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Building the docks

By 1800, the Thames was unable to cope with the huge numbers of vessels jostling for position along its wharves. Imports and exports had grown dramatically as a result of the industrial revolution and the expansion of Britain's overseas interests. The government decided to act. Between 1801 and 1921, a dock-building programme was undertaken to make the port more efficient. The creation of the docks was a vast industrial undertaking and involved thousands of people, including engineers, architects and surveyors. Although mechanical methods were often used to excavate the docks, huge numbers of labourers were still required.

The West India Docks under construction in March 1802.

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The West India Docks under construction in March 1802.
In 1799 the West India Dock Act allowed the West India Dock Company to build enclosed docks, with their own warehouses and high surrounding walls, on the Isle of Dogs. Built to put an end to loses suffered from pilfering on the open riverside wharves, they were the first of the walled docks of the 19th century. The West India Docks were designed and engineered by William Jessop and Ralph Walker.

St Katharine's Dock under construction, 1828.

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St Katharine's Dock under construction, 1828.
Some of the most famous 19th-century engineers were involved in building the docks. Thomas Telford, for example, was commissioned to build the St Katharine Dock. The project took just two years to complete. Some 2,500 men were employed to move rubble and soil into barges which were then taken up-river by the contractor Thomas Cubitt.
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Building the Royal Victoria Dock, 1854.

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Building the Royal Victoria Dock, 1854.
The Victoria Dock was built east of Bow Creek on the Plaistow Marshes. It was built by the St Katharine's Dock Company and was opened by Prince Albert in 1855. At the beginning of the works wheel-barrows were employed to carry away the rubble, but as the excavations proceeded and became deeper iron railways and steam engines were used. The soil from the dock area was transported up the Thames and used to consolidate the marshy land of Battersea Park, which was opened in 1859.

Excavating the new South Dock in 1867.

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Excavating the new South Dock in 1867.
The South Dock (also known as South West India Dock) was built by the famous engineer Sir John Hawkshaw in 1866-70 on what had formerly been the City Canal (opened 1805). During construction the entrance from the river was widened to 55 feet to allow larger ships to enter. As with the other dock-building projects, labourers had to be brought in from outside London, many coming from agricultural areas in England and from Ireland.
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Building the cutting between Albion Dock and the new Canada Dock, 1875.

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Building the cutting between Albion Dock and the new Canada Dock, 1875.
The second half of the 19th century saw London's dock system double in size. The port's seemingly limitless growth as the world's main trade centre resulted in the upgrading and re-building of the existing docks and the construction of new facilities such as the Canada Dock, which was completed in 1876. The cutting shown above connected it to the Albion Dock to the south.

The new Canada Dock nearing completion, 1875.

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The new Canada Dock nearing completion, 1875.
The Canada Dock was constructed in 1875-6 and extended over 16 acres of dock water, with 46 acres of sheds for timber storage. During construction, a railway was laid on the dock floor that allowed engines to remove wagons loaded with excavated spoil. The principal contractors on the project were Messrs Thomas Docwra and Son of Islington.
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Glossary
Dock
Port

Find out more
GalleriesLondon's docks: past and present
Contrasting photographs of the docks during the heyday of the working port with images of today's redeveloped Docklands
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TrailWest India Docks family trail
Explore the remains of the West India Docks.
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GamesMatch the commodity to the dock it came into
Uncover the matching pairs.
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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