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The 19th-century port

Canals and distribution
London Docks at Wapping
Tea trade and the East India Docks
Developments at Rotherhithe and St Katharine
Steamships and the Royal Victoria Dock
The hub of empire: Imperial trade
Millwall Docks and the Royal Albert Dock
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London Docks at Wapping

Wapping docks

A View of the Opening of the London Docks, Wapping, 31 January 1805.
View full size imageOpening 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 New Dock at Wapping.
View full size imageAn 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.  

First-class facilities

Sketches of shipping Drawn and Etch'd by Henry Moses 1824. London Docks
View full size imageThe London Docks at Wapping in 1824. © NMM
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.

Pennington Street Warehouse no 2, London Docks
View full size imagePennington Street Warehouse no. 2, London Docks. © NMM
The dock had room for more than 300 vessels, not counting lighters. There was warehouse space for over 200,000 tons of goods.

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).



Private finance

London Docks, looking west.
View full size imageLondon Docks, looking west, in 1831. © NMM
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.

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

Henry Mayhew visited the London Docks in 1849. He recorded his impressions of the surrounding area of Wapping:

Quotation marks left

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.

Sketches of shipping Drawn and Etch'd by Henry Moses 1824. London Docks.
View full size imageMerchant 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….

Audio File Henry Mayhew's account of Wapping
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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.

Western Quay at London Docks
View full size imageThe Western Quay at London Docks. © NMM
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 passengers alone would tell you that you were in the maritime districts of London.

Quotation marks right
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.

Dockland commentator

Mayhew said this about the docks:

Quotation marks left
As you enter the dock, the sight of the forest of masts in the distance, and the tall
Trade symbol of an optical instrument manufacturer.
View full size imageThe 'little midshipman', symbol of a London instrument maker. © NMM
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.

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….

Audio File Henry Mayhew account of the docks.
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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.

Unloading port wine from Oporto at London Docks
View full size imageUnloading port wine from Oporto at London Docks. © NMM
Nearly everywhere you meet stocks of cork, or else yellow bins of sulphur or lead-coloured copper ore….

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

Quotation marks right
casks roll along the stones with a hollow drum-like sound.



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