Poplar Dock: Historical development

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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'Poplar Dock: Historical development', in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, (London, 1994) pp. 336-341. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp336-341 [accessed 20 April 2024]

In this section

CHAPTER XI - Poplar Dock

Poplar Dock was London's first railway dock when it opened in 1851. (fn. 1) The site, immediately to the north of the West India Docks' Blackwall Basin, was first developed by the West India Dock Company in 1827–8 as reservoirs. They were converted into a timber pond in 1844 and in 1850–1 into a railway dock, following the transfer of the land to the East and West India Docks and Birmingham Junction Railway Company (later the North London Railway Company). The dock, used for coal and export goods traffic, was extended to the west in 1875–7 to provide depots for other railway companies (Plate 45b).

Historical Development

The West India Dock Company built the reservoirs in 1827–8 to provide clean impounded water to keep the water level in the docks high and so prevent an influx of water and mud when the entrance locks were opened at high tides. Dredging cost several thousand pounds a year. In 1825 (Sir) John Rennie proposed the introduction of impounded water to reduce silting, and so a 30hp Boulton & Watt steam engine was acquired. (fn. 3) Sites for reservoirs near the Limehouse entrance lock and south of the Blackwall Basin were considered before the area north of the Blackwall Basin was chosen, with Preston's Road rerouted and the reservoirs sited as far east as possible to leave room for a later dock or basin. (fn. 4) Rennie designed a system comprising two settling reservoirs and an elevated northern reservoir, built by Daniel Pritchard and William Hoof, excavators, of Walham Green. (fn. 5) (fn. 2)

Each of the settling reservoirs was 650ft by 110ft, according to (Sir) John Rennie's later account. They were fed from the river on every high tide. The bottom of each reservoir inclined upwards from a depth of 18ft 6in. at the south end, and their retaining banks, faced with Kentish ragstone, had a 30-degree slope. The steam engine pumped settled water into the upper reservoir, which was 320ft by 300ft and sluiced directly into the Blackwall Basin and entrance lock. (fn. 7)

The steam engine proved inadequate and so, in 1830–1, James Watt replaced the twin pumps with a single 'Great Pump' of 46in. diameter, which, if worked 16½ hours a day, made up the daily water loss of 5¼in. (fn. 8) The reservoirs cost £28,336, more than twice the estimate. Moreover, the cost of working the system was not substantially less than the earlier expense of dredging had been. (fn. 9)

The upper reservoir was filled in 1838–9 because its site was required for the London and Blackwall Railway (fig. 92). (fn. 10) In 1843 the impounding system was wholly abandoned in favour of a steam dredger. The lower reservoirs were converted into a pond for floated timber in 1844, to plans by John S. Adams and Henry D. Martin. The work, by Carden & Hack, involved the removal of the central causeway to form a 6-acre pond that was linked to the Blackwall Basin by a new cut, 25ft wide and 7ft deep, with brick side walls and an inverted arch on concrete foundations that were 2ft thick. Recesses were provided for the insertion of reverse or counter gates and the steam engine was retained, so that the pond might be used for its original purpose. (fn. 11)

There were no railway links to any of London's docks in 1845. Henry D. Martin, perhaps reacting to other schemes put forward during the railway boom, devised a plan for a railway to join the West India Docks to the London and Birmingham Railway at Chalk Farm, hoping to attract manufactured exports from the Midlands and the North West. Martin's plan gained the support of both the London and Birmingham Railway Company and the East and West India Dock Company. (fn. 12) A new railway company was projected, with Martin designated Acting Engineer under Robert Stephenson, Engineer in Chief. The first plans were for a line direct to the north side of the Blackwall Basin, with a branch link to the London and Blackwall Railway. (fn. 13) However, it was difficult to raise capital for a railway after the abrupt end of the speculative boom in railway shares in 1845. The parent railway company had to provide £400,000 and the dock company £50,000 to ensure that the capital of £600,000 was subscribed. (fn. 14) The East and West India Docks and Birmingham Junction Railway Company was incorporated in August 1846. It changed its name to the less cumbersome North London Railway Company in 1853. (fn. 15)

London's coal trade was opened up in 1845, partly because of the competition to sea-coal from railway deliveries of inland coal, and partly following the winding up of Newcastle's committee for 'the limitation of the vend', which had controlled the marketing of coal from Tyneside. (fn. 16) The sea-coal trade was obliged to respond to the changed circumstances. In December 1845 the Marquess of Londonderry proposed using the planned railway for conveying Durham sea-coal from the docks to North London and, in March 1846, the Hornley Coal Company requested that the timber pond be fitted for the discharge of colliers. (fn. 17) These approaches caused Martin to revise his plans for the dock terminus of the railway. He suggested the use of the timber pond, with the north bank of the Blackwall Basin, as water frontage for the transfer of goods to and from railway wagons. The east and south quays of the pond would be devoted to coal, with sidings north of the London and Blackwall Railway. Depots or quayside sheds with cranes would be let to other carriers. Despite the pressure from the sea-coal lobby, the terminus was to be a general purpose goods station, cheaper and more accessible to water traffic than Chalk Farm. Incoming coal traffic and the transfer of goods to or from the West India Docks were to be of secondary importance. (fn. 18)

Figure 122:

Poplar Dock. Plan based on the Ordnance Survey of 1867–70

The dock company refused to give up the north bank of the Blackwall Basin, but agreed to set aside the timber pond for small craft and colliers serving the railway. Vessels would have free passage through the Blackwall entrance lock, but the dock company forbade any direct link between the timber pond and the river, for it was wary of losing control of traffic and creating a competitor. In December 1846 an agreement was reached whereby the railway company acquired the freehold of land on both sides of the London and Blackwall Railway and a lease of the timber pond and its margins. It undertook to deepen and wharf the timber pond and enlarge its entrance. The lines would be worked by the parent firm, which had become the London and North Western Railway Company. (fn. 19)

The East and West India Docks and Birmingham Junction Railway Company began building its line from Chalk Farm in 1847, proceeding cautiously in the prevailing economic slump. Indeed, the controlling London and North Western Railway Company nearly aborted the project, but dock company resistance to abandonment, and confidence that the dock terminus would eventually pay, helped to ensure that the work continued. (fn. 20) The dock end of the railway, with two lines to the timber pond, a branch to the London and Blackwall Railway, a goods station and the conversion of the timber pond, was the last section undertaken, being contracted to George Myers in October 1849. (fn. 21) He was an improbable choice, for his reputation had come from high-quality stonemasonry as A. W. N. Pugin's favourite contractor, and not as an established railway or dock contractor. (fn. 22) A coffer-dam was inserted in the cut to the Blackwall Basin and the timber pond was drained and excavated, with the spoil deposited to raise the ground north of the London and Blackwall Railway. Hunter & English supplied two pairs of lock gates. The dock opened to shipping in September 1851, its construction and fitting having cost £36,886. (fn. 23)

In 1851 the dock's overall dimensions were about 750ft by 310ft. It covered c5½ acres, with a water depth of 20ft (fig. 122). (fn. 24) The dock is lined with timber, with wharfing of horizontal baulks with iron ties behind timber fender piles. (fn. 25) Timber wharfing of docks was general in the eighteenth century, and not unusual in the early nineteenth century, but it is surprising that brick walling was not used in 1850–1. The railway company was evidently anxious to build as cheaply as possible. The conversion of the entrance cut to a lock meant complete rebuilding, to allow deepening by 13ft and widening by 5ft 6in. to the west, producing a lock 30ft wide by 138ft 8in. long, and 22ft 6in. deep at high water. It had a brick invert bottom and 6ft-thick sides with 2ft 3in.-thick counterforts. Constructionally, it differed little from the West India Dock locks of 1800–6 (fig. 96g). (fn. 26)

The railway company had come to an unusual agreement with the Northumberland & Durham Coal Company, whereby for an annual rent of £10,000 the latter controlled the east quay railway traffic taking seacoal to North London. (fn. 27) Hydraulic cranes were used to speed the transfer of the coal from the colliers to rail, the first systematic use of hydraulic cranage in the Port of London and an early instance of the mechanization of coal-whippers' work. (fn. 28) London and North Western Railway Company export goods traffic to the north and west quays began on 1 January 1852. There were only modest open-sided sheds for cover until an ale warehouse was built on the north quay in 1852. Exports shipped from the dock included Burton ale, iron, manufactured goods, pottery and salt. In addition to coal, imports included Baltic timber and grain. (fn. 29) The dock began to be used for the transfer of inland coal from railway to barge in 1857. The North London Railway Company took over the east quay sea-coal operations in 1858. (fn. 30)

The land west of Poplar Dock was developed as a barge dock extension in 1875–7. The scheme was first proposed in 1861 as a facility for the Great Northern and Midland railway companies, but was blocked by the East and West India Dock Company. The London and North Western Railway Company moved goods by lighter from Poplar Dock to the West India Docks, thereby avoiding the dock company's railway siding and demurrage charges (compensation for delays in unloading). The dock company did not want this practice to extend to other railway companies. (fn. 31) In the absence of an extension, in 1863 the south quay of Poplar Dock was allocated to the Great Northern Railway Company, which had been using the dock since 1853. (fn. 32) The quay was made accessible by new lines and fitted with coal chutes for the export of inland coal. (fn. 33) In 1868–9 an export shed was built on the quay. (fn. 34)

In 1863, with the Great Northern, Midland, and Great Western railway companies all desiring export depots at Poplar Dock, the North London Railway Company sought Parliamentary power to build the dock extension. William Baker (1817–78), Chief Engineer of the London and North Western Railway Company and Consulting Engineer to the North London Railway Company, designed a 3¾-acre dock. The Bill also sought the power to improve the awkward approach to Poplar Dock over the London and Blackwall Railway, proposing sidings on dock company land west of Harrow Lane and a wider bridge over the viaduct. The dock company opposed the Bill, objecting that an increase of traffic in and out of Poplar Dock would lead to impossible congestion at its Blackwall entrance lock and Blackwall Basin. (fn. 35) The dock company suggested that the railway company should provide its own river entrance, confident perhaps that, at a cost of about £100,000, it would not be built. In 1864 the railway company agreed to make an entrance lock from Northumberland Wharf before building the dock extension, and the dock company agreed to give up the land for sidings, as well as a strip of garden to allow extension of the south quay of Poplar Dock. (fn. 36) In fact, construction of the dock extension was delayed by the anticipated cost of the river entrance and the financial crash of 1866. (fn. 37)

Figure 123:

Poplar Dock. Plan based on the Ordnance Survey of 1893–5Ac Surviving accumulator tower

The Midland Railway Company withdrew in 1869 to find other waterside accommodation, but the Great Western Railway Company continued to press for space at Poplar Dock. (fn. 38) The controlling railway companies decided to proceed with the construction of the dock and entrance in 1871, to new plans by Baker. (fn. 39) By 1873 the North London Railway Company was set to begin the work, including the construction of goods depots for lease to the Great Western and Great Northern railway companies. The London and North Western Railway Company, having acquired the buildings and land on the north and west quays, planned to purchase the property needed to expand its depot and carry out its own works. (fn. 40) In the meantime the Blackwall entrance to the West India Docks had, from 1870, been relieved by a new entrance to the South West India Dock. The dock company stood to gain in wharfage rates from an extension of Poplar Dock and in 1873 it abandoned its insistence on the river entrance. (fn. 41)

The North London Railway Company issued debenture stock to finance the dock extension and preliminary work began in late 1873, with Thomas Matthews as Resident Engineer. Baker prepared further plans and the extension was built by John Cardus, of Acton, in 1875–7, at a cost of over £250,000. (fn. 42) The extension was small (about 535ft by 150ft) because it was intended only for barges (Plates 45b, 60a; fig. 123). It covered 2½ acres and had a cut to the old dock at its south end. To give a maximum water depth of 23ft 6in., its stock-brick walls were 27ft high, diminishing in thickness from 9ft 6in. at the bottom to 5ft 3in. at the top. They rest on concrete foundations, 4ft thick and 13ft wide, and are granite coped with battered sides, the upper 14ft being faced with Staffordshire blue brick. To create room for the operation of hydraulic coal tips, Cardus raised the east quay of the old dock by 2½ft in 1877. (fn. 43)

Poplar Dock became more than ever an export dock, the depots at the extension accommodating goods from all over the country for delivery into barges and redistribution to shipping throughout the Port. The expanding inland coal business had earlier moved to the east quay, which was retained by the North London Railway Company for that trade. Exports aside, there was an increasing demand for bunker fuel for steamers in the docks. (fn. 44) The London and North Western Railway Company remained at the north and west quays of the old dock, with the addition of the east and north quays of the extension. The Great Northern Railway Company had the south quays of both docks, while the Great Western Railway Company took the west quay of the new dock (fig. 123).

The increasing size of steam colliers caused Poplar Dock to lose sea-coal traffic to the Royal Docks. In 1896 the North London Railway Company responded with a proposal to widen the lock to Poplar Dock. The London and India Docks Joint Committee opposed the scheme, to protect its interests at the Royal Docks, forcing the railway company to obtain Parliamentary powers for the widening. (fn. 45) The work was eventually carried out in 1898–9 to plans by Francis Stevenson and Thomas Matthews, probably by Lucas & Aird. Although gate recesses were provided, the lock became an ungated passage, as the water level in the dock could be maintained by the new impounding station at the Blackwall entrance (see page 326). The increase in width of 10ft, to 40ft, was made on the east side, and the depth was reduced to 21ft (fig. 96g). The east side wall is square in section, of brick, with concrete footings and re-used stone copings. (fn. 46)

Poplar Dock remained in the hands of the North London Railway Company when London's other docks were brought together under the Port of London Authority in 1909, because it was regarded as a railway facility. (fn. 47) In 1923 the North London Railway Company was wholly absorbed by its parent company, which itself became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company. The dock's main business still came from coal, ale and iron. Much of the sea-coal went to the Bow Common Gas Works and the inland coal was distributed to a growing number of riverside industries. From 1925 the PLA permitted the handling of general continental goods at Poplar Dock, provided that they were for transfer to the provinces and not for London. (fn. 48)

All the depots at the dock were destroyed by bombing in 1940, except for those on the south quays. After the Second World War the dock continued to function as a transit facility for coal, steel and other traffic. The upper sections of the timber lining of the old dock and the quay level copings were rebuilt in concrete, probably in 1944–5 to repair bomb damage. Comparable reconstruction work seems to have been carried out at the east quay in 1966–8, when its layout and facilities were simplified. Traffic declined in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the barge dock extension went out of use. Railway lines and sidings were removed, and the remaining sheds and depots were demolished. (fn. 49) Operations at Poplar Dock ceased in 1981, following closure of the India and Millwall Docks, and British Rail sold the site to the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1982–3. Plans for its development as a trade centre associated with the People's Republic of China were put forward, but abandoned. In 1988–9 much of the barge dock extension and the north end of the old dock were filled to make space for roads.


  • 1. The Midland Railway Company's collier dock at Blackwall Yard built in the late 1870s was also known as Poplar Dock, a source of some confusion.
  • 2. Hoof, who died in 1855, was the main contractor at the Kensington Canal from 1826, where Rennie was involved.
  • 3. WIDC 354, pp.27, 162: ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports, II/2, pp. 84–7, 93–4, 119.
  • 4. WIDC 356, pp.143, 292; 357, p.526; 358, p.163: ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports, II/2, pp.370–7; 11/4, pp.27–35, 55–9: MiDS 718.
  • 5. WIDC 359, p.264; 360, pp.74, 105, 167, 316; 363, pp.286, 433; 424, pp.287, 295, 357: ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports, 11/4, pp.146– 54, 362, 370–2; 11/5, pp. 149–52, 333–5; 11/6, pp.44–5; 11/7, p.133.
  • 6. Survey of London, vol.XLII, 1986, pp.322–4.
  • 7. ICE. Rennie MSS, Reports II/4, pp.146–54: Sir J.Rennie, The Theory. Formation and Construction of British and Foreign Harbours, II, 1854, pp.250–1.
  • 8. WIDC 364, pp.42, 159; 365, pp.298, 417: ICE, Rennie MSS, Reports 11/6, pp.177–8, 180–1, 245–7, 273–4, 313–14; 11/7, p.35.
  • 9. WIDC 369, p.443: MiDS 718.
  • 10. WIDC 380, p. 136: EWIDC 433, pp.459–60, 534.
  • 11. EWIDC 436, pp.280–6; 437, pp.64–71, 392–5: MiDS 386, 718.
  • 12. EWIDC 438, pp.100–2: MiDS 164; 3153/1–2: MiD, House of Commons Select Committee on Railway Bills, Proceedings (North London Railway Company Bill), 2 June 1864, evidence given by Harry Chubb.
  • 13. PRO, RAIL 529/9. p.1: MiDS 3153/3, 5: GLRO, MR/UP/285.
  • 14. PRO, RAIL 529/9, pp.7, 11, 13; 384/6, no.3205; 410/20, no.273: EWTDC 438, pp.157–8: MiDS 3153, nos 7–9: MiD, House of Lords Select Committee on Railway Bills, Proceedings (North London Railway Company Bill), 8 July 1864, evidence given by Harry Chubb.
  • 15. 9 & 10 Vic, c.396, local: 16 & 17 Vic, c.97, local: J.E.Connor, All Stations to Poplar, 1985.
  • 16. F.Sheppard, London 1808–1870: The Infernal Wen, 1971, pp.194–5: M.Hunter and R.Thorne, Change at King's Cross, 1990, pp.111–12.
  • 17. MiDS 3153/6, 10.
  • 18. MiDS 164.
  • 19. EWIDC 438, pp.433–42; 442, pp.130–2; 445, p.60: MiD, EWIDC Deeds, ix/2: MiDS 164: PRO, RAIL 529/9, pp.29–34, 56–8, 67–70.
  • 20. PRO, RAIL 410/20, nos 397, 483; 529/9, nos 152, 179: MiDS 3153/27–8.
  • 21. PRO, RAIL 529/9, nos 186, 208, 240, 261; 529/93.
  • 22. P.Spencer-Silver, Pugin's Builder: The Life and Work of George Myers, 1993.
  • 23. PRO, RAIL 529/11, nos 336, 392; 410/622, 29 April 1851: EWIDC 440, pp.421–3, 495: MiDS 164; 386; 3153/31, 35: MiDS(LD) 22/98: B, 4 Oct 1851, p.625.
  • 24. B, 4 Oct 1851, p.625: Royal Commission on the Port of London, Minutes of Evidence, 26 June 1901, no.11566.
  • 25. B, 22 Sept 1877, p.964: National Railway Museum, North London Railway: A Pictorial Record, 1979, p.49, pl.2.
  • 26. MiDS 386; 3153/30: MiDD 6760251–2: British Rail Stratford, Drawing 35528c.
  • 27. PRO. RAIL 529/9, nos 299, 314; /11, nos 336, 399, 415.
  • 28. ILN, 28 Aug 1852, p.156: C.Capper, The Port and Trade of London, 1862, pp.468–9, 472–6: R.Smith, Sea-Coal for London. History of the Coal Factors in the London Market, 1961, pp.284–5, 288–9. Hunter and Thorne, op.cit.: T.Smith, 'Hydraulic Power in the Port of London', Industrial Archaeology Review, vol.xiv pt 1, 1991, pp.64–88.
  • 29. PRO, RAIL 410/622, 8 May 1851; 529/11, nos 375, 390, 409, 430, 515: EWIDC 442, p.258; 444, pp.440–1: MiDS 386: MiDS(LD) 25/1.
  • 30. PRO, RAIL529/13, nos 564, 727;/15, nos 68, 86, 97: MiD, Poplar Dock New Entrance, Arbitration Proceedings, 1903, p.150.
  • 31. PRO, RAIL529/15, no.343;/17, nos 2045, 2097, 2115, 2125, 2140: MiDS 164: MiDS(LD) 25/1.
  • 32. PRO, RAIL529/11, no.504.
  • 33. PRO, RAIL529/17, nos 2234, 2254; /19, nos 64, 95, 214, 245, 256, 275, 766: MiDS(LD) 25/1.
  • 34. PRO, RAIL529/21, no.672; /23, no.767; /65, nos 305, 446: MiD, EWIDC Deeds ix/2.
  • 35. PRO, RAIL529/19, nos 343, 364, 383, 455, 508: MiDS(LD) 25/1: MiD, House of Commons Select Committee on Railway Bills. . ., 2 June 1864: GLRO, MR/UP/701: J.Marshall, A Biographical Dictionary of Railway Engineers, 1978.
  • 36. PRO, RAIL529/19, no.767; /21, no.632: EWIDC 448, p.330; 450, pp.502–7; 472, pp.1–3: MiD, EWIDC Deeds ix/2: MiDS(LD) 25/1: MiD, House of Lords Select Committee on Railway Bills..., 8, 11 July 1864: 27 & 28 Vic, c.246, local: 28 & 29 Vic, c.72.
  • 37. PRO, RAIL410/91, nos 16, 802, 16, 919/39; 529/23, nos 798, 895, 950, 1058, 1226: MiDS(LD) 25/1.
  • 38. PRO, RAIL410/94, no.20923; /95, nos 21956, 22546; 529/23, no.1004.
  • 39. PRO, RAIL410/96, no.23133; /98, nos 25968–9, 26112; /99, nos 27186, 27227; 529/23, nos 1226, 1237, 1515: 34 & 35 Vic, c.212, local: MiDS(LD) 25/1.
  • 40. PRO, RAIL410/94, no.20460; 529/23, no.1124; /25, nos 1571, 1623, 1651, 1672, 1735, 1786, 1809; /66, no.940.
  • 41. EWIDC 453, p.224: MiDS(LD) 25/1: 37 & 38 Vic, c.75, local.
  • 42. PRO, RAIL529/25, nos 1944–5, 2309; /27, nos 2499, 2638, 2685, 2778: EWIDC 457, pp.397–9.
  • 43. PRO, RAIL529/68, nos 1803, 1833: B, 22 Sept 1877, p.964.
  • 44. PRO, RAIL529/45, no.1359: MiD, Poplar Dock New Entrance, Arbitration Proceedings, 1903, p.150: Smith, op.cit., pp.276, 335.
  • 45. PRO, RAIL529/30, no.5343: EWIDC 468, p.348: LIDJC 237A, p.308; 263, pp.1, 12: 60 & 61 Vic, c.190, local.
  • 46. PRO, RAIL529/38, nos 5479, 5743; 1007/16: EWIDC 469, pp.34, 94: LIDJC 234, p.40; 241, p.196; 263, pp.89, 101, 119, 261, 282, 300; 264, pp.1, 22: LIDC 261, p.270: MiDD 6760138, 6760250– 2, 6840169: BN, 14 Aug 1903, p.202: MiD, Poplar Dock New Entrance, Arbitration Proceedings, 1903: Royal Commission on the Port of London, Minutes of Evidence, 26 June 1901, no.11565: LCC/CL/PARL/3/8.
  • 47. MiD, Poplar Dock New Entrance, Arbitration Proceedings, 1903, pp.131, 148, 150–1: Royal Commission on the Port of London, Minutes of Evidence, 26 June 1901, no.11566, app., 29th day, no.13: PRO, RAIL1007/16.
  • 48. PLA Mins, xvi, p.483: PRO, ZPER 14/14: Smith, op.cit., pp.340–1, 348: M.Robbins, The North London Railway, 1937, pp.8–10.
  • 49. PLA Mins, lxviii, b/w pp.68–9: British Rail, Stratford, Drawings Index, pp.47–8, 44LSF134, 66SF110–1, 68SF38, 73: C.Wright, 'Railway Memories of Docklands', Railways South East, winter 1990–1, p.146.