Pictorial History of the Millwall Docks. Part 5: Closure

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.

Millwall Cutting, Inner Dock beyond that.


A Fred Olsen Shed

A Fred Olsen Shed

Glass Bridge Closed

Glass Bridge Closed

Kingsbridge from the top of McDougalls

Looking across Barnfields towards the Outer Dock

Outer Dock




Inner Dock with partially demolished Glass Bridge in foreground, M-Shed and Millwall Cutting in background.

Glass Bridge Demolition

Temporary Glengall Bridge


M-Shed and Millwall Cutting

Inner Dock looking north

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9 Responses to Pictorial History of the Millwall Docks. Part 5: Closure

  1. Dave Penn says:

    Regarding the closure of West /Millwall Docks I was working in there till October 1980, then I transferred to Tilbury and it was still working then, regarding the work the PLA purposely told ships to anchor in the estuary and tell the owners there were not enough men in the London Docks as they were too busy, it wasn’t about the work it was about the PLA getting the money from LDDC for the land

  2. timmotyswift says:

    I used to work in the IT dept for the LDDC for a couple of years during the early years of the corporation. Worked in the office between the Fred Olson Sheds. Tremendous site you have, hope you keep it up.

  3. Julia Vine says:

    My dad worked in these docks, he was a stevedore. We went to the closing dance, very sad day.

  4. Mr George Pye says:

    If you think there is a free press, think again, I tried to expose the lies being told about the
    reason for closing the millwall/west india docks was that we would not introduce modern machinery
    etc this was all lies, we were probable the most modern dock in country though I agree we were
    one of the smallest. I and my other union reps had as many aurguments with the union as we did with the bosses!! indeed in late 1979 the PLA bought a quarter of a million container crane, so at that time we had two container berths, thought the PLA refused to use the bigger one, At the time
    I could not understand later I did, As a union rep there from 1960-1980 I over saw the transfermation
    of the dock from a war damaged dock to “as I said ” the most modern in britain.All the lies told
    by the PLA was told in front of the TV Cameras from the Royals, that had no money spent on a great number of berths etc. So the view for people looking on saw old tin shed, with their roofs
    flapping in the wind etc etc and we got more unhelpful press again. It took me over twenty years to stop filling angry & bitter though if some one mentions Maggie I am more as likely to swear at them!!
    George Pye 5th Generation Stevedore working in Millwall Docks.

    • Harry Cole says:

      I travelled the world as a merchant seamen, and believe me George, there are plenty of ports that are based around the movement of smaller ships. Not every cargo ship has to be a massive container ship, so the public was sold a lie on that one! In my opinion, both the West India Docks and the Royal Docks could have been used to service bulk cargo and containers effectively, right into the centre of London with a little bit of political will and some infrastructure improvement. But think of the value of all that land George…the LDDC certainly did!

  5. Harry Cole says:

    I often wonder if I was on the last London-registered British cargo ship to berth at the Millwall Dock. The ship was called the Somersetbrook and delivered sawn timber from Archangel. It was the last run of the season before the port of Archangel iced up, so it would have been late September/early October 1980. After that, the only vessels that could deliver timber would have been the Soviet-flagged ships with ice-breaker bows. I seem to recall only one other ship in the entire dock complex at the time, and that was Panamanian.
    We had a few drinks at the Magnet & Dewdrop before heading up to Charlie Brown’s, but sadly both pubs were very quiet. One of the older members of the ship’s crew remembered Charlie Brown’s heyday when it was packed with thirsty sailors and dockers. I hear that Charlie Brown’s has been demolished. That is a real shame, because there was a lot of history in that pub.
    1980 was a sad time to be in the British Merchant Navy: a sister ship, the Devonbrook (quickly sold off to a Hong Kong mob) was one of the last ships to be built at Sunderland Shipbuilders before that yard was closed, and the Doxford engine that powered it would have been one of the last big marine engines built before the Doxford works closed also. It was awful to witness the world’s largest merchant fleet disintegrate before our eyes, but it seemed to me that the destruction of the British shipping lines, the shipyards and the docks was almost wilful – ideological even. It was as if the politicians had declared war on the ordinary British working man (and woman).

    • Geoge Pye says:

      We did not need to cater for large container ships, though we could handle vessels up to 30 thousand tons. what with the olsens terminal two container berths roll on off sheds wood terminal
      etc etc, no the reason the government choose Millwall west india was political, that’s why they would not let the press in to see the lies being told also they did all their interviews from down the royals!! as they were very run down in most of the places!!!
      I grew up believing we had a free press, it came as a shock when I tried to get the film I took about how modern it was, and could not get any one in the press or tv to get it aired??
      George Pye last stevedore to use Milwall Docks “as I had a weeks holiday” while my mates went to tilbury!!

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