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Royal Victoria Dock (1855-1981)

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London's first steamship dock
Main trade
Building the Royal Victoria Docks.
View full size imageBuilding the Royal Victoria Docks. © NMM
The Royal Victoria Dock, located at Plaistow Marshes, was well known for its meat trade, especially with South America. The dock housed a number of innovative cargo handling methods specifically designed for meat and other cold storage items. Apart from beef, the Royal Victoria Dock also captured a large portion of the American tobacco trade between 1920 and 1922. During the 1930s, Royal Victoria Dock also traded in fruit. Large storage sheds and berths were constructed for the fruit, including special orange and banana berths, and for tobacco.
Types of vessel used

View of shipping at the Royal Victoria Dock from Silvertown Way.
View full size imageView of shipping at the Royal Victoria Dock from Silvertown Way. © NMM
The Royal Victoria Dock was the first dock to be designed specifically for steamships. The entrance and area of the dock was larger than any of the other docks operating and also incorporated hydraulic machinery to handle the cargo. However the dock also accommodated the large sailing clipper ships that were still in use. The inaugural vessel Euterpe was 2000 tons, although the entrance lock could cope with vessels of up to 8000 tons.

The new hydraulic lift at the Victoria Docks.
View full size imageThe hydraulic lift at the Victoria Dock. © NMM

The dock could accommodate most vessels until 1935 when repairs made to the western entrance lock resulted in a significant reduction in depth. After this, the dock was restricted to barge traffic until it was reconstructed in the 1960s.

  • The original dock was constructed with five ‘finger’ jetties, each measuring 177 metres long and 42.7 metres wide. They provided nearly 3 miles (4.8 kilometres) of quays.
  • The entrance lock measured 24.4 metres wide, 99 metres long and 8.5 metres deep.
  • The dock had the latest hydraulic machinery to open the lock gates (it took 1.5 minutes) and operate the cranes on the quays.
  • Royal Victoria Dock was the first dock to be brought into the national railway system. It had good connections at Shoreditch and Fenchurch Street Station, through the Eastern Counties Railway.
  • A number of warehouses were built nearby, and were connected to industries in the Midlands via the Great Northern Railway.
  • Large warehouses were built to house American hogsheads of tobacco, each weighing half a ton. They were stored five high using electric cranes. Warehouse M was 6 storeys high, and had 42,475 cubic metres of storage space. At any one time there would be 15,000 – 20,000 tons of tobacco in bond.
  • The Orange Warehouse had 3,716 square metres of floor space, complete with covered platforms for transport.
  • The Banana Berth housed mechanical bucket conveyors which could process 80,000 stems of bananas per day.
  • When the dock was reconstructed, the main quay measured 366 metres in length, with a return quay to the pontoon dock measuring 171 metres.

Life Story
1850Parliamentary Act is passed enabling the construction of a new dock
1853Construction of Victoria Dock begins
1855Victoria Dock is officially opened by Prince Albert
17 June 1855Sections of the north and south walls of the entrance lock collapse
1917Ammunition being loaded at Silvertown explodes destroying a number of transit sheds and timber quays
19185486 metres of railway sidings are laid near Custom House Station
1926A special berth with meat-handling machinery is constructed for the Royal Mail
1927Another meat-handling berth is built for the Blue Star Line
1928The entrance lock is repaired and restricted to barge traffic
1934The banana berth for Fyffes ships is constructed
1935The orange warehouse is completed. Three new warehouses and three first class berths are built on the south side of the dock. The western entrance lock is repaired.
1936Reconstruction of the main quay begins
January 1937A new 'North Quay' replaces the 'finger' jetties. The dock is dredged to a depth of 9.5 metres.
1940Enemy bombing destroys the marmalade warehouse
1946Construction of five new warehouses begins
November 1957The entrance lock is closed to traffic for reconstruction
23 September 1963Reconstruction of the western entrance begins
13 April 1967The western entrance is opened
1978The Royal Victoria Dock is partially closed
1981The Royal Docks are closed
1983The PLA sells Royal Victoria Dock to the LDDC
2000The ExCel Centre opens

Find out more
StoriesSteamships and the Royal Victoria Dock
The arrival of larger steamships in the Thames forced further innovations as the port adapted to the rapidly changing technologies of the Victorian age
StoriesMills at the Royal Victoria Dock
In the 20th century, the Royal Victoria Dock became the leading centre of flour milling in London
StoriesLondon's biggest explosion
The terrible events at Silvertown's TNT factory
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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