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Port of London
Country United Kingdom
Location Greater London, Essex, Kent

The Port of London lies along the banks of the River Thames from the capital to the North Sea. Once the largest port in the world, it is currently the United Kingdom's second largest port, after Grimsby & Immingham. The port is governed by the Port of London Authority (PLA), a public trust established in 1908 whose responsibility extends over the Tideway of the River Thames, but which neither owns or operate any facilities.

The port can handle cruise liners, roll-on roll-off ferries, and cargo of all types. It is not located in one area but stretches along the tidal river, including Central London, with many individual wharfs, docks, terminals and facilities built incrementally over the centuries. As with many similar historic European ports, such as Antwerp and Rotterdam, the bulk of activities has steadily moved downstream towards the open sea, as ships have grown larger and other uses take up land closer to the city centre.


Port of london authority building trinity square
Former Port of London Authority Building, 10 Trinity Square, Tower Hill

The Port of London has been central to the economy of London since the founding of the city in the 1st century and was a major contributor to the growth and success of the city. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the busiest port in the world, with wharves extending continuously along the Thames for 11 miles (18 km), and over 1,500 cranes handling 60,000 ships per year. In World War II it was a prime target for the Luftwaffe during The Blitz.

The Roman Port in London

The first evidence of a reasonable sized trading in London can be seen during Roman control of Britain, at which time the Romans built the original harbour. The construction involved expanding the waterfront using wooden frames filled with dirt. Once these were in place the wharf was built in four stages moving downstream from the London Bridge . The port began to rapidly grow and prosper during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and saw its final demise in the early 5th century with the decline in trade activity due to the Roman departure from the Britain. The changes made to the banks along the port made by the Romans are so substantial and long lasting that it was hard to tell where the natural waterfront really began.

London became a very important trading port for the Romans at its height in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The harbour town grew and expanded quickly. The lavish nature of goods traded in London shaped the extravagant lifestyle of its citizens and the city flourished under Roman colonization. The Roman expansion of port facilities and organisation of the London harbour have remained as the base of the London harbour until today.

Pool of London

Thames wharf map 1905 London Bridge to Limehouse
1905 Thames wharf map from London Bridge to Limehouse showing the Pool of London
Legal Quays 1746
Legal Quays between Billingsgate Dock and the Tower of London in John Rocque's plan of 1746. Behind Legal Quays lay Thames Street, with its warehouses, sugar refineries and cooperages.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, shipping was handled entirely within the Pool of London on the stretch of the River Thames along Billingsgate on the south side of the City of London. All imported cargoes had to be delivered for inspection and assessment by Customs Officers, giving the area the name of "Legal Quays". The Pool saw a phenomenal increase in both overseas and coastal trade in the second half of the 18th century. Two thirds of coastal vessels using the Pool were colliers meeting an increase in the demand for coal as the population of London rose. Coastal trade virtually doubled between 1750 and 1796 reaching 11,964 vessels in 1795. In overseas trade, in 1751 the pool handled 1,682 ships and 234,639 tons of goods. By 1794 this had risen to 3,663 ships and 620,845 tons. By this time the river was lined with nearly continuous walls of wharves running for miles along both banks, and hundreds of ships moored in the river or alongside the quays. In the late 18th century an ambitious scheme was proposed by Willey Reveley to straighten the Thames between Wapping and Woolwich Reach by cutting a new channel across the Rotherhithe, Isle of Dogs and Greenwich peninsulas. The three great horseshoe bends would be cut off with locks, as huge wet docks. This was not realised, though a much smaller channel, the City Canal, was subsequently cut across the Isle of Dogs.

Enclosed dock systems

Port Of London 1837
James Elmes' chart of the port, 1837, showing the enclosed docks at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign.

London's Docklands had their origins in the lack of capacity in the Pool of London which particularly affected the West India trade. In 1799 The West India Dock Act allowed a new off-river dock to be built for produce from the West Indies and the rest of Docklands followed as landowners built enclosed docks with better security and facilities than the Pool's wharves.

Throughout the 19th century a series of enclosed dock systems was built, surrounded by high walls to protect cargoes from river piracy. These included West India Docks (1802), East India Docks (1803, originating from the Brunswick Dock of 1790), London Docks (1805), Surrey Commercial Docks (1807, originating from the Howland Great Wet Dock of 1696), St Katharine Docks (1828), Royal Victoria Dock (1855), Millwall Dock (1868), Royal Albert Dock (1880), and Tilbury docks (1886).

The enclosed docks were built by several rival private companies, notably the East & West India Docks Company (owners of the East India, West India and Tilbury docks), Surrey Commercial Docks Company and London & St Katharine Docks Company (owners of the London, St Katharine and Royal docks). By the beginning of the 20th century competition and strikes led to pressure for amalgamation. A Royal Commission led to the setting up of the Port of London Authority (PLA) in 1908. In 1909 the PLA took control of the enclosed docks from Tower Bridge to Tilbury, with a few minor exceptions such as Poplar Dock which remained as a railway company facility. It also took over control of the river between Teddington Lock and Yantlet Creek from the City corporation which had been responsible since the 13th century. The PLA head Office at Trinity Square Gardens was built by John Mowlem & Co and completed in 1919.

The PLA dredged a deep water channel, added the King George V Dock (1920) to the Royal group, and made continuous improvements to the other enclosed dock systems throughout the first two thirds of the 20th century. This culminated in expansion of Tilbury in the late 1960s to become a major container port (the UK's largest in the early 1970s), together with a huge riverside grain terminal and mechanised facilities for timber handling. Under the PLA London's annual trade had grown to 60 million tons (38% of UK trade) by 1939, but was mainly transferred to the Clyde and Liverpool during World War 2. After the war London recovered, again reaching 60 million tons in the 1960s.

Thames river 1882
The London docks in 1882. The King George V Dock (and Tilbury Docks, much further downstream) had not yet been built.
Summary timeline
Principal enclosed docks of the Port of London
Year Name Company Area
(water area unless stated)
Location name Side of river Approx. river distance
below London Bridge
1802 West India Docks E&WIDC North (Import) Dock: 30 acres (12 ha);
Middle (Export) Dock: 24 acres (9.7 ha)
Isle of Dogs north 3 mi (4.8 km)
1803 East India Docks E&WIDC 18 acres (7.3 ha) Blackwall north 7 mi (11 km) originating from the
Brunswick Dock of 1790
1805 London Docks ? Western Dock: 20 acres (8.1 ha);
Eastern Dock: 7 acres (2.8 ha);
30 acres (12 ha) (land)
Wapping north 1.5 mi (2.4 km)
1807 Surrey Commercial Docks SCDC 17th-century original: 10 acres (4.0 ha);
eventually reached: 460 acres (190 ha)
Rotherhithe south 4 mi (6.4 km) originating from the
Howland Great Wet Dock of 1696
1828 St Katharine Docks L&StKDC 23 acres (9.3 ha) (land) Tower Hamlets north 1 mi (1.6 km)
1855 Royal Victoria Dock L&StKDC ? Plaistow Marshes
today Silvertown
north 8 mi (13 km)
1860s South West India Dock E&WIDC ? Isle of Dogs north 3.5 mi (5.6 km)
1868 Millwall Dock ? 36 acres (15 ha);
200 acres (81 ha) (land)
Millwall north 4 mi (6.4 km)
1880 Royal Albert Dock L&StKDC ? Gallions Reach north 11.5 mi (18.5 km)
1886 Tilbury Docks E&WIDC ? Tilbury north 25 mi (40 km)
1912 King George V Dock PLA 64 acres (26 ha) North Woolwich north 11 mi (18 km)
Company name
Company name
E&WIDC East & West India Docks Company
L&StKDC London & St Katharine Docks Company
SCDC Surrey Commercial Docks Company
PLA Port of London Authority


Charles John De Lacy - Mist in port, London
Charles de Lacy, "Mist in port, London"

By 1900, the wharves and docks were receiving about 7.5 million tons of cargo each; an inevitable result of the extending reach of the British Empire. Of course, because of its size and grandeur, the Port was a place of work for many laborers in late 19th and early 20th century London. While most of the dockers were casual laborers, there were skilled workers in the stevedores who skillfully loaded ships and the lightermen who unloaded cargo from moored boats via barges. While these specific dockhands found regular work, the average dockhand lived day to day, hoping he would be hired whenever a ship came in. Many times these workers would actually bribe simply for a day's work; and a day's work could be 24 hours of continuous laboring. In addition, the work itself was incredibly dangerous. A docker would suffer a fatal injury from falling cargo almost every week during 1900, and nonfatal injuries happened even more often.

The London dockers handled exotic imports such as precious stones, African ivory, Indian spices, and Jamaican rum that they could never dream of purchasing themselves, and so robberies were very common on the London docks. Dockers would either hide goods under their clothes while leaving or break into warehouses at night, although the later strategy was only employed by professional robbers. While tobacco, pineapples, bearskins, and other goods were all targets of thievery, the most common transgression was drinking. Many reports from the early 20th century detail dockers stealing bottles of brandy or gin and drinking rather than working. More often than not, the consequences were harsh. Five weeks of hard labor for one bottle of Hennessy was not unheard of.

These conditions eventually spurred Ben Tillett to lead the London Dock strike of 1889. Even though the workers asked for only a minuscule increase in payment, foremen initially refused. Over time the strike grew and eventually the strike helped to draw attention to the poor conditions of London dockhands. The strike also revitalized the British Trades Union movement, leading to the betterment of laborers across London.

Port industries

Port london chilled beef 1935
Workers of the port of London unloading "Argentine chilled beef", August 1935.

Alongside the docks many port industries developed, some of which (notably sugar refining, edible oil processing, vehicle manufacture and lead smelting) survive today. Other industries have included iron working, casting of brass and bronze, shipbuilding, timber, grain, cement and paper milling, armament manufacture, etc. London dominated the world submarine communication cable industry for decades with works at Greenwich, Silvertown, North Woolwich, Woolwich and Erith.

For centuries London was the major centre of shipbuilding in Britain (for example at Blackwall Yard, London Yard, Samuda Yard, Millwall Iron Works, Thames Ironworks, Greenwich, and Deptford and Woolwich dockyards), but declined relative to the Clyde and other centres from the mid-19th century. This also affected an attempt by Henry Bessemer to establish steel-making on the Greenwich Peninsula in the 1860s. The last major warship, HMS Thunderer, was launched in 1911.

Upper Pool 1
A ship berths in the busy Upper Pool in 1962

The volume of shipping in the Port of London supported a very extensive ship repairing industry. In 1864, when most ships coming in were built of wood and powered by sail, there were 33 ship-repairing dry docks. The largest of these was Langley's Lower Dock at Deptford Green, which was 460 ft (140 m) in length. While the building of large ships ceased with the closure of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company at Leamouth in 1912, the ship repairing trade continued to flourish. Although by 1930 the number of major dry docks had been reduced to 16, highly mechanised and geared to the repair of iron and steel-hulled ships.

There were also numerous power stations and gas works on the Thames and its tributaries and canals. Major Thames-side gasworks were located at Beckton and East Greenwich, with power stations including Brimsdown, Hackney and West Ham on the River Lea and Kingston, Fulham, Lots Road, Wandsworth, Battersea, Bankside, Stepney, Deptford, Greenwich, Blackwall Point, Brunswick Wharf, Woolwich, Barking, Belvedere, Littlebrook, West Thurrock, Northfleet, Tilbury and Grain on the Thames.

The coal requirements of power stations and gas works constituted a large proportion of London's post-war trade. A 1959 Times article states:

About two-thirds of the 20 million tons of coal entering the Thames each year is consumed in nine gas works and 17 generating stations. Beckton Gas Works carbonises an average of 4,500 tons of coal every day; the largest power stations burn about 3,000 tons during a winter day..

.. Three more power stations, at Belvedere (Oil-firing), and Northfleet and West Thurrock (coal-firing), are being built.

This coal was handled directly by riverside coal handling facilities, rather than the docks. For example, Beckton Gas Works had two large piers which dealt with both its own requirements and with the transfer of coal to lighters for delivery to other gasworks.

A considerable proportion of the drop in London's trade since the 1960s is accounted for by loss of the coal trade, the gas works having closed following discovery of North Sea Gas, domestic use of coal for heating being largely replaced by gas and electricity, and closure of all the coal-burning power stations above Tilbury. In 2011, when Tilbury Power Station switched fully to burning biomass, London's coal imports fell to zero.

The move downstream

Tilburymap 1946
Tilbury in 1946, before major expansion as a container port.

With the use of larger ships and containerisation, the importance of the upstream port declined rapidly from the mid-1960s. The enclosed docks further up river declined and closed progressively between the end of the 1960s and the early 1980s. Trade at privately owned wharves on the open river continued for longer, for example with container handling at the Victoria Deep Water Terminal on the Greenwich Peninsula into the 1990s, and bulk paper import at Convoy's Wharf in Deptford until 2000. The wider port continued to be a major centre for trade and industry, with oil and gas terminals at Coryton, Shell Haven and Canvey in Essex and the Isle of Grain in Kent. In 1992 Government privatisation policy led to Tilbury becoming a freeport. The PLA ceased to be a port operator, retaining the role of managing the Thames.

Much of the disused land of the upstream London Docklands is in the process of being developed for housing and as a second financial district for London (centred on Canary Wharf).

The Port today

Carpathia Unloading at Tilbury docks - - 2091919
Container ship Carpathia unloading at Northfleet Hope terminal, Tilbury

The Port of London today comprises over 70 independently owned terminals and port facilities, directly employing over 30,000 people. These are mainly concentrated at Purfleet (with the world's largest margarine works), Thurrock, Tilbury (the Port's current main container facility), London Gateway, Coryton and Canvey Island in Essex, Dartford and Northfleet in Kent, and Greenwich, Silvertown, Barking, Dagenham and Erith in Greater London.

The Port of London handles containers, timber, paper, vehicles, aggregates, crude oil, petroleum products, liquefied petroleum gas, coal, metals, grain and other dry and liquid bulk materials.

In 2012 London was the second largest port in the United Kingdom by tonnage handled (43.7 million), after Grimsby and Immingham (60 million). The Port of London however handles the most non-fuel cargo of any port in the UK (at 32.2 million tonnes in 2007). Other major rival ports to London in the country are Felixstowe and Southampton, which handle the most and second-most number of containers of British ports; in 2012 London handled the third most and the Medway ports (chiefly London Thamesport) the fifth.

The number of twenty-foot equivalent units of containers handled by the Port of London exceeded two million in 2007 for the first time in the Port's history and this continued in 2008. The Port's capacity in handling modern, large ships and containers is set to dramatically expand with the completion of the London Gateway port project, which will be able to handle up to 3.5 million TEUs per year when fully completed.

With around 12,500 commercial shipping movements annually, the Port of London handles around 10% of the UK commercial shipping trade, and contributes 8.5 billion pounds to the UK's economy. In addition to cargo, 37 cruise ships visited the Port in 2008.

Tate & Lyle refinery plant at Silvertown, London

Once a major refiner of crude oil, today the port only imports refined products. The Kent (BP) and Shell Haven (Shell) refineries closed in 1982 and 1999, and Coryton in 2012. A number of upstream wharves remain in use. At Silvertown, for example, Tate & Lyle continues to operate the world's largest cane sugar refinery, originally served by the West India Docks but now with its own cargo handling facilities. Many wharves as far upstream as Fulham are used for the handling of aggregates brought by barge from facilities down river. Riverside sites in London are under intense pressure for prestige housing or office development, and as a consequence the Greater London Authority in consultation with the PLA has implemented a plan to safeguard 50 wharves, half above and half below the Thames Barrier.

See also

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