History of the Port of London pre 1908
Origin and Development
Site of London
Saxon and Danish Period
13th, 14th, 15th & 16th Centuries
18th & 19th Centuries
Part in Empire Development
More Docks Built
Dock Companies Amalgamate
Advent of the PLA
"It is astonishing to remember that a plot of firm soil by the river’s bank made a port, and the port in turn the pre-eminent city of the world." Alan Bell ("The Said Noble River")
The Thames was known by the Romans as "Tamesis" below Dorchester while the part running on to the source seems to have been called "Isis". At Dorchester the Thame, a tributary, joins the main river. It is thought that the name "Thamesis" derived from the amalgamation of "Thame" and Isis in their Celtic forms "Taom" and "Uis". From "Taom-Uis", which means "the pouring out of the waters", the name "Tamesis" was formed and this in turn became "Thames".
London was a port long before it became a great city and the capital of England. While London as the capital is founded on London as a port, the development of London as a port has been stimulated by the commercial, financial and political growth of the capital city.
Some large cities have been brought into being by conditions favourable for only limited development, e.g., York and Exeter. Others have been brought into existence by the will of individuals or political expediency — Leningrad (St. Petersburg) serves as an example of the past and Canberra of more modern times. London, however, is the outstanding example of a city which is so favoured by position and circumstances that so long as commerce and industry endure it must continue to be a great centre of activity and trade.
The River Thames was, of course, the predominating factor—without the river there is no reason to suppose that the city would have existed. The Thames today is a relatively narrow stream, but in prehistoric days it was much broader and flanked by impassable marshes which prevented access to the river except at one or two points. Near the site of the present London Bridge a seam of gravel crossed the river, thus forming the first ford to be reached on the journey upstream. There is little doubt that the presence of this ford was a determining factor in fixing the position of the first settlement. Twin hills on the north afforded an excellent habitable area protected on the west by two streams, later known as the Fleet River and the Walbrook, and by forests and marshes on the north and east. The shores of the settlement were washed by "the pool".
The inhabitants of the south-eastern section of Britain, before the arrival of the Romans, had attained to a fair standard of civilisation. Trade with the Continent was for obvious reasons mainly conducted through the old south coast ports of Richborough, Lympne, etc. The shortest route for traffic to and from the rich agricultural areas of East Anglia and the Continental markets was by way of the ford which became the focus of many trackways where traders met and gradually the settlement became established. It is now widely accepted that the name "London" springs from an old Celtic word.
The extent of the sea-borne trade of the natives prior to the Roman occupation is impossible to gauge. That it was developed immediately by the Romans is clear. By A.D. 30 British exports to the Continent included skins, slaves, hunting dogs, corn, cattle, metals, iron, silver and gold which were exchanged for ivory, amber, jewellery, glassware, pottery and household articles. And here may be noted another factor of the greatest significance in the situation of London as a port. The estuary of the Thames is directly opposite the mouths of the three great Continental rivers Elbe, Scheldt and Rhine, the natural channels of trade of a vast hinterland. High among the officials of Roman Londinium would have been those charged with conservancy and other port duties. The Portoria, or Customs duties levied upon imports and exports, required a bureau of officials. We have it on the authority of the Roman historian Tacitus that by A.D. 61 Londinium "was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels."
London quickly revived after the Boadicean rebellion and from the meagre data available it is clear that it grew in importance during the remainder of the Roman occupation as a trading and distributing centre.
Evidence of its latter function is to be found in the development of the main roads into the interior on the site of the old British tracks which to this day make London the centre of the transport system of England. It is recorded that by the end of the second century London was "a great and wealthy city" and in the year 359 A.D. 800 cargoes of grain were exported to storehouses on the Rhine. Although quays of timber or stone probably existed in the harbour formed by the junction with the Thames of the Fleet and Walbrook rivers, in the main ships were moored in the stream and their cargoes transferred to and from the shore in small boats. It is important to emphasise this because "lighterage" has, as we shall see, exercised a most conspicuous influence on the development and operation of the Port of London right up to the present time.
The Romans abandoned Britain in 408 and there are but scanty records of London during the Saxon period. It is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that in 457 the Britons,defeated by Hengist and Ese at Crayford, fled to London; and then for 150 years there is a complete blank in the pages of history; but subsequent records justify the assumption of the continuity of London’s existence and the inhabitants’ persistent pursuit of trade throughout troubled times. The City had its own Bishop in 604, at which time the Venerable Bede writes of London as "the metropolis of the East Saxons" and "the mart of many nations resorting to it by sea and land."
The foreign trade of the Port was stimulated by the seafaring and enterprising qualities of the new settlers. It would seem at first sight that the constant raiding by the Danes between the end of the eighth century (787) and the early years of the eleventh (1016) would have extinguished foreign trade; but London, being well fortified with strong walls and sufficiently inland to present great difficulties to the invader, remained the safest store place and market in the Kingdom and withstood many attacks. Moreover, the menace gave an impetus to the building of ships which were doubtless for trading during periods of tranquillity.
King Alfred extended the Port facilities. He apparently gave some land with river frontage to Archbishop Ethelred who made a dock (in the original sense) and called it Ethelredshithe— "hithe" meaning a wharf or landing place—which was subsequently altered to Queenhithe when the property came into the possession of Matilda, Queen of Henry I, and to this day merchandise is handled over the quays on this site a little above Southwark Bridge. Evidence that London’s trade developed even during the disordered period which followed the death of Alfred in 901 is found in a document of the latter end of the tenth century which records tolls chargeable at Billingsgate, in respect of vessels from Normandy, France, Liége, etc., and those of the Easterlings.
Billingsgate was one of the first "hithes" to be constructed on the river front. It was close to the point from which the cross-river ferry plied before the first bridge was built and it remained for centuries the principal quay in the Port.
The commercial ascendancy in Britain which London definitely attained during the twenty years’ peaceful reign of Canute has never been challenged and for centuries it was also the headquarters of the Navy and the chief centre for building ships of commerce and of war.
Although not the first to do so, William the Conqueror immediately perceived the strategic advantages of London from a military standpoint and it is significant of the City’s power that he bargained with its inhabitants and granted them their first Charter. As a visible sign of his authority, however, he commenced in 1078 to build the White Tower, part of the present Tower of London. During the period of the Conquest there was a further influx of foreign merchants into London from Normandy, Flanders, Italy, Spain, and other European countries who found London "fitted for their trading and better stored with merchandise in which they were wont to traffic".
The Easterlings were Teutonic traders who eventually founded in the twelfth century the Hanseatic League which bound together for protection and commercial advancement a number of German towns and exercised powerful influence in Europe for some centuries. The League’s headquarters in London were in Thames Street and became known as the Steelyard. Cannon Street Railway Station now occupies the site of the premises. The League became powerful, obtained many privileges and more than once threatened to monopolise the foreign trade of London. Its prosperity eventually aroused the jealous animosity of the English citizens and its waning privileges were finally withdrawn during Elizabeth’s reign.
Although the country during the 13th, 14th andl5th centuries was convulsed with internal struggles, trade was encouraged to provide the means of waging war. The first of the Navigation Laws was passed by Richard II (1390) and enacted that all imported and exported goods were to be carried in English ships. This greatly benefited the shipbuilding industry, of which the Thames was the centre, made ship-owning more attractive and developed the seafaring qualities of the people. During this period the City Fathers appreciably increased their rights in connection with the administration of the Port. The supreme prerogative of the Sovereign over the Thames was first partially ceded to the City by a Charter by Richard I and chiefly related to fishing rights. By many subsequent Charters conservancy and other rights were obtained usually in return for political and financial support. In Edward IV’s reign the Corporation obtained the right to weigh, measure and warehouse all wools brought to London, to pack woollen cloths, shins and all other goods, to examine all merchandise liable to Customs dues, to undertake porterage for foreign merchants, to garble all spices, etc. (that is, to separate good from bad), to gauge wine, and other offices which increased their control and at the same time provided new sources of revenue.
The early days of the Tudor period witnessed the kindling of that spirit of enterprise amongst the merchants and shipowners of London which, some years later, so marvellously advanced the nation’s prestige and foreign trade. Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor sailed from Deptford in 1553 in charge of a venture arranged by merchants of London. Willoughby perished, but Chancellor landed and succeeded in opening up trade with the Russians at Moscow. As the result, the Russia company, one of the most successful of the early maritime companies, came into existence in 1555. The Turkey Company was established later and other similar Merchant Companies were formed under the stimulus of promises of monopolies to those companies that should first open up communication and trade with new countries. One of the most important, and of peculiar interest to London, was the East India Company. For many years the Dutch had virtually monopolised the spice trade and in 1599 they raised the price of pepper from 3/- a pound to 8/- a pound. Exasperated London merchants called a meeting under the chairmanship of the Lord Mayor which resulted in Queen Elizabeth signing the Charter to the English East India Company on the last day of the sixteenth century. The following year James Lancaster sailed from Woolwich with a fleet consisting of five vessels for the East Indies, which two and a half years later returned with a cargo of 1,030,000 pounds of pepper. A curious cargo, it may seem, but pepper and spices were needed to make more palatable the coarse food of those days. Indeed, it may be said that the need for condiments was a prime incentive to the extension of the nation’s maritime power at this period. That the project was an immediate success and that the activities of the East India Company led to a sequence of events which brought India within the British Empire are well known.
In all the great development that took place in Elizabethan times, London took the lead over the other ports of the country. This is shown by the fact that at this time half the Customs revenue was collected in London; Southampton contributed 9 per cent; Newcastle 5 per cent; Bristol 3 per cent; none of the other ports contributed as much as 3 per cent. Liverpool and Cardiff had not then come into prominence as ports.
The great increase in the Port’s trade necessitated much additional accommodation for the unloading and loading of ships. London Bridge had an important influence on the location of the Port facilities. The first stone bridge was completed in 1209 and its cost was defrayed out of a tax on wool, which gave rise to the saying that London Bridge was built on woolpacks. Strange that wool, once London’s chief export, later became one of its largest imports.
The collection of the Crown’s Customs revenue had become so unsatisfactory that Elizabeth appointed a Commission in 1558 to select "legal quays" at which all foreign goods were to be landed between sunrise and sunset. All the twenty quays or wharves in the Port endowed with this privilege were between London Bridge and the Tower, the total length being 1,419 feet. In course of time these facilities became totally inadequate and merchants became entirely at the mercy of the owners of the legal quays. To relieve congestion "sufferance wharves" were introduced which enjoyed restricted privileges.
Events abroad favoured the advancement of London’s commerce. Antwerp had in the earlier part of the sixteenth century become the great emporium of Europe but the revolt of the people of the Low Countries against the Spanish invaders, culminating in the sack of Antwerp by the duke of Parma in 1576, destroyed its supremacy. London merchants and financiers, of whom the greatest at that period was Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange in 1556, took legitimate advantage of this opportunity to establish London as the commercial and financial centre of the world. It was at this time, too, that there began to grow up the entrepôt and transhipment trades which subsequently became such unique features of the activities of the Port and City of London and from which the nation derived so much wealth and prestige.
For some years after the death of Elizabeth the internal political conditions of the country were unfavourable to the progress of commerce.
Efforts by Sir Walter Raleigh and others to found colonies in America had been unsuccessful and it remained for an expedition from the Thames early in the seventeenth century to establish the first stable settlement in Virginia. In 1606, fourteen years before the Pilgrim Fathers set out from Plymouth, three small ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, none over 100 tons, sailed from Blackwall under the auspices of a London Company of Merchant Adventurers and founded the state of Virginia. The leader of the party was Captain John Smith.
The formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company was an event of the seventeenth century of lasting importance to the commerce of London and the whole country. On 3rd June, 1668, the Nonsuch and Eaglet left Gravesend to explore the territory around Hudson Bay. Only the Nonsuch reached her goal and returned in the following year with a cargo of furs. Realising the important results that follow this initial expedition, Charles II sealed the Charter of the Company on the 2nd May, 1670, Prince Rupert, the King’s cousin, being the first Governor. The success of the Company and the part it played in the extension of the Empire are well known; the point for us is that the association of Canada with the Port of London is still an unbroken one.
The large vessels of the East India Company were now anchored off Blackwall, their cargoes being transferred to the legal quays in the Pool in the only covered barges in use in the Port. About the middle of the seventeenth century the Company constructed a small wet dock at Blackwall for fitting out their vessels after launching from the adjacent shipbuilding yards. This dock was the first on the Thames to be fitted with gates but, as already indicated, it was not used for the handling of goods. Pepys records that he went to see this dock on the 15th January, 1661. The dock was later incorporated in the Brunswick which in turn was absorbed by the East India Dock.
The plague of 1665 temporarily strangled the trade of the Port and the Great Fire of the following year destroyed practically the whole of the wharf and warehouse accommodation. A tax of 1/- a chaldron was levied on coal brought into the Port to help defray the cost of the rebuilding of London, including new port accommodation on improved lines. It may be remarked that up to the time of the Fire, London straggled along the waterside, the river being the main highway for passengers and goods and the limits of the City being within easy reach of one or other of the waterside stairs. The streets were narrow, ill paved and of little use for traffic.
The Royal Assent was given on the 10th April, 1696, to a bill for the construction of a wet dock at Rotherhithe some 10 acres in extent which was called the Howland Great Wet Dock after a Streatham family to whom the property belonged. The dock was built as a harbourage and fitting-out place for ships and not for commercial purposes as later docks were constructed. Trees were planted round the dock as a protection against the wind and it became very popular after the great storm in 1703 which wrought havoc amongst the shipping moored in the river. The Howland Dock was the nucleus of the Surrey Commercial Docks system.
During the eighteenth century the rate of increase of the volume of the trade of the Port fluctuated with the alternating periods of peace and war. Marked progress took place during the closing years. Between 1700 and 1770 the commerce of the Port was nearly doubled and from 1770 to 1795 (only 25 years) it again doubled. In 1792 imports into England amounted to £17,898,000 and exports £23,674,000. London’s share was £12,072,000 and £14,743,000 respectively, or nearly 65 per cent. of the whole. The greatest increases in commodities imported were sugar, rum, dyewoods, ginger and pimento from the West Indies.
Some idea of the state of congestion that existed in the river at this time may be gathered from the fact that in the Upper Pool, 1,775 vessels were allowed to moor simultaneously in a space adapted for about 545. It must be remembered that a ship of 500 tons was spoken of at this time as a ship of very exceptional size and this partly explains the state of congestion. The great increase in the volume of trade had brought into being a large number of ships of relatively small carrying capacity. The position was aggravated also by the large number of craft, estimated at about 3,500, employed to convey cargoes from the moorings to the wharves. In the busiest seasons a ship could only with difficulty be taken up or down the river by reason of the mass of vessels of all sorts and sizes moorings intended for the accommodation of less than half the number. The extent of the quays or wharves on which goods were allowed to be deposited was wholly inadequate for their reception.
Goods remained for weeks at a time in lighters before they could be dealt with; this exposed them to the attacks of the weather and the depredations of river thieves who resorted to the Port in large numbers operating lucrative and well-organised trade in river plunder, at which it is recorded revenue officers notoriously connived. The several classes of thieves were known by designations applied to the recognised branches of their work. Among these may be mentioned River Pirates, Night Plunderers, Light Horsemen, Heavy Horsemen, Scuffle-Hunters and Mud Larks.
The wharf proprietors resisted every effort to provide the addition of a single foot of accommodation. So crowded and over burdened did the Port become that trade and navigation were carried on under difficulties which must soon have diverted a large measure of its commerce to other ports. Eventually in 1796 a Parliamentary Committee of the House of Commons was "appointed to enquire into the best mode of providing sufficient accommodation for the increased trade and shipping of the Port."
The Committee prepared an exhaustive report but did not succeed in formulating any definite recommendations for improving matters. Despite the urgency of the situation, it was not until 1799 that Parliament authorised the construction of a dock on the Isle of Dogs "for rendering more commodious and better regulating the Port of London" and in particular to secure that "West India produce might be effectually secure from loss by theft or other causes and the public revenue greatly benefited."
The Bill was promoted by the West India Merchants in conjunction with the corporation of London and two provisions of the Act are of special interest. The Company was granted a monopoly for twenty-one years to unload all West India produce brought into the Port and all exports to the West Indies were also required to be loaded in their docks. Another clause gave the right to wharfingers and lightermen to send lighters and craft into the docks to collect goods for the riverside wharves or to deliver exports to ships in the dock without payment of dues. The latter became known as the "Free Water Clause," and, retained in all subsequent legislation relating to dock construction, has influenced the affairs of the Port to a marked degree.
Two docks were built together with a range of splendid five-storey warehouses. High walls and a wide ditch surrounded the premises and the disturbed condition of the times may be judged from the fact that the West India Docks Company, with the co-operation of the Government, organised an armed watch of 100 men and officers, equipped with muskets, swords and pistols, which was supplemented by a second body of 100 men sworn in as special constables. The docks were formally opened with some ceremony by the then Prime Minister, Henry Addington, on 22nd August, 1802.
Under the West India Docks Act the Corporation of London obtained powers to construct a canal from Limehouse Reach to Blackwall Reach, the idea being to save vessels time and risk in navigating the reaches of the river round the Isle of Dogs. The City Canal, as it was called, was opened in 1805. It was not a financial success and was bought in 1829 by the West India Docks Company and transformed into a timber dock. Years later it was enlarged and named the South West India Dock.
During the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, enterprises to increase the Port’s facilities for trade followed one another in quick succession. Docks at Wapping were under construction before the West India Docks were ready to be opened, the London Dock Bill receiving the Royal Assent on 20th June, 1800; the dock itself being opened in 1805. The Company had a twenty-one years monopoly to receive all vessels entering the Port with tobacco, rice, wine and brandy (except from the East and West Indies). The warehouses included one built by agreement with the Government to accommodate 24,000 hogsheads of tobacco. It was unfortunate, for the Company as well as for the Port as a whole, that the French Wars and unsettled conditions generally interfered with trade at this time; but during the term of the monopoly the business of the dock was by no means unsuccessful.
The advantages of the new form of accommodation afforded by enclosed docks were soon generally appreciated and the East India Company obtained powers for the building of another dock at Blackwall by a subsidiary undertaking. All ships arriving from the East Indies and China were required to unload in the East India Dock, opened in 1806, as were ships loading to those parts.
All those docks were on the north bank of the river. In the meantime developments had occurred at Rotherhithe. The Howland Great Wet Dock, having served its purpose as a harbourage in the early part of the eighteenth century, was subsequently equipped with boilers, tanks, etc., for extracting sperm oil from blubber brought in by whaling fleets and its name was changed to Greenland Dock. The property changed hands in 1806 and the dock was used for North European trade in timber deals, tar, corn, etc. The Grand Surrey Canal Company was formed in 1801 to execute an ambitious scheme to connect the Thames at Rotherhithe with Portsmouth by way of Deptford, Peckham, Clapham, Croydon, Kingston, Ewell and Epsom, the idea being to facilitate trade by cheapening transport and encourage agriculture by improving irrigation. Only about four miles of the canal were actually constructed. Other docks were built, over a period, in the neighbourhood and all eventually passed to the proprietorship of the Surrey Commercial Docks Company. The Surrey Commercial Docks were the only docks on the south side of the river and with the exception of the Greenland Dock and South Dock in which general cargo from many countries was handled, they were all devoted to the handling and storage of timber.
The steamship made its first appearance on the Thames in 1815, but it was not until 1875 that the sail definitely took second place in the tonnage of vessels that used the Port; in the latter year steam represented 5.1 million tons and sail only 3.6 million tons.
The history of the shipbuilding industry in the Port of London is a long and vastly interesting story and, unfortunately, can only be alluded to in passing. Doubtless from earliest times ships were built on Thames-side. The industry began to assume importance in the time of Alfred the Great who is credited with having a small dock constructed where ships for defence were built. Royal Dockyards were established at Deptford and Woolwich by Henry VIII and by the middle of the sixteenth century Deptford was the principal naval shipbuilding yard and store in the Kingdom. The Deptford Dockyard closed down after the launch of the Druid in 1869. The famous "Blackwallers" were, as the name implies, built at the Blackwall Yard, for the East India Company and other owners. Later on, fast clippers, built in the same yard, were used in the tea trade and in the Australian wool trade.
The shipbuilding industry later adapted itself to the new conditions introduced by steam. Perhaps the best known of all the steamships built at Thames-side yards was the Great Eastern, built at Millwall in 1858, which was so much trouble to launch and was only really successfully employed as a cable-laying ship. She had paddles, screws and canvas and was very much larger than anything attempted before or, indeed, some considerable time after. The Thunderer, launched in 1912, was the Thames’s last contribution to the Royal Navy, the yards established in the North in proximity to sources of coal and iron rendering the industry competitively impracticable under modern conditions. Today the industry survives only in a very modest way, the output being confined to lighters, barges, work boats and pleasure craft.
About the middle of the nineteenth century the increasing size of ships led to additions being made to the Port’s facilities and changes in its administration. A Company was formed and an Act of Parliament obtained in 1850 for the making of a dock downstream from the then existing docks which would be more convenient for the deeper-drafted vessels. This dock, the Victoria Dock, incorporated several new features compared with its predecessors. Jetties projected into the dock from the main quays, the idea being to effect quick delivery of cargoes, after sorting into barges on the opposite side of the jetty to which the ship was berthed. The Victoria Dock was the first in the Port to be directly connected with the railways of the United Kingdom and the first to be equipped with and hydraulic machinery.
The administrative change was in relation to the river. The grievances of merchants in respect of quays and warehouses had been removed by the construction of docks, but little had been done to placate the shipowners who complained of the inadequate depth of river channels and the regulation of the river traffic generally. The large body of watermen and lightermen resented the introduction of steam tugs and steam passenger boats into the Port and used every device to obstruct them. The rival steamboat companies were guilty of racing with no regard at all for barges and small craft. A state of chaos existed, there was great damage to property and considerable loss of life. After years of agitation the Thames Conservancy Act was passed in 1857 which vested in the Conservators all title and rights in the bed, soil and foreshore of the river from Staines to Yantlet Creek and empowered them to carry out all conservancy duties, including the proper regulation of river traffic and the maintenance of the navigation channel.
The great expansion of the industrial activity of the country during the latter half of the nineteenth century, which favoured the adoption of a Free Trade policy, together with the development of the resources of the Colonies, as they then were, brought an enormous increase in the trade of the Port of London.
London played a specially important part in the commercial development of Empire countries. Reference has already been made to India. Australia and New Zealand offer other ready examples. The first exports of wool, meat, butter, cheese and other products from those countries were sent to London River and were sold on the London Market. The first Colonial Wool Sale took place in London as early as 1821 and the traffic grew to enormous proportions. Although part of the clips are now disposed of in Australia, large quantities are still sent to London for disposal. The first consignment of frozen meat and butter from Australia arrived in the Thames in the Strathleven in 1880, and New Zealand’s first shipment of frozen meat came into the Port in the Dunedin in 1882. From very small beginnings a great trade was built up until the bulk of the meat and dairy produce of these Dominions, as well as fruit, etc., sent to this country came to be distributed from London.
It will be convenient at this point to review the dock-building activities in the Port and the fortunes of the dock companies during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
The Millwall Dock was opened in 1868 and it was the intention of the promoters to let the sites with water frontage for factories and industrial undertakings. The ambitions of the Company were not realised and ordinary business was resorted to, grain from the Baltic becoming the mainstay.
In the meantime the West India Dock Company and the East India Dock Company had amalgamated and the London and the St. Katharine Dock Companies had combined and also acquired the Victoria Dock. In 1874 the London and St. Katharine Docks Company decided to construct the Royal Albert Dock as an extension of the Victoria Dock (which now acquired the prefix "Royal"), chiefly because the latter dock was insufficiently deep and possessed and entrance too narrow for the largest ships coming to the Port. The Royal Albert Dock was opened in 1880 and at the time was the largest and finest dock in the world. One mile and three-quarters long, it added 16,500 lineal feet of new deep-water quayage to the accommodation of the Port. Naturally the dock was at first occupied by ships at the expense of other docks and this provoked the East and West India Docks Company to build the Tilbury Dock. The chief idea of establishing the Tilbury Dock 26 miles from London was that shipowners would prefer to dock their vessels in close proximity to Gravesend, the well-established point of arrival for ships, as it would save them the time and expense of taking them higher up the river. The Dock was opened in 1886 and, although offering excellent service, shipping was very slow to transfer from the older docks, largely because of boycott by merchants, lightermen and wharfingers.
Although the trade of the Port was steadily increasing, dock and wharf accommodation was now largely in excess of requirements. Excess of facilities, however, was not the only cause of the ruinous competition which set in between the several dock companies and the wharfingers.
The principle of bonded warehouses had been introduced in 1803 and for years the privilege was restricted to the warehouses of the dock companies. Later legislation, which practically coincided with the termination of the monopoly period granted to the dock companies, extended the bonding facilities to the riverside wharf and warehouse proprietors. The Dock Companies then began to feel the full effect of the privileges accorded to the lightermen in all dock legislation which enable lighters to enter and leave the docks without payment of any dues. By 1887 the London and St. Katharine Docks Company (Which also owned the Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks) and the East and West India Docks Company (which had built the Tilbury Dock) were in such a bad financial position that they were driven to look for some mutually agreeable working arrangement
A Bill to this end was promoted in 1888, and the London and India Docks Joint Committee was given the management of all the docks named. The Joint Committee took over the working of the two undertakings, but their capital was not merged, the profits being distributed on a prearranged basis.
By the end of the nineteenth century the great increase that had again taken place in the size and draft of ocean-going ships had made extensive works imperative both in the river and in the docks, but the dispersion of powers among several authorities and companies prevented these being carried out. The dock companies were generally in a bad financial state, and in an effort to ameliorate its position the London and India Docks Joint Committee (which became the London and India Docks Company in 1900) in 1899 deposited in Parliament a Bill which sought to give them powers to make a charge on barges that entered their docks and to levy a toll on the goods carried in the barges. The Bill aroused great opposition and was rejected. The Government were, however, impressed with the seriousness of affairs and announced that as the Port of London presented a problem of such importance from a national point of view a Royal Commission would be appointed to inquire fully into the matter. The Commission sat for two years and in June 1902 issued a comprehensive report containing recommendations for the creation of a central authority.
The first Bill which was presented to Parliament in 1903, with the object of carrying out the recommendations of the Royal Commission, was not received with favour and was abandoned. It was not until 1908 that a measure was passed to solve the problem and became law under the title of the "Port of London Act, 1908." Briefly it transferred the undertakings and powers of all the existing dock companies, the function and powers of Thames Conservancy below Teddington, and certain duties of the Watermen’s Company to a new body called the ‘‘Port of London Authority.’’
The primary duty thrown upon the Authority was in the words of the Act of 1908, "to take into consideration the state of the river and the accommodation and facilities afforded in the Port and, subject to the provisions of this Act, to take such steps as they may consider necessary for the improvement thereof" Broadly speaking, this means that the Authority was entrusted with the duty of making good any deficiencies in the Port’s accommodation, equipment and service both for ships and goods; to carry out all conservancy duties over sixty-nine miles of the tidal Thames and exercise the powers hitherto vested in the Watermen’s Company relative to the registration and licensing of craft and boats as well as lightermen and watermen.
A large element of competition remained in the Port; the riverside wharves remained outside the Authority’s jurisdiction, except for certain conservancy matters, and traded independently. The proprietors of the private wharves and warehouses also continued to enjoy the advantages, directly and indirectly, of the privileges of the free use of the docks by barges under the "Free Water Clause."
When it is remembered that London trade is a plant of centuries growth and therefore very sensitive to any interference, it will be appreciated that the task called for very delicate handling, but the new body—which commenced its duties on 31st March, 1909—went about its work with a well-ordered thoroughness which soon fostered a general feeling of confidence.