At the start of the 17th century the large vessels of the East India Company often anchored off Blackwall. Their cargoes could then be transferred by barges to the legal quays in the Pool of London.
|The Mast House and Brunswick Dock at Blackwall. © NMM|
In 1614 the company constructed a wet dock at Blackwall for fitting out their vessels after launching from the nearby shipyards. The dock was not used for handling goods. Merchant ships continued to unload on the river.
|A 17th century East Indiaman. © NMM|
It was the first dock on the Thames to be fitted with gates. The dock was later incorporated into the Brunswick Dock, which in turn became part of the East India Dock.Bigger ships
The shift in London's trade from European to global destinations had important effects on the capital's shipbuilders.
|A shipbuilding yard in Deptford. c. 1750. © NMM|
In the 1560s the Merchant Adventurers used about 30 ships, totalling perhaps 1500 tons, in their Antwerp trade. No merchant ships of over 100 tons were built on the Thames.
Between 1591 and 1618, 317 such ships, totalling over 90,000 tons were built in East London. Many of them came from the yards at Deptford and Blackwall.
The Blackwall yards
The small yards at Blackwall were privately owned. They produced coastal craft and merchant ships. Some also received contracts to build brigs and sloops for the Navy. This allowed the naval dockyards to concentrate on building larger ships. Before 1750, only ships of 50 guns or less were built for the Navy by private contract.
|Blackwall Yard from the River Thames. © NMM|
On the left of the picture, the ship shown side-on is probably the fifth-rate Adventure. The vessel nearby, flying the Union flag, is probably the Venerable. The first and third ships from the right, on the stocks, are two merchantmen.Plague and fire
The plague of 1665 caused a temporary decline in trade within the port. Then the Great Fire of the following year destroyed most of the wharves and the warehouses.
|London after the Great Fire of 1666. The unshaded section shows the areas that were devastated. © NMM|
The government charged a tax on coal brought into the port to help pay for the cost of rebuilding London, including the new port facilities. The Thames highway
Until the time of the Great Fire, London had spread out along the Thames. The streets were narrow, poorly paved and of little use for traffic.
Because of this, the river was used as the main highway for people and goods, as the limits of the City were within easy reach of one or other of the waterside stairs. The Howland Dock
In 1696 Royal Assent was given for the construction of a wet dock at Rotherhithe. It covered an area of 4 hectares (10 acres) and was called the Howland Great Wet Dock after the Streatham family who owned the land.
|The Howland Great Dock. © NMM|
The dock was built as a harbour and fitting-out place for up to 50 ships. Trees were planted around the dock as a protection against the wind.
It became very popular after a great storm in 1703 wrecked several ships moored in the river. The Howland Dock was the centre of what became the Surrey Commercial Docks.