This aquatint, produced by the English landscape artist William Daniell (1769–1837), depicts the newly built Commercial or Surrey Docks. It was published by Daniell in 1813. The view is one of a series of seven in the King’s Topographical Collection representing a set of new docks on the Thames, built from 1800 as part of a scheme to totally overhaul and modernise shipping in London.
Trade imports, both domestic and foreign, dramatically increased over the 18th century and London’s docks needed to expand and upgrade in order to accommodate the daily influx of ships and goods. Architects and engineers bid to remodel the city’s docks, each of their designs featuring the latest technological developments. The new infrastructure was considered revolutionary and visionary: the embodiment of modern Britain as a sophisticated and scientifically advanced imperial power.
The Commercial or Surrey basin was the last dock system to be built as part of the scheme. It was constructed on the south bank of the Thames at Rotherhithe, south east London. The Greenland (formerly Howland) Dock already occupied this peninsula of land as a base for Arctic whalers, but owed to the intense spate of dock regeneration happening north of the River, a flurry of proposals were submitted to transform the old facility on the Surrey shore. The Commercial Docks were principally used to manage imports of timber, corn, iron, tar, and hemp from Canada, America, Scandinavia and the Baltic. Whaler ships also stopped here, and valuable cargos of whale blubber were taken to be boiled at nearby processing ‘cellars’ to produce lamp oil and soap.
John Hall, a wealthy ship-owner, put forward a plan for the new basin and canal entrance at Rotherhithe. Hall’s plan was approved by the engineer of the West India Docks, William Jessop, and with customary pomp and celebration, the first stone was laid in November 1804, the last in 1807. The Great Surrey Canal also opened that year to facilitate the transportation of goods inland, but it turned out to be a commercial failure and only three miles of waterway were actually constructed.