London City Airport Consultative Committee

Before the Airport

A brief history of the Royal Docks




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This short abstract is drawn from a wider account of the history of the Royal Docks to be found on the website of the Royal Docks Trust (London)

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More History Pages:
About the Airport - Home Page (Alt+2)
History Home Page (Alt+3)
Origins and Early History (Alt+5)
1982 Airport Feasibility Study (Alt+6)
Public Opinion Surveys 1982/83 (Alt+7)
1983 Inquiry Report (Alt+8)
Constructing the Airport (Alt+9)
1990 Airport Inquiry Report (Alt+0) 
From the Archives (Alt+4)


Mauretania enters KGV Dock, 1939Origins

THE Royal Victoria Dock, which was opened in 1855, was the first dock built expressly for steam ships and the first to be planned with direct rail links onto the quay. The Royal Albert Dock, which was designed to take vessels of up to 12,000 tons, was opened in 1880. By 1886 there were 7 enclosed dock systems within the Port of London, namely the London and St Katherine's Docks, the Surrey Docks, the West India Docks, the Millwall Docks, the East India Docks, the Royal Docks and Tilbury Docks. The over-provision of dock facilities gave rise to financial difficulties for the dock companies, and the East and West India Docks Company went into receivership in 1886. Low financial returns led to a lack of investment in new facilities and, at a time of rapid advances in technology, the ports' facilities became increasingly obsolescent and inefficient.

A Royal Commission was appointed in 1900 to look into these problems and as a result the Port of London Act was passed in 1908. The Port of London Authority (PLA) came into being the following year and took over the powers of all the existing companies. The PLA began an immediate programme of modernisation, including the construction of a new dock able to take ships of up to 30,000 tons. Following a considerable debate on the merits of enclosed docks as opposed to deep water berths the PLA decided to build an enclosed dock south of the Royal Albert Dock. The King George V Dock was opened in 1921, completing the Royal group of docks which, as a whole, formed the largest area of impounded water in the world.Unloading tea, 1920

The Royal Albert Dock is 1.25 miles long and contains some 16,500 ft of quays. The King George V Dock is. 4,500 ft long, 500-700 f t wide and has some 3 miles of quays. Its entrance lock is about 800 ft long x 100 ft wide. The depth below impounded level of the dock water areas varies between 28 ft and 38 ft. Allowing for adequate under-keel clearance, the maximum loaded fresh water draught of vessels using the dock was 32 ft 6 ins. The entrance was big enough to accommodate the 35,655 ton Mauretania in 1939.

Over the period 1910-1950 the Royal Docks were relatively prosperous. The docks' layout permitted trans-shipment of break bulk cargos from ship to rail, to road and lighter transport or into warehouses for storage. Most of the cargo passing through the dock group was from deep sea trades, particularly with the British Commonwealth.

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Traffic through the Royal Docks reached its peak in the 1950s and early 1960s. After that containerisation and other technological changes and a switch in Britain's trade following EEC membership led to a rapid decline. By 1978 the financial losses incurred by the upper docks, and the Royals in particular, had brought the PLA to the brink of insolvency. On consulting the Government the PLA were told to prepare restructuring proposals with a view to achieving commercial viability. The PLA's initial solution, known as the Radical Approach, was to close the upstream docks which were losing 9m a year without any prospect of paying their way.

However, in view of the severe impact of implementing the Radical Approach, a modified plan was put forward which involved further manpower reductions, changing working practices to improve productivity, and transferring the PLA cargo handling operations from the Royal Docks to the West India and Millwall Docks and Tilbury Docks. This recommended strategy was agreed by the Government except for the transfer of cargo handling away from the Royals, and 35m was granted to the PLA to implement the rest of the strategy. Further financial assistance was made conditional on keeping the upper docks operational.

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Loading cars 1930sClosure

It soon became clear that the funds provided by the Government were draining away. Losses in the Royal Docks, excluding interest and central overheads, increased from 4.6m per annum in 1978 to 6.7m per annum in 1981, and in consequence the decision was taken to close the West India and Millwall Docks in 1980. One of the conditions of further Government support was that the PLA operations had to be self-supporting by 1983. The Royal Docks were closed for general cargo handling at the end of 1981.

A number of activities remained in the Royal Docks after cargo handling operations were transferred to Tilbury. One of these was the 'laying up' of vessels not in use which involved considerable costs in impounding, lock operation and maintenance including dredging. Since the revenues received did not cover these costs, the PLA decided to cease providing water access to the Royal Docks by the end of 1982. It was decided to keep the lock entrance at the east end of the King George V Dock in good condition so that it could be opened again in future if necessary. Container Terminal at TilburyHowever, a willingness by the users to pay higher charges and a reduction in personnel costs by the PLA enabled them to keep the water access open until the end of 1983 for 'laying up' and ship repairs. The PLA received about 0.25m per annum from the laying up of ships.

Other residual activities were the PLA's Comclear groupage operation and the Spillers Mill, both located on the south side of the Royal Victoria Dock. The SLIC depot groupage and transport operation on the south side of the King George V Dock was also still active. Scrap export operations continued until the Spring of 1983 before transferring to Tilbury. At this time the PLA were operating a temporary letting policy to meet the running costs of the docks. Only short term leases were offered, capable. of termination at 6 months notice.

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Such was the situation when in mid 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was established to secure the regeneration of the area. The proposal to build London City Airport - a radical break with the past - was put to the LDDC in November 1981- see separate article

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More Information

See a video clip from the Airport's 2001 CD "Delivering the Vision" (657kb)

For a fuller account of the history of the area visit the Royal Docks history page of the Royal Docks Trust (London).

For more on the regeneration of the area our Regeneration Page and also the LDDC History Pages.

See also the website History of Stratford, West Ham, Canning Town, Silvertown etc & lots of historical London Pubs and the Times Past page at West Silvertown Online

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An independent Consultative Committee established by London City Airport pursuant to Section 35 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982
John Adshead     Secretary: Stuart Innes

Page last modified: 28th August 2008