Georgian Era Commerce ~ Part IV: The St Katherine Docks and the Custom House

If you are interested in reading the previous posts on the Early Nineteenth Century Commercial District in this series, please check out the links below: 

Part I: Introduction to Georgian Era Commerce

Part II: The West India Docks and the London Docks

Part III: The Surrey Docks and the East India Docks

The last of the docks bringing commerce to London’s doors was the St Katherine docks. They were located in the area known as Tower Hamlets on the north side of the Thames. It was higher up the river than the London, West India, East India, and Surrey Docks. Situated close to the Tower of London, the dock reported claimed the land of a Georgian slum of some 1200 houses for its construction. The name comes from a 12th Century hospital of St Katherine’s by the Tower, which once stood upon the site. The hospital was part of the demolition. 

An Act of Parliament in 1825 provided the permission to develop the area, and construction began in 1827. Thomas Telford served as the designer. The brown brick warehouses stood on Greek Doric columns mdd of cast iron. “The scheme was Telford’s  only major project in London. To create as much quayside as possible, the docks were designed in the form of two linked basins (East and West), both accessed via an entrance lock from the Thames. Steam engines designed by James Watt and Matthew Boulton kept the water level in the basins about four feet above that of the tidal river. Telford aimed to minimize the amount of quayside activity and specified that the docks’ warehouses be built right on the quayside so that goods could be unloaded directly into them.” (St Katharine Docks)

the 1828 opening of St. Katherine Docks the-docks/our-heritage

the 1828 opening of St. Katherine Docks

While Telford designed the docks themselves, architect Philip Hardwick designed the yellow brick, six storey warehouses, including cast iron window frames and large vaults to keep luxury goods such as wine and tobacco safe. Hardwick also utilized the Greek Doric columns on the dock’s offices. It was not unusual to find cargoes from around the world to be found docked before the warehouses, which provided “1.5 acres leading to two four-acre docks…that could provide storage for 1.25 million square feet items. While considerable in acreage, the post was not deep enough for large, steam-driven ships which would soon play a more dominant role in international commerce. St Katherine’s Docks was never a great financial success and was forced to merge with the nearby London Docks in 1864.” (Brief History During the Snow Era 1813-58) “Sugar, rum, tea, spices, perfumes, ivory, shells, marble, indigo, wine and brandy ~ the docks thrived with bustle and commerce.” (St Katherine Docks: Our Heritage)

“As late as the 1930s, St Katharine Docks enjoyed a roaring trade of these goods, and was described as a focal point for the World’s greatest concentration of portable wealth.

Source:  Davies BR. London 1843, Publisher: Chapman & Hall, 186 Strand, London, Nov. 1, 1843. snow/1859map/ stkatherines_dock_a3. html

Source: Davies BR. London 1843, Publisher: Chapman & Hall, 186 Strand, London, Nov. 1, 1843.

“Between the two world wars, the World’s trade ships grew too large for St Katharine Docks and it was instead employed in war work. Although the site was a victim of The Blitz, Telford and Hardwick’s visions can still be seen today, as the modern office bloc ks such as International House and Commodity Quay, which house internationally renowned businesses, sympathetically mirror the architecture of the imposing warehouses that stood on the site before them.

“Ivory House, built in 1852, still stands with its distinctive clock tower and today it houses luxury warehouse apartments, smart restaurants and shops.” (St Katherine Docks: Our Heritage)

The Custom House was part of London’s dock system. It was rebuilt after the peace of 1814 at the expense of the central government. A committee solicited plans for the redesign. Son of a city tradesman and pupil of [John] Soane’s, the man who designed the Bank of England, David Laing was named Surveyor to the Customs and designed the customs house at Plymouth. Later, he was asked to submit designs for the proposed New Custom House in London. The old building by Ripley stood since 1718, but was found inadequate by 1812 and later accidentally destroyed by fire. 

The committee overseeing the project reject Laing’s initial plans, and so he created a simpler design, “a massive rectangular block. Laing estimated the cost at £209,000, but the contract was won by Miles and Peto, with a tender of only £165,000. During construction, costs escalated, and there were disputes between Laing and the contractors.” (David Laing)

The building sported a triple domed hall and a wall of windows. Praise for the structure was common at the time, and among the loudest touting the building was Laing himself. Confident in his abilities and his new place in the world, Laing published a book of designs, including farms and villas and forty-one plates showing the Custom House. In the book, Laing even describes the issues faced in laying the foundation for the building. 

Drawing showing the New Custom House ~ Public Domain wiki/David_Laing_ (architect)

Drawing showing the New Custom House ~ Public Domain
wiki/David_Laing_ (architect)

The Fates were not so kind to Laing. Cracks in the central section of the block showed cracks as early as 1820. In 1824, a section of the river facade collapsed, as did the floor of the main hall. The beech piling was found to be badly executed, and Laing was accused of being negligent in overseeing a fraudulent contractor. Robert Smirke, from the Office of Works, took on the responsibility of repairing the damage. Smirke demolished Laing’s centre and rebuilt the inside with Ionic columns for supports. Needless to say, David Laing was removed from his post as Architect & Surveyor of the Board of Customs. His reputation and his business fell into ruin. 


Opening of St Katharine Docks, 25 October 1828 ~ Wikipedia



About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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3 Responses to Georgian Era Commerce ~ Part IV: The St Katherine Docks and the Custom House

  1. Pingback: REGENCY COMMERCE: THE DOCKS « Julia Justiss :: News/Blog

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