PortCities London

The 18th-century port

Too many ships? Problems of the trade boom

Constant growth

Shipping Sugar (Antigua)
View full size imageSlaves loading sugar in Antigua. © NMM
During the 18th century, the growth in trade passing through the port of London changed with alternating times of peace and war.

Commerce and consumer demand expanded enormously at the end of the century as people felt the effects of the industrial revolution.

Richer and richer

The West Indiaman 'Britannia'
View full size imageThe West Indiaman Britannia. © NMM
Between 1700 and 1770 the commerce of the port nearly doubled and from 1770 to 1795 it did double.

In 1792 imports into England were worth almost £18 million and exports nearly £24 million. London's share of that value was nearly 65%.

The greatest increases in imported commodities were sugar, rum, dyewoods, ginger and pimento from the West Indies.

A congested Thames

Shipping in the Pool of London.
View full size imageShipping in the Pool of London. © NMM
The increase in shipping using the port led to congestion in the river. By the 1720s, according to Daniel Defoe, there were 'about two thousand sail of all sorts, not reckoning barges, lighters or pleasure boats or yachts' using the wharves and quays.

During the 1750s, nearly 1800 vessels were allowed to moor at the same time in the Upper Pool in a space intended for not many more than 500.

Bursting point

Model of pool in London
View full size imageModel of the Pool of London in the mid-18th century. © NMM
At this time a ship of 500 tons was very unusual. Most ships were much smaller. This partly explains the congestion in the Thames.

The increase in the volume of trade had led to the building of many more small ships. The situation was made worse by the large number of craft - about 3500 - used to carry cargoes from the ships to the wharves.

The quays or wharves on which goods were landed were also inadequate. This model shows the Pool of London before the introduction of the enclosed dock system.

Criminal gangs

View full size imageRevenue men raiding a gang's hide-out. © NMM
Goods often stayed in lighters for weeks before they could be dealt with. They were exposed to the weather and well-organised gangs of thieves.

One estimate put the merchants' losses at £500,000 a year, including 2% of all sugar imported. The thieves were engaged in an ongoing battle with the revenue officers.

Among the gangs that operated in the port were the River Pirates, Night Plunderers, Light Horsemen, Heavy Horsemen, Scuffle-Hunters and Mud Larks.

Plans for expansion

Mr Ogle's plan for mooring vessels in the River Thames.
View full size imageMr Ogle's plan for mooring vessels on the River Thames, May 1796. © NMM
The wharf owners were not keen to build extra facilities because they feared they would lose money. The port became so crowded that many ship-owners sent their vessels to other ports.

In 1796 a Parliamentary committee was appointed to 'enquire into the best mode of providing sufficient accommodation for the increased trade and shipping of the Port'. The committee looked at several schemes, including Mr Ogle's plan for mooring vessels in the River Thames, which is shown here.

Mr Wyatt's scheme

Mr S. Wyatt's plan. The proposed London Docks compared with those proposed at the Isle of Dogs
View full size imageMr S. Wyatt's plan, c. 1800. © NMM
One of the most ambitious plans came from Mr S. Wyatt. He proposed that new docks be constructed at Wapping and on the Isle of Dogs.

Wyatt also suggested that the Wapping dock be connected to the Thames at Blackwall by a canal. This would reduce the time it took ships to sail up river.

Although his scheme was not adopted, docks were eventually built at the sites he suggested. 

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