Pictorial History of the West India Docks. Part 1: The Age of Sail

Survey of London:

The building of the West India Docks between 1799 and 1806 marked the culmination of a campaign which had begun in the early 1790s. The West India merchants had become especially concerned about conditions in the Pool of London. Their vessels were second only in size to the East Indiamen and, because of the prevailing winds, were in the Thames for little more than four months of each year. Their trade was the most valuable in the Port, and discontent over congestion and delays was increased by their losses through pilferage, estimated at between £250,000 and £500,000 per annum during the 1790s. The outbreak of the war with France prompted the merchants to take action, perhaps anticipating government support because of the loss of customs revenue caused by the theft of goods. In September 1793 they formed a committee to press for ‘more adequate Provision for the Discharge of Shipping and the Warehousing of Produce’.

The decision to build enclosed docks owed much to the vigorous and able advocacy of William Vaughan (1752–1850), a naval architect, trader and director of the Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation, and Robert Milligan, a former Jamaica planter who had returned to London in 1780. In his influential pamphlet On Wet Docks, Quays, and Warehouses, for the Port of London, published in 1793, Vaughan proposed four possible sites for docks; at Wapping, the Isle of Dogs, Rotherhithe, and St Katharine’s, his preference being for Wapping. Though Vaughan thought that the Isle of Dogs was too far from the City, the area was favoured by Milligan, who, in the same year, prepared a plan for an enclosed wet dock there, comprising a single rectangular basin, 776ft by 453ft, surrounded by ranges of three-storey warehouses.

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1800 Plan for the West India Docks

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1802, artist’s impression of how the docks would look.

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Construction

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1807

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City Canal, immediately south of West India Docks. c1810

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City Canal

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1810

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1811

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1837

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In the 1830s, the dock company acquired the City Canal and extended the West India Docks southwards.

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1929

Next post: Part 2, Pictorial History up to WWII

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