Museum in Docklands (Museum of London)


West India Quay, Canary Wharf, London E14 4AL


020 7001 9844



Opening times:

Daily 10:00–18:00

How to get there:

Tube: Canary Wharf; Station (DLR): West India Quay

Entry fee:


Additional information:

Café, restaurant and shop

A branch of the Museum of London, the Museum in Docklands opened in 2003. The idea originated with the Museum of London’s record-gathering exercise during the demise of the main docks on the Isle of Dogs. The first purpose-built cargo-handling docks and warehouses in London were built here, at West India Quay in 1802. The museum now occupies the superb, three-storey, brick-built, wooden-floored Warehouse No. 1. Extended in 1827, for the next half-century the building was one of the city’s largest tea warehouses, serving the East India trade and racing tea clipper ships. Later it was used to store sugar, dried fruit, molasses, shells, steel and canned fish. One of only two West India Quay warehouses to survive the Blitz, it was closed in 1968 and is now the only sizeable Georgian harbour warehouse preserved in the UK.


Floor Three

A visit begins here. ‘Thames Highway’ sketches the founding of Londinium in ad 43, illustrated by a first-century amphora for storing fish sauce or garum. Then follows the establishment of Saxon Lundenwic along the Strand around 600, evidence of the new settlement’s troubles being a Viking battleaxe found in the river; and the development of Lundenburgh and medieval London up to 1600. Gaming pieces carved from walrus tusk from this period are shown, along with a meticulous scale model of the first London Bridge. ‘Trade Expansion’ then charts the rise of the port during the two centuries after 1600. The oil painting Westminster Waterfront around 1771, by William Marlowe, shows the Adam brothers’ Adelphi block (the Royal Society of Arts) under construction, almost complete behind wharves busy with lighters and small sailing boats. The carved wooden figure of c. 1750 that can be seen here has been taken to represent the Native American Virginian Pocahontas—hence the tobacco-leaf skirt—and was probably used as a tobacconist’s shop sign. An earlier survival from the period is the East India Company’s coat of arms from 1618. This carved keystone coat of arms decorated the main gate of the Company’s new yard at Blackwall after its move from Deptford in 1614, and was discovered by chance during the closure of the shipyard in 1988. ‘Legal Quay’ is a reconstruction of some of the different aspects of the late 18th-century docks, a counting house, beams and barrels complete with creaking woodwork and whistling stevedore sound effects. It introduces ‘Execution Dock’ and the display of an iron gibbet cage from around 1750, used to exhibit the decomposing corpses of condemned pirates. The Rhinebeck Panorama of 1806–11 (pictured overleaf), an eight-foot watercolour acquired by the museum in 1998, is recreated here, showing a bird’s-eye view of the city towards the end of the 18th century. Painted on four panels, it was the work of three unknown artists, one of them a specialist in depicting ships, another in church towers and steeples. ‘The Coming of the Docks’ then illustrates the development of the first of the city’s docks between 1796 and 1828. A key role was played by Trinity House, established since 1540 and responsible for navigation on the Thames. Possessing considerable influence as the sole agent with the right to sell ballast, the organization policed the river and went on to oversee the construction and maintenance of lighthouses around Britain’s coast. Coloured aquatints by William Daniell show West India Docks and Poplar in 1802, Wapping in 1803. A large portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence depicts George Hibbert in 1811, with his hand resting on plans for the docks. One of the first directors of the West India Dock Company, past agent for Jamaica, patron of the arts and editor of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hibbert was a prominent Whig and friend of Prime Minister William Pitt, who laid the foundation stone of the docks in 1800.


Floors Two and One

The story of the period is expanded up to 1840 in ‘City and River’ on Floor Two. The construction of Warehouse No. 1 is described, followed by displays on the West Indian sugar plantations. The library table belonging to Thomas Fowell Buxton, MP for Weymouth, can be seen, upon which was drafted the abolition bill of the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823. Slavery was finally abolished in 1834. Other displays cover the last Frost Fairs on the frozen river, the demolition of the medieval bridge, and construction of the new London Bridge in 1831. ‘First Port of Empire 1840–1900’ describes the role of London’s docks at the heart of colonial trade. A large painting of Tilbury Fort Wind against the Tide in 1849 by Clarkson Stanfield, an ex-seaman and theatre scenery artist, who also worked for the engineer Robert Stephenson, shows the hazards faced by small craft on the Thames. The worst ever maritime disaster in British coastal water involved the paddle steamer Princess Alice. In 1878, while returning from the Rosherville pleasure gardens in Gravesend, the steamer was practically cut in half by the steam collier Bywell Castle, killing 640 passengers. A celebrated subject of sombre fascination to the Victorians, the Princess Alice’s nameplate can be seen here, along with a macabre model illustrating the moment before impact. A showcase of unusual Thames shipwrights’ tools introduces a 1:96 scale model of the paddle steamer Great Eastern. Five thousand hours in the building, capable of steaming to Australia without re-coaling, she laid the first two transatlantic telegraph cables between Ireland and Newfoundland. She was ready for sea at Millwall on 5 September 1859; her designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was photographed hatless on her deck days before he collapsed from a stroke. ‘Warehouse of the World 1890–1939’ includes a reconstruction of the Dock Warehouse office originally on the ground floor of the museum’s building. The first and second floors were entirely given over to tea handling from 1834–82. A tea weighing station is shown and a small display covers Joseph Conrad and the Torrens, showing a model of the square-rigger that he called ‘a good seaboat in heavy weather’, and on which he was first mate while writing his first novel Almayer’s Folly.

On Floor One, accessible from here, is the Thames Gallery, presenting an array of working and pleasure boats, ship models and reconstructed premises relating to the river from 1850 until 1950. Antique skiffs and peter-boats evoke the heyday of pleasure boating in the 1920s and 30s. Models of bawley-boats, barges, tugs and coasters are a reminder of some of the different types of working vessel that used the port at its busiest, in 1935, as many as 1,000 of them each week.

Back on Floor Two, the story of the port continues with ‘Docklands at War’, describing the devastation of the area by enemy action in 1940–45. The work of the war artists, especially William Ware (1915–97), illustrates the displays, along with artefacts such as a molten iron girder, wartime testimonials and archive film. Rotherhithe in 1933 by Duncan Grant shows the river scene before the bombing, probably sketched from the terrace of the Mayflower public house. ‘New Port New City’ describes the recession that hit the docks in the 1950s; the Enterprise zone set up under the auspices of the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1981; and the coming of the Docklands Light Railway.

On the Ground Floor is the Mudlarks Gallery, a very popular interactive play area with a vaguely riparian theme for the under-12s. The Chris Ellmers Gallery stages temporary exhibitions.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

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