The West India Docks: The buildings, introduction

Pages 281-284

Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1994.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.


The Buildings

The principal buildings erected at the West India Docks were those designed for the storage and handling of goods. London's need for secure, convenient and regularly disposed dockside warehouses within high walls was widely recognized by the late eighteenth century. Such an arrangement was anticipated with enthusiasm during the planning of the West India Docks. William Daniell depicted the mercantile vision of an orderly dock system surrounded by uniform warehouses, architecturally restrained, but highly expressive of well-regulated, rationally conducted and, above all, secure commerce (Plate 148a). Initially, fewer warehouses were built at the West India Docks than had been projected, and, inevitably, there were variations and compromises in the execution of the plans. None the less, the nine sugar warehouses and linking blocks built on the north quay of the Import Dock in 1800–3 formed a stately and imposing row. These were London's first dockside warehouses, and one of the great monuments of European commercial power at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Plates 46a, 47a). Nowhere else was there warehousing of comparable scale or coherence. The buildings were largely destroyed in 1940, but 50 years later, when virtually all trace of London's first generation of dock buildings has gone, part of the group still survives (Nos 1 and 2 Warehouses and link blocks).

The last three warehouses to be built on the north quay (Nos 1, 5 and 9) in 1802–3 were lower than their six-storey predecessors, not rising above two storeys. The few warehouses built in subsequent years were also relatively low. Nos 10, 11 and 12 Warehouses, of 1807– 10, each had only three floors, albeit covering vast areas, and the Rum Warehouses of 1804–5 were single-storey buildings, rebuilt in 1817–18 with vaults. The move away from tall warehouse 'stacks' seems to reflect a realization that there was no need to build high when so much quayside space was available. Although the early tall warehouses brought economies in handling through their dockside position, low warehouses were preferable because goods could be stowed and withdrawn with less effort than with high ones, so reducing labour costs. The cramped conditions of the eighteenth-century Port had meant that this had not been possible hitherto.

From the outset the warehouses were supplemented by sheds. An open-sided quay shed running the length of the north quay of the Import Dock was put up in 1803–4 as a 'weighing shed', for unloading and sorting goods. From 1806 the wood wharves, for timber imports, were given open-sided sheds as cover, and the Export Dock quays were built up with miscellaneous sheds. There is no absolute distinction between the two types of building. Generally, warehouses are for long-term storage, and sheds for short-term sorting or transit storage. Warehouses tend to be multi-storeyed, sheds single-storeyed, perhaps with an upper level. Early sheds were commonly open-sided; the later ones were usually more substantial and closed-sided.

The warehouses and sheds of the early nineteenth century hold considerable constructional interest. The north quay warehouses were conservatively built; proposals for iron fireproofing made by Walker and Dance in 1796, very early in terms of such developments, came to nothing. Fire was prevented principally by limiting access, and contained by means of brick partition walls. The only innovative use of cast iron in those warehouses was in the window frames, and that was for the sake of security, not fire prevention.

When the cast-iron constructional technology that was developed in provincial textile mills around 1800 came to be applied to London warehouses, it was largely limited to columns, perhaps because cast-iron beams were not trusted to take heavy floor loadings. The earliest structural cast-iron columns in London's docks were apparently those of 1807 in No. 11 Warehouse. They were of hollowcircular section, and doubled as downpipes, a usage repeated in 1810 at No. 10 Warehouse, as well as in the East India Company's Blackwall Pepper Warehouses from 1808. Cruciform-section columns, cheaper and easier to cast, but also weaker, soon became established as the preferred type of stanchion in London warehouses. They were introduced at the London Dock, in the South Stacks in 1810, and at the New Tobacco Warehouse (Tobacco Dock) in 1811. The Commercial Dock Company's No. 1 (later No. 15) Warehouse of 1811 had cruciform-section cast-iron columns and bellied cast-iron beams. (fn. 1) The use of iron in this period partly reflected wartime timber shortages and changes in the relative prices of timber and iron. (fn. 2)

From 1812 to 1818 John Rennie introduced a wide range of structural iron at the West India Docks. Timber posts in the north quay warehouses were failing and so, in a huge operation, they were replaced with cast-iron columns of cruciform section. The centre of the Import Dock's south quay had become established as the Rum Quay, an area where fire prevention was vital. In 1813 Rennie supervised the erection of an entirely cast-ironframed quay shed a quarter of a mile long, and two rum sheds with patent 35ft-span roofs of wrought iron designed and made by Thomas Pearsall. The roofs of the two rum sheds collapsed, but Rennie was allowed to carry out further experiments, constructing an ingeniously designed mahogany shed in 1817–18. Essentially a frame for machinery, the building incorporated innovatory overhead travelling cranes, to stack the heavy mahogany logs. Rennie also introduced cast-iron joists and entirely castiron roofs in houses within the dock estate. In 1818-21 the north, east and west quay sheds were rebuilt, with hollow-cylindrical cast-iron columns.

No new warehouses were built at the West India Docks between 1828 and 1868. The mid-nineteenth century was a relatively unprofitable period during which such new trade as was attracted was generally in bulk goods that were kept either in the open or in single-storey sheds. In the 1840s and 1850s Customs restrictions were loosened in favour of private riverside wharves, and the balance of demand at the enclosed docks shifted from storage to transit handling. During the second half of the nineteenth century sheds gradually became the dominant building type.

The realization that multi-storey warehousing was out of date was slow to take hold. Several such warehouses were planned when the South Dock was rebuilt in the late 1860s, but only one tall (four-storey) warehouse (No. 3) was built, in 1869. Such buildings were unsuited to quaysides where large steamers required rapid discharge and where many goods were quickly transferred out of the docks. Elsewhere, earlier quayside warehouses, at the St Katharine Dock in the 1820s and at Liverpool's Albert Dock in the 1840s, had incorporated separate transit areas on the ground floor, an arrangement that had eighteenthcentury precursors in canal warehousing. However, the generous space around the West India Docks meant that warehouses and sheds remained distinct until the 1870s, when further new buildings at the South Dock were made adaptable to either transit or warehouse use.

Fireproofing was considered again in the 1860s, for the South Dock warehouses, and again rejected, though in a quite different context. There was a growing awareness that iron-framed buildings were actually not fireproof at all. This was dramatically confirmed by the fire at warehouses in Tooley Street, Southwark, in 1861, which destroyed goods valued at more than £2 million. Following that blaze the London Fire Offices established a Wharf and Warehouse Committee to ensure adequate fire prevention at the docks and private wharves. The committee specified the alterations required in existing buildings, as well as the arrangements and materials of new ones. Great emphasis was placed on brick firewalls; but timber internal construction, still much cheaper than iron, was readily accepted. Generally, Victorian building in the docks was characterized by its cheapness, partly a consequence of the debilitating effects of competition.

An exception to the general decline in demand for warehousing was the need to provide for refrigerated meat, an entirely new import. The Port's first cold stores were opened in the early 1880s and included a division of the South Dock warehouses. A much larger cold store was provided with the conversion of a north quay warehouse in 1895.

Numerous sheds were erected at the docks in the late nineteenth century, particularly as cover for hardwood, in which trade was booming. Mahogany sheds proliferated in the 1870s, and in the 1890s teak sheds were introduced, with Belfast-truss roofs spanning up to 100ft. They were amongst the largest examples then built of this type of timber roof construction, which was strong, but light and inexpensive. Invented in Belfast c1870, it was later widely applied, perhaps most notably in early aircraft hangars, such as those surviving at Hendon and Duxford. Around 1900 I-section steel framing was introduced in a few new sheds.

By 1900 two-storey quayside transit sheds had become an established type in other dock systems, providing cover for the rapid discharge of goods on the ground floor, with space for sorting above. These were absent from the West India Docks, with the exception of the shed on the south quay of the South Dock, raised to two storeys in 1875–6. In 1911–17 three such sheds were built on the north quay of the Import Dock by the newly formed Port of London Authority. They employed Hennebique's system of reinforced-concrete construction, previously used at the East India Docks in 1901. This was the first large-scale application of reinforced-concrete construction at the West India Docks.

Later warehouses tended to have long-term storage placed over sorting and transit floors, as for example in the Canary Wharf warehouse of 1937, Nos 10 and 11 Shed-Warehouses of 1950–4, and M Shed-Warehouse of 1965–7 (which included a novel feature in having a road ramp to serve an upper transit floor). These buildings followed the north quay transit sheds in constructional terms, with brick wall panels in reinforced-concrete frames.

Despite the fact that as much as 80 per cent of storage space at the West India Docks was lost in the Second World War, most of the buildings of the post-war reconstruction were single-storey sheds. This was not only a matter of transit as opposed to warehouse accommodation, but also one of mechanization. Fork-lift trucks and mobile cranes could be operated most effectively in large sheds with wide roof spans and high clearances. From 1956 to 1969 the Port was re-equipped with a number of such buildings, generally using latticed tubularsteel space frames. Tubewrights Limited introduced tubular steel at No. 5 Shed in 1957 for a 125ft span, and its possibilities were developed at L Shed, which had a span of 150ft, in 1961, and at M Shed-Warehouse in 1965–7.

Many buildings were erected at the docks for purposes other than storage. Much emphasis was given to security, with high walls and other specialized facilities. The prevention of theft was one of the principal reasons for the building of London's early wet docks, and the West India Dock Company adopted and maintained a rigid, indeed almost obsessive, security regime known as the 'closed system'. Only dock company or Customs employees were allowed unaccompanied access to the premises; even ships' crews were excluded. Made impenetrable by the adoption of military building traditions, the docks were virtually a fortress. There were massive curtain walls, up to 30ft high, and a railed moat, beyond which lay empty fields. The acres of space within the walls, and a highly regulated establishment, allowed the orderly distribution of goods, in contrast to operations in the congested riverine Port. Customs officers and a Military Guard kept a constant vigil, and the dock company formed its own police force, which particularly watched labourers entering and leaving. The system made security at the West India Docks superior to that at any other dock. Many buildings were designed with security as a prime consideration, but some structures existed solely for the sake of security. In keeping with the ethos that lay behind the building of the docks, these were simple, stark and forbidding, certainly nothing like Jesse Hartley's imaginative transmutations of military architecture at Liverpool. Security became less obsessive from the 1830s, when cheap bulk goods began to come into the docks. In later years simple fences were made to serve for perimeter security, though policing always remained a central part of dock operations, with the Customs influencing detailed arrangements.

Some buildings provided office accommodation for the dock company's own administrative staff, for Customs and Excise officers, and for merchants, particularly those in the timber trade, who were based at the docks because timber, unlike most other commodities, could not be inspected by sample in the City. There were also workshops, notably in the quadrangle that survives as Cannon Workshops, at the centre of which was the cooperage, a vital part of dock operations. These workshops became the Port of London's Central Stores Depot in 1923, then, in a conversion of 1980–3, an early example of Docklands regeneration.

Very little was built for the benefit of dock workers. In terms of workers' housing, the Dock Cottages of 1849–50 were an isolated exception. Substantial dockside facilities were not provided until 1968–70 when 'amenity blocks' were erected for the dock workers. Some permanent staff were provided with houses in the early nineteenth century. Dockmasters lived quite grandly at Bridge House and Isle House, which were provided not primarily as perquisites, but to ensure the constant supervision of the docks (see pages 611 and 628). For similar reasons, dock company police officers and lock gatekeepers were housed within the dock estate.

Motive power at the docks, whether hand, horse, steam, hydraulic or electric, was, of course, a vital determinant of methods of operation, and therefore helped to dictate the forms of the docks and their buildings. Power systems also necessitated their own related structures, pumping and generating stations as well as cranes. Hydraulic power was introduced for the dock cranes in 1852–5, through James Meadows Rendel and his friendship with William Armstrong. Earlier pioneering experiments with this form of power had proved uneconomical. Impounding stations were established to pump river water into the docks to maintain an increased depth. This limited the influx of mud, a constant problem, and permitted use of the docks by larger shipping. Travelling quay cranes came into use from the 1880s, allowing large ships to be unloaded without changing their mooring position. Electricity was first used extensively in 1893–4, for travelling gantry cranes in some of the wood sheds. Hydraulic quay cranes continued in use well into the twentieth century, only gradually superseded by electric cranes.

Bridges were an important feature of the docks, facilitating movements within and outside the premises. Those across the West India Dock entrance locks were the only land link for residents and businesses on the Isle of Dogs. They therefore became the subject of disputes. The dock company refused to improve the bridges, and the LCC was obliged to replace them in the 1890s. Nevertheless, shipping retained priority over road traffic.

The bridges were extremely varied, becoming ever larger to span wider locks. A cast-iron double-leaf swingbridge of a pattern devised by Walker in 1800 was used elsewhere before Rennie established it as the standard road-bridge type at the West India Docks in the period 1811 to 1843. In the later nineteenth century hydraulic single-swing girder bridges became standard. More recent bridges include the striking Manchester Road drawbridge of 1967–9, generally known as the 'Blue Bridge'.


  • 1. M. Tucker, 'Warehouses in Dockland', Dockland, 1986, pp.21–30: D.Cruickshank, 'Gwilt Complex', AR, April 1989, pp.55–61: R.Thorne, 'Rebirth of a Rogue', AJ, 23 July 1986, pp.29–38.
  • 2. T.Bannister, 'The First Iron-Framed Buildings', AR, April 1950, pp.231–46: D.Yeomans, 'Structural Carpentry in London Building', in Good and Proper Materials: The Fabric of London Since the Geat Fire, ed. H.Hobhouse and A.Saunders, 1989, p.44.