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Docklands - Black Katz, rent a flat in London


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Docklands is the semi-official name for an area in the east of London, England, comprising parts of several boroughs (Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Greenwich) in Greater London. The docks were formerly part of the Port of London, at one time the world's largest port. They have now been redeveloped principally for commercial and residential use. The name London Docklands was used for the first time in a government report on redevelopment plans in 1971 but has since become virtually universally adopted. It created conflict between the new and old communities of the London Docklands.

Dockland areas

London Docklands comprise a number of former dock complexes along the Thames, which are (from west to east):

  • St Katharine Docks (Wapping)
  • London Docks (Wapping)
  • Regent's Canal Dock (now Limehouse Basin, Limehouse)
  • Surrey Commercial Docks (now Surrey Quays, Rotherhithe)
  • West India Docks, Millwall Dock and Poplar Dock (Isle of Dogs)
  • East India Docks (Blackwall)
  • Royal Docks (Royal Victoria Dock, Royal Albert Dock & King George V Dock)

Another dock system exists much further downstream at Tilbury, but this is not generally regarded as part of the Docklands.

The area referred to as the Docklands, which mostly lies on the north bank of the Thames, comprises chiefly of the former properties of the Port of London within the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Southwark. It does not comprise the whole of the former or the modern port, for which see main article Port of London.

To find property to rent, houses, flats and apartments in Docklands, or across London, please contact the Black Katz City office.† If you are a landlord wishing to rent out your house or flat please contact Black Katz, London's largest lettings only agency.


Development of the docks

In Roman and medieval times, ships tended either to dock at small quays in the present-day City of London or Southwark, an area known as the Pool of London. However, this gave no protection against the elements, was vulnerable to thieves and suffered from a lack of space at the quayside. The Howland Great Dock in Rotherhithe (built 1696 and later forming the core of the Surrey Commercial Docks) was designed to address these problems, providing a large, secure and sheltered anchorage with room for 120 large vessels. It was a major commercial success and provided a template for two phases of expansion during the Georgian and Victorian eras.

The first of the Georgian docks was the West India (opened 1802), followed by the London (1805), the East India (also 1805), the Surrey (1807), St Katharine (1828) and the West India South (1829). The Victorian docks were mostly further east, comprising the Royal Victoria (1855), Millwall (1868) and Royal Albert (1880). The King George V was a late addition in 1921. However this was only up till the 1950s.


Three principal kinds of docks existed. Wet docks were where ships were laid up at anchor and loaded or unloaded. Dry docks, which were far smaller, took individual ships for repairing. Ships were built at dockyards along the riverside. In addition, the river was lined with innumerable warehouses, pieres, jetties and dolphins (mooring points). The various docks tended to specialise in different forms of produce. The Surrey Docks concentrated on timber, for instance; Millwall took grain; St Katharine took wool, sugar and rubber; and so on.

The docks required an army of workers, chiefly lightermen (who carried loads between ships and quays aboard small barges called lighters) and quayside workers, who dealt with the goods once they were ashore. Some of the workers were highly skilled - the lightermen had their own livery company or guild, while the deal porters (workers who carried timber) were famous for their acrobatic skills. Most, however, were unskilled and worked as casual labourers. They had to assemble at certain points, such as pubs, each morning, from where they would be selected more or less at random by foremen. For these workers, it was effectively a lottery as to whether they would get work - and pay, and food - on any particular day. This arrangement continued until as late as 1965, although it was somewhat regularised after the creation of the National Dock Labour Scheme in 1947.

The main dockland areas were originally low-lying marshes, mostly unsuitable for agriculture and only lightly populated. With the establishment of the docks, the dock workers formed a number of tight-knit local communities with their own distinctive cultures and slang. Poor communications meant that they were quite remote from other parts of London and so tended to develop in some isolation. The Isle of Dogs, for instance, had only two roads in and out. Local sentiment was so strong that in 1920 residents blocked the roads and declared independence!

The docks in the 20th century

The docks were originally built and managed by a number of competing private companies. From 1909, they were managed by the Port of London Authority, or PLA, which amalgamated the companies in a bid to make the docks more efficient and improve labour relations. The PLA constructed the last of the docks, the King George V, in 1921, as well as greatly expanding the Tilbury docks.

German bombing during the Second World War caused massive damage to the docks with 380,000 tons of timber destroyed in the Surrey Docks in a single night. Nonetheless, following post-war rebuilding they experienced a resurgence of prosperity in the 1950s. The end came suddenly, between approximately 1960 and 1970, when the shipping industry adopted the newly invented container system of cargo transportation. London's docks were unable to accommodate the much larger vessels needed by containerization and the shipping industry moved to deep-water ports such as Tilbury and Felixstowe. Between 1960 and 1980, all of London's docks were closed, leaving around eight square miles (21 km≤) of derelict land in East London. Unemployment was high, and poverty and other social problems were rife.


Efforts to redevelop the docks began almost as soon as they were closed, although it took a decade for most plans to move beyond the drawing board and another decade for redevelopment to take full effect. The situation was greatly complicated by the large number of landowners involved: the PLA, the Greater London Council (GLC), the British Gas Corporation, five borough councils, British Rail and the Central Electricity Generating Board.

To address this problem, in 1981 the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, formed the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) to redevelop the area. This was a statutory body appointed and funded by central government (a quango), with wide powers to acquire and dispose of land in the Docklands. It also served as the development planning authority for the area.

Another important government intervention was the designation in 1982 of an enterprise zone, an area in which businesses were exempt from property taxes and had other incentives, including simplified planning and capital allowances. This made investing in the Docklands a significantly more attractive proposition and was instrumental in starting a property boom in the area.

LDDC was controversial - it was accused of favouring elitist luxury developments rather than affordable housing, and it was unpopular with the local communities, who felt that their needs were not being addressed. Nonetheless, the LDDC was central to a remarkable transformation in the area, although how far it was in control of events is debatable. It was wound up in 1998 when control of the Docklands area was handed back to the respective local authorities.

The massive development programme managed by the LDDC during the 1980s and 1990s saw a huge area of the Docklands converted into a mixture of residential, commercial and light industrial space. The clearest symbol of the whole effort was the ambitious Canary Wharf project that constructed Britain's tallest building and established a second major financial centre in London. However, there is no evidence that LDDC foresaw this scale of development and nearby Heron Quays had already been developed as low density offices when Canary Wharf was proposed, with similar development already underway on Canary Wharf itself, Limehouse Studios being the most famous occupant.

Canary Wharf was far from trouble free (Please see main article Canary Wharf), and the property slump of the early 1990s halted all development in Docklands for several years. Developers similarly found themselves saddled with property which they were unable to sell or let.

The Docklands historically had poor transport connections. This was addressed by the LDDC with the construction of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), which connected the Docklands with the City. It was a remarkably inexpensive development, costing only £77 m in its first phase, as it relied on reusing disused railway infrastructure and derelict land for much of its length. (LDDC originally requested a full Tube line, but the Government refused to fund it.)

LDDC also built Limehouse Link tunnel, a cut and cover road tunnel linking the Isle of Dogs to The Highway (the A13 road) at a cost of over £150 million per kilometre, one of the most expensive stretches of road ever built.

The LDDC also contributed to the development of London City Airport (IATA airport code LCY), opened in October 1987 on the spine of the Royal Docks.

The Docklands Today

Over the past 20 years, the population of the Docklands has more than doubled and the area has become both a major business centre and an increasingly acceptable area to live. Transport links have improved significantly, with the Isle of Dogs gaining a tube connection via the Jubilee Line Extension (opened 1999) and the DLR being extended to Beckton, Lewisham, London City Airport, North Woolwich and Stratford. Canary Wharf has become one of Europe's biggest clusters of skyscrapers and a direct challenge to the financial dominance of the City.

Although most of the old Dockland wharves and warehouses have been demolished, some have been restored and converted into flats. Most of the docks themselves have survived and are now used as marinas or watersports centres (the major exception being the Surrey Commercial Docks, now largely filled in). Although large ships can - and occasionally still do - visit the old docks, all of the commercial traffic has moved down-river.

The revival of the Docklands has had major effects in run-down surrounding areas. Greenwich and Deptford are undergoing large-scale redevelopment, chiefly as a result of the improved transport links making them more attractive to commuters.

The Docklands' redevelopment has, however, had some less beneficial aspects. The massive property boom and consequent rise in house prices has led to friction between the new arrivals and the old Docklands communities, who have complained of being squeezed out. It has also made for some of the most striking disparities to be seen anywhere in Britain: luxury executive flats constructed alongside run-down public housing estates.

The Docklands' status as a symbol of Thatcher's Britain has also made it a target for terrorists. After a failed attempt to bomb Canary Wharf, on February 9, 1996, a large IRA bomb exploded at South Quay. Two people died in the explosion, forty people were injured and an estimated £150m of damage was caused. This bombing ended an IRA ceasefire. In a 1998 trial James McArdle was imprisoned for 25 years after a trial at Woolwich Crown Court that ended on June 24. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, McArdle was released on June 28, 2000.

Future developments

The continued success of the Docklands redevelopment has prompted a number of further development schemes, including:

Extensions of the Docklands Light Railway to Woolwich and possibly Dagenham.

Crossrail mainline link between Canary Wharf, central London and north Kent.

Further development of Canada Water.

Redevelopment of Blackwall Basin and Wood Wharf, east of Canary Wharf.

Further development of the Royal Docks area, including the Silvertown Quays project.

In the early 21st century redevelopment is spreading into the more suburban parts of East London, and into the parts of the counties of Kent and Essex which abut the Thames Estuary. See Thames Gateway and Lower Lea Valley for further information on this trend.

If you would like to find houses or flats to rent in Docklands, or across London, please contact the Black Katz City office.† If you are a landlord wishing to rent out your flat, house or apartment, please contact Black Katz.

Popular Culture

Charles Dickens makes frequent use of the riverside and docklands in novels such as Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations, and there is a memorable description of the docks, their buildings and people, in Joseph Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea. The Docklands are also the location of District 1, the most functional section of Britain during the outbreak of Rage Virus and the headquarters for Army Officials in Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 2007 movie 28 Weeks Later.