Canals and docks

The canals and docks in Tower Hamlets are an important part of our industrial, cultural and natural heritage.

Canals, constructed to meet the transport needs of the Industrial Revolution, were the motorways of their day, and their construction made a major impact on the 18th and 19tth century landscapes. However, once established, canals soon developed their own flora and fauna and today many are designated as important wildlife sites at local and national level.

The London canal network was cut between 1767 and 1830 to provide a transport link within London and between the capital and the industrial towns of the Midlands and the North. Tower Hamlets is fortunate to have four sections of the national canal circuit pass through the Borough: Lea Navigation, Limehouse Cut, Regent’s (also known as the Grand Union) and the Hertford Union.

The first dock, West India Dock, opened in 1802. The East India Company followed in 1806 with construction of a dock at Blackwall. The London Dock Company formed soon after and so construction began with the first of the London Docks opening in Wapping in 1805 and St. Katharine’s Dock in 1828. These docks were created in the 19th century to allow for the growing trade and commerce of the world and ever-larger ships and by the middle of the 1930s the docks were operating at their peak.

The rapid decline of industry, and subsequently the docks, began in the post World War Two period, partly due to the severe bomb damage which closed one third of the warehousing and partly as a result of the economic decline. The East India Dock closed in 1967 after 161 years of service. The others followed in fast succession with the last dock closing in 1981. By 1981 around 60% of the Docklands were vacant, derelict or seriously under-used. Wasteland meadows soon replaced the unused dockland areas supporting an exciting mix of grasses, exotics, invertebrates, snails and butterflies, which in turn attracted birds such as kestrels, finches and black redstarts.

The mass redevelopment of the docks began in the late 1980’s and continues today with riverside housing, manufacturing plants and office blocks, all bringing a new and different kind of life back to the docks. Some of the present day redevelopments are considering ecology in their design and the water space is increasingly being recognised for its ecological value.