Prior to the 19th Century, London didn’t have purpose-built docks. Going back to the Romans through the Medieval Period, ships docked in small quays near the City of London and Southwark that was known as the Pool of London. As it was, the Pool of London offered little protection against the elements or thieves and the space was pretty cramped. However, this didn’t stop London from becoming a prosperous port as its wealth increased from the Romans to the Saxons and then the Normans. Embankment of the River Thames occurred from the 12th to 14th Centuries that added 42 square miles of useable land around Rotherhithe, Deptford, and the Isle of Dogs.
It wasn’t until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I that London actually did something to improve the ports along the nine miles that make up the London Docklands. The first act was to establish “legal quays” on the north bank between London Bridge and the Tower of London. However, the quays soon became overcrowded and in 1663, Parliament allowed for “sufferance wharfs” on both banks to alleviate the congestion. Despite this, London’s popularity as a port continued to grow at an almost exponential rate, with activity doubling between 1700 and 1770 and ships vying for space in ports that could only hold about 1/4 of them. This meant ships sometimes waited days or weeks to unload their cargo.
In the 1790s, William Vaughn began to circulate a number of pamphlets called “Reasons in Favor of the London Docks” that advocated the government to solve the maritime gridlock along the river. Parliament finally took action in 1800 when it passed a bill that proposed new docks. The first dedicated docks were built on the northern end of the Isle of Dogs in Rotherhithe in 1802 known as the West India Dock. The West India Dock encompassed 90 acres and cost roughly £82 million in modern currency. Such was the success of the West India Dock that others soon followed for the remainder of the century including the East India Docks, St. Katherine Dock, Royal Victoria, Millwall, Surrey, Royal Albert, and the London Docks, amongst others. The London Docks alone could handle 500 ships and the warehouses could store 200,000 tons of goods.
The Port of London Authority (PLA) came into existence in 1909 and the last set of docks added was the King George V Docks in 1921. Moving further into the 20th Century, the Docklands were a focal point for the London Blitz, and the German Luftwaffe dropped some 2,500 bombs on the area. Post-war rebuilding led to a resurgence of the docks in the 1950s, but it wasn’t to last. By the 1960s, many shipping companies had adopted the new container system which increased the size of vessels beyond what London’s docks could handle. The area experienced a rapid decline until they were ultimately closed in 1980.
Yet, even before the last of the docks closed, London was already making plans to redevelop the Docklands. The Greater London Council and Parliament formed the Docklands Joint Committee, which produced a strategic plan for development in 1976. It mapped out development in four phases to take place from 1982 to 1997. In the first phase, new district centers, housing, and industrial areas would be constructed. Phase two would expand housing in Wapping, Beckton, and the Isle of Dogs. Phase three proposed an increase of public green space. Phase four would have wrapped everything up and connected all the development together.
In the end, the Docklands Joint Committee’s proposals were not implemented as Thatcher’s government preferred for private industry to take the lead in redevelopment rather than using public funds. Instead, Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Heseltine formed the London Dockland Development Corporation in 1981. The government also created an enterprise zone where developers were exempt from property taxes and were granted other allowances and economic incentives. Critics claimed that this did more to encourage luxury flats and amenities rather than affordable housing. Ultimately, the LDDC’s goals were successful as the Docklands transformed into a mixed-use area filled with housing, restaurants, shops, offices, and industries.
Amongst the most successful of the new developments was Canary Wharf, dominated by the 45-story skyscraper One Canada Square. Rail and London Underground lines were extended out to Canary Wharf in the 1990s. By 2003, Canary Wharf’s population numbered over 50,000. It has become emblematic of the success of the development scheme overall and a sign that even the most devastated areas can find a second life.