The Millwall Docks: The docks

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 Millwall Docks: The docks', in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, (London, 1994) pp. 353-356. British History Online [accessed 23 May 2024].

. "The Millwall Docks: The docks", in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, (London, 1994) 353-356. British History Online, accessed May 23, 2024,

. "The Millwall Docks: The docks", Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, (London, 1994). 353-356. British History Online. Web. 23 May 2024,

In this section

The Docks

Inner Dock and Outer Dock

The reversed-L plan of the Millwall Docks is a truncated version of the inverted-T plan projected in 1863 as a 350ft-wide 'canal'. The dimensions and particulars of the built section of docks had been settled by (Sir) John Fowler and William Wilson by July 1865 when (Sir) John Kelk and John Aird & Son began the excavation work (fig. 126b). There were extensive tramways and two pumping steam engines on the south side of the estate to drain the works. Excavation was relatively easy because the land was low, generally about 10ft below high water, and the spoil could be used on site to raise the level of the quays. (fn. 1) There were 2,000 to 3,000 labourers at work, reportedly well organized, and progress was rapid. (fn. 2) Work on the concrete-and-brick dock walls had started by the beginning of 1866. In January 1867 the walls of the Outer Dock were coped, and the Inner Dock was well advanced. The docks were completed, with the quays of the Outer Dock levelled, in July 1867. The eastern end of the Outer Dock near East Ferry Road was an unwalled bank, as an extension eastwards remained a possibility. (fn. 3)

More than 8,000ft of dock wall, between 28ft and 30ft high, was built to enclose 35½ acres of water, 24ft deep (fig. 129a). This walling survives, but it is behind later quays except at the north end of the Inner Dock and along the south quay of the Outer Dock. It has straight sides with a slight batter, and a brick skin about 2ft thick backed by mass concrete up to 11ft 6in. thick. Horizontal bands of brickwork tie the facing into the backing. The walls originally had Bramley Fall stone copings with continuous mooring rails. (fn. 4)

The east extension was deferred, and so the bank at the eastern end of the Outer Dock was wharfed with timber in 1870–1, by John Langham Reed to plans by Wilson. This frontage and the land behind up to the Millwall Extension Railway was a barge-railway wharf for the Great Eastern Railway Company from 1872 to 1926 (fig. 128). (fn. 5) The wharf was used thereafter as a rubbish depot by Hudsons Limited who, in 1932–3, raised the quay in concrete. (fn. 6) The quay was rebuilt in the late 1980s.

The Millwall Passage gave ships access to the Millwall Docks via the West India Docks from 1928 (see page 281), and a common impounding system came into operation in 1930, increasing water depths. Because the batter of the 1860s walling prevented large ships of deep draught mooring alongside, sections of the dock walls were altered. In 1926–7 John Mowlem & Company put up timber wharfing along the south end of the west quay of the Inner Dock as a 'false' quay. It was straight-sided and allowed dredging to a depth below the original footings (Plate 58a). (fn. 7) The north and west quays of the Outer Dock were altered with brick and concrete in 1926– 9, by Walker-Weston & Company and L. J. Speight. (fn. 8) The east wall of the Inner Dock was given a 'false' quay in 1937–8, designed by Asa Binns and built by John Mowlem & Company to allow 29ft of water alongside. This comprised steel sheet-piling and a concrete deck, 7ft 9in. wide, over concrete fill. (fn. 9)

Repairs to the south quay of the Outer Dock carried out in 1943, following bomb damage, involved some rebuilding in brick and much recoping in concrete. (fn. 10) The 'false' quay on the west side of the Inner Dock was replaced by C. J. Sims Limited in 1953 with another similar to that of 1937–8 at the opposite quay. (fn. 11) The north quay of the Outer Dock was 'rebuilt' again in 1959, although the brick facing was retained. In 1962–3 the west quay of the Outer Dock was given a 'false' quay on concrete beams cantilevered 10ft over the water. (fn. 12) Another variant was used on the opposite quay in 1966, John Mowlem & Company forming a 'false' quay of precast concrete sheet-piling and coping, slab decks and concrete fill. (fn. 13) In the 1980s the quays were largely paved with bricks and recoped in concrete.

Figure 129:

Millwall Docks, dock- and lock-wall sections, 1865–7a Inner Dock and Outer Dock: b Entrance Lock: c Millwall Dock Graving Dock

The 'horn' or Y-shaped cast-iron quay bollards that survive around the India and Millwall Docks are of a patent type designed in the 1920s by Edward Joseph Bean and John Crighton. Bean was a PLA Dockmaster at the West India Docks, and resident of Bridge House from 1925 to 1928, and Crighton was the Managing Director of the London Graving Dock Company (see page 275). These bollards allow variable and secure mooring with fewer turns of rope than on a plain bollard. Some of the earlier, and more bulbous, 'Bean' bollards were cast by T. R. Creighton Limited. (fn. 14) The more angular bollards are probably 1940s replacements. The 'Bean' bollards on the west and north quays of the Millwall Docks were made in 1926–9 and reset when the quays were rebuilt. (fn. 15) Those along the west end of the south quay and at the dry dock were put up in 1930. (fn. 16) The east-quay 'Bean' bollards probably date from 1937–8. There are earlier crosshead, or T-shaped, quay bollards at the north end of the Inner Dock and around the Outer Dock.

Entrance Lock

Early plans for a tidal basin and timber-gated passages at the west entrance to the Millwall Docks were abandoned in late 1864 in favour of a large double lock (figs 125, 126a). The two locks of unequal length allow the economical locking of vessels of varying sizes. The plans were amended in 1865 to make the outer lock the larger one. (fn. 17) Excavation began in the summer of 1865 and work on the coffer-dam outside the entrance in early 1866. The lock was the 'most difficult part' of the works and progress was slow. A contract for iron lock gates, sluices, capstans and related hydraulic machinery went to W. G. Armstrong & Company in April 1867. The gates were erected, and photographed, under the supervision of James Hendry of Armstrong & Company, and the lock was completed by August (Plate 57a). (fn. 18)

When it opened the Millwall Dock entrance lock was the largest lock in London, being 80ft wide with chambers 247ft and 198ft long. It was 28ft deep at high water at the centre of the sill and 23ft deep at the sides (fig. 129b). The brick inverts are 3ft 9in. thick on a bed of concrete, and the side walls, which are between 6ft and 13ft thick, are straight-sided, with facings of Staffordshire blue brick. Horizontal brick bands bind into the concrete backing, as in the main dock walls. There were Bramley Fall stone copings, and granite was used at the gate-sills and heel-posts. Sluices and culverts allowed water to pass between the lock and the dock or the river, or directly from the dock to the river with a discharge to scour the gate platforms. The massive wrought-iron gate leafs were each 42ft 3in. wide by 34ft high and weighed approximately 60 tons (Plate 57a). The outer gates were perforated on the river side to allow water to flow through compartments, thereby reducing the effect of impact damage. (fn. 19)

The gates were originally operated by hydraulically powered windlasses, replaced by hydraulic jiggers c1875. (fn. 20) In 1906 two 3-ton capstans on the inner side of the lock were replaced with direct-acting, double-headed capstans from C. & A. Musker Limited, of Liverpool. In 1910 that firm supplied three more hydraulic capstans, with capacities of between three and ten tons, one of which survives on the south pierhead. (fn. 21)

The entrance lock was set to be substantially repaired and altered in 1939, but the outbreak of war caused the work to be deferred. (fn. 22) The lock was badly damaged in September 1940, when bombing destroyed the middle gates, hydraulic machinery, sluices, culverts and part of the south wing wall. Reconstruction to a revised version of the pre-war plans was proposed for 1949, but the work was postponed because of government restrictions on capital expenditure. (fn. 23) By 1955 the cost of reconstruction could no longer be justified, and concern regarding the strength of the inner gates, and the effect of the unused lock on impounding and dredging costs, led to damming of the lock inside the Outer Dock. The dam was built in 1956 by John Mowlem & Company using precast-concrete blocks and timber taken from a temporary dam at the Royal Albert Dock. (fn. 24) Redevelopment around the quays brought increasing traffic to the Millwall Docks in the 1960s, and a rebuilding of the lock was again considered before it was permanently closed in 1967, its east end filled so that the road bridge would not have to be replaced. (fn. 25)

The lock was left to silt up until 1988–90 when the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), with Robert West Partners and M. J. Cagney as engineers, filled it as far as the outer gate recesses, leaving a slipway. The south pierhead was landscaped and a hydraulic jigger from the middle-gate machinery was mounted on display.

Millwall Dock Graving Dock

Dry docks for ship-repair were central to early plans for the Millwall Docks. Up to six were to have been built off the quays of the wet docks, but by 1865 these had withered to one. It was sited west of the medieval Chapel of St Mary (see page 375), until, late in 1865, William Wilson moved it on to the chapel site (fig. 126). Excavation for the graving dock was well advanced in January 1866, when Wilson submitted plans finally settling its dimensions. (fn. 26) The dock was completed by July 1867 and its caisson, supplied by W. G. Armstrong & Company, was in position by the end of August. (fn. 27)

Opened in 1868, the dry dock was said to be the best on the Thames (fig. 129c). It was certainly one of the largest, at 413ft long by 65ft wide at the entrance (90ft inner width at ground level), with a depth of 25ft. It is founded on a series of inverted brick arches on concrete, with a walling system comparable to that of the wet docks. Originally there were nine altars with York-stone treads and brick risers. Under the altars were recesses or movable 'bilge-block carriages', to assist in propping up the ships. The keel blocks were of Bramley Fall stone. The dock was emptied by means of two culverts at its head. Most of the water was discharged at low tide through the upper culvert, which ran to the river just outside the entrance lock. The residual water was pumped out through the lower culvert. (fn. 28)

Despite the promise made to Parliament, the graving dock was not 'public'. From the outset it was let to shipbuilders and repairers, not to shipowners. C. J. Mare, of the Millwall Iron Works, was given a six-month lease of the dock and surrounding land in September 1868, but came to be seen as 'undesirable' and was refused a renewal (see page 473). (fn. 29) After another short letting, J. Langham Reed & Company took a seven-year lease. In 1870 this firm replaced the pumping machinery with three Gwynne & Company engines and four boilers in a building with an 85ft-tall chimney at the south-west corner of the dry-dock site. Office and store buildings were put up near the pumping station. The lease was transferred to Smith, Pender & Company, of Nelson Wharf, Millwall, in 1871 and a new seven-year lease went to Donald Johnson & Company, of Regent Dock, Millwall, in 1876. (fn. 30)

The shipping trade was depressed in 1883 and so the dock company briefly worked the graving dock as a 'public' facility, rebuilding and refitting the boiler house in 1884–5, when the adjacent hydraulic pumping station was improved (see page 369). The Dry Docks Corporation of London had the dock in 1886, then it was again 'public' until in 1889 it was taken by Rait & Gardiner, who occupied ship-repair workshops west of the dry dock from 1878. (fn. 31) In 1896 this firm proposed lengthening the dock, because larger ships had made it less useful. However, the dock company did not agree to the project. (fn. 32)

Within months of its formation in 1909, the PLA resolved to stop letting the dry dock and to lengthen it to accommodate the largest ships admissible to the Millwall Docks. Frederick Palmer prepared plans in 1910 and Gwynne's Limited supplied electrically driven de-watering pumps, placed below ground level near the east side of the entrance. The lengthening to 555ft was done in 1911–13 at a cost of £13,619, the whole project costing £23,468. (fn. 33) In 1919, 2-ton capstans at the entrance of the dry dock were replaced with 5-ton capstans; one of the old capstans being moved to the head of the dock. A 25ton electric crane was erected on the west side of the dock and the engine house of 1870 was converted to be an air compressor house. The caisson was replaced in 1922 with one built by Swan, Hunter & Wigham, Richardson, of Wallsend-on-Tyne. (fn. 34) To cope with larger vessels coming to the dock through the Millwall Passage, a 10-ton hydraulic capstan from Carrick & Wardale was fitted in 1930. (fn. 35)

Closure of the dry dock was proposed in 1966, as it was losing money. Ship-repairers failed to persuade the PLA to lease it, and it was closed and flooded on 30 October 1968. The site and the 25-ton crane were subsequently used for a barge berth. (fn. 36) The dry dock area was redeveloped as the Clippers Quay housing estate in 1984–8 (see page 698). The altars were covered by walkways and a laminated timber bridge, made by Laminated Wood Limited of Bideford, was erected over the dock entrance.

Surviving Structures

In 1994, the dock walls of 1866–7 are basically intact, though much rebuilt and repaired, with a variety of twentieth-century false quays. The entrance lock remains, though largely filled and landscaped. The graving dock also survives, water-filled and part-covered.


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  • 20. Information kindly supplied by E.Sargent.
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  • 27. MDC 553, pp.2, 17, 41, 77.
  • 28. MiDD 6730010: MiD, MDC Deeds Box 6: Engineering, 8 Feb 1867, p.142; 9 Aug 1867, pp.102–5; 22 Nov 1867, pp.474, 476–7.
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