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The 20th-century port

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Boom and bust: the port, 1914-80

The PLA proves its worth

Landing tapioca at Butler's Wharf.
View full size imageLanding tapioca at Butler's Wharf, c. 1910. © NMM
Thanks to the various PLA initiatives, London maintained its traditional position as the world's largest port.

Between 1909 and 1939 the total tonnage of shipping going through the port rose from less than 40 million tons to more than 60 million. London's share of Britain's sea-borne trade rose from 29% to 38%.  

The King George V Dock

The liner Euripides alongside London Docks
View full size imageThe liner Euripides (1914) berthed at the London Docks. © NMM
The PLA started building new storage facilities as well as the George V Dock.

By the mid-1920s the PLA warehouses could store more than one million tons of goods.



Masefield marvels

Audio File John Masefield's poem
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John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, visited the PLA's Cutler Street Warehouses. He marvelled at the imports stored there: 

Quotation marks left
You showed me nutmegs and nutmeg husks,
Ostrich feathers and elephant tusks,
Hundreds of tons of costly tea,
Packed in wool by the Cingalee,
And a myriad of drugs which disagree.
Cinnamon, myrrh, and mace you showed,
Golden Paradise birds that glowed,
More cigars than a man could count,
And a billion cloves in an odorous mount,
And a choice port wine from a bright glass fount.
Quotation marks right

You showed, for a most delightful hour,
The wealth of the world and London's power.

Interwar developments

Surrey Commercial Docks.
View full size imageSurrey Commercial Docks in their heyday in the 1930s. © NMM
Although trade was briefly interrupted during the First World War (1914-18) London remained the world's greatest port during the 1920s and 1930s.

By 1939 the PLA had built more than 30 hectares (80 acres) of new dock water and nearly 10 kilometres (6 miles) of extra quays.

Greenland Dock from the air.
View full size imageGreenland Dock from the air, 1957. © NMM
It had dredged a channel 80 kilometres (50 miles) long, 300 metres (1000 feet) wide and nearly 10 metres (30 feet) deep at low water, to take large ships.

On the eve of the Second World War 100,000 dockers and other workers depended on the PLA. More than 30,000 were actually employed by the PLA itself.


Post-war heyday

Dockers of Union Castle line with electric trolleys in King George V Dock
View full size imageDockers with electric trolleys at the King George V Dock. © NMM
The port handled more and more goods during the 1930s despite the ups and downs of the trade cycle, which included the Great Depression.

This carried on after the Second World War (1939-45) once the docks had recovered from the German bombing.

By the early 1960s the docklands labour force was handling over 60 million tons of cargo a year.

Inefficient practices

Steamer with lighters in foreground and men posing for photograph.
View full size imageLightermen and their craft off Greenwich. © NMM
Even though trade grew, many goods were handled just as they had been during the 19th century.

Cargoes were unloaded into lighters or onto the quayside, then moved to warehouses for distribution. This was slow, inefficient and expensive.


Decline and closure

The Menestheus in King George V Dock.
View full size imageThe Menestheus (1958) in the King George V Dock. © NMM
The port declined in the period between 1965 and 1981. The East India, London, Surrey and St Katharine Dock closed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And between 1980 and 1983 the West India, Millwall and the Royal Docks shut.

Changes in the pattern of global trade explained the closures. Many of Britain's trading partners were developing their own manufacturing industries and finding new markets for their goods.

For example, Australia, which had sent most of its wool to Britain, was sending more to Japan by the 1960s. Europe was also becoming a more important trading area. As a result continental ports like Rotterdam, making full use of new mechanized dock technology, began to overtake London.

The causes of failure

Tilbury Container Terminal: the Jervis Bay alongside OCL's Berth 39.
View full size imageTilbury Container Terminal. © NMM
The inner London docks went out of business because of several reasons, including competition from foreign ports, outdated equipment, inflexible management and restrictive labour practices.

However, the main reason was the increasing use of container ships, which required deep-water berths further down the Thames. 

The rise of container terminals

A model of the Walton Container Terminal at Felixstowe
View full size imageA model of the Walton Container Terminal at Felixstowe. © NMM
Containerization revolutionized dock work. Warehouses were no longer needed since the metal containers provided protection for their contents. All that was needed was a lot of space to stack the containers ready for collection.

There was no space available in London. Purpose-built container terminals, like those at Tilbury and Felixstowe, became the main site for this activity.

Tilbury and Felixstowe

Tilbury and Felixstowe were better able to take advantage of the growth in Britain's trade with mainland Europe. This was because of their easier access and shorter sea routes.

Model of Northfleet Hope container terminal, Tilbury.
View full size imageModel of Northfleet Hope container terminal at Tilbury. © NMM


Tilbury's wharves and warehouses were subsequently modernised to include facilities for containers, bulk cargoes (e.g. steel and grain) and roll-on, roll-off ferry traffic.


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