docks and ports

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docks and ports. Points of transshipment for goods and passengers at the coast or on inland waterways. Up to c.1700, Britain's ports had been largely natural coastal or riverside sites, sometimes with quays and wharfs for lading, and beaching vessels at low tide. In the busiest ports, such as London or Newcastle upon Tyne, where larger vessels were unable to tie up at the quay, smaller lighters were used as intermediaries to carry goods from ship to shore.

The growth of trade from the 16th cent. increased pressures on these natural harbours and stimulated new investment. This created the first wet docks, entered by lock and adding large areas of water to natural harbours, at Rotherhithe (1700) and Liverpool (1701 and 1715). Development between 1770 and 1830 was remarkable: in 1775, the only commercial docks were in Liverpool, with 14 acres of water; by 1830, there were 397 acres in all, with 42 per cent in London, and the remainder concentrated into Liverpool, Bristol, Hull, Grimsby, and Goole. Liverpool was the leading handler of traffic, with 2.5 million tons in 1830, but nationally in 1841 three-fifths of tonnage was still handled without docks.

The coming of the coastal paddle-steamer in the 1830s forced dock rebuilding, and after 1870 the screw-propelled, triple-expansion powered steamship continued the process. Oceanic passenger traffic trebled between 1870 and 1913, as did the volume of goods shipped. From the 1870s, the growth in the scale of ships and their traffic forced the development of deep-water facilities, which led to the rise of Southampton from the coming of the railway in the 1840s, and as a liner port from the 1890s; Cardiff, as the ‘coal metropolis’, its sole credential as capital of Wales from mid-century; and brought Manchester, after the building of its ship canal (1894), to fourth port in Britain by 1913, by value of goods traded. Heavy investment on Clydeside brought Glasgow to fifth place.

Britain's loss of shipping supremacy after 1918 reduced the volume of goods handled, and foreign penetration of coastal tramp shipping favoured the revival of small and cheap ports. Shipping technology had significant effects after the Second World War: containerization began at Larne in 1954, and generalized during the 1960s; the shift of trade back towards Europe stimulated the east coast ports; and roll-on/roll-off ferries and hovercraft services developed from the later 1960s. Air travel virtually extinguished the liner ports by 1970, and port and dock employment, which exceeded 120,000 in 1911, fell consistently, collapsing from the 1960s. The full impact of the Channel Tunnel on UK ports has yet to be felt.

J. A. Chartres