The building of London’s Royal Docks came into being at the time when the British Empire was trading with the capital and struggling to meet the demands of commerce. The London Royal Docks drew goods and people from across the globe after they opened in the mid-nineteenth century and were fortunate to have survived the bombings of World War II. Impacted by the economic downturn in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, the docks survived after Asian developers signed a deal to turn it into another financial center for London.
The edges of the banks of the River Thames, far from the city, were simply known as “Hamme” and whilst the land was considered good for grazing, it was often flooded, which made it an area where few wanted to build, though it had been home to farmers and fishermen.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the British Empire was expanding and so traded. In 1847, engineer George Parker Bidder built a railway between Stratford and North Woolwich, and soon a number of small communities began to form in the area. On the river, the Port of London was falling apart under the sheer volume of trade and the desperate need for more docks with wider and deeper shores. The pressure was relieved first with the building of the East and West India Docks, but this was not enough. Then, George Parker Bidder led a group of entrepreneurs to build docks out of the marshland, known as ‘Lands End’, further east than the other docks. When the Victoria Dock was dug in 1855, it was 13 meters deep and serviced by a giant ship lock.
Whilst Victoria Dock was a success it was obvious that more wharf space was needed, and Albert Dock was developed and opened in 1880. It was considered the largest area of man-made enclosed water in the world, and the area was essential to safe trading with the British Empire and was highly prosperous. The Victoria and Albert Docks specialized in the import and unloading of foodstuffs, with rows of giant granaries and refrigerated warehouses being sited alongside the quays.
As a result, employment opportunities increased so creating a huge demand for accommodation for workers leading to new settlements named Hallsville, Canning Town, and North Woolwich. There was also an expansion of housing in area’s later known as Custom House, Silvertown, and West Silvertown.
In 1909 all the enclosed docks were taken over by the Port of London Authority (PLA) which completed King George V Dock in 1921 and reserved land to the north for a fourth dock, which was never built.
The poor working and living conditions of dock workers were an ongoing problem throughout the history of the London Royal Docks. It first came to a head when a strike in May 1926, but disputes over conditions until the closure of the docks.
The Royal Docks suffered severe damage during World War II yet remained open and kept Britain supplied with food. Towards the end of the war, the Royal Docks was the secret location for the building of the mulberry harbors that helped establish the beachhead for the Normandy landings. Once completed they were towed towards Folkestone and put in place to support the landings and the allied forces push across northern France. Despite the damage to the Royal Docks post-war trade was good, but this did not last long.
The advent of container cargo and other technological changes was the beginning of the end of the Royal Docks. The more efficient movement of container cargo required much larger ships which could not navigate down to the Royal Docks, leading to the areas decline. The last vessel to be loaded left on 7 December 1981, leading to mass unemployment and social deprivation in the surrounding communities of North Woolwich and Silvertown.
In 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation was established to find new uses for and to regenerate the former docks of London. The Docklands Light Railway was built, and Canary Wharf established and plans made for a city airport using the former central wharf as the runway. London City Airport opened in 1987 and has been a thriving ever since. ExCel exhibition center was opened, and a new campus was built on the Royal Albert Dock and opened as the new University of East London.
A large number of hotels, restaurants, and bars have opened to service the people who live, work and study in the area, as well as the increasing numbers of visitors. By 2020 all of what was formerly dock buildings and land will have been regenerated along the four kilometers of London’s Royal Docks, from Gallion’s Reach to the planned floating village. Find out more about future development of the Royal Docks here.