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Surrey Commercial Docks (1807-1970)

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The only docks in South London
Main trade

Surrey Commercial Docks.
View full size imageSurrey Commercial Docks. © NMM
The Surrey Docks were originally occupied by many different companies, trading in commodities such as timber, hemp, flax, tar, grain, salt, fruit, cheese, bacon and coal.  After the formation of the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, timber and grain became the staple produce traded at the docks.

Greenland Dock from the air.
View full size imageGreenland Dock from the air. © NMM
Timber deals, boards and staves came from North America and the Baltic and softwood was imported from Canada, Scandinavia and Russia. The Deal Porters were a specialist group of dockers who dealt solely with timber, and were based at Surrey Docks. There were also a number of small independent timber wharves established along the banks of the Grand Surrey Canal.

Types of vessel used

Unloading timber at the Surrey Docks.
View full size imageUnloading timber at the Surrey Docks. © NMM
Like so many of the docks in London, the Surrey Commercial Docks were designed for sailing vessels, but were able to accommodate steam ships as they grew in popularity and size. After the Greenland Dock was enlarged, it was able to handle large passenger liners, of up to 14000 tons.

The Surrey Commercial Docks had to cope with a lot of barge traffic, as there was no railway access to the site. Timber was transported by barge to wharves along the Surrey Canal or on the Thames.

  • The dock system covered 372 acres.
  • The engineers for the canal and docks were Ralph Dodd, John W. Rowe and William Jessop.
  • Surrey Commercial Docks comprised of 10 docks: Lavender Dock, Stave Dock, Albion Dock, Island Dock, Lady Dock, Russia Dock, Canada Dock, Greenland Dock, Norway Dock and South Dock (formerly East Country Dock).
  • The docks also had 1 basin: Surrey Basin; and 14 timber yards: Lavender Yard, Acorn Yard, Stave Yard, Island Yard, Russia Yard, Baltic Yard, Centre Yard, Canada Yard, Quebec Yard, Station Yard, Steel Yard, Commercial Yard, Swedish Yard, East Country Yard.
  • The Surrey Entrance Lock measured 16 metres across and 8.2 metres deep.
  • The Grand Surrey Commercial Canal was 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometres) long.
  • The docks had grain warehouses with a capacity of 35,000 tons and 46 acres of timber storage sheds.
  • The reconstructed Greenland Dock covered 22 acres of water featuring a lock 168 metres long by 24.4 metres across. The engineer on the project was Sir John Wolfe-Barry.
Life Story
c.1700 Howland Great Wet Dock is built on 10 acres of land
1725 Howland Great Wet Dock is leased to the South Sea Company
1760s Howland Great Wet Dock is sold and renamed Greenland Dock
1801 The Grand Surrey Canal Company is formed and construction of the Grand Surrey Canal begins
1807 Opening of the Grand Surrey Canal Basin. The Commercial Dock Company and The East Country Dock Company are formed.
1808 The docks are closed for improvement. Greenland Dock is bought, refurbished and renamed Commercial Dock.
1812 Baltic Dock and Norway Dock are opened.
1850 East Country Dock is enlarged and renamed South Dock
1863 Lavender Lock is built
1864 All the companies amalgamate under the name, Surrey Commercial Dock Company
1876 Canada Dock is opened. Grain and timber warehouses are built.
1895 Construction work to widen Greenland Dock begins
1904 The new Greenland Dock is complete
1908 The Port of London Authority is formed
1926 Quebec Dock opens
7 September 1940 350,000 tons of timber is burnt due to enemy bombing
5 January 1944 Construction of the Phoenix breakwaters begins in Quebec and Russia Yard
17 March 1944 The 'Phoenix' units are floated out of the docks
December 1970 Surrey Commercial Docks close
1971 Many of the timber yards are filled in
1977 Surrey Commercial Docks are sold to Southwark Borough Council
January 1979 Construction of a new housing development begins
1994 South Dock is used as London's largest marina, with over 200 berths
17 September 1999 The Jubilee Line extension opens at Canada Water

Find out more
StoriesImproving the port
During this period the port evolved to cope with the increasing volume of trade.
StoriesGoing for growth: The West India and the Greenland Docks
New dockyards on the Isle of Dogs and Rotherhithe are opened to ease congestion.
Fighting back: the port, the Thames and the liberation of Europe
How the Thames contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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