London Docklands

London docks redirects here. For the specific dock known under that name, see London Docks.
For the basketball team formerly known as London Docklands, see London Towers.

London Docklands is the name for an area in east and southeast London, England. It forms part of the boroughs of Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham, Newham and Greenwich. The docks were formerly part of the Port of London, at one time the world's largest port. They have now been redeveloped principally for commercial and residential use. The name London Docklands was used for the first time in a government report on redevelopment plans in 1971 but has since become virtually universally adopted. It also created conflict between the new and old communities of the London Docklands.


In Roman and medieval times, ships tended to dock at small quays in the present-day city of London or Southwalk, an area known as the Pool of London. However, this gave no protection against the elements, was vulnerable to thieves and suffered from a lack of space at the quayside. The Howland Great Dock in Rotherhithe (built 1696 and later forming the core of the Surrey Commercial Docks) was designed to address these problems, providing a large, secure and sheltered anchorage with room for 120 large vessels. It was a major commercial success and provided for two phases of expansion during the Georgian and Victorian eras. The first of the Georgian docks was the West India (opened 1802), followed by the London (1805), the East India (also 1805), the Surrey (1807), the Regent's Canal Dock (1820), St Katharine (1828) and the West India South (1829). The Victorian docks were mostly further east, comprising the Royal Victoria (1855), Millwall (1868) and Royal Albert (1880). The King George V Dock was a late addition in 1921.


The London docks in 1882. The King George V Dock had not yet been built.

Three principal kinds of docks existed. Wet docks were where ships were laid up at anchor and loaded or unloaded. Dry docks, which were far smaller, took individual ships for repairing. Ships were built at dockyards along the riverside. In addition, the river was lined with innumerable warehouses, piers, jetties and dolphins (mooring points). The various docks tended to specialise in different forms of produce. The Surrey Docks concentrated on timber, for instance; Millwall took grain; St Katharine took wool, sugar and rubber; and so on.

The docks required an army of workers, chiefly lightermen (who carried loads between ships and quays aboard small barges called lighters) and quayside workers, who dealt with the goods once they were ashore. Some of the workers were highly skilled - the lightermen had their own livery company or guild, while the deal porters (workers who carried timber) were famous for their acrobatic skills. Most were unskilled and worked as casual labourers. They assembled at certain points, such as pubs, each morning, where they were selected more or less at random by foremen. For these workers, it was effectively a lottery as to whether they would get work - and pay, and food - on any particular day. This arrangement continued until as late as 1965, although it was somewhat regularised after the creation of the National Dock Labour Scheme in 1947.

The main dockland areas were originally low-lying marshes, mostly unsuitable for agriculture and lightly populated. With the establishment of the docks, the dock workers formed a number of tight-knit local communities with their own distinctive cultures and slang. Poor communications meant that they were quite remote from other parts of London and so tended to develop in some isolation. The Isle of Dogs, for instance, could only be accessed by road via two swing-bridges. Local sentiment there was so strong that Ted Johns, a local community campaigner, and his supporters, in protest at the lack of social provision from the state, proclaimed a unilateral declaration of independence for the area, setting up a so-called 'Island Council' with Johns himself as its elected leader, and blocked off the two roads coming in from the mainland.[1]

20th century

The docks were originally built and managed by a number of competing private companies. From 1909, they were managed by the Port of London Authority, or PLA, which amalgamated the companies in a bid to make the docks more efficient and improve labour relations. The PLA constructed the last of the docks, the King George V, in 1921, as well as greatly expanding the Tilbury docks.

German bombing during World War II caused massive damage to the docks with 380,000 tons of timber destroyed in the Surrey Docks in a single night. Nonetheless, following post-war rebuilding they experienced a resurgence of prosperity in the 1950s. The end came suddenly, between approximately 1960 and 1970, when the shipping industry adopted the newly invented container system of cargo transportation. London's docks were unable to accommodate the much larger vessels needed by containerization and the shipping industry moved to deep-water ports such as Tilbury and Felixstowe. Between 1960 and 1980, all of London's docks were closed, leaving around eight square miles (21 km²) of derelict land in East London. Unemployment was high, and poverty and other social problems were rife.


Canary Wharf at sunset

Efforts to redevelop the docks began almost as soon as they were closed, although it took a decade for most plans to move beyond the drawing board and another decade for redevelopment to take full effect. The situation was greatly complicated by the large number of landowners involved: the PLA, the Greater London Council (GLC), the British Gas Corporation, five borough councils, British Rail and the Central Electricity Generating Board.

To address this problem, in 1981 the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, formed the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) to redevelop the area. This was a statutory body appointed and funded by central government (a quango), with wide powers to acquire and dispose of land in the Docklands. It also served as the development planning authority for the area.

Another important government intervention was the designation in 1982 of an enterprise zone, an area in which businesses were exempt from property taxes and had other incentives, including simplified planning and capital allowances. This made investing in the Docklands a significantly more attractive proposition and was instrumental in starting a property boom in the area.

LDDC was controversial - it was accused of favouring elitist luxury developments rather than affordable housing, and it was unpopular with the local communities, who felt that their needs were not being addressed. Nonetheless, the LDDC was central to a remarkable transformation in the area, although how far it was in control of events is debatable. It was wound up in 1998 when control of the Docklands area was handed back to the respective local authorities.

The massive development programme managed by the LDDC during the 1980s and 1990s saw a huge area of the Docklands converted into a mixture of residential, commercial and light industrial space. The clearest symbol of the whole effort was the ambitious Canary Wharf project that constructed Britain's tallest building and established a second major financial centre in London. However, there is no evidence that LDDC foresaw this scale of development and nearby Heron Quays had already been developed as low density offices when Canary Wharf was proposed, with similar development already underway on Canary Wharf itself, Limehouse Studios being the most famous occupant.

Canary Wharf was far from trouble free and the property slump of the early 1990s halted further development for several years. Developers found themselves saddled with property which they were unable to sell or let.


The Docklands historically had poor transport connections. This was addressed by the LDDC with the construction of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), which connected the Docklands with the City. It was a remarkably inexpensive development, costing only £77 m in its first phase, as it relied on reusing disused railway infrastructure and derelict land for much of its length. (LDDC originally requested a full Tube line, but the Government refused to fund it.)

LDDC also built Limehouse Link tunnel, a cut and cover road tunnel linking the Isle of Dogs to The Highway (the A1203 road) at a cost of over £150 million per kilometre, one of the most expensive stretches of road ever built.

The LDDC also contributed to the development of London City Airport (IATA airport code LCY), opened in October 1987 on the spine of the Royal Docks.

In 1999, the Jubilee Line of the London Underground was extended eastwards and now serves Rotherhithe/Surrey Quays at Canada Water, the Isle of Dogs at Canary Wharf, Greenwich at North Greenwich and Canning Town for the nearby Royal Docks. The Docklands Light Railway was extended in 1994 to serve much of the royal docks area when the Beckton branch was opened. The Isle of Dogs branch was further extended south and in 1999 it then served Greenwich Town Centre, including the Cutty Sark museum, Deptford and finally Lewisham. In 2005, a new branch of the DLR opened from Canning Town to serve what used to be the eastern terminus of the North London Line, including a station at London City Airport. It was then further extended to Woolwich Arsenal in 2009.

Future developments

The continued success of the Docklands redevelopment has prompted several further development schemes, including:

In the early 21st century redevelopment is spreading into the more suburban parts of East and Southeast London, and into the parts of the counties of Kent and Essex which abut the Thames Estuary. See Thames Gateway and Lower Lea Valley for further information on this trend.


Over the past 30 years, the population of the Docklands has more than doubled and the area has become both a major business centre and an increasingly desirable area to live. Transport links have improved significantly, with the Isle of Dogs gaining a tube connection via the Jubilee Line Extension (opened 1999) and the DLR being extended to Beckton, Lewisham, London City Airport, North Woolwich and Stratford. Canary Wharf has become one of Europe's biggest clusters of skyscrapers and a direct challenge to the financial dominance of the City.

Although most of the old Dockland wharfs and warehouses have been demolished, some have been restored and converted into flats. Most of the docks themselves have survived and are now used as marinas or watersports centres (the major exception being the Surrey Commercial Docks, now largely filled in). Although large ships can - and occasionally still do - visit the old docks, all of the commercial traffic has moved down-river.

The revival of the Docklands has had major effects in run-down surrounding areas. Greenwich and Deptford are undergoing large-scale redevelopment, chiefly as a result of the improved transport links making them more attractive to commuters.

The Docklands' redevelopment has, however, had some less beneficial aspects. The massive property boom and consequent rise in house prices has led to friction between the new arrivals and the old Docklands communities, who have complained of being squeezed out. It has also made for some of the most striking disparities to be seen anywhere in Britain: luxury executive flats constructed alongside run-down public housing estates.

The Docklands' status as a symbol of Thatcher's Britain has also made it a target for terrorists. After a failed attempt to bomb Canary Wharf in 1992, a large IRA bomb exploded at South Quay on 9 February 1996. Two people died in the explosion, forty people were injured and an estimated £150m of damage was caused.[2] This bombing ended an IRA ceasefire.[3] In a 1998 trial James McArdle was imprisoned for 25 years after a trial at Woolwich Crown Court that ended on 24 June. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and royal prerogative of mercy officially signed by Queen Elizabeth II, McArdle was released on 28 June 2000.[4]

London Docklands is served by its own free newspaper, The Docklands, launched in 2006 by Archant London following the purchase of Docklands News, the ex LDDC newspaper which was then owned by Ivy Communications. It is delivered weekly to properties and available to pick up from various locations in the area. It is the newspaper with the highest circulation in the area. A sister title, The Peninsula, was launched in 2007, covering the Greenwich Peninsula.

In a further sign of regeneration in the area, the Docklands now has its own symphony orchestra - Docklands Sinfonia - which was formed in January 2009 and is based at St Anne's Limehouse.[5]


At one time the offices of The Independent group of publications were situated in the Docklands. In 2008 Independent News & Media announced that The Independent would be moving its offices to the Northcliffe House in Kensington.[6]

Charles Dickens makes frequent use of the riverside and docklands in novels such as Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations, and there is a memorable description of the docks, their buildings and people, in Joseph Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea.

The Docklands are the location of District 1, the most functional section of Britain during the outbreak of Rage Virus and the headquarters for Army Officials in Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 2007 movie 28 Weeks Later. The docklands also appear in The Ruby in the Smoke, a novel by Philip Pullman.

1990s drama Bugs made extensive use of Docklands for filming throughout its four series. Although the script referred to an anonymous city rather than acknowledging its Docklands location, action took place in and around many then-familiar landmarks, from the London Arena to the Docklands Light Railway depot.

In the comedy Not Going Out, the main characters live in a flat located in the Docklands. Mickey Mouse was involved as part of a fundraising idea to help make money for the Docklands along with the Gruffalo. . The TV series and book Call the Midwife is set in the 1950s in the Docklands as well.

See also


  1. Ted Johns Telegraph 14 May 2004 accessed 14 May 2015 2007
  2. The parlous state of the Docklands property market at the time of the blast, combined with a lengthy delay in implementing redevelopment, means a true estimate of the financial cost is difficult to reach.
  3. "BBC ON THIS DAY | 10 | 1996: Docklands bomb ends IRA ceasefire". BBC News. 10 February 1996. Retrieved 2012-06-23.
  4. Foster, Peter (2000-07-27). "Royal release for IRA bomber". Telegraph. Retrieved 2014-07-10.
  5. 'Docklands Sinfonia’ strikes chord to put East End on culture map, East London Advertiser, 16 September 2008
  6. Ponsford, Dominic. "Sharing with Mail 'will safeguard future of Independent'." Press Gazette. 28 November 2008. Retrieved on 6 September 2011. "Under a deal signed today, the Independent titles will share back office functions with the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Metro and Evening Standard at Northcliffe House in Kensington."

Further reading

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Coordinates: 51°30′18″N 0°01′05″W / 51.50500°N 0.01806°W / 51.50500; -0.01806

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