Review of The Whitechapel Society Meeting for June 2022

You know what they say about best-laid plans? Venue booked, speaker arranged, zoom link sent out and then…… the MC tests positive for Covid two days before the meeting!

However, the ever-resourceful Tony Power, ably aided and abetted by the equally resourceful Steve Rattey arranged things so that Tony could MC the meeting via zoom whilst at the same time isolating – impressive huh?

So, for both the attendees at the Crutched Friar and the regular zoomers, Tony introduced the evening’s speaker, Peter Stone, from his living room.

As Tony said, ever since Roman times, the River Thames has been integral to the prosperity of London. Tony said that Peter has been studying London’s history for the past ten years and has written numerous articles for magazines as well as his website. Peter’s interest in the Port of London is generated by many generations of Peter’s family earning their living on the river and he has recently had published a superb book entitled: The History of the Port of London: A Vast Emporium of all Nations.

Peter opened by saying that since Roman times, London prospered because of its position as an inland port with easy links to Europe and eventually, beyond. By the 19th century it was the largest port in the world and by the 1930, one third of the country’s trade passed through the Port of London. Ocean liners also carried passengers from as far away as Australia and New Zealand and despite wartime bombing, there was a new peak of trade in 1960s, but within 20 years, most of the port was to lay idle.

This long and undulating history started around AD62 when a port on the Thames was established by the Romans. Fast forward some hundreds of years and the medieval port was largely concentrated between London Bridge and the Tower of London. Moving on again, in the mid 16th century customs duties were increased which made smuggling more lucrative. The solution was to restrict imports and exports to a limited number of wharves – known as legal quays. In London there were about 20 registered legal quays, and they were to hold the monopoly for the next 250 years.

At this time cloth was England’s main export and entered Europe via Antwerp. However, Elizabeth 1’s refusal to marry Philip of Spain caused him to ban English imports into Antwerp, so merchants sought new trade routes. It was very much a case of, as one door closes another opens, because various companies soon sought out new suppliers and markets further afield, principally the Baltic and Africa.  Emboldened by this success, in 1601 ships set sail from London to the Far East in search of silks and spices. Elizabeth 1 granted a charter to the East India Company giving them a monopoly regarding English trade with this part of the world and such was the success of this company that it transformed English fashion and cuisine.

East India Company ships moored at Blackwall and Deptford and by the early 18th century they had offices in Leadenhall Street. The East India Company was to become the largest and most complex trading organisation in the world.

Ships from London’s Virginia Company set sail from Blackwall in 1606 and founded the colony of Jamestown and tobacco became a major import into London. The Hudson Bay Company which governed much of east Canada shipped furs into England through London. This long-distance trade increased traffic through London so it was necessary to create new wet docks.  Blackwall opened in 1640 and Howland in Rotherhithe in 1700.  These were places where ships could moor in safety and carry out repairs before they proceeded upstream to pay the necessary customs and duties at the legal quays.

From the 17th century to the mid 19th century London was also a major whaling port and Howland dock was renamed Greenland dock. From 1645 sugar was imported from Barbados into London, changing it from a luxury item into one which was widely available. However, the cultivation of sugar was labour intensive and from this was born the odious slave trade. Slave trading companies based in London were one apex of the slave trade triangle. London remained the main English slave trading port until the demise of the Royal African Company at the end of the 17th century; from then Bristol and Liverpool dominated the trade. It is estimated that 740,000 men, women and children were forcibly taken from Africa in London ships during the period of the slave trade.

With increased trade in the 18th century, the legal quays became something of a bottleneck and ships could wait weeks to be unloaded. Theft from these waiting ships became a problem and so was born a river police force, the West Indies Planters & Marine Police in 1798. The facilities for loading and unloading and paying customs expanded in the early 19th century with the West India docks opening in 1802 across the top of the Isle of Dogs. It was created by a partnership between the City of London and the merchants dealing in sugar and rum brought from the slave plantations. The West India Dock Company were given a 21-year monopoly on all trade between London and the West Indies. Three years later the London Docks at Wapping were opened by London’s independent merchants. The East India Docks opened in 1806 and they had a 21-year monopoly on all trade with India and China. Interestingly, unlike the West India Docks and the London Docks, the East India Company did not have dockside warehouses. Ships were unloaded and the cargo was taken to warehouses in Cutler Street in the City.

In the 19th century, those employed in the river port industry and sailors looking to man ships departing from the ports, lived in Stepney, Shadwell, Wapping, Ratcliffe, Poplar, Deptford and Rotherhithe. Ratcliffe Highway in particular, became the temporary home of sailors of all nationalities whilst waiting to board ships. A sordid place at the best of times and its reputation deteriorated further after the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811.

However, Howard Goldsmid was to say in his “Dottings of a Dosser” published in 1896 that

“I would rather walk down Ratcliffe Highway in ordinary attire twenty times than walk down Flower & Dean Street twice”!

In October 1828 the St Katharine docks with quayside warehouses opened. Whilst progress, the human cost was high. The construction of these docks had made 11,500 people homeless and without any support or compensation in finding other homes.

In 1838 the East and West India Dock companies merged, as did the St Katharine and London Dock companies in 1864. The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 saw an increased volume of trade into Britain but Liverpool, with its superior facilities, benefitted the most. London, keen not to lose out; the London & St Katherine Dock company opened the Royal Victoria in 1855 and the Royal Albert Dock in 1879 whilst the East & West India Company created docks down river at Tilbury in 1886.

Whilst the Dock companies employed skilled workers on a secure basis, the unskilled manpower was employed on a daily basis. For them, work was seasonal, unpredictable and dependent on the weather; life was very hard. Dock workers reliant on the East & West India Docks, heartened by the success of the Bryant and May matchgirls, went on strike in 1889. Cardinal Manning acted as a mediator between the two sides in what was later called the “dockers tanner” and the dockers got their demand of a pay of 6d an hour.

At the end of the 19th century, London was the largest port in the world but despite its size it was not profitable. A commission was set up to investigate and the conclusion was that the London docks should be nationalised and the controlling body, the Port of London Authority was born in 1909. Initially employing 11,000 workers it covered 69 miles of river. World War 1 delayed the progress of improvements, but work restarted in the 1920s and the King George V dock opened in 1921. This, the most modern dock in the world, could accommodate 15 of the largest ships at any one time. A passenger terminal opened in Tilbury in 1930 and in terms of size and volume of trade, the Port of London reached its peak in the 1930s.  However, not surprisingly the port became the target of Hitler’s bombs during WW11 causing substantial damage to not only the port but homes and businesses in the East End.

However, the bounce back was rapid and by 1955 the Port of London had 31,000 registered dockers. But following another golden period in the 1960s, decline was only just round the corner. Up until then, cargo was moved manually, but along came the forklift truck and more significantly, containerisation and ro-ro vessels. Other countries had embraced these technologies way ahead of the UK and one by one the London docks closed, with the exception of Tilbury. The final ship sailed from the Royal docks in 1981 and between 1986 and 1989 the number of registered dockers fell from 24,000 to 9000.

By the end of the 1980s, Tilbury was the only facility operated by the Port of London Authority. In 1990 Tilbury was sold off to private enterprise. However, the Port of London Authority continues. It now concentrates on managing safety on the tidal Thames from the Thames Estuary to Teddington. It is responsible for maintaining river channels for navigation and provide a wide range of services for shipping. The London Gateway opened in 2013 on the north bank of the Thames at Thurrock. This deep-water, semi-automated port with good road and rail links is designed to take the world’s largest container ships.

So, whilst Britain’s ports remain significant world -players the old London docks are no more. Significant redevelopment is on-going, but Peter took us through some lovely pictures of things which can be still seen which echo the past.

This had been a whistle-stop tour of the history of the Port of London, much to the enjoyment of both the live attendees and those on zoom. Our thanks to Peter for his well delivered and well-illustrated talk and as always to Tony and Steve for all their hard work.

See Peter’s website: