The Port of London’s river and wharf facilities were becoming inadequate by the end of the 18th century. Ship arrivals from overseas in 1702 numbered 839, but by 1794 the figure had risen to 2,219 – and the average ship size had doubled. Coastal trades told a similar story, with 11,964 arrivals in 1795, almost double the figure for 1750.
By 1800 those increases dictated a need for radical development. The only solution was the construction of docks – the daunting prospect of digging massive holes in the ground and letting the waters of the River Thames fill them.
The concept of alienating much of the East London landscape was so revolutionary that it required the sanction of Parliament. That duly happened and the West India Dock was opened in August 1802 by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. The West India Dock was followed by London Docks, opening early in 1805 – they were a special case, designated as the landing point for high-duty produce such as wine, brandy and tobacco. Warehouses were provided with large vaults for the storage of bonded items.
When we talk of alienating the East London landscape, the construction of St Katherine Dock provided a good example. Though the smallest of the docks, it required the demolition of more than 800 houses. In their midst, another building to go was the hospital of St Katherine, founded in 1148 by Matilda of Boulogne, wife of King Stephen. Thus did the dock receive its name, while the hospital was relocated to Regent’s Park.
So the development of the dock system proceeded. They were controlled by private enterprise – the West India Dock for instance, was created largely at the hands of influential West Indies merchants. By 1886, when Tilbury Docks were opened, the entire network was operating with the exception of the King George V Dock, which joined them in 1921. Even half a century after KGV opened, the Royal Docks still formed the largest impounded area of dock water in the world.
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Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - September 2009 Issue