‘..About the middle of the seventeenth century the [East India] Company constructed a small wet dock at Blackwall for fitting out their vessels after launching from the adjacent shipbuilding yards. This dock was the first on the Thames to be fitted with gates but … was not used for the handling of goods. Pepys records that he went to see this dock on the 15th January, 1661. The dock was later incorporated in the Brunswick which in turn was absorbed by the East India Dock..’. (PLA article here.)
‘The East India Docks were opened in 1806. ‘..The gates are closed at 3 p.m. in winter, and 4 p.m. in summer. It is proposed to construct docks of vast extent, nearly three miles long, on the margin of the Thames, from a point a little below the Blackwall steamboat pier down to the Eastern Counties station, opposite Woolwich..’.
The picture above shows the street outside the gates, with carts transporting goods to the warehouses in Cutler Street, off Houndsditch, in the City.
These were the third set of docks built on the Thames, and built specifically for trade with the Far East. The East Indiamen were the largest trading ships and because of their deep draught they would lighten their loads at Long Reach, near Gravesend, and then sail on to deep moorings at Blackwall. Here they would download on to lighters which would convey the cargoes to ‘.. ‘legal quays’ and ‘sufferance wharves’, and from them to the spacious East India Company warehouses, which by the late eighteenth century centred on Billiter Street and Cutler Street..’. (Good article here.) The system encouraged pilfering, which was considerable.
The East India Company suffered less, apparently, because of its quasi-military structure. Nevertheless the success of the London Docks and St Katharine’s Docks spurred on the construction of the East India Docks.
The Brunswick Dock (1789-90) provided minor repair work, with major refits carried out at the Blackwall Docks. The East India Docks were built in association with these existing facilities, and consisted of an entrance basin from the Thames, an Import Dock, and an Export Dock. Trade was high value, but not bulky, and traffic was governed by ‘..weather in the Indian Ocean. Sailings to Bombay and China left the Thames between December and April; other ships went in June, after which there was a quiet period for three months until mid-September, when the last ships of the year [sailed]. The returning East Indiamen arrived in loose convoys; those from India arriving in the Thames at the end of June and those sailing from China in September..’.
‘..By 1883 the chief imports of the East India Dock were from Australia, the Colonies and America, and comprised rice, jute, seed, wheat, wool and tallow. In the 12 months to October 1883, 178 vessels had entered the dock, 35 of which belonged to Donald Currie & Company, which had taken two berths for their Cape mail service in 1876. In the 1880s frozen meat imports were brought through the docks, including one shipment of 30,000 tons from the Falkland Islands, said to have been the largest single cargo of meat to have been imported…’.
The right-hand lock from the Thames into the East India Dock Basin is clearly preserved today, with footbridges in the shape of lock gates over the lock itself.
The second, longer lock on the lefthand side of the above map has been closed off.
And between the two locks there is now a ‘woodland’ area –
The East India Export Dock, behind Brunswick Wharf, has become housing, and only the start of the entry lock is still visible.
The Virginia Memorial remembers the settlers who sailed from this point to colonise Jamestown, Virginia, from 1607 onwards.
In a corner of the Basin are the remains of the lock which lead to the Import Dock, a site now filled with tall, modern office buildings.
I walked down Saffron Avenue, past Oregano Drive, and Rosemary Drive, and suddenly and unexpectedly found this –
Evidence of the past remains in dock walls (20′ high), gates, and buildings, as well as the street called ‘Naval Row ‘.
I was fascinated by this picture, as I first came to the UK in a Union Castle ship – airline travel was less used in those days.
In 1909 the docks were taken over the by the Port of London Authority.
‘..The Second World War had a tremendous impact on the docks. The Import Dock was drained for the construction of Mulberry floating harbours; the Export Dock suffered such severe bomb damage that it was not reopened and was sold in 1946. It subsequently became part of the site of Brunswick Wharf power station, (demolished in the 1980s)..’.
In the 1950s and 1960s the East India Docks handled short-sea and coastal traffic, particularly ships involved in the linoleum trade. But the development of new technology for cargo handling in the 1960s, especially the introduction of containers, rendered their facilities obsolete.
‘…After three or four years of discussion, the PLA decided in August 1967 to close the East India Docks….In 1994 the ..docks have been all but obliterated. All of the original features have gone, apart from stretches of original walling…’, it is said, but I found that is not entirely true.
And going beyond the Docks I found Meridian House in Poplar High Street. ‘..The house ….at No. 115 Poplar High Street was built in 1801–2 by the East India Company… to accommodate the chaplain serving the company’s newly rebuilt almshouses and the chapel (later the Church of St Matthias). Henry Holland, East India Company Surveyor, presumably had responsibility for the building project, if not the detailed design. The house is of stock brick, with Portland stone dressings that include a pediment carrying the arms of the East India Company, a slate roof and tall end stacks..’.
And behind the house is the Church of St Mathias, built by the East India Company in 1654. Now a community centre, it felt more like a country churchyard.
And just down the road –
Peter W A Ambler
Thank you, as a teenager in the late 1950’s we visited ships there. The Palm Line , Ellerman Wilson line and others as a cadet at King Edward Vll Nautical College on Commercial Rd
There were mounds of sugar stored on the docks, the dock walls were foreboding and the water in the dock was filthy, much waste and debris from the ships, all gone now.
Thank you for visiting, and for your comments. It is many ways quite sad that London’s trade and the associated way of life has disappeared, and so fast. But technology has changed so fast and therefore the lifestyles associated with that technology.
Thank you. I very much enjoyed walking London with Bradshaw, and might repeat the experience with a better camera, or perhaps use another Victorian guidebook
Excellent and informative article, thanks.
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