West India Docks — a first for London
Opened on 27th August 1802, West India Docks were London's first purpose-built cargo handling docks. They were the largest structure of their kind in the world at that time, placing London at the forefront of world trade.
The docks were built in response to overcrowding of merchant ships in the River Thames. By the late 1700s around 13,500 ships arrived in London each year from all around the world. They moored in the river while hundreds of small boats, called 'lighters', ferried cargoes between ship and shore. Theft was widespread and well organised. Black market trade in local public houses was a steady business!
Outraged at these losses, West India merchants, headed by Robert Milligan, pressed for the construction of purpose built secure dock. Engineers William Jessop, John Rennie and Ralph Walker were set the challenge to provide facilities that would reduce cargo handling from 4 weeks to 4 days. A row of 9 state of the art brick warehouses were constructed along the northern quayside where goods could be stored, checked and re-packaged under lock and key.
Only 2 of the original warehouses survived wartime bombs. One is now home to the Museum in Docklands.