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Origin and development

The name ‘Thames’ is most likely derived from the Roman ‘Thamesis’ - an amalgamation of ‘Thame’ and ‘Isis’ – which in the original Celtic forms of ‘Taom’ and ‘Uis’ means "the pouring out of the waters”. London City evolved from settlements around a gravel ford across the Thames – near where London Bridge stands today.

From the Romans to the Normans

Under the Romans, London became a ‘great and wealthy city’ – the foundations were laid for growth and prosperity. Key dates:

  • AD 30 – Romans develop the Port
  • 359 – 800 cargoes of grain exported to the Rhine
  • 408 – Romans abandon Britain
  • 457 – Britons defeated by Hengist and flee to London. No further news for 150 years
  • 604 – reports of London being “the metropolis of the East Saxons’ as London emerges from the period as a strong ship builder and the country’s safest store/ market place
  • 880 – Alfred extends Port and Billingsgate became the first river front ‘hithe’ (wharf)
  • 1078 – William the Conqueror starts building the White Tower (Tower of London). Merchants from Normandy, Flanders, Spain, Italy etc. flock to London
  • 1130s – sees the rise of the Easterlings – Teutonic traders who were headquartered in London’s Thames Street
  • 1390 – Richard II passes the first Navigation Law empowering all imported and exported goods to be carried in English ships. This, plus measures passed during Edward lV’s reign, benefits the shipping industry hugely

15th, 16th and 17th Centuries – key dates

The Tudor period saw the beginning of London’s merchants’ enterprise that was to gain huge prestige for the nation

  • .1555+ – trading begins with the East India Company. Merchant ventures open communications and trade with countries such as Russia and Turkey
  • 1556 – Thomas Gresham founds the Royal Exchange
  • 1558 – Commission set up to select legal quays for imports
  • 1576 –  Antwerp, formerly the great emporium of Europe, was sacked by the Duke of Parma. This allows London to take over as world’s foremost trading port
  • 1599 – Royal Charter founds the East India Company
  • 1606 – state of Virginia founded by an expedition from the Port of London
  • 1665 – the Black Plague temporarily strangles trade
  • 1666 – London’s Great Fire destroys the wharf and warehouse accommodation. A tax levied on coal brought into the Port helps defray rebuilding costs
  • 1670 – the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company

18th & 19th Centuries

With trade almost doubled between 1700 and 1770 and the Port struggling to cope, Parliament authorised building two docks and a range of warehouses on the Isle of Dogs. These were opened on 22 August, 1802. Other key dates during this period include:

  • 1801 – formation of the Grand Surrey Canal Company
  • 1805 – opening of the City Canal from Limehouse Reach to Blackwall Reach, (later renamed the South West India Dock)
  • 1806 – opening of the East India Dock
  • 1815 – the steamship makes its first appearance in the Thames
  • 1821 – first Colonial wool sale in London
  • 1857 – Thames Conservancy Act passed, designed to end rivalry between steamboat companies and owners of barges and small craft
  • 1868 – the Millwall dock opens
  • 1880 – opening of the Royal Albert Dock
  • 1880 – the first consignment of frozen meat and butter arrives from Australia
  • 1882 – the first shipment of frozen meat arrives from New Zealand
  • 1888 – bill passed giving management control to the London and India Docks Joint Committee

The advent of the PLA

By the end of the 19th century, with improvement works desperately needed and no clear way forward, a Royal Commission conducted a governing review. A report issued in June 1902 recommended creating a central body – the Port of London Authority – which started its duties on 31 March 1909.


This industry began to assume importance in the time of Alfred the Great. Royal Dockyards were later established at Deptford and Woolwich by Henry VIII and by the middle of the 16th century Deptford was the Kingdom’s principal naval shipbuilding yard and store. Today the industry survives only in a very modest way, with output confined to lighters, barges, work boats and pleasure craft.

Click here for a more detailed history of the origin and development of the Port of London until 1908.