The introduction of containers for cargo handling in the mid-1960s was the beginning of the end for the India and Millwall Docks. Despite the Millwall Docks being amongst the most modern and well-equipped in the world, they could not handle container ships (not only were the ships too large to handle, by nature containers did not rely on warehousing).
With the PLA developing Tilbury as its main container port, the upriver docks saw a dramatic reduction in traffic. First to close were the East India Docks in 1967. A couple of years later and it was the turn of the St Katharine, London, and Surrey Docks. Around this time, parts of the India and Millwall Docks were also closing, including the West India Import Dock north quay and the Wood Wharves.
There was a small upturn in the fortunes of the Millwall Docks in 1969, when Fred Olsen redeveloped the east side of the Inner Dock for cargo handling and its cruise liner service, but this could not prevent the inevitable.
Survey of London:
In January 1976, with 14 berths still open, the PLA announced a plan to close the India and Millwall Docks, excepting bulk wine and tenanted berths. The Transport and General Workers’ Union opposed the changes. A compromise was reached that provided for continued operations at the South Dock and Millwall Docks, with £400,000 committed to improving certain sheds and berths, while the Import Dock south quay berths and warehouses were shut down. However, the India and Millwall Docks continued to lose huge amounts of money, with ever-declining traffic, illustrated by the fact that conventional bulk tonnage in 1976 was a quarter of its 1970 volume.
Facing liquidation in 1978, the PLA again proposed closing the up-river docks. The unions would not discuss closure, and the government urged compromise, refusing either to sanction closure or to subsidize useless facilities. A plan for the concentration of operations at both sets of up-river docks agreed in June 1979 involved keeping open the South Dock south quay, Bulk Wine Terminal, and Millwall Docks, but permanently closing the Import and Export Docks, the west ends of which were to be filled in. The Conservative Government that took office in 1979 responded to the PLA’s plan with the imposition of limits to central financial assistance, making continued operations at both sets of docks unviable. In January 1980 the PLA announced that, unless working-practice improvement targets could be met, operations would be transferred out of the India and Millwall Docks to the Royal Docks from July. In fact, a strike shut down the docks in February and closure was brought forward and carried through between March and July 1980.
Most of the PLA’s India and Millwall Dock estate was vested in the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in July 1981. Dock operations survived into the early 1980s at the bulk wine and tenanted berths. The PLA retained control of the water areas still in use and managed the redevelopment of parts of the estate not vested in the LDDC. The sale to the LDDC of most of the remaining PLA land and water area in the Isle of Dogs was agreed in 1983.
And so ended almost 200 years of enclosed-dock operations on the Isle of Dogs; a business which was responsible for its historical development, which employed men (and some women) from nearly every Island family, and which significantly influenced the colours, sounds and smell of the place. Suddenly the cranes were still and silent, and the ships’ horns were a distant memory.