London and the Docks in the 19th Century


Some information on the Port and East End of London during the period when George Castle Gowlland lived and worked there, transcribed from articles found on the internet.

The Port of London

London then  was much smaller than it is now, of course.  The real heart of London, its real reason for being there, was the Port of London. This was the biggest in the world at the time, a wonder of the age.  It was the undisputed centre for handling cargoes to and from all over the newly explored world.

If you were to stand on London Bridge looking downstream you’d see the most amazing sight.  In a space of water not a couple of hundred yards across was crammed a great mass of shipping – snows, galliots, hermaphrodite barques, cats, tilt‑boats; every conceivable type under every kind of flag.

There were 8,000 ship movements in and out of port in 1793: these increased to 16,000 by 1824, all in this one part of the river.  One great forest of masts.  From big ocean‑going East Indiamen to colliers from the north, they all rafted up together, for there were no quays to come alongside. The ships would tie up to each other, and lighters would come out to load or take out the cargo.

The Port of London was not all that big: in fact the whole thing was really concentrated at the point as far up the Thames to which big ships could go. This was the impassable barrier of London Bridge (that’s the one next upstream from present day Tower Bridge).  And here they all arrived, handily right in the centre of the capital.

The Port of London is a stretch of river from London Bridge a couple of miles down river to the first bend. The ships would have to make their way up from Tilbury at the mouth about 25 miles upstream and through a dozen sweeping bends, crammed with other ships all moving in either direction and with fluky winds. Most were square‑riggers which could only keep within six points of the wind – a difficult feat of sailing.  A foul wind could hold up arrivals for weeks; and the Bank of England fitted a special wind dial indicator in the main dealing room so bankers could tell at a glance whether a sighted vessel would make it to London in time to land cargo to meet the terms of a Bill of Exchange.  It is still there to this day.

London and the Thames were right up until the middle of the twentieth century totally mutually dependent.  It was the port in Britain; and there were shipbuilders up and down the river.

Support for these ships had to be on an industrial scale.  If you think of the kind of stores a single ship had to load for a voyage to far places of over a year, you get an idea of what was needed - multiplied by thousands of ships.  There were skilled men everywhere – such as coopers making great casks who were there on dockside right up to the 1960s.  The men who manned the lighters or barges.  The lightermen were also very skilled: steering with long 20ft oars, they could bring a lighter from the ship to the wharf by tide‑power alone.

But the real professionals, and it took a full seven year apprenticeship, were the river taxi‑drivers, the watermen.  In the eighteenth century they would gather their red or green wherries (a sharp bowed skiff) around one of the many ‘stairs’ or boarding points, like Horseferry Stairs, Puddle Dock, King’s Stairs etc.  A passenger would approach and they’d shout “Oars, Oars!”.  The passenger would point at one, and the others would turn on the lucky one and abuse him loudly.

They were very independent, often garrulous, uncouth and arrogant, happily screeching insults at passing rivals; but they were very good at what they did, especially at ‘shooting the bridge’, which was what they called passing through London Bridge.  This was like a weir, so fast were the tides.  Passengers could get their money back if they were tipped into the river, or they could prudently take precautions, landing before the bridge and boarding again after it.

If the Thames froze, a Frost Fair would be held on the ice.  Gentlemen and their ladies would stroll arm in arm: there would be plenty of entertainment, with bear baiting, an ox‑roast, cricket match and so on, all on the ice. The watermen couldn’t ply for hire, so they had races in which their boats were hauled over the ice by horses.

The Thames was smelly then but actually not as much as later – people were still catching salmon in the City in 1800.  In the eighteenth century the practice was for night‑soil men to take away the liquid waste for industrial uses, and the other [i.e. non-liquid waste] for manure: it was just too valuable to throw away.  It wasn’t until the huge explosion of population in Victorian times, coinciding with the invention of the flush toilet, that the stinks and health hazards really came.  In 1800 for drinking water they still relied on a big waterwheel next to London Bridge to pump up water direct from the Thames.

The river would smell rank, but this would be overlaid by other fragrances.  Writers of the time use the word ‘spicy’ a lot  -   the scent of cargoes  –  cinnabar, ginger, tea, sandalwood, hemp  –  and of course the unmistakable rich whiff of sea‑worn ropes and tar.

When a sailor returned after a voyage he’d be on the ran‑tan [sic] ashore just as fast as he could.  The main area was Wapping, roughly from where the Tower of London is until the river bends.  It was a maze of tiny streets and alleys, with names like Cat’s Hole, Shovel Alley, the Rookery, Dark Entry and so on.  A wider road called Ratcliffe Highway ran through it, lined with shops, taverns, ship’s chandlers, doss‑houses and so on.  It still exists, now called simply ‘The Highway’.   Every shop had a sailor’s lodgings above it and every kind of sharp practice was used to part the sailor from his hard‑earned silver.

A hard life 

Life was hard for families in and around the docks.  Living in small, cramped houses back-to-back, two or three generations of a family might live in a single room.  The sanitary conditions were appalling, often with a shared outdoor toilet and just one water standpipe for a whole street.  Wives took in extra work such as washing to supplement the family income.  Children played their part too.  Some helped in the home while others, ‘mudlarkers’, scavenged coal spilled from coal barges.  Single men stayed in lodging houses, charged 2d a night to sleep on a straw mattress, with nowhere to wash, and the use of the kitchen fire the next day.   

The poor were blamed for their impoverished housing conditions, yet it was caused by irregular employment.  When work was scarce, the ‘call-on’ dominated the lives of casual labour.  As soon as the dock gate opened men ran to be first in line to be chosen to work that day.  Even then it was a challenge, many not having eaten that morning.  Sometimes men worked for an hour or two to earn enough money to buy something to stave off their hunger.  Social observers, like Henry Mayhew, all remarked on the juxtaposition of the enormous wealth stored in the docks with the abject poverty which surrounded them. 


It was often the innocent who suffered.  In the 1820s, at St. Katherine’s, 1,250 houses were destroyed and 11,300 people were dispossessed.  This was not slum clearance, but a plan to make way for a new dock so that the merchants could make even more money.  The poor were forced to relocate to small, dirty and overcrowded lodgings elsewhere.


For the girls and young women stepping off the boat, Wapping was a deliverance from the hell they had known in the ghettoes of Eastern Europe - not to mention the privations of a long and miserable sea journey.

Many dreamed of a new life in London: others saw it as a staging post on the way to New York and the New World.  But for too many they were merely a few steps away from new misery in an East End brothel.

Around 1900, some 1,000 unaccompanied women a year were disembarking at the docks in the East End.  Many were fleeing the pogroms of Poland and Russia, and anticipated marriage or a job in London.  But standing on a strange quayside, surrounded by the babble of a stranger language, it wasn’t surprising that many were easy prey.  In 1902, Charles Booth wrote about the problem in his “Life and Labour of the People of London”.

The scenes at the landing stage were far from idyllic. There were  few relatives and friends awaiting the arrival of the small boats filled with immigrants, but the crowd gathered in and about the gins shop overlooking the narrow entrance of the landing stage were “dock loungers” of the lowest type and professional runners.

Conning the confused arrivals wasn't difficult.  The runners "are among the most repulsive of the East London parasites.  Boat after boat touches the landing stages.  They push forward, seize hold of the bundles or baskets of the newcomers, offer bogus tickets to those who wish to travel forward to America, promise guidance and free lodging to those who hold in their hand addresses of acquaintances in Whitechapel or are friendless."

For the solitary man bearing the badge of the Hebrew Ladies Protection Society, and fighting in the midst of the scrum to rescue women and guide them to the Poor Jews' Temporary Shelter in Leman Street, it was overwhelming.  He managed to rescue a small percentage.  Many of the rest would never see those acquaintances or family friends.  In another ten minutes 80 of the 100 newcomers would be dispersed into the back slums of Whitechapel.  In another few days, the majority, robbed of what little they owned, would be ejected from these "free" lodgings, destitute and helpless.

But for many others the fate would be worse, as the "lodging" turned out be a brothel.

At the end of the 19th century, the Ratcliffe Highway (now simply The Highway) was dubbed the "poor man's Regent Street".  In those days Regent Street wasn't the home of Hamleys or the Disney Shop, but the beat of prostitutes and their pimps. Highway pubs devoted to prostitution included the Globe and Artichoke, the Gunboat, and the Malt Shovel.  The most famous of all was the White Swan at the Shadwell end of the Highway, and known colloquially as Paddy's Goose.  For some philanthropists simply improving areas wasn't an option: they had to be scoured from the face of the East End.  In the early 1870s, the Reverend Samuel Barnett asked for Flower and Dean Streets, a notorious centre for prostitution, to be demolished under the Artisans and Labourers Act, a parliamentary measure which had been drawn up to allow for the razing of criminal slums.  And in 1883 he got his wish, with many of the 13,000 made homeless being rehoused in the new Charlotte de Rothschild Buildings.

One problem in protecting the women was the blindness (or indifference) of the police to the problem.  A 1906 Metropolitan Police report claimed that cases of girls being procured for prostitution were rare, perhaps half a dozen had been recorded.  Not so, said Sal Cohen of the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women.  His research revealed that the "white slave trade" was alive and thriving, and selling girls on to brothels in South America.

Finally, in 1912, the Home Office was persuaded by vigilantes such as Cohen, and set up the White Slave Traffic Squad.  To counter the threat to thousands of women each year they recruited one CID inspector and constable, and eight uniformed constables.  A year's work produced 51 arrests, including 44 for living off immoral earnings, and just two for procurement.  Happy with their work -and that the problem had been solved - the manpower of the squad was swiftly cut.



It is thought that in the eighteenth century between a quarter and a third of all cargoes arriving were stolen.  It varied a lot in seriousness.  At one end of the scale there would be scams such as a fake agent meeting a ship and bargaining with the captain to ease the task of landing his cargo, organising lighters, customs clearance, porters and so on.  The captain would agree and the cargo would be landed all right – but that would be the last he saw of it.

At the other end of the scale, with no police force in attendance, crime in the area flourished.   Although the arrival of the Port police in 1802 reduced the amount of plundering and pillaging, there were still far too many criminals to catch.

According to eighteenth century magistrate, Patrick Colquhoun, ‘river pirates’ stole cargoes from the decks of ships, and ‘light horsemen’ plundered from holds of ships, whilst ‘scuffle hunters’ pilfered from wares stored on deck and on quays (these were young scamps who would skip aboard a vessel working cargo and suddenly throw something overboard before escaping: this article they could then retrieve from the mud later when the tide went out).    They were often aided and abetted by corrupt officials willing to turn a blind eye. 

River pirates were a real menace.  If caught and convicted, they might end up being transported, or hanged.  Real pirates – men who seized ships on the high seas - faced very severe punishment.  Public hangings at Execution Dock drew big crowds to watch the ‘hempen jig’ from a temporary gallows.  Afterwards pirates were tarred and hung in a gibbet, the spectacle of rotting bodies evoking terror amongst would-be criminals. This was one occupation from which women weren’t excluded  –  London-born female pirate, Mary Read, raided ships in the Caribbean with Anne Boney and ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham. 

The docks changed the face of the ThamesWe think today of the Pool of London and the endless docks; but before the Napoleonic wars there was none!  Then in 1802, and only to combat the thieving of cargo, out in the country the West India dock was built, with high walls and controlled security.   These walls were at least 30 ft tall, and surrounded the docks, to keep the thieves out and the goods in.  Foremen and constables searched dockers as they left work and sometimes found wares, such as sugar or tea, hidden inside clothing or a hollow tool.  Though fortress-like, these walls were not impenetrable and criminals still managed to scale them or break through.  It was not just the working classes who profited - corruption took place at every level of society

Ships would come to a stop outside these new docks, lower their sails, and then be pulled inside by powerful land capstans.  It was an instant success, and other docks were quickly dug.

These developments brought all the more support services and soon London had doubled in size, and only just in time, for the number of ship movements would double as well in just 22 years.