West India Docks

Built to put an end to loses suffered from pilfering on the open Thames riverside wharves. West India Docks stretched for half a mile across the Isle of Dogs, the peninsula formed by a loop of the Thames. These were the first and the finest of the of the walled docks of the 19th century age of trade, which enabled London to surpass Amsterdam as the richest city in the Western World. They were built under the aegis of the West India Dock Act of 1799; the first parliamentary rather than municipal Act for dock building. William Pitt, the Younger, then Prime Minister attended the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone in 1800.

Opened in 1802 the Docks consisted of an Import Dock of 30 acres of water, and an Export Dock of about 24 acres large enough combined to berth over 600 big ships. At each end was a basin connecting both Import and Export Docks with the river through locks. Locks were also constructed in the cuts joining the docks with the basins. Ships entered on the Blackwall side basin and lighters on the Limehouse end on the side nearer London. This system avoided congestion. The basins could allow up to 20 ships to enter at high tide thus avoiding the delays of locking each ship separately.

A continuous line of three-quarters of a mile of warehouses five-stories high were built around the Import Dock. The Export Dock needed fewer building since the cargoes were loaded aboard on arrival. The whole area was surrounded by a twenty-foot-high brick wall as protection against theft. The warehouses were superbly constructed. Over a century later they showed no sign of deterioration. The Dock complex was designed by William Jessop, a famous engineer of the time who designed both canals and docks including the Grand Union Canal, and his assistant Ralph Walker with John Rennie who acted as a consultant.

Three years after the docks were opened the City Canal, lying to the south of the docks, was completed by the City of London as a shortcut across the Isle of Dogs between Blackwall and Wapping. Since no tolls were charged the canal was soon considered a liability and was sold to the West India Company in 1829. Later it was widened and used as a dock for discharging timber. In the 1860's it was reconstructed as the South West India Dock. All the Docks on the Isle of Dogs were closed in 1980.

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