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Tilbury Dock (1886-1981)

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London's container port
Main trade

Aerial view of Tilbury Docks.
View full size imageAerial view of Tilbury Docks. © NMM
When the Tilbury Docks first opened for business, it traded in a number of goods, including madeira brought in by the West Africa Line; casks of sausage skins packed in brine and India chutney. Materials such as bales of jute and packaged timber and wood pulp also passed through the docks.

During the 20th century, Tilbury Docks became well known for their grain trade. The grain terminal, which opened in 1969, was one of the fastest discharging installations in the world, at 2000 tons per hour. The grain silo on land had a 100,000 ton capacity and there were adjacent private flourmills ready to process the grain.

Types of vessel used


Opportunities and problems: three OCL container ships at Tilbury during the August 1970 docks strike.
View full size imageContainer ships at Tilbury Docks. © NMM
Tilbury Docks opened for business just as steam vessels began to take over the shipping trade. The location of the dock system on the Thames and the size of the basins meant that Tilbury was a very attractive dock to use. Grain ships of 50,000 tons were regularly unloading at Tilbury during the 1930s. There were also the usual lighters and barges, ready to transfer the goods into the city.

Model of Northfleet Hope container terminal, Tilbury.
View full size imageModel of the Northfleet Hope container terminal, Tilbury. © NMM
In contrast to other docks in London, the luxury liner trade used Tilbury Docks. Passengers embarked and disembarked at Tilbury, making use of the good rail links and staying at the local hotels. During the war, Tilbury was used to convert the liners into armed merchant cruisers.

Towards the end of the 1960s, Tilbury Docks underwent a £30 million programme of improvements. These enabled the large ocean-going cellular container ships to dock and be turned around in 36 hours. These refits enabled the docks to continue in business significantly longer than other dock systems in London.

  • The site covered 450 acres of marshland in Essex, opposite Gravesend.
  • The engineer in charge was A. Manning. The project was initially contracted out to Kirk and Randall. However, the company Lucas & Aird completed the project.
  • The project cost £2.8 million.
  • The docks covered 56 acres of water and was 10 metres deep. Three branch docks, (East Branch, Centre Branch & West Branch) led off the main dock basin, each one 61-91 metres wide.
  • The lock was the largest on the Thames at 213 metres by 24 metres.
  • The docks contained 50 miles (80 kilometres) of railway sidings, which connected all the berths to the Eastern Counties railway.
  • There was a large warehouse in Commercial Road, close to Aldgate. The railway trucks went right inside the warehouse, in order to unload the goods in the dry.
  • A hotel was constructed to cater for the many first class passengers that were expected to board and disembark at Tilbury.
  • A large number of houses were constructed for the officers, foremen, police and dockers who worked in the docks.
Life Story
3 July 1882Parliamentary Act is passed approving the construction of docks by the East and West India Dock Company
17 July 1882Construction of Tilbury Dock begins
17 April 1886The opening of Tilbury Deep Water Dock. The vessel 'Glenfruin' made the inaugural entry.
August 1886The Clan Line leaves the Royal Albert Dock and begins to use Tilbury as their base
1 January 1889Amalgamation to form the London and India Docks Joint Committee
1908Scruttons begin to use an electric conveyor belt to transport bales of jute
1912Construction of the extension for P&O berths begins
1916The P&O extension is complete
1921The 305 metre-long reinforced concrete river cargo jetty is opened
1929The impounding stations and a new dry dock is built
1930The new Western Lock is constructed. A new passenger terminal opens.
1944The Tilbury Hotel is destroyed by enemy action
1957The Ocean terminal is complete
1963Construction of new dock extensions begin
1966Completion of the new dock extensions
1969A £6 million grain terminal is opened
1970OCL container service begins
1978A deep riverside berth for large container ships opens
2004Tilbury Docks are still in use, especially for passenger liners

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