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13 November 2014

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The River Thames

You are in: London > History > The River Thames > History of the Thames

Sunset over the River Thames

Sunset over the River Thames

History of the Thames

The Port of London Authority has a rich history on the River Thames from the air raids of World War II to the Docklands building boom of the 1980s.

Early History

The Romans developed the Port of London around 50AD when they established a settlement called Londinium on the River Thames. It later became a major trading and ship building area for the Saxons, Normans and Tudors. London was a port long before it became a great city and the capital of England.

Clay pipes found in the River Thames

Clay pipes, centuries old, found in the Thames

During the 16th century London became a centre of shipbuilding and repair. In 1558 a commission was set up to select legal quays for imports and by 1576 London was the world’s foremost trading port.

In the 18th century the Port struggled to cope and Parliament authorised the building of two new docks and a range of warehouses on the Isle of Dogs. They were opened on 22 August, 1802. Later, in the 19th century, more docks opened including the East India Dock, Millwall dock and the Royal Albert Dock.

The Port of London Authority

Trade flourished on London's docks but by the end of the 19th century improvement works were desperately needed. With no clear way forward, a Royal Commission conducted a governing review. A report issued in June 1902 recommended creating a central body – the Port of London Authority – which started its duties on 31 March 1909.

Teddington Lock

Teddington Lock

Since 1909 the new Port of London authority was obliged to provide quays, wharfs and warehouses.

The PLA’s first project was a deepwater shipping channel – part of a £12m works’ programme which included the Tilbury Docks extension, and a cargo jetty at King George V Dock. These projects were delayed as a consequence of the 1912 dock strike.

During the 1920s and 30s further expansion and development included the King George V dock completed, the 15-acre Quebec Dock and a new group lock completed at Blackwall Reach and South Dock (formerly City Canal).

World War II

The Thames and London's Docks suffered heavily during the Second World War.
The first bombs fell on the heavily-targeted Thames during 1939 and continued until
late 1941. The Port was left in a terrible state after nearly 900 missiles, as well as thousands of incendiary bombs, had fallen on PLA property as well as numerous attacks on private riverside property.

Customs Officers

Customs Officers in Docklands

Recent Events

The 1950s saw post-war reconstruction of the Thames completed and in 1964 trade topped 61m tonnes. However, by the late 60s dock use was declining due to the introduction of containerisation - this had a dramatic effect on the docks.

Containers could hold huge amounts of cargo and with the roll on/roll off method it led to many dock workers becoming obsolete. Container ships would carry large amounts of cargo to the large port of Tilbury in Essex. The Port of Tilbury was improved in 1969 and today is of one of Britain's three major container ports (the other two are Southampton and Felixstowe).

During the 70s and early 80s London's docks continued to close until regeneration took place after the formation of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in 1981.

In 1983 work was completed on the Thames Barrier in Woolwich. The structure consists of 10 movable gates across the width of the river, with each of the circular gates being supported between concrete pillars. Work started on the £500m project in 1974. It is now one of the most recognisable features of London, its striking shape is a true marriage of both form and function.

Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf

Business, housing, educational and leisure facilities have transformed the docks today. Canary Wharf, the Docklands Light Railway and the Excel Centre are just some examples of the huge amount of regeneration that has taken place across East and parts of South east London.

The PLA today is responsible for maintaining river channels for navigation, moorings, lights and buoys and providing a wide range of services for shipping, including, since 1988, pilotage services.

London is still one of Britain’s leading ports and the Thames has over 70 operational wharves.

Centenary Events

The PLA will be celebrating its centenary by hosting some special events. Click on the link below to find out more.

last updated: 06/03/2009 at 11:03
created: 03/03/2009

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