Chaos on the river
The British Empire was expanding. Steam power had arrived. All this meant more trade. It also meant pandemonium on the river. Collisions were frequent and plundering was rife. The Port of London was in chaos and there was a desperate need for more docks with wider and deeper shores. First to be built were the East and West India Docks which helped relieve for a while the pressure on cargo berths for London. But it was not enough. The growing city needed a radical solution.
It was then that a group of entrepreneurs, spearheaded by George Parker Bidder, hatched an incredibly ambitious plan – to build docks that were bigger and deeper than anything that had gone before that could ensure London could be supplied for a century or more. What’s more their plan was to dig these docks out of the marshland, known as ‘Lands End’, further east than the other docks in what was to become an incredible feat of engineering.
Its hard to imagine, in Royal Docks history quite how many men and machines were required in the early part of the 19th century to undertake such a task. But the project was delivered on time and in 1855 Victoria Dock was opened. Some 13 metres deep and serviced by a giant ship lock the dock featured the latest technology in dockside cranes and services and more importantly could handle multiple numbers of the new large ironclad steamships that were servicing the empire.
At the same time, the demand for land for factories had also exploded, the first of which arrived in 1852 – Samuel Silver’s waterproof clothing works, which gave it’s name to the Silvertown district. By the 1880’s, the docks were one of London’s biggest bases for the cargo industry.
Growth and Innovation
No sooner was Victoria Dock opened that it became clear that more wharf space was required and plans for another dock were developed. Longer than Victoria dock, these new docks would feature some unique innovations – railway lines that went straight to the dock edge, refrigerated warehousing to store perishable goods – even electric lighting would follow. Named Albert Dock this new addition was opened in 1880.
King George V and the “Royal” docks
The final dock to be constructed was opened by King George V in 1921 with the group of docks being assigned the “Royal” name. King George V Dock featured a new 225 metre long lock with an entrance big enough to accommodate the 35,655 ton ocean liner the SS Mauretania in 1939.
Image © PLA collection/Museum of London
World War 2, The Blitz and Normandy
The Royal Docks suffered severe damage during World War II. German leaders believed that destroying the port with its warehouses, transit sheds, factories and utilities would disrupt Britain’s war effort. It is estimated that some 25,000 tons of ordinance fell on the docklands with much of that on the Royal Docks and surrounding area. Human losses were extremely high but in spite of the sustained bombardment, London’s Royal Docks remained open. They handled less shipping due to attacks by German submarines on British merchant ships, which led to food shortages and rationing but many did get through and the docks helped keep Britain supplied with food.
Towards the end of the war the Royal Docks played a vital role when the mulberry harbours that helped establish the beach head for the Normandy landings were constructed in secret within the docks themselves. Once completed they were towed towards Folkestone and put in place to support the landings and the allied forces push across north France. Despite the damage the Royal Docks enjoyed a brief boom in trade post war and for a while it looked as though the docks would continue to thrive through to the end of the twentieth century. But it was not to be.
London Docklands Development Corporation and a new beginning
In mid 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation was formed with the objective of regenerating and finding new uses for the former docks of London. The DLR was built and Canary Wharf born whilst for the Royal Docks plans were made to create an inner city Airport utilising the former central wharf as the Airport Runway.
London City Airport opened in 1987 and has been a thriving and more convenient departure and arrival point for passengers ever since.
Shortly after a major exhibition centre was opened – ExCel with a further phase added in early 2000 whilst a new campus was built on Royal Albert Dock and opened as the new University of East London.
Today, thousands of people arrive into London’s Royal Docks by air, tube, DLR, boat, road and even cable car. Residential, commercial and retail developments are springing up right the way along the 4 kilometres of London’s Royal Docks, from Gallion’s Reach to the planned floating village. The University of East London continues to thrive whilst ExCel now offers London’s only international conference centre . A mass of hotels, restaurants and bars have opened to service the people who live, work and study here, as well as its increasing numbers of visitors. By 2020 all of what was formerly dock buildings and land will have been regenerated. The growth story of London’s Royal Docks continues…