The London Docklands

The riverfront and former docks in London are known as London Docklands.

It is situated in the boroughs of Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham, Newham, and Greenwich, which are in inner east and southeast London.

The docks were once a component of the Port of London, which was once the biggest port in the world.

The West India dock, which initially opened in 1802, was followed by the London (1805), East India dock (also 1805), Surrey dock (1807), Regent's Canal Dock (1820), St. Katharine dock (1828), and the West India South dock (1802). (1829). The Royal Victoria (1855), Millwall (1868), and Royal Albert were among the Victorian docks that were primarily located further east (1880). The King George V Dock (1921) was the final one constructed.

River Thames with the Docks from Woolwich to the Tower" from This map shows all of the main upstream London docks except the King George V Dock, which had not been built. It was to be located to the south of the Royal Albert Dock, which is the large dock at the far right.

Edward Weller (d. 1884) A Dictionary Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation by J.R. M'Culloch - Longmans, Green and Co. London, 1882

Initially, several rival private businesses constructed and ran the docks. The Port of London Authority (PLA), which merged the enterprises in an effort to improve labour relations and the efficiency of the docks, began managing them starting in 1909. The King George V dock, the last of the docks, and the Tilbury docks were both significantly expanded by the PLA in 1921.

SS Euripides was the first ship to use King George V dry dock, opened on July 23, 1921. It could be flooded with water in one and a half hours.

Museum of London

There were three main types of docks. Ships were loaded or unloaded at wet docks while at anchor. Individual ships were taken for repair to much smaller dry docks. Dockyards along the riverbank built ships. The river was also surrounded by countless warehouses, piers, jetties, and dolphins (mooring points). Different ports tended to specialise on particular types of vegetables. For instance, Millwall specialised in grain; St. Katharine took wool, sugar, and rubber; and so on. The Surrey Docks focused on timber.

The Docklands before the Second World War.


The construction of the docks led to the formation of several close-knit local communities, each with their own distinct cultures and slang. They tended to grow in isolation because of the lack of contact with other areas of London. For instance, there were only two swing bridges that allowed access by road to the Isle of Dogs. 

The war encroaches

East London's docks and riverside factories played a crucial strategic role in the Second World War, supplying the rest of the country with essential supplies and services and serving as the starting point for a number of important military projects. For example, portions of two massive, prefabricated ports, each roughly the size of Gibraltar, were later built at East India Dock by tens of thousands of British workmen in preparation for their towing across the English Channel and setting down off the coast of Normandy as part of Operation Overlord.

Royal Docks air raid precautions. Completed concrete shelter covered with earth. Entrance shown on the right. An emergency exit was allowed for the left-hand end. Date 11/07/1939.

So, it is unsurprising that the Germans considered this centre of commerce and industry a legitimate target, and they dropped around 25,000 bombs on the Port of London alone. The Docklands, however, was also a heavily populated and underdeveloped area where tens of thousands of working-class Londoners resided in substandard dwellings.

One of many fires started in Surrey Commercial Dock, London, on 7th September 1940, after a heavy raid during the night by German bombers.

AP Photo/Staff/Worth

The Royal Albert Dock was targeted, and it was there that the HM Trawler Abronia was sunk when the crane next to it was struck directly and fell on top of it.

Seven Royal Navy ratings who were hiding at the time under the same crane perished.

They were interred among civilians killed in the same attack in community grave number 1 at the East London cemetery, which represents the brutal reality of the Luftwaffe bombing raids.

Fire boats at West India Docks during the Blitz.

Fire crews in action with five jets, fighting devastating fires resulting from the raids at Surrey Commercial Docks in September 1940.

London Fire Brigade / Mary Evans Picture Library / Caters News

This photograph was taken from a bedroom window in Forest Hill, south London, as the Blitz got underway and the East End and dockland burned. 

The Blitz, as viewed from Forest Hill, 1940 (

View along the River Thames in London towards smoke rising from the London docks after an air raid during the Blitz. 7th September 1940.

New York Times Paris Bureau Collection.

Three days later, a bombing in Canning Town's South Hallsville School killed both individuals waiting to be rescued from the war-torn docks and families who had lost their houses. Buses scheduled to carry the evacuees to safety were unintentionally delivered to Camden Town in a catastrophic mix-up.

73 persons were counted as dead at the time, while various reports place the death toll between 400 and 600. There has been little news coverage of the catastrophe, which is thought to be a result of a government cover-up designed to keep morale up and thwart any possible German propaganda.

This photo was taken on the first day of the Blitz from the Fleet Street area and shows the result of the attack on the Docklands.

The Blitz, as viewed from Forest Hill, 1940 (

Clouds of smoke are seen rising from the docks following the Luftwaffe raids on 7th September 1940.

London Fire Brigade / Mary Evans Picture Library / Caters News

A scene of devastation in the Dockland area of London attacked by German bomber on 17th September 1940.

AP Photo

Warehouses ablaze (the left wing of the No.8 warehouse) following the heavy enemy bombing raids on the Surrey Commercial Docks in Rotherhithe on 7th September.

Millenium Mill

The Millennium Mill at Victoria Docks, a company owned by Messers Spillers Ltd., was one that was directly impacted by enemy bombing. On September 7 at 17:40, numerous high explosive devices were dropped on the mill. Fires started instantly and quickly spread to other areas of the mill.

A high explosive bomb was dropped on the Screen Room, which then quickly took fire, according to Mr. W. Brown, a fire watcher stationed on the grounds at the time. The sprinkler system throughout the mill failed as a result of the shutdown of the Turbine House and Engine Room. 

Plan of the damage to Millennium Mill.

The Screen Room, Flour Mill, Loading Shed, and Warehouse were all totally destroyed because the fires weren't properly put out for three to four days after the incident.

The Prime Minister and Mrs Churchill meet a group of auxiliary firemen during a tour of London's docks. September 1940.

© PLA Collection/Museum of London.

Heroics of the firefighters

Numerous lives were saved from an inferno at Surrey Docks on the day the Luftwaffe made its first visit to the London Docklands thanks to the bravery of local firefighters.

  • A fire boat under the command of Richard Ashton was pulling a barge from South Wharf with 50 passengers on board. With bombs still dropping and unmanned ships drifting aimlessly across the Thames after their mooring lines burned away, this was no simple task. By successfully navigating between them, Ashton and a colleague were able to safely discharge his terrified passengers at Nelson's Dry Dock upriver.
  • James Bowtell, a co-worker of Ashton, assisted him in guiding the 50 people across the river and to safety while dodging the blazing barges. The Peckham man, 43, was also given a Commendation.

Surrey Docks heroes Harold Barrett (L) and Timothy Muir (R).

  • Harold Barrett oversaw the group of people responsible for evacuating the workers and nurses from the Receiving Station via the Pier and ferrying them to Millwall on the Isle of Dogs.
  • To save a matron who was caught inside a blazing receiving station, Timothy Muir, in risked his life.  Their escape was fraught with danger, as he forced the matron through cracks in the flame walls, down blazing streets, and rescuing her from a flooded bomb crater after she became trapped. For his efforts in this rescue, Muir received the renowned George Medal.
  • Nathaniel Barnes, a 50-year-old machinist who was residing in Waterloo at the time, offered to dive underwater to cut free a rope that was entangled in the propeller after helping with the staff's river crossing by police boat. He allowed the boat to carry out more rescue operations. According to the records, he was nominated for an award (although did not win it).

Aerial photo of the South Wharf Receiving Station.

Southwark Local History Library

  • Frederick Meeks, 26, from Rotherhithe's Amos Estate, ventured out on his own after learning that nurses were stuck in the South Wharf. He navigated a small boat between burning barges, but the tide swept him back downstream. Meeks was awarded a Commendation for his work, continuing to assist in extinguishing fires throughout the night and the next day "with cheerfulness and indifference to danger."
  • William Petley, a mechanic, was awarded a British Empire medal for his aggressive assistance in putting out fires, evacuating people, and saving staff members and locals.
  • Last but not least, Samuel Melvin, a 44-year-old auxiliary driver who wasn't even meant to be on duty that day, responded to the attack on Surrey Docks by offering his assistance. After a risky trek through blazing streets in three separate cars and an unfortunate encounter with a flooded bomb crater, he and Muir successfully rescued a matron from the burning scene and brought her to safety. Sister Annie E. Hope, the matron, was the last to run down the pier in search of safety on a boat, but she was forced to turn around when an incendiary bomb fell on the pier in front of her. Melvin and Muir were awarded the George Medal for their efforts.

Ambulance shelter at the Receiving Station.

Wellcome Library

Damage from Luftwaffe raids on 8th/9th December 1940

© PLA Collection/Museum of London /

Bomb damage to London Dock. West End of Denmark Shed showing bulged quaywall of South Side of Western Dock.


Although there were significant human casualties, the Royal Docks were open throughout the war despite the constant bombing. Due to German submarine raids on British commercial ships, they handled less freight, which resulted in food shortages and rationing, but many still made it through, and the docks helped keep Britain supplied with food.

When the temporary harbours for the Normandy landings were built there in secret toward the end of the war, the Royal Docks played a crucial role. Once finished, they were towed in the direction of Folkestone and erected to assist with the landings and the advance of the Allied forces across northern France.

The crucial role of the dockers to the war effort brought some improvement in their working conditions, including the introduction of mobile canteens. Here the staff of the PLA’s Mobile Canteen No 32 dispense tea to queuing dockers, 1942.

Post War

The ports never fully recovered from the tremendous damage they sustained during the Second World War and between 1960 and 1980, all of London's docks were closed, leaving about eight square miles of vacant land in East London.

A significant portion of the Docklands was transformed into a mix of residential, commercial, and light industrial space during a big construction effort in the 1980s and 1990s.

Memorial plaque to the bombing of the docks.

A present-day Canary Wharf.

Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Docklands' population has more than doubled over the past 30 years, and it has developed into a significant business hub. Canary Wharf has grown to become one of the largest skyscraper clusters in all of Europe and a significant addition to the City of London's financial services area.

Although the majority of the historic wharfs and warehouses were destroyed, some of them were repaired and made into apartments. A significant exception is the Surrey Commercial Docks, which are now mostly filled in and are one of the few remaining docks that are still in operation. These docks are currently used as marinas or watersports facilities. Even though huge ships can still periodically visit the old ports, all commercial traffic has gone eastward and downriver.

Further reading