PortCities London

The 20th-century port


Investment dries up

The 'Surat' in King George V Dock
View full size imageThe SS Surat in the King George V Dock, North Woolwich, c. 1955 © NMM
At the begining of the 20th century the Port of London was in trouble. Small profits led to a lack of investment in new facilities.

The port's facilities became increasingly inefficient at a time of rapid advances in technology. In response to these problems the Port of London Authority (PLA) was established in 1909.

The PLA took over the powers of all the existing companies and began a programme of modernisation.

Record trade

Discharging paper from Canada into a lighter in the Royal Docks.
View full size imageDischarging paper from Canada into a lighter in the Royal Docks, 1941. © NMM
During the 1920s and 1930s the port handled an increasing amount of goods. That was in spite of the major trade depression of the 1930s.

This continued after the Second World War, once the docks had recovered from the damage caused by German bombing. In the 1960s the amount of goods handled in the Port of London reached record levels.

Beginning of decline

After that time there was a rapid decline due to:

  • containerisation of goods
  • technological changes adopted by other ports
  • a switch in Britain's trade following European Economic Community (EEC) membership. 

By 1981 all of the docks had closed. At the same time, much of the industry that had grown up along the Thames also declined, leaving large areas of Docklands derelict. 


In that year the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was established to regenerate the area. This has since been transformed by new office, housing and transport developments.

Maritime London timeline

  • 1909 - Port of London Authority takes over the docks; although London was still the world's major port, fierce competition between the dock companies had left many in financial trouble
  • 1921 - King George V dock opened
  • 1939 - London still the biggest port in the world, but international trade is disrupted with the outbreak of the Second World War
  • 1940-41 - The Blitz brings severe damage to the docks and the dockland communities
  • 1950s-60s - The heyday of the docks, with record amounts of cargo handled
  • 1960s - Major expansion at Tilbury Docks
  • 1970s - Further expansion of Tilbury with the construction of the Northfleet Hope Container Terminal; as ships got bigger and loading/unloading times became more crucial, Tilbury captured more and more of London's trade while the other docks stagnated


  • 1968-71 - St Katharine's, London and Surrey Commercial Docks close
  • 1967-71 - Hay's and all the major wharves close
  • 1976-81 - West India, Millwall and Royal Docks close
  • 1960s-80s - London ceases to be a commodity trading port, but retains its international lead in maritime insurance and other related services
  • 1981 - London Docklands Development Corporation founded to redevelop the derelict dock areas
  • 1984 - Thames Barrier opened to prevent flooding in London
  • 1980s-90s - Isle of Dogs transformed into a new business precinct, symbolised by the tower of Canary Wharf

Britain and the world timeline

  • By 1914 - Britain's industrial output had been overtaken by that of the United States and Germany, but it remained the chief financial centre of the world and retained a crucial role in international trade
  • 1914-1918 - First World War diminished British power and Britain's role in world trade
  • 1929-31 - The Great Depression led to a collapse of international trade
  • 1939-1945 - Second World War further weakened Britain's international position
  • 1952 - Succession of Queen Elizabeth II

Science and technology

  • 1930-90s - Air and road haulage of goods made increasingly serious inroads into sea-borne trade
  • 1960s - Container ships developed, leading to the closure of small ports
  • 1994 - Channel Tunnel opened
  • Britain's relative economic decline continued; services overtook manufacturing as the mainstay of the economy

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