Port in trouble
By the end of the 19th century the port of London was facing a crisis. The private dock companies were in serious trouble.
|Foster's Wharf in the Lower Pool, 1916. © NMM|
Competition between them had always been fierce, but in the twenty years before 1900 it had become a cut-throat affair as they desperately tried to attract shipping into their docks.
The Tilbury Docks opened in 1886, yet two years later its owners, the East and West India Dock Company, were bankrupt. The other dock companies were not much better off.
|Union Castle liners in the East India Docks, 1902. © NMM|
Competition between the dock companies and the wharfingers (wharf owners) was also fierce. The wharfingers could undercut the rates charged in the docks.
Trouble with lighters
The 'free water clause' was also hurting the dock companies. Less than a fifth of goods unloaded in the docks were going on to the quayside and paying charges to the dock companies.
|Steamships unloading into lighters in the Upper Pool. © NMM|
Most of the goods went into lighters and were transferred to the wharves or directly to customers. The large number of lighters added greatly to the congestion in the river. It was also a slow way of moving goods and held up deliveries.
Time for a change
At the same time, the increase in the size and draught of ocean-going ships meant urgent improvements were needed in the river and in the docks.
|A P&O Liner on the River Thames. © NMM|
The main river channel was not deep enough and large ships had great difficulty moving in the Thames. Unfortunately, the sharing of authority among several organisations prevented these changes from happening.
Port of London Authority
In response to the problems a Royal Commission was set up in 1900 to look into the operation of the port of London. The Commission heard evidence from the users of the port.
|Flag of the Port of London Authority. © NMM|
Once they had identified the main problems, their job was to suggest how these could be overcome and how the port should develop.
The Commission decided that co-ordinated control of the port was necessary. In 1902 it published a report recommending a central authority. In 1909 the Port of London Authority (PLA) was set up.