PortCities London

The Port of London today

How the port of London has changed

What the port handles

The statistics for 2001 show that London is still mainly an import centre. Imports account for more than four fifths of all goods passing through the port.

Trade and the port of London by commodity, 2001 (millions of tonnes)

Commodity Imports Exports Total
Crude oil and oil products 16 2.3 18.3
Aggregates 8.6 0 8.6
Coal 2.1 0 2.1
Forestry products 2.1 0 2.1
Metals and ores 1.6 0.7 2.3
Cereals 0.6 0.5 1.1
Containers and trailers 6.7 4.3 11
Other cargo 4.2 1.0 5.2
Total 41.9 8.8 51.7


Imports 2001 piechart
View full size image © NMM
Most imports are bulky raw materials processed at oil refineries, power stations or other industrial plants.

Aggregates – gravel and sand – are vital for the construction industry and road building.

Containerised goods are far more significant than their share of the total tonnage suggests.


Exports 2001 piechart
View full size image © NMM
Manufactured goods carried in containers account for almost half of London's exports.

Processed metals and oil products are also significant, but few raw materials are exported.



Facing the challenges

By the 1960s, London had to respond to changes in sea-borne trade. The old inner docks and wharves, designed to handle general cargoes, were becoming out of date.

The PLA had to develop its dock at Tilbury, 38 kilometres (24 miles) down river from London Bridge, to receive container ships and RO-RO vessels. The industries relying on raw material imports also needed to improve their facilities.

Containerization – early setbacks

Discovery Bay, Flinders Bay and Jervis Bay at Tilbury Docks.
View full size imageOpportunities and problems: OCL container ships at Tilbury during the August 1970 docks strike.  © NMM

London should have been an early starter in the race to develop a British container terminal. After 1965 the PLA invested heavily in new facilities at Tilbury.

In June 1968 the first transatlantic container ship, the American Lancer, docked at Tilbury's Berth 40. The full service was to be launched in 1969.

However, disputes with the trades unions over working conditions at the container berths delayed opening until 1970. The confusion meant that Southampton, not London, won a proposed container line link with the Far East.

A general view of the container berths at Felixstowe
View full size imageThe container berths at Felixstowe. © NMM

An additional complication was the price of labour in the London docks. The National Labour Dock Scheme made London dockers more expensive than those in smaller ports not covered by the scheme.

A model of the Walton Container Terminal at Felixstowe

View full size imageA model of the Walton Container Terminal, Felixstowe. © NMM

Felixstowe, one of these ports, took full advantage of the difference. Still a sleepy port with steam cranes in the early 1960s, it became Britain's largest container port within a few years. It now handles most of Britain's container and RO-RO traffic – including many goods that are then moved to London by road.


Tilbury as a container port

Tilbury Container Terminal: the Jervis Bay alongside OCL's Berth 39.

View full size imageOCL's Jervis Bay at Tilbury.  © NMM

After it overcame the initial setbacks and the loss of trade to other ports, London did develop a successful container port.

Although the PLA also tried to develop facilities at Millwall and the Royal Docks, the only real success came at Tilbury. 

Tilbury's Berth 39 was chosen as the European terminal for Overseas Containers Ltd (OCL). This was a group involving P&O and three other firms set up to handle trade between Europe and Australia. OCL, later called P&O Containers, merged with the Royal Nedlloyd Group in 1996. This group is now among the top three container shipping companies in the world.

Model of Northfleet Hope container terminal, Tilbury.
View full size imageNorthfleet Hope container terminal. © NMM

In 1978 the Northfleet Hope container terminal was completed at Tilbury. Financed by the PLA, OCL and the shipping line ACTA, it incorporated the original Berth 39.

Its main feature was a 300-metre (1000-foot) riverside berth built on reclaimed land. A second riverside berth has been added more recently.

The terminal is now run by Tilbury Container Services, jointly owned by P&O Ports, Associated British Ports and Forth Ports. As with the first OCL services, many of the goods arriving at the terminal come in special refrigeration containers.

Other improvements

The container port at Tilbury was the PLA's biggest success, but modern facilities for RO-RO ships were created at the same time. Tilbury and several other Thames terminals support successful passenger and cargo RO-RO traffic.

The port still handles a large amount of bulk traffic. For goods transported in the conventional way, Tilbury receives large volumes of forest products, including 25% of the UK's paper imports. Several smaller terminals cater for break bulk cargoes.