During the 18th century, the growth in trade passing through the port of London changed with alternating times of peace and war.
|Slaves loading sugar in Antigua. © NMM|
Commerce and consumer demand expanded enormously at the end of the century as people felt the effects of the industrial revolution.
Richer and richer
Between 1700 and 1770 the commerce of the port nearly doubled and from 1770 to 1795 it did double.
|The West Indiaman Britannia. © NMM|
In 1792 imports into England were worth almost £18 million and exports nearly £24 million. London's share of that value was nearly 65%.
The greatest increases in imported commodities were sugar, rum, dyewoods, ginger and pimento from the West Indies.
A congested Thames
The increase in shipping using the port led to congestion in the river. By the 1720s, according to Daniel Defoe, there were 'about two thousand sail of all sorts, not reckoning barges, lighters or pleasure boats or yachts' using the wharves and quays.
|Shipping in the Pool of London. © NMM|
During the 1750s, nearly 1800 vessels were allowed to moor at the same time in the Upper Pool in a space intended for not many more than 500.
At this time a ship of 500 tons was very unusual. Most ships were much smaller. This partly explains the congestion in the Thames.
|Model of the Pool of London in the mid-18th century. © NMM|
The increase in the volume of trade had led to the building of many more small ships. The situation was made worse by the large number of craft - about 3500 - used to carry cargoes from the ships to the wharves.
The quays or wharves on which goods were landed were also inadequate. This model shows the Pool of London before the introduction of the enclosed dock system.
Goods often stayed in lighters for weeks before they could be dealt with. They were exposed to the weather and well-organised gangs of thieves.
|Revenue men raiding a gang's hide-out. © NMM|
One estimate put the merchants' losses at £500,000 a year, including 2% of all sugar imported. The thieves were engaged in an ongoing battle with the revenue officers.
Among the gangs that operated in the port were the River Pirates, Night Plunderers, Light Horsemen, Heavy Horsemen, Scuffle-Hunters and Mud Larks.
Plans for expansion
The wharf owners were not keen to build extra facilities because they feared they would lose money. The port became so crowded that many ship-owners sent their vessels to other ports.
|Mr Ogle's plan for mooring vessels on the River Thames, May 1796.|
In 1796 a Parliamentary committee was appointed to 'enquire into the best mode of providing sufficient accommodation for the increased trade and shipping of the Port'. The committee looked at several schemes, including Mr Ogle's plan for mooring vessels in the River Thames, which is shown here.
Mr Wyatt's scheme
One of the most ambitious plans came from Mr S. Wyatt. He proposed that new docks be constructed at Wapping and on the Isle of Dogs.
|Mr S. Wyatt's plan, c. 1800. |
Wyatt also suggested that the Wapping dock be connected to the Thames at Blackwall by a canal. This would reduce the time it took ships to sail up river.
Although his scheme was not adopted, docks were eventually built at the sites he suggested.