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the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

An image of Billingsgate Market

Billingsgate Market in The Microcosm of London or London in Minature (Metheun, 1904)

articles > London and the sea

London and the sea

Leonard Schwarz, University of Birmingham

Since Roman times London has been Britain's largest town, its largest manufacturing city and its largest port. The port was partly a function of London's size. London has always far outclassed any other towns in England in terms of size: in 1300 London's population was at least three times larger than its nearest English competitor, Norwich. By 1801, when London has a population of over 900,000, the closest competitor was Manchester, with a population less than one-fifteenth of London; it was one-sixth the size of London in 1841. From the sixteenth century onwards, about a tenth of the nation's population has lived in London, and this population has needed supplies. But the Port of London was always more than merely a supply channel for the needs of Londoners. London has always tended to dominate the national economy. In the 1530s London was exporting over 80 percent of the nation's cloth exports and taking 70 percent of its wine imports. It maintained this dominance until the later eighteenth century when the west coast ports grew rapidly, but it continued to dominate North Sea trade, and remained by far the largest port in Britain. In fact, London can be seen as having two foci of employment: the port and the court. The court at Westminster attracted aristocrats, skilled artisans, many providers of leisure activities. The port was originally the City of London, but before the sixteenth century had expanded down the river through Ratcliffe and Wapping and developed out to the Isle of Dogs and what is now Canary Wharf. In fact, the port had two parts to it. Large ships could not pass through London Bridge. So the inland trade of the Thames Valley stopped west of the bridge, the overseas trade to the east. By the time that the bridge was finally removed in the nineteenth century, patterns of use were far too deeply embedded to change.

It was the Thames to the east from London Bridge that attracted the most comment. By the eighteenth century it was, by the standards of its time, enormous. Defoe noted three wet docks, 22 dry docks and 33 yards for laying up, repairing and building merchant ships. (1) Contemporaries were enormously impressed by the forests of masts.

The port also had its own social structure and its own pattern of life. Until the advent of steam from about the middle of the nineteenth century, the pulse of the port beat to the trade winds and to foreign harvests. While much activity continued regularly over the year, there was a peak in late spring when the American ships arrived. There was a second, more important peak around September and October when the American ships arrived for a second time and were supplemented by West Indiamen. At the end of the year, or early January, the East Indiamen arrived. In May and September 1835 the tonnage of ships entering the Port was fifty per cent higher than the annual average. February, on the other hand, was a particularly low month, with half the annual average. (2)

The constant arrival and departure of the ships meant that the population of the East London parishes was constantly changing. Seamen were as important to the East End as the aristocracy was to Westminster. They had a reputation for spending money freely – it was probably their first chance ashore to spend it – and were regarded gratefully by shopkeepers, publicans and pimps. For precisely these reasons, moralists regarded them with indignation. If they arrived in the autumn – and most of them did – they were likely to stay until the spring. They came from all nations and were of all colours, which always attracted comments, particularly from the eighteenth century when London's trade became truly intercontinental. There were Indians, Africans, even some Chinese, and of course over time there would be more and more. To the Londoners living in aristocratic Westminster, the port was a strange place. 'When one goes into Rotherhithe or Wapping, which places are inhabited chiefly by sailors', wrote the author of a well-informed 1776 guide to London, 'but that somewhat of the same language is spoken, a man would be apt to suspect himself in another country. Their manner of living, speaking, acting, dressing, and behaving are so very peculiar to themselves'. (3) However, unless they had business there, there was little reason for those from the western part to venture into the eastern.

Employment, too, was always changing, depending on the season and the winds. In order to get to London, boats had to sail up the Thames and that meant dependence upon the wind. Smaller boats could tack against the wind, but the larger boats usually required square sails, thus limiting their ability to tack. In the mid nineteenth century Henry Mayhew estimated that an easterly wind put 20,000 men on the riverside out of work. (4) The Thames was an immense traffic jam. Ships did their best to sail up or down it, but being unloaded was another matter and, until the end of the eighteenth century, few docks were built for unloading ships (as opposed to repairing them). There was then a rush of building, and docks and warehouses were built for the West India fleet, the East Indiamen and others. The space taken up by these warehouses was spoken of with awe. These docks were reasonably effective until the arrival of steampower led to the port moving further down the river. Ships became larger and the railways could transport the goods into central London.

Loading and unloading ships required an immense casual labour force. Ports tend to attract social extremes – on the one hand rich merchants, on the other hand a large mass of poor unskilled labour – and London has been no exception. Some men specialised in particular types of cargoes. Almost all were engaged by the day – casual labourers generally did not know in the morning if they would find work during the day. Whether they did so might depend on their connections. In the mid nineteenth century local publicans controlled London's enormous coalheaving trade. Coalheavers were divided into constant men and casualty men. 'The constant men make three times as much as the casualty men, or, in other words, they have three times as much to drink ... "If they didn't drink," said my informant, "they'd be thought of very little use"'. (5) This verged onto the criminality that was endemic on the waterfront. Patrick Colquhoun, a magistrate with a talent for journalism, regaled the public with the types of riverside criminals in 1800: river pirates, light horsemen (who raided ships by night), heavy horsemen (day raiders), scufflehunters (opportunistic porters), and so on. (6)

The end of the eighteenth century was probably the heyday of opportunistic crime. From then on the port became more regulated. Docks were built, policing was better regulated, and later on steamships would come and would dock further east. But the pattern of casual labour was set by then and so was the pattern of women's work. Women's work was limited in the port. They could work in shops and public houses, they could walk the streets with barrows selling fruit and vegetables, or they could – and many did – make 'slop' clothing, that is, stitch together cheap clothing for use by sailors and labourers. In the later nineteenth century it would be called sweated labour, but it had a long tradition.

Professor Ralph Davis guessed that during the early eighteenth century a quarter of London's population depended upon the port 'directly or indirectly'. (7) In fact, the parishes directly on the riverside and directly involved with the port had a total population in 1801 of 89,733, a tenth of the whole metropolis. But the indirect connections of London's trade were felt everywhere. It was crucial to the City of London. Londoners had been heating their houses with coal since the seventeenth century and this came by sea until the mid-nineteenth century, when the railways took over this trade. Much of the grain came down the Thames valley – the wealth of the M4 corridor goes back a long time. Coopers everywhere made barrels for its ships, ships' suppliers ran their networks deep into the country. Men came from all over southern England to work there – the backbreaking work was no harder than what they were used to in the country, and if employment was uncertain, the pay was certainly better. Many alternated between town and country, bringing in the harvest or unloading ships as the seasons dictated. The Port of London produced the East End; it needed and got a great deal of labour; it paid this labour irregularly and usually not well; it provided less work for women. On the other hand, what it provided was usually better than had been available in the countryside. The port also produced a great deal of wealth, but usually for those living some distance away.


1. D. Defoe, A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1st edn., 3 vols., 1724–7; ed. P. Rogers, Harmondsworth, 1971), p. 317.

2. Leonard Schwarz, London in the Age of Industrialisation (Cambridge, 1992), p. 107.

3. J. Fielding, A Description of the Cities of London and Westminster (1776), p. xiii.

4. H. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (1861), ii. 298

5. H. Mayhew, London Labour, iii. 272–273.

6. P. Colquhoun, A treatise on the commerce and police of the River Thames: containing an historical view of the trade of the port of London (1800).

7. R. Davis, The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1962), p. 390.

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