The East India Docks: The docks

Pages 582-585

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 Docks

The Import Dock

The Import Dock was the most important element in the East India Dock system, providing room to unload the East Indiamen returning from their voyages. It was built on the land purchased by the company before October 1803, which lay to the north of the road that led to Orchard House and which covered almost 60 acres. (fn. 3) It was the availability of the land which allowed the dock scheme to proceed.

Excavations began in September 1803, using pumps, buckets, rods, pipes and clacks (valves) manufactured by Outram & Company of Butterley, Derbyshire. Rennie stated that the company had 'patterns for those used in the London Dock'. (fn. 4) It was not until November that the final dimensions of the Import Dock were settled at 1,410ft by 560ft, impounding 18 acres of water to a uniform depth of 22ft. (fn. 5) The specifications for the earthworks for the site required dredging to a depth of 26ft, anticipating that 625,000 cubic yards of earth would be excavated (excluding the brickearth), which was to be deposited around the dock. (fn. 6) Behind the walls the earth was to be puddled to ensure strength and water-proofing.

In September 1803 the contract for excavating the dock was awarded to Hugh McIntosh, who agreed to complete the work within 20 months. (fn. 1) It has been calculated that McIntosh actually excavated a total volume of 857,000 cubic yards at a charge of 9 ¼d per cubic yard. With his large labour force of up to 400 men and 100 horses, he set an average rate of 8,000 cubic yards a week in the summers of 1804 and 1805, and a weekly average of 6,000 cubic yards during 1805. (fn. 8) The contractors installed a Boulton & Watt steam engine, which came into operation in October 1804. It was housed in a newly constructed engine shed designed by Walker and built by James & William Green of Mile End. (fn. 9) The cost of the engine was £1,550, and the total for the engine, machinery and building was £13,556. (fn. 10)

The excavated topsoil or brickearth was used to make the bricks that formed the Import Dock walls. In November 1803 a contract was signed with Joseph Trimmer of Brentford to produce nine million bricks. (fn. 11) The brickwork of the retaining walls was laid by Philip Richards and Thomas Crawford, who also built the lock and basin wall. (fn. 12) Fifty tons of old iron hoops were used to strengthen the Import Dock walls, a technique already used in the West India Docks (see page 268). Over 40 tons of these were purchased from the Victualling Board at £14 per ton. (fn. 13) Also as in the West India Docks, the walls of the Import Dock were constructed with a curved or 'banana' profile, ideally suited to the shape of the hulls of the East Indiamen (Plate 65b). (fn. 14)

Other materials needed for the construction of the dock — including limestone, sand, pozzuolana, (fn. 2) timber, bricks (not all were manufactured on-site by Trimmers) and building stone (mostly Dundee stone) — were brought by barge to a wooden wharf on the Lea, close to Orchard House. Over 800 tons of pozzuolana were purchased for the mixing of hydraulic cement mortar. (fn. 15)

In February 1805 Philip Richards and Thomas Crawford started building the Import Dock walls. The walls were similar in design to those in the West India Docks and London Docks, but here the foundations rested on clay, not gravel. (fn. 16) Almost 70ft of the south wall of the Import Dock failed during construction in June 1805. (fn. 17) The Engineers reported that the failure was caused by 'a stratum of loamy sand . . . found at a small depth under the Foundation for about one third of the length, which being carried from under it, by water from behind occasion'd the failure, and with it a part of the wall on each side was dragged from the foundation'. They added that they felt this was an isolated case, but just three months later they had to report a similar collapse in the east wall of the dock. (fn. 18)

The dock was finished by 1806. (fn. 19) The total cost was almost £80,000, of which £28,417 was paid for 'the excavation and puddling of the Great Dock' and £50,258 for the walls, quays and materials. (fn. 20)

During the 1850s the rapid increase in the export trade led to a shortage of berths in the East India Docks. One of the short-term solutions was the construction of four fixed wooden jetties on the north side of the Import Dock to allow more ships to dock. In 1860 an additional two jetties were constructed and by 1881 there were eight jetties (fig. 219). (fn. 21)

In July 1879 almost all of the south quay of the Import Dock collapsed due to the disturbance of a vein of quicksand on which the walls stood. (fn. 22) Prior to the accident, accommodation on the quay was proving unsuitable for the rapid discharge of the largest vessels, and the opportunity which the collapse provided was used to reconstruct the wall, to increase quay space and to erect two-storey quay sheds to allow unloading to take place under cover. At the same time all fixed hydraulic cranes were converted to travelling ones for greater flexibility: this was a notably early use of travelling quay cranes. (fn. 23)

The new quay wall was constructed with close timberpiling, strongly secured by land ties at the rear of the old wall, the dock bottom behind the timber piling being dredged down to the London clay, and a massive concrete wall was built. The false quay cost £53,714 and was completed in 1881. (fn. 24)

In 1895–7 a false quay was created at the north quay, using wooden sheet piling, in conjunction with the cutting of the new entrance passage (see below). (fn. 25) The north quay piled wharf was 16ft wide and was made up of a front row of 12in.-square vertical piles, a row of inclined piles supporting the earth at the top of the slope by means of horizontal timber sheeting, and a back row of short vertical piles. The whole system of timber work was supported on transverse steel joists, which carried longitudinal steel joists and buckled plates filled in with concrete, which formed the deck of the wharf. (fn. 26) The work cost £3,600. (fn. 27)

As part of the redevelopment of the docks in 1912– 16, the entrance passage was widened to 80ft, the lock was extended from 209ft to 300ft, the north and east quays were widened by 20ft, and the depth of water was increased by 2ft to 28ft. The contract was awarded to Herbert Mason Nowell of Stockton-on-Tees on his tender of £200,394, and included the fitting of new dock gates, a swing-bridge and pumping machinery. (fn. 28) The gates and bridge were ordered from a German firm in May 1913, but the contract was cancelled following the outbreak of war. (fn. 29) Sir William Arrol & Company supplied the operating machinery, on their tender of £4,950. (fn. 30) The widening of the Import Dock passage was finished in August 1915, but wartime conditions delayed the supply of the equipment, and the work was not completed until 1916. (fn. 31)

During the Second World War the Import Dock played an important role in the construction of the Mulberry floating harbours for the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944. The 'Phoenix' units that formed the breakwaters had to be constructed in high-quality concrete at various locations around the country, before being floated into the West India Dock for making into two harbours — 'Mulberry A' for the Americans, and 'Mulberry B' for the British. In late 1943 the East India Import Dock was dammed, pumped out and converted into a dry dock where 10 'A' units or caissons (the largest of which weighed 6,044 tons) were built, under the supervision of Sir Robert McAlpine. (fn. 32)

After the Second World War the Import Dock was partly filled and the western end used as a container stacking yard. In 1949 it was decided that it was no longer necessary to maintain the depth of water in the dock at 28ft and that, because no vessel using the docks had a draught of more than 19ft, a depth of 24ft would be sufficient. (fn. 33) In 1969 Willment Brothers of Isleworth were paid £81,375 for filling part of the dock. (fn. 34) Water remained in the eastern end of the Import Dock until the 1970s, but it was filled in 1987–8 and a number of new developments, including the Financial Times Print Works (1987–8) and Telehouse Europe (1988–90), were built on the site (see pages 716, 723).

The Entrance Basin and Lock

The original plan of March 1803 had envisaged transforming the eastern half of Brunswick Dock into an entrance basin (fig. 216). But as part of their major alterations of the dock scheme of early 1804, Rennie and Walker decided to excavate a totally new entrance basin of three acres to the east of the Export Dock. (fn. 35) In July 1804, when explaining the reasons for making a separate entrance basin, Walker stated that it was seen to be a good thing that the basin would be for transit only, without 'interference with the important Business of loading or discharging the vessels'. (fn. 36)

Hugh McIntosh was awarded the contract to excavate the basin and the two communication lock pits, beginning work in March 1804. Payments for the excavation work of the basin amounted to £4,128. (fn. 37) Other large payments in the construction of the basin included £9,703 for the wharfing, while another went to Richards and Crawford, the contractors for the brickwork and stonework. (fn. 38)

From the basin there were two locks: the Entrance Lock from the Thames, and a second leading from the basin into the Import Dock, known as the Communication Lock. In January 1804 Rennie and Walker proposed that the locks should be larger than first designed, so that 'even a 74 gun ship may enter these Docks'. (fn. 39) The lock was 48ft wide and the largest East Indiamen, of up to 1,500 tons, could enter the docks, so long as their stores had been removed.

A section of the chamber of the Entrance Lock is shown in a drawing by Ralph Walker (Plate 149b). With a width of 48ft. it was the largest lock in the Port of London. It had a curved or rounded bottom, unlike the shallow inverts of the locks constructed at the West India Docks. In this, as in other aspects of the engineering, Rennie and Walker cannot be accused of simply copying William Jessop's work there when designing important elements of the new dock system; they improved basic designs and made innovative new ones. Indeed, Rennie had engineered the London Docks and had advised in the construction of the West India Docks. The total cost of the Communication Lock was £29,322. and the larger Entrance Lock cost £38,600. (fn. 40)

As trade increased after the opening of the dock, the basin began to get crowded, and in February 1815 the company decided to enlarge it. (fn. 41) Some extra land was needed and this required the purchase of the entire Pemell estate, which was bought from Peter Pemell for £5,500 (see page 648). (fn. 42) The total cost of the work was £18,191; the largest payment was £6,426 for the excavation work carried out by William Bough of Limehouse between the spring of 1815 and November 1816. (fn. 43) With this enlargement, the area of the basin was almost doubled (fig. 218). In the original basin there were earthen banks on the eastern side, but it was now decided to make wooden wharves there. (fn. 44)

The first iron swing-bridge at the East India Docks was erected over the link between the basin and the Export Dock. It was cast in 1815 to the designs of Ralph Walker by the Horseley Iron Company of Tipton in Staffordshire and erected by Hunter & English in 1816. (fn. 45) A drawing of 1824 shows the bridge, but inaccurately depicts it as a fixed one (Plate 64b).

In 1838 J. S. Adams, Engineer to the East and West India Dock Company, proposed to enlarge the Entrance Lock in order to admit the biggest steam vessels, which had enormous paddles. His scheme was to build an entirely new lock. (fn. 46) In 1839 (Sir) John Rennie and James Walker were asked to comment on the new scheme, which by that date was for a lock that was to be 300ft long, 75ft wide and to be 11ft below the low water level of the spring tide. They concluded that they did not feel the design was large enough to meet likely future increases in the size of steamships. (fn. 47) The dock company finally decided not to proceed with the scheme for a new entrance, preferring instead to rely on Brunswick Wharf for the accommodation of steamships (see page 593).

In 1874 the East and West India Dock Company proposed a new eastern river entrance lock to the Dock Basin to allow large vessels into the dock which they had 'at times been obliged to refuse'. (fn. 48) A scheme was prepared by Augustus Manning, Superintending Engineer of the East and West India Dock Company, that involved the enlargement, quarrying and deepening of the basin, together with the erection of shed-warehouses. The estimated cost was £204,000. (fn. 49) In April 1875 Manning's plan for the extension of the basin and the new river entrance was approved. The consulting engineer was Colonel Charles Pasley, RE (1824–90), Director of Engineering and Architectural Works at the Admiralty, who had worked at the Chatham dockyard. (fn. 50) In July 1875 Merritt & Ashby were awarded the contract to undertake the construction of the new entrance and the improvements to the basin, and the work on the extension of the basin began in November. (fn. 51)

Work progressed well and by September 1876 the first coping stone on the new quay of the basin had been laid. It was hoped that the work would be finished by early 1878, but water was not admitted to the basin until July 1879. (fn. 52) It was opened on 2 August with the admission of the Cuzco, one of the Orient Steam Navigation Company's largest steamers. (fn. 53) The dock wall was of Portlandcement concrete, faced with stock brickwork 3ft thick. The total thickness of the wall was 20ft at the bottom and 8ft at the top. The new lock was 65ft wide, was fitted with two pairs of wrought-iron double-skinned gates and had a depth of 31ft of water, 4ft deeper than any other on the Thames. (fn. 54) The works cost a total of £240,000. Extensive warehouses were erected on the north and east quays of the basin (see page 589).

In 1897 a new cut, 60ft wide, was made between the Export Dock and the Entrance Basin, to the south of the existing passage (Plate 65a). It was constructed by H. B. & F. A. James, who had carried out work at Grimsby docks. The new lock gates were supplied by the Thames Iron Works Company and the gate machinery by Sir W. G. Armstrong Whitworth & Company. The cost was £25,525. (fn. 55)

In 1994 the Entrance Basin survives as the only area of enclosed water left in the East India Docks. The original entrance lock has been filled in and the surviving entrance lock is that constructed in 1897.

The Export Dock

In September 1804 Hugh McIntosh contracted to use the East India Dock Company's horse-operated bucket dredger (previously employed in the construction of the Brunswick Dock). He then began excavating 8,000 tons of mud from Brunswick Dock, which was to become the East India Export Dock. The cost of deepening the dock to a uniform water depth of 22ft was £11,328, most of which was paid to McIntosh for excavation work. The south wall was rebuilt in brick, at a cost of £9,782, but the original timber walls of the Brunswick Dock were sound enough to be retained on the other three sides of the Export Dock. (fn. 56)

During 1862–3 the old mast-house, a familiar Blackwall landmark since 1789, was removed from the west quay of the Export Dock. (fn. 57) By the early 1860s the building was obsolete and the machinery was incapable of lifting the enormous masts of modern vessels. Its duties were by then performed by a floating derrick. (fn. 58) It had, however, served a useful purpose of quite another kind when the Ordnance Survey had used it as a triangulation station for its survey of London, undertaken in 1848– 50. (fn. 59) Two projecting timber jetties were hastily erected on the west quay of the Export Dock to provide additional berthing space. (fn. 60)

In 1895–7 several new works were undertaken at the Export Dock, the most important of which was the construction of the new cut between it and the basin. A few years earlier, in 1893, the company's Dockmaster had suggested that an entirely new passage, 65ft wide, be made to 'prevent the falling off in tonnage which had occurred due to the inability to accommodate vessels which would otherwise have used the docks'. (fn. 61) The new cut permitted the depth of the Export Dock to be increased to 28ft. (fn. 62)

In 1897 a contract worth £7,000 was awarded to W. Whitford & Company for reinstating the north quay of the Export Dock. (fn. 63) The work involved the strengthening of the quay, adapting it as a discharging berth, and the installation of cranes. These works, and the new cut, were done partly to satisfy Donald Currie & Company's requirements, they undertaking to pay compensation if they left within five years. (fn. 64) Their berths in the Entrance Basin were to be used just for loading. (fn. 65) The Export Dock was also the home of the emigrants' ships. In the nineteenth century, Green's, Wigram's and Dunbar's all used the docks as their embarkation point. (fn. 66)

By 1905 the Export Dock was principally used by sailing ships of the Aberdeen Line and Shaw, Savill & Company, and steamers of a number of companies. The Union Castle Line trading to the Cape made the docks its headquarters. (fn. 67)

In 1923 a proposal was made for the repair of the north quay and the erection of a 'large, modern' transit shed, at a total estimated cost of £90,188, but the scheme was deferred. (fn. 68)

After suffering from bomb damage during the Second World War, the Export Dock was sold in 1946 (fn. 69) and filled in during 1949–50 to make the site for the Brunswick Wharf Power Station (see page 598).


  • 1. Hugh McIntosh (1768–1840) was married in Staffordshire in 1798 and his only son, David, was born in 1799. Hugh's involvement in Poplar was not only as principal contractor for excavations at the East India Docks, for from 1813 he acquired about 80 acres of marshland north of the East India Docks and became a speculative builder (see page 149).
  • 2. Pozzuolana was a volcanic ash containing silica and alumina, which when mixed with lime and sand, produced a strong hydraulic cement suitable for use in the dock walls.
  • 3. EIDC 276, pp.258–61.
  • 4. Ibid, pp.138–40.
  • 5. Ibid, p.352.
  • 6. Ibid, p.164.
  • 7. MiD, Abstracts No.I.
  • 8. A.W.Skempton, 'Engineering in the Port of London, 1789–1808', Trans of the Newcomen Society, vol.50, 1978–9, p.100.
  • 9. EIDC 291, f.143.
  • 10. EIDC 276, p.32; 277, p.93; 291, f.442.
  • 11. EIDC 276, p.222.
  • 12. EIDC 277, pp.55–8.
  • 13. Ibid, p.50; 278, p.61.
  • 14. MiDD 6700029: MiD, Photograph Albums, photograph of 1943.
  • 15. EIDC 276, pp.23–4.
  • 16. Skempton, op.cit., p.99.
  • 17. EIDC 296, pp.23–4.
  • 18. Ibid, pp.27–9.
  • 19. Ibid, p.38.
  • 20. EIDC 291, p.442.
  • 21. MiDS 373 (1860).
  • 22. EWIDC 458, pp.101, 103, 116, 205–12.
  • 23. Ibid, pp.248, 250.
  • 24. EWIDC 459, pp.154, 315.
  • 25. EWIDC 234, p.48.
  • 26. F.M.Du Plat Taylor, The Design, Construction and Maintenance of Docks, Wharves and Piers, 1934, pp.136–7.
  • 27. EWIDC 234, p.48.
  • 28. PLA Mins, iv, pp.118, 133, 345.
  • 29. PLA Mins, v, pp.37, 67; vi, pp.198, 221, 234, 322, 353.
  • 30. PLA Mins, vi, p.234.
  • 31. PLA Mins, vii, pp.193, 197: MiDS 1625, 1915–16, p.12.
  • 32. I.Greaves, London Docks, 1980, pp.51–4.
  • 33. PLA Mins, xli, p.212.
  • 34. MiD, PLA Engineer's Dept. files, box 2, 33/69.
  • 35. EIDC 276, p.286.
  • 36. EIDC 296, p.11.
  • 37. EIDC 291, f.446.
  • 38. Ibid, f.132.
  • 39. EIDC 276, pp.10–13.
  • 40. EIDC 291, p.442.
  • 41. EIDC 281, pp.174–6.
  • 42. MiD, PLA Schedule of Title Deeds. . ., p.31, lease and release of 30 & 31 March 1815.
  • 43. EIDC 281, p.198; 293, ff.80, 101, 124, 147.
  • 44. EIDC 281, pp.175–6.
  • 45. Ibid, p.162.
  • 46. EIDC 432, pp.290–306.
  • 47. ICE, Rennie Report XII, 22 June 1839.
  • 48. EWIDC 454, p.322.
  • 49. Ibid, pp.235, 299, 314.
  • 50. Ibid, p.419.
  • 51. EWIDC 455, pp.15, 134.
  • 52. EWIDC 456, pp.20, 379; EWIDC 458, p.73.
  • 53. MiD, EWIDC, Description of the East and West India Dock Company's Docks, Warehouses etc. for the Guidance of Visitors, 1883, pp.21–2.
  • 54. The Gazette, 4 Aug 1879: Daily Telegraph, 4 Aug 1879, p.6.
  • 55. LIDJC 233, pp.96, 305; 237A/2, p.254; 241, pp.31, 93, 148, 155; 254, p.25.
  • 56. EIDC 291, ff.62, 443–4; 292, f.74.
  • 57. 'Docks of the Port of London; East India Dock', P.L.A. Monthly, Sept 1926, pp.365–6.
  • 58. EWIDC 447, p.399.
  • 59. EWIDC 439, p.432.
  • 60. MiDS 3184 (1860).
  • 61. Ibid, (box3.10).
  • 62. Royal Commission. . ., 1902, app. p.23: LIDJC 233, pp.267, 305.
  • 63. LIDJC 233, pp.261, 267.
  • 64. Ibid, pp.43, 53: 237A, pp.243, 247.
  • 65. LIDJC 263, p.59.
  • 66. Daily Telegraph, 5 Oct 1883.
  • 67. MiD, PLA, Guide for the Use of Visitors to the Docks and Warehouses, 1905, p.37: Royal Commission. . ., 1902, app. p.39.
  • 68. PLA Mins, XV, p.98.
  • 69. PLA Mins, XXXVII, p.283.