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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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Steamships and the Royal Victoria Dock

The steam age arrives

London Pool
View full size imageA steamer in the Pool of London.
The steamship first appeared on the Thames in 1815 when the Clyde-built paddle steamer Marjory (1814) started a passenger service between London and Gravesend.

Adoption of the new technology was slow and it was not until 1875 that the tonnage of steam vessels using the port was larger than that of sailing ships. In that year steam represented just over 5 million tons and sail less than 4 million tons.

The 'Great Eastern'

Building the 'Great Leviathan'.
View full size imageThe Great Eastern under construction at Millwall, 1854.
The London shipbuilding industry had to adapt to the new conditions introduced by steam. The best-known steamship built in Thames-side yards was the Great Eastern.

Built at Millwall between 1853 and 1857, she was the largest ship in the world when she was launched. But the Great Eastern was a failure as a passenger liner and was only successfully used to lay cables.

London ironclads

Launch of HMS Thunderer.
View full size imageThe launch of HMS Thunderer at the Thames Ironworks, 1912.
Another famous steamship built in London was HMS Warrior, the Royal Navy's first ironclad warship. She was launched in 1860 at the Thames Ironworks at Blackwall.

The Thunderer, launched in 1912 at the ironworks, was the Thames's last contribution to the Royal Navy. The Clydeside, Merseyside and Belfast shipyards took over that role, being closer to sources of coal and iron.

The Royal Victoria Dock

Building the Royal Victoria Docks
View full size imageConstruction of the Victoria Dock under way on Plaistow Marshes, 1854.
By the middle of the 19th century the older docks were becoming too small for the newer and larger steamships. A new, deeper dock was needed further down the Thames.

The Royal Victoria Dock was opened by Prince Albert in 1855. It was built slightly to the east of the mouth of the Lea.

The Royal Victoria Dock covered almost 45 hectares (100 acres) of water with a total length of 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles).

New dock features

The Victoria incorporated several new features:

  • The new hydraulic lift at the Victoria Dock
    View full size imageThe graving lift at the Royal Victoria Dock.
    finger jetties, which projected into the dock from the main quays, to help deliver cargoes quickly
  • a tidal basin at the western end through which ships entered via a lock from the Thames
  • a direct connection with the national railway system to allow fast distribution of goods 
  • hydraulic machinery and lifts to raise ships.



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 Images4 Images
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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