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The 19th-century port

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Tea trade and the East India Docks

The East India Dock Company

The Repulse East Indiaman in East India Dock Basin, 1839
View full size imageThe East Indiaman Repulse in the East India Dock Basin, 1839. © NMM
Many businesses saw the advantages of the new enclosed docks. The East India Dock Company (formed in 1803) was given permission to build another dock at Blackwall to serve the vast shipping needs of the East India Company.

The docks were located on the Thames between Blackwall Reach and Bugsby's Reach. East Indiamen traded between Blackwall and Calcutta or other Indian ports, laden with the merchandise of two civilisations.

Valuable trade

Unloading tea ships in the East India Docks
View full size imageUnloading tea ships in the East India Docks, 1867. © NMM
The tea trade alone was worth £30 million a year to the company. Tea was one of the main comsumer goods brought to Britain from the East.

The trade expanded rapidly between 1750-1900. Tea-drinking began as an expensive and fashionable pastime in Britain. But as tea became cheaper more people could afford it.

Parallel docks

East India Docks.
View full size imageOrdnance Survey map of East India Docks, 1893. © NMM
The East India Docks consisted of parallel import and export docks with a basin and locks connecting to the river. The basin allowed lots of ships to gather together to avoid the delay of going through locks.

All ships arriving from the East Indies and China had to unload in the East India Docks. Likewise, ships heading for those parts had to load at the docks. The docks could handle 250 ships at a time.

Grand opening at Blackwall

The new docks were opened with great celebration in August 1806. A newspaper report from the time stated:

Quotation marks left
These docks consist of an entrance basin, of nearly three acres (1.2 hectares); a dock
A View of the East India Docks
View full size imageA View of the East India Docks, 1 October 1808. © NMM
for inward-bound Indiamen, of nearly 18 acres (7.3 hectares); a dock for loading outward-bound Indiamen, of nearly nine acres (3.6 hectares), making together about 30 acres (12 hectares).

There is an entrance lock, and two communication locks, capable of admitting the largest Indiamen, and his majesty's ships of war, of 74 guns. The depth of water at ordinary spring tides is 26 feet (8 metres). The whole premises are surrounded by a boundary wall 21 feet

Quotation marks right
(6.3 metres) high; the quays are very spacious, being no less than 240 feet (72 metres)wide.

Business magnet

Entrance to the old spice warehouses at the East India Docks.
View full size imageEntrance to the old spice warehouses at the East India Docks. © NMM

As with the London Docks, the area around the East India Docks attracted other business.

Pepper warehouses and spice-grinding operations sprang up in the area.

Pubs, shops and cafes opened to cater for the dockers and sailors.  


High-value cargo

Original Entrance to the East India Docks.
View full size imageThe entrance to the East India Docks at Blackwall. © NMM

Apart from a few spice stores, the East India Docks did not have extensive warehousing.

 This was largely because the Company's goods were of great value.

Once they were unloaded, imports were transported along Commercial Road to the Company's Cutler Street warehouses in the City of London.

Cutler Street warehouses, c. 1976
View full size imageCutler Street warehouses, c. 1976. © NMM
These buildings covered 2 hectares (5 acres) and employed 400 clerks and 4000 warehousemen.

When its China tea monopoly ended in 1833, the East India Company sold 12 hectares (30 acres) of warehouses.



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