Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1994.
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CHAPTER XII - The Millwall Docks
The Isle of Dogs was an obvious location for port-related development in the mid-nineteenth century. The Millwall and Cubitt Town riverside was a necklace of industry around a hinterland of undeveloped pasture, for the inland properties were of limited commercial value without water access. The area had been recognized as suitable for wet docks at earlier periods of growth in the Port, in the 1790s and 1820s (see pages 248 and 276). All of the proposals incorporated the double entrances that the river's oxbow allowed. However, in the years around 1860 London did not need new docks for commercial shipping. Indeed, there was more accommodation in the Port than was required, and competition among existing dock companies was threatening to become ruinous. Yet at the same time there was little space near London for any expansion of riverside manufacturing. The Thames Embankment was set to displace existing wharves and increase demand for water frontages. In an economic climate which produced great confidence in large speculations, the idea of developing the Isle of Dogs to meet this demand came to the fore. The Millwall Docks were conceived not as docks for trade, but as an extension of water frontage to provide wharves for manufacturing, especially shipbuilding and ship repair. (fn. 3)
The Historical Development of the Millwall Docks
Planning the Docks, 1859–64
The Millwall Docks were promoted and all but entirely built by an ad hoc partnership of leading public-works contractors, John Kelk and John Aird & Son. However, they took the scheme from Nathaniel John Fenner and Robert Fairlie. Fenner was a Millwall oil merchant and wharfinger (see page 452). Fairlie was a civil engineer, the designer of the double-bogie railway engine, but without significant experience in dock building. (fn. 4) The difficulties which Fenner had encountered in landing goods at his wharf at low water had made him aware of the advantage of enclosed non-tidal docks for wharfingers. Recognizing the potential of the empty land behind his wharf, in 1859 he asked Fairlie to draw up plans for its development. These evidently differed little from those later submitted to Parliament (fig. 125). They proposed a 'canal' across the Isle of Dogs, with an entrance basin at each end, and a central arm extending north towards the South Dock of the West India Docks. (fn. 5)
Fenner and Fairlie were slow to proceed with the plan, although in 1862 Fenner leased the next but one wharf, to the south of his Millwall wharf, the site of the projected west entrance. (fn. 6) The critical step came in March 1863, when Fenner and Fairlie took the plan to William Wilson (1822–98), a well-connected railway engineer, who agreed to act as engineer and agent for the project. (fn. 7) Wilson, who had built his reputation through his association with (Sir) John Fowler (1817–98), made some alterations to Fairlie's plan, and the scheme was presented to Parliament in November 1863 as the Millwall Canal, Wharfs and Graving Docks Bill (fig. 125). The intention was not to build on the wharves, but simply to let plots on building leases. Up to six graving docks would be built off the canal, as and when demand dictated. Wilson estimated the cost for the land and minimum works at £330,000, or £665,000 for the whole scheme with three graving docks. (fn. 8)
In December 1863 Wilson took the scheme to John Aird & Son and they agreed to back it by paying parliamentary expenses. It was then shown to John Kelk, who offered to partner Aird & Son. Fenner later alleged that he had been ready to put up his share of the deposit, but that Wilson neither asked for the money nor consulted him about the approach to Aird. Wilson's response was that he understood his agreement with Fenner to have expired. (fn. 9) It may be surmised that Wilson simply saw a brighter future with big fish like Kelk and Aird than with minnows like Fenner and Fairlie.
The scheme had become a contractor's speculation. Kelk and Aird would have had the Victoria Dock in mind, which a decade earlier George Parker Bidder had joined Peto, Brassey and Betts to promote, design and build. They had always intended to sell on, and eventually succeeded in doing so, to the soon-to-be amalgamated London and St Katharine dock companies in November 1863, just before Kelk and Aird became interested in the Millwall scheme. (fn. 10) Kelk and Aird may have anticipated that this amalgamation would press the rival East and West India Dock Company into buying the Millwall scheme. Therefore, they were careful to ensure that the Act permitted conventional dock business and a linking cut to the West India Docks. (fn. 11)
Neither Wilson nor the Airds had any significant experience of dock building. For the younger (Sir) John Aird (1833–1911) the Millwall Docks were the first of a succession of important contracts in the Port of London. His father (1800–76) remained in control of the firm until 1870, and it is difficult to disentangle their roles in the Millwall scheme. However, the younger, and reputedly shrewder, Aird did attend to Millwall Dock affairs more regularly. (fn. 12) Aird & Son were large operators, but they may have lacked the finance to take on the risk of something as big as the Millwall scheme. They may, for this reason, have welcomed the partnership of (Sir) John Kelk (1816–86), an extremely wealthy man. Kelk was best known for the 1862 Exhibition and the Albert Memorial, but he had also built the Commercial Dock Company's South Dock in the early 1850s. (fn. 13) Wilson and Kelk's association went back to the building of Victoria Station in 1859–60, and in 1863 they were working together on the Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Railways. (fn. 14) In these railway works Wilson was an intermediary between the contractors and the engineer, (Sir) John Fowler. By mid-1864 Fowler had been drawn into the Millwall project as consulting engineer. (fn. 15) He, too, was inexperienced in dock work, but his reputation as a railway engineer was unsurpassed. In terms of acumen and ability, this was a formidable team.
Kelk and Aird remained behind the scenes, careful not to be publicly linked to the scheme while arranging a private agreement with Wilson to confirm them as promoters of the Millwall Bill. This stipulated that, following the passage of the Bill, Wilson would become engineer and Kelk and Aird would have the contract for the works at a schedule of prices that already had been settled, apparently at inflated rates. The four provisional directors who signed the agreement were all 'the friends and mere nominees' of Kelk and Aird. (fn. 16) Fenner and Fairlie were not informed. Before a House of Lords Select Committee Fenner was described as 'one of the original Promoters', while Kelk and Aird were not mentioned. (fn. 17) Fenner and Fairlie were outraged when they learned what had happened, and they were determined not to surrender their scheme without adequate compensation. They petitioned against the Bill, and had to be bought off with £5,000, and a seat for Fenner on the board. (fn. 18)
The viability of the scheme was taken almost for granted in Parliament and its general principles were scarcely examined, perhaps typically so in a period when many privately backed public works of doubtful necessity were lightly allowed to go ahead. The East and West India Dock Company did not oppose the Bill, evidently failing to see that the new company might become a competitor. There was, however, some debate on the need for additional graving docks on the Thames. The largest of the projected graving docks, at 450ft by 80ft and 22ft deep, was to be much bigger than any then existing in London, and it was generally agreed that such large docks were needed. Nevertheless, the negative testimony of leading private ship-repairers had to be countered by offering to make the graving docks 'public', that is, available for let to shipowners for short terms. Another concession was made to allow Glengall Road to be bridged over the northern arm of the docks. Wilson's estimate of £330,000 was rejected as spurious, and an impartial engineer reported that £497,196 was the minimum capital needed for essential works. Fowler insisted that Wilson's estimates should stand, and that £510,000 would cover all the work on the deposited plan. He avoided committing himself on the number of graving docks to be built, and was also evasive when asked for an estimate for the whole scheme, saying 'it is a speculation, it is impossible for anybody to tell what may be required there'. (fn. 19)
It was vital to the scheme that the purchase of the land was completed as quickly as possible. This comprised 122 acres from the Glengall estate, 34 acres from the Strafford estate, 27 acres from the Strathmore estate, and 20 acres from the Ironmongers' Company; 203 acres in all. Agreements were reached with all but the Strafford estate before passage of the Act. After arbitration the Strathmore estate was paid £600 per acre. The Glengall estate — which had maintained that the land was valuable for housing — and the Ironmongers' Company were eventually paid £700 per acre. The total cost of the land was £186,354. (fn. 19) Kelk and Aird also reached an accommodation with the London and Blackwall Railway Company, with Fowler helping to settle the line to the docks of the projected Millwall Extension Railway (see page 373). (fn. 21)
The Act incorporating the Millwall Canal, Wharfs and Graving Docks Company received the Royal Assent on 25 July 1864. (fn. 22) The company was given the authority 'to provide Accommodation for Shipping and Waterside Accommodation for Shipbuilding and other Businesses requiring Water Frontage'. The capital limit was set at £510,000, with power to borrow a further £170,000.
Financing, Building and Opening the Docks, 1864–9
Kelk and Aird controlled the Millwall Canal, Wharfs and Graving Docks Company; Fenner was the only member of the board who was not liable to them. (fn. 23) In late 1864 and early 1865 they negotiated the financing of the docks. In December 1864 Kelk went to the East and West India Dock Company offering to sell all or part of the scheme, but the offer was refused. (fn. 24) Kelk and Aird were committed to a successful flotation, not only for the profits they stood to make through the contract, but also because of the completed agreements for the purchase of land. (fn. 25) By January 1865 it had become clear that the shares would not be subscribed on the open market. After negotiations with a finance company collapsed in March, Kelk contacted Albert Grant (1830–99), an extraordinarily voracious financier. (fn. 26) Born Gottheimer, and later known as Baron Grant from a title acquired in Italy, he had set up the Credit Foncier & Mobilier of England in 1863 and used it to underwrite a range of companies round the world, sustaining many public works of questionable value. (fn. 27) In the early 1860s, company promotion was a profitable business; flimsy schemes could be made to seem plausible enough to attract funds from credulous investors. By encouraging bad investment, credit houses like Credit Foncier created the conditions for ambitious works, but also sowed the seeds for the crash that would undermine many of those works. (fn. 28)
Kelk arranged the launch of the Millwall Canal, Wharfs and Graving Docks Company through Credit Foncier. Grant guaranteed subscription of all the company's capital for the vast fee of £100,000. Kelk had further to undertake to pay interest to the shareholders for two years during construction. Grant would agree to make these arrangements only with Kelk and Aird, not directly with the company. Had the size of the fee been made public, investment would have been discouraged. (fn. 29) The board was reconstituted, Credit Foncier installing four directors to ensure control, and the company's name was changed to the Millwall Freehold Land and Docks Company, implying a broadening of intent with respect to use of the property. (fn. 30)
On the day that the financial arrangements were concluded, 27 March 1865, Kelk and Aird's contract was settled at £594,000, which covered the interest payments to the shareholders, 'the expense of placing the capital' (£100,000) and £12,500 of other expenses. (fn. 31) Only £420,000 was for works. The sum of the first contract and the cost of land was in excess of £700,000, beyond the company's borrowing power, in spite of the fact that Wilson's 'Contract 1' was only two-thirds of the scheme, excluding the east arm (fig. 126a). The decision to give priority to the west side of the docks, with its up-river entrance, would have suited wharfingers, but it became an inconvenience for shipowners.
Grant's prospectus for the Millwall Docks held that 'so sound a scheme and one which so specially addresses itself to the investor is seldom brought before the public', and hinted at 10 per cent dividends. (fn. 32) It did not mention the £100,000 fee, nor that the interest payments were limited to two years. Nor was there any indication that the company's capital and borrowing powers were already demonstrably inadequate, 'a most mischevious [sic] and improvident arrangement for the shareholders'. (fn. 33) The shares were duly subscribed, but the ceremonial 'turning of the first sod' had to be postponed when Kelk objected to Fowler's draft specification. Kelk would not negotiate this and so work started in July 1865 without an agreed specification. (fn. 34) Kelk, who in the same month was elected as an MP, was keeping his options open. It was later charged that, 'in founding and starting the Company on a basis so inadequate and so improvident [Kelk and Aird] consulted only their own individual gains and interests'. (fn. 35)
At their first general meeting, in August 1865, a number of shareholders asked about the arrangement with Credit Foncier, but the chairman refused to answer their questions. In fact, two of them discovered the truth about the flotation, probably through Fenner, out to avenge his ill-treatment by Wilson, and filed a suit against the company and Credit Foncier, alleging that suppression of the financial arrangements amounted to fraud. (fn. 36) The company began to fray at the edges. Many shareholders failed to pay the second call, and in late 1865 money had to be raised by bank loans and debentures, after interest rates had shot up from 3 to 7 per cent in three months. (fn. 37) By early 1866 the struggle had become such that it was reported that 'so much has been said in abuse of the company that the public have begun to think that the docks are a myth or a mere paper property'. (fn. 38) The suit was withdrawn in March, probably as a quid pro quo for the election to the board of Acton Smee Ayrton, MP (1816–86), champion of the swindled shareholders and chairman of the company from August 1866. (fn. 39) Ayrton was a 'radical' Liberal, MP for Tower Hamlets from 1857 to 1874, and First Commissioner of Works from 1869 to 1873. (fn. 40) In his commitment to what he saw as the public interest and economic rectitude he was combative and iconoclastic. Ayrton was determined that the docks should be completed as an absolute priority. Many shareholders wanted to abandon the works, but he insisted that this would only be a colossal waste of money. It is probably due to Ayrton's firmness, more than to any other single factor, that the company owed its survival through the even more difficult times that were to come. (fn. 41)
The company's board meeting on 11 May 1866 was 'to consider the expediency of applying to Parliament for additional capital', (fn. 42) but the meeting did not take place, perhaps because that was the day on which the bankers and money dealers Overend Gurney & Company failed, and confidence in London's financial markets collapsed. The subsequent run on the banks, and a further rise in interest rates, made it an extremely difficult time to be seeking the money that was so desperately needed. Parliament sanctioned the raising of £490,000 more capital, and £163,000 more debentures, but this was fairly meaningless when the company was compelled to postpone a call on the original capital, and when shareholders were clamouring for repayment of money already paid out. (fn. 43)
The Millwall scheme had been devised on the premise that manufacturing in London, particularly shipbuilding, would continue to expand. The crash of 1866 swept this assumption aside. Shipbuilding on the Isle of Dogs was particularly badly affected and it was several years before investment in manufacturing in the area revived. Even before the crash, the company had publicly mooted the possibility of using its premises as conventional docks with warehouses, demand for which was growing rapidly. (fn. 44) After the crash, the options narrowed dramatically. Following Fowler's advice, another approach was made to the East and West India Dock Company - which was planning to redevelop its South Dock - with a view to either an amalgamation or a connecting link, but this was rebuffed. Lessees of water frontages were not forthcoming, and so the company was forced to accept that it would have to compete for dock and warehousing business. (fn. 45)
Kelk and Aird sustained the dock works through the summer of 1866 without payment, but they could not underwrite the works indefinitely, and, as the date for a payment of interest to the shareholders approached, they threatened to suspend work unless they were paid. An agreement was signed on 9 October 1866 by which Kelk and Aird imposed an arrangement that provided for £200,000 of the £353,000 owed to them to be paid in newly created preference shares, on which no calls were to be made for two years unless a 5 per cent dividend could be guaranteed. Much of the remainder came through the reconstructed Credit Foncier, which agreed to take £128,000 debenture stock at only 6, rather than 10, per cent. A group of shareholders, led by Fenner, took exception and sought the appointment of a Receiver. (fn. 46)
By the beginning of 1867 work was again progressing satisfactorily. However, it was clear that completion of the scheme with an east arm and entrance was out of the question for the foreseeable future. It was reluctantly accepted that warehouses and cranes would have to be provided if the docks were to attract trade. The money for these works could only be found by issuing more of the unattractive shares. In July 1867 Fowler and Wilson were still confident that the docks would open on schedule at the end of August. George Raymond Birt, previously Superintendent at the Victoria Dock, was appointed General Manager and immediately set about trying to attract imports and exports. Birt brought with him from the Victoria Dock Frederic Eliot Duckham (1841–1919), who was appointed Clerk of Works and was soon to become the company's engineer. (fn. 47)
Water was let into the docks on schedule on 29 August 1867, but the opening for business was delayed. Vessels could not be admitted until the coffer-dam was fully removed and the bridge over the entrance lock completed. The works had gone on for more than two years, and so Kelk and Aird reminded the Board that they were no longer obliged to pay interest to shareholders, attributing the overrun to the hiatus in 1866. When the company blamed them for a lack of diligence, they pointed out that no specification had been agreed, undermining any claim that the work had been improperly executed. Relations between the company and the contractors deteriorated and work was suspended. Birt, Fowler and Wilson took possession of the site for the company and completed the work with direct labour. (fn. 48)
The Millwall Docks opened on 14 March 1868 as a makeshift establishment where only essential work had been completed (Plate 57b; fig. 126b). (fn. 49) There were just a few single-storey shed-warehouses on the quays, parts of which remained unlevelled. The company had spent £632,887 on works, a figure that had risen to £767,828 by 1870. (fn. 50)
The first few months of business were inauspicious: little trade came to the docks and wages had to be paid out of the pockets of the directors. There were no subscribers to a new issue of capital, and creditors were filing suits for the payment of debts. The dispute with Kelk and Aird was unresolved and shareholders' suits against both the company and the contractors were accumulating. As pressure for its winding-up increased, the company filed its own suit against Kelk and Aird, alleging that the arrangements for paying Credit Foncier and the shareholders' interest were illegal, and that the contractors had deliberately avoided signing a specification. (fn. 51)
The last hopes of a rescue from the East and West India Dock Company foundered and it was accepted by both company and contractors that the only alternative to liquidation was a compromise settlement. (fn. 52) 'Very long and laborious negotiation' produced an agreement in December 1868. (fn. 53) The company settled the contract as if duly completed, paying with more shares. The contractors paid more interest to the shareholders, and underwrote a further share issue to allow the company to meet other debts. This was made conditional on the dropping of all lawsuits, though many shareholders bore deep bitterness towards Kelk and Aird and regarded the settlement as a surrender. (fn. 54) After steering the compromise through, Ayrton resigned from the Board, having taken a Government office. Charles Henry Parkes (1816–95), partner in the firm of Dyson & Company, parliamentary agents, became Chairman and primed the company's still perilous finances with loans of his own money. (fn. 55) (fn. 1)
Parkes and Birt oversaw the gradual improvement of trade into the docks and the stabilization of the company's finances. The docks had opened during a trough in the trade cycle. Discounting of rates helped business to grow, as did the closure for rebuilding of the South Dock of the West India Docks. Its grain and timber businesses were broken up and the Millwall Docks were well placed to benefit. Further timber trade was enticed away from the overcrowded Surrey Docks, but the greatest success was with grain. By early 1869 the warehouses were nearly full. There was still no market for manufacturing property, but the first lease of any consequence was arranged, Robert McAndrew & Company, shipowners, taking a warehouse and a berth. (fn. 57)
The Development of the Docks, 1870–1980
Another change of name, to the Millwall Dock Company, in 1870, acknowledged the settled status of the Millwall Docks. (fn. 58) Warehousing, the most profitable part of dock business, developed with wool warehouses, built in an attempt to attract the wool trade away from other docks. Interest in dockside sites for manufacturing picked up in 1871 with the completion of the Millwall Extension Railway, but wharves in the docks were more expensive than on the river, where sites had become available. Only a few sites were let, the most important of which were for Hooper's Telegraph Works and McDougall Brothers' Mill (fig. 127). (fn. 59)
Piecemeal development of the estate with warehouses and sheds continued, with engineering work entirely in Duckham's hands, the company having parted with Fowler and Wilson in 1871. (fn. 60) Goods were shifted rapidly, storage buildings serving as transit sheds as much as warehouses. There was no call for building on a large scale. A considerable share of the Port's grain business had been secured, but the work was mainly transit handling: most of the grain shipped into the docks was immediately lightered out. The demand for space for timber imports surged, as elsewhere in the Port, but most of the timber was stored on open ground. (fn. 61)
From 1876 Birt and Duckham introduced innovative methods of handling grain, to improve the dock company's earnings. Appliances for rapid discharge were developed, starting with bucket elevators put on board ships, and evolving to crane dolphins and specially built railway trucks. Duckham's grain-handling system, acclaimed as unrivalled in its efficiency, was designed for flexible distribution, by barge, rail or road. Increasing amounts of grain were landed rather than simply transshipped. By 1882 the company's profits came almost exclusively from grain, and Duckham's machinery was bringing large savings on labour costs. Low operating expenses were crucial to the Millwall Dock Company's survival in competition with larger dock companies. Income from the letting of land also grew as demand slowly increased. (fn. 62)
In 1880 Birt arranged a long lease from the Glengall estate of 21¾ acres to the west of the Inner Dock, east of Alpha Street and north of Mellish Street. This plot was developed in 1881 as a depot for grain trucks, with railway sidings and a long shed. (fn. 63) (fn. 2) The possibility of building an eastern arm to the docks was again considered in 1881, but action was deferred in the light of the East and West India Dock Company's plan for docks at Tilbury. (fn. 65) The undeveloped land was, in any case, proving useful as the Mudchute, that is a site for the deposit of dredged mud (see page 512).
The dock company built granaries and extended its warehousing in 1883–4, acquiring new powers for raising capital. (fn. 66) When the docks opened in 1868 there had been warehousing for 17,000 tons, in 1887 that capacity had risen to 135,000 tons. (fn. 67) Grain business continued to boom, and steadily increasing amounts of timber were stored. The gross tonnage entering the Millwall Docks in 1885 was approximately double that of 1871. (fn. 68) In 1889 working agreements were reached between all London's dock companies, assigning and protecting their particular trades. The Millwall Docks were fixed as the centre of the European grain trade. They were also permitted to accept grain from Australia and New Zealand, as well as certain other goods from outside Europe, including a percentage of the timber trade, phosphate, guano, nitrate, bones and bone ash, horns, bulk cotton seed, oilcake, rosin and turpentine. (fn. 69) The company handled ever-greater quantities of grain with the introduction from 1892 of Duckham's novel pneumatic elevating machinery. (fn. 70)
Parkes retired as Chairman in 1893, urging the appointment of George Raymond Birt as his successor 'in the interests of the Company'. Birt was duly appointed Managing Director and Chairman. (fn. 71) In February 1899 Birt, aged 70, was taken ill. Irregularities in the accounts were noticed and auditors revealed that for 25 years he had been falsifying the amount owed to the company in rents and rates. This amount had gradually grown until the sum of the fraud had reached £208,670. Birt was arrested while living in lodgings in Barnsbury under a false name, and convicted of fraud. (fn. 72) Personal gain had not been his primary motive. In the late 1860s and early 1870s he had fought hard to establish a niche in the Port for the Millwall Dock Company and had successfully cornered a significant portion of London's grain trade. The company was always vulnerable to competition and Birt had resorted to fraud to make the business appear larger than it was 'to inspire the shipping interests with confidence in the ability of the dock company to do their business'. (fn. 73)
Management of the docks passed to Duckham. A reconstituted Board, with John Trotter as Chairman, determined that extensive improvements in grain storage and grain- and timber-handling machinery were needed if a hold on the grain trade was to be maintained and more timber business attracted. In 1900 about a third of London's grain imports and 10 per cent of its river-borne timber trade came through the Millwall Docks. Of the grain, 57 per cent was immediately lightered out, 30 per cent stored and 13 per cent delivered direct to the railway. (fn. 74) In terms of mechanization, the Millwall Docks were already the pride of the Port, handling twice as much as competitors per acre of water space. However, the docks suffered from crowding and delays; the advantage that machinery brought demanded continuing investment if it was not to be lost. After the Birt debacle the company had no access to capital, and so the Millwall Dock Equipment Company was launched in February 1901. This firm existed solely to lease from the dock company land on which to erect structures to be leased back to the dock company. It had capital of £200,000 and a board made up from that of the dock company. Duckham prepared reports and plans, but outside experts were brought in to help with the design of the two principal improvements, the Central Granary and the Timber Transporter (fig. 128). The subsidiary company had achieved its purpose by the end of 1903. (fn. 75) Duckham retired as General Manager and Engineer of the Millwall Dock Company in 1905. Magnus Mowat, junior, appointed as Duckham's assistant in 1902, succeeded him as Engineer. (fn. 76)
The deliberations of the Royal Commission on the Port of London in 1900–1 paralysed further initiatives as the future of the Millwall Dock Company was tied up with that of London's other dock companies (see page 263). Deferral of the issue led to an agreement in 1905 to amalgamate the Millwall Dock Company with the London and India Docks Company, but it was dropped when the Government promised legislation. Upon transfer of the undertaking to the Port of London Authority in 1909 the Millwall Dock Company's capital account stood at £2,094,157. (fn. 77)
From 1909 to 1980 the PLA administered the Millwall Docks with the East and West India Docks as the India and Millwall Docks (see page 263). The east dock extension proposal was revived by Frederick Palmer in 1910–11, as part of his scheme for improving the Port, but practical difficulties made it a low priority. The only work at the Millwall Docks in the PLA's first campaign of improvements was the lengthening of the graving dock in 1911–13 (fig. 94). (fn. 78) The West India and Millwall Docks were united by the formation of the Millwall Passage in 1926–8 (see page 281). This gave access to the Millwall Docks from the north, saving ships the journey round the Isle of Dogs, and, once water depth had been increased through 'false' quays and impounding, permitted larger ships to use the docks, particularly the Central Granary. From the 1930s the Millwall Docks increasingly accommodated a wide variety of goods traded with Scandinavia, though grain handling remained important until 1969. (fn. 79)
The dock quays had a miscellaneous and increasingly ramshackle collection of buildings (Plate 56a). D. J. Owen, PLA General Manager, and Asa Binns, Chief Engineer, put forward redevelopment proposals in 1936. They envisaged large-scale rebuilding, levelling of the Mudchute and a new graving dock. However, only one warehouse (M) was built before war cut the plans short (fig. 94). (fn. 80) The damage inflicted on the Millwall Docks during the Second World War was not the wholesale ruination that hit the West India Docks, but it was serious, and it increased the need for improvements. The entrance lock suffered a direct hit and never reopened.
After the war the PLA could not afford more than urgent repairs and the reinstatement of some warehousing with prefabricated sheds. It was 1958 before redevelopment of the Millwall Dock quays could recommence, by which time mechanization had made the old sheds even more inconvenient, and greatly altered priorities for shed building. The PLA Engineering Department was given an opportunity to redesign virtually the entire quayside accommodation at the Millwall Docks (Plate 56b; fig. 95). To limit disruption to shipping, redevelopment was phased, moving from the north and west quays in 1959–65, to the east quay in 1965–9, culminating with the Fred Olsen Terminal for 'high throughput palletized unit cargo'. Various huge single-storey sheds were erected, many with structurally innovative tubularsteel frames, all with large clear unobstructed floors, high clearances and large doorways for fork-lift trucks and mobile cranes. Associated with the sheds was a new network of roads around the quays, which were themselves rebuilt to allow deepening of the docks. A further proposal, which was nearly carried through in 1966, was the development of part of the Mudchute with a new branch dock.
The redeveloped berths at the Millwall Docks were among the most efficient in the world, but although they were in demand until closure in 1980, this could not prevent the Port's decline during the 1970s. (fn. 81)