Legal Quays

Above: Part of the Agas map, c1561, showing the Legal Quays.

London Bridge acted as a barrier to sailing ships wanting to moor on the Thames near the City of London. This was true in the days of the Romans when they brought cargoes from Mediterranean ports. The only difference in those days was that the riverfront was further inland than it is now. The same riverfront was in use in medieval times, usually trading with cargoes from the continent – like France, Holland and Germany. It extended from old London Bridge east to the Tower of London.

By the 16th century, London had become an important port – important not only for England but also when compared with ports in other countries in Europe. Unfortunately, the larger the amounts of money being transacted in a port, the greater incentive there is for fraud. With goods being handled on the City quaysides and other places on the Thames, large amounts of money were changing hands and, instead of being collected by Customs Officials, some of it was going to those who hoped to profit by illegally appropriating the goods.

The Custom House was on the quayside at the east side of the City but the officials could not be in all places at once and this led to illegal imports and exports of goods which they could not control. The Government of the day decided to pass an Act of Parliament stating that goods could only be landed or discharged at designated places – known as Legal Quays – overseen by Custom’s Officials. The Act of 1559 designated 15 quays on the riverfront of the City – between London Bridge and the Tower of London. It was a rather short riverfront being only 1,491 feet in length and part of that was taken up with the Custom House itself.

Many of the quays could only accommodate one ship at a time. Due to the lack of space, many sea-going ships had to moor in the middle of the Thames, in front of the Legal Quays, and wait for their ‘turn’ to discharge their cargo. Even in 1663, when the number of ships being handled had increased considerably, the number of quays was only increased from 15 to 20. Because the Legal Quays were east of London Bridge, they stood in the wards of Bridge, Billingsgate and Tower. At different dates, there were different numbers of Legal Quays. Essentially, the number of quays grew between 1559 (which was when they were first created) and the 18th century (by which time they were falling into disuse).

We are provided with a quaint view of the Legal Quays on part of the Agas map – produced about 1561 which was only a few years after they came into existence. East of old London Bridge, the quays are shown and some of them are labelled, along with the site of the Custom House which was on a different site to today and was also much smaller. Starting at London Bridge is shown ‘Fresh Wharf’ (which in the 1960s was known as New Fresh Wharf); Botolph’s Wharf; Lyon Key; Somar’s Key; Billingsgate Dock; Smart’s Key; Andro Morris Key; and finally Custom House. An inscription is then shown on the map which means that the mapmaker had no space to add further names.

On a technical point, the traditional spellings for the wharves follow those given in the ‘Dictionary of London’ by Henry Harben. Those spellings have been used throughout this article even though spellings on the Agas map are not always the same. The Agas map does not show the names of all 15 Legal Quays that were in existence at the time.

The list of the 15 Legal Quays from the 1559 Act (from London Bridge to the Tower of London) is provided below. Contemporary descriptions for some of the wharves and the commodities that were being handled are shown where available. The original old spelling has been left uncorrected.


Fresh Wharf – ‘for fyshe and eele shippers’.

Cox’s Quay – ‘altogether for straungers goodes who had merchandizes and lodgings’.

Botolph’s Wharf – ‘with straungers goodes that ley and had ware howses there and with wynes and by cost men’.

Gaunt’s Key – ‘for landinge of barrell fyshe and suche like havinge no crane’.

Hammond’s Key – no description.

Lyon Key – no description.

Somar’s Key – ‘wholly inhabited with Flemyngs and vsed for there merchandizes’.


Smart’s Quay – ‘altogether with fyshe’.

Ralph’s Quay – ‘with all kynde of merchandizes inward and outwarde’.

Young’s Quay – ‘with wares belonginge to merchants of Portingale [Portugal] by reason they did lye there and was vsed for shippinge of straungers of clothes’.

Sabb’s Dock – ‘with pitche tar and sope ashes and such like’.

Bear Quay – ‘with Portingall [Portugal] commodities by reason the merchants of that contree did lye and had ther ware howses there and with some cost men’.

Andro Morris Key – no description.

Crown Key – no description.


Galley Quay – ‘was greatly occupied with all kynde of merchandizes bothe inward and outward’.


Working out where those wharves are today is quite complicated. In 1559 the Custom House was on its original site and is usually referred to as the ‘Old Custom House’. In later times the Custom House was built on a new site, further west of the early one and also a larger size. The result was that today’s Custom House (which is still on that site today) was built over some of the Legal Quays that were listed in 1559.

The creation of the Legal Quays was one of the first attempts to control the landing and discharging of goods in London. It became the start of the long story of much larger enclosed docks being constructed along the river banks between London Bridge and Woolwich. In the 20th century, almost all the docks closed – because the value of the land on which the goods were being stored had become far greater than the value of those goods. If they came back today, those Tudor wharf owners would be surprised to learn that all their wharves had been closed and all goods are now handled at Tilbury Docks – which is 25 miles downstream of London Bridge.


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