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.
CHAPTER XX - The East India Docks
The East India Docks, which were constructed between 1803 and 1806, were the third set of wet docks built on the Thames in the early nineteenth century, after the West India Docks (1800–6) and the London Docks (1802–5). Although the West India Docks clearly provided the inspiration, the arrangements for dealing with the East India trade were not part of the prolonged debate that preceded the building of the West India Docks. Nor was there a variety of plans for the layout of the East India Docks, as there had been for the earlier scheme. Indeed, the need for such a dock system to handle East India trade in the port was much less pressing than for the West India shipping. By the end of the eighteenth century East Indiamen had been sailing from Blackwall for almost 200 years; the East India Company having shipped valuable cargoes from the East to the Thames at Blackwall before moving them by barge to the City.
The East Indiamen were the largest merchantmen in the British marine. Because of their size and draught they had traditionally lightened their loads at Long Reach, near Gravesend, before sailing along the Thames to deep moorings at Blackwall. It was here, rather than in the severely congested Pool of London, that the goods were unloaded. The valuable cargoes were then carried by lighters to the 'legal quays' and 'sufferance wharves', and from them to the spacious East India Company warehouses, which by the late eighteenth century centred on Billiter Street and Cutler Street (those in Cutler Street were largely built in the 1790s).
The system was not entirely satisfactory, especially after the opening of the West India Docks and London Docks robbed the river pirates of their previously easy pickings in the chaos of the Pool, and they turned their attention to the exotic cargoes from the East Indies and the Indiamen's ports of call on their homeward voyages: teas, silks, saltpetre, Madeira, wine and spices, all of which had a ready sale on the black market. This was evidently a growing problem and was beginning to cause concern. At the time of the construction of the East India Docks it was stated that
The Quantity of Tea Stolen in the delivery of the Ships has been on Average for the three Last years 210 Chests. Valuing them at £10 per chest the amount of Plunder is in this Article alone £2100 per annum. (fn. 5)
The East India Company and the merchants and shipbuilders associated with the eastern trade had not been among the vociferous petitioners for reform of the Port whose representations resulted in the West India Dock Act of 1799 (see page 252). Unloading on the river had suited the East India trade because the quasi-military nature of the East India Company ships protected them from the worst attacks of the river pirates. The Brunswick Dock of 1789–90 provided excellent facilities for the fitting-out, masting and minor repair of East Indiamen, while the dry docks in Blackwall Yard allowed for major repair work. An enclosed dock for the East Indies trade was therefore not regarded as such an urgent requirement as it was for other trades.
Yet soon after the opening of the West India Docks in 1802 a scheme was proposed to build a dock at Blackwall for the East India trade. It was the immediate success of the West India Docks that provided the spur, for those engaged in the eastern trade did not wish to be left out of any London dock boom. Merchants and shipowners alike wanted to participate in building an 'advanced' modern dock to take the trade forward into the nineteenth century, and could not 'doubt the Advantages that must result to the East India Company whose valuable cargoes have been very often exposed to the most serious contingencies'. (fn. 6) The initiative for the creation of the East India Dock Company and the construction of the docks did not come from the East India Company itself, but from a group of East India merchants. Even so, as all trade was controlled by the East India Company, any proposal to build docks at Blackwall could not succeed without the company's consent to the scheme. That agreement was evidently secured by May 1803, when John and William Wells, the owners of Brunswick Dock, thanked the Court of the company for the attention paid to the proposal for wet docks for East India cargo. (fn. 7)
In July 1803, a group of shipowners led by (Sir) Robert Wigram (1744–1830) and (Sir) John Woolmore secured an Act 'for the further Improvement of the Port of London, by making Docks and other works at Blackwall for the Accommodation of the East India shipping in the said Port', (fn. 8) which also established the East India Dock Company. (fn. 1) Wigram ceased to take an active role in the company once it was launched, and the leading figures became Joseph Cotton (1746–1826), (fn. 2) Deputy Master of the Trinity Corporation, who acted as Chairman, and Woolmore, an Elder Brother of Trinity House, who became Deputy Chairman.
The administration of the East India Dock Company was vested in 13 directors, who were required to hold at least 20 shares each; four of them also had to be directors of the East India Company. (fn. 9) The East India Dock Company, like the West India Dock Company and the canal companies on which it was modelled, obtained most of its finance from those who had direct or related interests in that trade or the shipbuilding industry. By September 1803, £197,000 of initial capital had been subscribed by 102 individuals. (fn. 10) Those early investors were mainly East India merchants, all but one of the 24 directors of the East India Company, (fn. 11) managing owners of East Indiamen, a large number of shipbuilders, and assorted City interests, including a few bankers and insurance brokers. The large investments included the £12,000 put in by Henry Bonham of Broad Street Buildings, managing owner of the Preston East Indiaman; £6,000 invested by John Perry, the Blackwall shipbuilder; and £4,000 advanced by John Locke, a lead merchant. (fn. 3) The chaplain of the East India Company's almshouses in Poplar, Samuel Hoole (who became the first rector of All Saints'), invested £1,000. Of the first 102 investors, 84 each put £1,000 or more into the new company.
Utilizing the technical and financial experience gained in the construction of the West India Docks and employing personnel who had experience in dock construction most notably the engineers John Rennie and Ralph Walker - the company proposed to build the East India Docks around the existing Brunswick Dock constructed by John Perry in 1789–90 (see page 562). This was the obvious site and as there was no opposition to its use, and the adjacent land could be acquired, it was the one chosen. The Brunswick Dock and the adjoining land were bought from John and William Wells for £35,660. Land on the north side was required for the Import Dock and so 65¼ acres of Bromley Marsh were purchased from Robert Peers of Bedford Square in September 1803 for £8,500 (with a leasehold interest from William Stevens, a yeoman of Poplar) (fn. 12) and 30 acres from George Hyde Wollaston for £5,610. Additional parcels to the east of Brunswick Dock were acquired from James and Thomas Mather for £12,000. The total outlay on land in 1803–4 was £63,270. (fn. 13) (fn. 4)
The Construction of the Docks, 1803–1806
The key elements of the East India Dock system were the Import Dock, the Export Dock, and the Entrance Basin linked to the River Thames by an entrance lock. The water area was 30 acres, about half that impounded at the West India Docks (see page 268). The docks were for the exclusive use of vessels engaged in the East Indies trade. At any one time only a few ships were at anchorage compared to those on passage, and so smaller docks were required than those devoted to the West India trade. The trade of the East Indies was in goods of high value but little bulk; imports from the West Indies were of less value but of greater size and quantity, and consequently involved many more ships. The times of sailing were regulated by weather conditions in the Indian Ocean and helped confine East India shipping in the Thames to particular times of the year. The first departures of the year to Bombay and China left the Thames between December and April; other ships went in June, after which there was a quiet period for three months until mid-September, when the last ships of the year were dispatched to the Indian Ocean. The returning East Indiamen arrived in loose convoys; those from India arriving in the Thames at the end of June and those sailing from China in September. (fn. 16) This, too, contrasted with the visits of the West India shipping, which were much more concentrated.
On the other hand there was a risk of building docks that would soon be inadequate. The East India trade had been increasing steadily since the 1780s. (fn. 17) In 1792 the number of ships returning to London from the East Indies was 27, in 1793 it was 33, by 1794 it was 42, and in 1795 there were 63. In 1804 Ralph Walker reported that the East India Company had employed 95 ships that year, 14 of which had been of around 1,500 tons. (fn. 18) He warned that if trade continued to increase at such a rate, then the new dock 'altho' at present may be rather larger than requisite may soon be too small to give necessary accommodation'. (fn. 19) Furthermore, the size of the vessels was increasing. Before 1789 the East India Company's largest ships had been between 750 and 800 tons, but in that year it was decided to build five ships of between 1,100 and 1,200 tons. Just four years later, in 1793, the Company had 36 vessels of 1,200 tons and 40 of 800 tons, making the ships trading to the East Indies the largest using the Thames. (fn. 20)
The earliest plan for the docks was prepared by John Rennie and Ralph Walker and was presented in March 1803 (Walker had been dismissed by the West India Dock Company in the previous October). It envisaged the provision of just two basins: a newly excavated Import Dock of 12¾ acres (1,380ft by 400ft), on the north side of the old road leading to Orchard House, and a combined Export Dock and entrance basin, formed by reshaping the old Brunswick Dock (fig. 216). The impracticality of combining an entrance basin and the Export Dock, with all the shipping passing through that dock, was soon realized. The problem was solved by acquiring land to the east of the Brunswick Dock from James Mather and using that for a separate, irregularly shaped, entrance basin (fig. 217). (fn. 21)
The plan of March 1803 was accompanied by an estimate of the costs, which were put at £198,740. This was evidently acceptable and the planning went ahead; by August, Rennie and Walker had been confirmed as the company's engineers for the construction of the docks. (fn. 22) Excavation of the Import Dock began in September with Hugh McIntosh as the contractor, but there was a problem in the following month, when his men were alarmed 'on account of the Danger of being impress'd, a Report being circulated of a number of Hands being taken from the London Docks'. The company obtained assurances that its construction workers would not be impressed into the Royal Navy. (fn. 23) By January 1804 the work was described as progressing 'with all possible despatch'. (fn. 24)
The bricks were made by Joseph Trimmer of Brentford, some of them at Blackwall, on land acquired for the purpose (see page 188). The brickearth excavated from the site of the Import Dock was suitable for brick making, but some malms and stocks were made at Brentford. (fn. 25) James Mylne supplied 7,350 tons of Dundee stone, and 663 tons of Cornish stone came from Messrs Grey & Gregg. (fn. 26) The timber used included Quebec and German oak, and six oaks supplied by James Wilkins from Berkhamsted. (fn. 27)
The construction work posed no great technical problems for the engineers and the excavation of the dock progressed smoothly. However, by January 1804 the engineers reported to the company that there had been a change of plan, which would increase the size of the Export Dock from 12¾ acres to 18 acres and so 'give more room for the Indiamen to load, and discharge their cargoes, and thereby promote safety, and dispatch'. (fn. 28) Six months later, further alteration to the layout of the dock was judged advisable. This involved the construction of the separate entrance basin, of about 2¾ acres, which could be 'exclusively appropriated to the purpose of Transit only, without Interference with the Important Business of loading, or discharging the vessels which will take place in the Brunswick and new docks'. (fn. 29) Little trouble was experienced until June 1805, when one of the Import Dock walls gave way, but repair was rapid and progress continued. By January 1806, the engineers could confidently predict that 'the Docks will be ready . . . before Midsummer next'. (fn. 30) Their confidence was misplaced and they did not quite meet their target.
The total cost to September 1807, just over a year after the opening, was £322,608, far more than the estimate had allowed. (fn. 31) The largest items were the purchase of the land, the excavation of the Import Dock and Entrance Basin, and the construction of the quay walls. All of these had cost much more than had been provided for in the estimate of 1803. (fn. 32)
The Opening of the East India Docks
The docks were opened on 4 August 1806. They were described by The Times as a 'great work' but 'not of such magnificent dimensions as the West India Docks'. (fn. 33)
The opening was a great public occasion: 'The Grand Gate, on the land-side, was opened for the reception of visitors at half-past eleven, and by one, the place was crowded with genteel company.' After a 21-gun salute, the Trinity House Yacht, adorned with flags of all nations, entered the dock, preceding the East Indiaman the Admiral Gardner, followed by the City of London, the Lady Castlereagh and then the Surrey. The whole having entered, the band on the board the Admiral Gardner 'immediately struck up in excellent style, "God save the King", which was chorussed by a crowded Orchestra of charming Syrens on board'. It was estimated that 15–20,000 people were assembled within the dock walls, 'and as such exhibitions are always attractive of female curiosity, it is scarcely necessary to add, that the whole formed a lively coup d'aile, richly studded with beauty and elegance'. (fn. 34)
Rennie and Walker later reported that the work was not finished at the time of the official opening. The quays remained unlevelled and the unloading sheds and saltpetre warehouse had yet to be constructed. It was not until March 1807 that they could tell the directors that 'these Docks are compleat in every respect of the East Indies Trade', adding that a water pumping-engine and reservoir for supplying ships with water had been built and the water piped along the south wharf of the Export Dock. (fn. 35)
The East India Docks in the Nineteenth Century
In the absence of any large warehouses, the East India Docks were originally quite plain; their open expanses of water surrounded by unobstructed quaysides are clearly depicted in Daniell's view of 1808 (Plate 148b). In that year a description stated that the 'Dock is very spacious, the Quays surrounding 200 feet wide, and no Buildings within the Walls but 3 low ones to house the Salt petre'. (fn. 36) Big quayside warehouses were not needed, as the valuable goods were transported to the City warehouses by road in closed caravans (Plate 61a). Mounted on four wheels, the long, deep chests, closed on every side by planks and padlocked with iron, were drawn by two or four horses, and were loaded up on the edge of the West Quay of the Import Dock. The goods were hurried along the Commercial Road to the safety of the East India Company's warehouses.
Despite the absence of storage within the docks, a variety of workmen was employed. As well as the Dockmaster, his Deputy and an Assistant, there were six officers and another six subordinate working men to supervise the labourers. There were 30 labourers, including watchmen, employed on yearly contracts, while another 100 men were engaged on a casual basis as 'lumpers' to load and unload the ships for eight months of the year. Other casual labour was hired if needed. (fn. 37) The docks were subject to stringent controls; indeed, regulation in the East India Docks was no less strict than in the West India Docks. Work in the dock did not start until ten o'clock, and at three o'clock in the afternoon in winter and four o'clock in summer a bell was rung which announced that the gate was to close. All work then stopped and the labourers, clerks, horses, wagons and carts as well as all visitors (permitted only with tickets) had to leave.
The new dock company received a 21-year monopoly similar in essence to that granted to the West India Dock Company. All vessels trading to the East Indies and China were required to use the new docks for unloading their cargoes and for refitting and loading stores for their subsequent voyages. In addition, all merchandise taken off the ships had to be housed in the East India Company's warehouses. Throughout the years of the monopoly, the East India Docks were successful and profitable, and performed a useful role for the East India Company. The average annual dividend for the period 1807–27 was 7.4 per cent, with a peak of 10.75 per cent in 1818. The most profitable years were 1818–21, judging by the level of dividends. (fn. 38)
When the East India Dock Company's monopoly expired in 1827, the East India Company entered into an agreement with the dock company, by which the East India Company agreed to continue trading through the East India Docks for the next six years. Under this agreement the dock company was paid £28,000 per annum for the use of its docks and warehouses. The agreement effectively protected the East India Dock Company from the competition that the ending of its monopoly was intended to promote. The East India Company's clerks were accommodated in a building just inside the main gates, erected in 1828–9 to the designs of James Walker. He had been appointed in November 1824, his uncle, Ralph Walker, having died in that year, and John Rennie (1761–1821) was succeeded by his second son (Sir) John Rennie (1794–1874).
A survey of 1828 showed that the total area within the dock walls was over 60 acres, just over a half of which was covered with water. The total length of quay space was 8,374ft and warehouse capacity was said to equal 28,000 tons, of which only 1,000 tons was cellar space. (fn. 39)
In 1833 the Government ended the East India Company's trading function, causing a crisis for the East India Dock Company. Immediately, the dock company was deprived of the use of the East India Company's purposebuilt bonded warehouses in the City and the shipping trade plummeted. A year before, in 1832, the East India Dock Company decided to build a steam wharf (Brunswick Wharf) which opened in 1834 (see page 593).
It was against these very changed trading conditions that, in February 1838, the West India Dock Company approached the East India Dock Company with a bid worth £110 of West India stock for every £100 of East India stock. The offer was taken up and the two companies were amalgamated and thenceforward the East and West India Docks were run for the use of all trades.
Once the East India Docks became part of a larger dock system on the Thames, their role inevitably changed. The larger locks and deeper entrance basin of the East India Docks were better able to accommodate larger ships than the West India Docks, and the mid-nineteenth century saw a change in their use, with a growing emphasis and reliance on the export trade (fig. 218). The export wharfage trade increased in value from £2,364 in 1849 to £3,104 in the first half of 1853. (fn. 40) In the 1850s and 1860s the docks became increasingly busy, with the annual number of ships using them rising from just 50 in 1851 to 400 by 1866. (fn. 41) Yet in 1854 the East India Docks were said to be 'in a poor state . . . overcrowded with floating timber and lighters, poor roadways, rubbish uncleared', and reform of the docks was urged. (fn. 42)
The increase in the volume of trade during these middle decades of the nineteenth century led to the construction of three jute and seed warehouses on the north quay of the Import Dock in 1865–6. Guano imports began in the 1840s and peaked in the 1850s, but the trade declined rapidly and had all but gone by the 1870s. In 1855 a guano shed was erected on the north quay of the Import Dock. (fn. 43) A number of other wharfingers' storage sheds were constructed around the docks to shelter goods awaiting export, including two in 1850 and four in 1853. (fn. 44)
In 1859 the increasing export trade at the East India Docks encouraged the idea of a railway link from the north quay, passing behind the warehouses. (fn. 45) The railway was built in 1860 as a branch line from Poplar station. (fn. 46)
By 1883 the chief imports of the East India Dock were from Australia, the Colonies and America, and comprised rice, jute, seed, wheat, wool and tallow. In the 12 months to October 1883, 178 vessels had entered the dock, 35 of which belonged to Donald Currie & Company, which had taken two berths for their Cape mail service in 1876. (fn. 47) In the 1880s frozen meat imports were brought through the docks, including one shipment of 30,000 tons from the Falkland Islands, said to have been the largest single cargo of meat to have been imported. (fn. 48)
The East India Docks were popular throughout the nineteenth century, owing to their convenience, compactness and good management. They were generally preferred to the other docks on the Thames; whenever there was room and arrangements could be made, ships would request to enter.
The Docks during the Twentieth Century
In 1909 the East India Docks passed into the control of the newly created Port of London Authority (PLA) and were thereafter associated with the West India and Millwall Docks for administrative purposes (see page 263). Soon afterwards, in 1912–16, the PLA undertook an extensive renovation scheme which included the reconstruction of the north quay of the Import Dock. The old sheds used to shelter the goods of the East India Company were removed at that time and three high-quality transit sheds were constructed on their site. In addition, a large shed was erected on the east quay of the Import Dock. The passageway between the Import Dock and the Basin was deepened to allow modern ships into the dock. (fn. 49)
The Second World War had a tremendous impact on the docks. The Import Dock was drained for the construction of Mulberry floating harbours; the Export Dock suffered such severe bomb damage that it was not reopened and was sold in 1946. It subsequently became part of the site of Brunswick Wharf power station.
In the 1950s and 1960s the East India Docks handled short-sea and coastal traffic, particularly ships involved in the linoleum trade. But the development of new technology for cargo handling in the 1960s, especially the introduction of containers, rendered their facilities obsolete.
The Closure of the Docks
After three or four years of discussion, the PLA decided in August 1967 to close the East India Docks. This was part of a larger plan that also involved the closure of other docks on the Thames. Closure had been delayed while the principal occupiers removed to other sites. The main user of the dock at that date was Fred Olsen Lines, for the Canary Island fruit and vegetable trade, which by 1967 had moved to new facilities at the Millwall Docks (see page 360). The three Coast Line services operating out of the dock were due to move to other ports. (fn. 50) The principal reason for the closure was the outdated state of the dock, the fact that it could not handle the bigger ships now being built for bulk cargo, (fn. 51) and that 'much of the cargo carried by the small ships which used the mile of quays is now carried by road and rail transport'. (fn. 52) The Import Dock was gradually filled in between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s.
In July 1971 the PLA concluded the sale of the East India Dock to the Central Electricity Generating Board for over £1 million. The site covered 46 acres.
In 1994 the East India Docks have been all but obliterated. All of the original features have gone, apart from stretches of original walling.