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West India Docks (1803-1980)
London's first enclosed docks*

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Main trade

The 'City of Pretoria' entering the West India Dock.
View full size imageThe City of Pretoria (1947) entering the West India Dock. © NMM
Despite being outside the centre of London, West India Docks set a precedent for London dock systems, both with its design and operation. Initially it dealt solely with produce from the West Indies, except tobacco, supervising the loading and unloading of vessels as decreed by Parliament. As a result, West India Docks mainly traded in rum, molasses and sugar. Other items that were imported and exported, included:

Jute  Coir  Oil Spirits & Wine
Shell  Horn  Cork  Indigo
Spices Baggage Coffee  Hardwood 

West India Docks.
View full size imageWest India Docks. © NMM
During the 20th century, the docks also handled grain and, as refrigeration became common, meat, fruit and vegetables also became regular commodities. South West India Dock mainly dealt in the timber trade.

Types of vessel used

West India Docks.
View full size imageWest India Docks. © NMM
The West India Docks were constructed to berth large sailing vessels and accommodate the many lighters that serviced the Thames. The docks were also used by a large number of barges, which transported coal around London.

Plan of the West India Docks.
View full size imagePlan of the West India Docks. © NMM
The design of the West India Docks dictated that sailing vessels should enter the docks from the Blackwall Basin and lighters enter via an entrance on the Limehouse side. This prevented congestion and made it easier to control the loading or unloading of the vessels. The conversion of the City Canal into the South West India Dock, added much needed berths. However, the dimensions of the dock entrance, despite being a foot deeper than the rest of the dock system, limited the number and size of the vessels berthing, to less than 6000 tons.

The docks continued to be used throughout the 20th century. In 1943, the Rum Quay at West India Docks was used to build concrete petrol carrying barges for the war.



Life Story

1799Parliamentary Act is passed to enable construction of the new enclosed dock system on the Isle of Dogs (Stepney Marsh)
1799William Jessop is appointed as engineer and designer
12 July 1800Construction of the dock begins
November 180020 million bricks are ordered to build the new docks
June 1801A further 4 million bricks are requested
March 1802The Court appoints six night watchmen to guard the six warehouses against vandalism and theft
15 May 1802A military guard is appointed to the site
22 July 1802Six men die as a cofferdam collapses during construction of one of the basins
27 August 1802Construction of the Import Dock is complete
1 September 1802The Import Dock opens to receive shipping
1803The first quay opens
1803The Warehousing Act designates the warehouses of West India Dock as bonded
1805Construction of the Export Dock is complete
1806Construction of the warehousing is complete
1806City Canal is open to shipping – the first vessel through was the 500-ton 'Duchess of York'
1823The monopoly privilege ends
1829The West India Dock Company purchases City Canal
1831Parliamentary permission is obtained to create a new dock
1838The East India and West India Dock Companies amalgamate
1866Construction of the new dock begins
1870South West India Dock opens to vessels
1928Limehouse Basin is filled in by the Port of London Authority
1940Most of the warehouses are destroyed during the Blitz
1968Many of the warehouses are closed permanently
1980West India Docks closes to shipping
1988Construction of Canary Wharf begins
1991Canary Wharf opens
2003The Museum in Docklands opens in Warehouses 1 and 2 in West India Dock

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