Heritage: Tracing Dagenham Dock back to the 'most difficult civil engineering feat' of 18th century

Dagenham Breach

Perry’s plan c1715 showing the extent of the breach (blue indicates flooded area) - Credit: Andy Grant

Historian Andy Grant takes a dive back to the 18th century, charting the origins of Dagenham Dock right back to a rotten Thames sluice gate.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, much of the marshy land along the Thames estuary had been progressively reclaimed, necessitating the building of embankments along the river, a process known as “inning”.

By the time of Henry VIII, a continuous embankment lined the river, although breaches still occurred periodically, particularly where watercourses joined the Thames.

Sluices were provided to allow these watercourses to flow into the Thames at low tide, usually consisting of a hollowed-out log with a hinged flap to prevent the tidal waters from flowing back into the watercourses.

Although the River Beam had been “inned” by the commissioner of sewers for Havering and Dagenham, it was seriously breached in 1621 before eventually being repaired by Sir Cornelius Vermuyden.

The breach left two interconnected inland creeks forming a roughly inverted U shape. In 1707 a high tide and storms caused a 14ft-wide breach in the wall of the embankment, evidently caused by a rotted wooden sluice “blowing up”.

This was a euphemistic term describing the process by which the weight of water bypassed the rotted wooden pipe and eroded the earth surrounding it. The damaged area could easily have been stopped-up by prompt action, but this did not happen.

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Successive tides poured back and forth through the gap, widening it to 100ft in the weeks that followed and causing an inland tidal lake nearly a mile and a half long.

By 1714 the breach had reached a width of around 400ft and had flooded an estimated 5,000 acres.

The scouring action of the tidal currents through the gap removed the topsoil from the marshes of Dagenham and Havering, causing a sandbank in the Thames around a mile in length, reaching half-way across the river.

This became a threat to the navigation of river traffic “four miles above, and two miles below” the breach.

The repair of the breach was contended to be one of the most difficult feats of civil engineering in its day.

Numerous efforts were made by local landowners to fix the breach, plugging it by sinking old ships filled with ballast, baskets of chalk, clay and piling the sides, but none of these attempts were successful.

By 1714, with no evident solution, an Act of Parliament enabled the breach to be mended at public expense.

The contract was awarded to William Boswell for £16,300, but after sustaining heavy losses he surrendered the contract.

Having found the task impossible, in 1715 Captain John Perry was invited to undertake the contract at a cost of £25,000. Captain Perry realised the need to firstly relieve the pressure of water against the breach, providing two new openings, secured with strong sluice gates, below the breach.

Using 300 men he then drove dove-tailed timber piles across the gap, securing them with an impervious clay footing on the riverside to resist the force of water. It took him five years to successfully complete the works, but the expenses exceeded the agreed contract price.

An additional £15,000 was granted to him by parliament, together with another £1,000 from local landowners, although this fell short of the losses he had incurred.

After the embankment had been secured, a 55-acre inland lake remained, which subsequently became known as Dagenham Breach.

Pleasure grounds, pubs and tea houses sprung up to cater for the pleasure seekers.

Early ministerial whitebait dinners were held there and London’s anglers eagerly joined “the Dagenham Lake Subscription Water”, which was well stocked with pike, carp, roach, and eels.

Interest in the lake had declined by the mid-19th century as powers were granted to connect Dagenham Breach to the Thames by means of a lock, with the new London and Tilbury line.

Although a pier was built by Sir John Rennie in 1865, the scheme was unsuccessful. In 1887 Samuel Williams bought the 30-acre site and developed Dagenham Dock, transforming it into an area of heavy industry.

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