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West India Docks

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The West India Docks are a series of three docks on the Isle of Dogs in London.

Robert Milligan (c. 1746-1809) was largely responsible for the construction of the West India Docks. Milligan was a wealthy West Indies merchant and shipowner, who returned to London having previously managed his family's Jamaica sugar plantations. Outraged at losses due to theft and delay at London's riverside wharves, Milligan headed a group of powerful businessmen, including chairman of the West India Merchants of London George Hibbert, who promoted the creation of a wet dock circled by a high wall. The group planned and built West India Docks, lobbying parliament to allow the creation of a West India Dock Company. Milligan served as both Deputy Chairman and Chairman of the West India Dock Company.

1799 The Docks were authorised by the West India Dock Act 1799 - the first parliamentary (as opposed to a municipal Act) for dock building.

The Docks were constructed in two phases.

1800-2 The two northern-most docks were constructed between 1800 and 1802 (officially opened on 27 August 1802) for the West India Dock Company to a design by leading civil engineer William Jessop (John Rennie (the elder) was a consultant; Thomas Morris (Liverpool's third dock engineer) was also involved). These were the first commercial wet docks in London. The Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Loughborough, attended the foundation stone ceremony on 12 July 1800; Milligan and Hibbert were also commemorated for their part in the ceremony.

The original docks consisted of an Import Dock of 30 acres of water, later named North Dock, and an Export Dock of 24 acres, later named Middle Dock. Between them, the docks had a combined capability to berth over 600 vessels. Locks and basins at either end of the Docks connected them to the river Thames. These were known as Blackwall Basin and Limehouse Basin, not to be confused with the Regent's Canal Dock also known as Limehouse Basin. To avoid congestion, ships entered from the (eastern) Blackwall end; lighters entered from the Limehouse end to the west. A dry dock for ship repairs was constructed connecting to Blackwall Basin. Subsequently the North London Railway's Poplar Dock was also connected to Blackwall Basin.

The docks, and the City Canal, made the Isle of Dogs a true island.

1860s The southern-most dock, the South West India Dock, later known as South Dock, was constructed in the 1860s, replacing an unprofitable canal, the City Canal, built in 1805 by the City of London Corporation and acquired by the Company in 1829.

1869 The West India Docks Extension covered an extensive area, with the boundary wall between the new dock and one next to it was demolished, and a row of warehouses erected. Mr. John Hawkshaw was the engineer of this work for the West India Dock Co.

The Docks' design allowed a ship arriving from the West Indies to unload in the northern dock, sail round to the southern dock and load up with export cargo in a fraction of the time it had previously taken in the heavily congested and dangerous upper reaches of the Thames.

Around the Import Dock a continuous line of five-storey warehouses was constructed, designed by architect George Gwilt and his son, also named George. The Export Dock needed fewer buildings as cargo was loaded upon arrival. To protect against theft, the whole complex was surrounded by a brick wall 20 ft high.

1909 the West India docks were taken over by the Port of London Authority (PLA), along with the other enclosed docks from St Katharines to Tilbury.

The three docks were initially separate, with the two northern docks interconnected only via the basin at each end, and South Dock connected via a series of three basins at the eastern end. Railway access was very difficult. Under PLA control, cuts were made to connect the three docks into a single system, and the connections to the Thames at the western end were filled, along with the Limehouse basin and with it the western connection between the two northern docks. This allowed improved road and rail access from the north and west. South Dock was also connected to the north end of Millwall Dock, its enlarged eastern lock becoming the only entrance from the Thames to the whole West India and Millwall system.

From 1960 to 1980, trade in the docks declined to almost nothing. There were two main reasons. First, the development of the shipping container made this type of relatively small dock inefficient, and the dock-owners were slow to embrace change. Second, the manufacturing exports which had maintained the trade through the docks dwindled and moved away from the local area. In 1980 the docks were closed and the Government took control of the land.

After the closure of the upstream enclosed docks, the area was regenerated as part of the Docklands scheme, and is now home to the developments of Canary Wharf. The early phase one buildings of Canary Wharf were built out over the water, reducing the width of the north dock and middle dock, and the Jubilee Line station was later constructed within the middle dock.

However, the docks remain open to ships and are now effectively protected from future major change by national and London Government policy. South Dock regularly plays host to medium-sized military vessels visiting London as it is the furthest point upstream that they can be turned around.

On the north side of the docks, many bars and restaurants fill up during the summer months, and there are numerous flat conversions. Blackwall Basin with its former dry dock, and much of Poplar Dock, remain in use for mooring small craft.

In 2005 planning permission was granted for a floating hotel in the shape of a modern yacht to be berthed in the South Dock, however this has yet to materialise.

Part of the original dock buildings is now occupied by the Museum in Docklands.

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