An inefficient system
For the first two centuries of its history, the Company's vessels anchored on the Thames off Blackwall.
|An East Indiaman from the bows, c. 1720. © NMM|
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. 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 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.
|The Mast House and Brunswick Dock at Blackwall. © 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.
|A view of the East India Docks. © 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.
|The East Indiaman Repulse (1820) in the East India Dock Basin. © NMM|
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. © 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].'
'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.'
|Plan of East India Docks at Blackwall. © NMM|
A magnet for business
The 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.
|Entrance 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.
The Cutler Street warehouses covered 2 hectares (5 acres) and employed 400 clerks and 4000 warehousemen.
|Cutler Street warehouses, c. 1976. © NMM|
When its China tea monopoly ended in 1833, the East India Company sold 12 hectares (30 acres) of warehouses.