PortCities London

The riverside wharves

The wharves before the docks

Valuable income

A View of the Custom House with part of the Tower, taken from ye River Thames, London
View full size imageCustom House with part of the Tower. © NMM

For centuries, most of London's trade took place along the north bank of the Upper Pool, where the City met the Thames.

The City was increasingly involved in sea-borne trade with other parts of England and with Europe.

As that trade expanded, customs duties - taxes on imported and exported goods - produced valuable income for kings and governments.

The first Custom House was built in 1275. One of its most famous officials was Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400), author of The Canterbury Tales.

The legal quays

Elizabeth I, 1533-1603.
View full size imageQueen Elizabeth I. © NMM

Although some wharves in the western part of the City had originally been among the busiest - particularly Queenhithe - they gradually lost their importance.

After Elizabeth I became queen in 1558, a royal act created the 'legal quays'. These were trading wharves between London Bridge and the Tower.

The legal quays had a monopoly on the landing or loading of dutiable goods - goods on which taxes had to be paid.

The sufferance wharves

Model of the Pool of London.
View full size imageA model of the Pool of London. © NMM
As trade continued to expand, the legal quays eventually became too congested to cope. While the wharfingers - the people who owned the wharves - prospered, the ship owners lost money because of delays.

One concession to the ship owners was the creation of the so-called sufferance wharves on the south side of the Thames. These had the same rights as the legal quays, but only on a temporary basis - hence 'on sufferance'.

Even with these, the river was still too congested. Pressure from the ship owners continued until the first enclosed docks were built in the early years of the 19th century.