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Maritime London Partnership

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The Port of London today

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The context: why sea-borne trade has changed

The traditional ways

Landing tapioca at Butler's Wharf.
View full size imageLanding tapioca at Butler's Wharf. © NMM

 Until well into the 20th century, most merchant ships were general cargo vessels, able to carry anything and everything. They had to be prepared to move any goods that needed moving, and usually sailed with mixed cargoes.

Unloading port wine from Oporto at London Docks.
View full size imageUnloading port wine from Oporto at London Docks.        © NMM
Goods came in different shapes and sizes and needed to be handled in different ways. Loading and unloading at ports was time-consuming (it was very slow) and labour-intensive (it required many workers). This added to the cost of shipping and made all goods more expensive.


The quest for efficiency

The container ship Ville de Jupiter
View full size imageThe container ship Ville de Jupiter. © NMM
Economic changes in the 20th century meant changes in sea-borne trade. Mass production of industrial goods increased international trade, as manufactured goods and the raw materials needed to make them were shipped overseas in ever-larger quantities.

After the Second World War, specialist vessels designed for specific cargoes - bulk carriers and container ships - largely replaced the old general ships.


Opportunities and challenges

Site of the old Lady Dock, Surrey Commercial Docks.
View full size imageThe former Lady Dock (Surrey Commercial Docks) in 1970. © NMM
New ships meant new challenges for ports: larger berths and specialist facilities for handling goods.

Many port jobs disappeared, as efficiency meant that fewer workers were needed. Those who remained had to learn new skills. Some ports adapted very well, but others declined or closed completely.


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