The Surrey Commercial Docks were the only docks on the south side of the river. Apart from the Greenland Dock and East Country Dock, in which general cargo from many countries was unloaded, they were devoted to the handling and storage of timber.
To help transport cargoes landed at the docks, the Grand Surrey Canal Company (1801) built a waterway to link the Thames at Rotherhithe with Deptford, Peckham and Camberwell.
The most westerly of the new docks was St Katharine, beside the Tower of London. The St Katharine Docks Bill was passed in 1825 and work began in 1827. More than 11,000 people were displaced, without compensation, by the works.
Public protests at the destruction of the ancient hospital, churches and other buildings did however result in a huge compensation bill for the company. The engineer Thomas Telford was commissioned to build the new docks, which took just two years to complete.
St Katharine Docks opened in 1828. The complex had two connected basins, the east dock and the west dock. It had a long quayside for such a comparatively small area of enclosed water.
The docks were linked to the river through an entrance lock, 55 metres (180 feet) in length, fitted with three pairs of gates. When the docks were designed, the lock could handle either one large or two small ships.
Two steam engines designed by James Watt pumped water to maintain the water level in the docks 1.2 metres (4 feet) above the river.
Warehouses were built on the quayside so that cargo could be unloaded directly from ships into the storerooms. The warehouses were six storeys high, up to 150 metres (500 feet) long and up to 50 metres (165 feet) deep.
Writing in 1851, Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, paints a fascinating picture of life at the docks:
The lofty walls...enclose an area capable of accommodating 120 ships, besides barges and other craft. Cargoes are raised into the warehouses out of the hold of the ship without the goods being deposited on the quay...in one-fifth of the usual time.
Before the existence of docks...eight days were necessary in the summer and 14 in the winter, to unload a ship of 350 tons. At St Katharine's, however, the average time
now occupied in discharging a ship of 250 tons is 12 hours, and one of 500 tons, two or three days.
St Katharine Docks primarily handled valuable cargoes such as ivory, shells, sugar, marble, rubber, carpets, spices and perfumes. The indigo house (a section of one of the larger warehouses) handled compressed blocks of the deep blue powder.
At the scent factory, special machines extracted flower essences from the fat they were shipped in. This was a process invented to avoid duty on the alcohol base used in commercial perfumes.
The Marble Quay handled fine quality material that came from Italy. Ivory, which was used for carving and decoration, was such a major luxury product that one of the warehouses at the dock became known as the Ivory House. The ivory chess set shown here belonged to Captain James Cook.
The construction of enclosed docks like St Katharine was resented by the wharf owners. They believed that they would take trade away from the riverside wharves.
They need not have worried. Although the docks handled the larger ships from abroad, the wharves continued to receive the growing coastal trade. This included the ships carrying cargoes such as coal and food along the British coast.
After the dock companies lost their import monopolies in the 1820s and 1830s, an increasing number of ships in the docks did not unload their cargoes on to the quays but over the side into lighters, which then carried them to the riverside wharves and warehouses.
The reason for this was the 'free water clause' that was included in the early dock acts. This allowed lighters to enter the docks to unload ships without paying dock charges.
In this way the owners of the cargoes could avoid expensive quayside and warehouse charges in the docks and go to the cheaper riverside wharves. By the end of the 19th century, up to 80% of the cargoes of ships in the docks were unloaded into lighters and taken to the wharves.