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The Royal Docks - a short history

Early History

The early inhabitants of this marshy fen-land were probably Bronze or Iron Age fisherfolk. From the remains of a substantial timber track uncovered in the early 1990s, archaeologists believe the area sustained a number of settlements. In 1997 the remains of a Bronze age settlement were discovered on the site of what is now the Royal Docks Community School at Custom House. Among the remains were pieces of pottery, arrowheads, flints, a substantial wooden support post and parts of a yew tree.

Later the Romans had a burial ground nearby. Also evidence suggests there could have been a Roman road and ferry point and perhaps a look-out post at Gallions Reach.

During medieval times the area was known as Hamme, a name meaning ‘flat, low-lying pasture’. For a while it belonged to Guthrum the Dane who won it in a battle in 878 against Alfred the Great. By the time of the Domesday Book (1086) Hamme consisted of three separate manors; the eastern one, later to become East Ham, held by Robert Gernon, and the western one, the nucleus of West Ham, held jointly by Gernon and Ranulf Peverel. Little Ilford was a separate manor, held by Joscelin Lorimer. There was also a small estate at North Woolwich owned by Westminster Abbey, although North Woolwich belonged to Kent from the Norman Conquest - a curious arrangement which survived until 1965.

Very little is known about the area pre-1700, although cattle were grazed on what had come to be known as the Plaistow Marshes. By 1800 there was just one house (Devil's House owned by the Ismay French family) between Bow and Barking Creeks and only one road stretching from East Ham village to the river.

During the excavation of the Royal Victoria Dock hazel, oak and yew trees were found in a bog as well as British and Roman coins, a 27 foot canoe, a millstone, a Roman urn, a circular tin shield and many animal bones including those of a whale.


It was in the mid-1800s that the docks came to life. In 1847 the well known Victorian engineer George P Bidder completed his railway from Stratford to North Woolwich. This new line, which south of Canning Town followed the line of what is now Silvertown Way and North Woolwich Road, was called "Bidders Folly" because it passed through completely undeveloped marshland. But George Bidder sensed the potential of the area and soon he'd bought up the whole of the marshes between Bow Creek and Galleons Reach. He called the area "Lands End" and soon his investment was showing a handsome return as the land was sold for the docks and for a belt of factories along the River.

Early Industrial Ventures

The demand for land for factories here was encouraged, perhaps, by the Metropolitan Building Act 1844 which prohibited "harmful trades" within London. One of the first to arrive, in 1852, was Samuel Silver's waterproof clothing works which gave its name to the Silvertown district. In 1867 this factory, which had become a major local employer, was renamed the India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Cable Works - but Silvertown kept its name. Another early arrival was C J Mare who built an iron works and ship-building facility at Orchard Yard. Before long his Thames Ironworks became very well known throughout the world.

Important among the industrialists were Henry Tate and Abram Lyle who brought their refineries to the area. They merged in 1921 to form Tate & Lyle which still operates the Silvertown Refinery to the east. Their contribution to the history of the area, and its local life, has been significant.[More on Tate and Lyle]

By the 1880s the area had become a major centre of industry attracting people from all over Britain to work in the factories, docks and the Beckton Gasworks. Follow this link to see a list of the companies operating in West ham in the early 1900s.

New Settlements

All this, and the Royal Victoria Dock which opened in 1855, created employment and very soon there was a huge demand for housing to accommodate the workers and their families. Thus originated new settlements such as those at Hallsville, Canning Town and North Woolwich and before long there was housing in much of what is now Custom House, Silvertown and West Silvertown.

The new housing settlements lacked a proper water supply and sewerage system and the housing lacked basic amenities. Soon they became centres of disease such as cholera and smallpox. The hardships faced by people gave rise to action through trade union and political activities and the area became the focus of a number of new movements and several of those involved, including Will Thorne and James Keir Hardie, became leading figures in the Labour Party.

Much of the industry was also unhealthy or dangerous. This was highlighted on 19th January 1917 when 50 tons of TNT blew up in the Brunner Mond & Co works in Silvertown which, contrary to the judgement of the reluctant owners, had been given over to making munitions. This caused the greatest explosion in London's history. The noise of the blast could be heard as far away as Southampton and Norwich. Upwards of 70,000 buildings were damaged and 73 people were killed.

Between the wars the Council sought to alleviate some of the worst aspects of housing and poverty through a programme of slum clearance and health promotion. New houses with modern facilities were built and new services including clinics, nurseries and the lido were opened. The long delays faced by traffic were reduced by the construction of new approach roads to the Docks - including Silvertown Way which was Britain's first flyover and the Silvertown ByPass [More on the Flyover].

The area suffered very badly from bombing during the Second World War. Even before the War ended plans for re-development were being drawn up by West Ham Council. The aim was to reduce the population, transfer industry and provide new housing such as that on the Keir Hardie Estate which included also schools and welfare services.

Housing schemes in the early post war years followed a ‘garden city’ pattern with low density housing. But supply could not keep up with demand and in 1961 the first high-rise units appeared in Canning Town followed by Cranbrook Point and Dunlop Point in Silvertown (1967) and others which took their names from firms that had been in the areas where they now stood, such as Albion and Brocklebank tower blocks in North Woolwich. The collapse of one of the blocks - Ronan Point - in 1968 led to a rethink on high density housing and most of the tall blocks have since been demolished or cut down in size.


The areas in the south and west of what is now Beckton largely escaped this process of urbanisation and in due course they were earmarked for a fourth great dock, should the three massive Royal Docks prove inadequate. However, in the mid-1960s the Port of London Authority faced facts and abandoned its plans to build the dock.

Elsewhere the Gas Light and Coke Company in 1870 opened Europe's largest gas works, serving the whole of London. In honour of the event, the whole district was named after Simon Adams Beck, the Governor of the Company. What became today's GMB Trade Union was founded at these works, which stopped making gas only in 1969 after the introduction of natural gas.

Beckton's other historic service to London was in drainage. In 1875, Joseph Bazalgette's monumental drainage system for the metropolitan area was completed. It ended cholera in London and led to the development of the modern flush toilet. It also gave Beckton the distinction of being the destination for all the sewage of London north of the Thames, and of having the largest sewage treatment works in Europe.

Meanwhile, the fact that the PLA owned much of the land stood in the way of would be developers. The main exception was Cyprus, an estate built in 1881 after the opening of the Royal Albert Dock, and so named because of the raising of the Union Jack over the Mediterranean island three years earlier in 1878.

The Docks

The Royal Victoria Dock, which was opened in 1855, was the first dock built expressly for steam ships and the first to be planned with direct rail links onto the quay [More Details]. The Royal Albert Dock was opened in 1880 by the Duke of Connaught after whom the modern swing bridge is named. The Albert was equipped with hydraulic cranes and steam winches to handle vessels up to 12,000 tons and was served by the Great Eastern Railway. The two docks were linked by the Connaught Passage.

By 1886 there were 7 enclosed dock systems within the Port of London, namely the London and St Katherine's Docks, the Surrey Docks, the West India Docks, the Millwall Docks, the East India Docks, the Royal Victoria Dock, the Royal Albert Dock and Tilbury Docks. By this time there was over-provision of dock facilities and this gave rise to financial difficulties for the dock companies, and the East and West India Docks Company went into receivership in 1886. Low financial returns led to a lack of investment in new facilities and, at a time of rapid advances in technology, the ports' facilities became increasingly obsolescent and inefficient.

A Royal Commission was appointed in 1900 to look into these problems and as a result the Port of London Act was passed in 1908. The Port of London Authority (PLA) came into being the following year and took over the powers of all the existing companies. The PLA began an immediate programme of modernisation, including the construction of a new dock able to take ships of up to 30,000 tons. Following a considerable debate on the merits of enclosed docks as opposed to deep water berths the PLA decided to build an enclosed dock south of the Royal Albert Dock. The King George V Dock was opened in 1921, completing the Royal group of docks which, as a whole, formed the largest area of impounded water in the world [More Details]. Marsh land to the north, which is now Beckton, was earmarked for further expansion of the dock system but this was not to be. Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks handled bulk grain. The great mills on the south side of the Royal Victoria Dock - some now demolished – remain as a reminder of this.

As refrigeration methods improved, they started handling frozen meat as well as fruit and vegetables. During the 1926 General Strike, the threat was posed of some 750,000 frozen carcasses in the Royals rotting when electrical power was cut off, but two Royal Navy submarines sailed in to save the Royals' bacon by connecting up their generators to keep the freezers going.

Passenger cargoes also became big business. King George V Dock could berth the biggest liners of the time. Passengers could travel from mainline London stations by rail, some staying overnight in the now Grade II listed Gallions Hotel.

The Docks Decline

Over the period 1910-1950 the Royal Docks were relatively prosperous. The docks' layout permitted trans-shipment of break bulk cargos from ship to rail, to road and lighter transport or into warehouses for storage. Most of the cargo passing through the dock group was from deep sea trades, particularly with the British Commonwealth.

Traffic through the Royal Docks reached its peak in the 1950s and early 1960s. After that containerisation and other technological changes, and a switch in Britain's trade following EEC membership, led to a rapid decline. By 1978 the financial losses incurred by the upper docks, and the Royals in particular, had brought the PLA to the brink of insolvency. On consulting the Government the PLA were told to prepare restructuring proposals with a view to achieving commercial viability. The PLA's initial solution, known as the Radical Approach, was to close the upstream docks which were losing £9m a year without any prospect of paying their way.

However, in view of the severe impact of implementing the Radical Approach, a modified plan was put forward which involved further manpower reductions, changing working practices to improve productivity, and transferring the PLA cargo handling operations from the Royal Docks to the West India and Millwall Docks and Tilbury Docks. This recommended strategy was agreed by the Government except for the transfer of cargo handling away from the Royals, and £35m was granted to the PLA to implement the rest of the strategy. Further financial assistance was made conditional on keeping the upper docks operational.


It soon became clear that the funds provided by the Government were draining away. Losses in the Royal Docks, excluding interest and central overheads, increased from £4.6m per annum in 1978 to £6.7m per annum in 1981, and in consequence the decision was taken to close the West India and Millwall Docks in 1980. One of the conditions of further Government support was that the PLA operations had to be self-supporting by 1983. The Royal Docks were closed for general cargo handling at the end of 1981. The last vessel to be loaded in the Royals left the King George V Dock on 7th October 1981 and the last to be unloaded there discharged its cargo three weeks later.

A number of activities remained in the Royal Docks after cargo handling operations were transferred to Tilbury. One of these was the 'laying up' of vessels not in use which involved considerable costs in impounding, lock operation and maintenance including dredging. Since the revenues received did not cover these costs, the PLA decided to cease providing water access to the Royal Docks by the end of 1982. It was decided to keep the lock entrance at the east end of the King George V Dock in good condition so that it could be opened again in future if necessary. However, a willingness by the users to pay higher charges and a reduction in personnel costs by the PLA enabled them to keep the water access open until the end of 1983 for 'laying up' and ship repairs. The PLA received about £0.25m per annum from the laying up of ships.

The Docklands Development Joint Committee

The economic and social impact of the progressive decline and closure of the docks was a matter of increasing concern to the Dockland Boroughs and the GLC. During 1973 there were discussions with the Government leading to agreement on the setting up of a statutory joint committee for the area thus ensuring that the future of Docklands was firmly placed in their control.

The resulting Docklands Joint Committee (DJC) was established by the Government in January 1974 to prepare a strategic plan for the redevelopment of the Docklands area and to co-ordinate the implementation of that plan. The DJC was made up of members of the GLC and the five Docklands boroughs, including two from Newham, and there were co-opted members drawn from the world of business and finance. The Docklands boroughs and the GLC agreed to delegate to the Committee most of their development control functions, although the DJC was not intended to be an executive agent.

In April 1976 the DJC published a consultation draft of the London Docklands Strategic Plan (LDSP) which was finally adopted in July that year. From the outset problems of land assembly and inadequate funding hindered the early and speedy implementation of the Plan and it was not a success.

In Beckton the LDSP did help to set the ball rolling by confirming its development as a residential area with a population increase to 28,000 mostly in local authority housing. By 1981 Newham Council had drained the rnarshes and put in a foul drainage system. It had also laid out distributor roads, provided a large part of the eventual district park and started a council house building programme. One new school had been built and another was about to start. Two private residential schemes had also been put forward and progress was being made on Phase 1 of East Beckton District Centre, including the ASDA Superstore. The development of the London Industrial Park had started on former gas works land, providing a range of industrial and warehousing units as well as sites for larger users such as R. Whites, the drinks manufacturer. Some unpleasant "bad neighbour" industries on Tollgate Road and in Cyprus were in the process of being relocated. In spite of putting these foundations for the future in place, it was the dereliction of the past which dominated much of Beckton. The closed gas works were decaying and in parts dangerous. Employment was thin. Even before the Port of London Authority formally closed the Royal Docks in November 1981, employment in them had mostly been reduced to non-dock temporary work which only survived because of the low rents.

Enter the LDDC

Such was the situation when in mid 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was established to secure the regeneration of the area.

The attempts by the local authorities to deal with the foregoing issues were perceived by the new Thatcher Government to be much too slow; also that there was a need for resources on a scale which it would only make available through a focused agency of its own, wholly financed by grant from the Government and income generated by the disposal of land for housing, industrial and commercial development. Accordingly, as a response to the huge decline in the economy of the area brought about by the progressive closure of the docks from the 1960s onwards, the LDDC was established as an urban development corporation, the second to be established by the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, under s.136 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. Its object was to secure the regeneration of the London Docklands Urban Development Area (UDA) comprising 8½ square miles of East London in the Boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Southwark. [More on LDDC]

When the Corporation's boundaries were drawn it was considered that both Custom House and Canning Town were fully developed and well established residential areas which did not need the special attention and funding which the LDDC would bring. So, while generally in Newham the LDDC's boundary ran along the A13, here it dipped so that the area bounded by Silvertown Way, Victoria Dock Road and Prince Regent Lane was excluded. (In fact these areas had many needs and their exclusion caused the LDDC many problems over the years. But when finally the Corporation left the area in 1998 it was agreed that the whole of Newham to the south of the A13 could be included in the area of the Royal Docks Trust (London) and so now these locations benefit from the grants programme operated by the Trust (originally, until the end of March 2015, jointly with the LBN.)

There was much to do - in the LDDC’s own words...

“In 1981 the Royal Docks and the surrounding areas of North Woolwich and Silvertown were areas of economic and social deprivation, characterised by inadequate and poor social and community facilities. The area was physically isolated with few and poor public transport links, whether to elsewhere in Newham or to the City and West End.
"It is hard today to realise how much industry was once based in East London, a good deal of it near the Royals. Some industry continued after the closure, but much of it was there for reasons such as low rents in poor quality property. Transport, storage and industrial processes were among their number. There were, of course, notable exceptions such as sugar refiners, Tate & Lyle, with a long term commitment and long term loyalty to the area. The area has benefited considerably from their presence of more than one hundred years. But for the rest, it is hard to convey the sheer desolation of the area in the period after the closure of the Royal Docks: so close to the City and West End, yet so remote. Most Londoners remained ignorant of this huge blighted area of their city."

Exit the LDDC

The LDDC withdrew from its area by stages. The first area to go was Bermondsey Riverside in Southwark which was de-designated in October 1994, then Beckton in December 1995, the Surrey Docks Peninsula in December 1996, Wapping and Limehouse in January 1997 and the Isle of Dogs in October 1997. By 31st March 1998 - the date set for the demise of the Corporation –– the only area left was the Royal Docks.

Fuller information on the LDDC and its impact on the area can be found by going to the LDDC history pages – www.lddc-history.org.uk and the Museum of London website – www.museumoflondon.org.uk