Port of London in The Great War

The Royal Docks after 1921.

London was the largest city in the world as well as the leading manufacturing centre in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century. When Britain went to war with Germany from August 1914, factories that made certain products switched instead to making munitions, or those producing garments to military uniforms. Economically, and leaving aside the great loss of lives of those who went to fight, London generally prospered from the Great War of 1914–18.

In the first years of the conflict, trade in the Port rapidly increased. Continental ports closed and shipments from allied countries were diverted to London. Troops and supplies were also being ferried to France from the Thames. The Port’s warehouses were soon unusually full with produce. There were so many vessels coming and going in the first months that there was congestion, with queues of ships at anchor in the Thames Estuary waiting for berths. Fortunately, at around that time, improvements initiated by the PLA at the East India, London, West India and Tilbury Docks were coming to fruition to ease the situation. As labour became scarce, dredging of the river ceased early in the conflict.

The PLA was directly employing around 4,500 men prior to the war and that increased to 8,000 in 1915. With the port so important to the war effort, workers were selectively exempted from being drafted into the armed services. Many anyway signed up or left to work in local munitions factories where high wages were on offer. Over 1,200 were enlisted to assist in French ports. To best regulate traffic throughout the country, the Port & Transit Executive Committee was formed in November 1915, with Lord Inchcape as chairman. One of its initiatives was to form mobile Transport Workers’ Battalions, consisting of soldiers, to provide labour whenever there was a shortage in a port. On occasion as many as 1,000 men from the battalions were employed in the Port of London.

In October 1914 the PLA’s engineers were requested to create a temporary pontoon bridge across the Thames at Gravesend, supported by seventy lighters, to prevent enemy ships entering the river. It opened to shipping for three hours on each high tide. Torpedo nets and booms were also set up at dock entrance locks. The Admiralty sought additional equipment in the Port’s dry docks for the repair of ships damaged by torpedoes but the PLA’s facilities were at that time intended primarily for painting and cleaning. Following negotiation it was agreed that the Admiralty would pay half the cost of the equipment. Security of the Port became even more important during the war. It was a task entrusted to the PLA police force who worked together with government Alien Officers. Of particular interest were foreign nationals, especially sailors arriving on alien vessels.

Britain had a superior navy and, despite some setbacks and losses, generally kept the German surface fleet in check. Much of the nation’s food and raw materials were imported, all of that arriving by sea, and it was therefore vital that the enemy was not able to blockade the ports. Understanding the importance of the Port of London to Britain, it became the target of Zeppelin air raids from the summer of 1915. The giant airships were notoriously ineffective in hitting targets and the damage was mostly psychological rather than physical. By 1917 the airships were being superseded by fixed-wing Gotha bombers. A shrapnel bomb dropped from one of them in the first big raid, in June of that year, hit a school in Poplar near the docks, killing eighteen of the children and causing shock and anger throughout the country.

One of the many factories that switched to producing explosives for the military was the Brunner Mond & Co. caustic soda works in the densely-populated suburb of Silvertown, close to the Royal Docks. The company was requested by the Ministry of Munitions to produce the volatile explosive TNT, which began in September 1915. In January 1917 a fire broke out in the plant during the evening and a massive explosion occurred just before seven o’clock, which devastated not only the factory but much of the surrounding neighbourhood. Seventy-three people were killed including seven PLA staff, and ninety-four seriously injured. It would have been worse if the works had not been closed for the night. The explosion was so great that it could be heard up to 100 miles. Nearly 1,000 homes, many housing people who would have worked in or around the docks and wharves, were totally destroyed and a further 70,000 damaged. Fires broke out along the Thames-side wharves. Sheds and other buildings were damaged or destroyed in the Victoria Dock, taking up to two years to re-erect or repair. The grain silos around Pontoon Dock were particularly badly damaged. One of the two gas-holders at the East Greenwich Gas Works on the opposite side of the Thames at the Greenwich Peninsula, at that time the largest in the world, was damaged and was thereafter reduced in size. A payment of £250,000 was made by the government to the PLA for repairs. This was a time when bad news was covered up or heavily censored and the Ministry of Munitions merely issued a simple statement. The following day the local council began to organize the clearance of the damaged area and provide temporary housing for those displaced. A relief office was set up at Canning Town where residents could apply for aid and seek compensation, which eventually amounted to £3 million. It was never established as to what had caused the explosion. The resulting enquiry, which was not made public until the 1950s, criticized both the Ministry of Munitions for producing explosives in a heavily populated area and the Brunner Mond management for not keeping a round-the-clock watch for fires. The immediate area remained undeveloped for many decades and is now the site of the Thames Barrier. A stone memorial marks the location of the explosion and there is a plaque in Postman’s Park in the City in memory of a policeman who died during rescue operations.

Germany had developed submarine technology. In the first months of the war they restricted their attacks to Allied naval vessels but from October 1914 they were also intermittently targeting cargo and passenger ships. A London-bound ship carrying food was sunk as it left Falmouth. The government therefore decided it was safer for shipments to be sent to ports on the west coast of Britain and their cargoes forwarded on to London by rail. In March 1918 it became necessary to entirely close the Straits of Dover to shipping. As the West Coast ports were generally not suited to the types and volume of cargoes, however, the policy led to congestion and food shortages during 1917–18. Ongoing improvements to London’s port facilities were put on hold from the beginning of 1916 as it became difficult to obtain suitable machinery. By 1918 the Port was handling only half the pre-war tonnage.

In May 1917 the British Workers League organized a great rally in Hyde Park in support of their comrades in the military at which one of the speakers was Ben Tillett of the Dockers’ Union. Over 400 PLA employees lost their lives serving in the war, as did an unknown number of casual dock workers and those involved in other Port-related industries.

The threat of industrial action by British merchant seamen led to the government forming the National Maritime Board in November 1917 to regulate wages and working practices. The board brought together under government control the Shipping Federation from the employers’ side and the National Union of Seamen and National Union of Ship’s Stewards from that of the employees. It was intended as only a wartime initiative but in 1919 was re-established as a permanent organization for joint consultation, without government involvement.

The King George V Dock

Ships continued to increase in size and at the beginning of the twentieth century some were too large even for the Royal Albert Dock, which was restricted to those of 12,000 tons and 500 feet in length. Prior to their demise, the East & West India Company had planned to create a new Royal dock. Plans by Frederick Palmer were completed in 1911 for a dock to the south of the Royal Albert, where the PLA owned land acquired by compulsory purchase orders obtained in an Act of 1901, and contracts placed the following year. Work slowed down during the Great War as men went off to join the services and materials became scarce.

In 1918, when the Admiralty was in need of additional dry-docking facilities, a new priority was given to the planned dock. Displaced residents were provided with 204 newly-built homes on the west side of Prince Regent’s Lane, opposite Beckton Road recreation ground. The existing road from the City to the Royal Docks was carried over the new basin by a bascule bridge. The King George V, the most modern dock in the world at that time, was finally opened by the King, accompanied by Queen Mary, in July 1921. They arrived on a steam yacht flying the white ensign that cut through a ribbon, watched by 8,000 invited guests, as well as crowds who lined the river to see them pass by. After berthing in the dock, the King and Queen disembarked to inspect the premises. As the King declared the new dock open, a gun salute was fired from the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich on the opposite bank of the river.

Six two-storey warehouses with storage space of 700,000 square feet stood along the northern quay of the George V Dock. The southern side of the dock was lined with ‘dolphin’ berths. These 520-foot-long jetties lay parallel to the main quays at a distance of thirty-two feet, allowing lighters to pass between jetty and quay. Forty-nine cranes on the dolphin berths allowed cargoes to be simultaneously discharged or loaded onto lighters on both sides of a vessel, which moored on the outside of the jetties, or onto the quayside. The dock was created with the most modern facilities of the time for loading and unloading, storage and transport, including large transit sheds with twenty-seven electric cranes of five-ton carrying capacity. Railway lines served both north and south quays as well as behind the warehouses. The cost of the project was £4,500,000.

At 64 acres the King George V was smaller than its neighbouring Royal Docks. Its length was 4,500 feet, the width varying between 500 and 700 feet, and with over 3 miles of quays, able to accommodate up to 15 of the largest ocean-going vessels of the time, of up to 35,000 tons. A passage linked it to the Royal Albert Dock. It also contained its own entrance lock onto the river at Gallions Reach of 800 feet by 100 feet, operational at all tide levels. In 1939 the Cunard liner RMS Mauretania, the largest ship to pass up the Thames, was able to enter through the lock. Harland & Wolff operated a ship-repair workshop from within the dock that could accommodate vessels up to 25,000 tons. The combined size of the three Royal Docks measured 230 acres, the world’s largest surface of impounded water, with 11 miles of quays. The George V remains the only London dock to be created as part of a public service.

The PLA also considered the idea of siting a larger dock on open land to the north of the Royal Albert and Lord Devonport arranged the purchase of 202 acres of land and various shops and houses. A plan was drawn up in 1919 by Cyril Kirkpatrick, successor to Palmer, but by the time the project was revisited in the early 1920s the priority had changed to Tilbury so the north dock was never built.