Port of London
Review and History

The Port of London surrounds the River Thames in southeastern England about 80 kilometers upstream from the North Sea. About 100 kilometers northeast of the Port of Southampton and 75 kilometers north of the English Channel, the Port of London is over 220 kilometers north of the Port of Le Havre, France's second busiest port.

The Port of London is the United Kingdom's capital and largest city. One of the world's greatest cities, the Port of London is the political, cultural, financial, and industrial center of the country and the former British Empire. Greater London covers an area of 1706 square kilometers and consists of 33 boroughs. In 2006, over 7.5 million people lived in Greater London.

Millennium Dome

Millennium Dome

The Millennium Dome, with the Canary Wharf complex in the background, seem from the River Thames.
Photo by Arpingstone

The Port of London has been vital to the city's economy since the country's Saxon era. It is a global center for international business and commerce. Considered one of three linchpins of the world economy (with New York and Tokyo), PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that in 2005, the Port of London possessed the world's sixth largest and Europe's second largest city economy.

A city of this size and scope has no single dominating economic sector. Certainly, the Port of London's economy rests largely on its financial industry. Over half of the United Kingdom's and more than 100 of the 500 largest companies in Europe have headquarters in central London. Services, science, and research are all playing increasingly more important roles in the city's economy. Tourism is a major industrial sector for the Port of London, employing about 350 thousand full-time workers and attracting more than 15.6 million foreign tourists in 2006.

Port History

Archeological evidence suggests that there were pre-Celtic Briton settlement, but the first significant village was founded by Romans in 43 AD. Called Londinium, it was two miles west of what is now the City of Westminster. The Romans made the Port of London to an early center of wealth and power. In 30 AD, they began to develop the port. Just 17 years later, the Celtic Queen Boudica drove the Romans from the place, burning the first London to the ground.

In 100 AD, the Romans then rebuilt a new city and made it capital of the province of Britannia. In the 2nd Century, about 60 thousand people lived there. Troubles in the Roman Empire led to decline in the city during the 3rd Century, and it was practically abandoned by the 400s. However, the Port of London exported 800 cargoes of grain to the River Rhine in 359 AD before they abandoned Britain in 408. In 457, the Britons were defeated by Hengist, the legendary Anglo-Saxon founder of the Kingdom of Kent, and they took refuge in the Port of London. For the next 150 years, London was silent.

In the 7th Century, a new Anglo-Saxon settlement called Lundenwic appeared in today's Covent Garden. The Port of London emerged from the darkness in 604 to be called "the metropolis of the East Saxons." It was then a ship-building center and the country's safest market place. A working harbor existed at the mouth of the River Fleet until Vikings destroyed the city in 851 AD.

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great

Bronze statue by Hamo Thornycroft, erected in 1899.
Photo by Odejea

Twenty years later, King Alfred the Great made peace and located the settlement at the site of the old Roman city. Under Alfred, the port was expanded, and Billingsgate became the first wharf in the Port of London. Shipbuilding was important during the reign of Alfred the Great.

Until the late 10th Century, the Port of London prospered as a political and international trading center. But the Vikings returned, and the Danish King Canute forced King Ethelred the Unready out of the city. King Canute ruled until he died in 1042. His son, Edward the Confessor, re-founded Westminster Abbey and its Palace, and the Anglo-Saxons took control of the biggest and richest city in England.

In 1066, William the Conquerer was crowned after winning the Battle of Hastings. Though Westminster was the royal residence and home to the English court throughout the Middle Ages, London was the rich center for trade. When William started building the White Tower (now the Tower of London), merchants from around the world flocked to the Port of London. In the 12th Century, when the two cities grew together, London became the capital of England. During the 1130s, the Easterlings gained power. These Teutonic traders were headquartered on Thames Street.

<i>The Port of London</i><br>by Thomas Luny

The Port of London
by Thomas Luny

Oil on canvas, 1798
Photo by Thomas Luny

By 1300, almost 100 thousand people lived in the Port of London. But the Black Death eliminated about a third of its people. In 1390, King Richard II passed the first Navigation Law, stipulating that all imports and exports should be carried on English ships.

The latter 16th Century was a time of tremendous growth for the Port of London. In 1555, the East India Company began to trade with countries in the East Indies. Merchants began to trade and communicate with countries like Turkey and Russia.

Henry VIII established the Port of London's Royal Dockyards in the mid-1500s, and the city became England's main naval shipbuilding yard. In 1558, a commission was established to select authorized quays for the arrival of imports. When the Duke of Parma sacked Antwerp, the Port of London took over the position of the world's busiest trading port.

Britain defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, bringing stability to England and allowing the Port of London to continue to grow. A Royal Charter official founded the East India Company in 1599.

Port Of London 1837

Port Of London 1837

James Elmes' chart of the port, 1837, showing the enclosed docks at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign.
Photo by James Elmes

Scotland's James VI ascended to the throne in 1603, but plague visited the Port of London again. In 1606, an expedition leaving the Port of London founded the colony of Virginia in the New World, opening new opportunities for trade and commerce for the Port of London. Unfortunately, the Black Plague of 1665-1666 was punctuated by the Great Fire of London in 1666 that destroyed much of the city, and trade came to a temporary halt. The fire destroyed the wharf and warehouses in the Port of London. Funds to rebuild the port came from a tax levied on coal. It took over ten years to rebuild the Port of London. In 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company was created to promote trade with the New World.

Trade almost doubled in the Port of London from 1700 to 1770, and the port struggled to cope with the fast-growing traffic. Parliament the addition of two new docks and several warehouses on the Port of London's Isle of Dogs. The new facilities opened in 1802.

From the early 19th Century, the Port of London was the world's biggest city. In 1801, the Grand Surrey Canal Company was created, and the City Canal from Limehouse Reach to Blackwall Reach opened in 1805, and the East India Dock opened in 1806. In 1815, the first steamship traveled the River Thames to the Port of London. Trade with the New World finally began to pay off when the first colonial wool went on sale in 1821.

London Docks 1845

London Docks 1845

A birdseye view of London Docks published in the Illustrated London News in 1845.
Photo by Illustrated London News

A rail network drove the expansion of the Port of London, and congestion led to the construction of the world's first subway system, the London Underground in 1863. In 1868, the Millwall dock opened in the Port of London, and the Royal Albert Dock was inaugurated in 1880. The same year, the first frozen meat and butter arrived in the Port of London from Australia, and the first frozen meat arrived from New Zealand two years later. In 1888, the Parliament passed a bill making the London and India Docks Joint Committee responsible for the management of the Port of London.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, the Port of London was in desperate need of infrastructure improvements and new facilities. A Royal Commission was established to assess the situation, and they recommended the creation of a central body, the Port of London Authority. The new organization began operating in 1909.

Throughout World War I, trade in the Port of London continued relatively normally. In 1925, the Port of London Authority (PLA) began making significant additions and expansions. In 1920, the King George V dock was completed, increasing the docks by 10%. In 1924, when the channel had been dredged to allow passage of more and larger vessels, the Port of London handled a record cargo volume. That year, the Tilbury Cargo Jetty was added in the lower tideway. By 1925 when the new 6-hectare Quebec Dock was completed, Port of London dock areas had increased by 1554 hectares.

The 1930s brought new work programs to the Port of London. The PLA added a new landing station at Tilbury to accommodate the fast-growing cruise traffic. It made improvements to the West India Docks, and built the Silverton Way to alleviate congestion in the cargo-handling areas of the port. In 1936, the Port of London's Royal Victoria Dock was rebuilt to make it a deep-water quay, and the Royal Albert Dock was deepened.

When World War II began, the Port of London undertook defensive measures in 1938-39 to protect those valuable facilities. The Port Emergency Committees under the Ministry of Transport were given responsibility for controlling the major ports in the United Kingdom including the Port of London. Members of the PLA were assigned to the London Committee but had much broader responsibilities.

During World War II, Germany's Blitz (unrelenting bombing of England) killed tens of thousands of Port of London residents and destroyed much property, leading to 30 years of reconstruction. In 1939, the first German bombs fell on the River Thames. In 1940, the river and the Port of London docks were assailed by 375 enemy planes. As the war progressed, the river became a main highway, and the PLA set up a new Salvage Department in the Port of London. The intense air raids on the Port of London ended in late 1941. Most normal shipping was diverted to the Clyde anchorages, and the PLA began clean-up operations.

London City Hall

London City Hall

Viewed from the west walkway above Tower Bridge.
Photo by Phillip Perry

On June 6, 1944, D-Day, 307 ships set sail from the Port of London with about 50 thousand men, almost 80 thousand tons of military supplies, and some nine thousand vehicles. On May 8, 1945, the Axis power surrendered. In 1947, the National Dock Labour Board became responsible for supplying dock labor in the Port of London.

After the war, immigration from countries in the Commonwealth changed the character of the Port of London, making it one of Europe's most diverse cities. Post-war reconstruction of the Thames was completed in 1950, and reconstruction of the Royal Victoria Dock was finished in 1953. In 1957, a new passenger terminal was added in Tilbury. In 1958, the Port of London achieved a new historic record in total tonnage through the port. In 1959, the PLA created the centrally-controlled Thames Navigation Service.

In 1964, the number enclosed docks reached an all-time high, and trade exceeded 61 million tons. Many new projects began to improve and extend the Port of London, including a new western entrance to the Royal Docks. The Harbours Act of 1964 expanded the PLA's jurisdiction over the Port of London components.

Containerization in the 1960s brought new challenges in managing traffic in the Port of London. By 1967, the use of upper docks began to decline. The St. Katherine and London Docks closed the next year. In 1973, the PLA assumed stevedoring responsibilities from the Thames Stevedoring and Metropolitan Terminals. In 1974, the PLA became the only stevedoring employer in the Port of London when it took the responsibilities of Gee Stevedoring and Scruttons.

Flight over the Thames
a Port of London Authority Film
Port of London - YouTube Channel

The problem of pollution began in the late 1940s during a severe drought. In 1957, recommendations were made to alleviate the problem and new standards were set for the water quality of the River Thames. By 1973, 73 species of fish had returned to the river, the next year, the PLA relinquished its responsibility for pollution control in the Port of London to the new Thames Water Authority.

By 1977, the Port of London-Tilbury handled almost 300 thousand containers, making it the United Kingdom's leading container port and the second busiest container port in Europe. In 1981, all upper and enclosed docks were closed, and development of the Port of London-Tilbury continued. Between 1980 and 1983, the West India, Millwall, and Royal docks were closed.

Review and History    Port Commerce    Cruising and Travel    Satellite Map    Contact Information