Victorian London - Thames - Docks - Royal Victoria Dock

Royal Docks, History of

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The VICTORIA DOCKS occupy 200 acres of marsh, at Plaistow, below Blackwall, and furnish great facilities of accommodation to ships of the largest tonnage. They were opened in 1 855; Mr. Bidder engineer, and Messrs. Peto, Betts, and Brassey, contractors. The basin covers 90 acres, and the wharfage space is more than a mile in length. This, the latest of the Dock Companies, is by no means the least enterprising, and several steam-tugs ply up and down the River to bring vessels into the "new docks," which, by the way, are connected with the North Woolwich branch of the Eastern Counties Railway.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865

VICTORIA LONDON DOCKS, the, in the Plaistow Marshes, Bidder, engineer, opened 1855, provide a much larger area of water, and will admit larger vessels, than the other London Docks. The lock-gates, cranes, and capstans, are all worked by hydraulic power. The first estimate of cost was a million of money. The basin covers 90 acres, and contains more than a mile of quay and wharfage: contractors, Peto, Betts, and Brassey. In the course of the works, various ancient British and Roman coins were discovered, some Roman urns, a circular shield of tin, bones of deer and some other animals. The ground, which was excavated, consisted of the deposit of the Thames, which, like a huge lake or sea, formerly covered all the now green marshes of Essex. The Victoria Docks, from the peculiarity of position, cost less, it is said, than any hitherto formed.

Names of Docks Capital Area of Water Accommodation Cost per acre.
St. Katherine's 2,152,800 11 acres 195,640
London Docks 3,938,310 28 acres 140,654
East and West India Docks including Canal and Pond 2,003,000 112 acres 17,884
Victoria Docks, estimate for Works and Land to be occupied therewith 450,000 90 acres 5,000

John Timbs, Curiosities of London, 1867

Victoria and Albert Docks (Royal).-These docks, which belong to the same company as the St. Katharine and London Docks, commence at the eastern extremity of Canning Town, just below the farthest point of the East India Docks. They are approached by the North Woolwich Branch of the Great Eastern Railway, and reach from Blackwall to Galleon's Reach, considerably below Woolwich - a distance of three miles in a direct line; the whole extent covered being 6cc acres, of which 184 acres are water space, and 427 acres land; a portion of this latter being intended, according to present plans, to be laid out as building land. The Royal Victoria Dock is approached from Bugsby's Reach by an entrance 330 feet long by 80 feet wide, with a depth on the sill of 28 feet below Trinity high. water mark, and a tidal basin in the form of an oblong with nice corner cut off, and covering an area of 16 acres. Just above the entrance is a landing-place, between which and the Blackwall railway-station a steam ferry plies every quarter of an hour; and across the canal, just above the lock, is a swing-bridge, over which passes the Victor ia Dock- road at its junction with the North Woolwich-road for Silverton and North Woolwich. From either end of the north quay of the tidal basin two jetties, each about 300 feet in length, project into the basin, and a five-ton crane, connected with the railway by an elaborate system of sidings, occupies the centre of the quay. Two large jetties, 500 feet long by 150 wide, facing each other on the eastern side of the basin, and furnished like the rest of the system with railway sidings, leave between them a passage way 100 feet in width through which to enter the main dock, an immense area 3,000 feet in length by rather more than 1,000 in width, covering a space of 74 acres, and laid out upon the prin ciple adopted in the East India Import and South West India Dock, but on a somewhat more comprehensive scale. The whole of the North Quay is furnished; with jetties, eight in number altogether, four of which, each up wards of 500 feet in length by about 150 in width, run boldly out into the very centre of the basin, affording accommodation on either side for the largest vessels as yet afloat, or, so far as can be judged, likely at present to be afloat, or for two or even more vessels of any ordinary size. The remaining four jetties which alternate with them are somewhat smaller, two of them running to about 350 feet by 100 feet, and the others - those towards the eastern end - about 280 by 120 feet. The space in the middle of the quay, which would otherwise be occupied by the fifth of the smaller jetties, is left vacant, the jetty by which it would be occupied being on the opposite quay. In the centre of the North Quay and fronting the open space are the dock offices, the greater part of the remaining space on this side being occupied by a couple of vast ranges of tobacco warehouses and by an immense extent of coal sidings. The whole of the quays traversed by a system of railway metals, from which sidings are carried off along either side of all the larger jetties, thus enabling goods to be hoisted straight out of the ships hold into the truck whereon they are to be conveyed to their inland destination. The smaller jetties each terminate in a long shed, occupying the whole extent of the quay between the larger jetties on either hand. Upon the Southern Quay the warehouses, which are more numerous and in much smaller blocks, are chiefly devoted to the reception of guano, jute and salt; this quay also being furnished with railway communication, though of a somewhat less elaborate description than that on the North Quay.
    At the eastern extremity of the South Quay a passage, 500 feet long by 150 feet in width, and closed by a pontoon, leads into the Graving Dock, a splendid basin, 600 feet by 450, with four offsets on the western and four on the eastern side, the former averaging 350 and the latter 250 feet in length. The Eastern Quay is occupied as regards its northern extremity by guano sheds, and as regards the southern by extensive creosote works, between which a canal, 1,000 feet long by 300 wide, leads to a passage 300 feet long by about 70 wide, crossed on a swing-bridge by the road to Silverton and North Woolwich, and leading to the fine basin of the Royal Albert Dock.
    According to its original construction the North Woolwich Railway would at this point have crossed the canal on the level, but it was justly considered impossible to carry on the business of a couple of crowded docks, the sole communication between which had to be cut off every few minutes throughout the day for the accommodation of passing trains. It was clear, therefore, that one or other must give way, and as the raising the general level of some 600 acres or so of dock to a height of say 50 or 60 feet would have been rather a serious undertaking, the railway, though first on the ground, had to yield the pas, and at a considerable expenditure of money, and some exercise of engineering skill, was sunk into a tunnel below the bed of the connecting canal, remounting again to its own level on the other side.
    The Royal Albert Dock, though at first sight beyond all comparison larger than the old, and actually double its length, is not really quite so large, nor does it afford quite the same extent of quay and jetty frontage, even in proportion to its size. The length of the old dock with its appurtenances is a mile, that of the new two miles, but this ample elbow-room in the way of length has led to the latter being constructed upon another and, as is considered, a much more economical system than the old.
    The new dock (which was opened on the 24th of June, 1880, by the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, representing the Queen) has a width instead of 1,000 feet of a little over 500 feet, affording in all 72 acres of water space, with about 20,000 feet of exclusively quay frontage in place of the 22,000 feet or thereabouts of combined quay and jetty frontage provided by the old dock. In point of fact the dock presents us with as thorough an example of the plain form of construction, as its neighbour affords of that which calls in the aid of jetties.
    The whole extent of the quays on either side - there are practically none at either end - is without projection of any kind, and vessels are moored throughout stem and stern along the wharves.
    In one respect, however, the arrangements of the Royal Albert Dock are unique, at all events so far as London is concerned. Along the whole extent of either quay runs a vast series of spacious iron sheds, each capable of storing the cargoes of five or six times the number of vessels that can lie opposite to them, and distributed alternately without regard to the nature of the cargo into "Import" and "Export" sheds. The amount of haulage and of shifting about from dock to dock is thus reduced to a minimum. A vessel enters, steams straight to her appointed berth, alongside of which she is made fast with little more trouble than a river steamer at a London pier, discharges her cargo direct into the shed opposite, and, once cleared, has simply to ease off her fasts and warp along the quay her own length nearer to the point of exit, and finds herself in front of a second shed, adjoining and precisely similar to the first, in which is already stored her outward cargo, only waiting to be hoisted on board. In very many instances, it appears probable that each shed may be used for both export and import purposes, and the vessel, once moored alongside the quay, re main until she leaves for her outward voyage.
    On the other side of the sheds is a network of railway metals with sidings into each shed, and additional sidings for the docking of loaded or empty coal trucks. As a general rule the goods will be whisked off as fast as landed to their ultimate destination on one or other of the innumerable railway systems with which these metals are in communication; but should their disposal be still undecided there is ample room for them to lie in the sheds for any reasonable amount of time, without interfering with the discharge of the next vessel. With the admirable hydraulic appliances by which the work is facilitated all over the premises, the time which the steamer has to remain in the dock between the moment of her entering with a full inward cargo and her departure, loaded down to her "Plimsoll," on a fresh voyage may be reckoned in days if not in hours.
    Arrangements are also in progress for promoting the rapid despatch of ships by enabling them to receive their coal at their berths either by land or water - an immense advance upon the old system, based upon the requirements of the old- fashioned sailing fleet - and in all other respects the arrangements of the new dock are most excellent, not the least important feature among them being two magnificent dry docks, one 410 and the other no less than 500 feet in length, and capable of accommodating the largest ironclads yet launched. These two docks are pierced in the western end of the Southern Quay, and between the coal-tips and the mast shears; the latter of which, capable of dealing with the heaviest spars, have a private siding of their own communicating with the general railway system.
    Another excellent, and in this case altogether novel feature, is the proposed provision of a first- class buffet with sleeping-rooms attached, in which such passengers as may prefer - as most wise passengers will prefer - securing the quiet time of the passage down the river for setting down and making everything fast, instead of coming on board at the last moment to undergo the pangs of sea-sickness in the midst of a rampant chaos of loose furniture and baggage, may sleep in comfort on the night preceding departure, or even take up their abode altogether during the time their sea-going quarters are being prepared.
    From the eastern end of the Royal Albert Dock, a passage 200 feet long by 80 wide, leads into the basin, a piece of water of a stunted pentagonal form, and with an area of 12 acres. The open portion of the quay around this basin is occupied by extensive waiting - rooms; and from the eastern extremity an entrance lock, 550 feet in length by 80 in width, and with a depth on the sill of 30 feet below Trinity high-water mark, leads out into Galleon's Reach, the entrance being protected by two piers of open timberwork, each between 200 and 300 feet in length, and curving outwards so as to make a bell- mouthed approach.
    Every class of foreign produce is dealt with at these docks, but their specialties may be said to be chiefly the larger and heavier articles of commerce, such as the metals, molasses, rice, grain, sugar, guano, and most especially of all, wool, for the lead in which trade these docks are laying themselves out with considerable energy. They also, as will be seen from what has been said above as to the proposed buffet at the Royal Albert Dock, go in heavily for the passenger trade, of which they, with their next - door neighbours the East and West India Docks, have practically a monopoly with regard to all but the comparatively short services performed by the vessels of the General Steam Navigation Company.
    The work done in the construction of the new dock has been of a most extensive description. Upwards of 4,000,000 cubic yards of soil have in the course of its construction been excavated and raised to an average height of 17 feet, whilst 500,000 cubic yards of concrete, absorbing 80,000 tons of the finest Portland cement, have been employed, together with 20,000,000 of bricks, in the various foundations, retaining walls, jetties, &c.
    One of the heaviest portions of the work has been the keeping down of the water, of which a maximum amount of 43,000,000 gallons was pumped out daily. The number of men employed upon the works varies between 2,000 and 3,000. The whole of the lock-gates, swing-bridges, capstans, cranes, and other mechanical appliances are fitted with and will be worked by hydraulic machinery; and the whole dock is enveloped in a complete system of pressure pipes and water mains, fitted with hydrants at frequent intervals, and capable of immediately extinguishing fire on board of any ship, or in any shed or warehouse on the dock premises. Arrangements are also made in connection with this latter system for the prompt supply to vessels of any amount of water required. 
    The whole of the new dock, as well as the old, is connected with the different railway systems throughout the kingdom, and will run direct from the new, as they already run from the old dock, to the manufacturing districts. A still further development of the railway system is contemplated on the opening of the Royal Albert Dock, in the shape of special passenger trains, which will be run by the Docks Company under private arrangements with the Great Eastern Railway Company, between Fenchurch-street and the quays of the two docks. Passengers booking by these trains from either Fenchurch-street, Liverpool- street, or Victoria Park - at which latter point the Great Eastern system comes in contact with those of the North London and North Western Companies - may thus be conveyed direct to the ship's side, walking on board from their carriages as from the railway-train at Calais or Ostend.
    Since July of 1879 the company have developed at the Royal Victoria Dock a new line of business in the landing and transhipment of cattle from such countries as are permitted to send us stock otherwise than for immediate slaughter. For this purpose a special Order in Council had to be obtained, and a very large outlay has been incurred by the company in the erection of the necessary lairage, &c., with the railway sidings and other appliances necessary to ensure the prompt conveyance of newly-landed cattle to their destination. Special permission has also been given for the transhipment in these docks of stock from the United States for Deptford Market, when not licensed for disposal alive.
    The tasting of wines is only allowed under an order from the proprietor of the goods, which must be presented at the vault- keeper's office. No persons other than the servants of the company are allowed to perform any work or labour on the premises of the company, whether on board ship, in lighters, or on shore, with the exception of crews discharging the cargoes of their own ships, stevedores and their men stowing cargoes for export, lightermen and carmen delivering or receiving goods, and lightermen navigating their craft.
    Neither resin, pitch, tar, sulphur, spirits of turpentine, rough turpentine, nor other similar goods are allowed by the insurance offices to be stored in either of the upper docks. All such articles, there fore, can only be received at the Royal Victoria and Albert Docks.

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