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The 20th-century port

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Edwardian port in crisis

Port in trouble

Foster's Wharf in the Lower Pool.
View full size imageFoster's Wharf in the Lower Pool, 1916. © NMM
By the end of the 19th century the port of London was facing a crisis. The private dock companies were in serious trouble.

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.

Bankruptcy looms

Union-Castle liners in the East India Docks.
View full size imageUnion Castle liners in the East India Docks, 1902. © NMM
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.

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

/london/Uploading into lighters in the Upper Pool
View full size imageSteamships unloading into lighters in the Upper Pool. © NMM
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.

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

P&O Liner on the Thames
View full size imageA P&O Liner on the River Thames. © NMM
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.

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

Port Of London Authority Flag
View full size imageFlag of the Port of London Authority. © NMM
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.

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.


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Port of London Authority (PLA)




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