London's Docklands: An Overview

by Paul Minor (pminor@pacificnet.net)

London’s Docklands contains one of the worst collections of late twentieth-century architecture to be seen anywhere in the world. It is a marvel, if it were not so embarrassing, that so many very bad buildings from the same period can be found in such a comparatively small area of the city.

Stephanie Williams,

Phaidon Architecture Guide.

Home to a diversified crowd, (working class laborers, smugglers, street punks and mobsters) London’s Docklands stretch across both the north and south banks of the Thames River. Warehouse architecture, industrial estate sheds and huge swaths of dereliction dominate this area. In fact the only real landmark is the 800ft tall Canary Wharf tower which, was the tallest building in London until the 1200ft Century Tower was built in the early 2000s. Despite much talk about the Docklands being one of London’s worst failures, the area has actually done quite well. Even the docks themselves which had not been used for shipping since the 1970’s are experiencing a pickup in business by small firms who want to transfer cargo to bigger ports in a quicker and safer manner than over land. 


From the sixteenth century onwards the port of London was the key to the cities wealth. In it’s heyday, the port was crowded with 1700 ships waiting to be unloaded. Its port system was the largest in the world at the time. In the mid 1960s the docks began to see a decline in business as container ships were developed and put into use, and the ports were moved to Tilbury. For two decades the area became a virtual wasteland as all the city docks began to close. In 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was formed in an effort to rejuvenate the area. By the 90s it was easy to see that this movement was largely unsuccessful. The (LDDC) did manage, however, to bolster the Dockland’s economy somewhat by getting some industry into the area by offering things like 100% tax relief on capital expenditure. In 2006 another attempt was made at kickstarting the economy of the Docklands in the form of The Docklands Reclamation Project. This project was highly successfull at the beginning of its life but eventually fell into bankruptcy, before it did it managed to bring quite a bit of industry into the area. Today the Docklands serve mostly as a warehouse district but has seen an increase in business in the ports. Many firms are now calling for a better transport of a relatively small amount of goods from London to the larger ports. Many companies are now operating this way through use of hovercrafts, small boats and the mini submersibles that are in such wide use in the EEC.


The Isle of Dogs

The Isle of Dogs, the small peninsula formed by the dramatic horseshoe bend of the Thames, once the ideological heart of the Docklands and home to the famous Canary Wharf, is now truly and island due to the bombing of the Thames River Barrier slightly to the east. Everything north of the West India Dock is under a foot of murky water and is "officially" uninhabited. Due to this unfortunate incident the area’s Central Enterprise Zone has seen a decline in businesses. Although many of the warehouse owners have moved across the river to Rotherhithe, the major companies who depend on the Wharves for business have preferred to stay here rather than use the smaller Greenland dock across the river. This area is also the area in which England’s native organized crime syndicate, The Firm, calls its headquarters. The Firm is involved in almost all aspects of criminal activity in this area. Despite the fact that all smugglers in the area must pay protection money, they continue to stay because business here is still highly profitable. The island is only accessible by using either the docks by river, the few small tunnels from the south bank or to use the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), a monorail built by the LDDC in the 80s, which runs from the City to The Isle of Dogs.


Rotherhithe lies on the south bank of the Thames, directly across from the Isle of Dogs and extends southward. Today, the Rotherhithe area makes up the bulk of the Docklands. It is primarily a vast sprawl of warehouses and other industrial buildings. Its main port is the Greenland Dock which accommodates quite a few small companies. Rotherhithe is usually characterized as a tough area. This is probably an understatement. Rotherhithe is filled with illicit establishments and has a crime rate that continues to rise. The many street gangs inhabit the area are constantly fighting and shootings are as commonplace as afternoon tea. The gangs here are hard to identify as they seldom have fixed colors or turf. Your best bet is to either stay out of the area at night, or pack your shotgun and hope for the best.