Chapter Eight

The Modern Port of London

Despite the growth of air transport, the United Kingdom still relies on the sea for ninety-five per cent of its imports, and much of its exports. The volume of goods passing through the major British ports has increased in recent decades. In the 1990s that trade passed 500 million tonnes per year, with three quarters being oil derivatives or other bulk cargoes. Seventy-five per cent of the total amount passed through 15 ports, including London. Since a downturn in trade after the global financial crisis of 2008 there has been overcapacity in the global shipping of dry bulk cargoes such as iron ore and coal, and containers, leading to rock-bottom rates, bankruptcies and restructuring in those businesses. British ports have been competing with each other to better serve supply chains. On the Thames there is the new London Gateway terminal, the number of berths has increased at Felixstowe and Southampton, a new terminal is being built at Liverpool, and Tilbury has been investing in new facilities.

A hundred years ago the largest portion of London’s overseas trade was with the British Empire, with wool, cheese, butter, wine and canned fruits arriving from Australia, lamb from New Zealand, tea from Ceylon, tea and tobacco from Africa, as well as sugar and bananas from the West Indies. That changed even before Britain’s entry into the Common Market in 1973 as the former colonies gained independence and patterns of world trade also refocused. Today the biggest portion of UK trade is with the European Union. While the docks and wharves of the Upper Port were closing between the late 1960s and early 1980s, the terminals further downriver, which could handle larger vessels and were more easily adaptable, continued to flourish. New ones opened and others evolved with the continually-changing requirements of UK trade and methods of cargo-handling. Oil and aggregates, more suited to sites away from the city, increased in importance.

Today London is the second-largest UK port by tonnage handled. There are almost sixty active commercial docks, wharves and terminals along the tidal river, from Wandsworth downriver to Canvey Island. The main concentrations are in the boroughs of Thurrock and Barking & Dagenham. Between them these sites handle a great range of consignments, from more than eighty countries. Other than bulk cargoes, a multitude of general goods arrive at Tilbury and London Gateway in containers or on roll-on/roll-off trailers. The majority of individual terminals along the river however handle particular types of specialized shipments and processes. Many of them deal in imports of construction materials and bulk liquids. As would be expected, almost three quarters are sited on the deeper, wider river below the Thames Barrier. Fifteen per cent of London’s waste is taken by barge down to Cory Environmental’s facility at Belvedere, where it is used to generate electricity and produce ashaggregates for road building.

Petroleum has been arriving along the Essex coast of the Estuary since the late nineteenth century when Standard Oil (Esso) opened a terminal at Purfleet, which is still in operation. Until the Second World War it was normally shipped in its crude form. Following the 1951 seizure and nationalization of the Abadan refinery in Iran, owned by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later renamed British Petroleum), refining has mostly taken place in consumer nations. By the 1960s oil accounted for forty per cent by value of cargo entering the Port. The section of tideway downriver from Purfleet continues to be a major storage and refining centre, particularly at Coryton and Canvey Island. Shell closed its major and long-established refinery at Shell Haven in 2000 however, but continues to import aviation fuel at nearby Stanford-le-Hope, the largest such facility in the UK. NuStar Terminals has two jetties at Grays to receive hydrocarbons. At Canvey Island, Calor Gas deals in liquefied petroleum gas and Oikos Storage pumps aviation fuels and other petroleum products directly into government and commercial pipelines. Navigator Terminals (formerly Vopak) receives, stores and processes petroleum products further upriver at West Thurrock.

Motor vehicles and parts are an important contributor to trade. The Ford Motor Company has been located on the riverside at Dagenham since 1931 where it now manufactures around one million engines each year. The majority are shipped to Continental Europe from the company’s jetty, with two ship arrivals each day. Ford imports over a quarter of a million vehicles each year, with a relatively small number exported. Another major location for cars is C Ro Ports at its ro-ro terminal close to the Dartford Bridge and a large number arrive at Tilbury.

The discharging and distribution of marine-dredged aggregates, used in London’s buoyant construction industry, is a major industry on the river. Much of it comes from approved sites in the English Channel and is received at various wharves. These include Tarmac, with several terminals between Charlton and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford. Aggregate Industries at Northfleet operates its own ships and is a major manufacturer of concrete. It moves bulk materials along the river with its company-owned tugs and barges. CEMEX has terminals and cement and paving-stone manufacturing facilities at Northfleet, Dagenham, Greenwich and Fulham, as well as within the Port of Tilbury, moving aggregates and materials between them by barge. Several trains leave Brett’s terminal at Cliffe on the North Kent coast each day, one of several of the company’s facilities along the Thames and Kent coast, loaded with aggregates dredged from the North Sea. Hanson has facilities at Wandsworth, Dagenham, Greenwich and West Thurrock for concrete and asphalt. Rail connections link their riverside terminals with other company plants around the London area.

Downriver of the QEII Bridge, Seacon Terminals handles around half a million tonnes of steel and forest products a year, operating its own ships from its all-weather covered berth at Northfleet. Industrial Chemicals has an 80-acre site on the former West Thurrock Power Station where it employs 300 people and handles a million tonnes of materials annually. As we have seen in an earlier chapter, a long-established name on the river is Tate & Lyle and forty ships arrive each year at the company’s two Silvertown jetties. The adjoining refinery, now owned by American Sugar Holdings although still operating under the Tate & Lyle brand, is one of the world’s largest such operations, producing up to forty per cent of the UK’s refined sugars as well as a range of products sold to food and drink manufacturers. Raw sugar arrives in bulk from Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America and the Pacific. Sugar products are also exported by ship.

The Port of London Authority

The Port of London Authority continues as the guardian of the tidal Thames. It is one of over a hundred Trust Ports in the UK, each answerable to the Department of Transport and governed by its individual regulations. Its legal status was most recently defined by the Port of London Act 1968. Unlike others, such as Dover, while it no longer operates docks and wharves directly, it continues to be responsible for navigation, safety and environmental matters, and economic sustainability. Its remit covers 95 miles of river downstream from Teddington Lock, increased by 22 miles to Margate and Clacton in 1964. To carry out these responsibilities, a wide variety of disciplines and skills are involved, from planning to pilotage, engineering, environmental and regulation. The tidal river is Britain’s busiest inland waterway and, as well as commercial activities, almost 10 million passengers use it each year, including tourists and commuters. The PLA works together with twenty-two local boroughs along the length of the river, as well as Kent and Essex County Councils and the Greater London Authority. There are also numerous other partners, ranging from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to numerous sports and community organizations. Since 1992 the PLA has been based at London River House at Gravesend, beside its Port Control Centre.

The PLA is self-funding in a competitive environment, with high capital costs. Since the closing of the Shell Haven refinery in 2000, the loss of a major source of income, there has been much focus on being a lean and cost-effective service provider. In 2015 it made an operating profit of over £7 million. In that year 34 per cent of the PLA’s income came from pilotage, 31 per cent from fees from vessels entering and leaving the port, 19 per cent from rents and licensing and 16 per cent from marine services and licensing.

For much of the twentieth century, when it was the operator of the dock complexes, the PLA employed over 13,000 workers. Now, when commercial activity is dealt with by private and public companies and some tasks are contracted out, the PLA employs less than 400 managerial and specialist staff. It no longer keeps dock tugs and floating cranes as it had done in the past but a fleet of forty PLA vessels is maintained at Denton Wharf at Gravesend where a redevelopment was completed in 2006.

The PLA has been responsible for pilotage in and out of the port since it took over from Trinity House in 1988. Pilots board or disembark ships at the pilotage stations at either Harwich or Ramsgate, depending on their route in and out of the Estuary. Ninety pilots are employed, including 15 ‘river pilots’ with specialist knowledge of bridges and piers between London Bridge and Putney. It takes four to five years before a pilot obtains the necessary qualifications. Pilots are trained on the PLA’s own advanced simulator and when an unusually large vessel, such as a cruise ship, is due to enter the river they practice its arrival using this facility. The PLA’s Thames Navigation Service was established in 1959 at Gravesend to provide ships’ crews and pilots with up-to-the-minute information via VHF radio regarding conditions and obstructions on the river. It also enables wharfingers to know the timing of incoming vessels. On the river itself there are PLA control centres located at Gravesend, covering the lower river, and near the Thames Barrier covering the tidal river upstream of Coldharbour Point (approximately the eastern border of Greater London). All commercial vessels using the river are required to carry transponders so their location can be tracked. The PLA’s control centres oversee the movement of 230,000 commercial and leisure vessels each year, more than 10,000 of which are large ships such as container, cruise ships, or tankers, over an area of 600 square miles. The post of Chief Harbour Master is currently held by Rear Admiral David Snelson who is responsible for navigation safety. The organization operates patrol boats between Teddington and Southend and is also responsible for buoys, beacons and bridge lights on the tideway. It was involved in the implementation of new safety regulations following the sinking of the Marchioness pleasure boat near Cannon Street railway bridge in the summer of 1989.

Oversight of the dredging of the river in order to maintain navigation channels is a continuous task for the PLA (although the actual dredging has been contracted out since 1991). It operates sophisticated underwater equipment to monitor the shifting riverbed over 400 square miles. The new hydrographic vessel Maplin was introduced in 2015 allowing for higher speeds of underwater survey. The PLA also has a team of divers and salvage experts.

The Port of Tilbury

Tilbury remained as the sole survivor of the old Port of London Authority’s enclosed docks when all of the upriver ones were closed. It was not only very extensive but also distant from an urban area and had never been boxed-in by warehouses. It therefore had space to expand and adapt to new methods of cargo-handling, and far enough downriver to be reached by larger, modern cargo vessels. As ships carrying timber increased in size in the 1960s, and began to carry packaged cargoes, that trade moved to Tilbury from the Surrey Commercial Docks. During the same decade the PLA began leasing berths and land to tenants who then erected buildings and supplied their own equipment. In its first hundred years or so Tilbury Docks had almost doubled in land area. By the mid-1970s over half of London’s container traffic was passing through Tilbury and it continued to evolve to handle more general cargoes, containers and bulk grains. A new rail terminal opened in 1970, as well as what was the world’s largest refrigerated container storage in 1978.

The PLA were, however, burdened by the requirements and costs of the National Dock Labour Scheme. As with other wharves along the river, Tilbury was hampered by industrial disputes, so new container facilities that opened in 1967 could not be fully utilized until several years later. With such a disadvantage, it was overtaken in volume by some other ports on the Continent and in Britain, especially Felixstowe, that were able to operate outside the scheme. With the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme by the Thatcher government in 1989, Tilbury went from loss to profit in one year to the next.

In 1990 Tilbury Docks were separated within the PLA from the river management and property divisions. It was by then the only publicly-owned freight facility on the Thames. It needed massive investment that the PLA was unable to provide if it was to compete with other major ports. The decision was therefore taken to privatize the docks and a Parliamentary Bill was passed in 1991. A management buy-out was undertaken, led by Alan Ravenscroft and John McNab, and Tilbury parted from the PLA in March 1992. Three years later it was resold to Forth Ports, which also operates a number of ports in Scotland.

In 2016 the main Port of Tilbury covered 850 acres including 180 acres of dock water, with seven and a half kilometres of quayside and more than 500,000 square metres of warehousing. The entrance lock is 32 metres wide and deep enough for vessels with a draught of 10.5 metres. The three pairs of gates, with a top, middle and bottom set, which cater for both smaller and larger vessels, will be replaced during 2017 and 2018 to provide enhanced flood protection. Tilbury is now served by three rail terminals. It has the advantage of being located close to the M25 motorway and QEII river crossing and supports the idea of a second bridge further downriver in order to provide road access from both east and west to ease traffic congestion. Within the complex, 9,000 road traffic movements take place each day along the port’s seven miles of roads. Four on-site wind turbines provide up to 60% of the electricity requirements.

Tilbury handles 16 million tonnes of cargo each year, with a value of nearly 9 billion pounds. These include grain, paper, construction materials, scrap metals and waste, cars, animal feed from South America, wine, and chilled food for supermarkets. Around 60 per cent of traffic is to and from Europe, anywhere from the Baltics to the Mediterranean Sea. Some of the largest vessels arriving at Tilbury are owned by the Grimaldi line, carrying timber from South America and returning via Nigeria with general goods. Their ships are too big to pass through the entrance lock so berth on a riverside quay.

One hundred and twenty companies work within the complex. The Port of Tilbury directly manages some of the enterprises, while others are independently operated by tenants. The Allied and ADM flour mills, EMR scrap metals and Travis Perkins building materials are some of the largest, operating their own independent berths within the docks. Three thousand seven hundred workers are employed in the Port, of which over 700 are directly employed by the Port of Tilbury. An on-site academy provides training for 70,000 people each year to both work within the Port and in the wider logistics industry. As in the days of the PLA, security continues to be provided by Tilbury’s own police force of 14 officers. They have jurisdiction up to one mile from the boundary of the Port, with the same powers as other police forces.

Tilbury is the UK’s third largest container port after Felixstowe and Southampton. In 2012 the Port took full ownership of Tilbury Container Services, previously a joint-venture with Associated British Ports and P&O Ports. They renamed it the London Container Terminal and combined it with their own short-sea container operation that handled cargo from the near-Continent. Much of it is perishable foodstuffs arriving in ‘reefer’ (refrigerated) containers. To an extent, Tilbury now competes for container business with the new London Gateway operation further downriver. Perry Glading, Chief Operating Officer for the Port of Tilbury, responded to this point, saying: ‘Tilbury’s uniqueness is the diversity of its business base. We have a large container business but it only represents about 5 to 6% of our overall turnover and tonnage.’ P&O Ferries’ roll-on/roll-off service to Zeebrugge is a major route, with 24 sailings each week carrying 200,000 trailers per year. Hyundai imports 90,000 cars annually from Korea and the Czech Republic. A new sorting and fulfillment centre is being created in the London Distribution Park, covering over 70 acres, where cargo will arrive in containers and trailers, to be offloaded, sorted and distributed around the UK. The site will contain the UK’s largest warehouse of over 200,000 square metres as a logistics centre for Amazon.

Another important cargo is animal feed and Tilbury is the UK’s leading port for both the importation of forest products and grain. It is also the UK’s largest waste export facility. A substantial volume passing through is scrap steel, with around a million tonnes exported each year. A recent development is that prices to put general rubbish into landfill sites have increased substantially following the EU Landfill Directive of 1999. ‘Waste has now become a valuable commodity,’ explains Glading. ‘Once cleaned and tidied up it can be baled and incinerated to create electricity. What we’re seeing here is all forms of waste, whether that be general household waste, office waste, wood waste, being shredded, cleaned and exported all around the world but primarily to Scandinavia for district heating systems.’ About 80% arrives at Tilbury by truck but an increasing amount is coming by water. ‘It’s early days but there is a focus on using the river better for the movement of waste,’ states Glading. Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board is currently constructing an energy-fromwaste facility in the Port that will produce 300 gigawatts per year from waste wood, enough to power 70,000 homes.


The modern Port of Tilbury.

Tilbury’s moth-balled 1930s passenger terminal was reopened in 1995 as cruise-ship holidays became increasingly popular. Now renamed as the London Cruise Terminal it primarily acts as an embarkation point for British holidaymakers taking cruises around the Baltic area, serving 55 sailings and over 100,000 passengers per year. Based on existing bookings, Tilbury will be handling 70 sailings and 140,000 passengers in 2018. Ships berth against the 348-metre-long floating quayside that rises and falls together with the vessel by about six metres on each tide. With the potential for further traffic, the Port of Tilbury is investing and upgrading the facilities.

DP World London Gateway

In the early 1970s the PLA, still then an operator of berthing facilities, proposed a new deep-water container port and oil terminal further downriver at Maplin Sands. It was to be created in partnership with Shell and the construction company Mowlem but they were frustrated by the government’s plans for a third London airport in the Estuary. The airport scheme was eventually abandoned and the PLA had anyway decided to concentrate resources at Tilbury. In the meantime – and despite improvements at Tilbury – cargo vessels grew to a size that made it difficult for them to pass into enclosed docks and too large to berth at London. Large, long-distance container ships have in recent years often unloaded at Continental ports such as Rotterdam, Hamburg or Antwerp and the parts of their cargoes bound for Britain then transshipped across the North Sea.

The solution came with the proposal by P&O Ports to open a new deepwater container terminal on the former oil refinery site at Shell Haven, vacated by Shell in 2000. It is located on the Essex coast of the Thames Estuary, near Stanford-le-Hope, thirty miles from Central London. The planning application process was lengthy and approved in May 2007. In the meantime P&O Ports had been acquired by the Dubai-based DP World, which operates sixty-five ports around the world. Having decided to continue with the scheme, DP World London Gateway opened its first riverside berths in November 2013, allowing the world’s largest container ships to be unloaded and loaded. The first ship to arrive was the 58,000-tonne Caledon, carrying fruit and wine from South Africa. By 2015 the terminal was handling vessels of over 18,000 TEUs, the largest ever to navigate the Thames. That was previously only possible in the south of England at Felixstowe or Southampton, from where containers were normally trucked to logistics parks in the Midlands for redistribution of goods around the country. London Gateway is directly connected to the rail network, with services operated by DB Schenker Rail. It includes a 230-acre logistics park from where cargoes can be broken down, repacked, stored and distributed. The target is to eventually handle 3,500,000 containers each year and to be Europe’s largest such operation.

The total area of the complex is twice that of the City of London. It began with two berths but six are planned in the long-term, which would provide a total of 2,700 metres of quay, with a depth of 17 metres, and 24 cranes. The third berth became operational in the second half of 2016. London Gateway was built 400 metres out into the river, requiring 30 million tonnes of silt to be dredged to create the new land. A nature reserve had to be created to accommodate wildlife that was disturbed. The cost of creating the terminal is expected to be £1.5 billion during the first 15 years.

The cranes that load and unload ships at London Gateway are the tallest in the world, rising to 138 metres. They can reach across 25 containers and lift 80 tonnes. Constructed in Shanghai, they were shipped fully assembled from there. Loading and unloading of containers is computerized and preplanned in advance, although the cranes are manually operated. Unlike those at Felixstowe and Southampton they are weather-resistant, allowing London Gateway to operate around the clock in almost all conditions.

The future of the Port

Trade passing through the Port of London remains at only around two-thirds of the volume achieved in the heady days of the 1960s. By then London had already been overtaken by Rotterdam, which was passed by Singapore in 1992. Currently the world’s leading port is Shanghai. The Port of London competes against Grimsby & Immingham (currently Britain’s leading port by volume), the oil and chemical port of Tees & Hartlepool, as well as Felixstowe and Southampton in the container business, and a new deep-sea port development at Liverpool. Traffic in the Port of London recently peaked in 2008 at 53 million tonnes and since then has averaged 45 million tonnes, much reduced from the peaks of the late 1930s and early 1960s. Container and ro-ro traffic steadily increased during the decade until 2015. With London Gateway – the most significant expansion in the Port since the opening of the King George V Dock in the 1920s, as well as a rapid expansion and adaption at Tilbury to an ever-changing market – perhaps London can once again rise to become Britain’s premier port. Although London itself is far from being the manufacturing centre it was until the 1960s, the downriver Port is still wellplaced for the traffic of goods and commodities. Fifty per cent of the UK’s manufacturing and trading activity is located within a two-hour drive of the Port’s main terminals. The PLA are currently forecasting further growth to 60 million tonnes or more by 2036. There are now over 43,000 people employed in the Port, of which about 27,000 are involved in port operations and the remainder in supply-chain activities.

In comparison with some ports, London has the advantage of handling a diversified range of products. Over a third is general merchandise that passes through in containers and ro-ro trailers. Almost a quarter is oil and nearly the same in aggregates and cement. The remainder includes vehicles and engines, paper and forest products, fertilizers and animal feeds, chemicals, steel and scrap metal, and food and wine. Britain imports more goods than it exports and currently eighty-four per cent of goods passing through the Port are imports. For every ten containers that arrive with merchandise at Tilbury, about four leave empty.

Forth Ports has a 15 to 20-year plan to double the amount of cargo being handled at Tilbury, to over 30 million tonnes per year. It has been acquiring adjacent land that will increase the size of the estate to around 1,100 acres. This includes half of the adjacent Tilbury Power Station to the east of Tilbury Fort, with its river frontage and a deep-water jetty, in order to increase facilities by a quarter. One area of expansion is in building-related traffic. A Port of Tilbury-owned business, London Construction Links, works together with construction companies to consolidate materials and equipment before onward passage by river to London sites.

With the opening of London Gateway, the Port of London offers a wider range of opportunities to shipowners. Tilbury and London Gateway compete in the container business but according to Perry Glading, ‘Tilbury is more short-sea European and smaller niche services, whereas London Gateway is more about the very large Far East to the UK vessels, so we’re talking about different economies of size when it comes to vessels.’

Tilbury won the contract to ship building materials upriver to the site when Canary Wharf was being developed in the 1980s. Since then spoil and building components related to major London infrastructure projects have become a significant traffic on the river. With a continuous stream of new projects in London, that is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future. The rebuilding of Blackfriars Station and the tunnelling of Crossrail are the latest projects to be completed, with the 25-kilometre-long Thames Tideway Tunnel, the largest single project on the tidal river in over a century, now also underway. In 2016 the PLA acquired Peruvian Wharf at Silvertown, to the south of the former Royal Docks. The intention is to lease it for the creation of a building materials terminal, which should be operational in 2017.

The Thames is too small for the biggest cruise ships, which instead head for Southampton. London is becoming a popular destination for cruise vessels of up to 48,000 tons however, and their large structures can now regularly be seen moored at Tilbury, Greenwich, the West India Docks and the Upper Pool of London. A new 230-metre berth will be privately developed at Enderby Wharf at Greenwich. Passenger numbers at Tilbury’s London Cruise Terminal, reopened in 1995, reached 100,000 in 2015 and are expected to continue rising. Despite being relatively small amongst cruise ships, the Viking Star and Viking Sea were the largest ships to squeeze through the Thames Barrier in 2015 and 2016. Passenger numbers along the river, such as on trip boats and river buses, exceeded 10 million for the first time in 2015. The current target set by the Mayor of London is to reach 12 million. Various new piers and pier extensions have been planned accordingly.

Significant investment is being made in the Port infrastructure by private enterprise and the PLA, with around one billion pounds planned in the five years to 2020, notably at Tilbury and London Gateway. These include facilities to handle bulk liquids, in passenger piers, for cruise ships, and for new vessels. In 2015 the £7 million multi-purpose mooring maintenance vessel London Titan was launched, the largest single investment by the PLA in two decades. The PLA are encouraging the opening of new independent wharves in order to achieve their goal. With a shortage of land for residential use in the South East of England, and the attractiveness of riverside locations, there is the temptation for private wharf-owners to sell off their sites. In order to preserve the Port and reduce road traffic, the PLA have worked with the mayors of London and the government to secure those sites for continuing commercial and passenger use under planning regulations. A report in 2005 listed 25 wharves upstream of the Thames Barrier and a further 25 below it, from Fulham to Erith, requiring protection.

The City of London has long been dominant in global maritime finance and insurance. Many of the contracts that match ships and cargoes around the world are brokered in the City. In addition to its well-established facilities and institutions, London has the advantage of being in a convenient time zone between East and West and of a globally-spoken business language. Yet these maritime businesses have in recent years been in danger of moving abroad, most notably to Singapore, which has offered attractive tax breaks. In November 2016 the City’s Baltic Exchange, where shipping contracts have been agreed since the mid-eighteenth century, was acquired by the Singapore Exchange. In May 2016 the British electorate voted in a national referendum to leave the European Union, a process dubbed as ‘Brexit’. No doubt there will be challenges and opportunities as a result. The possibility of offering globally competitive tax breaks and reducing excessive bureaucracy are examples of the opportunities that may exist in a future outside the European Union. I asked Perry Glading of the Port of Tilbury whether Brexit will have any major effect on his trade. ‘About 60% of our business [at Tilbury] is with Europe,’ he pointed out. ‘Will Brexit change that? There’s the million dollar question. It will have a change of some description. I think the core of our business is likely to remain with Europe. Whether that becomes 55% as opposed to 60%, I don’t know. When I look forward, as to how we trade, I would say that will not materially change in the foreseeable future, Brexit or not.’

If you want to see ocean-going cargo ships on the Thames today, they are best viewed passing Gravesend on their way into Tilbury and the other nearby wharves. The larger vessels may not be as charming as those of the past but they are still an impressive sight. All the old docks and wharves of the Upper Port have long since closed. The massive cranes that lined them have been dismantled. You will no longer hear the sounds of ships’ horns in the East End. Large ocean-going cargo vessels do not venture further upstream than Tate & Lyle at Silvertown. There is no longer waterside industry between Deptford and London Bridge and commercial riverside activity now begins downstream from around Greenwich. Is it possible that, despite the efforts of the PLA, urban London will in the future continue to expand eastwards, driving maritime industry off the Thames altogether?

Visit the tidal Thames today and look closely. You can still spot a few clues to the existence of what was there in the past: traces of former dock entrance locks and old dock warehouses; some old wharves around Wapping, Limehouse, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe that have been converted into apartments; parts of the West India Docks as a water feature surrounding the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf; St Katharine’s and Regent’s Canal Docks as yacht marinas; and London City Airport in the former Royal Albert and King George V Docks. The river police still operate from the same base at Wapping Stairs as they have done for 200 years. Many of the stations on the Docklands Light Railway remind us of London’s maritime heritage, notably West India Quay, Canary Wharf, East India, Royal Victoria, Royal Docks, Royal Albert, and King George V. The river is more open and accessible than in its commercial heyday; there are gaps between buildings and the banks less densely crowded. Where the public were previously forbidden they are now welcome and can enjoy the views from riverside paths.

A century ago, as Sir Joseph Broodbank was writing his book History of the Port of London, a major expansion of the Port was taking place. The King George V Dock was then being constructed as an extension of the Royal Albert. Broodbank had previously been the Secretary of the London & India Docks Company and a founder board member of the Port of London Authority. He was therefore very familiar with the vast and bustling docks and wharves that stretched from London Bridge to North Woolwich and further down the tideway at Tilbury. He understood that the earlier dock operators before him could not possibly have foreseen the transition ahead of them, especially from wood and sail to iron and steam vessels, which progressively revolutionized the Port. Broodbank looked back on 1,900 years of history and stated with confidence: ‘The future of the Port of London is as secure as the future of any human institution can be.’ But he was not able to predict the great change ahead of him, from sacks, crates and barrels, to containers and bulk carrying, that would kill the Upper Port he knew so well. Nor could he have known that during the following century air transport would have such a big effect on both passenger travel and the movement of cargo. Our generation can only take a guess at the changes in the next hundred years. One wonders what new science, technology and engineering, as well as shifts in economies and politics, lie ahead that may bring fundamental differences to shipping and the world’s ports.

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