Before the later part of the Georgian Period in England few buildings/structures specifically designed for trade and commerce existed. One need only to look at the timber wharfs of the Port of London to understand the haphazard way the people took up the need to greet the large number of ships arriving from around the world. Merchants often had their offices in the ground floors of their abodes. Shops were often no more than the front room of a house with a large window for display purposes. Warehouses were kept in cellars or outbuildings. Markets appeared on streets or upon a square, and businessmen had stalls or wagons or carts from which they conducted transactions. Only custom houses and exchanges were built specifically for business.
According to John Summerson in Georgian London (Yale University Press, 1988), English imports and exports were valued as £13,000,000 in the early 1700s. By the end of Robert Walpole’s reign as Prime Minister in 1745, the value rose to £19,000,000. At the beginning of the Seven Years’ War in 1754, it achieved £20,000,000. The Seven Years’ War brought the commerce of India, Canada, and the West Indies to London’s ports. As the country turned toward the new century in the early 1790s, the value rose again to £34,000,000. By 1800, the value rose again to nearly £61,000,000.
Only one port authority controlled the Thames coming to London’s doors. “The Legal Quays of England were created by the Act of Frauds (1 Elizabeth I, c. 11), an Act of Parliament enacted in 1559 during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. It established new rules for customs in England in order to boost the Crown’s finances. One of its most important provisions was the establishment of a rule that it was illegal to land or load goods anywhere other than authorised Legal Quays in London and other ports, under the supervision of customs officers.
“The legislation also set out which towns were authorised to act as ports. Although many quays already existed along the Thames shoreline, Paulet, Sackville and Mildmay decreed that ‘all creeks, wharves, quays, loading and discharging places’ in Gravesend, Woolwich, Barking, Greenwich, Deptford, Blackwall, Limehouse, Ratcliff, Wapping, St Katherine’s, Tower Hill, Rotherhithe, Southwark and London Bridge should be ‘no more used as loading or discharging places for merchandise.’ Twenty existing quays with a frontage of 1,419 ft (433 m), all located on the north bank of the Thames between London Bridge and the Tower of London, were designated as Legal Quays.In order of their position between London Bridge and the Tower of London, they were:
Custom House Quay
Brewster’s Quay (Wikipedia)
“After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Britain remained neutral, watching from the side-lines, but in 1793, when French troops occupied Belgian lands, threatening the Dutch as well as British overland trade via the River Scheldt, war was instigated. British troops were sent onto continental Europe, but were defeated at the battle of Hondschoote in the September of 1793.” (Historia Nerdicus) This introduction into a war with France brought to the forefront the need to correct the system of legal quays. The City of London in cooperation with a stock company earned the right to build a dock and a canal on the Isle of Dogs in July 1799 by Royal Assent.
The West India Dock, in the Isle of Dogs, began in 1800. These were cargo-handling docks. The West India Dock was followed by the London Dock at Wapping (1802), the Surrey (Greenland Docks)in 1804, the East India Dock at Blackwall (1805), and finally, the St. Katherine’s Dock (1825). All these structures were controlled by private companies.