A dock has stood where South Dock now sits since 1811, but it was a latecomer in the development of the Rotherhithe docks and needs to be seen in the context of what was happening all around it when it was proposed in 1801.
The first commercial dock to be built in London was the Howland Great Wet Dock, which was begun in 1699 and opened in 1700. It changed hands several times and became Greenland Dock, which now sits over the area that was once occupied by the much smaller Howland Great Wet Dock. The dock passed through different owners until it was eventually purchased in 1807 by the specially-formed Surrey Commercial Dock Company, and new docks and timber ponds were built in a line to the west, each flowing into the next.
At the same time, the Grand Surrey Canal Canal company had been formed in 1801 to build a canal that eventually reached Croydon and Peckham. It opened in 1804 but was by no means the commercial success that its investors had hoped for, and the success of the nearby docks encouraged the Grand Surrey Canal Company to ask for permission to start building docks. This being granted in 1811 the company and immediately started using the canal infrastructure to create a dock system of its own which, running east to west, was more or less parallel to that of the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, with whom they were now in serious competition. Accordingly, the Grand Surrey Canal Company eventually changed its name to become the Grand Surrey Canal and Docks Company. So Rotherhithe was home to two parallel dock systems, both independent of each other physically, and in serious competition with one another.
The next part of the story follows: The Origins of South Dock, 1811-1850.