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The East India Company

Introduction
Early years
The London headquarters
Ships and shipbuilding
A dangerous business
Company cargoes
The East India Docks
Final years
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The East India Docks

An inefficient system

View of an East Indiaman from the bows, c.1720.
View full size imageAn East Indiaman from the bows, c. 1720. © NMM
For the first two centuries of its history, the Company's vessels anchored on the Thames off Blackwall.

Their cargoes were then either transferred by barge to the legal quays in the Pool of London or landed at Blackwall and sent by wagon into the City through the narrow streets of Ratcliffe. This relatively inefficient system was eventually changed. 

The East India Dock Company

Captain John Woolmore, F.R.S. Deputy Master of the Trinity House.
View full size imageCaptain John Woolmore. Deputy Chairman of the East India Dock Company. © NMM

The West India merchants' new docks at Poplar had opened in 1802.

Inspired by this example, the East India Company became the driving force behind the formation of the East India Dock Company the following year.

After a successful lobbying campaign, the 1803 Act of Parliament created the subsidiary company and granted it a 21-year monopoly for trading with the Far East.

 

The Mast House and Brunswick Dock at Blackwall.
View full size imageThe Mast House and Brunswick Dock at Blackwall. © NMM
The East India Company's existing facilities at Blackwall (the old Brunswick Dock, which was used for fitting out and repairing ships) were enlarged during the construction of the docks. They eventually became part of part of the new complex.

Parallel docks

A view of the East India Docks.
View full size imageA view of the East India Docks. © NMM
The docks were located on the Thames between Blackwall Reach and Bugsby's Reach. East Indiamen sailed between Blackwall and Calcutta or other Indian ports, laden with the merchandise of two civilizations.

The East Indiaman Repulse (1820) in the East India Dock Basin
View full size imageThe East Indiaman Repulse (1820) in the East India Dock Basin. © NMM
The East India Docks consisted of parallel import and export docks with a basin and locks connecting them to the Thames. The basin allowed several ships to gather together to avoid the delay of going through locks.

All ships arriving from the East Indies and China had to unload in the East India Docks.

Likewise, ships heading for those parts had to load at the dock. The docks could handle 250 ships at a time.  

Grand opening at Blackwall

The Export Dock and Old Block House at Blackwall.
View full size imageThe Export Dock and Old Block House at Blackwall. © NMM

The new docks were opened with great celebration in August 1806. A newspaper from the time reported: 'These docks consist of an entrance basin, of nearly three acres [1.2 hectares]; a dock for inward-bound Indiamen, of nearly 18 acres [7.3 hectares]; a dock for loading outward-bound Indiamen, of nearly nine acres [3.6 hectares], making together about 30 acres [12 hectares].'

Plan of East India Docks at Blackwall.
View full size imagePlan of East India Docks at Blackwall. © NMM
'There is an entrance lock, and two communication locks, capable of admitting the largest Indiamen, and his majesty's ships of war, of 74 guns. The depth of water at ordinary spring tides is 26 feet [8 metres]. The whole premises are surrounded by a boundary wall 21 feet [6.3 metres] high; the quays are very spacious, being no less than 240 feet [72 metres] wide.'

A magnet for business

Entrance to the old spice warehouses at the East India Docks.

View full size imageThe old spice warehouses at the East India Docks. © NMM

The area around the East India Docks attracted other businesses.

Pepper warehouses and spice grinding operations sprang up in the area.

Pubs, shops and cafes opened to cater for the dockers and the sailors from the Company's vast merchant fleet.

 

High-value cargoes

Original entrance to the East India Docks.
View full size imageEntrance to the East India Docks. © NMM

Apart from a few spice stores, the docks did not have extensive warehousing. This was largely because the Company's goods were of great value.

Once unloaded, imports were transported along Commercial Road to the Company's Cutler Street warehouses in the City. The East India Dock Company had actually financed (along with the West India Dock Company) the construction of Commercial Road as a better way of moving goods into the City.

Cutler Street warehouses, c. 1976
View full size imageCutler Street warehouses, c. 1976. © NMM
The Cutler Street warehouses covered 2 hectares (5 acres) and employed 400 clerks and 4000 warehousemen.

When its China tea monopoly ended in 1833, the East India Company sold 12 hectares (30 acres) of warehouses. 

 


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Glossary
Dock
Dock company
Export dock
Indiaman
Mast
Monopoly
Spice Islands

Find out more
GalleriesThe Lords of the Ocean: Ships of the East India Company
The East India Company's ships were the most magnificent vessels of their era
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StoriesThe 19th-century port
Docks and industry transform the Thames
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Fact fileEast India Docks
The East India Company was the driving force behind the formation of the East India Dock Company in 1803
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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