PortCities London

The 18th-century port

Going for growth: The West India and the Greenland Docks

Early dock development

West India Docks, Plate 92
View full size imageThe West India Docks in January 1810. © NMM
In 1799 Parliament agreed to the building of a dock on the Isle of Dogs 'for rendering more commodious and better regulating the Port of London'.

They wanted to ensure that 'West India produce might be effectually secure from loss by theft or other causes and the public revenue greatly benefitted'.

The West India merchants and the Corporation of London promoted the bill.

Wealthy campaigner

Robert Milligan (c.1746-1809)
View full size imageRobert Milligan (c.1746-1809). © NMM
The campaign for the bill was led by Robert Milligan, a wealthy planter and shipowner.

It was largely due to him that the West India Dock Company was granted a monopoly for 21 years to unload all West India produce brought into London.

All exports to the West Indies had to be loaded in their docks too. Milligan eventually served as both Deputy Chairman and Chairman of the West India Dock Company.

Grand designer

The West India Docks, as they appeared in March 1802
View full size imageThe West India Docks during construction in March 1802. © NMM
William Jessop designed the docks. He was a famous engineer who also designed the Grand Union Canal.

The site consisted of two docks:

  • an import dock of 12 hectares (30 acres) of water
  • an export dock of about 10 hectares (24 acres). 

They had space for more than 600 large ships.

An Elevated View of the New Docks and Warehouses Now Constructing on the Isle of Dogs near Limehouse for the reception and accomodation of shipping in the West India Trade.
View full size imageAn elevated view of the West India Docks, c. 1802. © NMM
At each end of the docks was a basin connecting them to the river. It had locks to control the flow of water between the docks and the Thames.

Locks were also constructed in the cuts joining the docks with the basins. Ships entered the Blackwall-side basin and lighters went in at the Limehouse end. Several five-storey warehouses were also built.

Security conscious

West India Docks.
View full size imageThe West India Docks. © NMM
The Prime Minister, Henry Addington, opened the docks in 1802. In an attempt to keep out the river gangs, the docks were surrounded by high walls and a wide ditch.

To increase security even more, the West India Docks Company organised a force of 100 men equipped with muskets, swords and pistols. A second body of 100 special constables reinforced them.

The 'free water clause'

West India Import Dock, 1817
View full size imageShipping in the West India Import Dock, 1817. © NMM
A clause in the 1799 Act gave wharf owners and lightermen the right to send craft into the docks to collect goods for the riverside wharves or to deliver exports to ships in the dock without paying charges.

This became known as the 'free water clause'. It was kept in all successive legislation relating to dock building. The clause was to effect greatly the operating of the port during the following years.

The Greenland Dock

The Spermacaeti whale brought to Greenland Dock
View full size imageA sperm whale caught by whalers from the Greenland Dock, c. 1762. © NMM
Important changes also took place at Rotherhithe. The Howland Great Wet Dock was fitted with boilers and tanks for extracting sperm oil from blubber brought in by whaling fleets.

The blubber was delivered in strips known as 'blanket pieces'. These were then cut into small blocks and melted in iron pots.

Greenland Fishery: English Whalers in the Ice.
View full size imageEnglish whalers amongst the Greenland pack ice. © NMM

Whale oil lit many homes and factories until the early 19th century. Whalebone was widely used in corsets and other products.

The Howland's name was changed to Greenland Dock in 1763. Whaling continued to be an important activity at the Surrey Docks until the early 1900s.