London Docklands

The London Docklands, past, present and future

As construction projects go, the regeneration of the London Docklands area has been both substantial and iconic. This formerly industrial part of the Capital has gone through a series of dramatic transformations that have seen it achieve success and failure in equal measure. Thousands of people have been employed, lost their jobs, moved in and moved out, and the vision and culture of the communities occupying this part of London have also evolved and shifted. Given the physical change that the London Docklands has gone through in recent years it is the ideal subject for a construction case study.

The East End docks – where it all began

Today’s Docklands are descended from the East End docks and the story really started there back in the 1800s. As the British Empire began to grow, opportunities for entrepreneurs flourished and most of these were accessible to those who could make use of transport by sea. As a result, the number of ships coming in and out of London rose substantially and this created a lot of chaos. As well as issues with loading and unloading there were also collisions and conflicts in the water from a lack of amenities to deal with this sudden increase in industrial shipping.

It was in response to this that the East End docks were planned. East and West India Docks were the first to be constructed but simply didn’t meet the needs of the burgeoning industry. So, in 1855 Victoria Dock was opened – this harnessed the latest technology and was around 13 metres deep. Albert Dock followed in 1880 and when the docks became linked to the new railway network the area was really opened up to support new trade. The largest dock to be constructed was the King George V, which opened in 1921 and had a 225 metre long lock.

Some facts from the early days of the London Docklands

  • Hundreds of thousands of cargoes were loaded and unloaded into the likes of the Victoria and Albert docks. Some of the most typical were tobacco, grain, fruit, meat and vegetables.
  • As the docks were built they were accompanied by warehouses, which could provide vast storage spaces and even refrigeration.
  • The increase in industry required a substantial rise in the local residential construction so that workers had somewhere to live. New settlements at the time included Hallsville, Canning Town, and North Woolwich.
  • The East End docks were heavily targeted during World War II. Around 25,000 tons of ordinance fell on the Docklands in an effort to try and destroy the industry and logistics that were so well entrenched there. Human losses were high.
  • The Docklands also played a role in the Normandy landings. They were used as a secret location for the construction of the mulberry harbours that helped establish the beachhead in France.

Changes that have taken place over the past 40 years

Technology and the creation of containerised cargo would eventually signal the end of the road for the East End docks in their original construction. The ships being used to transport cargo had become much larger and, as a result, those ports with deeper waters were soon the more favoured destinations. There were efforts to save the industry in the Docklands but by 1981 all of London’s original docks had been closed for commercial purposes – the last ever vessel to be loaded left on 7th December 1981.

There were some serious consequences to this loss of industry, especially for those living in the area. In particular, unemployment became a big issue for the communities that had grown up around the docks and come to rely on them for work. In the 1980s hundreds of thousands of people moved out of the Docklands and 60% of the area became derelict.

Canary Wharf and the East London Docks

By 1986 big plans were under way for the derelict docks in the form of Canary Wharf. However, this was not initially well received and there were a lot of protests about the planned development for the Isle of Dogs. While construction went ahead as planned for Canary Wharf it was not without its problems and there were many years when the development was considered to have been a poor move – and a disaster for the area. However, by 2017, Canary Wharf was firmly back on top and viewed as having brought considerable positive regeneration to the area. For example:

New job opportunities

Employment in this part of London has significantly increased as a result of the development. Canary Wharf now employs the same workforce size as the original docks did when they were operating for industrial purposes.

New developments

Thanks to Canary Wharf, infrastructure in the area has been overhauled. For example, the Docklands now has City Airport, as well as the Docklands Light Railway – and, soon, Crossrail will also be part of the local transport network.

Social Mobility Commission

Although there are serious problems with poverty in this part of the city social mobility is on the rise. The Social Mobility Commission found that Tower Hamlets is one of the best locations in the country for social mobility.

Development has been ongoing

The East End docks have continued their period of transformation in recent years as projects such as the Olympic Park in Stratford have brought new facilities, business growth, as well as a wealth of residential construction to the area.

Issues that still remain

Although a lot has changed thanks to the development of the London Docklands over the past 40 years there are issues that still remain. One of the biggest problems is the inequality that still plagues the area. Tower Hamlets remains one of the worst locations in London for poverty and unemployment. This is particularly difficult for some to stomach given the vast wealth creation that takes place in the buildings of Canary Wharf every day. Although social mobility is on the up in this part of London there is still a long way to go in terms of closing the inequality gap.

What are the Docklands like today?

Of all London’s areas the Docklands is one that has perhaps gone through the most dramatic change in recent decades (or even centuries). It has been a location that was crucial to the UK economy and then fallen into complete disrepair. From that point it grew once again into somewhere contributing significantly to the financial needs of the country but also a location that many people have mixed feelings about in terms of the communities that have been created. Given this complex and slightly chaotic history, what are the Docklands really like today?

Underground Station

Canary Wharf Underground Station is an iconic construction for the area. The station opened in 1999 as part of the extension of the Jubilee Line into the Docklands and is now the 9th busiest of all the stations on the London Underground network. Its construction was the responsibility of architect Norman Foster and it has become an iconic representation of the success and grandeur of Canary Wharf.

Green spaces

If you’re a fan of greenery and street art then you could be surprised by what this area has to offer. It might feel more natural to head for Richmond for nature or to Hackney if you’re looking for urban art but you’ll actually find a lot of this in the Docklands. Cabot Square, for example, is renowned as one of the area’s most enjoyable spots for garden lovers.

Interesting buildings

There are some pretty unique structures in this part of London. For example, the Storm Water Pumping Station on the Isle of Dogs was created to have a very practical function. However, it was also inspired by the Ancient Egyptians – by their buildings and also the way that they controlled water. As a result, you’ll find an ordinary pumping station that has a very exotic Egyptian aesthetic if you make a trip to see it. The building gained Grade II listed status in 2017.

Original buildings

Many of the original buildings still remain in the Docklands. Although a lot of the construction had to be destroyed because it became derelict there are still historic pockets of original sites that remain today. Many have been converted and restored into highly sought after residential properties. Most of the original docks (e.g. Victoria Dock) have also survived and been converted into marinas or centres for water sports.


The Docklands has often played a role in popular culture. From regularly being used as settings for novelists like Charles Dickens to being District 1, the most functional section of Britain during the outbreak of Rage Virus in the movie 28 Weeks Later, the Docklands has a thriving fictional representation.


From one of the least well-connected areas, the Docklands today is at the heart of one of best transport networks in the city. Living and working in the Docklands means having an airport on the doorstep and extensive rail and bus connections.


The Docklands even has its own orchestra – the Docklands Sinfonia was founded in January 2009 and is based at St Anne’s Limehouse.

What does the future of the Docklands look like?

With a history that has been incredibly varied, the Docklands is now an area that is largely considered to be on the up. Development and investment continue in this part of London and social mobility is rising. The versatility of the area has always provided fertile ground for innovative development so what is it likely to attract in the future?

The original East End docks were reclaimed from unwanted marshland and created a much needed site to support the burgeoning industry of transportation by sea that was helping to drive the expansion of the British Empire. While those original needs have now changed a lot, the opportunities offered by the Docklands continue to pave the way for forward thinking developers who are looking to do something different.

Parts of the Docklands have been earmarked for significant redevelopment. In fact, the next decade looks like it could be one of significant transformation for this part of London. The driving force behind development is to create family friendly communities, which could completely change the area and provide many more opportunities for those being priced out of other parts of the Capital.

Case study: Royal Wharf

Royal Wharf, within the Royal Docks area is one part of the Docklands that is already being transformed by focused development and could provide a blueprint for how this part of the city could change in the next 10 years.

  • The Royal Wharf development will include more than 3,300 new homes, creating a brand new neighbourhood in the Docklands.
  • The 40-acre scheme is being designed to include a very wide range of amenities, including space for health and fitness and a market square.
  • Construction includes the addition of a new pier, which will become London’s longest when it has been completed. The pier will be a public space and viewing platform and will be connected to a new riverside promenade that has been designed for the area.
  • A new primary school is planned for Royal Wharf to cater to the increase in families likely to be attracted into the new community.
  • Transport connections are also being improved. The Docklands Light Railway will stop at a new Royal Wharf station. Local residents will also be able to directly access Crossrail once the project is complete.
  • Development of Royal Wharf has been designed to include as much green space as possible. In particular, there are parks and gardens that are specifically intended to create safe and health places for children to play.

London Docklands development – the positives and negatives

The past, present and future of the London Docklands look very different to one another. The area has seen vast redevelopment and this has not always been welcomed by those who live and work there – and it has not always been a success. Looking at the way that the London Docklands function today, and the potential that the area has, there are still a number of different pros and cons to consider.


  • Communities in the London Docklands still feel quite divided. There are a lot of issues caused by inequalities in wealth and standards of living in this part of London – sometimes those living in very close proximity are living vastly different lives. Many also feel that there has been a lack of planning cohesion and so the various projects being undertaken in the area feel disparate and a bit chaotic.
  • Not all the Docklands are particularly well connected yet. For example Surrey Quays and Wapping are still separate and there is no direct link between the Isle of Dogs and the Millennium Dome.
  • There is still a lack of community feel, which is a problem for a lot of families who might otherwise settle there. This is something that can only really be established through investment and development, for example in healthcare, education and recreation in the Docklands area.


  • The potential for development. London is a city very short on homes in accessible areas and residential construction could help to take the pressure off the Capital’s housing crisis. Developments such as Royal Wharf could pave the way for change in London. 19,844 new homes have already been built in the London Docklands. This has resulted in a 40% increase in privately owned housing, and refurbishment of more than 7,000 local authority properties has also taken place.
  • A transport infrastructure that just keeps evolving. The Docklands Light Railway now carries more than 320,000 passengers per week. It’s a great example of transport development in the UK and continues to expand to make other parts of this area accessible for those looking to live and work.
  • The convenience of an airport. The first plane landed at the London City Airport in 1987 and now more than half a million passengers a year use the airport. Flights leave from City Airport to 18 European and UK locations and it is a hub for 13 different airlines.
  • Employment prospects. More than 2.28 million sq metres of commercial and industrial space has already been developed in the London Docklands and this attracted a lot of new enterprises – the number of businesses opting to settle in the area doubled from 1,000 in 1982 to 2,400. As a result the area has become a jobs hub and employment has increased by 157%.
  • Facilities and amenities in some parts of the London Docklands are world class. From schools, to shopping and entertainment the area now has a lot more to offer.

The London Docklands has undergone complete transformation since the 1800s when the area was first developed. From a construction point of view its evolution has been fascinating to watch – and will continue to be as the area evolves into the future.

At RG Group we can see the value in learning the lessons of past construction projects to inform the developments of the future.


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