commodities to and from places around the world, in days before instant communication, with all the regulations and duties, and when records were kept in handwritten ledgers, required many clerks and bookkeepers. Within the port, imports and exports required different skills and handling, such as customs clearance for imports. Several of the companies therefore arranged their docks with different basins dealing with each process. Loading ships was a highly skilled process, which was quite different to unloading. In the former, cargoes had to be arranged in a way that they maximized available space and, in cases where a ship was offloaded at several ports on its journey, were in the correct order for unloading. Most importantly though, the cargo had to be positioned in the hold in order to maintain the ship’s balance while at sea so that it did not capsize. The loading was dealt with by skilled stevedores, a name anglicized from the Spanish equivalent of ‘estibador’. Not only did it require a specialist knowledge but it took place in the tight confines of the ship’s hold and with some measure of danger, under pressure of time, and requiring physical strength and agility. Stevedores were the elite amongst dockers, highly regarded, better-paid and living in the more salubrious areas of East London. Loading was not carried out by the dock companies and was under the control of the ship’s captain. He would hire the stevedores, who were self-employed and advertised their service in the form of a brass plaque outside their home.

At the Surrey Docks (and later at the Millwall Docks) the companies handled neither loading nor unloading and there stevedores supervised both processes. British timber-carrying ships were unloaded by ‘lumpers’ and foreign ships by their crews. After it was unloaded, highly-skilled gangs of ‘deal porters’ carried the timber to warehouses where they stacked it before dispatch to its destination. The work, which involved carrying long lengths of wood across narrow planks between high stacks of timber, was quite dangerous and liable to cause serious injury. Shorter pieces of wood, such as that used for making barrels, were carried by ‘stave porters’ who had experience in the most efficient carrying and stacking of various shapes and sizes. Untreated lengths of wood were sorted according to length, quality and customer and floated in ponds or the open river to prevent them drying out and splitting, by skilled men known as ‘rafters’. Rafters undertook a seven-year apprenticeship and were licensed by the Watermen’s Company. They were fully employed during the busy July to October season when the timber ships arrived but had to seek work elsewhere in other months.

As with the deal porters, working as a meat porter was a difficult and specialist job carrying heavy carcasses. It required men who were very strong, agile and could work quickly. After refrigeration was introduced the meat had to be handled in a frozen state and it was important not to bruise it.

Many goods were shipped in wooden barrels, casks, hogsheads, puncheons or crates and when necessary these were repaired by coopers. Merchandise stored in wooden packaging included alcohol, tea and foodstuffs, as well as ivory, perfume and tobacco. Each time a cargo was inspected, a cooper was on hand to open and close the packing. They did not necessarily work exclusively for one dock but travelled around between them to carry out work as required. Experienced ‘box knockers’ opened cargoes for inspection and then resealed them again.

Ordinary dockers and warehousemen were experienced in lifting, moving, and storing cargoes, marking up exports and dealing with customs staff. Much of the work was physically demanding, skilled and dangerous. Deaths and injuries, such as those caused by treadmill cranes, were frequent and there was little if any compensation or support for the families of those who died or for those unable to work.

As we will come to later, from the 1820s the dock companies cut back on permanent staff and employed mostly casual labourers. They dealt with the unskilled and tough work of unloading the ships, wagons or railway trucks as well as the mundane tasks such as tidying the warehouses and clearing rubbish. These jobs tended mostly to be in the open in all weathers, the workers having often waited outside the dock gates for several hours beforehand. In some cases the only refreshment was beer that could be purchased from the company and was brought around on carts.

Coal shipped around the coast from Newcastle was excluded from the requirement to land goods at the Legal Quays and consequently it had always been discharged at numerous quays along the river. The task of unloading was dealt with by ‘coal-whippers’ who normally worked in teams of nine men. Four of them filled baskets in the vessel’s hold, another four used pulleys and their own body-weight to raise the baskets onto the deck, while the team leader caught each basket as it rose. It was dirty and strenuous work that required perfect coordination between the team members. Coal-whippers were known as heavy drinkers but this was not simply to clear their throats of coal dust. In the 1840s there were around 2,000 living around the Wapping area. About 70 or 80 local pub landlords – ‘coal-whipping publicans’ – had gained a monopoly on the discharge of colliers and allotted work to only those coal-whippers who spent a large proportion of their wages in their pubs on overpriced and inferior beer. That led to the passing of William Gladstone’s Coal-Whippers Act and the creation of a central employment office at Shadwell. The Act expired in 1856, however interested parties ensured it was not renewed, and the oppressive system resumed for decades.

The St Katharine Docks

Immediately to the east of the City and the Tower of London, on the north bank of the Thames, was located the ancient Precinct of St Katharine. In the early twelfth century a hospital – a resting place for the sick or travellers – had been founded there by Matilda, wife of King Stephen, linked at that time to the Priory of Holy Trinity at Aldgate. In the mid-thirteenth century, from the time of Queen Eleanor wife of Edward I, the Foundation of St Katharine’s came under the patronage of each queen consort, queen dowager or reigning queen.

A French visitor to London in the 1570s, L. Grenade, commented:

As for the suburb called St Katharine, it is one of the largest and most populated [districts around London] of them all. It is inhabited by a large number of sailors and of craftsmen of varying trades such as hatters, makers of harquebuses [a sixteenth century rifle], shoemakers, brewers and many others like these. This suburb is also the destination point for a vast quantity of wood, which is brought there by boat to supply the city.

The earliest threat of redevelopment of the Precinct came in 1796 when the Corporation of the City of London applied for an Act of Parliament to convert the area into wet docks in order to improve the terrible congestion that had grown on the river. When they approached her legal advisors the Corporation received a diplomatic reply that Queen Charlotte, the Hospital’s patron,

having no wish to impede any measure which may be deemed necessary for the attainment of the Object proposed her Majesty will acquiesce in whatever plan the Parliament in its wisdom shall think proper for the purpose trusting however that all due Care will be taken that the Interest of the Community under the Queen’s Patronage shall not be prejudiced.

Whatever Charlotte said publicly, it was most likely her discreet influence over Parliament that ensured the failure of the plan. As we have already seen, the City’s merchants instead turned their attentions elsewhere, successfully creating in the following years the London Docks at neighbouring Wapping and further downriver.

The twenty-one-year monopoly granted to the proprietors of the West India Docks was due to expire in 1823 (and those of the London and East India Docks in subsequent years). They naturally applied for an extension of that privilege and a Parliamentary Committee was formed to consider the matter. Surprisingly, the renewal was challenged by the owners of the London Docks, supported by the Commercial Dock Company, who both believed they could profit from taking away some of the West India business if there was free trade. The committee held the view that the West India Dock Company had been making excess profits against the interest of consumers. They concluded that henceforth there were no grounds for anything other than open competition.

At least two Parliamentary Bills were prepared for new docks to take advantage of the end of the monopolies and the growing trade. Isambard Kingdom Brunel prepared plans for his father Marc Isambard to create the South London Docks at Bermondsey, although they never came to fruition. Likewise, a plan for a new coal dock on the Isle of Dogs failed to proceed.

It was also at that time that the shipowner and dock developer John Hall turned his attentions to the Precinct of St Katharine’s, by then sandwiched between the Tower of London and Wapping’s London Docks. As we previously observed, Hall had been the instigator of the Grand Surrey Basin at Rotherhithe. Other directors of the newly-formed St Katharine Dock Company were businessmen including Thomas Tooke, a well-connected economist who became its first chairman, and two MPs: the banker William Glynn, and John Horseley Palmer who later became the Governor of the Bank of England.

According to the promoters of the new dock scheme at St Katharine’s, in the thirty years between 1794 and 1824 the number of ships entering the port rose from slightly under 14,000 per year to over 23,600. Despite the creation of four major dock complexes, in 1808 over 8,000 ships had to moor in the river, which in 1824 had almost doubled to nearly 16,000 (although in reality many of those were likely to have been colliers bringing coal from Newcastle). The aim of the St Katharine Dock Company was to create a fifth major dock for the Port in which ships could be loaded and unloaded and for goods to be stored. Although they realized that a dock on the St Katharine’s site would be relatively small compared with the existing basins, they knew that it would be the closest to the City of London, which would reduce transport costs considerably.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for the Precinct. Queen Charlotte died in 1818 and the Hospital was temporarily without a patron. Her husband had long been debilitated with porphyria – or ‘madness’ – and the country was effectively reigned by the Prince Regent, who was estranged from his wife Caroline. George III died in 1820 and Caroline in 1821 so, for a rare time in its long history, St Katharine’s lacked the royal protection of a queen consort. In April 1824 a Bill was laid before Parliament for the St Katharine Dock Company to acquire and raze the Precinct, as well as part of the parish of St Botolph, and replace them with a set of docks. It was opposed by many, including the neighbouring London Dock Company, who feared the direct competition, and by some antiquarians who wished to preserve the ancient Hospital and its church. In the face of such opposition the Bill was withdrawn before becoming law, leading to great rejoicing by the local community.

John Hall persisted in his efforts, however. Dubious accusations were made that the district was dilapidated and unsanitary, with brothels and opium dens, and home to ‘ruffians’. The Bill was again presented before Parliament, together with six petitions that favoured the creation of the docks. One was from London merchants, bankers and tradesmen; the second from London shipowners; the third from shipowners from around the country; the fourth from victuallers; the fifth from seed-men; the sixth, it was said, from between three and four hundred residents. On examination the latter merely contained 125 signatures, only one of whom actually lived within the area set for demolition, yet this point does not seem to have been contested at the time.

The following year the real householders lodged their own petition. The opposition came to nothing and the St Katharine Dock Bill was passed by Parliament in June 1825. Hall was appointed as Company Secretary. Thomas Tooke became the first chairman and remained so until 1853. Thirteen acres of land were acquired by the dock company, only separated from the London Docks to the west by the width of a street: Nightingale Lane (later renamed Thomas More Street). Demolition began almost immediately. The medieval and historic Hospital, which had survived the sixteenth century dissolution of the monasteries and the Great Fire of 1666, together with its much-admired fourteenth century church and graveyard, were destroyed.

The Act of Parliament stipulated compensation for landlords and brothers of the Foundation but not residential tenants. At the time of the opening of the new docks The Times reported that 1,250 houses and tenements had been destroyed, displacing 11,300 inhabitants, although the latter number was disputed by the company. It paid for the Foundation of St Katharine to transfer to salubrious new premises in the new Regent’s Park, becoming more or less almshouses for well-off people.

To create the docks the company commissioned Thomas Telford as chief engineer and Thomas Rhodes as resident engineer. By then Telford had long been an eminent builder of canals, bridges and docks in his native Scotland, as well as England and Sweden, but St Katharine’s was to be the only project for which he would be responsible in London. He was already quite elderly and the trusted Rhodes acted as his deputy, with assistance from the architect Sir Philip Hardwick.

Telford’s plan was to create a central basin connected to the tidal river by a lock. That led to either an east or west dock, each of which had its own gates and could therefore be separately drained when necessary. Up to 120 ships could moor within. James Watt built two steam engines that pumped water from the river into the lock in order to maintain levels within the dock at less than high tide.

The contract for the work was awarded to George Burge who hired 2,500 labourers and they began construction in May 1827. An account published a decade later quotes a Swedish engineer, Captain A.G. Carlsund, as saying:

I frequently witnessed a thousand men and several hundred of horses employed in the operations, besides several powerful steam-engines. At the beginning of the works wheelbarrows were employed to carry away the earth, but as the excavations proceeded and became deeper, iron railways and steam-engines were substituted. The earth was conveyed into barges, carried down [sic] the river, and deposited in convenient places.

That earth was actually carried upriver on barges and deposited on marshy land behind Millbank prison, enabling Thomas Cubitt to create the new suburbs of Pimlico and Belgravia on Lord Grosvenor’s estate.

The total space at St Katharine’s was relatively small and awkward so Telford had to utilize every inch available. Slightly over ten acres of the total were given over to the three irregular-shaped basins, providing as much quayside space as possible, being 4,500 feet, to accommodate the largest possible number of vessels. On the riverside the ancient Irongate Wharf was joined by the 170-footlong Steam Packet Wharf for ships too large to enter the docks. In 1849 the dock company leased the wharves to the General Steam Navigation Company.

Despite the austere and monumental style, the warehouses, designed by Hardwick, were some of the finest that would ever be constructed in London’s dock system. They were built of yellow-grey London bricks and white stone sills, six storeys tall and with two levels of underground vaults. To maximize storage space the six warehouses, totalling over 1,200,000 square feet in extent, were built directly up to the water’s edge inside the docks and to the roadside on the exterior of the docks. Cranes, fixed to the warehouses and swinging out over the ships’ decks, hoisted cargoes straight into the storage space without the need for transit sheds and, likewise, lowered goods down to carts in the roads outside the docks. By this method ships could be loaded or unloaded much quicker than the other docks. About two decades after its opening, Henry Mayhew explained:

Cargoes are raised into the warehouses out of the hold of a ship without the goods being deposited on the quay. The cargoes can be raised out of the ship’s hold into the warehouses of St Katharine’s in one-fifth of the usual time. Before the existence of docks, a month or six weeks was taken up in discharging the cargo of an East Indiaman of from 800 to 1,200 tons burden; while eight days were necessary in the summer, and fourteen in the winter, to unload ships of 350 tons. At St Katharine’s however, the average time now occupied in discharging a ship of 250 tons is twelve hours, and one of 500 tons two or three days, the goods being placed at the same time in the warehouse … This would have been considered little short of a miracle on the legal quays less than fifty years ago.

The original cranes were manual, powered by treadmill pulley systems, but were later replaced by steam and then hydraulic lifts. On the ground level facing into the dock were quays, covered by part of the upper floors of the warehouses, which were supported on cast-iron Tuscan colonnades. To the streets the tall warehouses, windowless in their lower parts, formed the impregnable walls of the complex, providing the necessary security for the goods within. A Dock Master’s House was constructed beside the entrance lock, with an impressive Dock House office in the Grecian Doric order in the north-west corner facing Tower Hill.

The West Dock of St Katharine’s opened in October 1828 and the East Dock the following year. Unlike the opening of earlier docks, there seems to have been only a modest ceremony, with no state officials of note attending. Taking part on that occasion was the Mary, a ship that traded with Russia. On its deck were forty veteran sailors who had served under Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, collected from the Greenwich Hospital.

Around 500 staff were employed in the docks, warehouses and offices at St Katharine’s, including 225 permanent men and 200 preferred labourers, in addition to some 1,700 casual workers hired as required. There were regulations regarding the honesty and sobriety of workers, who were strictly prohibited from carrying any kind of vessel capable of containing a liquid and could be searched by their foreman or at the dock gates.

St Katharine’s specialized mostly in importing tea from India and wool from Australia, New Zealand and the Falkland Islands. The warehouses could accommodate 600,000 bales of wool. Both the wool trade and the importation of marble were shared between St Katharine’s and the London Docks. Seven hundred thousand chests of tea passed through each year, repacked on site before being distributed to wholesalers. There was also a large range of luxury and exotic items from around the world, including spices, ivory, china, ostrich feathers, tortoiseshell, oriental carpets, mother of pearl, raw materials to manufacture perfume (with an on-site extraction facility), guano (used as a fertilizer) and tallow (used in soap manufacturing and cooking).

Even at the time of the docks’ opening, the entry lock, 45 feet wide and 250 feet long, with a draught of 24 feet, was too small for the largest vessels. With the introduction of ever bigger iron-hulled and steam ships in the following decades fewer ocean-going vessels were small enough to enter. With easy access to the City, St Katharine’s was initially very successful. Yet it marked the end of the dock boom, and thereafter had to cut its rates to be more competitive and pay out lower dividends to shareholders.

Canals, railways and basins

From the early nineteenth century new transport links were created, first canals and then railways, that linked the port with areas far beyond London. The River Lea (or ‘Lee’) flows south from Hertfordshire and for centuries barges brought grain and other produce downstream. Canalization of the Lea began as early as the fifteenth century and the first mitred lock gates in the country were introduced on the river in 1571. As boats arrived at the southern end of the Lea they had to navigate the winding and tidal Bow Creek before entering the Thames and then take the long passage around the Isle of Dogs before arriving at London. The engineer John Smeaton recommended the construction of the two-mile Limehouse Cut as a shortcut across the north of the Isle of Dogs to join the Thames at Limehouse. It was largely completed in 1770.

During the second half of the eighteenth century, when Britain’s roads were still in a poor state, the major ports and industrial areas became connected by a network of canals, helping to fuel the Industrial Revolution. In 1801 the Grand Junction Canal joined England’s industrial heartland around Birmingham to the Thames at Brentford, with a branch to Paddington. A proposal was then made to cut a new link from Paddington, in a semicircle through the fields north of the capital, around the City and down to the river at Limehouse. After much delay the eight-and-a-half-mile Regent’s Canal was opened in 1820. It joined the Thames at a point roughly halfway between the London and West India Docks. There the canal company created the ten-acre Regent’s Canal Dock. Ships could enter from the Thames via a lock of 350 feet by 60 feet and cargoes transferred onto barges for passage to other parts of the country. One of the main cargoes to pass through the dock was coal.

Railways were to become integral to the movement of goods and raw materials into and out of the Port. One of the country’s earliest was the London & Blackwall, which linked the City to the East India Docks. Engineered by Robert Stephenson, carriages were originally worked by stationary steam engines and pulleys over a distance of about 3.5 miles. At the time it gained the name of the ‘four-penny rope’, being the cost of a ride and that the ropes that pulled the carriages often snapped. The railway company acquired the East India Dock’s Brunswick Wharf, renamed Blackwall Pier, and the line initially ran to there from the Minories in the City. A year later it was extended to Fenchurch Street. Steamers carried passengers from Blackwall, upriver to Greenwich or downriver to Gravesend and Margate, and even to the Continent. For the following century the railway connected the East and West India Docks and Millwall Docks to the City and later to Tilbury. Today it forms part of the Docklands Light Railway.

The Regent’s Canal was one of the last to be opened during the great age of English canal building, and its golden period was short-lived. In 1837 Stephenson’s London & Birmingham Railway opened, following the route of the Grand Junction from the Midlands into Euston. Other railways followed, linking London to all parts of Britain. They were much faster and more efficient and soon began taking long-distance freight traffic away from the canals. Perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin of the Regent’s Canal was the opening of the North London Railway in 1846 from the railway goods yards at Camden over to the West India Docks. This allowed goods to pass speedily from the Midlands to London’s docks, avoiding altogether the much slower Grand Junction and Regent’s canals. In the following chapter we will deal with the major docks created in the mid-nineteenth century. Each of them was connected to the national railway system from the outset.

The West India Dock Company created a reservoir immediately to the north of their entrance lock in order to maintain the head of water in their docks. The Company was one of the shareholders in the North London Railway. They leased the basin to the railway and it was renamed Collier Dock where coal could be discharged from colliers to railway trucks. In 1877 the dock was enlarged and the name eventually changed to Poplar Dock. By the end of the nineteenth century the dock property covered 28 acres, with 14 miles of railway sidings. Goods were stored in warehouses, including stores for Bass Pale Ale.

The call-on

As profits came under pressure the dock companies looked for ways to reduce their overheads. Their main variable cost was manpower and in the remainder of the nineteenth century it was the dockers who increasingly suffered. The coming and going of ships was dependent on the weather and was therefore unpredictable. Their arrival or departure could be delayed for days or even weeks while at other times a large group of ships might arrive at the same time. Certain types of cargo, such as tea, wool, sugar, grain or timber, were seasonal and caused vessels to arrive in groups. In the 1860s arrivals varied from between less than thirty in one week to over two hundred in another. It was expensive to have a waged staff on standby, whereas as London’s population rapidly increased, particularly with unemployed immigrants from Ireland and the Continent, there was an abundance of available men.

The dock companies and wharf-owners began to substitute expensive fulltime labourers with cheaper and more flexible casual workers who could be hired by the half-day when required as the number of ships fluctuated. In the mid-century a staff labourer earned sixteen shillings and sixpence per week, whereas a casual labourer was paid only four pence an hour if and when he worked, plus a bonus known as ‘plus money’ if a ship was unloaded quickly

Some of the casual workers were ‘preferred hands’ who were more or less permanent dock labourers. The majority were others who arrived to take their chance of some work. Huge crowds of men, sometimes in their thousands and many hungry and poorly clothed, congregated at the dock gates at seven thirty each morning seeking work as casual labourers. They called the waiting ‘standing on the stones’. There they desperately scrambled to catch the attention of the ‘calling foremen’ who selected a number from amongst them for a half or full day’s work, a process known as ‘the call-on’.

Selection depended on various factors: the ships that were being loaded or unloaded; the strength and skills of the individuals; opinion of the foreman – ‘the quay ganger’ - towards individual candidates; and even bribery. When a ship was unloaded faster than scheduled the foreman received a bonus – ‘the share’ – to distribute as he saw fit and it was therefore in his interest to choose the most suitable workers.

Along the dock walls were elevated stands that quay-gangers ascended to survey the men below, to call out those selected and instruct them as to where they should work. There were those who were known to the foremen and whose name was sure to be called. It will have helped to know which pub the quay-ganger frequented and to buy him a few drinks. Those remaining after the first calling would push and shove each other for the best position to be noticed and the quay-gangers would choose the most robust from amongst them. About forty-five minutes later a second call-on took place, then another an hour later, and yet a fourth some time later. The unchosen ones became more desperate until the last amongst them simply had to go home knowing they and their family would probably be left hungry and the rent unpaid yet again. The unlucky ones might have gone through the same routine for days or weeks without being selected. It was an age when there was no unemployment benefit, leading to a life of poverty for many.

According to Henry Mayhew, the numbers given casual work at each of the docks varied between 500 and 3,000 at the London Docks; 500 to over 1,700 at St Katharine’s and, at the West and East India Docks combined, 1,300 to 4,000. The work for casual labourers was simple and required no experience and thus suited ‘men of all grades’ who could not find employment elsewhere, according to Mayhew. Many had trained for work in other industries but resorted to trying their luck at the docks when business was slack. They included former soldiers, bankrupts and even the elderly who arrived dressed in clothes and shoes that were barely held together; a large reserve of labour that was referred to as ‘residuum’. Some lived a hand-to-mouth existence and were attempting to supplement their poor relief or charity payments. Even when hired, their work was usually hard, manual labour. It involved jobs such as turning winches or wheeling laden trucks. In the early years cranes were manually-powered and involved a group of six to eight men walking inside a wooden treadmill.

In the early part of the century shipowners who chose workers to unload their vessel often did so by arrangement with landlords of pubs located close to the river. The arrangement extended to the landlord paying the wages after the work was completed. This required the labourers to spend long hours in those establishments to be first in line for available work when a ship arrived, as well as to continually buy alcohol in order to keep the attention of and be favoured by the landlord. The practice was discontinued by Act of Parliament in 1843.

Competition and mergers

The expansion of Britain’s economy and overseas empire ensured that manufacturing in London and beyond continued to increase and that the growing wealth of many individuals created increased demands for consumer goods. Raw materials were required and exported manufactured goods could be sold around the world. The new docks of the early nineteenth century provided the facilities that ensured that much of that traffic passed through the Port of London. In the mid-1830s around 3,500,000 tons of cargo was handled annually. Slightly less than a million tons was foreign trade, which was almost exclusively handled by the new enclosed docks. The remainder was coastal traffic dealt with by wharves on the open river. A significant cargo was coal, brought down the coast from the North East of England.

Following the loss of their monopolies, greater dock space after the opening of the St Katharine Docks, and the increased effect of the free water clause, the dock companies were achieving lower profits and dividends to shareholders. Overcapacity and a free market allowed shipowners to negotiate lower docking rates. The dock companies were under pressure despite increasing business in the port.

In a measure to ensure their survival the East and West India Dock Companies agreed to merge in 1838, authorized in one of the first Acts of Parliament approved by the new Queen Victoria. It made sense for at least one reason. The East India Company lost their monopoly on trade with India in 1813 and with China in 1833 and no longer traded with its own fleet of ships as they had for the previous two centuries. They now needed to operate in an open market yet their docks at Blackwall had been designed for simply loading and unloading and three decades later were without the important warehousing income. The West India Docks on the other hand had been created with a large amount of warehousing space they were no longer able to fill due to reduced business. Publicly the new joint company put forward the more altruistic rationale that ships would find it convenient to dock at Blackwall instead of continuing upriver to other docks, thus making the Thames more open and safer for the fast new passenger steamships that had recently been introduced.

As they were no longer importing goods, the East India Company put its warehouses in the City up for auction in 1835. Cutler Street was acquired by the St Katharine Dock Company and others by the East & West India Dock Company.

The situation deteriorated further for the dock companies in 1853 when Parliament passed the Customs Consolidation Act that increased competition by sanctioning further legal quays and bonded warehouses along the river. Between the 1840s and 1870s governments also drastically reduced the types of goods on which customs duty was due, thus further undermining the previous advantage enjoyed by the docks. The number of riverside wharves greatly increased; they were able to compete with the docks, with over one hundred having landing and warehousing rights by the 1860s.

*hogshead = a barrel containing between 800 and 1,500 Imperial pounds (360 – 680 kilograms)

*pipe (or butt) = a half tun or 1,008 Imperial pints.

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