How containers turned the tide on the Thames as world's busiest port

Eugen Maersk docks at Felixstowe

Way of the future... containers have changed Thames shipping, the Eugen Maersk docks at Felixstowe - Credit: HJ

Ian Friel is a Thames maritime expert who went to sea just to find out how rough life gets on the ocean waves.

After years on dry land, he has put pen to paper for his second book, which conversely shows how he loves shipwrecks and the London docks.

It has been his lifelong passion, using shipwrecks to learn about Britain’s story and how global trade has been revolutionised by containers. 

Dr Ian Friel... shipwrecks and how they tell Britain's story

Dr Ian Friel... shipwrecks and how they tell Britain's story - Credit: Ian Friel

But the 66-year-old retired museum curator did not just dream of a life at sea with his latest book, Breaking Seas, Broken Ships

As a younger man he ventured out in rough winter seas in a sailing schooner. 


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“It was a rough passage,” Ian said. “I don't recommend the Channel in December — even the ship’s cook, an ex-Navy man, was seasick.” 

He had joined the schooner - Sir Winston Churchill - on a cold December day in 1978. 

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“I went aboard to get an idea of what it was like to work on a vessel under canvas,” he said. “We sailed to Cherbourg and then came up to the Thames to the West India Docks. We all appreciated the relative calm once the schooner got into the Thames.” 

Glory days of sail... cargo vessels in the London Docks

Glory days of sail... cargo vessels in the London Docks - Credit: HJ

His voyage with a sail training association gave him a hint of real life under sail in his lifelong passion about shipwrecks, but also how the docks had declined.

"Empty warehouse sheds were a sign of the way the docks were falling out of use,” he observed. “The new Victoria deep-water terminal on the Thames used conventional cranes alongside a container gantry, a sort of ‘halfway house’ between the older dock system and the new container technology.

Victoria Deepwater Dock container terminal on the Thames in 1980

Victoria Deepwater Dock... first container terminal on the Thames in 1980 - Credit: Ian Friel

“We got to know the site quite well, because someone forgot to re-route the footpath on the waterfront when the terminal was built. The operators had to mark out the path with white lines.” 

Ian worked at the National Maritime Museum for 11 years where he met Lynne, another curator, and the couple now have two grown-up children and are living on the Sussex coast — by the sea. 

“What has become ‘London Docklands’ is fascinating to revisit," Ian said. “Even now, decades on, I still find it difficult to get my head around the changes.” 

Thriving trade in the London Docks... but became old technology by the late 20th century

Thriving trade in the London Docks... but became old technology by the late 20th century - Credit: Pen & Sword

Ian explores how ports like the Thames have had to change. The London docks from St Katharine’s by The Tower to the Royals were once the world’s busiest port, which all ended with containerisation.

“The idea of cargo in boxes and barrels is ancient,” he explains. “But standardised shipping containers invented in 1956 was when the whole system had to transform if they were to work ships, ports, rail and road transport and storage.”

Dockers in the Victorian East End queue for work each morning

Dockers in the Victorian East End queue for work each morning - Credit: Pen & Sword

Older dock technology of cranes and warehouses become outmoded because container cargoes could be unloaded faster and without armies of workers. It was the decline of east London’s docker working class.  

Most new ships were far too big to enter the old docks, so special container ports were created, the first in 1967 at Felixstowe rather than the Thames.  

Trinity Buoy Wharf... makeshift "container city" arts centre on Thames waterfront

Trinity Buoy Wharf... makeshift "container city" arts centre on Thames waterfront - Credit: Trinity Buoy

Disused containers appeared as the London docks went into mothballs to fill a gap before mass Docklands redevelopment.

A “container city” grew up at Trinity Buoy Wharf arts quarter on the Leamouth peninsula, where containers were stacked in a yard at the end of Orchard Place and turned into studios and workshops in makeshift structures. 

Containers are just part of Ian’s passion. He looks at wrecks at sea and what their stories tell, charting Britain's maritime lineage such as the East India Company's vessel Trades Increase, which launched on the Thames in 1610.  

Glory days of sail... cargo vessels in the London Docks

Glory days of sail... cargo vessels in the London Docks - Credit: HJ

He learned about the dying days of sail through the loss of the collier brig Russell in 1872, while the sinking of the battleship HMS Victoria in 1893 by an admiral’s mistake tells the tale of Victorian naval power and the revolution in sea warfare.  

Breaking Seas, Broken Ships: People, Shipwrecks and Britain, by Dr Ian Friel, published by Pen & Sword at £20.  

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