The Royal Docks

The Royal Docks of Newham are sites of historic and contemporary significance and collectively form the largest enclosed docks in the world. Long before the rest of the city was considered multicultural, the stream of workers from Ireland, Scotland and abroad left a lasting footprint in the borough which can still be seen today in Newham’s wonderfully diverse population.

The Docks or ‘Royal Docks’ in Newham are concentrated in the Silvertown and North Woolwich area, named after the Royal Albert Dock, the Royal Victoria Dock and the King George V Dock. The Victoria Dock was the first to be built in 1855, followed by the Albert Dock in 1880 and the King George Dock in 1921 (the construction of which was delayed due to World War I). The Victoria and Albert docks were constructed by the London & St Katharine Docks Company, to provide berths for large vessels that could not be accommodated further upriver. They were a great commercial success, becoming London's principal docks during the first half of the 20th century. The Royals were the first Docks to be directly connected to the railway system, and they specialised in the import of foodstuff, with granaries and a refrigerated warehouse alongside the quay. More significantly, the Docks played a cruical role in consolidating the status of the british empire, as this extract from the Grand Historical Bazaar Handbook of 1914 illustrates:

“the Victoria and Albert Docks can be reckoned as one of the chief elements in the promotion of the imperial ideal, for there is no place in the whole of the British Empire where so many goods are brought in from the Colonies and overseas possessions, and where so many goods are sent out to those parts of the Empire”.

The Royal Docks gave employment to many people of the area and beyond and gave rise to much of the regional development in Newham. However, due to the unpredictable arrivals of the ships and seasonal variations, employment opportunities were uncertain and casual workers often queued every day hoping for just a few hours of work.

Extremely poor working conditions lead to several strikes, starting in the 1870s, and reached a peak in The Great Strike of 1889, which marked a new chapter in British trade union history, as full-time workers protested in solidarity with casual workers. In the following years, the Royal Docks and the neighbouring areas became a centre of trade union and political activities, with residents and workers running for political office in both West Ham Council and Parliament. Local activists like Will Thorne and James Keir Hardy became leading figures in the Labour Party and women played a significant part in the struggles: Eleanor Marx, Sister Edith Kerrison, Daisy Parsons and Sylvia Pankhurst all worked to ameliorate the hardship of working class people and helped to shape the new services provided by the council, such as housing, health and welfare.

Image: Aerial View of the Docks, Courtesy of Newham Archives

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