top of page

The Continued Evolution of the London Docklands through to 1990 when it became Canary Wharf

Updated: May 23, 2021

For as long as records have been maintained, London has been a major international centre for trade and has been critical for commerce in the United Kingdom. Since the 1500's London has witnessed incredible growth in trade and became known as the financial centre.

By the 19th century the Isle of Dogs had become the hub of trade and industry for London, with the opening of the West India Import Docks in 1802. The docks and associated warehousing were used by London's merchants for the unloading and storage of sugar, coffee, rum, and timber. Canary Wharf was so named following the importation of fruit and vegetables from the Canary Islands which began to arrive at the Wharf. Following completion of the import docks, an export dock was completed in 1806.

West India Docks looking West in 1806, with the City Canal (left), Export Dock (centre) and Import Dock (right). Credit Unknown.

At 800 metres in length, 155 metres in width and being 7 metres deep, the West India Import Docks were able to accommodate 1,000 tonne wooden ships. Along the quayside nine warehouses were built, each being 5 storeys high. They were sub-divided to store goods such as sugar and coffee. Below was a basement, which became a cool storage area for rum casks.

The Export Dock was 800 metres in length, 120 metres in width and 7 metres in depth. Separately between 1866 and 1870 the City Canal was enlarged and reconstructed to form what became the South Dock, which was 815 metres in length, 138 metres in width, which were able to accommodate a further 30+ ships, further increasing trade.

A view looking West of West India Docks circa. 1950. Credit Unknown.

With the introduction of larger and larger iron ships, larger docks became required. By 1855, the Royal Victoria Docks were opened, which accommodated steam ships and the lock gates were hydraulically operated, further expediting the turnaround process.

Following the sustained bombing during the Second World War, the resultant destruction of warehouses required the construction of new infrastructure. With this came the introduction of mechanical cargo handling in the form of fork lift trucks. Cargo was now able to be stacked and moved on and off ships by crane, which resulted in the need for much less dock labour. The further expansion of the Tilbury Docks and the introduction of container shipping, which still exist today, with their large metal containers resulted in bulk transportation, which enabled one container vessel to carry the equivalent of ten older ships. These new super ships could be offloaded within a day, by a tenth of the number of men, in a twentieth of the time taken by hand. Following the introduction of the forklift, cargo was transferred from ships by cranes and stacked in warehouses mechanically. This resulted in the final decline and ultimate demise of West India Docks.

A view looking East of West India Docks circa. 1950. Credit Unknown.

During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s all of London's docks went into demise. This led to the eventual closure of the majority of West India Docks in 1980.

Looking North West across the declining West India Dock, circa. 1960. Credit Unknown.

With the recent return of a Conservative government and utilising the Local Government Planning and Land Act of 1980, Michael Heseltine set up the Urban Development Corporation.

In 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was formed and they set about creating a regeneration plan for the area which became known as the London Docklands Urban Development Area. The last remaining dock use was completed in 1983 and the area was established as an Enterprise Zone for commercial development. Developers were provided with tax incentives such as 100% capital allowance for commercial development to set against corporation tax and income tax. An additional benefit came in the shape of relaxed planning constraints, with no public inquiry and no discussion with the local people.

View of West India Docks and Canary Wharf looking West towards the City of London, 1984.

Credit Unknown.

During the early 1980s it was thought a light railway system could benefit the area and East London on a wider scale. Few people believed it could ever happen and said it would be a white elephant taking people to derelict land.

Construction started on the £77m Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in 1985 and was completed and opened in July 1987. Whilst the railway was under construction, it passed through the redundant docks between the newly built commercial units, but also in and between the old dock warehouses.

The original Canary Wharf warehouses were eventually demolished to make way for its new use.

The final image of Canary Wharf as it was originally conceived, 1986. Credit Alamy.

By 1985 the Docks were thriving commercially, with massive commercial development encouraged by the Enterprise Zone. Land acquisition costs were considerably cheaper than the City of London and rental space was similarly considered a better option for new and expanding businesses. In 1985 the working population of the Docklands was 25,000 and the Chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston met the LDDC for lunch in the Docklands. It was here that the idea for the Canary Wharf project was first conceived. In October 1985 they took the idea to the British government and having received approval sold the scheme to Olympia & York.

West India Docks showing the DLR under construction in 1986. Credit Unknown.

On 17th July 1987, Olympia & York and First Boston signed the Master Building Agreement for the Canary Wharf scheme. Canary Wharf was about to become the single largest regeneration project in Europe. It would also contain the largest commercial development, with state of the art communications facilities.

The whole scheme went from concept to commencement in less than two years. The combined plans for the development planned to incorporate 12.2 million square feet of office space and had a construction timeline of 7 to 10 years. The 71 acre site would have two water frontages and was designed as an unparalleled business location, with a community of landscaped streets, with spacious parks, fountains and a shopping arcade.

London's position as the global marketplace was enhanced by the deregulation and restructuring of the financial services sector. The banks demanded modern office buildings with large, uninterrupted floor plates, with inherent design flexibility. Equally the users expected the highest technological standards in telecommunications, data connection and climate control.

Canary Wharf's vision was envisaged with unparalleled foresight, imagination and energy which created a scheme meeting all of those requirements.

Whilst the vision evolved further in the coming year, private investment during 1988 was committed at £2.16 billion. This took the cumulative total since the creation of the LDDC in 1981 to a staggering £4.4 billion. This level of investment enabled the commencement of the enabling works for the project which was estimated to be between £3 and £4 billion, for the creation of the Canary Wharf financial centre.

Following completion of the coffer dam, construction began in earnest in early 1988. Credit Alamy.

Olympia & York had moved swiftly and begun construction in May of 1988 on the first phase of what was described at the time as the "Wall Street on Water". The scheme included a 50 storey, 800 foot central tower and the whole scheme once completed would provide 10 million square feet of floor space, sufficient to employ a workforce of some 50,000 people.

Following completion of enabling works and piling the crawler cranes gave way to the tower cranes for the erection of the superstructure as seen in this photo from 1988. Credit Alamy.

In addition to the commercial office space, the final design at this time comprised of 2 hotels, shops, pubs, restaurants and parking for 8,300 cars. Over a third of the estate was set aside as open public space. The final Master Plan could only achieve the desired public space by way of three high-rise landmark buildings that would include over 30% of the originally intended office space. These contained large trading floors, suitable for the intended financial services occupants.

At it's peak during 1989, Canary Wharf was the single largest construction project in Europe.

Credit Canary Wharf Group.

Construction continued throughout 1989 and a project of such an unprecedented scale posed many challenges for the developer. To effectively create a new city for 50,000 people required an enormous team of architects, engineers, landscape architects and graphic designers .

Construction of Canary Wharf seen from the air in 1989. Credit Canary Wharf Group.

The plan for the Western part of Canary Wharf was designed for buildings to surround a public space which became known as Westferry Circus. The road below Westferry Circus provides an underground service road for vehicles entering the loading bays, as well as parking for part of the development. The road above forms a two lane carriageway for visitors and taxi drop off.

Construction at Canary Wharf looking East across Westferry Circus in 1989. Credit Alamy.

From the air it was possible to see the unprecedented level of construction. In excess of 50 cranes and thousands of construction workers, helped lay up to 2000 cubic metres of concrete each day. Numerous barges were utilised to reduce the volume of lorry movements for the disposal of excavated spoil and for the importation of construction materials.

Aerial view of construction progress at Canary Wharf looking West in 1990. Credit Pintrest

The design of 1 Canada Square was carefully considered to ensure it made a statement to the world that Canary Wharf was the European financial capital. It was designed to tie together the development and make the area a destination of choice. At 236 metres in height the building contained 50 floors, serviced by 32 passenger lifts. 1 Canada Square alone contains 1.75 million square feet of space, including 1.22 million square feet of office. At a cost of £624 million, this was by far the most extravagant of the buildings constructed during the first phase.

Final rooftop steelwork erection during late 1990. Credit Unknown.

1 Canada Square sits on a raft foundation varying from 4 to 5.5 metres in depth, bearing on 212 bored piles each of 1500mm diameter which extend to an average depth of 18 metres. During construction the tower cranes climbed as the building progressed and were tied at each sixth floor.

Sunset seen from above Canary Wharf in Autumn 1990. Credit Alamy.

As the building approached topping out the cranes were the tallest structures at Canary Wharf. The distinctive roof is sheathed in louvered fins which divert rainwater across it's surface to assist with cleaning. During the hours of darkness 190 internal tungsten lights give the pyramid roof a golden glow visible for many miles around.

The external structure of 1 Canada Square nearing completion in 1990. Credit Unknown.

In 1990 Olympia & York borrowed a further half a billion pounds to complete construction and doubts started to arise about their financial position. Despite this, construction of the first buildings at Canary Wharf was completed in 1991 and Canary Wharf opened for the first tenants in January 1992. The development was an engineering marvel completed in a little over three years. However, by May 1992 Olympia & York entered into administration.

1 Canada Square and South Colonnade seen here once completed in 1991. Credit Alamy.

The first phase of Canary Wharf included Cabot Square, 10 Cabot Square, 20 Cabot Square, 25 Cabot Square, Cabot Place, 25 North Colonnade and of course 1 Canada Square. Early tenants included Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse First Boston, Morgan Stanley and Texaco. Whilst these tenants signed up for nearly 1.5 million of the first 4 million square feet completed, Canary Wharf needed further key businesses to put the development on the map.

Phase 1 following completion in 1991. Credit Unknown.

When the initial tenants moved into the first buildings in the early 1990's, there were many empty floors. At first it had a relatively empty feel and was quite depressing. With circa 200 shops and a plethora of cafes and restaurants, the foundations were laid for a continued extension.

5,382 views0 comments


bottom of page