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The riverside wharves

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The wharves and the docks

Continued growth 

Landing tapioca at Butler's Wharf.
View full size imageLanding tapioca at Butler's Wharf. © NMM
The docks were built only after the wharves proved unable to cope with the growing volume of trade. However, the docks did not put an end to the wharves.

By 1899, there were more than 300 working wharves in London. They received more than half of the total tonnage arriving at the port.

General wharves and specialist wharves

Free Trade Wharf
View full size imageThe Free Trade Wharf. © NMM

 By this time, there were two distinct types of wharf. The  traditional general business wharf dealt in most commodities, particularly high-value goods such as spices, spirits, tea and coffee.

The cable passed from the works into the hulk lying in the Thames at Greenwich
View full size imageThe cable passed from Enderby's Wharf. © NMM

The second type was the specialist wharf, which was usually situated further down the river.

These served the industrial plants, from power stations and gasworks to cable works and barge builders.


Competition with the docks

Shipping in the Pool of London
View full size imageShipping in the Pool of London. © NMM

With the construction of the first enclosed docks, the wharves went through a tough time. Each new dock company received a 21-year monopoly on handling the goods in which it specialized. This took much valuable commerce away from the wharves.

 Although the wharfingers received compensation for their lost trade, they were forced to concentrate on goods the docks would not handle. The end of the 21-year monopolies meant that the wharves could once again compete for many types of business they had lost.

Even more competition became possible with the passing of the Customs Consolidation Act in 1853. This allowed many wharves to handle dutiable goods on the same basis as the docks.

The 'free water clause'

Unloading into lighters in the Upper Pool.
View full size imageUnloading into lighters in the Upper Pool. © NMM
With ships getting bigger, the spacious docks would still have been preferable to the cramped conditions of most of the wharves.

However, the wharves were able to take full advantage of the 'free water clause'. This allowed lighters free access to the docks to receive goods directly from the ships.

Discharging paper from Canada into a lighter in the Royal Docks.
View full size imageDischarging paper into a lighter. © NMM


After this so-called 'overside delivery', the lighters would unload the goods at the wharves. So the wharves, rather than the docks, would receive payments from the ship owners.

A strange relationship

At first, the 'free water' privilege was not too worrying for the docks, because it was not used often. However, by the middle of the 19th century, it was becoming very noticeable.

Steamer with lighters in foreground and men posing for photograph.
View full size imageLighters at Greenwich. © NMM

This put the wharves and the docks in a strange relationship. The wharves relied on the greater volume of traffic attracted to the docks.

As overside deliveries became more frequent, the docks were effectively subsidizing the work of the wharves. The dock companies frequently tried to end the free water clause, but without success.


The Port of London Authority Dredger no 10 and the Hopper barge Ralph Walker
View full size imageThe PLA Dredger no 10. © NMM

This situation continued after the Port of London Authority (PLA) was established in 1909. Many wharfingers invested large sums in improved facilities, but the spectacular success of the wharves in the 20th century would not have been possible without the mammoth effort of the PLA to maintain the port and the river.


The growth of the wharves

Aerial view of Beckton Gasworks.
View full size imageAerial view of Beckton gasworks. © NMM

Several general wharves invested in new facilities from the 1850s onwards. The most successful, particularly the Hay's Wharf Company, were able to take over their smaller neighbours.

Although larger ships could no longer reach the Pool, the free water clause ensured an uninterrupted stream of goods. This period also saw the growth of specialist wharves down the river, as London industrialized and developed power stations.

Heyday and closure

The wharves shared both the prosperity and the difficulties of the docks right until the very end. In the heyday of the port in the 1950s and 1960s, wharf companies enjoyed immense success. Many were still investing in improved facilities.

However, both the docks and the general wharves shared the same fate. New methods of handling goods, particularly the use of containers, made the general wharves redundant. As containers could be moved by road or rail straight from the port to shops or factories, it was no longer economical to use the wharves.

All the general wharves were closed by the early 1970s. Some specialist wharves down river still survive, but the river is now quieter than it has been for many centuries.


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Dock company

Dutiable goods

Free trade




Port of London Authority (PLA)




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