Construction of the Royal Victoria Dock from the Illustrated London News, 9 Sept 1854 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

The Isle of Dogs became home to the West India Docks in 1802, with the East India Docks built the following year at nearby Blackwall: both names referencing areas colonised by the British.

These were accompanied by the London Docks at Wapping, built between 1799 and 1815. In the coming decades, the advent of iron steamships replaced wooden sailing vessels, much larger in size and in need of deeper and wider port facilities.

By 1850 plans for a new dock to be built slightly up-river at Plaistow Level were announced, with the St. Katherine & London Dock Company taking on the task.

The Victoria Dock, completed in 1855, was built with the latest technological features, including connectivity between ports and rail networks, hydraulic locks and cranes, and refrigerated storage for meat.

 

Construction of the Royal Victoria Dock from the Illustrated London News, 9 Sept 1854 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library
Docks protest

With rapid industrialisation still in full swing, within two decades the dock had become too shallow and its entrance too narrow, instigating the building of the adjacent Royal Albert Dock, opened in 1880, the largest dock in the world and electrically lit.

By this time, the Port of London was receiving eight million tons of goods a year, a ten-fold increase on the 800,000 tons received in 1800.

Around the docks sprang up a flurry of warehouses and factories for the storage and use of imported goods and materials, as well as infrastructure for its transportation, creating demand for a wide range of ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ workers.  

The docks provided work for thousands of people, living locally in quickly growing places such as Canning Town, Custom House, North Woolwich and Silvertown.

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As well as those who worked in the factories that benefited from their proximity to the docks, many worked as dockers, loading and unloading ships and trains. Despite the high demand for workers, supply was even higher.

The enclosure of much of rural Britain’s common land forced people into cities in search of work – meaning employers were able to keep wages low and working conditions poor.

While some worked as permanent staff, most dock work was performed on a casual basis. This unstable form of work was supported by the ‘call-on’ system, by which those hopeful of work would congregate at dock entrances each morning and wait to be assigned.

During seasonal or economic lapses, as seen in the 1870s and 80s, many would go without work, wreaking hardship amongst the already impoverished industrial communities.

Cases of New Zealand apples being unloaded at the Royal Docks, 1949 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library
King George V Dock, 1973 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

As a result of this poor treatment dockers were increasingly involved in strike action, most notably the estimated 130,000 who took part in the Great Dock Strike of 1889, which gained, amongst other things, the ‘docker’s tanner’, a wage of sixpence per hour.

An increasingly unionised workforce at all skill levels slowly saw conditions for dock workers improve, with strikes continuing intermittently until the docks closure.

By the time of King George V Dock’s completion in 1921, the area had already become known as the ‘warehouse of the empire’ – importing raw materials and exporting manufactured goods, renowned for chemicals, engineering, and food products.

The commercial and strategic value of the docks made it a target for German bombing during the Second World War, causing severe damage and destruction to the area.

While the docks survived the war, they did not survive the introduction of containerisation in the 1960s, slowly dwindling before their eventual closure in 1981, leaving a tide of unemployment and deprivation in their wake.

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Photo: Newham Archives and Local Studies Library