The Definitive Guide To London Piers Part Two: Canary Wharf Pier

Welcome back to our definitive pier guide! In this instalment we are going to travel a few miles downriver to Canary Wharf Pier on the Isle of Dogs.

Part Two: Canary Wharf Pier

Recognisable as the large teardrop of land inside a great loop of the River Thames (bring the Eastenders map to mind!), the Isle of Dogs has become one of the great financial districts of London over the last thirty years. Now the regeneration of London’s Docklands seems like a foregone conclusion: the Cable Car, world famous venues like the Olympic Park and 02 Arena, skyscrapers, an airport and more residential towers springing up by the day but this wasn’t always a certain future for London derelict docklands. The development of the Canary Wharf Estate was the beginning of the regeneration in the area and in many ways dictated how the rest (and continuing…) redevelopment of the entire docklands would proceed. There has been perhaps nowhere is London that has changed more both socially and visually in living memory. Where once the Isle of Dogs was the thriving heart of eastern and western maritime trade it is now a lofty, Manhattan-esque global hub of the financial markets. Canary Wharf Pier provides fantastic access to the river and we visit the pier all the time for corporate days out (think Clay Pigeon Shooting on the River!), boat parties and transferring parties of guests straight through the heart of London to other central London destinations along the river. In many ways the river is the easiest and calmest way to travel around London!

History of the Pier

Located near Narrow Street at the edge of Limehouse, Canary Wharf Pier serves the eastern edge of the Isle of Dogs – particularly the Canary Wharf Estate and West India Quays. River transport was always historically the quickest and easiest way to get from the docklands to the Tower of London or further west into the centre of London therefore passenger boat services have been operating from the area for hundreds of years. However, with the containerisation of maritime trade and a decline in the manufacturing industries in Britain as a whole, London’s great docks began to close after 1960. The West India Dock (where Canary Wharf is located) finally shut its locks to commercial traffic in 1980. It had already become a poor and derelict area and the final compete closure of the docks meant the area declined rapidly further. There was no work for the unskilled dockland workforce that lived in the area as London became the centre of new skilled service industries. What is more, with the decline of river infrastructure, the area became more and more remote. The roads and rail links to the Isle of Dogs were virtually non-existent. Therefore river transport to and from Canary Wharf Pier became a key artery to those in the area. When regeneration began it was initially the only efficient way in and out of the area and was a lifeline for many.

Even though, there are now fantastic rail and road connections, the pier remains a prime commuter route for many coming to work in the glass offices on the estate and also provides excellent and easy access for residents and employees to the leisure aspects of the Thames. The pier can currently hold two vessels at once but due to the growth in demand, the pier is being extended to accommodate three vessels with plans in place since 2008. The pier is also host to the Canary Wharf/Hilton Ferry that runs from the pier immediately across the river to the Hilton Hotel in Rotherhithe up to every 10 minutes. With so few bridges or tunnels nearby the pier supports a hive of activity and is a key leisure and transport hub for locals and visitors alike.

Isle of Dogs

Many rumours surround the origin name Isle of Dogs from the clever to the downright rude! On the more insulting side of the spectrum there are theories that it was a derogatory term and a “nickname of contempt” it was a dog’s life to live there! Even more extreme is that it was named after the Dutch engineers that were reclaiming the land from flooding. Some think it actually comes from the name Isle of Dykes but it has got corrupted over the years. On LBC’s (a popular London conversation radio station) Mystery Hour the question was answered by resident claiming the name came from the fact that King Henry VIII used to keep his hunting dogs there. When he walked them from Greenwich they would bark and passing sailors heard the animals’ calls across the river!

However, my favourite is in fact the most simple. Due to the popular nature of the Canary bird many think birds are associated with the Canary Islands in the Atlantic off the coast of North West Africa. However, these islands are in fact names after dogs! The Latin names for these islands Canariae Insulae, means “Islands of the Dogs” because the island contained a large number of large wild dogs. The fruit wharf and warehouses that took their name from the Canary Islands and eventually were adopted for the initial redevelopment stages therefore mean that ‘Canary Wharf’ and ‘Isle of Dogs’, although they sound very different, potentially have the same origin – the fruit trade from the Canary Islands!

The area of dockland which became Canary Wharf was originally marsh land to the east of London. Robert Milligan was largely responsible for changing this when he returned from a Jamaica Sugar Plantation and built lobbied construction of the West India Dock (built 1800/2). Appalled by losses due to the thieving and delays due to the lack of organisation along London’s riverside wharves, he wanted to build a walled wet dock which would both increase the efficiency of unloading cargoes and allow companies to keep a better eye on their goods! It could handle over 600 vessels and had structured loading/unloading areas to avoid congestion.

The docks were a phenomenal success and as Britain grew into the global trading behemoth of the Victorian period, the Port of London expanded to become the busiest and biggest port in the world. The West India Dock was a key part of this an an essential link to the British Empire and world trade. As mentioned earlier, bombing in World War II, the decline of the British Empire and Britain’s switch from manufacturing jobs to skilled service sector jobs in the years following 1945 led to massive decline in the docklands use. Despite government subsidies they began to close from 1960 – 1980. Perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin for the Port of London was the fact it could not accommodate the large, modern container ships that began to dominate the trade in the Twentieth Century. These containers were efficient, could be transported in vast quantities by sea and loaded straight onto lorries that had benefited from improved road networks across the country. The container ship and the lorry cut the Port of London out of the equation.

The Canary Wharf PIER Estate and dockland redevelopment

In response to the crisis in the area after the docks closed the Thatcher government set up the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in 1981 to regenerate the derelict docklands. Michael Heseltine headed up the political strategy and believed strongly in the ‘trickle down’ of private economic investment to the wider local community. The LDDC gained strong government powers to create Enterprise Zones where tax breaks and lax planning restraints could be used to incentivise development. A few financial minds wanted to create open plan office space that would be far more useful and cheaper for large financial companies than the smaller quirkier offices located in the City. Therefore, a Canadian company, Olympia and York, took the bait and began building a private estate of offices in 1988. The first building to be completed was the iconic One Canada Square, at the time London’s tallest building at 770ft tall. With its distinctive pyramid roof it became a symbol of regeneration in the area and was only surpassed in height by the Shard in twenty years later. With the ‘big bang’ floatation of the London Stock exchange in 1986, the Canary Wharf Estate became a financial hub of employment as the financial services sector boomed in the Capital.

Other nearby Landmarks

Visit the Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre and be amazed while tacking a sailing dingy around the Millwall Dock with skyscrapers across the horizon for a bizarre day out! Mudchute Farm is a similar gem, a working urban farm with the tall glassy buildings as a backdrop. With original local infrastructure mixed with the huge investment from property and financial firms the Isle of Dogs has an essence of a dystopian novel about it that is worth exploring. West India Quay also plays host to the London Docklands Museum and if you are up early enough (4am – 8am but good deals run out fast!) head to the Billingsgate Fish Market for an authentic London market experience! When reaching the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs why not venture further south and explore Royal Maritime Greenwich via the old foot tunnel at Island Gardens?

Transport Links

After the regeneration began the Docklands Light Railway was built followed by the Jubilee Line Extension meaning that Canary Wharf has fantastic links to the rest of the capital. Both the DLR and Jubilee line station are only a short walk away from the pier and make this one of the most accessible piers in London.

Why not take your office party or staff event onto the river with us at Canary Wharf and give it a try? Clay Shooting on the Thames has always been a favourite way to entertain guests on the river and it is so easy from Canary Wharf Pier! Contact us to plan an event in the area now, it couldn’t be easier!

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