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Sea change


Larger ships and growing emphasis on trade with Europe had a major influence on the development of British ports this century. Andrew Bolton reports.

Growing trade volumes and increasing demand for long distance travel have spurred development of Britain's commercial ports throughout the century. At the same time, the need to accommodate more sophisticated military shipping prompted massive investment in complex naval facilities, especially during the Cold War years (see box p58).

The oil boom of the late 1970s also spurred construction of major British- engineered marine projects in the Middle East, notably Dubai's Port Rashid and drydock projects.

The turn of the century saw many of Britain's ports and docks reorganising and expanding, as those built in the 19th century reached capacity.

As the century progressed, changing trade patterns slowly led to a growing emphasis on port construction on Britain's east coast. Sea trade with the US began to decline, particularly with the growth of air traffic. As a result, western facing ports such as Liverpool and Bristol went into slow decline. At the same time, Britain began to trade more with Europe.

Immingham on the Humber Estuary had already begun to develop between 1904 and 1920, mainly on the back of the coal trade. War and economic depression early in the century meant that it was some time before Immingham became fully commercially viable. It was only after the Second World War that it really became established.

Progressive relocation of cruise ships from Liverpool to Southampton early in the century prompted a major investment programme in the late 1920s. As a result, between 1927 and 1930, Southampton Dock Company developed the city's western docks

This seven-year construction programme, devised by consultant Rendel Palmer & Tritton, involved the largest reclamation project to be undertaken in Britain. Work involved reclaiming 160ha of land, building 2.4km of straight quay wall with a 12m deep docking facility and constructing a drydock capable of handling 100,000t ships.

In London, at the beginning of the century, the docks began a period of transformation before their eventual decline in the 1960s.

In 1908, the Government set up the Port of London Authority to take over all of the Thames Dock operators, several of which were almost bankrupt.

PLA chief executive Frederick Palmer later became one of the founders of Rendel Palmer & Tritton. His plan involved spending the equivalent of £100M on constructing the King George V dock. Work began in 1910 but was disrupted by the First World War and was not completed until 1921.

The George V dock was the last of the major docks to be built for the PLA. Most of its work in the first half of the century involved upgrading docks built in the 19th century to cater for bigger 20th century ships.

It was the second half of the century which saw the biggest transformation in Britain's ports.

Containerisation and rapidly growing trade with Europe drove major expansion programmes at Britain's east-facing ports. It also led to the decline of London's docks as large ships were unable to reach them, and began to use the huge downstream container port at Tilbury which had been expanded to handle container traffic in the mid-1960s.

One of the biggest transformations was at the east coast port of Felixstowe which expanded from a tiny dock with eight staff to Britain's biggest container port, handling 40% of container traffic. It opened its first container handling dock in 1967 and has doubled the amount of traffic passing through it every 10 years since.

Growth in capacity and deeper draughts of bigger ships drove a major dredging programme. This increased the depth of the port's 18km main shipping channel from 8m to 14.5m over 20 years.

Channel ports such as Dover had expanded during the 1960s on the back of cross-Channel car and lorry traffic. Dover was the first British port to build a roll-on, roll-off berth, opening two in 1952. Since then, the port has expanded extensively despite its cramped location, mainly through land reclamation.

Expectations of competition from the Channel Tunnel prompted the last major expansion phase at Dover during the late 1980s. Rising to the challenge, Port of Dover began a £200M spending programme to double capacity by the end of the century.

This has involved the construction of new quays as well as investment car holding areas and rapid ferry check-in facilities, both of which have speeded up ferry turn around times, eroding some of the Channel Tunnel's competitive advantage.

Dover has also invested in a cruise ship terminal and a deep water cargo dock to reduce its reliance on cross-Channel ferry traffic.

The decline of inland ports such as London, Bristol and Manchester eventually presented new challenges for civil engineers.

All have attempted to revive themselves through the development of leisure marinas and business parks. In London's case, Docklands was transformed with the decision to allow the construction of Canary Wharf in the 1980s.

Bristol too is regenerating its docks following the departure of the shipping trade to nearby Avonmouth; and Manchester is redeveloping Salford Quays as a business and leisure centre.

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