The West India Dock was the first opened in London in 1802 and the opening of docks continued throughout the 1800s. The docks were at the centre of a collection of related industries such as refining and processing which made use of the imported products, and shipbuilding and repair. These combined with other manufacturing industries and the small workshops and trades that served the consumer markets of the capital especially clothing, furniture and printing.
A distinctive way of life developed in the communities around the docks. The residential areas were quite isolated and most people worked, went to school and shopped without leaving the locality. As a result a strong local identity developed.
By 1870 the upper and middle classes left the East end leaving it almost a wholly working-class area. There was a strict division amongst men and women and dock work was almost entirely male. Women worked in the clothing and furniture trades or in the factories. East end communities had a long history in immigration, as work was readily available and many people settled close to the docks were they had entered Britain. The Chinese settled in Limehouse for example and the Somalis in Wapping.
Housing conditions were often squalid and poverty was widespread. This was aggravated by the casual labour systems operated by dock-owners and manufacturers. Workers responded by organising for better pay and conditions, the area developed a strong tradition of trade unionism and support for the Labour party.
A number of factors contributed to the decline in the importance
of the docks:
The role of London as the centre of world trade had declined, so much of the dock space and warehousing was no longer needed.
Some manufacturing activities were attracted to growing New Towns and other out of town sites where costs were lower. As a results much of the canal and railway land fell derelict.
The economic viability was reduced by changes in transport technology. Containerisation meant that there was a need for deepwater docking facilities which could only be found downstream.
The area suffered substantial bomb damage in the Second World War and this lead to the need for a substantial rebuilding programme. In the first two decades after the war many buildings in the docklands lost their usefulness.
As a result of these factors the docks closed. East India dock was closed in 1967 and trade in other docks began to fall. Between 1961 and 1967, almost 83000 jobs were lost in five boroughs of the dockland areas (Greenwich, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Southwark). Many of these jobs were from transnational corporations. The decline was heightened by government policies that favoured the growth of industry outside of London. Unemployment was accompanied by population decline. Whilst inner London lost 10 per cent of its population between 1961 and 1971, the figures for Tower Hamlets and Southwark were 18 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.
The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was established by the Conservative government in 1981. The government financed it yet it was able to act independently. It took responsibility for the redevelopment of the Docklands area of east London. It was responsible for an area of 8.5 square miles (22 km²) in the London Boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Southwark. These responsibilities of the redevelopment included the reclamation of land, the provision of transport infrastructure, environmental improvement and the attraction of private sector investment.
The regeneration of London docklands has taken place since 1980. The establishment of the LDDC was the catalyst for major change. The docklands area had been abandoned as shipping tended to use facilities down-river at Tilbury. The oldest and smallest docks were by Tower Bridge and the largest on the Isle of Dogs (the royal group of docks).
The LDDC reclaimed over 600 hectares of derelict land and helped to improve transport infrastructure. The Docklands Light Railway, extentions to the Jubilee Line, London City Airport and the Limehouse Link all improved transport to the area. The public investment of over £1 billion was more than matched by over £8 billion of private investment. The flagship development at Canary Wharf helped to establish more than 40,000 jobs, though many local people were unable to gain employment.
The social regeneration of the area involved mostly private ownership, though some ‘affordable’ housing was built further away from the centre. The old warehouses alongside the river near the City were converted into expensive apartments and this encouraged restaurants, businesses and retailers into the area. In particular, the accessibility of the location for the City and Canary Wharf caused the area to become very fashionable. The apartments are frequently used as mid week residences, with the owners returning to their homes in suburbanised villages at the weekend. The proportion of private housing increased from 5% to 44% and the resident population from 39,000 to 61000.
Similar social change (though without such major regeneration) has taken place in inner areas such as Islington and Fulham, which
became fashionable for the wealthy because of
their access to the centre of London and the good
quality but (at the time) relatively cheap housing
that had been constructed in the 19th century.
The poorer residents were pushed out of the area
by the rising house prices.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Redevelopment
The future for the docklands? The LDDC began a staged withdrawal with Bermondsey Riverside on 30th October 1994 and was formally wound up ending with the Royal Docks 31st March 1998 . Under a process called "de-designation" the powers it held were handed back to the London Boroughs.