Above: Looking north at the old Port of London Authority building from the gardens on Tower Hill. It is now in use as a hotel.
This is a story about the organisation of the old dock systems in London. From just before 1700 to just after 1900, the dock systems on the Thames were laid out and constructed, each one controlled by a separate company. On the south side of the Thames, a single dock was constructed – at first called the Howland Great Wet Dock but later known as the Greenland Dock. Over the years, more docks were dug and the whole system became known as the Surrey Commercial Docks. On the north side of the Thames were built several sets of docks – the St Katharine Docks, the London Docks, the West India Docks, the Millwall Docks, the East India Docks and the Royal Docks. The docks just mentioned have been listed in positional order, working downriver from Tower Bridge.
All the different dock systems were started by private companies, in the hope of making money. For example, the West India Docks were built by the West India Dock Company. Each similar Company was formed, with the assent of Parliament and it set about building its own dock system. Over the years, many of the Companies made big money for a period of time but as the 1900s were approaching many of them were barely ‘breaking even’ and some were already running at a loss. The Government of the day decided that its intervention was necessary, in the interests maintaining exporting and importing in those docks.
The Port of London Authority (PLA) was established by the Port of London Act of 1908 to govern the Port of London which was the result of taking over all the separate dock companies. The PLA is a self-funding public trust. Due the Act of Parliament, all the dock systems came under the umbrella organisation of the PLA. In the early days there was plenty of money and lavish headquarters were built at 10 Tower Hill. The building is still there. The massive white stone structure was erected 1915-22 to designs of Sir Edwin Cooper. Both the exterior and interior were palatial considering that they were built as ‘head offices’ to run the dock systems in London.
Although the organisation of the PLA was efficient, docks and the way that goods were handled were rapidly changing during the 20th century. A simple example is to quote the gradual use of containerisation which, today, is virtually the only way that all cargo in any port is handled. The PLA started in 1908 with good intentions – and plenty of money. By the 1970s the PLA needed to cut back on its spending. It moved from the impressive building on Tower Hill to offices in the World Trade Centre, housed in modern offices at St Katharine Docks. All the dock systems on the Thames gradually closed down and the land was developed in the 1980s and 1990s by the London Dockland Development Corporation (LDDC). Some of the docks were retained but many of them were filled in and used to build offices or apartment blocks. There was a large dock system further downriver – the Tilbury Docks which was privatised in 1992 and they are now known as the Port of Tilbury. Today, the PLA is based at London River House and Royal Terrace Pier, in Gravesend, Kent.
Returning to the old PLA building on Tower Hill, there are many people in London who still refer to it by its old name even now. In fact, it ceased to have that name from the 1970s onwards. In 1977 the impressive building was refurbished and acquired by the Willis Coroon Group, a worldwide provider of insurance and reinsurance brokerage services. Their tenure was relatively brief because Willis later had new offices built in Lime Street, designed by Foster and Partners and they moved from the old PLA building in 2007.
The old PLA building was, once again, to have new owners for which it was refurbished and became a Four Seasons Hotel, with its name being taken from the original address of the building – ’Ten Trinity Square’. Featuring 100 guest rooms and suites, it is often said that the exterior is the most spectacular of any hotel in London.