Historically, London’s status as a port was key to its prosperity. Ships traditionally docked at the many riverside wharves located on the Pool of London – that part of the Thames immediately downriver from London Bridge. Although this had served as London’s main port since Roman times, the Pool gave little protection from the elements and suffered from a lack of quayside space. To get around this, purpose-built docks were constructed along the Thames to unload cargoes – a process which reached its zenith in the 19th century.
The docks were badly damaged during the second world war and their use declined thereafter as the rise of container shipping (which needed bigger docks and didn’t require the labour-intensive unloading and storage processes which characterised London’s docks); most of them closed between 1967 and 1981.
The names of London’s various docks live on in the new developments (including some DLR stations) that have sprung up where they once stood, but where did those names come from? Some reflect the parts of the world where the ship-borne cargoes arrived from, while others refer to the areas where the docks were located or — this being London — the names of various saints, landowners and royal personages. Starting with the closest to central London, here is how London’s docks got their names.
This ancient quay, upstream from London Bridge, was considered to be one of the most important docking-places in London in the middle ages. The name means ‘queen’s harbour’ and it was given in honour of Queen Matilda (Henry I’s wife), although it is known to have existed several centuries earlier.
St Mary Overie Dock
This small Bankside dock is named for the nearby Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie — Southwark Cathedral for short. It started out as a priory dedicated to the Virgin Mary, with the ‘Overie’ bit meaning ‘over the river’ to distinguish it from the various City churches with the same name.
St Katharine Docks
Located near the Tower, St Katharine Docks (two docks known individually as the Western and Eastern Docks) were built by the engineer Thomas Telford in the 1820s. They got their name from a medieval hospital that had previously stood on the site. Founded by Queen Matilda (King Stephen’s wife) in 1148, the Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St Katharine by the Tower was named for St Catherine, an early Christian martyr who died in Alexandria in 305 AD at the orders of the Roman Emperor Maxentius.
St Saviour’s Dock
This small dock — located on the south of the Thames at the point where the subterranean River Neckinger meets it — started out in medieval times as the quay for Bermondsey Abbey, which was dedicated to St Saviour — or, as he was better known, Jesus (who is sometimes referred to as Sanctus Salvator, which translates into English as ‘Holy Saviour’).
A dock in name only, the gruesome name reflected its purpose — this was the riverside gallows at Wapping where, for several centuries, convicted pirates were executed. The last execution took place in 1830.
Built in Wapping in the early 19th century, these docks consisted of a Western Dock and an Eastern Dock, linked by the smaller Tobacco Dock (which was named for the named for the large warehouse built in 1811 for storing tobacco). The complex was named after the London Dock Company, which was established in 1800 to build and run it (As for the origins of the name ‘London’, we’ve looked into this before.)
Regent’s Canal Dock
Now known as Limehouse Basin, this dock opened in 1820 and was used to offload cargoes from ships to barges for transportation inland via the Regent’s Canal, which was named after the Prince Regent (later King George IV).
This 18th century dock at Limehouse was named for the lime kilns that were used to make quicklime for building mortar (the name ‘Limehouse’ is of similar origin, for the kilns were also known as lime oasts).
Surrey Commercial Docks
Located at Rotherhithe, this group of docks dates back to 1697 when the Howland Great Dock was built; it was named after John Howland, a local landowner whose daughter Elizabeth married into the aristocratic Russell family (the land on which the dock would be built was part of her dowry). By the mid 18th century it was mainly used by Arctic whalers, which led to it being renamed the Greenland Dock. In the 19th century this dock complex expanded to accommodate trade from places like Canada, Norway and Russia — all of which had new docks named after them. In 1864, the various docks — the only major ones on the south bank of the Thames — amalgamated under the collective name of the Surrey Commercial Docks, named after the county in which they were located.
An L-shaped dock in two parts — the Outer Dock runs from east to west and the Inner Dock from south to north — Millwall Dock opened in 1868. Located south of the West India Docks (see below), it was named for the area in which it is situated; Millwall got its name from the mills which stood on the marsh wall in the 17th and 18th centuries.
West India Docks
These three docks on the northern part of the Isle of Dogs were named not for trade from India but from the West Indies. The use of the term ‘West Indies’ to refer to the Caribbean (as opposed to the ‘East Indies’, which meant India) dates back to Columbus and came to be used by all of the European powers that acquired islands in that region. The first two docks were built in 1800-1802; ships unloaded at the Import Dock (the northernmost of the two) and then loaded up at the Export Dock (later renamed the Middle Dock when a third dock to the south was built).
Connected to but distinct from the West India Docks, this early 19th century dock was one of the first to have railway access, and (uniquely) ended up being run by British Rail rather than the Port of London Authority (which ultimately controlled most of London’s docks). It got its name from the surrounding area, which in turn was named for the trees which once thrived in the area.
East India Docks
Located in Blackwall, these docks were built in the early 19th century to handle trade from India, and turned a profit through imports of spices, silk, Persian carpets and — most of all — tea. They were built by, and named after, the mighty East India Company which was founded in 1600.
Royal Group of Docks
The biggest of London’s docks, these were built between 1855 and 1921 in East Ham and West Ham. Not to be confused with the Royal Dockyards (the name given to harbour facilities used by the Royal Navy), they are so-called because they were named after royal personages — the three docks opened in 1855, 1880 and 1921 and were named (respectively) after Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and King George V; a fourth was planned but never built.
Although not located in London, this Essex port has long been a part of the story of London’s docks. Located on the Thames Estuary some 26 miles downriver from the Tower, Tilbury has been home to docks since 1882 work began on a dock intended to rival the (then new) Royal Albert Dock (see above). Tilbury greatly expanded in the early 20th century, becoming a large passenger port and later adapting to suit container shipping — it’s now one of Britain’s three major container ports (along with Felixstowe and Southampton). The name, written as ‘Tilberia’ in the Domesday Book, means the stronghold (burh) of an otherwise unknown person called Tila.