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History of Port Post 1908

The Creation of the Port of London Authority
The 1920’s and First World War
The 1930's
The Second World War
Post 2nd World War
The 1950’s
The 1960’s
The 1970’s
The 1980’s and Beyond


The Creation of the Port of London Authority

The new body, which commenced its duty on 31 March 1909, consisted of 28 members, 10 of whom were appointed and 18 elected, with the first chairman, Viscount Devonport, nominated by the Government.

The Government, not wanting to give a monopoly to the newly formed Port of London Authority (PLA), transferred undertakings and powers of the Thames Conservancy below Teddington, as well as certain duties of the Waterman’s Company. The Corporation of the City of London retained sanitary supervision of the Port as far as shipping, passengers and cargo were concerned. The Corporation of Trinity House kept powers of lighting, buoying and pilotage in the tideway, whilst the Metropolitan Police kept their river responsibilities.

The new authority was given powers to acquire quays, wharfs and warehouses on the banks of the river. Revenue was to come from charges for services to, and accommodation for, ships and cargo. Port rates on goods and tonnage dues on ships provided for a contribution to the carrying out of the Authority’s statutory obligations, whilst barges paid a registration fee. It was anticipated that any excess of revenue over expenditure would be allocated to port improvements or reduction of dues and charges.

The PLA commenced its work by immediately drawing up a £12m programme of new works, with priority given to acquiring equipment so that a channel could be dredged to bear ships from sea into the port.

A range of developments also began on a variety of other projects, including the extension of Tilbury Docks, and a new cargo jetty developed at King George V Dock.

Lord Devonport proved to be a strong leader, with his forceful drive colliding with the rising strength of the labour force. Dock workers pay and conditions had not been improved since 1889, leading to a call for a revision in 1911. It was important to proceed with planned port development and, hence, Devonport granted increases totalling £200,000. However, this proved too little, too late, and the following year a dock strike developed, bringing a halt to the new projects.

After 10 weeks of chaos the strike was smashed and development work resumed. Most of these plans were well in hand when the First World War bought them to a halt once again.


The 1920’s and First World War

The outbreak of war brought complete confusion to the dock and shipping industries. The Government requisitioned materials, ships and road and rail transport as well as diverting labour.

Overall trade continued as usual although essentials, and not luxuries, were predominant. In fact, with Antwerp and Rotterdam out of use, the port initially benefited. The War was conducted mostly without air attack by either side, the only impact being that of the German U-boat campaign in 1917. This successfully discouraged shipping from using London for fear of attack and briefly interrupted trade movement.  Hence, the port experienced minimal damage during these years and by the end of the war it was relatively easy to return to its continuing development, remaining the world’s greatest port during the 1920s and 1930s.

By the time Lord Devonport retired in 1925 the port had been successful with its plans for expansion and development:

-          In 1920 the King George V dock in North Woolwich had been completed, adding 10% to London’s area of dock water

-          In 1923/24 the Port handled a record total of 41¼ m net register tons.

-          The planned channel had been dredged attracting more, and bigger, ships

-          Tilbury Cargo Jetty was completed in the lower tideway designed for ships arriving with port cargoes

-          By 1925 the overall area of the dock had increased by more than 6 miles.

The PLA had had an inspiring period of reconstruction but events such as the General Strike and the Wall Street Crash were beginning to affect Britain and other nations.

In 1926 national industry was paralysed by the General Strike. Britain failed to recover its place as the foremost manufacturer in the world and the strike had created a threat to world trade. This in turn impacted on sea carriage, docks and trade.

At first the general trade of the Port did continue to flourish with development continuing. The Quebec Dock, 15 acres in extent, was constructed. West India import and export docks, south west India dock and Millwall docks - all separate basins - were joined by cuttings and a new lock giving access to the whole group replaced the former and outdated entrance to south west India dock.


The 1930’s

The PLA were aware of the impact the General Strike would have on the well-being of the port but the Authority had planned a programme and pledged to promote works likely to lessen the numbers of unemployed.

It began the 1930’s, with an encouraging boost, by completing a new landing stage at Tilbury which allowed passengers to embark and disembark from the largest liners at any state of the tide.  Prior to its completion passengers had either used dockside cargo facilities adapted for the occasion or had joined or left their ship by a tender.

Cruises were offered at vastly reduced prices and, as the craze caught on, the holiday cruise industry flourished. It was not unusual to see two or three liners in Gravesend Reach. In contrast, there was a general decline in world trade, reflected in the reduction of the Port’s annual tonnage figures which now dropped for the first time since the First World War. This had a knock on effect on the rest of the UK. As an act of good faith port charges were reduced in 1930 which was estimated to save merchants and ship owners £120,000 per annum.

Another problem tackled in the 1930’s was that of inadequate road access to the docks. Cargo transportation was moving away from rail and narrow approach roads to the docks were congested.  The building of Silvertown Way was designed to ease this congestion.

In 1936 the Authority began one of its most ambitious inter-war tasks - that of reconstruction of the Royal Victoria Dock in order to make it a deep-water quay, with similar deepening work to the Royal Albert Dock. Further improvements were also carried out to the West India Docks.

With the outbreak of the second world war imminent, the Government needed to ensure the continuation of essential port services. At their request a scheme for the wartime administration of the Port was drawn up with other defensive measures being implemented during 1938-39. A civil defence scheme, which included the creation of a River Emergency Service, was planned and the necessary training of key men took place, with equipment purchased and stored in readiness. 


The Second World War

With the outbreak of the war on 2nd September 1939 the Royal Navy established guard ships, batteries were manned on both banks of the lower river and in the middle of the reaches in the dock and, in industrial areas, barrage balloons were inflated.

Everyone was aware that at some point the Thames would become a target. Passive defences in the Port were ready with stringent security measures in place enforced by the Authority’s own police at the docks and by the Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police in the river.

The wartime administration scheme ensured that immediately after the outbreak of the war all UK principal ports passed into the control of Port Emergency Committees responsible to the Ministry of Transport. The London Committee consisted of existing members of the PLA but with broader responsibilities and powers.

It was during November 1939 that the first German bomb targeted the Thames Estuary and throughout the war this area was heavily targeted. The first significant attack on London came, however, on 7 September 1940 when 375 enemy planes struck at the Thames and its docks. For 57 consecutive nights the tideway was under almost continuous attack with transport, communications, sheds and warehouses destroyed or damaged.

It was during this period that the river came into its own, being used as the main City highway as it was never disrupted by bomb debris, craters or fire. A service of tugs and launches was provided by the Port Emergency Committee on behalf of the London Passenger Transport Board.

The salvage of ships sunk or damaged within the Port limits was a normal commitment of the PLA and an efficient wreck raising service was maintained. With the onset of the aerial attack on London, the Admiralty had asked the Authority to extend their jurisdiction to include the whole of the estuary, placing men and machinery at their disposal. The PLA set up a new wartime Salvage Department and its services were immediately on demand.

By the end of 1941 London’s shipping traffic had been reduced to about one quarter of its usual volume, with much of the normal shipping traffic diverted to emergency anchorages in the Clyde. Advantage was taken of the end of sustained raids on the docks and of this reduced activity to clear up the battered quays and warehouses which had been destroyed or made unusable.

By 1944 war supplies were pouring into the port in large quantities and the port emergency committee reviewed all Port facilities, in light of demands being placed on them.  Both before and after D-Day traffic flowed almost without stopping into and out of dock premises.

Marshalling for D-Day began in London on 27th May and in Tilbury on 28th May. Never before had the Thames seen such a fleet of armed merchantmen and ships of war. One of the most technically significant moments in Port history took place as a steady flow of deep sea ships, coasters, tugs, barges, oilers and landing craft joined in the estuary.

By 6 June the fleet was ready and the D-day armada set sail with 307 ships from London carrying some 50,000 servicemen, nearly 80,000 tons of military supplies and about 9,000 vehicles.

Bombing of the port still continued. The enemy had introduced the pilotless plane and the rocket bomb which targeted the Docklands area, causing high casualties and damage.

Thankfully, on 8 May the enemy surrendered and the Port celebrated with the traditional massed blowing of sirens and whistles by ships and craft.


Post 2nd World War

Following the war the Port was now in a worst state than it had been since the beginning of the century. Nearly 900 missiles, as well as thousands of incendiary bombs, had fallen on PLA property as well as numerous attacks on private riverside property. The most damaging aspect at that time was the loss of some 50% of the total storage accommodation. Much of the equipment had been taken by the Government and what was left needed maintenance.

Work to once again promote the port was slowed down by the Government’s reluctance to commit the necessary expenditure and unwillingness to prioritise projects for labour and materials.

The Authority anticipated a shortage of dock labour and ordered a variety of equipment in readiness for mechanisation, establishing a committee in 1947 to study the extent of possible mechanisation.  Its recommendations had a profound effect upon the post-war reconstruction, as it was soon recognised that only a clean break with some of the traditions would permit the full use of the machines.

In line with this, came the new status of dock labour when the National Dock Labour Board took over the work of the wartime National Dock Labour Corporation. 

The National Dock Labour Corporation, launched in 1942, had taken control of all labour registered under the generic title of Port Transport Worker at most British ports and had the power to transfer men to other ports. In return the docker received a weekly minimum wage.

The new Board became responsible for the supply of all dock labour. It meant that the dockers had achieved practically everything for which they had fought in years, now receiving attendance money, a guaranteed minimum weekly wage, whether work was available or not, and paid holidays.

Pay arrangements were centralised and no longer did men have to attend various offices for their money. Rates of pay varied with the amount and nature of the work performed but the average earnings of a docker rose until they became amongst the highest in the country.


The 1950’s

Wartime reconstruction of the Thames was completed by 1950. The Authority had managed to obtain a limited amount of new dock equipment and carry out some repair work and re-building. Supply of labour and material was gradually eased and the lifting of various Government controls now enabled them to profit from their intensive study of the post-war situation.

The PLA now realised that long term planning was essential for development of the port and to keep ahead of the demands made upon it services, but the nature of the business was such that these demands could change at any time with revolutionary developments forcing dock operators to modify or completely alter their plans.

While unable to predict the future trends of individual trades it was recognised that the cargo handling machine was now as important in the warehouse as on the quay.  Such problems were now approached by the Port Authority with a new spirit of optimism and throughout the 1950’s the docks had a new and invigorating activity after the post-war struggle.

In 1953 reconstruction of the Royal Victoria Dock took place at a cost  £1½ m and in March 1958 a record tonnage of 75m n.r.t. was reached.

A new passenger terminal was constructed in Tilbury in 1957 and plans were put in place to extend the dock to cater for increases in container movements.

1959 was also an important year when the PLA established a Thames Navigation Service, the nerve centre controlling all shipping movements. From now on control of navigation on the river and estuary was based on one control point instead of being spread over a number of places.


The 1960’s

The Port of London was approaching its best year in 1964 when trade exceeded 61m tonnes and the number of enclosed docks reached its peak. Other extensive work and improvements continued and new projects began, such as the western entrance to the Royal Docks to allow barge traffic. 

Despite the positive start closure and redundancies were approaching. This was mainly due to the introduction of containerisation, bringing with it dramatic changes. Containers do not need warehouses and are distributed by road and rail. No one foresaw how quickly things would close as containerisation took off. However, at this stage, London did not loose its place as Britain’s first port for cargo handling. 1964 was significant as the Harbours Act extended the PLA’s jurisdiction in the estuary by 22 miles meaning that more dredging would have to be carried out.

The Docks and Harbours Act, passed in 1966, also impacted the PLA.  The development of the decasualisation of dockers and the introduction of the licensing for the employment of registered dock workers took place, with the PLA designated as licensing out for the Thames.

Once decasualisation was implemented, the PLA clarified its duty to register small craft and also confirmed its position as the ‘employer of last resort’ by reason of responsibility of licensing employment of registered dock workers. In the long run this meant that the PLA had to accept onto their pay roll dock workers who had been made redundant in the event of a licensed riverside wharf going out of business.

Work was continuing on the enclosed docks but by 1967 there were warning signs. Use of the upper docks was declining and the decision was taken to close St Katherine and London Docks within 12 months.

Signs began to appear of a decline and changes in trade movement. For example, Surrey Commercial Docks had had improvements made in the early 1960’s (deepened and able to accept bigger ships) which now proved to be irrelevant, due to the changing patterns of the timber trade. Bigger ships and the increasing growth of packaging and palletisation of timber and timber products brought more trade of this kind to Tilbury and riverside docks at the expense of Surrey Docks. This led to sections of the docks being sold off with them all disposed of by 1977.

The above factors led to the curious situation of new berths being closed whilst others were upgraded for new products, an event which kept occurring up to the 1980’s.

Whilst the upper docks were being shut down the PLA was developing Tilbury at a quick rate with the provision of container berths and of handling equipment. This enabled Tilbury to cope well with containerisation and ro-ro traffic as well as conventional cargoes.


The 1970’s

By 1972 Tilbury had become the leading container handling port in the UK, taking the second place in Europe.

The inevitable fall off in trade and the closure of the docks meant independent employers began to feel the pinch and could ultimately no longer survive. In 1973 the PLA took over the business of two companies, Thames Stevedoring and Metropolitan Terminals, followed in 1974 by Gee Stevedroing and Scruttons. From then on the PLA was the sole stevedoring employer in the docks.

With the closure of companies and the implementation of the Docks and Harbours Act, the PLA had to take all registered dock workers made redundant into its own employ, creating a huge supply of labour.  This therefore led to the situation in 1976 that there were far more workers than were needed (an average daily surplus of approximately 1,250 men) all being sent home on pay.

Tilbury was better able to take advantage of the growth in Britain’s trade with mainland Europe and continued to grow. This was because of their easier access and shorter sea routes and enough space for the vast stacking areas which containers require. By 1977 it was handling 294,500 containers per year, more than sufficient to place London at the top of the UK container port league.

Its wharves and warehouses were subsequently modernised to include facilities for containers, bulk cargoes (eg steel and grain) and roll-on, roll-off ferry traffic.



It was during the 1970’s the ecology and pollution levels of the Thames also improved. It had been the responsibility of the PLA to maintain a clean river.  Pollution had built up following a severe drought in 1949 when the oxygen content of the water fell to zero.

During 1948 the PLA realised that the Thames was rejecting further attempts to deepen and in some areas to maintain the existing depths of the dredged channel. This was due to its overburden of sewage effluent, mostly only partially treated, the amount of fresh water taken from the non-tidal river for the supply of ever-growing London, and the raising of river temperatures by the discharge from the increasing number of riverside electricity stations.

This situation illustrated the complexities of long term planning. The dredged channel was a major reason for London’s increasing industrial development and the rise in the population, but these in turn demanded more power, water supplies and sewage works – all contributing to siltation at a time when further development of the Thames was becoming necessary to meet the demands of industrial expansion.

A full investigation of the problems of pollution and siltation began when a committee was established, consisting of the PLA working in co-operation with the Government Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.  In 1957 the Committee reported recommending changes in the dumping of silt, increased co-operation from municipal authorities and the re-building of certain Thames-side sewage plant.

Improvements were made to sewage treatment plants at Beckton and Crossness and in 1964 the PLA acquired, and began to use its powers, to control discharges into the Thames and for first time since 1921 oxygen content was maintained at 5% in the hottest weather. By 1973 73 species of fish were counted in the river.

In 1974 the PLA handed over most of the pollution control powers to the  newly constituted Thames Water Authority.


The 1980’s and Beyond


As Tilbury developed, the enclosed docks were steadily shut and eventually turned over to developers along with the riverside warehouses with most of them all gone by 1981. The East India, London, Surrey and St Katherine docks closed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Between 1980 and 1983 the West India, Millwall and The Royal Docks were also shut.

With all its docks closed or sold off, the PLA now concentrates on managing safety on the tidal Thames. It is responsible for maintaining river channels for navigation, moorings, lights and buoys. The PLA also provides a wide range of services for shipping, including, since 1988, pilotage services.

The port of London and the trade it handles have changed a great deal since the heyday of the 1950’s and 1960‘s. To understand why, it is necessary to appreciate how the worlds sea-bourne trade has changed during that time.

Nowadays, with the bulk of London’s port facilities 20 miles or more down stream from the centre, Londoners would be forgiven for thinking they no longer had a port. Tower Bridge only raises for cruise and occasional war ships. However, despite the closure of the old docks and the wharves, London is still one of Britain’s leading ports. It handles considerable amounts of traffic, but few goods now arrive in London directly by sea. Instead, most are unloaded at terminals much farther down the Thames.

Almost all of the working wharfs have been replaced by businesses or residential properties, public walkways and restaurants.

  • Regeneration is underway – London Bridge city includes Hay’s Wharf where the tea clippers once moored and United Baltic Ships would unload.
  • On the site of old Rum Wharf in West India Docks is Canary Wharf and Docklands
  • Former Royal Docks is now London City Airport and is part on an ongoing regeneration
  • Royal Victoria Dock now sits next to Excel the exhibition centre

The area administered by PLA today covers 95 miles from the Thames estuary to Teddington, the largest UK port in geographical terms and has more than 70 operational wharfs. The only enclosed dock is independently operated port of Tilbury.