The hustle and vice that once characterised the streets and lanes of Wapping has today been replaced by a ghost town, resulting from the closure of the docks.
From the late 1960s onwards, the world's pre-eminent port declined substantially with the London and St Katharine Docks being the first to close down in 1967.
Britain's economic position changed dramatically after the Second World War. It lost many of its colonies and no longer commanded the same monopoly on production or trade. Meanwhile, the US grew enormously as a global industrial power along with other European competitors. A Britannia that once ruled the waves now had to keep apace with rapid technological developments from new modes of communication to the arrival of the ford motor. Transport and shipping were also revolutionised and the container became the method of choice for moving manufactured goods around the world. This is something that these docks and narrow streets could never cope with. For example, when Germany built its first purpose built container fleet in 1972, it had the capacity to carry three thousand 20 foot containers – the equivalent of at least two large warehouses in the old docks atop a ship. The advent of the container meant that ships, trucks, trains and docking terminals would all need to change and new port facilities would need to provide acres and acres of dry storage space to land containers. The popularisation of the container was in no small part due to the efficiency it offered. Goods could now be transported straight from the vehicle and onto the ships without the need to first unload the contents. This ensured minimal damage to goods and almost no theft. Whilst London's docks quickly fell into disuse a newer docking terminal was built in Tilbury, Essex. Today, it's both Felixstowe and Southampton on the east and south coast that handle the vast majority of the country's trade. 40% of Britain's trade flows through Felixstowe alone.
The arrival of the container did not only have an impact on the docks, but also on the communities who lived around them. For people like the Irish dockers and their families the docks were their lifeblood, since without work and pay, families literally starved. Given their desperate existence, it did not help that until well into the late 1800s casual labour remained the dominant mode of employment in the docks. On a daily basis, up to three-thousand men waited outside the dock entrance hoping to be called on for work. Everyday, these men fought for the privilege of earning two-and-sixpence for a long day of back breaking work. If an easterly wind prevented ships from entering the docks, 3000 men would be instantly without work and skirmishes frequently broke out at the calling-on assemblies. Many families relied on their local parish church for help with money to pay for their rent and for food and clothes for their children. In Victorian England, philanthropy was in fact a favored concern of the elite and some politicians. For the young Oxbridge student, helping out at church missions in the East end was the Victorian equivalent of a university gap year.
In the latter 1800s, dockers and factory workers began to unite behind the idea that poverty was not their "sin" or their destiny. In 1889, smaller strikes culminated in the Great Dockers' strike where 10,000 dock workers along with their supporters went on strike for weeks. They demanded the famous dockers' tanner – six pence an hour, which they got. Initially, employers assumed they could starve the dockers back to work. However mass support from as far flung places as Australia which donated £30,000 to the strike relief fund, ensured that the strike could continue.
Whilst the dockers might have got their tanner, the casual hiring which remained at the core of their misery did not end until the closure of the docks in 1967. Relief for a few only emerged with the creation of the National Dock Labour Board in 1947 this ensured a retainer was paid to dockers whether they were given work or not. This system was set up to ensure that dockers did not completely abandon the docks in search of employment elsewhere during the post-war period when jobs were plentiful. Nevertheless, the retainer payment was available only to dockers registered with the NDLB and the method of employment was still the old system of the call-on.