A century of service

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2009 marks 100 years since the foundation of the Port of London Authority

One of the fast launches with which the PLA patrols the tidal Thames

PLA Communications Manager Martin Garside reviews the vital role that the authority continues to play in ensuring safe use of the tidal Thames

Photo: PLA

As the twentieth century began, the Thames faced many problems. Above all, there was chaos and congestion on the river as rival wharfs, docks and river users battled for business. Sea transport was absolutely crucial to British international transport and trade. Aviation was still in its earliest infancy – Louis Bleriot did not make his historic first crossing of the English Channel by aircraft until 1909.

A successful and modern port in the nation’s capital was essential to the nation’s success. Parliament therefore decided there was a need for a new organisation to bring order to the chaos and congestion that prevailed on the Thames.

The Port of London Act 1908

After years of fierce debate, the Bill that led to the creation of the PLA was introduced by David Lloyd George in April 1908. The challenge of guiding it through the Commons fell to his successor as President of the Board of Trade, Winston Churchill. The Bill received Royal Assent as the Port of London Act 1908 in December of that year.

In March 1909 the Port of London Authority came into being. Central to the role of this new organisation were:

  • responsibility for the tidal Thames from Teddington Lock to a line from Havengore Creek, Essex, to Warden Point, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent
  • transfer of the assets of the dock companies – the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, the London & India Dock Company, and the Millwall Dock Company – at a cost of £23 million (approximately £1.7 billion today)

In the years immediately after its formation, the PLA oversaw investment and modernisation of the docks. Other benefits followed, including a deepening of the river. Above all, the PLA brought coordination – and a new sense of identity – to a busy, successful port.

Wartime service

Subsequently the port played its part in the nation’s efforts through two world wars and the rebuilding that followed. The role of the port in the Second World War probably deserves an article in itself. For example, many vessels from London assisted in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. This included sixteen Thames sailing barges, the shallow draught of which allowed closer access to the Dunkirk beaches. Several Thames paddle steamers also took part.

As the tide of war turned, the Port of London continued to play a key role. Hundreds of Thames lighters were used to carry supplies and equipment for the D-Day landings in Normandy. A massive contribution to the success of those landings was made by the construction in London’s port facilities and elsewhere on the Thames of many sections of the artificial ‘Mulberry’ harbours, successfully towed to France after the first landings. And facilities on the Thames were central to the design and construction of PLUTO (Pipe-Lines Under The Ocean), the two flexible pipelines laid on the floor of the Channel. These supplied the vital oil supplies for the liberation of Europe.

Peacetime developments

Peacetime saw trade through the port, particularly the enclosed docks, grow again. It reached its peak in 1964 at 61 million tons (55 million metric tonnes). But very rapidly after that containerisation and other major changes in cargo handling technology and increasing ship sizes brought to an end the era of the upriver enclosed docks (St Katharine to the Royal Docks). These progressively closed between 1967 and 1981, and trade moved downriver.

Today and tomorrow

Today, the Port of London is the second largest port in the UK . It handles over fifty million tonnes of cargo at about seventy privately operated port facilities all along the tidal Thames from west London through to the estuary. Larger port facilities are concentrated around and downriver of the Dartford river crossing. The modern PLA is no longer involved in cargo handling. Its last such operation – Tilbury Docks – was privatised in 1992.

The tidal Thames has entered the twenty- first century as a modern, diverse and commercially successful river. London has a busy and growing passenger boat trade for tourists and commuters and is also a popular destination for international passenger cruise ships. In addition, the tidal Thames is used widely by those with small recreational craft of many types.

The PLA employs 360 people and continues in its core role – responsibility for navigational safety and related matters on 95 miles of the tidal Thames from the sea to Teddington in west London. The PLA provides navigational, pilotage and other services for users of the tidal Thames.

In other words, it continues the vital task given to it by Parliament one hundred years ago: helping people make the most of the river safely – whether it is for deep-sea trade, river- borne freight within London, commuting, sailing or rowing.

The PLA is a self-financing public trust. It provides its essential services through charges on river users and without any taxpayer support. PLA operations over the diverse 95 miles of river from Teddington to the sea include:

  • running modern vessel traffic service (VTS) facilities – the Port Control Centre at Gravesend and Thames Barrier Navigation Control at Woolwich
  • providing pilots to guide ships in and out of the Thames
  • surveying the bed of the river and dredging where necessary, to ensure ships have safe access
  • providing divers to help remove obstructions
  • patrolling the river – 24 hours a day from Gravesend to Putney

Despite the current uncertain economic situation, the future prospects for the Thames look positive. The people who live in and around the nation’s capital will continue to need the food, fuel and other essentials of modern life that come through the Port of London.

An evolving role

Significant investment is planned in a number of new facilities. Major construction projects, ranging from the 2012 Olympics to Crossrail to the Thames Tideway tunnel, will also see important use made of the river. Furthermore, there is a continued interest in using the water to move ever more goods and materials, and to keep lorries off the capital’s congested roads.

The PLA has been at the heart of operations on London’s river for one hundred years. In that time it has overseen many changes, including the move from the traditional enclosed docks close to the capital to port facilities downriver and closer to the estuary. At the same time, the PLA itself has evolved from a port operator to an organisation responsible for the regulation and promotion of the River Thames.

As PLA chief executive Richard Everitt puts it: “London isn’t just one of Europe’s great cities – it is one of Europe’s great ports. Since the first Londoners settled on the banks of the Thames thousands of years ago, the river has fed, supplied and transported them. It still fulfils this vital task today under the stewardship of the PLA.”

The PLA’s heritage is one of improving the Port, battling through two world wars and a revolution in shipping, to ensure the river remains an economic powerhouse for the people of London and the southeast. Today, the collective contribution of the many people who have worked for the PLA is a tidal Thames that is safer and more efficient than it has ever been.

Further information on the work of the Port of London Authority, and on its centenary, is available at www.pla.co.uk

About the Maritime Foundation

The Maritime Foundation is a not for profit organisation promoting Britain’s interests across the entire maritime sector.

Its purpose is to inform and raise public and parliamentary awareness of the importance of Britain’s maritime industries, commerce and defence through education, training and research, as well as through the Foundation’s annual Maritime Media Awards.