Millwall Docks

isle of dogs mapThe Millwall Canal Company was incorporated by an Act of 1864 but immediately changed its name to the Millwall Freehold Land and Dock Company. It bought some 200 acres of marsh land here south of the West India Docks and here built a dock of 36 acres of water which opened for business in 1868. The dock, designed by John Fowler assisted by William Wilson was built in the form of a reversed L with an entrance on the west side of the Isle of Dogs. The dock was to be T shaped originally but the economic crisis in the 1860’s caused the plans to be truncated. Great expectations turned to despair. Local shipyards and iron foundries were struggling to compete with those in the north of England. Ambitious designs were curtailed. Only one dry dock, (the first of its kind to be built by a London Dock Company),was built where 6 were planned.

It was best known for the grain trade. Other supplementary trades included timber, wine, liquor, fruit and vegetables and shoes. Theft was so prevalent that left shoes came in one cargo with the right shoes on a different cargo shipment The grain porters wrapped sacks around their feet to stop the grain getting into their shoes.(The words “Toe-rag”). The McDougall’s Flour Factory was here. They made the first self raising flour. Earnings were 9 shillings a week when a family of 6 needed 29 shillings. Westferry Printers were here before moving to Luton. They were responsible for production of full colour-editions of the Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday as well as contract printing. The white building seen as looking out across the water is a water sports centre. It was the entrance to the dock but is now filled in.

The success of the grain trade at Millwall prompted civil engineer Magnus Mowat to invent new handling and storage methods for the dock. Three pneumatic grain elevators were erected on platforms 15 metres away from the jetty. These could discharge directly into the barges or to the granary. The unique brick built granary was 76 metres long, 30:5 metres wide and was designed to hold 24,000 tons of bulk grain. It had 11 floors for storage and inspection and a delivery floor and basement. The granary was divided into five compartments with vertical firewalls and had a 20,000 gallon water tank on the roof for fire fighting and windows for ventilation.

The dock was built as steam vessels slowly began to establish themselves on trade routes. However this trend seems to have been ignored and the width of the entrance (24:5metres) severely limited the type of vessels that could use the dock. The situation eased when Millwall Dock was connected to West India Dock which had a larger entrance by the PLA who took over in 1909. . The dock had good rail connections, a branch of the Blackwall Railway passed through West India Dock to serve the Millwall Dock quays.

To the left as you look out at the water is a dry dock where the Cutty Sark in the 50’s was moored. The chimney on the left was for an incinerator. The red bit of machinery was a vacuum pump that sucked grain from the ships.

Steve Welsh


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