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The 19th-century port

Canals and distribution
London Docks at Wapping
Tea trade and the East India Docks
Developments at Rotherhithe and St Katharine
Steamships and the Royal Victoria Dock
The hub of empire: Imperial trade
Millwall Docks and the Royal Albert Dock
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Workshop of the world

Launch of the HMS Albion.
View full size imageThe launch of the 1st Class battleship HMS Albion at the Thames Ironworks, Blackwall, on 21 June 1898.
By the start of the 19th century Britain was the world's leading industrial power and dominated international commerce. 

London was:

  • the world's largest port
  • the centre of international finance
  • the heart of the expanding British Empire. 

New technology

Trade grew throughout the century and a huge dock-building programme made the port more efficient. 

The building of large steamships meant that the port had to adapt to the changing technologies of the Victorian age.

By 1886 there were seven enclosed dock systems within the Port of London. The riverside communities of East London also saw new factories, power stations and shipyards spread along the banks of the Thames.

Maritime London timeline

  • 1801 - Grand Surrey Canal begun
  • 1802 - West India Dock opened
  • 1805 - London Dock opened
  • 1806 - East India Docks opened
  • 1807 - Commercial Dock Company buys Greenland Dock (formerly the Great Howland)
  • 1809 - Baltic Dock opened; first of the new Surrey docks
  • 1811 - East Country Dock opened
  • 1820 - Regent's Canal completed
  • 1828 - St Katharine's Dock opened 
  • 1855 - Victoria Dock opened
  • 1850s-60s - Many riverside wharves rebuilt as the docks' monopolies of handling imports ends
  • 1858 - Great Eastern built at Millwall
  • 1860 - HMS Warrior built at Blackwall
  • 1868 - Millwall Docks opened
  • 1869 - Woolwich and Deptford Dockyards close as the Royal Navy develops bigger yards elsewhere
  • 1880 - Royal Albert Dock opened
  • 1886 - Tilbury Docks opened
  • 1889 - Great dock strike; the first major victory for British dockworkers

Britain and the world timeline

  • 1805 - Battle of Trafalgar
  • 1815 - Final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo
  • 1837-1901 - Reign of Queen Victoria

Science and technology

  • 1807 - Comet, first steamship
  • 1825 - Stockton to Darlington railway opened
  • 1838 - Launch of Brunel's Great Western, the first steamship to routinely cross the Atlantic
  • 1843 - Launch of Brunel's Great Britain, the first screw-propellor-driven steamship to cross the Atlantic
  • 1851 - Great Exhibition
  • 1866 - First successful transatlantic cable; the technologies of communication – the telegraph and the telephone (1880s) revolutionise commerce
  • Hailed as 'the workshop of the world', Britain became the first economic superpower; as Britain dominated international trade, London was the biggest port in the world
  • 1877-81 - Refrigeration ships brought the first frozen meat to Britain from Argentina, Australia and New Zealand 
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Dock company

Find out more
StoriesTrinity House
Showing the way
StoriesHMS 'Warrior': 'A black snake among rabbits'?
Britain's first iron-hulled warship
StoriesThames Ironworks
Building for London and the world
StoriesThe 'Great Eastern' as a passenger liner
The ship of the future?
StoriesThe 'Great Eastern' as a cable laying ship
Connecting the world
StoriesThe riverside wharves
Before the docks, the riverside wharves were the Port of London
Fact fileIsambard Kingdom Brunel
One of the greatest engineers in history
Fact fileJohn Scott Russell
A groundbreaking naval architect
Fact fileWill Thorne
One of the first trade union activists
Fact fileDuke of Wellington
One of the finest soldiers in British history
Fact fileCharles Dickens
The greatest English novelist of the Victorian era
Fact fileThe 'Great Eastern'
A giant steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Related Resources
Related Images 67 Images
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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