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London Docks (1805-1971)

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'London's Tobacco Docks'
Main trade

The London Docks, located at Wapping, were the second dock system to be built in London. A large range of items were traded at the London Docks, including:

Tobacco Marble  Wool Sausage skins
Indian chutney Brandy  Wine Rum
Marble  Sherry Rice  Dried and fresh fruit
Olive oil Spices Bark India rubber
Whalebones Mercury Skins Rattans
Fish oil Nuts  Sugar  Coffee
Cocoa  Paper Hemp   Coir yarn
Jute Coconuts Iodine Wax

Bird's eye view of London Docks.
View full size imageBird's eye view of London Docks. © NMM
A monopoly granted to the London Dock Company meant that for 21 years, all vessels entering the Port of London with cargoes of tobacco, rice, wine and brandy (except vessels from the East and West Indies) had to unload at London Docks. The London Docks stored liquor, tobacco and other precious goods in bond in the vaults. The merchandise was guarded by the police and opened for inspection, sampling and trading by Customs and Excise and merchants holding 'tasting permits'.

Two of the most important commodities for the London Docks were tobacco and wool. The 'Tobacco Warehouse', covered five acres of land and was rented by the government for around £15,600 per year.  The 'Great Wool-Floor' at the London Dock was famous for its weekly public sales of wool. Up to 25,000 bales were sold every week, employing 200 men and making £2.6 million per annum.

Types of vessel used
The entrance to the London Docks.
View full size imageThe entrance to the London Docks. © NMM
The London Docks system was initially built solely for the use of sailing vessels. The shape and size of the dock enabled a relatively easy transition from sail to steam in the late 19th century. However, as vessels increased in size into the 20th century, the docks struggled to cope. By the 1930s, up to 30 vessels could dock at any one time, with a gross tonnage of 25,000 tons. As container ships became more popular, the London Docks became unable to cope with their size.
Interesting Facts
  • Unloading port wine from Oporto at London Docks.
    View full size imageUnloading port wine from Oporto at London Docks. © NMM
      The site covered 20 acres of land. A further 12 acres was developed to create a second dock.
  • The head engineer for the project was John Rennie.
  • The cost of the project was £4 million.
  • Wine casks in vaults at London Docks, c. 1896.
    View full size imageWine casks in vaults at London Docks, c. 1896. © NMM
    Rubble and soil was shipped up the river in barges and laid as the foundations for Pimlico.
  • The dock system consisted of two main basins, the Western Dock and the Eastern Dock, with a small basin known as the Tobacco Dock linking the two.
  • The docks were accessed from the river by three small basins, the Wapping Basin (12.19 metres in width) and the Hermitage Basin (12.19 metres in width) linking the Western Dock and the Shadwell Basin (13.72 metres in width) linking the Eastern Dock.
  • There were 6 quays in the docks, able to berth 302 sailing vessels.
  • There was 50 acres of warehouse space, containing 20 warehouses, 18 sheds and 17 vaults. The vaults covered around 20 acres of cellarage, built with ventilated vaulting.
  • A small permanent workforce was formed within 3 months of opening, including a Superintendent of the Dock and a Dockmaster. However, this was supplemented by a large casual workforce, which could number as many as 3000 labourers.
Life Story
May 1800The London Dock Company have a Parliamentary Act passed to enable the construction of a dock system at Wapping
26 June 1802The foundation stone is laid by the Prime Minister, Henry Addington
1804Joseph Boulderson is appointed as Superintendent of the Dock and Captain Francis Walton is appointed as Dockmaster
31 January 1805London Docks are opened to shipping
1806The warehouses are completed
1831A central jetty is built
1858Two new locks are built, both 18.29 metres wide
4 May 1926London Docks are brought to a standstill by the General Strike
12 May 1926The General Strike ends
1859The PLA builds bulk wine installations, with a capacity of 800,000 gallons
1967Many of the warehouses are closed, and only the carpet trade continues in No.10 warehouse
1971London Dock is closed
1980Housing Development begins

Find out more
StoriesLondon Docks at Wapping
A dock-building programme is undertaken at Wapping to further improve the port.
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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