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The creation of the Port of London Authority

The Port of London Authority was formed on 31 March 1909. Its responsibilities were handled by the Corporation of the City of London (sanitary); the Corporation of Trinity House (lighting, buoyage and pilotage) and the Metropolitan Police (river). The new authority was obliged to provide quays, wharfs and warehouses.

The PLA’s first project was a deepwater shipping channel – part of a £12m works’ programme which included the Tilbury Docks extension, and a cargo jetty at King George V Dock. These projects were delayed as a consequence of the 1912 dock strike.

The First World War and the 1920s

Throughout the war, trade continued largely as usual and the port experienced minimal damage. By 1925 expansion and development included:

  • 1920 – King George V dock completed, adding 10% to London’s dock water
  • 1923/24 – the Port handled a record total of 41¼ m net register tons
  • the planned channel had been dredged attracting more, and bigger, ships
  • Tilbury Cargo Jetty completed in the lower tideway
  • by 1925 the overall area of the London docks had increased by more than six square miles
  • the15-acre Quebec Dock and a new group lock completed at Blackwall Reach and South Dock (formerly City Canal).

The 1930s

The Authority’s 1930s works’ programme included:

  • a new landing stage at Tilbury to cope with the increasing cruise craze
  • improvements to the West India Docks
  • the building of Silvertown Way to ease cargo transportation congestion
  • reconstruction of the Royal Victoria Dock (1936) to make it a deep-water quay
  • deepening work to the Royal Albert Dock

The Second World War

At the outbreak of war, defensive measures of 1938-39 were followed by stringent security controls. All UK principal ports were controlled by Port Emergency Committees responsible to the Ministry of Transport. The London Committee consisted of members of the PLA but with broader responsibilities.

Wartime dates

  • November 1939. The first bombs on the heavily-targeted Thames
  • 7 September 1940. 375 enemy planes begin assault on the Thames and its docks
  • the river now used as a main highway
  • the PLA sets up a new wartime Salvage Department
    Late 1941 marks the end of the sustained raids on the docklands – the bulk of normal shipping traffic diverted to Clyde anchorages and clear-up operation begins
  • 6 June 1944 – D Day, when 307 ships set sail carrying some 50,000 servicemen, nearly 80,000 tons of military supplies and about 9,000 vehicles
  • 8 May 1945 – the enemy surrendered and the Port celebrates

Following a 1947 study into the extent of mechanisation, the National Dock Labour Board took over from the wartime National Dock Labour Corporation. The new Board became responsible for the supply of dock labour leading to an all-round better deal for dockers.

The 1950s

  • 1950 – post-war reconstruction of the Thames completed
  • 1953 – reconstruction of the Royal Victoria Dock at a cost  £1½ m
  • March 1958 a record tonnage of 75m nrt reached
  • 1957 – a new passenger terminal constructed in Tilbury plus extension plans
  • 1959 the PLA establishes a centrally-controlled Thames Navigation Service

The 1960s

  • in 1964 trade topped 61m tonnes and the number of enclosed docks peaked
  • other extensive work and improvements continued and new projects began, such as the western entrance to the Royal Docks
  • the introduction of containerisation brings threat of redundancies
  • the Harbours Act of 1964 extended the PLA’s jurisdiction
  • the Docks and Harbours Act was passed in 1966. The PLA now had to accept onto their pay roll dock workers made redundant in the event of a licensed riverside wharf closing
  • by 1967 upper docks’ use declining. St Katherine & London Docks to close within 12 months
  • by 1981 - all Upper docks shut down while Tilbury develops.

The 1970s

  • by 1972 Tilbury is the UK’s leading container handling port, and second in Europe
  • fall-off in trade and docks’ closures meant independent employers feel the pinch
  • In 1973 the PLA took over Thames Stevedoring and Metropolitan Terminals, followed in 1974 by Gee Stevedoring and Scruttons. From then on the PLA was the sole stevedoring employer
  • 1976 – as many as 1,250 men sent home on pay
  • Tilbury continues to grow, by 1977 it was handling 294,500 containers

Pollution

A period of severe drought in 1948/49 had resulted in a rise in pollution – much of which was sewage effluent. In 1957 a number of recommendations were made:

  • improvements to sewage treatment plants at Beckton and Crossness
  • discharge control into the Thames and for first time since 1921
  • oxygen content to be maintained at 5% in the hottest weather

By 1973, 73 species of fish were counted in the river and in 1974 the PLA handed over most of the pollution control powers to the newly-constituted Thames Water Authority.

The 1980s and beyond

  • between 1980 and 1983 the West India, Millwall and The Royal Docks also closed
  • by 1981 the enclosed docks were steadily shut then developed
  • regeneration underway

The PLA, which today covers 95 miles from the Thames estuary to Teddington, now concentrates on managing safety on the tidal Thames. It is responsible for maintaining river channels for navigation, moorings, lights and buoys and providing a wide range of services for shipping, including, since 1988, pilotage services.

Click here for a more detailed history of the Port of London since 1908.