London’s Docklands area has always played an important role in the wealth of the city and in the fortunes of the East End. Once the hub of imports and exports and manufacturing, this area is now home to one of the leading financial centres in the world.
Over the years, the Docklands have had their ups and downs, but the development at and around Canary Wharf has transformed this area and restored its role as a pivotal part of the capital’s fortunes.
The Docklands in history
Much of London’s success in history has revolved around the Thames and the city’s access to water. It wasn’t until the 17th century, however, that Londoners started to seriously use the water access of the East End. In the 1690s, a dock was built at Rotherhithe.
This location worked so well that further docks were built close by, including West India Dock and St Katherine Dock. The Docks attracted workers from all over the country and, indeed, all over the world, making the East End a densely populated area, full of different nationalities and cultures.
The Docklands and Canary Wharf
Although the businesses that ran from the area’s docks helped promote London’s commercial businesses, this was not a wealthy area and it suffered from problems with poverty and crime.
During the Second World War, the docks made the East End a prime target for German bombing raids. If you shut down the docks, you made life difficult for all of the UK and not just London. It is estimated that the Germans dropped around 2,500 bombs into the area, destroying a lot of the dock areas and local housing.
There was some rebuilding work after the war and the docks continued to operate. But, by the 1970s, cargo transportation caused problems that the East End’s docks couldn’t recover from.
The city’s docks were not big enough to deal with container ships and much of London’s industry moved out to ports with deeper water access.
By the 1980s, all of the East End’s major docks had closed down. This caused locals a lot of problems. Unemployment rocketed and the area once again became known as a problem place in social, economic and crime terms.
Developing the Docklands and building Canary Wharf
Real estate in London is always at a premium and the land formerly used by the East End’s docks were not ignored when their businesses closed down.
However, the land was owned by a variety of companies and nothing could be agreed on for many years.
In the early 1980s, the government set up the London Docklands Development Corporation to try and pull things together and make something happen. It also set out new business rules for the area.
These included tax exemptions and capital allowances – this made the land immediately more attractive to businesses and probably kick-started the whole redevelopment phase.
One of the greatest needs in the area was new housing. The LDDC wanted to sell some of the land for housing development, but this was not necessarily what the local East Enders had hoped for. The Docklands became home to luxury and expensive housing developments that offered predominantly private rather than social solutions.
The LDDC also wanted to bring business back into the area and took on a project to build what became known as the Canary Wharf development. This ultimately made the East End one of the financial hubs of the country and gave it the impressive Canary Wharf building at One Canada Square.
This is now one of London’s iconic landmarks – it was originally the tallest building in London, but is now the second tallest.
Bringing in global businesses and building luxury housing would only work if the transport links in and out of the Docklands were improved.
The area now has its own railway connecting it to central London, the Docklands Light Railway or DLR. This railway is famous for its driverless trains. The area also now has a tube connection on the Jubilee line.
London Docklands today
Although the redevelopment of this area was unpopular with many locals who felt they were being edged out of their homes, it has brought a certain boost to the East End economy and to other local areas.
Thousands of locals working in the Tower Hamlets area are now employed at Canary Wharf and there is no doubt that the redevelopment has boosted the number of jobs available locally.
As the financial centre became established and increased, people needed more homes and development has spread further than originally planned. This has led to some gentrification of other Docklands areas. Many East Enders, however, feel that the redevelopment has had a negative effect on the areas in which they, and their families have lived for years.
The Millennium Dome: A Controversial Landmark
The Millennium Dome was built on the Greenwich Peninsula in South East London. Prior to its construction, the land was derelict and contaminated by toxic sludge from East Greenwich Gas Works that operated from 1889 to 1985.
The East Greenwich Gas Works was built by the South Metropolitan Gas Company from 1881. It was the last gas works to be built in London and was considered the most modern at the time. The gas works originally manufactured town gas from coal brought in by river and exported coke and chemicals. In the 1960s, the plant was adapted to produce gas from oil.
The site of the gas works was previously derelict and contaminated by toxic sludge from East Greenwich Gas Works that operated from 1889 to 1985.
After the East Greenwich Gas Works closed, the site was left derelict for many years. The gas holders were eventually dismantled, with the last one being dismantled in 2020.
The site has since been redeveloped and is now home to The O2 entertainment district, which includes an indoor arena, a music club, a Cineworld cinema, an exhibition space, piazzas, bars and restaurants.
Situated in Docklands, the Millennium Dome is one of London’s most recognisable and controversial landmarks. Designed by Richard Rogers and funded by successive UK governments, the Dome was constructed as part of London’s Millennium celebrations, along with the Millennium Bridge and the London Eye.
The Millennium Experience
The Millennium Dome was originally constructed to house the Millennium Experience, a major exhibition to celebrate the start of the third millennium. The exhibition was open to the public from 1 January to 31 December 2000.
After the closure of the Millennium Experience at the end of 2000, the Millennium Dome was leased to Meridian Delta Ltd. for redevelopment as an entertainment complex. This included plans for an indoor arena.
The O2: A New Era
The O2 Arena was designed by Richard Rogers and opened its doors in 2007 after developers saw a need for a large entertainment centre. Today, The O2 is a world-class entertainment venue that includes an indoor arena, a music club, a Cineworld cinema, an exhibition space, piazzas, bars and restaurants.
Some do live in social housing in the Docklands, but their conditions may not have improved much and many feel that the redevelopment plans ignored their needs.