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London's docks

Reproduced by permission of Historic EnglandThe Pool of London, the part of the River Thames just downstream from London Bridge, was the city's port from Roman times until the 18th century. It was then found wanting, being too small to cope with massive growth in trade as London grew rapidly to become Europe's biggest city and the centre of new patterns of consumption based in trade with colonies. Congestion in the port, associated delays and losses through theft spurred merchants to lobby for change. In the wartime environment of the 1790s the government underwrote huge investment in the building of new docks in East London. From 1800 a concerted programme of urban improvement, the like of which is rarely seen in England, with engineering works of unparalleled scale and ingenuity, created a series of enormous enclosed wet docks, providing the merchants with 'security, economy and dispatch'. These docks were crucial to the establishment of London as a 'world city', and through the 19th century more docks were added.

London's docks were a major employer, both sustaining and, when times were lean, impoverishing large parts of London. Working conditions improved somewhat in the 20th century until the upriver docks closed, from 1967 to 1980. Just to the east, Tilbury Docks continue as London's port, and there is still some trade on the upriver Thames. Of the 19th-century docks much has been swept away, but remnants survive amid the new landscape of 'Docklands'.

Story author: Peter Guillery, English Heritage Survey of London

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