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The History of London & Tilbury Docks

In the last half of the nineteenth century Londonís Dockís doubled in size. London was the worldís top trading centre and this resulted in the old London Docks being upgraded. The Victoria Dock opened in 1855 and the Millwall Dock in1868. The London & St Katherine Dock Company that acquired the Victoria Dock in 1864 and the East & West India Dock Company looked for expansion eastward as both companies wanted new dock space because the lock entrances were now too small for the larger ocean going steamships and passenger liners so they decided to join together as each company was fearful of the other gaining an advantage

The London & St Katherine Dock Company opened the Royal Albert Dock in 1880 as an extension of the Victoria Dock had always been planned but the East & West India Dock Companyís plan was more radical. Twenty three miles downstream of London Bridge, on the north bank of the river opposite Gravesend, a complete new dock system was constructed at Tilbury. Over 5,000 men and boys were employed and every day large crowds of unemployed gathered for work, as the turnover of men was disturbing. There was a high level of accidents caused by the speed of work required as the dock companies had imposed strict penalty-time clauses on the contractors Lucas & Aird.

Tilbury Docks was opened in 1886, three parallel branch docks linked to one main dock, with transit sheds, a hotel and a buffet. The London, Tilbury & Southend railway allowed rapid distribution of goods all over the country. Unfortunately having both docks became ruinous to both companies. The London & St Katherine Dock Company in the Royal Albert Dock and The East & West India Dock Company in Tilbury were in direct competition with each other and the ship owners were playing one off against the other claiming perks and massive discounts. Eventually, in 1888 faced with bankruptcy they began working under a Joint Committee and in 1901 merged to form the London & India Dock Company.



The formation of the PLA in 1909 was the result of government money modernising the existing, often dilapidated dock system. A 64-acre new dock to the south on completion extended the Royal Albert Dock and the Royal Docks were hailed as the largest enclosed dock system in the world. The King George V dock opened in 1921 and was the last of the large-scale dock construction until the 1960ís.

Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald in 1930, opened the Tilbury Passenger Landing Stage. Formerly, passengers were taken by tender to and from the liners moored in the river but the new landing stage enabled passengers rapid and easy embarkation and disembarkation. In 1837 a large concrete warehouse was built in the West India Dock and was named Canary Warf because it was designed to handle fresh fruit from the Canary Island and West Indies.

The docks were prime targets in the Second World War and many warehouses in the West India Dock and St Katherine Dock was damaged and was left vacant until their closure. By 1970 only the two largest dock systems, the India, Millwall and Royal Docks remained in operation but during the following decade the need for the latest cargo handling technology meant that the new containers facilities at Tilbury and Felixstowe were used instead and it meant decline for the east London docks. The West India and Milwall Docks closed in 1980 and the Royal Docks in 1981.

During the 1960ís a 67-acre dock was built at Tilbury. The Branch Dock Extension, as it was called included a roll-on/roll-off terminal and large new berths. A grain terminal and berths for timber continued development and with the advent of containerisation the PLA decided to construct itís container port at Tilbury, not upriver at London. This was one of the reasons for the docks closure in the early 1980ís

In 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation was set up to redevelop the docklands. The vibrant new financial and business district at Canary Warf stands at the centre of the reborn docklands and Cesar Pelliís skyscraper, standing 244 metres high, the countryís tallest building, has become Londonís most dominant landmark of the late 20th century.