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London's docks: past and present

Today, Docklands is a very different place in which to work and live. New people have moved into the area as new businesses have been established. The old world of ships, wharves, cranes and warehouses has been replaced by shops, leisure facilities, offices, wine bars and expensive apartments. This gallery illustrates these huge changes by contrasting photographs of the docks during the heyday of the working port with images of today's redeveloped Docklands.

The West India Docks and Blackwall Basin, c. 1956.

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The West India Docks and Blackwall Basin, c. 1956.
An aerial view across the West India Docks towards Blackwall Basin, the original non-tidal entrance to the docks. To the right of the picture, the entrance lock from Blackwall Reach to the South Dock is clearly visible. In 1926, this dock (formerly the City Canal) was connected to the two northern import and export docks and to the adjacent Millwall Docks. Finally, in the far distance beyond Blackwall Point, lies the Victoria Dock, first of the mighty Royal Docks complex.

The West India Docks in 2001

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The West India Docks in 2001
The docks are now dominated by the Canary Wharf estate which extends over 86 acres of what was formerly the West India Docks. Until the closure of the docks in 1980, hundreds of dockers would have worked there. Now, thousands of office staff are employed on the estate. Although most of the dock area has been filled in, the Blackwall Basin remains, as does the entrance to the old South Dock and much of the dock water itself.
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The Royal Group of Docks, c. 1930.

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The Royal Group of Docks, c. 1930.
Located in the bend of the river between Bugsby's Reach and Gallions Reach, the Royal Docks group formed the largest area of continuous dock water in the world. A vessel travelling from east to west across these docks would have passed through three miles of water crowded with ships, tugs and lighters. This aerial view of the docks clearly shows the extent of the complex, including the huge entrance locks at Gallions Reach.

STOLport. Short take off and landing airport.

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STOLport. Short take off and landing airport.
The huge expanse of water at the Royal Docks stands empty. The Royals closed in 1981 and work on the £30m airport project began in 1983. The first commercial service lifted off from the STOLport (now known as London City Airport) in 1987. Located just six miles from the City of London and three miles from Canary Wharf, the airport has been a vital factor in the regeneration of Docklands.
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Surrey Commercial Docks.

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Surrey Commercial Docks.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the Surrey Commercial Docks were mainly engaged in the softwood trade and a significant portion of the American trade, particularly wheat and dairy produce. An immense number of lighters operated there, mainly handling timber, the sorting, piling, marking and storage of which was the responsibilty of Port of London Authority staff.

Water sports centre at Greenland Dock.

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Water sports centre at Greenland Dock.
New housing, offices, shops and leisure facilities, such as the water sports centre at the old Greenland Dock, have completely changed the face of docklands in recent years. Greenland Dock was one of the few expanses of water at the Surrey Docks that was not completely filled in during regeneration.
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Union-Castle liners in the East India Import Dock, 1902.

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Union-Castle liners in the East India Import Dock, 1902.
Opened in 1806, the docks originally served the East India Company's ships. The docks consisted of parallel import and export docks with a basin and locks connecting to the river. The 31 acres of water at the docks were later used by ships from the Union Castle Line, Ellerman Line, Blue Star Line and Ben Line. In the 1920s, new facilities were built for the handling of frozen meat. The export dock was badly bombed during the Second World War and filled-in. The docks closed in 1967.

The East India Import Dock, 2003.

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The East India Import Dock, 2003.
Wildfowl have now replaced steamships on the water. Most of the import dock was filled in when the East India Docks closed in 1967, but a small part of the dock was retained as an attractive water feature. The entrance basin is the only completely intact part of the former East India Docks complex. It has survived relatively unscathed, and has been transformed into a recreational space.
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Glossary
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GalleriesVideoThe 20th-century port video gallery
From 1914 to the present day
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TrailWest India Docks family trail
Explore the remains of the West India Docks.
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StoriesThe 19th-century port
Docks and industry transform the Thames
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