PortCities London

Many hands: Trades of the Port of London, 1850-1980


Steamer with lighters in foreground and men posing for photograph.
View full size imageLightermen at Greenwich. © NMM
During the 19th century, the explosion in overseas trade and the rapid development of the London docks, alongside the growth of the railways and industries of East London, meant that thousands of new jobs became available in a short time. People came to the capital from all over the country, looking for work. Others came from abroad.

Unloading timber at Silvertown.
View full size imageUnloading timber into a barge at Silvertown. © NMM
This led to a huge growth in population. In 1851, for example, the population of West Ham borough was less than 19,000. But by 1901 this figure had risen to almost 270,000.  By the beginning of the 20th century a huge labour force worked at the docks, warehouses and wharves of maritime London. This section describes what some of these occupations were like.