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Docklands

Canary Wharf

Docklands as a broad term encompasses parts of the London Boroughs of Greenwich, Newham, Southwark and Tower Hamlets. The docks are:

  • St Katherine’s Dock
  • London Docks
  • Regent’s Canal Dock (now Limehouse Basin)
  • Surrey Commercial Docks (now Surrey Quays)
  • West India, Millwall and Poplar Dock (Isle of Dogs)
  • East India Docks
  • Royal Docks

These docks have been pivotal in shaping London, England, Britain and the World’s history.

Since Roman times, London had been using the River Thames to trade. As the settlement grew and more and more ships came to unload goods onto the banks of the Thames, there became and overcrowding problem with ships often having no place to unload goods. When unloading, cargos were subject to theft and there was no protection from ships of their goods against the elements.

In 1696, The Howland Great Docks were built in Rotherhithe providing anchorage for 120 large vessels. Over the years, particularly in Georgian and Victorian times, this was expanded and eventually became Surrey Commercial Docks.  

In 1802 West India docks were built on the Isle of Dogs by a consortium of wealthy business men who were looking to cut losses to their shipping from theft and delays in unloading ships.

Following the success of West India Docks, shortly after, East India docks were set up. In 1805, the London Docks followed, 1820 for the Regent’s Canal Dock, 1828 for St Katherine’s Dock and around 1855 for the Royal Docks, these being the largest dock in the world at the time.

Each of the docks specialised in different types of goods from around the emerging empire to fuel the industrial revolution of the age. Surrey Docks concentrated on Timber, Royal Docks for food and the London Docks on high value commodities such as ivory, spices, coffee, wine and wool.

For the docks, a vast army of workers were required. Docklands being mainly wetland, was not suitable for farming or for settlement, so it was sparsely populated until this time when people flocked to the area for employment. This in turn led to major house building schemes within the area, albeit not to the standard we would expect today. Communities and population growth began to take hold.

Life for workers was tough. Wages were low, work was seasonal as it was dependent upon harvest’s from around the world. The builders of the homes for the workers knew they wouldn’t be able to afford a high rent, so houses were built quickly and cheaply.

Life wasn’t going to get much better for workers, as the docklands started to see changes that would lead the area into decline and eventual closure. In 1886, Tilbury Docks opened further down river, being located close to central London was no longer an issue with the invention of the railway as goods could easily be unloaded there and transported to London.

From 1914 to 1918, the First World War raged across Europe, this diminished Britain’s role in world trade. In the 1920s and 1930s, the great depression hit leading to a collapse of international trade, although the docks were still all going strong in spite of this.

In the 1940s, the Luftwaffe targeted the docks to try and cripple Britain’s industrial might during World War II. Many docks were damaged with over 25,000 bombs being dropped on them alone.

After the War, the docks were gradually re-built and they reached their heyday around 1960. From this point on it was a long way down. Containerisation was the final dip in the rollercoaster of Dockland’s. In the 1970 and 1980s, containerisation was developed to transport goods en masse. This meant that modern ships could not use the docks further up the Thames, so shipping moved to Tilbury which was more than able to handle this freight and accommodate the vast ships. With this final blow, all of the docks had closed by early 1980.

It is here that the story takes a turn for the better. Over the past few decades, Dockland’s fortunes have been rising. After the closure of the last dock, the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was tasked with regenerating the derelict remnants of land used for naval trade in London.

They set about this task and the first achievement was in 1982 when the first new housing in the area was built by a consortium of private developers. In 1987 the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) was built offering long needed commuter transport connections to the area offering accessibility to the rest of London. In 1985 the building of Canary Wharf  was announced, and built by the early 1990s making the area a financial hub to rival the City of London and offering jobs opportunities to residents of Docklands. There was even a shopping centre there for them to spend their hard earned cash!  In 1987, London City Airport was built in the middle of Royal Docks which further stimulated industry and commerce. Developers moved in and where factories and warehouses had once stood, luxury apartments now existed. Several of the docks were filled in to accommodate this, but many still remain intact and with reminders of their industrial heritage around the docksides.

Around the early 1990s, the LDDC was wound down as it had fulfilled its mandate of regenerating the docks. Their legacy can be seen today. Once where many a labourer worked long and hard, the more affluent now live with shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas, sailing and parks for entertainment.

Docklands is a crucial part of London’s history and it is now playing a part in its future. Many recent iconic buildings have been built there, such as Canary Wharf, Ontario Tower and numerous other sky scrapers. For those that reside there, it is a pleasurable, yet peaceful existence, close to the centre of London.

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