The Life and Works of John Rennie (7 June 1761 – 4 October 1821)

East India Docks, London

Secure berths for loading and unloading at all states of the tide have always been essential to London’s shipping trade. London was an active port from Roman times and by the late 18th century it was a global hub for imports and exports.

The East India Docks were Rennie’s second wet dock project in the capital after London Docks. They were intended for the East India trade and located near Blackwall where the East India Company based its shipping and shipbuilding activities, focused on importing goods from eastern India and south east Asia.

The East India Company had a long association with the Blackwall shipbuilding and repair yard that was owned by the Perry family in the late eighteenth century and incorporated the adjacent twin-basin Brunswick Dock built in 1789-90. The site’s disadvantage was its remoteness as it was then only accessible by river and imported cargoes had to be carried by lighters to city wharfs for road transport to the Company’s warehouses around Aldgate in the City of London.

East India merchants, impressed by the improvements to port accommodation secured by the West India Docks and London Dock companies, obtained the backing of the East India Company for a new dock scheme for the East India trade. In March 1803, Rennie and Ralph Walker (1749-1824) proposed remodelling Brunswick Dock into a combined export dock and entrance basin with an entrance lock to the Thames, including the excavation of a new 5.2 hectare import dock. Few warehouses were planned as imports would continue to be stored at Aldgate. The total estimated cost of was £198,740.

Rennie’s scheme was submitted to Parliament in April 1803. The enabling Act was passed in July and the new East India Dock Company created. The Company spent £63,270 purchasing Brunswick Dock with adjoining land to the east and north, plus a large area of Bromley Marsh.

Rennie and Ralph Walker were appointed joint engineers for the project in August. In line with his many other engineering commitments, Rennie received £500 for at least 90 days attendance annually. Walker was paid £1,100 per year and also worked as resident engineer.

Excavation of the import dock started in September 1803, and the first stone was laid on 4th March 1804. The initial design was amended to include a new, separate, entrance basin constructed to the east of Brunswick Dock, as combining an entrance basin and export dock was deemed impractical given the expected volume of through shipping. Brunswick Dock became a 3.27-hectare export dock and the import dock was enlarged to 7.35 hectares. Locks connected the basin with the river and the import dock, with an open channel between basin and export dock.

The floors of the basin and docks were 6.7m below high-water springs. Their walls were curved so they were thicker at the base. The locks were designed for East Indiamen, generally the largest ships afloat, and were 14.6m wide. The entrance lock from the Thames was 64m long, making it London’s largest until the mid-19th century.

The dock walls were constructed within timber coffer dams to provide dry working conditions. The timber walls of the north, east and west sides of the original Brunswick Dock were retained as was the tower and adjoining building on the west side of the dock, used for masting and dismasting vessels. It survived until 1862.

Some 18 million bricks for the dock structures were manufactured on the site, using the materials from the 655,000 cubic metres of excavation. A steam-powered mill on the site produced mortar. Among the raw materials brought in by river were over 8,000 tonnes of stone and large quantities of lime and oak timbers. The perimeter of the complex was secured by 6m high buttressed brick walls. Landward access to the docks was through an imposing stone-faced brick gatehouse, designed by Walker. It was about 21m tall with clock, bell tower and commemorative plaque.

The not-quite-finished East India Docks opened on 4th August 1806. After a 21-gun salute, the Trinity House yacht and four East India Company ships sailed into the docks, watched by around 15-20,000 onlookers.

East India Docks 1806, looking south, import dock in foreground and export dock adjacent to the river. From “Chronicles of Blackwall Yard” by Robert Wigram and Henry Green (1881)

The Dock Company received a 21-year import-export monopoly compelling all vessels trading to the East Indies and China to use their docks for unloading cargo, refitting and loading stores, and their bonded warehouses for all imports. On 5th August, The Times described the dock project as a “great work”, although “not of such magnificent dimensions as the West India Docks”.

Levelling the quays, and constructing unloading sheds and a saltpetre warehouse were completed by March 1807. The total expenditure to September 1807 was reported as £322,608 including some £250,000 for the engineering work. Rennie’s work ended with the completion of the initial phase of construction, but big changes lay ahead for the operation of the docks, which continued in use until the late 1960s.

An 1828 survey showed the dockyard walls enclosed more than 24 hectares, more than half of it covered by water, with quays totalling 2.55km in length. Warehouse capacity was said to be 28,450 tonnes.

Charter Acts in 1813 and 1833 ended the East India Company’s trading monopolies with India and China, except dealings in tea and opium.  Nonetheless, improvements to the East India Docks continued and in July 1838, the East and West India Dock Companies amalgamated and their docks operated jointly, though East India Docks were deeper and could accommodate larger vessels and activity continued to increase. The  East India Company was formally dissolved on 1st June 1874.

In August 1879, a new entrance lock opened as did an enlargement to the south east side of the original basin, increasing the overall basin area by 80%. In 1897, the entrance lock was enlarged and hydraulic-powered iron-plated gates installed. The Port of London Authority assumed control of East India Docks in 1909 and subsequently undertook extensive renovation.

The export dock, badly damaged during the Second World War war, was sold in 1946 and infilled to create the site for Brunswick Wharf Power Station and then later for residential and commercial development at Virginia Quay Park.. The East India Docks were closed by the Port of London Authority in 1971. Parts of the boundary wall, west and east of the former import dock including an arched gateway, and the pumping station and the entrance lock are Grade II listed.

India Dock wall, Naval Row, April 2012 © Copyright Reading Tom and licensed under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

Geograph photo Inner entrance lock, East India Dock Basin, taken June 2010 © Copyright Jim Osley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Geograph photo Outer entrance lock, East India Dock Basin, taken August 2011 © Copyright Chris Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Geograph photo Old Dockyard wall, Leamouth Road, taken January 2008 © Copyright Nigel Mykura and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Flickr photo East India Dock wall, Naval Row, taken April 2012 © Copyright Reading Tom and licensed under Creative Commons Licence 2.0