Survey of London:
After the war, the PLA undertook a massive programme of reconstruction using the £13 million of compensation received from the government. Changes in the nature of goods handling made like-for-like replacement of buildings inappropriate. The north quay warehouses, for example, were unsuited to mechanized operations. The principal new buildings constructed at the India and Millwall Docks in the early post-war period were two large shed-warehouses on the south quay of the Import Dock, built in 1950–4 and designed to accommodate fork-lift trucks and mobile cranes. They were used for fruit, which had become one of the principal commodities handled at the West India Docks. Sugar and hardwoods remained important, but the rum trade had shifted to the London Docks after the Blitz.
Post-war mechanization transformed dock operations. Fork-lift trucks and palletized cargoes were introduced in the Port of London in 1946. Together with mobile cranes, these permitted better use of shed space, but, more crucially, they expedited dock work, improving shipping turn-round and reducing working costs. Full mechanization of berths became a prime objective, and it radically altered warehousing requirements. The mobile plant required single-storey buildings with large doorways, unobstructed floors and high ceilings. From 1956 to 1969 a number of constructionally innovative sheds were erected, some at the West India Docks, but more at the Millwall Docks.
Prospects for the future of London’s up-river docks turned bleak in the mid-1960s. Increasing competition from other British ports, changes in the patterns of world trade, relative distance from the sea, and, above all, the container revolution in cargo handling all contributed to the change in fortunes. Container handling requires large clear quay spaces, deep water and large gantry cranes. Cargoes that had been carried in conventional form for centuries were containerized in a few years, and the up-river docks and wharves were left exposed.
There was a rapid decline in traffic at the India and Millwall Docks and berths at the Import Dock north quay and the Wood Wharves had closed by 1971. Major redevelopment plans were suspended, though some new specialist facilities were provided. A Bulk Wine Terminal was established on the former East Wood Wharf in 1968– 70, and the east side of the Millwall Inner Dock was redeveloped in 1969 to handle conventional cargo in unitload form in two large sheds, for which Olsen Lines took responsibility.
Next article: “Part 5 – Closure”.