The West India Docks: Security

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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'The West India Docks: Security', in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, ed. Hermione Hobhouse( London, 1994), British History Online [accessed 20 July 2024].

'The West India Docks: Security', in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Edited by Hermione Hobhouse( London, 1994), British History Online, accessed July 20, 2024,

"The West India Docks: Security". Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Ed. Hermione Hobhouse(London, 1994), , British History Online. Web. 20 July 2024.

In this section


Perimeter Walls and Boundary Ditch.

The freestanding boundary wall promised in 1799 was abandoned in 1801 in favour of an inner perimeter wall linking the outer elevations of the Import Dock warehouses, and an outer boundary ditch or moat with a low railed wall; a change in plan for which legislative sanction was necessary. The inner perimeter wall was built in 1802. The Gwilts prepared plans with an estimate of £39,500, Holmes and Bough undertook the excavation, and Adam and the Robertsons built the wall, which was 30ft high, with 12 million bricks made on site by John Fentiman. (fn. 2) It enclosed the north, east and west quays of the Import Dock, with articulation to accommodate warehouses that were not then built. Parts of the wall survive as the outer elevations of the Ledger Building (Dock Office) and the link blocks west of Nos 1 and 2 Warehouses (see page 313) (Plate 53b; fig. III). The wall undulated, with long curved sections alternating with short straight ones, using the strengthening principal typical of a crinkle-crankle wall. The concave outer faces of the curved sections were slightly battered, and the angles were defined by projecting piers. On John Rennie's advice, cornice-caps to the piers were replaced with bevelled caps, to discourage climbing. At the ends of the wall, north of the Import Dock locks, there were tall cylindrical piers, probably used to guide ships into the dock. (fn. 3)

The outer boundary ditch was an idea of Ralph Walker's. It was made in 1802 by Holmes and Bough, to Walker's designs, around the north, east and west sides of the Import Dock. It was 60ft outside the inner perimeter wall, 20ft wide and lined with pine planks, holding a 6ft depth of water. A dwarf wall surmounted by 4ft-high iron railings was built just inside the ditch in 1803–4 by Fentiman, Loat & Company at a cost of £5,887. The plans were by Robert Mitchell, who was employed because the Gwilts were too busy. (fn. 4) A length of the outer wall and railings survives as restored in 1984. It runs for approximately 200ft, just west of the south end of West India Dock Road, serving as the boundary to the garden of Dockmaster's House, the drop to which reflects the ditch.

The ditch came to be used as an open sewer. In 1862 it was said to be a 'great nuisance' and consideration was given to covering it. (fn. 5) Much of it was on land compulsorily purchased by the Midland Railway Company in 1882, with an understanding that it would be culverted. (fn. 6) This was not done until 1896, after representations from the Port Sanitary Authority and the Poplar Board of Works' Medical Officer of Health. Most of the railed dwarf wall was raised at the same time. The work was carried out by John Mowlem & Company. (fn. 7) In 1928–9 the wall and railings were largely replaced by Customs fencing. (fn. 8)

The south side of the Import Dock was secured in 1804–5 with a 20ft-high brick wall. This was set out by the Gwilts, with Thomas Morris designing 36 doorways, and built by J. & W. Broomfield, using about seven million bricks, at a cost of £28,679. (fn. 9) The north perimeter wall had been built to link largely completed warehouses, but this wall was a free-standing structure running for about half a mile, undulating through its whole length (Plate 54d). As in the earlier wall, short straight sections alternated with long curved ones, with angle piers and squared projections. The wall was up to 4ft thick, with a slightly battered outer face. On its south side there was a railed area. (fn. 10)

Security was increased with the development of the Rum Quay in 1816–18. A fence was erected on top of the Rum Quay section of wall, and the pier cornices were replaced with bevelled caps. Seamen continued to attempt to scale the wall to get at the rum and so, at the insistence of Customs, the wall-top fence was replaced with a railing topped with chevaux de frise. (fn. 11) The east end of the Import Dock's south perimeter wall was demolished in 1874, for extension of the East Wood Wharf, and another section to the west was removed in 1878. (fn. 12) Much of the remainder was destroyed in 1936 and 1940, although parts stood until 1950. (fn. 13)

A security wall, 12ft high, was built around the south, east and west quays of the Export Dock in 1807–8 at a cost of £9,439, using money forwarded to the dock company through the Consolidated Fund. Thomas Morris set out the wall, and Stewart, Aslat & Company built it using 1,800,000 bricks, with Hugh McIntosh responsible for the foundations. (fn. 14) Its height was increased by 4ft in 1816. (fn. 15) Most of the wall was demolished in 1869 with the building of the South Dock. It had become entirely internal to the dock estate and an impediment to export business. (fn. 16)

The Blackwall Basin was enclosed by brick walls built by Stewart, Aslat & Company in 1809. (fn. 17) The wall north of the basin was replaced with fencing in 1853, and with brick walling in 1873, erected by the North London Railway Company to enclose Poplar Dock (see page 342). The wall south of the basin was cleared in the late nineteenth century.

Brick walls with 'sliding fences' enclosed Limehouse Basin. They were set out by Thomas Morris and built in 1810–11. (fn. 18) The public road between the Limehouse entrance locks was re-routed by the dock company in 1818–19, with a high boundary wall on its east side, much of which survived until 1988–9. This wall was built by the Broomfields using stock bricks supplied by the Trimmers, on foundations by Johnson & Son, with masonry by John Kitson. (fn. 19) An opening in the wall led to the bridge over the Export Dock lock (Plate 50a). It was flanked by stone and brick piers with WIDC cast-iron obelisk bollards. When the ground within the wall became the Dye Wood Yard in 1827, the wall was raised to 14ft and extended at its south end to link with the Export Dock perimeter wall. (fn. 20) The roadside wall was extended as far as the South Dock entrance lock in the 1840s, with a gateway and piers on to the South Dock north quay.

The West India Dock Company's acquisition of the City Canal in 1829 gave the dock estate a new southern boundary. A large open sewer built with the Timber Pond in 1832 served as a moat between the docks and the fields of the Isle of Dogs. (fn. 21) The sewer was filled in when the South Dock was rebuilt and, in 1868–71, a 12ft-tall south boundary timber fence on raised ground was erected by George Wythes, from Ord Street to what later became the Glen Field. A brick wall was built east of the South Dock Basin in 1872. (fn. 22)

Security became a much less important consideration from the 1830s, as the docks came to be used for bulk as well as valuable goods. The 'closed system' was abandoned in 1850, and the public was allowed to pass freely through parts of the dock system on recognized footways. Visitors were not entirely discouraged, and in 1883 the first descriptive guide to the docks was published. (fn. 23) Walls no longer required for Customs purposes were demolished where they impeded internal traffic. Perimeter security was provided by fences where brick walls did not already exist, with timber and corrugated iron giving way to concrete-panel fencing in the twentieth century.

West India Dock Road Entrance, Hibbert Gate and Milligan Statue.

The entrance to the West India Docks from the Commercial (West India Dock) Road was originally by means of a timber drawbridge over the boundary ditch. This was replaced in 1805–6 with a brick arch bridge, designed by Thomas Morris to include entrance gates in line with the boundary ditch wall. These were erected in 1809 as three rusticated Portland stone piers with dwarf pediments and acroteria cappings, and rockfaced bases. There were two pairs of wrought-iron gates, 18ft wide, with diamond patterning and chevaux de frise over spearhead railings (Plate 52e). The piers, two of which survive, cost £349. (fn. 24)

The west gateway through the inner perimeter wall was the principal entrance to the secure area of the docks. It was treated with more architectural pomp than any other part of the dock system, save perhaps for the north quay clock-turret. In 1802 it was reported that 'a magnificent entrance or gateway to the quays is intended, with allegorical devices'. (fn. 25) This may have been intended to emulate the East India Company's recent gateways at Free Trade Wharf and Cutler Street. The entrance was made in 1803, presumably to designs by the Gwilts. (fn. 26) A rusticated Portland stone arch was surmounted by a pediment carrying a masterpiece of Coade stone, a 10ftlong model West Indiaman named The Hibbert (Plate 52c). The pedimental inscription was added in 1806. (fn. 27) The archway, which had a pair of tall wrought-iron gates, was large enough to admit carts and wagons on to the quays. The flanking sections of perimeter wall curved out to piers, beyond which there were small rusticated stuccoed arches to gated footway entrances, with a clock over the south gate. This entrance, which came to be known variously as Hibbert Gate, Ship Gate, or Clock Gate, was where visitors to the docks were admitted. It therefore came to be an emblem of the West India Docks, and formed part of the arms of the Borough of Poplar. Hibbert Gate and its flanking walls were dismantled in 1932, following representations from PLA tenants that the narrow archway impeded traffic. The model ship was presented to Poplar Borough Council and re-erected in Poplar Recreation Ground. It was damaged by bombing and vandals during the Second World War, and collapsed during an attempt to move it to Poplar Library. (fn. 28)

Following the death in 1809 of Robert Milligan, the prime force behind the establishment of the West India Docks, the dock company erected a bronze statue to his memory. It was made by Richard Westmacott in 1810–12 for £1,400, and was placed within the Hibbert Gate, immediately south of the Dock Office entrance portico (Plate 52e). (fn. 29) The statue is a frank and unidealized representation of a merchant, thus anticipating Victorian bourgeois statuary. The caduceus at Milligan's feet signifies Mercury, patron saint of commerce, and the relief on the granite pedestal depicts Britannia receiving commerce. (fn. 30)

Milligan's statue was at the centre of an open area, referred to as 'The Square', occasionally roofed in with canvas as a sorting floor. In time the statue became an obstacle. Traffic arising from the admittance of carmen to the north quay led in 1875 to its removal to the top of the central pier at the West India Dock Road entrance. (fn. 31) The pier was dismantled in 1943 to admit wider vehicles through a single gate. (fn. 32) The statue survives as part of the Museum in Docklands Collection. The original West India Dock Road entrance gates were reinstated with a rebuilt central pier in 1951, removed again in 1958–9. (fn. 33) The caps of the outer piers were replaced in 1984. (fn. 34)

Guard Houses.

The West India Dock fortress required sentries, and policing was an important consideration from the outset. In 1798 theft in the river had led the Committee of West India Merchants, with government support, to adopt Patrick Colquhoun's scheme for a river police. This was effective, but needed reinforcement by land-based forces at the docks. A threat of arson in early 1802 provoked the dock company to apply for a Military Guard at the warehouses. This was agreed to on the condition that accommodation was provided. John Lyney's former ropemaking workshop (see page 398) was fitted up as a barracks for 30 guardsmen, and sentryboxes were erected along the Import Dock north quay. (fn. 35) Once the docks opened and Customs officers were in attendance, the force was reduced to 13 men. (fn. 1) It soon became evident that, whether through insufficient numbers, corruption, or simply the absence of a south wall, the Military Guard and Customs were failing to prevent theft. In late 1802 the dock company appointed its own 'Peace Officers'. These constables were given general surveillance duties around the docks and became a permanent part of the establishment, evolving into the dock company, and later the PLA, police. (fn. 37) In 1808 fear of French attack prompted the government to consider increasing the Military Guard. It was observed that despite 800 yards of dock wall and patrols with bloodhounds a 'serious "desperado" could penetrate the site and start a conflagration'. (fn. 38) The Military Guard departed in 1822, when the dock company's monopoly status was under review. By then there were 20 dock company constables, and more were enlisted to replace the Guard. (fn. 39)

The Military Guard had moved outside the dock estate to accommodation in Poplar by 1804. Provision was made for Guard barracks at the docks through the 1807 Consolidated Fund loan and, by 1808, a Military Guard House had been built in Harrow Lane (see page 88). In 1813 the company moved the Military Guard to a more convenient location, just north of the Limehouse Basin. John Rennie designed a Guard House in 1812 and it was built by William Moore (brickwork), Charles Norton (ironwork), Howkins, Barker & Company (carpentry), and Francis Bernasconi (stucco-work). It was a twostorey stuccoed-brick building, conventional except in its use of cast iron for the floor joists and the trusses and covering of its hipped roof, presumably to reduce fire risk. (fn. 40) It combined a large galleried soldiers' room, a mess room and officers' bedrooms with dockmaster's, gatemen's and police constables' offices, together with a rear shed that housed two fire-engines. (fn. 41) In 1840 a printing office was established in the shed, the western half of the building was subsequently made a dwelling, and in 1871 the large guard room to the east was converted into an office for the warrant clerks, who supplied importers with warrants for goods warehoused at the docks. (fn. 42) The office was let to the Shipping Federation in 1894. (fn. 43) The building was destroyed by bombing in 1944. After the Second World War the PLA built new premises on the site for the Shipping Federation. (fn. 44)

A one-room Guard House was built at the west end of the Blackwall Basin in 1821, to provide a secondary station for the Military Guard away from Limehouse. The building was designed by John Rennie and erected by Elizabeth Broomfield. It too had an iron roof, supplied by the Horseley Company. (fn. 45) When the Guard departed, Customs officers were accommodated in the building, which was demolished in 1875. (fn. 46)

Round Houses.

The perimeter walls and armed security forces failed to eradicate all theft at the docks. In late 1803 it was agreed that a 'Watch House' was needed in which to detain suspected thieves before handing them over to the magistrates. (fn. 47) The Gwilts designed two small circular domed 'lodges', which were built by John Stark in 1804–5 outside the boundary ditch immediately west of the Hibbert Gate (Plate 52b). The southern round house was the lock-up, the other was an armoury or magazine for 120 muskets for the Military Guard and the dock company's own regiment, formed to protect the docks in case of invasion. Both buildings apparently doubled as guard houses for the dock company constables. (fn. 48) The northern one survives. It has panelled stock-brick sides, Portland stone dressings, including some original ventilation slits, and, as originally, copper on its brick dome.

One of the round houses was converted to use as a secure store for books in 1815, and the northern building was made more comfortable in 1818 by the addition of a fireplace and a panelled stone chimney. (fn. 49) They later became police stores, occasionally used for the deposit of stolen goods. The southern round house was demolished in 1922–3 to make way for a railway siding. (fn. 50) The survivor was later adapted as a sorting and distributing centre for the PLA's internal messenger service, and in 1981–3 was refurbished as part of the Cannon Workshops project and let as a small office (see page 324). Its copper roof and sash windows were restored by the LDDC in 1986, through Feilden & Mawson, architects. (fn. 51)

Police Offices.

The dock company police forces were reconstituted as the PLA Police in 1909. This was a force of more than 500 men, with responsibility for security over a very wide area, to which the West India Docks were roughly central. In 1913 E. C. Stuart Baker, the first Chief of the PLA Police, pointed out the need for offices at the West India Docks to keep police registers and other records, suggesting a site near the north-east corner of the stores quadrangle. The existing police office was the four-room building attached to the west end of the Dock Office. The proposal was approved, and C. R. S. Kirkpatrick designed a two-storey building, erected in 1914 by L. & W. Whitehead at a cost of £3,097. (fn. 52) The Police Offices are of red engineering brick, with stone dressings and a steel-trussed and slate-covered hipped roof. The entrance is in the left side of a quadrastyle Doric portico, probably conceived as an echo of the hexastyle porticoes to the early nineteenth-century Customs and Excise office buildings near by. There is a date plaque in the parapet of the portico.

From 1954 the building was no longer the Chief Police Office, but was given over to Divisional Police staff. (fn. 53) In 1981–3 it was converted to offices, with a caretaker's flat, as part of the Cannon Workshops scheme (see page 324).


  • 1. Customs officers stationed at the West India Docks in 1802 were a landing surveyor, a gauger, 6 landing waiters, 25 weighers, 2 tide surveyors, 2 chief watchmen, and 40 watchmen, the last on night duty. There were also tidewaiters stationed on board vessels. From 1814 there were only 14 Customs watchmen.
  • 2. WIDC 303, ff.166, 170, 185, 189, 239, 270; 304, ff.57, 179, 192; 305, f.3: 42 Geo III, c.113, local.
  • 3. ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports 1/9, p.294: A.G.Linney, Peepshow of the Port of London, 1930, p.149.
  • 4. WIDC 303, f. 118; 305, ff.3, 160, 166, 238; 306, f.30; 307, pp.5, 51, 127; 308, p. 157: MiDD 6482023, 6620811.
  • 5. EWIDC 441, pp.410–11; 446, p.350; 449, p.405.
  • 6. EWIDC 468, p.87: MiDS 384.
  • 7. LIDJC 237A, p. 157; 240, p.180; 254, 31 Dec 1894; 255, July 1896: MiD, Misc. Contracts.
  • 8. MiDD 6482023.
  • 9. WIDC 299, p.3; 305, ff.184, 236, 255, 307; 306, ff.9, 16, 164; 307, p.225; 308, p. 159; 311, p.370.
  • 10. EWIDC 457, p.238: MiDD 6620651, 6622298: MiD, PLA photograph album and lantern slide: Dupin, 1825 op.cit., p.60.
  • 11. WIDC 334, p.169; 340A, p.242; 346, p.375: MiDD 6620803, 6620877: ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports 1/10, pp.1–2: PP 1823 (411), iv.489, Report. . .Maintaining and Improving the Foreign Trade of the Country, 3 June 1823, p. 54.
  • 12. EWIDC 454, p.33; 457, pp.238, 309.
  • 13. MiD, PLA Completed Contracts, xxxvi.
  • 14. WIDC 299, pp.14, 36; 319, pp.126, 143; 320, p.198; 321, p.388.
  • 15. WIDC 330, p.245; 335, pp.403, 444: ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports, 1/1, viii, p.408.
  • 16. EWIDC 451, p.231: MiDS(LD) 11/5/76.
  • 17. WIDC 299, p.36; 306, f.37; 322, p.331; 333, p.54.
  • 18. WIDC 299, p.36; 323, p.239; 333, p.54.
  • 19. WIDC 340A, pp.265, 435, 465: ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports 1/10, p.205.
  • 20. WIDC 358, pp.157, 349–50, 430; 359, p.55: ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports 11/3, pp.366–72.
  • 21. WIDC 366, p.453; 369, p.391.
  • 22. EWIDC 450, p.500; 451, pp.261, 335; 452, p.40: MiDS(LD) 11/5/37, 41, 44.
  • 23. MiD, EWIDC, Description of the. . .Docks, Warehouses etc..
  • 24. WIDC 299, p.45; 312, p.129; 316, pp.348, 368; 317, p.83; 322, p.206.
  • 25. European Magazine, vol.XLII, 1802, p.214.
  • 26. WIDC 304, f.253; 305, f.241: Naval Chronicle, July-Dec 1803, pp. 294–5.
  • 27. WIDC 309, p.99; 315, p.357; 371, p.226: A.Kelly, Mrs. Coade's Stone, 1990, p.424.
  • 28. PLA Mins, xxiii, p.423; xxiv, pp.19, 246: MiDD 6502050–5: P.L.A. Monthly, Feb 1933, pp. 124–5: AR/HB/5247.
  • 29. WIDC 323, pp.275, 525; 324, p.156; 328, p.118; 329, p.219; 330, p.47.
  • 30. MiD, WID portfolio, sheet 35.
  • 31. EWIDC 454, p.360; 456, p.45: P.L.A. Monthly, April 1928, p.204.
  • 32. PLA Mins, xxxv, p.165; xlii, p.42.
  • 33. PLA Mins, xlii, pp.291, 310; xlvii, p.348: MiDD 6502074–6 MiD, PLA photograph albums, Engineering Dept No.11; greybound album E2465: GLRO, Photograph LCC F1493.
  • 34. Information kindly supplied by Edward Sargent.
  • 35. WIDC 303, ff.182, 190, 222.
  • 36. PRO, CUST 102/241, ff.1, 11, 35.
  • 37. WIDC 304, ff.133, 142, 148, 207; 315, p.90; 320, p.417: G.Hardwicke, Keepers of the Door: the History of the P.L.A. Police, undated.
  • 38. BL, Add.MS 38,191, ff.147–9.
  • 39. WIDC 340, p.271; 347, pp.158, 165.
  • 40. WIDC 329, pp.49, 405: MiDS 1660: ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports 1/7, pp.114–15, 291.
  • 41. WIDC 327, pp.60, 169, 402, 456, 505: MiDD 6620860.
  • 42. EWIDC 434, p.410; 451, pp.230, 260–1, 538–9.
  • 43. LIDJC 232, p.287.
  • 44. PLA Mins, xxxvi, p.110: MiDS 1660.
  • 45. WIDC 344, p.216; 345, pp.81, 251, 518; 346, p.477: ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports 1/12, pp.68–9, 74.
  • 46. WIDC 356, p.46.
  • 47. WIDC 306, f. 141.
  • 48. WIDC 299, pp.23, 31, 54; 305, ff.221, 224, 314; 307, pp.34–5, 41, 164; 309, p.337; 310, p.269: P.L.A. Monthly, Aug 1928, pp. 324–5.
  • 49. WIDC 333, p.54; 340, p.415.
  • 50. P.L.A. Monthly, July 1926, p.297.
  • 51. P.L.A. Monthly, April 1962, p.90: Information kindly supplied by Edward Sargent.
  • 52. PLA Mins, v, pp.74, 103, 251, 321, 359; vi, p.302; viii, p.324: MiDD 6620626, 6620903, 6622336: Hardwicke, op.cit., pp.96– 101.
  • 53. PLA Mins, xxxviii, p.14; xlii, pp.159, 173; xlv, pp.155, 245; xlvii, p.354: MiDD 6622882–3, 6623534.