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St Katharine Docks (1828-1969)

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The docks at the heart of the City of London
Main trade

The opening of St Katharine's Docks, on Saturday 25 October 1828.
View full size imageThe opening of the St Katharine Docks was a great occasion. © NMM

The St Katharine Docks were one of the smallest and most centrally located dock systems in London. The docks were renowned for handling the trade in luxury items and for the vast magnificent warehouses that lined the quays.

A huge range of items were imported, exported, sorted and packaged at St Katharine Docks, including:

Shells Wine Ostrich feathers Wool
Ivory Rubber China Mohair
Sugar      Carpets  Tortoiseshell Dried Fruit
Marble  Spices Perfume  Hops

Rags

Indigo Tallow  Turtles
Matches Coal Tea

        

Entrance to St Katharine's Dock.
View full size imageEntrance to St Katharine's Docks. © NMM

One of the biggest commodities for the St Katharine Docks was wool. Together with the London Docks, about 40% of the country’s wool trade, worth around £8 million, passed through London every year. At the St Katharine Docks, around 32 acres of warehouse space was allotted to the wool trade alone, accommodating 500-600,000 bales of wool. Another major trade for the docks was tea. Approximately 32,000 tons of tea from China, India and Ceylon passed through the St Katharine Docks in a year. The tea was mixed, sorted and packaged at the docks, ready for transport.

Warehouses at St Katharine's Dock.
View full size imageWarehouses at St Katharine Docks. © NMM

The St Katharine Docks also dominated the shell and feather trades. Six times a year, dealers would visit the docks and purchase items such as tortoiseshell, mother of pearl, ostrich feathers and osprey plumes. It has been estimated that up to 5,000 tons of shell and £3 million worth of feathers were sold a year. The trades in these goods are reflected in the names of some of the warehouses in the docks, such as Ivory House, Indigo House and Marble Quay.

The St Katharine Dock House.
View full size imageThe St Katharine Dock House. © NMM

However, the increase in vessel size and the lack of railway access, saw a decline in the viability of the relatively small St Katharine Docks. As ships progressed from sail to steam and the size of the steam vessels grew, less trade could be handled at the St Katharine Docks. This changed the purpose of the docks into a centrally located storage facility for vessels unloading at other docks on the Thames.

Types of vessel used
St Katharine's Docks from the Basin.
View full size imageSt Katharine Docks from the Basin. © NMM
The St Katharine Docks were primarily designed for sailing ships, and this was to bring problems in later years as ship technology progressed. The shape and size of the basins, and the size of the entrance lock, meant that only small vessels could use the system. As a result, the docks could only be served by coasters of up to 1000-ton capacity and by colliers and lighters ferrying goods from larger ships, which had unloaded in other docks.
Statistics
  • The site covers approximately 25 acres of land.
  • The engineer for the project was Thomas Telford, and it was to be his only construction project in London. The engineer Thomas Rhodes assisted Telford, and was the on-site engineer.
  • It was very expensive, costing £68,000 per acre to construct.
  • 2,500 labourers were employed to clear the ground. The rubble and soil was then shipped up the river in barges to be used in construction work elsewhere in the city.
  • The docks consisted of two connected basins, the Western Dock and the Eastern Dock, with a small central basin in the middle.
  • The docks were linked to the Thames by an entrance lock. This 180 feet (55 metre) long, 45 feet (14 metre) wide and 25 feet (8 metre) deep. It had three pairs of gates, enabling one large or two small vessels into the dock system at any time.
  • The water level of the docks were maintained by two 80 horsepower steam engines designed by James Watt.
  • Six main warehouses, named A-F, surrounded the docks, designed by the architect Philip Hardwick. The docks also featured a number of export sheds, wharfs and the St Katharine Dock House situated at the northwest corner of the site. The warehouse space was gradually increased over the years. By 1968, the docks had 1.25 million square feet (11.6 square kilometres) of warehouse space.
  • The brick warehouses had six floors, supported on iron columns. They were approximately 75 feet (23 metre) high, 470 feet (143 metre) long and 140 feet (43 metre) deep. The warehouses came right up to edge of the quays, removing the need for transit sheds. Large storage vaults were located underneath the buildings.
  • Only a small permanent workforce of approximately 220 people and 200 preferred labourers worked at the docks. However, this was supplemented by a large casual workforce, which could swell the numbers to around 1700 people.

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Life Story
1823The St Katharine Dock Company is formed to develop 25 acres of land, belonging to the Hospital of St Katharine, which had been founded in 1148
June 1824The St Katharine Docks Act is passed to enable construction of the new St Katharine Docks
3 May 1827The foundation stone is laid and construction of the docks begins
July 1827Construction of the Western Dock warehouses begins
October 1827An unusually high tide floods eight acres of the excavated land
1828Construction of the Eastern Dock warehouses begin
25 October 1828St Katharine Docks are opened. The 'Elizabeth', a 700-ton vessel passed from the lock into the Basin, to inaugurate the new docks.
1829Construction of the warehouses is complete
1852Construction of extra warehousing begins
1856Hydraulic pumping station built
1864The St Katharine Dock Company amalgamates with the London Dock Company. The London and St Katharine Docks Company was formed, and took over the Victoria Dock.
1889Amalgamation to form the London and India Docks Joint Committee
1911Improvements to the docks are planned
1940The docks are extensively damaged during German air raids on the Port of London. Many warehouses around the Eastern Dock are destroyed. The Dock offices were also destroyed in the raid.
1957The entrance lock is reconstructed
1968-69London and St Katharine Docks are closed
1970Redevelopment of the docks begins
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Find out more
StoriesDevelopments at Rotherhithe and St Katharine's
The Surrey Commercial Docks are established and a new dock at St. Katharine's is opened
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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