South Dock 1902 – 1914


The completed expansion of Greenland Dock and its lock in 1901 enabled much larger ships to enter the system, but resulted in some basic logistical changes, which in many ways represented some losses of efficiency.  The Grand Surrey Canal now crossed the middle of Greenland Dock, a hazard to all traffic, but still passed beneath the end of South Dock, which had not been extended.  The tiny building on the corner of Rope Street and Sweden Gate, known as the Yard Office was the old toll building for the canal, and was built in 1902 after the extension of Greenland Dock.  The extension of Greenland Dock also required the diversion of the road that used to run parallel to the canal and, far more importantly, the early termination of the railway at South Dock, whereas it formerly ran to Norway Dock.  The loss of rail access was a considerable irritation, as it meant that if cargo was destined for the large ships that Greenland Dock was now equipped to handle, it had to be offloaded at South Dock and either sent by lorry or by lighter (barges)  to Greenland Dock.

The Surrey Commercial Docks in 1906

The Surrey Commercial Docks in 1906.  South Dock is at top right. Click to expand.

The expansion of Greenland Dock, together with the presence of the earlier Canada Dock, ensured that the entire dock network would be able to handle bigger ships and more cargoes during next few decades.  The Greenland Dock and South Dock quay sides were upgraded with huge mechanical cranes, which can be seen in the 1906 aerial view of the docks. South  Dock had already been upgraded with hydraulic lock gates and capstans in 1855 (which remain and are Grade 2 listed), and these two docks were now state of the art.

Greenland Dock, however, had run into engineering difficulties, took 10 years to build and had cost the Surrey Commercial Dock Company a fortune.  it also marginalized south Dock, which was still restricted to handling small cargo ships due to a small lock and the narrow Steelyard Cut that linked it to Greenland Dock.  Whereas Greenland Dock could handle anything up to and including Cunard A-Class cruise liners, South Dock was restricted to servicing the declining timber trade, and a variety of other cargoes brought in by much smaller ships, some of them wooden sailing ships, others small steamers.

Personnel on the tug Canada

Surrey Commercial Dock personnel on the company’s tug Canada, shortly before the PLA takeover

There were also changes afoot in the way in which the docks were managed.  The expense of the newly expanded Greenland Dock was not met by income from the timber trade, which was now in decline, and the company resorted to price-war tactics to try to win trade from other Thames docks, which resulted in a loss of income for all the dock systems.  The survival of all of London’s docks was to fall on the shoulders of the Port of London Authority.   In 1909 the Port of London authority was formed. Problems with river congestion, non-competitive commercial docks and antiquated dock handling systems had plagued London for years.  Official investigations  were followed by the introduction of a Bill introduced by David Lloyd George and carried through parliament by Winston Churchill, receiving Royal Assent as the “Port of London Act, 1908,” in December 1908. The decision was made to take the docks out of private ownership and amalgamate them under a single government body, the Port of London Authority (PLA), which also took on responsibility for dredging the main channel of the Thames and, following the First World War, upgrading parts of the newly consolidated London dock system.

A London Docklands Development Corporation press release dating to 1988 mentions that there were two “Edwardian” buildings surviving at that time at South Dock, one of which was the PLA Police Station.  The other was the Surrey Canal Office.  The latter may be the tiny little 1902 building on the corner of Sweden Gate and Rope Street now behind the Watersports centre, but I am still trying to find out more about the PLA Police building, which must date to 1909 or slightly later, and am particularly trying to locate a photograph of it.

1902 toll office

The 1902 Grand Surrey Canal toll office

For the next part of the story click here:  The War Years 1914-1945