Chapter Seven

The Closure of the Upper Port and the Development of Docklands

The decade following the Second World War was a good period for British shipping. Older vessels lost during the war were replaced by more efficient and competitive ships. There was also a general lack of competition from those of other nations and rates could be kept high. In 1957 Britain still had one of the world’s largest merchant fleets. Conditions for seamen improved during that period but in 1966 there was a major strike for better pay and a 40-hour week that dealt a blow to the industry. At the end of the 1950s a third of the British maritime fleet consisted of tramp ships, small cargo vessels owned by private companies with four ships or less. They were itinerant around the coast and worked from job to job, usually obtaining their work at the Baltic Exchange in London. However they were ill-equipped for the revolution in cargo-handling that was to take place in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The number of British cargo vessels gradually declined but the amount they were capable of carrying increased as ships grew larger. Yet they still carried a declining share of the world’s tonnage as the fleets of other nations increased at a faster rate. In order to be competitive in the international market, shipowners registered their vessels under flags of convenience to nations with lower registration standards, taxes and rates of pay. By the start of the twenty-first century there were less than 400 UK-registered cargo ships.

As the British merchant fleet reduced in size, so did shipbuilding, which had long since departed the Thames in favour of the North East of England, the Clyde and Belfast. In the late 1920s the shipbuilders Harland & Wolff employed 35,000 men in the United Kingdom, with a major operation at the entrance to London’s Royal Docks. At the beginning of the twentieth century over 60 per cent of the world’s merchant ships were built in Britain but by its end that had fallen to less than 1 per cent, partly due to under-investment and a failure to modernize. In 1997 Japan and South Korea were building 80 per cent.

Nevertheless, trade in the Port of London continued to flourish and once again reached a peak in the early 1960s. Tower Bridge continued to open for ships entering the Upper Pool, rows of lighters lined the river, and the riverside wharves were still functioning. The most important of London’s docks were by that time the three Royal docks, where the quays were lined with an impressive 211 cranes. Tobacco, fruit, vegetables, as well as beef from South America, arrived at the Royal Victoria. Frozen meat and bananas were the specialities at the Royal Albert. Tilbury was capable of handling most of the largest vessels of the time, up to 30,000 tons, and with substantial passenger traffic. Grain arrived at the India, Millwall, Surrey and Victoria Docks. Sugar and rum continued to be stored at the West India and the London Docks. Tea, wool, brandy and numerous other commodities were inspected and sorted by the PLA’s expert staff at the London and the St Katharine Docks, lightered there after having been unloaded from ships in one of the downstream docks. The Surrey Commercial Docks were the centre of London’s softwood trade. A vast wealth of goods, including Oriental carpets, cigars, fine wines and vintage port and sherry, were stored over fifteen acres of floorspace at the PLA’s fortresslike Cutler Street warehouse close to Liverpool Street station.

Yet the writing was on the wall. The 1960s were the swansong for most of London’s docks. In the middle of the twentieth century cargo-handling in the Port was undertaken much as it had been for centuries before, although by then with the aid of mechanical cranes. Each item was lifted, carried and put down multiple times by a number of men between the ship and leaving the dock or warehouse, with risk of damage, theft and injury. While items were waiting to be loaded or unloaded they had to be stored on the dock-side. A 15,000-ton cargo ship, filled with individual items, took several days to discharge. Labour was still relatively cheap, plentiful and readily available so there was little incentive for change. Continental ports that had been completely devastated in the latter part of the war were in a better position to rebuild according to modern standards and requirements, aided by American capital. The port was ill-prepared and the old docks and riverside wharves were incapable of being converted for the changes that were to revolutionize shipping and cargo-handling in the 1970s. In North America more efficient new methods of collecting and delivering goods meant that dockside warehouses were no longer necessary. The number of men required to load and discharge vessels was minimized. Those efficiencies quickly spread around the world, including ports on the near-Continent such as Rotterdam, which was handling three times as much as London.

The end of the call-on

A bewildering array of arrangements and agreements were in place for the loading and discharging of cargoes that varied between different types of commodity, docks and wharves. Much teamwork was involved, with strong working and community bonds. Generation after generation worked in the port, with children following their fathers and grandfathers, leading to great camaraderie. On the other hand, it produced something of a closed shop, which was difficult to break into without the necessary connections, and created a lack of diversity in the workforce.

Labour requirements in the Port had greatly changed since the unpredictable arrivals of sailing ships; work was more regular, yet there had been little difference in employment practice since the mid-nineteenth century. Those referred to as ‘Perms’ were permanently employed at the docks or wharves, a prized position that would usually be handed down from father to son. When additional work was available it would be given to preferred workers – ‘prefs’ – who were known to the foremen. Finally, if further workers were required, ‘casuals’ (or ‘nonners’, meaning not preferred) would be hired.

Despite militancy shown by the unions, with continuous agitation for higher wages for fewer hours, there was little push from their side to end the casual system. Men continued to assemble at the many dock and wharf gates each morning at half past seven in the hope of being chosen as casuals by the foremen. It was a leftover from the Victorian era and seemed somewhat out of place in the mid-twentieth century. On the employers’ side Joseph Broodbank gave the opinion in the 1920s that: ‘… labour leaders have hitherto been so apathetic when the question of casual labour has been discussed. Permanent labour might be too satisfied and prefer to deal direct with the employer. To keep the labourer in the union fold, the leader has, therefore, to preach the doctrine of aloofness between employer and employed.’

In 1947 the National Dock Labour Corporation, created during wartime, was superseded by the National Dock Labour Board, which consisted of equal numbers of representatives for the employers and workers. A compulsory registration scheme for all dock workers, the National Dock Labour Scheme, was introduced. The Board had responsibility for allocation of workers to the employers, weekly payment of wages, training and medical care. Each employer paid the Board, who in turn paid the employee. Initially workers were allocated on a half-day basis, from 8 am until midday and 1 pm until 5 pm.

Following the Devlin Committee report of 1965, casualization was finally discontinued in 1967 and workers were from then allocated to employers on a five-day basis, with shifts from 7 am until 2 pm and from 2 pm until 9 pm at any location from London to Sheerness. From the early 1970s, with the abolition of the Temporarily Unattached Register, everyone working in the Port did so for a permanent employer. A new system of workplace representation was created, although it largely failed to create harmony between employers and workers and the number and frequency of strikes increased. Some, such as Ernest Bevin, had fought for years for the ‘de-casualization’ of the workers. Yet there were many docker families that had spent all their working lives as casual labourers, as had their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The freedom of seeking work when they chose was entrenched in their way of life. The idea of being permanent staff and the necessity of working set hours every week, and losing the freedom to work as they wished, seemed alien. To them, working time meant whatever time it took to unload a cargo. Many found it difficult to settle down to the rigid routine of set hours and they resented it.

Mechanization and containerization

The first moves towards mechanization had come as early as the nineteenth century with the introduction of steam power to operate pumps and mechanical lifting devices, followed by hydraulically-driven equipment. The earliest electric conveyors in the port were installed in 1908 at the transit sheds at Tilbury, followed by an overhead runway for carrying beef carcasses at the Royal Albert Dock in 1910. There were minor innovations in the 1920s but little progress in the 30s. It took the Second World War to bring about further change. In 1948 Leslie Ford was appointed general manager of the PLA and one of his priorities was to find new efficiencies through mechanical handling. A modern new riverside grain terminal, one of the most efficient in the world, capable of unloading at 2,000 tons per hour into silos, barges or coasters, was opened at Tilbury at a cost of £6 million. New silos could store 100,000 tons of grain and after Britain’s entry into the Common Market it was possible to make exports from there to the Continent. Three privately-owned flour mills were built beside the terminal. As early as 1949 sugar was arriving in bulk for the Tate & Lyle refinery instead of in sacks as it was previously.

The transportation of wine quickly evolved after the Second World War. For hundreds of years it had been brought from the Continent in various forms of casks but large tanks were introduced, holding 550 gallons, that could be lifted on and off ships. Next came ships with built-in tanks and then purpose-built wine tanker vessels. In 1959 the PLA built bulk wine tanks at the London Docks to hold 800,000 gallons but before long even greater capacity was required. Within a decade, tanks of 980,000 gallons had been created at the Millwall and IndiaDocks.

The dock contractor Scruttons first experimented with prototype forklift trucks in Liverpool in 1945, which were not at that time generally being used in Britain. American forces used London’s docks as a base during the Second World War and when they departed in 1946 they left behind some forklift trucks, mobile cranes and tractors. These were inherited by Colonel Oram of the PLA’s Mechanical Equipment Committee, who in 1951 initiated tests in how they could best be used at a specially modified berth at the West India Docks. Export cargo was unloaded from trucks and railway wagons onto pallets, stacked and stored, then transferred to a ship’s hold. The time taken to load a ship was reduced by twenty per cent. Goods stored on a pallet could easily be moved and then stacked to greater heights within a transit facility, allowing the shed to hold more than three times of that non-palletized. Previously, large gangs could handle only 50 tons per day compared with 300 tons by smaller gangs with mobile cranes and forklifts. The unit size of goods shifted from what one man could carry to that of a pallet. Bigger pallets could be created for bulkier goods such as timber and lifted and moved around within the docks by mobile straddle carriers. A new quay was constructed on the south side of the West India Import Dock with two large brick and concrete sheds that allowed access for mobile cranes and forklift trucks. A modern warehouse was built at Canary Wharf, at the west end of the West India South Quay, for the discharge of fruit from the Canary Islands. In the two decades after the war the movement and stacking of timber at the Surrey Commercial Docks was largely mechanized, with storage sheds adapted accordingly.

These simple innovations, whereby goods were no longer restricted to the size and weight that a man could carry, opened the door to new ways of thinking throughout the Port. It was also found that using mobile cranes was not only more efficient in the speed at which a barge could be discharged but also allowed the equipment to be taken to the vessel rather than having to manoeuver the vessel to a fixed point in a dock. During the 1950s mobile cranes were therefore introduced at all five of the London dock groups. At the beginning of the next decade the PLA owned over 100 forklifts. Storage facilities were modified, with doorways to allow entry by forklift truck and ceilings high enough for palletized stacking. Facilities such as the timber sheds at Quebec Dock, destroyed in the war, were rebuilt to new standards, with concrete floors, higher ceilings for higher stacking and wide aisles to allow mobile cranes to circulate. By the 1960s electrically-driven cranes of various sizes and capacities, large-capacity floating cranes, gantry-cranes, grain suction machines, floating grain elevators, trimmers to ‘sweep’ bulk sugar, ship-toshore telephones, diesel-electric railway locomotives and diesel tugs were in use at the relevant berths and sidings. It was by then necessary for many of the staff working in the port to be skilled in the use of the new equipment.

It was yet another American military method used in the Second World War that was ultimately to lead to the closure of all the upriver docks and most of the wharves in the port. The roll-on/roll-off (or ‘ro-ro’) concept had started with tank-landing craft. It led to the idea of loading goods onto a trailer pulled by a truck and forming an articulated lorry. The trailer was towed from where it was loaded to a port. There it was rolled into a ferry for a short sea crossing, leaving the cab to be attached to an incoming trailer. At the receiving country, the outgoing trailer was rolled off, attached to a new truck and driven to its final destination. Once packed at the source, the goods did not need to be unpacked again until they reached their destination, cutting time at each transfer. The port had a minimal involvement in the goods on the trailer. Loading time, as well as the turnaround for the vessel, was minimized. Goods could be transported from a warehouse in Britain to another on the Continent in under two days instead of a week or more. The UK’s first ro-ro service, to Hamburg for British forces, began at Tilbury in 1946. Commercial services to Antwerp were initiated in 1957 and to Rotterdam in 1960.

During the 1960s and 1970s there were a number of other types of ship built in attempts to streamline the movement of cargo. There were, for example, American-designed LASH (lighter aboard ship) vessels into which speciallybuilt push-barges could be lifted directly into the ship’s hold. These had the advantage of both saving time normally taken in transferring a cargo from lighters to the ship and in being able to load and discharge on an open river without the need of a dock or quay. LASH ships operated at Sheerness on the Thames Estuary for a short time. Ships of another American variation of this system, known as SEABEE, visited Gravesend.

The ro-ro concept needed a large amount of open space to park the trailers as they waited to board, yet minimal manpower. What London’s docks offered was exactly the opposite: acres of warehousing, minimal open space and a large amount of manpower. The new method did not prevail overnight because new ships had to be built to accommodate the trailers but from the 1960s London’s upper docks and wharves began to find themselves bypassed by other ports with suitable facilities. In Britain those routes were on the East Coast sailing to Denmark, and the West Coast to Ireland service.

At the same time, as this revolution was occurring within the ports, Britain’s road network was being quickly upgraded, with new bypasses to take traffic around towns instead of through them and with the introduction of Germanstyle high-speed motorways. Manufacturing plants and warehouses could therefore be located wherever a road could be laid out instead of needing to be beside a less flexible railway or canal as in the past. Goods were increasingly carried by truck instead of train, river or canal. A 1973 study by the Greater London Council noted that only 14 per cent of exports were transported by rail in 1960 compared with 41 per cent before the Second World War. It was no longer necessary for industry to be located along the riverside.

Ro-ro transportation required the goods to be moved throughout its journey on a trailer. The idea then came about that if they were loaded into a standardsized container it could be lifted on and off a trailer or goods train and craned into a ship without the need for the trailer accompanying it. The basic idea was not new and had for decades been used elsewhere, such as on barges on Britain’s canal network. Within Britain, agreement had been reached between railway companies in the 1920s to create a standard size of container that could be transferred between rolling stock. In 1965 international agreement was reached by shippers in the US, Canada and Denmark that such containers would be of a standard size, being 8 feet wide by 8 feet high but could vary in length between 10 to 40 feet, and ships were built to accommodate those containers. The standard measurement of a ship’s capacity became ‘twenty foot equivalent units’ or TEUs. Standardized containers saved space within the ship, allowing a greater amount of cargo per vessel; providing protection against the elements when being transported or stored; and security from theft of the contents during transportation. The early container ships could carry 1,500 twenty-foot-long containers but ships have grown much larger over the decades, rising to capacities of over 18,000 TEUs by 2014.

A container service began in 1960 from No.4 berth at the Royal Victoria in 1960, with the creation of the largest transit shed in the docks. In 1964 PLA general manager Dudley Perkins visited New York’s Port Elizabeth and witnessed for himself how containerization was revolutionizing cargo-handling. Major upgrading work was taking place in London but Perkins immediately sent back a telegram to put that on hold. His new ideas were not popular with the more conservative dock managers but he knew London’s docks had to adapt to roll-on/roll-off and containerization if they were to survive into the future. By the middle of 1965 the PLA’s board agreed to the necessary changes.

A serious issue that Perkins had to tackle was that goods were no longer stored in dockside warehouses and transit sheds. Instead they simply arrived by truck at the dock gates, causing long tailbacks of traffic. ‘The dockers can be slack for four days and then have to work furiously to load a ship because people find it convenient to send goods at the last moment. The men don’t like it,’ he is reported as saying in January 1965. ‘We are expected to deal with hundreds of tons one day and thousands the next.’ His solution was a proposal for a computerized booking-in and clearing-house system.

A container berth could handle 10 times the amount of cargo compared with a conventional berth and the ship turned around in 36 hours rather than the previous 10 to 14 days. Without the requirement for large numbers of workers, the port could operate 24 hours each day, 7 days a week and ships could be unloaded and loaded simultaneously. During the 1960s cargo terminals around the world were adapted to the containerization method but most of the old docks and wharves in the Port of London were not able to be altered and the container ships were too large and deep to reach them. The exception was Tilbury where from 1963 the PLA began to upgrade the facilities to handle palletized storage, roll-on/roll-off trailers, and containers and packaged timber using specially-designed cranes and straddle carriers. Within three years of the first service, Tilbury was handling 150,000 containers annually. The first ever transatlantic container ship arrived there in June 1968.

The new methods were a major threat to the workforce, the majority of whom were no longer required. Trailers or containers merely needed to be received, parked or stacked for a short time and then dispatched. A relatively small number of skilled men were needed for all the tasks involved in carrying out that process within the docks. The goods were packed and stripped, and even customs duties paid, outside the port. The unions refused to man the new container berths and in order to open them the PLA had to provide the workers with a new deal. Some companies took advantage of the methods to avoid the militant unionized dock labour by setting up packing and stripping warehouses relatively close to the docks, employing cheaper unregistered workers. Those locations were picketed by the unions.

The ports that specialized in these new methods were quite different from those of the past. There were no crowds of dockers waiting at the gates for work, spending their time and money in nearby pubs. Ships quickly came and went so there was no need for a multitude of guest houses where seamen would rent a room while waiting for the return voyage. Multi-ethnic ‘sailor-towns’ that existed in Liverpool, Cardiff and London’s East End became things of the past.

A period of change at the Port of London Authority

It was not only shipping methods and work within the docks and wharves that underwent change in the latter twentieth century. The PLA itself underwent modernization and efficiencies within its own organization. Thomas Wiles, grain merchant and politician, served as chairman of the PLA during most of the war years. He was succeeded in 1946 by John Anderson, a scientist by training who became an outstanding civil servant. A Minister of Shipping during the Great War, Anderson survived an assassination attempt while serving in colonial India, later becoming Lord Privy Seal, Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and a member of Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet. He is perhaps best-known today for giving his name to the ‘Anderson’ shelters during the war. He was elevated to the House of Lords in 1952 as Viscount Waverley and served as chairman until his death in 1956. He was succeeded by Lord Simon.

Flights were still an expensive novelty for the average person in the 1950s and passenger liners were the main form of transport to overseas destinations. The 1930 passenger landing stage at Tilbury was still in use when, in 1957, a modern new passenger terminal was constructed at a cost of £1,590,000. It included a large covered car park for 700 vehicles and a rail link to St Pancras. The terminal included a magnificent reception hall decorated with black and white murals and a statue of St Christopher. At the end of that decade liners of 35,000 tons were berthing, with a quarter of a million travellers passing through each year. With hindsight, the timing was ill-judged. Holidaying abroad was starting to become more affordable for the British public but they wanted to travel to and from their destination in the shortest possible time. London Airport had opened close to the village of Heathrow to the west of London in 1946 on a former wartime military transport base. By 1960, 6 million passengers were flying from there each year. Gatwick Airport opened as a commercial airport in 1958, followed by Stanstead and Luton in the following decade. As a result, by the 1970s the passenger facilities at Tilbury had become redundant.

Leslie Ford was appointed general manager in 1948 (and later director general), having already had a long career in railway and dock management with the Great Western Railway, as had his father before him. He took over at a time when London’s docks were still recovering from the extensive wartime damage. When Ford retired in the early 1960s he was succeeded by Dudley Perkins. It became clear during his tenure that the upper docks were in terminal decline and the first of the dock closures took place. Large numbers of dockers began to be laid off either through voluntary redundancy or retirement. Tilbury was becoming more important for freight than previously however. It gained a further advantage from 1963 when the nearby Dartford to Purfleet tunnel was opened, providing a road link across the river. The docks were significantly expanded between 1963 and 1966 with the addition of a large fourth basin, almost a mile long. The tidal basin was at that time closed and filled in.

Despite regular industrial action, trade in the port continued to increase, rising from just 33 million tons in 1947 to a post-war record of 61 million tons in 1964, which equalled nearly a third of all UK trade. With so many ships passing through there was congestion, with vessels queuing to enter the docks.

Lord Aldington, the former Conservative MP Toby Lowe, became the new chairman of the PLA in 1971. From that same year, John Lunch, previously the chief accountant, held the post of director general. The organization had been losing money for several years and needed streamlining. Head office staff in all departments was reduced from 800 down to 100 and many jobs devolved out to locations such as Tilbury and other docks. Needing to economize, and with the PLA having a diminishing role, the grand headquarters building on Tower Hill was sold in 1971 and the reduced staff moved into one floor of the new World Trade Centre building at St Katharine Docks. Those remaining dealt with policy and strategy and unused property was sold off. During that time a number of subsidiary companies were acquired dealing with cargo handling. John Lunch and other managers travelled around the world, including to China, Japan and North America, selling the benefits of the Port of London. After five years of losses, starting in 1966, the PLA once again began to generate increasing profits from 1971. It was a period of intense industrial unrest, with workers being laid off due to dock closures and containerization. In 1972 Aldington and the Transport & General Workers Union leader Jack Jones jointly chaired a committee to deal with industrial action in order to keep the port operating, with some success. The Port of London thereafter underwent dramatic changes that created enormous challenges for the PLA. During that intense period Lord Aldington was followed as chairman by three men in turn with a record of commercial success: Lord Cuckney (1977–79), Victor Paige (1980–84) and Sir Brian Kellett (1984–92).

As the old docks closed, the sale of assets became a major priority in a rollercoaster property market in order to fund the costs of redundancies and losses. In 1990 the organization was divided into three divisions – Tilbury, River, and Property, each with its own chief executive. The headquarters moved downriver to Gravesend, adjacent to Royal Terrace Pier, to be with the Thames Navigation Service and marine services divisions.

Industrial action led by militant leaders

As men went off to fight in the Second World War it created a shortage of labour in Britain’s ports and factories, which played into the hands of socialists on the shop floor to increase the influence, membership and bargaining position of the trade unions. Despite much rebuilding and mechanization in the decades after the war, dockers often continued to work in the same primitive and dangerous conditions as their Victorian predecessors well into the 1960s. It was hard, physical labour, with little protection or safety equipment, so accident rates were high. Workers and unions strived to put pressure on the PLA and wharfingers to modernize their sites and introduce safer working practices.

Significant parts of Britain’s basic industries had been taken into public ownership under the Atlee Labour government in the immediate post-war years and it was the belief of some amongst the workforce that docks should also be nationalized. To them, in the first decades after the war, industrial action was as much about ending capitalism as bringing immediate benefits to the workers. The Port of London found itself caught between the opposing extremes of capitalism and communism. Another factor was the National Dock Labour Scheme that had been introduced after the war. Casual workers were assigned to employers, with neither the worker nor employer choosing the place of work and thus loosening any bond or loyalty between the two parties.

In London’s docks, one of the key militants was Jack Dash. He was already a committed socialist and member of the Communist Party before he began working in the Royal Docks in 1945. Four years later he was suspended from holding office by his own union, the TGWU, for leading unofficial industrial action by fellow workers in support of striking Canadian seamen. As an outsider to the main dock workers’ union, Dash instead became part of the London Docks Liaison Committee, which organized dock-gate meetings, and in 1958 became its chairman. A natural orator, he would address these gatherings, usually outside the Connaught pub at the northern end of the bridge between the Royal Victoria and Royal Albert docks, with his catchphrase: ‘Good morning, brothers!’ A number of unofficial walkouts were organized and in 1966 Dash was singled out by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the House of Commons as a communist who was spreading industrial unrest in the country. Despite his standing outside of the main union bodies, in 1965 he was called to give evidence to Lord Devlin for the report that was to recommend ‘decasualization’, adopted in 1967. Perversely, and true to his communist leaning, Dash and the militants claimed the move was to protect the profits of employers by reducing the workforce. As an alternative they called for the full nationalization of the entire port. An unofficial strike was called that lasted eight weeks.

New handling methods led to much frustration with union action that was crippling the port. In 1962 Leslie Ford, general manager at the PLA, was reported as saying: ‘There has been a deliberate policy by a small segment of labour of creating disruption in the transport world. There is no doubt in my mind of the Communist influence behind this. The Communists don’t want a general strike. In a large strike, national leaders would negotiate a long peace. Instead, it is only minor labour incidents that blow up with irritating regularity.’ Most wildcat strikes were individual walkouts by gangs of dockers regarding safety issues that lasted only an hour or two.

If bringing the partly privately-owned Port of London to a standstill was the target, it was having some effect. In the decade from 1945, thirty-seven major strikes and many minor stoppages took place. This encouraged shipowners to direct their cargoes away from London to ports such as Felixstowe, Harwich, Dover and Southampton. Massive delays were caused by a weekend overtime ban in 1964; the port was closed from May to July 1966 during the period of the seaman’s strike; and there was a nine-week unofficial strike at the Royal Docks the following year. In the two years between 1964 and 1966 there were ninety-three stoppages. Strikes were certainly not the main reason for the closure of London’s Upper Port but they probably hastened the demise. When roll-on/roll-off began to be introduced, and later containerization, without the need for a large workforce, union action began to be taken to preserve the jobs of the dockers. Yet disputes over decasualization, with Tilbury ‘blacked’ in 1969, caused most general cargo to and from Australia to be lost to Antwerp. The Port was also closed for six weeks in July the following year due to a national dock strike, the first since 1926.

The work of loading and unloading containers moved out of the port, to depots where shippers were not subject to the high costs and militancy of the dockers. In 1972 shop stewards from the docks closed one such location, Chobham Farm at Stratford in East London, for three weeks. It was one of the disputes where the militant dockers found themselves at odds with lorrydriver members of the TGWU. The picketing ended with the imprisonment of the leaders of the shop stewards, including Vic Turner, London docker, chairman of the National Dock Shop Stewards Committee, and a colleague of Jack Dash. They became known as the ‘Pentonville Five’ and a national dock strike followed in protest at their incarceration after a peace formula from Jack Jones of the TGWU and Lord Aldington of the PLA was rejected.

A further dispute between dockers and lorry drivers closed the port for six weeks in 1975. Another, regarding payments for abnormally-stowed cargoes, caused an unofficial strike in 1977. Further strikes were held in 1978 resulting in 100 ships moving elsewhere. There was congestion in the Port during a lorry drivers’ strike in 1979; a two-week strike over dock pay in 1980 and a seaman’s strike in 1980. A national dock strike in 1984 ended after three weeks due to patchy support from workers, strengthening the political hand of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The number of dockers employed in the Port peaked in 1955 at 32,000 but by 1985 had shrunk to just three thousand.

After the 1960s the volume passing through the Port of London declined dramatically as it became increasingly uncompetitive. The PLA and wharfingers continued to be burdened by the National Dock Labour Scheme, paying wages to thousands of underemployed workers. Instead of goods arriving in London from around the world and being trans-shipped to the Continent, the reverse was happening. By then ships were directed to modern and efficient ports without labour problems, such as Rotterdam or Ostend, and goods moved from there to Felixstowe. Britain’s trade with the world had also changed, towards the Continent instead of the Commonwealth.

With a declining business and the burden of paying registered dockers for whom there was not enough work, or paying them off with a very generous redundancy scheme, the PLA was effectively insolvent by 1977. The Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, in a similar position, declared itself bankrupt. Yet the government were unable to reform the Labour Scheme due to the threat of a national strike that would cripple the entire country. Significant changes to trade union legislation took place in the 1980s under the Conservative government of Thatcher that finally allowed the scheme to be abolished in 1989.

The closure of the upper docks and wharves

After the war, despite the great destruction, the Port of London began to function again and by the early 1950s had already surpassed pre-war tonnage, aided by more efficient goods-handling. During that decade 8,000 lighters were in use in the Port and more than 250 tugs, most privately-owned. An all-time peak was reached in the early ’60s when 1,000 ships were entering or leaving every week. Employment peaked in 1955, when there were over 31,000 registered dock workers. Forty-six per cent of shipping entering the port was berthing in the enclosed docks, 14 per cent at PLA-operated wharves and 40 per cent either overside onto lighters or at privately-operated wharves. In 1960 over two and three quarter billion pounds of cargo passed through the Port and a record amount of tonnage was achieved in the years 1962 to 1964. A decade later the Port handled over 21 per cent of the nation’s exports and over 17 per cent of imports. Yet the post-war cargo boom was to be short-lived.

From the late 1940s the Port of London Authority began to find itself in much the same position as the private dock companies that preceded it at the end of the nineteenth century. Trade was again increasing as the world’s economies improved following the disruption of the war. Yet ocean-going transcontinental ships became ever bigger and by the 1950s were too large to navigate up the Thames to reach the upper docks and wharves. At the same time, new forms of cargo-handling were being introduced for which many of the old docks and wharves were not suitable. The greater part of new investment by the PLA was directed ever further downriver and from the 1960s that was at Tilbury. Despite a great deal of modernization over many decades, much cargo in the Port was still being handled as it had done for centuries.

Recognizing that many of Britain’s ports were outdated, at a time of regular industrial action, and concerned about the slow speed of handling goods, the government set up a committee in 1961 chaired by Lord Rochdale to consider the adequacy and future of Britain’s major ports. Following the report, the National Ports Council was created to coordinate national planning, investment and development. As far as London was concerned it concluded that:

‘… we think that port activity should be moved away from the centre of London and there is, on the face of things, land at these docks which could be valuable for redevelopment. We are aware that at present the docks perform a useful and to some extent specialised function, but we think it at least possible that the traffic could be catered for elsewhere in the port, especially if pressure can be eased by development at Tilbury.

‘As for the potential use of the land, it may be doubted whether it is suitable for development for industry or housing, but the docks themselves might be filled in and at least or otherwise developed for storage purposes and the warehouses might be sold or let to private enterprise; it could be that capital derived from such arrangements could be put to very good use by the authorities elsewhere, for example at Tilbury.’

Thus, the upper port was under sentence of death for the next few years while consideration was taking place.

Each of England’s major ports was losing money by the end of the 1960s, hampered by loss of trade to the Continent, regular strike action and the burdens imposed on them by the National Dock Labour Scheme. In the 1969–70 financial year London lost almost £2 million. Bristol and Liverpool were in a similar predicament. Yet the PLA, with 5,000 acres of property, owned a massive amount of underused land that could be sold off for redevelopment while at the same time it needed finance to modernize the profitable and viable docks downriver.

The East India Docks, small and isolated from the other dock groups, were the first to completely close. The Export Dock finished in 1946 and was filled in. Between 1947 and 1956 the Brunswick Wharf Power Station was built over it for the British Electricity Authority. (It was in use until 1984 after which it was decommissioned and demolished). During the 1960s only smaller coastal and short-voyage vessels were berthing at the East India Import Dock but it was no longer financially viable and was closed in 1967 and filled in. Workers were offered a transfer to the West India or Millwall Docks.

For some years the neighbouring St Katharine and London Docks (together with the PLA’s Cutler Street and Commercial Road warehouses) had acted merely as warehouses and showrooms for exotic goods that had been discharged downriver and brought up by lighter. Between the two docks there was nearly 5 million square feet of storage. At the London Docks a new bulk wine berth had been installed in 1963 and was profitable, yet overall the two sets of docks together were running at an annual loss of over £1 million per year. They were closed during 1968 and 1969 with the loss of 1,300 jobs. Most of the magnificent Georgian warehouses of the London Dock were demolished in the 1970s without much protest.

All the wharves in the Upper Port closed between 1967 and 1971 with the loss of many traditional skills built up over generations. In the 1950s the Hay’s Wharf complex on the south bank of the Pool of London was handling over 1,700,000 tons of produce each year. Since then trade had gradually declined and the last shipowners deserted the wharves in 1969 during walkouts by the staff. Hay’s Wharf closed between June and November 1969 with the loss of 1,000 jobs. Others quickly followed. New Fresh Wharf on the north bank in the City closed in May 1970, Free Trade Wharf at Ratcliff in January 1971, Butler’s Wharf, across the river from the entrance to St Katharine Docks in March 1972.

In the early 1960s the Port of London was handling about a quarter of the country’s imports of softwood, half of its hardwood and two thirds of its plywood, much of it passing through the Surrey Commercial Docks. Yet ships carrying timber in packed quantities dwarfed those of earlier decades that had brought loose planks. The newer vessels were far too large to reach so far up the river. The London timber trade moved downstream to Tilbury, with its No.34 berth specially adapted and opened in 1966, and two more berths the following year. The last timber ship to depart the 372-acre complex at Rotherhithe left in December 1970 and with it a century and a half of skills in handling timber. Thereafter wood arrived packaged and palletized at Tilbury or elsewhere. The Surrey Docks were no longer profitable so, despite protests from the unions, they closed in 1970.

Following the closure of the East India, St Katharine, London and Surrey Commercial Docks the PLA hoped that the remaining Royal, West India and Millwall Docks would be adequate for the reduced amount of trade and there were no further dock closures for several years. Yet London’s share of UK imports and exports fell from a third to just twelve per cent between 1964 and 1975, overtaken by airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick. The PLA’s results plummeted from £500,000 profit in 1974 to a loss of £5 million the following year. Further closures became inevitable as berths lay idle. The West India and Millwall Docks closed in 1980. The deeper Royal Docks continued for another year with the help of government subsidy but their losses were too great to sustain. The three giant flour mills at the Royal Victoria were shut down. The last ship to depart the Royal Docks left in October 1981, with the scrap metal business transferring to Tilbury two years later.

The Port of London was bound by the restraints and inefficiencies of the National Dock Labour Scheme, making it uncompetitive with other ports in Britain and the near-Continent that worked outside the scheme. Militant dockers continued to strike. Shipowners were taking their business elsewhere, falling from 60 million tons in 1967 to 42 million in 1982. The amount of cargo was increasing at Tilbury, which was the only dock in the Port of London capable of handling the new methods of freight handling. Yet those new methods required far less manual labour than the old ways. Businesses throughout the port closed down with the loss of 10,000 jobs between 1967 and 1976. As services essential to the operation of the Port went out of business, the PLA were obliged to take them on. By 1967 there were 3,000 registered dockers surplus to requirements in the Port who could not be laid off and still had to be paid each week. As other companies closed, an ever-greater wage burden fell upon those that remained, particularly the PLA. In 1966 a voluntary redundancy scheme was introduced but it was generous of necessity and therefore costly. Between 1966 and 1989 the number of registered dockers fell from 24,000 to 9,000.

The decline of East London

Many businesses that left London before or during the war did not return and with much of the infrastructure obliterated, industry continued to migrate in the 1950s. Factories and warehouses were gradually abandoned throughout the capital. In the post-war planning, many sites that had previously been used for industry were reclassified as residential zones. It was also the government’s policy from the 1950s until the mid-1970s to encourage decentralization and for businesses to move away from London.

East London, on both sides of the river, was badly hit during the war. They had been the slowest areas to rebuild and the decline of the docks had a knock-on effect for industries such as warehousing, transport and food across that whole part of the capital. Large numbers of residents moved out to Essex and the new towns while some bomb sites remained undeveloped for decades. In the early 1980s most of the upper docks lay empty and derelict with the loss of 25,000 direct jobs. The parts of London from Wapping to East Ham, including the Isle of Dogs, as well as along the south bank around Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, had relied on the Port for their employment. The riverside factories, warehouses and power stations had depended on easy access to the arrival of raw materials as well as the convenience of being able to transport their manufactured goods by ship or rail to the far corners of the world. Around the docks, wharves and factories, rows of terraced houses had been developed to accommodate the workers who toiled in those many enterprises. Service industries had grown up around all of them, ranging from ship-repair yards and chandlers to gas and electricity generating plants. Without dockers and sailors, numerous pubs lost their trade.

The closure of the Upper Port was in the end perhaps predictable but what was surprising was its suddenness. What the Great Fire of London was to the City of London in the seventeenth century, the closure of the docks and wharves was to East London in the twentieth century. As business declined so too did the entire East End, as well as on the south side of the river. During the period of the earliest dock closures, from 1966 until 1976, 150,000 jobs were lost in those districts, around twenty per cent of the total, and thereafter the decline continued. A decade later the once bustling East End was one of the most depressed areas in the country. As the upper docks closed, their sale by the PLA was delayed as studies took place to determine a new use, while London’s property market boomed.Yet by the latter end of the 1970s the economy was in a state of depression and property prices low. For a time, many of the docks lay closed off and disused, with great basins of empty water. Former dockers had largely moved away and taken up new employment elsewhere, leaving behind an ageing population.

The redevelopment of the Upper Port

While the Second World War was still in progress the planners at the London County Council were considering how the metropolis could be rebuilt after the conflict. Much as Sir Christopher Wren and his contemporaries were proposing utopian ideas to create the perfectly-planned urban area following the Great Fire of 1666, so the men at the London County Council were seeing the opportunity to create a better city out of the ashes of wartime London. The LCC planners envisaged a time when the docks might become redundant. In proposals drawn up in 1943 and 1944, J.H. Forshaw of the LCC and Patrick Abercrombie, professor of town planning at University College proposed that a public tree-lined riverside walkway be created from the Tower of London to the King Edward VII Park at Shadwell. Should the St Katharine Docks become redundant they envisaged replacing it with a public park from Tower Hill and down past the Tower of London.

As the docks closed, much of the PLA’s large portfolio of land was sold off, with proceeds used to fund the wages of underemployed dockers. Little was done to save magnificent and historic buildings, such as those at the London Docks, that we can now only admire in old black and white photographs. Initially many of the solid riverside warehouses, such those at Wapping and Shad Thames, were rented as low-cost loft apartments or artist studios. In 1969 the St Katharine Docks were sold to the Greater London Council for a mere £1,500,000, less than the original cost in 1828, for which the PLA was much criticized. The GLC in turn invited tenders for the redevelopment of the docks, setting out requirements that had been agreed with Tower Hamlets Borough Council. The winners of the St Katharine’s tender were the developers Taylor Woodrow who in 1969 were granted a 125-year lease to create a marina, hotel, shopping and apartment complex. The only buildings to survive from the original docks are the Ivory House warehouse facing into the central basin and the lockside dockmaster’s house.

During the following years, individual developers began proposing numerous plans for the districts vacated by the docks. Rather than allow piecemeal schemes, the GLC commissioned reports as to how the area could best be redeveloped and regenerated. A Docklands Joint Committee was formed, including the five London boroughs affected: Tower Hamlets, Newham, Southwark, Lewisham and Greenwich. With so many different proposals being presented, in 1971 Peter Walker, Secretary of State for the Environment, together with the GLC, commissioned a report from the planners Travis Morgan & Partners. During the period of their deliberations all planning applications were put on hold. An inter-disciplinary team was formed, led by Alfred Goldstein, and their report was submitted in January 1973. Five different schemes were proposed, all of which assumed the commercial activities of the upper docks would end, and each combining a mixture of residential and commercial use. It introduced ideas that were to come to fruition eventually.

Published during the GLC elections, the Travis Morgan report became a political issue and was heavily criticized for its lack of consultation with local authorities. With that in mind, Walker’s successor at the Department for the Environment, Geoffrey Rippon, established the Docklands Joint Committee, formed of the GLC, local boroughs and leading business and finance people. Its remit was to decide a strategic plan, under the chairmanship of Sir Reg Goodwin. Unlike the Travis Morgan report it required consultation with all the various parties affected: authorities, residents and employers. Their London Docklands Strategic Plan was published in July 1976. With so many varying opinions, it is not surprising therefore that the report was quite conservative in its conclusions, with the participants wanting to keep the status quo rather than any radical change. It called for a large amount of public investment and, while welcoming the report, Peter Shore, Rippon’s successor, warned of ‘present financial stringencies’. Much of the land around the former docks was owned by the PLA, local authorities or energy companies and there was no clear consensus between them as to how the area should be redeveloped. Some small infrastructure work was carried out but this largely involved the filling-in of docks, with little regard for their amenity value. The PLA, who desperately needed the income, were enthusiastic regarding the decommissioning and sale of unused docks. The Docklands Joint Committee possibly also had the motive of preventing further private-enterprise marina-style developments such as that being created at the former St Katharine Docks. Little widespread regeneration took place in the following period, although several small developments proceeded, creating between 1976 and 1980 some warehousing, housing and road schemes at Beckton and on the Greenwich Peninsula.

There were too many self-interested participants in the regeneration process. In the meantime, jobs in the area were disappearing, the population was diminishing and an increasing amount of land lay derelict. Clearly, by the end of the decade none of the key targets set out in the London Docklands Strategic Plan regarding housing and jobs were going to be met. In July 1981 therefore, Michael Heseltine, Peter Shore’s successor, created the London Docklands Development Corporation to regenerate the riverside from London Bridge to Beckton, within the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Beckton. He later wrote in his memoirs of taking a flight in a small plane across the area and of his ‘indignation’ at seeing ‘6000 acres of forgotten wasteland’. The LDDC was based on the earlier model used to create new towns around the South East, giving control of the scheme to a board of experienced businessmen and independent of the local authorities. In effect, it had powers similar to a local authority, including that of compulsory land acquisition, although its remit did not cover local services such as housing, education and health, which remained with the local boroughs. It was given an initial budget from Government of over £60 million per annum. From the outset, the LDDC made the decision to attract private finance to the area to create new business enterprises; provide land, currently then held by public bodies, on which to do so; and to improve the poor transport infrastructure.

In 1982 most of the Isle of Dogs became an Enterprise Zone, with tax and other incentives to attract investment, seventy per cent of which came from abroad. That same year Billingsgate Fish Market moved from its traditional home beside the Thames in the City to a new site at the North Quay of the West India Docks. It was considered somewhat of a coup for the LDDC when a new TV company decided to site their studios at the West India Docks, with a former dock building refashioned by the renowned architect Terry Farrell. Many notable TV programmes were recorded in subsequent years at Limehouse Studios, including the Spitting Image series. The newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch’s News International, controversially opened offices and a printing works at the London Docks in 1986. With limited retail facilities in the area, a Kuwaiti investment company acquired part of the former tobacco warehouses of the London Docks and converted them into a small shopping centre. Unfortunately, the timing was too early and the enterprise failed, with the building currently used as the Tobacco Dock events space. Perhaps another example of being ahead of its time was the London Arena. It opened as a sports and concert venue in 1989 at Crossharbour, to the east of Millwall Docks on the Isle of Dogs, seating an audience of up to 15,000. Its location was considered too isolated and it struggled financially. When the Millennium Dome opened at Greenwich, offering similar facilities, its American owners called it a day in 2005. It was demolished the following year and the land reused as a residential area. In 1987 London City Airport opened at the former Royal Albert and King George V docks and the central quay that separated the two basins was converted into a single runway.

During their working life, the quays and areas between the docks had been accessed by several drawbridges and swing bridges. When the docks closed, their maintenance ceased and they regularly stopped working, leaving the small amount of traffic with circuitous routes to access the area. Consequently the Isle of Dogs became even more remote from the rest of London than it had been previously. In order to create better access and attract investment, the LDDC began building new roads through the area.

The former docks had been linked with the City by railways. The GLC and LDDC decided to utilize the lines to create a modern, privately-operated rail network, known as the Docklands Light Railway. Seven and a half miles of track ran on the disused London & Blackwall railway, built mostly on viaducts. The first sections, from Tower Gateway to Stratford, with a branch to Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs, began operation in August 1987 with fifteen stations. In 1991 a line was created at the western end that forked to off to Bank, a tunnelled section that cost twice as much as the entire previous route. A branch was opened from Poplar to Beckton via Canning Town in 1994 and another from Poplar to Lewisham via Greenwich in 1999. In 2009 the network was extended once again to Woolwich via the Royal Docks and London City Airport. It is now an extensive network throughout East London.

While the Docklands district was becoming more easily accessible from other parts of London by rail, it still took a considerable length of time to reach there from the City by road. A better road connection was required with the City, so the seven-mile-long Docklands Highway was created. It was completed in May 1993 with the opening of the mile-long Limehouse Link tunnel that bypassed the busy East India Dock Road.

After years of consideration, it was finally decided in 1990 to link the Docklands and the West End with an extension of the Jubilee line from Green Park via Westminster and Waterloo, Southwark, and Canning Town, before terminating at Stratford. Along the way, a number of modern station designs were created, including Europe’s largest underground station at North Greenwich. After much delay, and double the original budget, the line finally opened in November 1999.

The timing of the development of Docklands coincided with changes in banking. In 1985 the Bank of England relaxed the ruling that bank headquarters were obliged to be located in the City of London. The New York Stock Exchange had been deregulated several years earlier and its less rigorous rules allowed it to gain business from London. The Thatcher government’s response was to discontinue the regulations that separated different kinds of financial institutions in Britain, allowing them the possibility to offer a full range of services to their clients from October 1986. The event was known as the ‘Big Bang’ and it firmly re-established London as one of the world’s most significant financial centres.

With the simultaneous technology revolution that allowed financiers to work from computer screens, the style of operations within financial institutions changed. From then on most staff could work in large open-plan trading floors within their businesses, yet most City buildings were either from the Edwardian era or functional but uninspiring post-war offices. The American property developer G. Ware Travelstead of First Boston Real Estate was the first to have the idea of a new business district in London of the kind that was commonplace in North America, consisting of high-rise offices with large open-plan floors. A consortium of American property developers was brought together in 1985 to build a centrepiece building on what had been the quayside of the West India Docks. The location had been known as Canary Wharf since the 1930s when the shipping company Fruit Lines had been landing fruit from the Canary Islands. Unfortunately the plans required the demolition of the relatively new Limehouse TV studios. As the scheme escalated it became necessary for it to be handled by a company with greater financial resources, so two years later it passed to the Canadian Olympia &York company who brought in a new architect, the Argentinian César Pelli. The final building, at 250 metres was more than twice the height of St Paul’s Cathedral and at the time Europe’s tallest building. Construction began in 1987 and it was given the address No.1 Canada Square when opened in 1991, but is more generally known as simply ‘Canary Wharf’. It was joined by other high-rise buildings, creating a cluster of skyscrapers around the former basins of the West India Docks.

The south bank between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, occupied by Hay’s Wharf, was acquired in the 1980s by the State of Kuwait, through their St Martin’s Property Corporation. Supported by the LDDC, the section downstream from London Bridge was given the name ‘London Bridge City’ and redeveloped as offices, the Hay’s Galleria tourist attraction, the London Bridge Hospital, Southwark Crown Court, and housing. Several of the former warehouse buildings were retained and converted for new uses. The preserved former Second World War battle cruiser HMS Belfasthas been moored there as a museum since 1971. In 1998 St Martin’s sold the remaining stretch down to Tower Bridge, where City Hall, successor to County Hall, and the More London office complex, were built.

Much of the change on the Rotherhithe Peninsula resulted in residential development. The many docks were filled in, with the exception of Greenland and South Docks, Surrey Basin (renamed Surrey Water) and parts of Canada Dock and Lavender Dock. The centre of the peninsula, including the historic St Mary’s church and the small Brunel Museum, was largely preserved. The Surrey Quays shopping centre was opened in 1988 as was the nearby Canada Water station on the Jubilee line. The handsome, former nineteenth century headquarters building of the Surrey Commercial Docks on Surrey Quays Road remains and is a listed building.

Butler’s Wharf, downstream of Tower Bridge, ceased to be used for receiving goods in 1972 and was thereafter occupied as art studios. The designer and restaurant-owner Terence Conran successfully put forward a plan that was accepted by the LDDC to redevelop the complex for apartments and restaurants. In addition, the ‘Boilerhouse Project’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum was given a new home there as the Design Museum. A school for chefs that opened in 1996 was the last grant provided to a project by the LDDC.

The warehouses on the north quay of the West India Import Dock remained in place, one of which now houses the Museum of Docklands. The basins themselves have been kept largely intact around the new developments and are today managed by the Canal & River Trust, the successor to the British Waterways Board. There are frequent visits by super-yachts, cruise ships and the occasional naval vessel. During the 1990s a large new exhibition centre known as Excel opened on the former North Quay of the Royal Victoria Dock. A large, dome-shaped riverside event venue was built at Greenwich Peninsula on the site of the former East Greenwich Gas Works and Blackwall Point Power Station. Designed by Richard Rogers, it was opened in time for the year 2000 Millennium celebrations and is currently called the O2 Arena. Further stimulus to the development of East London came with the decision to locate the 2012 London Olympics at Stratford.

The ‘Air Line’ cable-car link between the Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Victoria Dock opened in 2012 but is so far underused, largely due to its particular location. At the time of writing there are several options being considered for rail, road and foot bridges, and tunnels. One of these is a foot and bicycle bascule bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf.

In 1998 the London Docklands Development Corporation was disbanded and control of the area was given back to the relevant local authorities. By then, 2,700 businesses were trading in the Docklands area, over 24,000 new homes had been built and 144 kilometres of roads had been laid out or upgraded. The work of the LDDC, Olympic organizers, the many developers and local boroughs has transformed almost beyond recognition the East of London around the former docks. Yet the thousands of new jobs that were created were primarily for those with different skills to the dockers and other workers who had lived in the area prior to the 1980s.

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