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West India Docks (1803-1980)

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London's first enclosed docks
Main trade

The 'City of Pretoria' entering the West India Dock.
View full size imageThe City of Pretoria (1947) entering the West India Dock. © NMM
Despite being outside the centre of London, West India Docks set a precedent for London dock systems, both with its design and operation. Initially it dealt solely with produce from the West Indies, except tobacco, supervising the loading and unloading of vessels as decreed by Parliament. As a result, West India Docks mainly traded in rum, molasses and sugar. Other items that were imported and exported, included:

Jute  Coir  Oil Spirits & Wine
Shell  Horn  Cork  Indigo
Spices Baggage Coffee  Hardwood 

West India Docks.
View full size imageWest India Docks. © NMM
During the 20th century, the docks also handled grain and, as refrigeration became common, meat, fruit and vegetables also became regular commodities. South West India Dock mainly dealt in the timber trade.

Types of vessel used

West India Docks.
View full size imageWest India Docks. © NMM
The West India Docks were constructed to berth large sailing vessels and accommodate the many lighters that serviced the Thames. The docks were also used by a large number of barges, which transported coal around London.

Plan of the West India Docks.
View full size imagePlan of the West India Docks. © NMM
The design of the West India Docks dictated that sailing vessels should enter the docks from the Blackwall Basin and lighters enter via an entrance on the Limehouse side. This prevented congestion and made it easier to control the loading or unloading of the vessels. The conversion of the City Canal into the South West India Dock, added much needed berths. However, the dimensions of the dock entrance, despite being a foot deeper than the rest of the dock system, limited the number and size of the vessels berthing, to less than 6000 tons.

The docks continued to be used throughout the 20th century. In 1943, the Rum Quay at West India Docks was used to build concrete petrol carrying barges for the war.


  • The West India Docks covered 295 acres, much of which is now covered by the Canary Wharf estate.
  • The original dock system consisted of two parallel docks. The 30 acre Import Dock was 155 metres long by 152 metres wide. The 24 acre Export Dock was 155 metres long by 123 metres wide. By having separate docks for loading and unloading, it was hoped to avoid vessels taking up valuable quay space for long periods of time.
  • The Limehouse entrance and the Blackwall Basin linked the dock system to the Thames. There were two sets of locks in each basin, connecting the basins to the river and to the docks. From 1806, the docks could also be accessed via the City Canal.
  • The basins allowed up to 20 vessels to enter the system at high tide. The docks could berth a maximum of 600 vessels at any one time.
  • City Canal was purchased by the West India Dock Company for £120,000 for conversion into the South West India Dock. This created a further 29 acres of dock space.
  • 6 metre high security walls surrounded the dock system, as did a ditch that was 2 metres deep and 3.7 metres wide. The site of the dock dictated strict security arrangements, including patrols of armed guards.
  • The warehouses were designed by George Gwilt and built by William Adam. They were usually five storeys high and built using locally made brick with limestone dressings. They had distinctive semi-circular and round windows.
  • There was a continuous line of three-quarters of a mile of warehousing, lining the Import Dock. This housed nine vast sugar and molasses warehouses. The Export Dock had fewer buildings lining the quays.
  • The company employed 200 full time labourers. A range of tradesmen also operated on site including coopers, painters, carpenters, blacksmiths and engineers.
Life Story
1799Parliamentary Act is passed to enable construction of the new enclosed dock system on the Isle of Dogs (Stepney Marsh)
1799William Jessop is appointed as engineer and designer
12 July 1800Construction of the dock begins
November 180020 million bricks are ordered to build the new docks
June 1801A further 4 million bricks are requested
March 1802The Court appoints six night watchmen to guard the six warehouses against vandalism and theft
15 May 1802A military guard is appointed to the site
22 July 1802Six men die as a cofferdam collapses during construction of one of the basins
27 August 1802Construction of the Import Dock is complete
1 September 1802The Import Dock opens to receive shipping
1803The first quay opens
1803The Warehousing Act designates the warehouses of West India Dock as bonded
1805Construction of the Export Dock is complete
1806Construction of the warehousing is complete
1806City Canal is open to shipping – the first vessel through was the 500-ton 'Duchess of York'
1823The monopoly privilege ends
1829The West India Dock Company purchases City Canal
1831Parliamentary permission is obtained to create a new dock
1838The East India and West India Dock Companies amalgamate
1866Construction of the new dock begins
1870South West India Dock opens to vessels
1928Limehouse Basin is filled in by the Port of London Authority
1940Most of the warehouses are destroyed during the Blitz
1968Many of the warehouses are closed permanently
1980West India Docks closes to shipping
1988Construction of Canary Wharf begins
1991Canary Wharf opens
2003The Museum in Docklands opens in Warehouses 1 and 2 in West India Dock

Find out more
StoriesGoing for growth: The West India and the Greenland Docks
New dockyards on the Isle of Dogs and Rotherhithe are opened to ease congestion.
GalleriesWhat is left of the old port: The West India Docks
Much has survived of the dock, despite wartime destruction and the building of the massive Canary Wharf complex on part of the site
Hot spotThe West India Docks, 1800s
See how the docks were originally constructed
TrailWest India Docks family trail
Explore the remains of the West India Docks.
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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