Georgian Era Commerce, Part III: The Surrey Docks and the East India Docks

The cargo handling docks of the early nineteenth century were the West India Docks, the London Docks, the Greenland Docks, the East India Docks, and the St. Katherine’s Docks. Previously, we explored an overview of the time period and a look at the West India and London Docks. Today, we mean to explore the other major docks upon the Thames. 

The Surrey Docks lacked the “flash” and the design of either the West India Docks or the London Docks. The Surrey Commercial Docks included Greenland Dock. It is located in Rotherhithe, in the area known as the “Docklands.” The original plans for the docks came about in the last decade of the 1600s on land owned by the 1st Duke of Bedford. In 1695, the Russell family received parliamentary permission to build a rectangular dock and supporting acres to accommodate 120 ships. The dock was named Howland Great Wet Dock in honor of John Howland, a signer of the Mayflower Compact.

The name Greenland Docks came about because the docks accommodated whaling ships from Greeenland. The Docks fell into disrepair with the decline of the whaling industry. William Ritchie of Greenwich purchased the land upon which the docks sat and formed the Commercial Dock Company, headed by Alderman Sir Charles Price. The docks were converted to the timber and grain handling docks. The dilapidated buildings were brought down and new granaries constructed. In 1811, the dock was awarded an Act of Incorporation, giving it the capacity of 350 ships.

From A Rotherhithe Blog, we learn, “Another dock was also completed for timber handling and was ready for use at the opening of Greenland Dock, to which it was connected. On the map Greenland Dock is marked as “Commercial Docks” and the irregularly shaped dock above it, “New Dock,” later became Norway Dock (now the development known as The Lakes). Meanwhile, William Ritchie was busy with the creation of a small thin dock, which was added to the south of Greenland Dock, parallel to its southern end, also shown on the map to the left. This opened in 1811, the same year in which the Commercial Dock Company opened for business, with capacity for 28 ships. It supplemented Greenland Dock, handling similar traffic as well as supplies for the local shipyards. It is shown on maps between 1810 and 1843.


The Commercial Docks. At the Commercial Dock, Rotherhithe, there were multi-storey warehouses designed to store grain and seeds. 1827

“The new Commercial Docks were not the only docks in Rotherhithe. In 1807 the entrance to the Surrey Grand Canal had been extended to incorporate a basin (where Surrey Water is now located) for loading and unloading ships; and at the same time the East Country Dock Company opened the East Country Dock, a long thin dock parallel to Greenland Dock to it east, so there was competition for the CDC from the word go. However, in 1850 the East Country Dock Company sold the East Country Dock to the Commercial Dock Company, which they renamed South Dock, for £40,000. Between 1850 and 1852 the Commercial Dock Company expanded the dock, and connected it to Greenland Dock. A connection to the rail network was established in 1855, which linked South Dock, Greenland Dock and Norway Dock. Competition between Rotherhithe’s two dock companies, the Commercial Dock Company and the more laboriously named Grand Surrey Docks and Canal Company resulted in the impoverishment of both. Eventually the losses became untenable, business sense kicked in, and in 1865 the two companies were merged to form the Surrey Commercial Docks Company. The two separate dock systems were connected by two locks where they ran along side each other, which enabled them to form one integrated, albeit complex dock network with entrances from the Thames from Greenland Dock at one side of Rotherhithe and Surrey Basin at the other.”

The East India Docks were located in Blackwall, for the company had a variety of warehouses in the area. They were the third set of wet docks built in the early years of the 1800s. The East India Company already had in place a cargo system to move their goods from Blackwall to London by barge before the docks were built. Because the East India ships were so large they traditionally unloaded some of their cargo at Long Reach before sailing up the Thames to dock at Blackwall. “The valuable cargoes were then carried by lighters to the ‘legal quays’ and ‘sufferance wharves,’ and from them to the spacious East India Company warehouses, which by the late eighteenth century centered on Billiter Street and Cutler Street. The system was not entirely satisfactory, especially after the opening of the West India Docks and London Docks robbed the river pirates of their previously easy pickings in the chaos of the Pool, and they turned their attention to the exotic cargoes from the East Indies and the Indiamen’s ports of call on their homeward voyages: teas, silk, saltpeter, Madeira, wine and spices, all of which had a ready sale on the black market.” (British History Online)

Surprisingly, there were no large warehouses associated with the docks. With quays 200 feet wide, the docks sported only three low buildings to house the salt petre. After being loaded on the West Quay of the import dock, the goods were moved to the City warehouses over roads in closed caravans. The deep chests holding the goods were mounted upon four wheels and the “wagons” moved with the assistance of horses. The chests were padlocked with iron lock.

“Despite the absence of storage within the docks, a variety of workmen was employed. As well as the Dockmaster, his Deputy and an Assistant, there were six officers and another six subordinate working men to supervise the labourers. There were 30 labourers, including watchmen, employed on yearly contracts, while another 100 men were engaged on a casual basis as ‘lumpers’ to load and unload the ships for eight months of the year. Other casual labour was hired if needed.  The docks were subject to stringent controls; indeed, regulation in the East India Docks was no less strict than in the West India Docks. Work in the dock did not start until ten o’clock, and at three o’clock in the afternoon in winter and four o’clock in summer a bell was rung which announced that the gate was to close. All work then stopped and the labourers, clerks, horses, wagons and carts as well as all visitors (permitted only with tickets) had to leave.” (British History Online)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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1 Response to Georgian Era Commerce, Part III: The Surrey Docks and the East India Docks

  1. Pingback: Georgian Era Commerce ~ Part IV: The St Katherine Docks and the Custom House | ReginaJeffers's Blog

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