Port of London: Wikis


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Port of London Authority Building, Trinity Square Gardens, Tower Hill

The Port of London lies along the banks of the River Thames from London, England to the North Sea. Once the largest port in the world, it is currently the United Kingdom's second largest port, after Grimsby & Immingham. The port is governed by the Port of London Authority (PLA), a public trust established in 1908, whose responsibility extends over the Tideway of the River Thames.

The port can handle cruise liners, ro-ro ferries and cargo of all types including containers, timber, paper, vehicles, aggregates, crude oil, petroleum products, liquified petroleum gas, coal, metals, grain and other dry and liquid bulk materials. In 2008 the Port of London handled 53.0 million tonnes of trade (up from 52.7 million tonnes in 2007), including 2,007,000 TEUs and 20.5 million tonnes of oil and related products.[1]

The port is not located in one area - it stretches along the tidal Thames, including central London, with many individual wharfs, docks, terminals and facilities built incrementally over the centuries. As with many similar historic European ports, such as Rotterdam, the bulk of activities has steadily moved downstream towards the open sea, as ships have grown larger and other city uses take up land closer to the city's centre.



James Elmes' chart of the port, 1837, showing the enclosed docks at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign.
The London docks in 1882. The King George V Dock had not yet been built.
Tilbury in 1946, before major expansion as a container port.

The Port of London has been central to the economy of London since the founding of the city in the 1st Century and was a major contributor to the growth and success of the city. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the busiest port in the World, with wharves extending continuously along the Thames for 11 miles, and over 1,500 cranes handling 60,000 ships per year. In World War II it was a prime target for the Luftwaffe during The Blitz.

The Roman Port in London

Roman Construction

The first evidence of a reasonable sized trading in London can be seen during 50 to 270 BCE, at which time the Romans built the original harbor. The construction involved expanding the waterfront using wooden frames filled with dirt. Once these were in place the wharf was built in four stages moving downstream from the London Bridge (Brigham). The port began to rapidly grow and prosper during the second and third century, and saw its final demise in the early fifth century with the decline in trade activity. The changes made to the banks along the port made by the Romans are so substantial and long lasting that it was hard to tell where the natural waterfront really began (Milne).

Roman Use

London became a very important trading port for the Romans at its height in the second and third centuries. The harbor town grew and expanded quickly. The lavish nature of goods traded in London shaped the extravagant lifestyle of its citizens and the city flourished under Roman colonization (Hall & Merrifield). The Roman expansion of port facilities and organization of the London harbor have remained as the base of the London harbor until today.

Enclosed dock systems

In the late 18th century an ambitious scheme was proposed by Willey Reveley to straighten the Thames between Wapping and Woolwich Reach by cutting a new channel across the Rotherhithe, Isle of Dogs and Greenwich peninsulas. The three great horseshoe bends would be cut off with locks, as huge wet docks.[2] This was not realised, though a much smaller channel, the City Canal was subsequently cut across the Isle of Dogs.

Throughout the 19th Century a series of enclosed dock systems was built, surrounded by high walls to protect cargoes from river piracy. These included Surrey Commercial Docks (1807, originating from the Howland Great Wet Dock of 1696), West India Docks (1802), East India Docks (1803, originating from the Brunswick Dock of 1790), London Docks (1805), St Katharine Docks (1828), Royal Victoria Dock (1855), Millwall Dock (1868), Royal Albert Dock (1880), and Tilbury docks (1886).

The enclosed docks were built by several rival private companies, notably the East & West India Docks Company (owners of the East India, West India and Tilbury docks), Surrey Commercial Docks Company and London & St Katharine Docks Company (owners of the London, St Katharine and Royal docks). By the beginning of the 20th century competition and strikes led to pressure for amalgamation. A Royal Commission led to the setting up of the Port of London Authority (PLA) in 1908. In 1909 the PLA took control of the enclosed docks from Tower Bridge to Tilbury, with a few minor exceptions such as Poplar Dock which remained as a railway company facility. The PLA head Office at Trinity Square Gardens was built by John Mowlem & Co and completed in 1919.

The PLA dredged a deep water channel, added the King George V Dock (1920) to the Royal group, and made continuous improvements to the other enclosed dock systems throughout the first two thirds of the 20th Century. This culminated in expansion of Tilbury in the late 1960s to become a major container port (the UK's largest in the early 1970s), together with a huge riverside grain terminal and mechanised facilities for timber handling. Under the PLA London's annual trade had grown to 60 million tons (38% of UK trade) by 1939, but was mainly transferred to the Clyde and Liverpool during World War 2. After the war London recovered, again reaching 60 million tons in the 1960s.

Port industries

A ship berths in the busy Upper Pool in 1962

Alongside the docks many port industries developed, some of which (notably sugar refining, edible oil processing and cable manufacture), survive today. Other industries have included iron working, lead smelting, casting of brass and bronze, shipbuilding, timber, grain, cement and paper milling, armament manufacture, vehicle manufacture, etc. London was the major centre of shipbuilding in Britain (and perhaps in the world) for centuries, but declined relative to the Clyde and other centres from the mid 19th Century, with the last major warship, HMS Thunderer, being launched in 1911. This also affected an attempt by Henry Bessemer to establish steel-making on the Greenwich Peninsula in the 1860s.[3]

There were also numerous power stations and gas works on the Thames and its tributaries and canals. Major Thames-side gasworks were located at Beckton and the Greenwich Peninsula, with power stations including Brimsdown, Hackney and West Ham on the Lea and Kingston, Fulham, Lots Road, Wandsworth, Battersea, Bankside, Stepney, Deptford, Greenwich, Blackwall Point, Brunswick Wharf, Woolwich, Barking, Belvedere, Littlebrook, West Thurrock, Northfleet, Tilbury and Grain on the Thames.

The coal requirements of power stations and gas works constituted a large proportion of London's post-war trade. A 1959 Times article [4] states:

About two-thirds of the 20 million tons of coal entering the Thames each year is consumed in nine gas works and 17 generating stations. Beckton Gas Works carbonises an average of 4,500 tons of coal every day; the largest power stations burn about 3,000 tons during a winter day..

.. Three more power stations, at Belvedere (Oil-firing), and Northfleet and West Thurrock (coal-firing), are being built.

This coal was handled directly by riverside coal handling facilities, rather than the docks. For example Beckton Gas Works had two large piers which dealt with both its own requirements and with the transfer of coal to lighters for delivery to other gasworks.

A considerable proportion of the drop in London's trade since the 1960s is accounted for by loss of the coal trade, the gas works having closed following discovery of North Sea Gas, domestic use of coal for heating being largely replaced by gas and electricity, and closure of all the coal-burning power stations above Tilbury.

The move downstream

With the use of larger ships and containerisation, the importance of the upstream port declined rapidly from the mid-1960s. The enclosed docks further up river declined and closed progressively between the end of the 1960s and the early 1980s. Trade at privately owned wharves on the open river continued for longer, for example with container handling at the Victoria Deep Water Terminal on the Greenwich Peninsula into the 1990s, and bulk paper import at Convoy's Wharf in Deptford until 2000. The wider port continued to be a major centre for trade and industry, with oil refineries and terminals at Coryton, Shell Haven and Canvey in Essex and the Isle of Grain in Kent. In 1992 Government privatisation policy led to Tilbury becoming a freeport. The PLA ceased to be a port operator, retaining the role of managing the Thames.

Much of the disused land of the upstream London Docklands is in the process of being developed for housing and as a second financial district for London (centred on Canary Wharf).

The Port today

The Port of London today comprises over 70 independently owned terminals and port facilities, directly employing over 30,000 people.[5] These are mainly concentrated at Purfleet (with the world's largest margarine works), Thurrock, Tilbury (the Port's current main container facility), Coryton and Canvey Island in Essex, Dartford and Northfleet in Kent, and Greenwich, Silvertown, Barking, Dagenham and Erith in Greater London.

In 2007 London was the second largest port in the United Kingdom by tonnage handled (52.7 million), after Grimsby and Immingham (66.3 million).[6] Tees and Hartlepool was the UK's third largest port in 2007 and has a similar annual tonnage handled as London (in 2006 a slightly greater tonnage was handled in Tees and Hartlepool than at London). The Port of London however handles the most non-fuel cargo of any port in the UK (at 32.2 million tonnes in 2007). Other major rival ports to London in the country are Felixstowe and Southampton, which handle the most and second-most number of containers of British ports.

The number of twenty-foot equivalent units of containers handled by the Port of London exceeded 2 million in 2007 for the first time in the Port's history and this continued in 2008. The Port's capacity in handling modern, large ships and containers is set to dramatically expand with the completion of the London Gateway port project, which will be able to handle up to 3.5 million TEUs per year when fully completed.

With around 12,500 commercial shipping movements annually, the Port of London handles around 10% of the UK commercial shipping trade, and contributes 8.5 billion pounds to the UK's economy. In addition to cargo, 37 cruise ships visited the Port in 2008.

Tate & Lyle refinery plant at Silvertown, London

Although the Kent (BP) and Shell Haven (Shell) refineries closed in 1982 and 1999, Coryton remains in production. A number of upstream wharves remain in use. At Silvertown for example Tate & Lyle continues to operate the world's largest cane sugar refinery, originally served by the West India Docks but now with its own cargo handling facilities. Many wharves as far upstream as Fulham are used for the handling of aggregates brought by barge from facilities down river. Riverside sites in London are under intense pressure for prestige housing or office development, and as a consequence the Greater London Authority in consultation with the PLA has implemented a plan to safeguard 50 wharves within Greater London, half above and half below the Thames Barrier.[7]

Intraport traffic

In recent years there has been a resurgence in the use of the River Thames for moving cargo between terminals within the Port of London. This is seen to be in the main part due to the environmental benefits of moving such cargo by river, and as an alternative to transporting the cargo on the congested road and rail networks of the capital. Local authorities are contributing to this increase in intraport traffic, with waste transfer and demolition rubble being taken by barges on the river. At present the construction of the Olympic Park and Crossrail are both utilising the river as a means of transporting cargo and waste/excavation material. The Crossrail project alone will involve the transporting of 5 million tonnes of material (almost all of which is clean earth, excavated from the ground) downstream through the Port, from locations such as Canary Wharf to new nature reserves being constructed in the Thames estuary area.[8]

In 2008, the figure for intraport trade was 1.9 million tonnes, making the River Thames the busiest inland waterway in the UK.

Proposed expansion

In terms of number of containers, London currently ranks third in the UK after the ports of Southampton and Felixstowe. This is likely to change in future if plans for a major new facility at the Shell Haven refinery site - DP World's London Gateway - come to fruition. Government approval was given in May 2007 for the redevelopment of this 607 hectare (1,500 acre) brownfield site, which has a two mile river frontage. The developers plan a port capable of handling the largest deep-sea container ships, including a 2,300 metre long container quay with a capacity of 3.5 million standard container units a year. The development would also include a 300 hectare (700 acre) 'logistics and business park', with direct links to the rail network.[9] This would re-establish London's pre-eminence as originally intended by the PLA in the 1960s with its proposed development of a deep-sea port at Maplin Sands as part of the proposed third London airport site.

Policing the Port

The Port of London once had its own police force - the Port of London Authority Police - but is today policed by a number of forces. These are the local Home Office forces of the areas the Thames passes through (the Metropolitan, City of London, Essex and Kent constabularies) and the Port of Tilbury Police (formed in 1992 and a remnant of the old PLA force). The Metropolitan police have a special Marine Support Unit, formerly known as the Thames Division, which patrol and police the Thames in the Greater London area. A sixth police force in the Port may be established with the creation of the London Gateway port.

See also

Bibliographic References

  • Brigham, Trevor. 1998. “The Port of Roman London.” In Roman London Recent Archeological Work, edited by B. Watson, 23-34. Michigan: Cushing-Malloy Inc. Paper read at a seminar held at The Museum of London, 16 November.
  • Hall, Jenny, and Ralph Merrifield. Roman London. London: HMSO Publications, 1986.
  • Milne, Gustav, and Nic Bateman. "A Roman Harbour in London; Excavations and Observations near Pudding Lane, City of London 1979-82." Britannia 14 (1983): 207-26.
  • Milne, Gustav. The Port of Roman London. London: B.T. Batsford, 1985.


  1. ^ Port of London Annual Review 2008 (published in 2009)
  2. ^ Clout, H. (Ed) 1994, The Times London History Atlas, Times Books, ISBN 0-7230-0342-4
  3. ^ Bessemer's autobiography Chapter 21
  4. ^ Special Correspondent."Industries along the Riverside" (news). The Times. Mon, March 16 1959. Issue 54410, col A, p. xi.
  5. ^ "Port of London Economic Impact Study". Port of London Authority. http://www.pla.co.uk/display_fixedpage.cfm/id/520/site/pla. Retrieved 31 March 2009.  
  6. ^ Port of London Annual Review 2008 (published in 2009))
  7. ^ "London Plan Implementation Report: Safeguarded Wharves on the River Thames" (pdf). Mayor of London. 2005. http://www.london.gov.uk/mayor/planning/docs/safeguarded_wharves_05.pdf. Retrieved 31 March 2009.  
  8. ^ PLA News Crossrail will move 5m tonnes via River
  9. ^ P&O London Gateway decision press release

External links

Coordinates: 51°30′N 0°03′E / 51.5°N 0.05°E / 51.5; 0.05

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