Victorian London - Thames - Docks - London Docks

The London Docks are situated between Ratcliffe Highway and the Thames. The first stone of these works was laid June 26. 1802. One immense dock covers, with the warehouses, the space extending very nearly from Nightingale Lane to Old Gravel lane in one direction; amid, in another, nearly from Hermitage Street to time south side of Pennington Street. This dock alone is capable of holding five hundred ships, with room for shifting. Another, called Shadwell Dock, adjoining, will hold about fifty ships. There are two entrances from the Thames, by basins capable of containing small craft; one at the Hermitage, rarely opened; the other near Wapping Old Stairs, in constant sloe; and a third, the eastern entrance, near Shadwell Dock Stairs. Here is an extensive range of warehouses for general merchandise. The warehouses for the reception of tobacco only are immense. The largest is seven hundred and sixty-two feet long, and one hundred and sixty feet wide, equally divided by a strong partition wall, with double iron doors. The smallest is two hundred and fifty feet by two hundred. Both consist of ground-floors and vaults; the cellars in the smaller warehouses are for wines, and generally contain 5000 pipes. The whole is under the care and control of the officers of the Customs, the proprietors only receiving the rents.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

LONDON DOCKS (THE). Situated on the left bank of the Thames, between ST. KATHERINE'S DOCKS and RATCLIFFE HIGHWAY. The first and largest dock (John Rennie, engineers) was opened Jan.30th, 1805; the entrance from the Thames at Shadwell, Henry R. Palmer, engineer, was made in 1831; and the New Tea Warehouses, capacious enough to receive 120,000 chests, were erected in 1844-45. This magnificent establishment comprises an area of 90 acres - 35 acres of water, and 12,980 feet of quay and jetty frontage, with three entrances from the Thames, viz., Hermitage 40 feet in width; Wapping, 40 feet; and Shadwell, 45 feet. The Western Dock comprises 20 acres; the Eastern, 7 acres and the Wapping Basin, 3 acres. The entire structure cost 4,000,000l. of money. The wall alone cost 65,000l. The walled-in range of dock possesses water-room for 302 sail of vessels, exclusive of lighters; warehouse-room for 220,000 tons of goods; and vault-room for 60,000 pipes of wine. The tobacco warehouse alone covers five acres. The number of ships entered in the six months ending May 3 1st, 1849, was 704 , measuring upwards of 195,000 tons. Six weeks are allowed for unloading, beyond which period the charge of a farthing per ton is made for the first two weeks, and halfpenny per ton afterwards. The business of the Docks is managed by a Court of Directors, who sit at the London Dock House, in New Bank-buildings, whose capital is  4,000,000l.; and there have been as many as 2900 labourers employed in the docks in one day.

"The Tobacco Warehouses are rented by Government at 14,000l. a-year. They will contain about 24,000 hogsheads, averaging 1,200lbs. each and equal to 30,000 tons of general rnerchandise. Passages and alleys, each several hundred feet long, are bordered on both sides by close and compact ranges of hogsheads, with here and there small space for the counting house of the officer of Customs, under whose inspection all the arrangements are conducted. Near the north-east corner of the warehouses is a door inscribed 'To the Kiln,' where damaged tobacco is burnt, the long chimney which carries off the smoke being jocularly called 'The Queen's Pipe.' -Knight's London, iii. 76.

This is the great depot for the stock of wines belonging to the Wine Merchants of London. Port is principally kept in pipes sherry in hogsheads. On the 30th of June,1849, the Dock contained 14,783 pipes of port ; 13,107 hogsheads of sherry ; 64 pipes of French wine; 796 pipes of Cap wine ; 7607 cases of wine, containing 19,140 dozen; 10,113 hogsheads of brandy; and 3642 pipes of rum. The total of port was 14,783 pipes, 4460 hogsheads, and 3161 quarter casks.

    "The courts and alleys round about the London Docks swarm with low lodging-houses, and are inhabited either by the Dock labourers, sack-makers, watermen, or that peculiar class of London poor who pick up a precarious living by the water side. The open streets themselves have all, more or less, a maritime character. Every other shop is either stocked with gear for the ship or for the sailor. The windows of one house are filled with quadrants and bright brass sextants, chronometers and huge mariner's compasses, with their cards trembling with the motion of the cabs and waggons passing in the street. Then comes the sailor's cheap shoe-mart, rejoicing in the attractive sign of 'Jack and his Mother.' Every public-house is a Jolly Tar,' or something equally taking. Then come sail makers, their windows stowed with ropes and lines smelling of tar. All the grocers are provision agents, and exhibit in their windows tin cases of meat and biscuits, and every article is warranted to keep in any climate. The corners of the streets, too, are mostly monopolised by slopsellers, their windows party-coloured with bright red and blue flannel shirts, the doors nearly blocked up with hammocks and well-oiled 'nor' westers,' and the front of the house itself nearly covered with canvas trousers, rough pilot coats, and shiney black dreadnoughts. The passengers alone would tell you that you were in the maritime districts of London. Now you meet a satin-waistcoated mate, or a black sailor with his large fur cap, or else a Custom-house officer in his brass-buttoned jacket.
    "As you enter the dock, the sight of the forest of masts in the distance, and the tall chimneys vomiting clouds of black smoke, and the many- coloured flags flying in the air, has a most peculiar effect; while the sheds, with the monster wheels arching through the roofs, look like the paddle-boxes of huge steamers. Along the quay, you see new men with their faces blue with indigo, and now gaugers with their long brass-tipped rule dripping with spirit from the cask they have been probing; then will come a group of flaxen-haired sailors, chattering German; and next a black sailor with a cotton handkerchief twisted turban-like around his head. Presently a blue-smocked butcher, with fresh meat and a bunch of cabbages in the tray on his shoulder, and shortly afterwards a mate with green parroquete in a wooden cage. Here you will see sitting on a bench a sorrowful- looking woman, with new bright cooking tins at her feet, telling you she is an emigrant preparing for her voyage. As you pass along this quay the air is pungent with tobacco, at that it overpowers you with the fumes of rum. Then you are nearly sickened with the stench of hides and huge bins of horns, and shortly afterwards the atmosphere is fragrant with coffee and spice. Nearly everywhere you meet stocks of cork, or else yellow bins of sulphur or lead-coloured copper ore. As you enter this warehouse, the flooring is sticky, as if it had been newly tarred, with the sugar that has leaked through the casks, and as you descend into the dark vaults you see long lines of lights hanging from the black arches, and lamps flitting about midway. Here you sniff the fumes of the wine, and there the peculiar fungous smell of dry-rot. Then the jumble of sounds as you pass along the dock blends in anything but sweet concord. The sailors are singing boisterous nigger songs from the Yankee ship just entering, the cooper is hammering at the casks on the quay, the chains of the cranes, loosed of their weight, rattle as they fly up again; the ropes splash in the water; some captain shouts his orders through his hands; a goat bleats from some ship in the basin; and empty casks roll along the stones with a hollow drum-like sound. Here the heavy laden ships are down far below the quay, and you descend to them by ladders, whilst in another basin they are high up out of the water, so that their green copper sheathing is almost level with the eye of the passenger, while above his head a long line of bow-sprite stretch far over the quay, and from them hang spars and planks as a gangway to each ship.
    "This immense establishment is worked by from one to three thousand hands, according as the business is either "brisk or slack. 
    "He who wishes to beheld one of the most extraordinary and least known scenes of this metropolis should wend his way to the London Dock gates at half-past seven in the morning. There he will see congregated within the principal entrance masses of men of all grades, looks, and kinds. There are decayed and bankrupt master butchers, master bakers, publicans, grocers, old soldiers, old sailors, Polish refugees, broken-down gentlemen, discharged lawyers' clerks, suspended Government clerks, almsmen, pensioners, servants, thieves- indeed, every one who wants a loaf and is willing to work for it. The London Dock is one of the few places in the metropolis where men can get employment without either character or recommendation." Henry Mayhew, Labour and the Poor in the Morning Chronicle for Oct., 1849.

[click here for full text of this article quoted by Cunningham]

Mode of Admission.--The basins and shipping are open to the public; but to inspect the vaults and warehouses an order must be obtained from the Secretary at the London Dock House in New Bank-buildings; ladies are not admitted after 1 p. m.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850


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The vastly increasing importance of the Colonial wool trade for some years past has induced the directors of the London Dock Company to enlarge very considerably the warehouse appropriated to the reception of this article, and to provide therein long ranges of glass roofing, whereby most superior accommodation is gained on all the floors for the advantageous inspection of wool when placed on show. 
    The accompanying view of a portion of the interior exhibits the convenient adaptation of the floors for stowing and shewing wool. The public sales of wool occur every six weeks, and are attended by dealers and manufacturers from Yorkshire and other counties, as also by buyers from the Continent.
    Every bale, when on show, is Inspected by drawing out a portion of wool, which, after examination, is thrown en the floor; which to a stranger has a most extraordinary appearance, so much lying on the gangways, that the parties inspecting it frequently walk knee deep in loose wool. 
    The sales of wool in the London Dock warehouses alone vary in quantity front 15,000 to 25,000 bales at one time. The machinery employed Is capable of housing 3000 daily; and the accommodation for delivery will admit 1500 to be disposed of in one day. These operations give employment to 200 men, exclusive of clerks and foremen. The importation of wool annually at the London Docks is 130,000 bales, the value of which is ?2,600,000.
    A sale commenced on Thursday week, and will last till Thursday, Sept 12

Illustrated London News, August 31, 1850


LONDON DOCKS lie immediately below St. Katharine's Docks, and were opened in 1805; John Rennie, engineer. They comprise 90 acres: 35 acres of water, and 12,980 feet of quay and jetty frontage; with three entrances from the Thames - Hermitage, Wapping, and Shadwell, where the depth of water at spring-tides is 27 feet. The western Dock comprises 20 acres, the eastern 7 acres, and the Wapping Basin 3 acres, besides a small dock exclusively for ships laden with tobacco. The two large Docks afford water-room for 302 sail of vessels, exclusive of lighters; warehouse-room for 220,000 tons of goods; and vault-room for 80,000 pipes of wine arid spirits. Time superficial area of the vault-room is 890,545 feet; of the warehouse-room, 1,402,115 feet. The enclosing walls cost 65,000l. The capital of the Company is four millions of money. Six weeks are allowed for unloading, beyond which period a farthing per ton is charged for the first two weeks, arid then a halfpenny per week per ton. In 1839 a magnificent jetty and sheds cost 60,000l.; and in the previous twelve years a million of money bad been expended in extensions and improvements. In 1858 two new locks were constructed to admit the immense vessels now built: each has 28 feet depth of water, and they are probably the most perfect works of their kind yet erected; engineers, Messrs. Rendell.
    In these Docks are especially warehoused wine, wool, spices, tea, ivory, drugs, tobacco, sugars, dye-stuffs, imported metals, and other articles. These, except time wine, tea, spices, and ivory, may be inspected by an order from the Secretary; for the wine a "tasting order must be obtained from the owners. The shipping and people at work may be seen without any order. Rummage sales are those by order of the Dock Company, for payment of charges, pursuant to Act 9 Geo. IV., cap. 116, sec. 106.
    Of the Wine-vaults, one alone, formerly 7 acres, now extends under Gravel-lane, and contains upwards of 12 acres: above is the mixing-house, time largest vat containing 23,250 gallons. The Wool-floors were considerably enlarged and glass-roofed in 1850: the annual importation is 130,000 bales; value, 2,600,000l. A vast Tea-warehouse was completed in 1845; cost, 100,000l.; stowage for 120,000 chests of tea. To inspect the Ivory-warehouse requires a special order: here lie heaps of elephant and rhinoceros tusks, the ivory weapons of sword-fish, &c.
    The great Tobacco-warehouse, "the Queen's," is rented by Government for 14,000l. per annum: it is five acres in extent, and is covered by a skilfully iron-framed roof, supported by slender columns: it will contain 24,000 hogsheads of tobacco, value 4,800,000l.; the huge casks are piled two in height, intersected by passages and alleys, each several hundred feet long. There is another warehouse for finer tobacco; and a cigar-floor, in which are frequently 1500 chests of cigars, value 150,000l.
    Near the north-east corner of the Queen's Warehouse, a guide-post, inscribed "To the Kiln," directs you to "the Queen's Pipe," or chimney of the furnace; on the door of the latter and of the room are painted the crown-royal and VR. In this kiln are burnt all such goods as do not fetch the amount of their duties and the Customs' charges: tea, having once set the chimney of the kiln on fire, is rarely burnt; and the wine and spirits are emptied into the Docks. The huge mass of fire in the furnace is fed night and day with condemned goods: on one occasion, 900 Austrian mutton-hams were burnt; on another, 45,000 pairs of French gloves; and silks and satins, tobacco and cigars, are here consumed in vast quantities: the ashes being sold by the ton as manure, for killing insects, and to soap-boilers and chemical manufacturers. Nails and other pieces of iron, sifted from the ashes, are prized for their toughness in making gun-barrels; gold and silver, the remains of plate, watches, and jewellery thrown into the furnace, are also found in the ashes.
    Lastly, in the London Docks in brisk times are employed nearly 3000 men: and this is one of the few places in the metropolis where men can get employment without either character or recommendation. At the Dock-gates, at half-past seven in the morning, "may be seen congregated swarms of men, of all grades, looks, and kinds. There are decayed and bankrupt master-butchers, master-bakers, publicans, grocers, old soldiers, old sailors, Polish refugees, broken-down gentlemen, discharged lawyers'- clerks, suspended government-clerks, almsmen, pensioners, servants, thieves-indeed, every one who wants a loaf and is willing to work for it". - Henry Mayhew.
The two Companies of the St. Katharine's Docks and the London Docks are now amalgamated, and have offices in Leadenhall-street, built in 1866.

John Timbs, Curiosities of London, 1867

Under the London Docks are the finest vaults in the world, vast catacombs of the precious vintages garnered from every famous vineyard in the globe. The vaults in the London docks cover an area of eighteen acres, and afford accommodation for eighty thousand pipes of wine. One of the vaults alone is seven acres in extent, and the tea warehouses will hold one hundred and twenty thousand chests of that fragrant herb.
    To go into these vast wine vaults is indeed a treat. It is like entering a City of the dead, only that instead of the skeletons of human beings piled on top of each other, you find an Aceldama of casks, pipes, barrels, hogsheads, and butts, bonded and stored tier upon tier ... The vaults are only separated from the bed of the Thames by a thick wall, and at noonday gas has to be turned on to light the way to the enormous storehouses of wine and brandy. Passes are granted by the companies and the owners of liquors on bond, called "tasting permits," which gives the privilege to the visitor to ask an attendant for a sample of any wine, or wines and liquors that he may choose to taste.

Daniel Joseph Kirwan, Palace and Hovel : Phases of London Life, 1878

London Docks.-The London Docks belong to the same company as the St. Katharine and Victoria Docks (which see) and lie immediately to the eastward of the former, from which they are divided by Nightingale-lane, running from Upper East Smithfield to Wapping High-street. The best means of approach is, from the west, by way of Aldgate and the Minories to East Smithfield, or from the east, by way of the Leman-street Station. The entrance is at the corner of Nightingale-lane, where East Smithfield and Upper East Smithfield join. The London Dock system is much more extensive than that of the St. Katharine Docks, Covering an area of 99 a. 1 r. 20 p., whereof 39 a. 3 r. 16 p. are water, and 59 a. 2 r. 4 p. land. They comprise three docks and four basins, with four entrances to the river, the first of which leads through the Hermitage Basin, one acre in extent, into the western dock, a magnificent piece of water, quadrangular in form, close upon 20 acres in extent. From the centre of the western quay, a jetty of 800 feet in length projects rather more than half-way across the basin, Which is about 1,250 feet in length by 700 in width, and is surrounded by huge warehouses on every side. On the southern side of this dock, a few yards to the eastward of the extremity of the jetty, Wapping Inner Dock, 300 feet in length by about 50 in width, leads into Wapping Basin, a bottle-shaped piece of water, with an area of 3a. 16 p., the neck of which, in the shape of an entrance 166 feet long by 40 inl width, with a depth on cill of 28 feet below Trinity high water mark, leads out across Wapping High-street to the river. A third passage about 180 feet in length, leads out of the north-east corner of the western dock into the  Tobacco-dock, a small piece or water only 2r. 24 p. in extent, having on its northern side the immense north-east wool warehouse, covering a space of 180,000 square feet. The principal feature, indeed, of the western dock is its range of wool warehouses, the greater proportion of the wool trade having formerly found its way into this dock. Close by is the large furnace familiarly known as Her Majesty's Tobacco Pipe, but practically used for the destruction by fire of all confiscated articles doomed to that extremity.
    From the eastern end of the Tobacco-dock, another passage of similar dimensions to the western, and crossed by Old Gravel-lane over a swing-bridge, leads into the eastern dock, a quadrangular piece of water about 600 feet by 400, with an area of 6a. 1 r. 3p. Two jetties project into this dock, one from the west quay on the south side of the sort of recess into which the Gravel-lane entrance opens, the other from the south quay, each being about 180 feet in length. On the northern and eastern sides of this dock are the principal sugar warehouses, the north-eastern corner being allotted to the rum department. From the centre of the eastern side two passages lead under bridges across New Gravel-lane, the southernmost into Shadwell Basin, a small parallelogram about 400 feet by 150, with an area of 1 a. 1 r. 9 p., the northernmost into Shadwell New Basin, a quadrangular area of acres, separated from the Old Basin only by a narrow jetty. From the New Basin an entrance 350 feet in length by 60 in width, with a depth on the cill of 28 feet below Trinity high water mark, leads across Lower Shadwell-street to the river ; the old entrance from Shadwell Old Basin, 180 feet in length by 48 in width, and with a depth on the cill of 28 ft. 5 in. below Trinity high water mark, coming out about 50 yards to this westward; a few yards to the westward of this again being the dock-master's house. The extent of quay and jetty frontage of the London Docks is in all about 14,150 feet, and the articles principally dealt with are tea, wool, sugar, coffee, fruit, guano, hemp and other fibres, indigo, metals, molasses, oils, rice, spices, cubic nitre, silk, tobacco 4nd cigars, grain,wines and spirits. 
    The wool warehouses and show floors in this and the St. Katharine Dock are the largest in London, and are not only in close proximity to the City, but have direct telegraphic communication over special wires with the Wool Exchange in  Coleman-street. The wool warehouses form a great group by themselves, the separate houses being connected by numerous bridges, and occupying no less than 6? acres of ground, with a floor area of about 28 acres. They embrace the E Warehouse in the St. Katharine Dock, and the Crescent, New Wing, New Warehouse, West Quay Shed, No. 7 Warehouse, and North-East Shed in the London Dock, the last of these being set apart for low-class wools. They are fitted both externally and internally with elaborate hydraulic machinery for housing and delivering the wool, as well as with reading, writing, and refreshment rooms, lavatories, &c., for the convenience of the trade, and being carefully constructed with a view to the securing the much desiderated northern light, enable the wool to be seen to the best advantage. They can house at one time 100,000 bales, and show simultaneously 24,000 bales. The Crescent Warehouse, moreover, in the London Docks is in direct railway communication with the import sheds of the Victoria Dock, from which the new arrivals of wool can thus be transferred at a single operation. The following table will show the total number of bales allotted for public sale in the wool warehouses of this company, with the corresponding totals for the whole of London at three years intervals for the last 17 years:

London & St. Katherine Docks Co. Total London
1862 92908 333801
1865 167800 459679
1868 268273 685915
1871 230342 771198
1874 247945 826492
1877 327801 1006213
1878 306485 1055301
1879 to 30 June 195652 580883

The London Docks are in direct  railway communication with the Victoria Docks, belonging to the same company, and with all the principal railways of the United Kingdom, a special branch running from the western end of the Leman-street Station to the foot of the great jetty in the western dock. For restrictions as to tasting wines, unlicensed labour, and inflammable articles, see VICTORIA DOCKs.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881

WINE VAULTS, London Docks. The London Docks lie to the East of St. Katherine's Docks, and were constructed in 1805, at a cost of ?4,000,000. They extend over an area of 120 acres and contain water space enough for 300 vessels. They have extensive warehouses for goods and their wine vaults can store more than 8,000,000 gallons of wine. At times more than 3,000 men are employed at these docks in one day, and every morning at the principal entrance a large crowd of labourers may be seen waiting in hopes of obtaining work. Permission to visit the vaults may be obtained from the Secretary of the London Dock Company at 109 Leadenhall Street, E.C. Those wishing to taste the wines must obtain a tasting order from a wine merchant. Ladies are not admitted after 1 p.m.

George Birch, The Descriptive Album of London, c.1896