|Opening of the London Docks on 31 January 1805. © NMM|
Docks at Wapping were under construction even before the Regent's Canal and dock were finished.
The London Dock Bill was passed in 1800 and the dock itself opened in 1805.
|An elevated view of the docks at Wapping, c. 1805. © NMM|
The entrance to the dock was from the Thames at Shadwell and a high wall surrounded the whole site.
The chief designer was Daniel Alexander, Surveyor to Trinity House, for whom he built several lighthouses.
The facilities at Wapping took up an area of more than 35 hectares (nearly 90 acres). 14 hectares (35 acres) consisted of water, and there were almost 4km (about 2.5 miles) of quay and jetty frontage.
|The London Docks at Wapping in 1824. © NMM|
The dock had room for more than 300 vessels, not counting lighters. There was warehouse space for over 200,000 tons of goods.
|Pennington Street Warehouse no. 2, London Docks. © NMM|
The splendid warehouses of brick, with stone plinths carved with ammonites and sea patterns, were four storeys high.
One of the warehouses was built to store 24,000 hogsheads of tobacco weighing 545kg (1200lb) each (the equivalent of about 30,000 tons).
The construction of the docks was a private venture by a group of merchants and speculators. Directors in the London Dock House, in New Bank Buildings, managed them.
|London Docks, looking west, in 1831. © NMM|
The London Docks Company had a 21-years monopoly to unload all vessels entering the port with tobacco, rice, wine and brandy (except from the East and West Indies).
Henry Mayhew visited the London Docks in 1849. He recorded his impressions of the surrounding area of Wapping:
The courts and alleys round about the London Docks swarm with low lodging-houses, and are inhabited either by the dock labourers, sack-makers, watermen, or that peculiar class of London poor who pick up a precarious living by the water side.
|Merchant shipping in the London Docks, c. 1824. © NMM|
The open streets themselves have all, more or less, a maritime character. Every other shop is either stocked with gear for the ship or for the sailor. The windows of one house are filled with quadrants and bright brass sextants, chronometers and compasses….
Every public-house is a 'Jolly Tar', or something equally taking. Then come sail makers, their windows stowed with ropes and lines smelling of tar. All the grocers are provision agents, and exhibit in their windows tin cases of meat and biscuits, and every article is warranted to keep in any climate.
The corners of the streets, too, are mostly monopolised by slopsellers, their windows party-coloured with bright red and blue flannel shirts, the doors nearly blocked up with hammocks and well-oiled 'nor' westers', and the front of the house itself nearly covered with canvas trousers, rough pilot coats, and shiney black dreadnoughts.
|The Western Quay at London Docks. © NMM|
The passengers alone would tell you that you were in the maritime districts of London.
Now you meet a satin-waistcoated mate, or a black sailor with his large fur cap, or else a Custom-house officer in his brass-buttoned jacket.
Mayhew said this about the docks:
As you enter the dock, the sight of the forest of masts in the distance, and the tall
chimneys vomiting clouds of black smoke, and the many-coloured flags flying in the air, has a most peculiar effect; while the sheds, with the monster wheels arching through the roofs, look like the paddle-boxes of huge steamers.
|The 'little midshipman', symbol of a London instrument maker. © NMM|
Along the quay, you see new men with their faces blue with indigo, and now gaugers with their long brass-tipped rule dripping with spirit from the cask they have been probing; then will come a group of flaxen-haired sailors, chattering German; and next a black sailor with a cotton handkerchief twisted turban-like around his head….
Here you will see sitting on a bench a sorrowful-looking woman, with new bright cooking tins at her feet, telling you she is an emigrant preparing for her voyage. As you pass along this quay the air is pungent with tobacco, at that it overpowers you with the fumes of rum. Then you are nearly sickened with the stench of hides and huge bins of horns, and shortly afterwards the atmosphere is fragrant with coffee and spice.
Nearly everywhere you meet stocks of cork, or else yellow bins of sulphur or lead-coloured copper ore….
|Unloading port wine from Oporto at London Docks. © NMM|
The sailors are singing boisterous songs from the Yankee ship just entering, the cooper is hammering at the casks on the quay, the chains of the cranes, loosed of their weight, rattle as they fly up again; the ropes splash in the water; some captain shouts his orders through his hands; a goat bleats from some ship in the basin; and empty
casks roll along the stones with a hollow drum-like sound.