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In 1799 Mr P. Boyle of Paternoster Row published his ‘View of London and its Environs’.

Boyle's lists of London Life

Boyle’s lists of London Life

Within this catalogue of London life he lists among other features: DocksQuaysWharfs and Warehouses owned by the East India Company.

Boyle’s snapshot points to a world where fortunes were made and lost in a matter of a few years depending on the government, the politics and the commercial prowess and power-plays of the day.

Where his lists become useful as a research tool is when they point to possible locations for how free-trade goods could have arrived in London and indeed, how they left the capital.

In total Boyle lists 36 docks but the only docks most people will probably recognize today are St Katherine’s and Wapping. (The East and West India docks would come along two years’ later.)

The docks were usually enclosed and well-protected, operating along military lines with managers and private guards held responsible for what went on within various compounds of the dock.

There were also 19 quays and 186 wharves on Boyle’s lists.

The secret landing places

The wharves show us a murkier side to London’s waterway life and the sheer number suggests there was a great demand for them. Certainly, trading was very different to doing business with the large quays and docks.

They were often little more than jetties and open platforms. Boyle’s long list is probably only a fraction of all the landing points established along the Thames during his time.

Isolated locations were ideal for unloading contraband and departing with other kinds of ‘goods’ including prisoners-of-war, special envoys with letters and papers bound for continental Europe (and further afield) as well as spies.

The success of the wharf

Any smuggling activity had to establish a discreet distribution system – either over land or by water. Until the Government fully committed to a viable and effective coastal blockade, routes around the coast provided reasonably safe passage using local fishermen, oystermen, trawlermen, boatmen and lightermen who knew the coastline and tides.

Some smuggling organisations used both land and coast to distribute.

The Seasalter Company had established two of the most sophisticated land routes to Canterbury and London but William Baldock also operated hoys out of Whitstable and neighbouring towns and ports probably as far as Dover. Baldock was offering an escape routes for Dutch and French prisoners-of-war, a lucrative trade.

The use of hoys proved an effective smokescreen for these kinds of activities. Local advertisements in the Kent press offered to take hops to London and provide luxury passage for London’s gentry who wanted to experience the sea air around the North Kent coast.

The coastline from Whitstable up towards Seasalter, Faversham, and Oare was conveniently open and remote enough for other kinds of cargo as well. The flat marshes and estuaries gave plenty of visible warning about approaching militia and dragoons, coast waiters and riding officers.

The tidal marshes and estuaries were also treacherous for patrolling or chasing vessels, but local knowledge of the water made them a safe passage if you happened to be carrying a special passenger arriving into the country or someone escaping abroad.

Dover to Calais 5 hours

The choice of vessel was also crucial. Smaller, lighter craft could manoeuvre around mud banks at low water and achieve remarkable speeds. It is reported that eight oars crossed from Calais to Dover in under five hours – the same distance from Harty Ferry (opposite the Isle of Harty, Sheppey) to Blackwall Yard in the heart of London.

With so many wharfingers to work with, free-traders could depend on a ‘receiving wharf’ being empty of other traffic when they arrived or departed with their cargo.

Mr Ogle attempts to solve a traffic problem

The docks were built only after the wharves proved unable to cope with the growing volume of trade. However, the docks did not put an end to the wharves. Neither did they solve the congestion.

By 1796, the London Authorites recognised that the Thames was struggling to cope with traffic coming into and out of London. The influential and all-powerful West India Dock Company made recommendations for easing the congestion and reducing the amount of illegal trade taking place along the Thames.

The West India merchants first turned their attention to the problems of congestion and pilferage of cargo shipping on the Thames in September 1793, but confined their original ambition to increasing capacity by extending the legal quays.

The advocacy of enclosed (‘wet’) docks flowed from William Vaughan, heir to estates in the West Indies and a director of the Royal Exchange Assurance. His objective was the ordering of the river, both physically and morally, by the imposition of rational control on the movement of shipping and on access to ships at anchor, in order to reduce the costs of delay and the incidence of ‘depredations’ on the cargo.

Two companies were influential in proposing a new scheme to handle the problem of congestion and issues surrounding illegal trade. The West India Dock Company (WIDCO) on the Isle of Dogs was a dedicated facility with a statutory monopoly in handling major slave products (notably sugar and rum). In contrast, the London Dock Company (LDC) at Wapping with a monopoly over other trades including wine, brandy, tobacco, and rice, offered a rival scheme with its roots in a free port ideology.

Mr Ogle's plan for mooring ships

Mr Ogle’s plan for mooring ships

In 1796 Mr Edward Ogle published a map showing a scheme for ‘Mooring Vessels in the River Thames from London Bridge to Deptford’. Ogle’s plan was an attempt to solve the problem of overcrowding caused by the doubling of London’s seaborne trade since 1760. By the time the chart was published nearly 3,500 foreign-going vessels were sailing to London each year. The role of the navy in safeguarding this trade during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars was of vital importance. In the event this improved system was passed over in favour of the more ambitious West India Docks and Wapping Docks schemes.

Drunken Yard and the Land of Promise

Regardless of the changes and changing fortunes of these docks and wharves some flourished for several generations and maintained impressive reputations despite monopolies like the East India Company.

These successes included Blackwall Yard and the wonderfully named Drunken Dock based on the Land of Promise.

Drunken Dock and Land of Promise

Drunken Dock and Land of Promise

The origins of the name ‘Drunken Dock’, probably means a tidal dock. Until the early-to-mid 19th century it was regarded as a public dock, used by anyone for mooring boats and barges, though it was also used for timber storage, with the permission of the Thames Conservators.

Willows grew along the banks, and animals could graze down to the water’s edge. It appears to have been a deserted area with only one report of a man and his wife living there for several years in a houseboat during the 1800s.

This was the ideal location for organisations like the Seasalter Company of free-traders.

In the early 18th century the ‘Land of Promise’ estate consisted of marsh, with reed beds and osier growing along the foreland. It belonged to Simon Lemon, a haberdasher of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields.

From around 1722 there was a windmill at the north end beside Drunken Dock, together with a house and granaries. These were replaced (c.1766) by a warehouse, dwelling house, and cottages, which became the centre of a large mast-works destined to flourish for a century.

Robert Todd, mastmaker of Wapping, bought the estate in 1771. After his death, the land was left to his partner Thomas Todd and his late wife’s cousin, Elizabeth, wife of Charles Augustin Ferguson of Poplar, also a mastmaker.

Ferguson and Todd continued to run the mast works, using most of the foreland as ponds for storing timber. After the formation of Westferry Road, land was acquired from William Mellish to give the estate a greater road frontage.

The ‘Smoke-stack’ industry arrived in 1824, with the construction of a chemical-processing works of the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company. In 1835–6 the estate passed to Ferguson’s son, Charles Augustus, who sold the undeveloped greater part of the ground to the Scottish engineers William Fairbairn and David Napier. Their respective establishments made Millwall an important centre of iron shipbuilding. The culmination of the shipbuilding boom was the creation of the Millwall Iron Works complex, which fragmented into miscellaneous wharves and works after the financial crash of 1866.

With these events and the introduction of containerisation the wharf tradition gradually faded and with it, the smuggling connections.

The Land of Promise had lived up to its name but it now belonged to a different era.


London Ancestor

Royal Museums, Greenwich

Nick Draper. “The City of London and slavery: evidence from the first dock companies, 1795–1800”. PDF

British History Online