Millwall Docks opened in 1868. They were the brainchild of Nathaniel Fenner, an oil merchant with premises on the western edge of the Isle of Dogs. Vacant wharfage along the Thames was in short supply, and Fenner saw the scope for creating more along the sides of a dock in the undeveloped marshland at the centre of the Isle, with loading and unloading made easier by lack of tides.
Fenner engaged Robert Fairlie, an engineer known for designing locomotives for narrow-gauge railways, to produce a design and William Wilson, another railway engineer, to run the project. Fairlie proposed a dock running east-west across the Isle, with access to the river at both ends, and another dock running north from the midpoint of the first. For financial reasons the eastern arm was never built.
Wilson engaged two contractors to build the docks and help finance them: John Aird, whose firm moved the Crystal Palace from Hyde Park to Sydenham, and John Kelk, who was engaged at the time in building the Albert Memorial. A stellar team was completed by John Fowler, later to build the Forth Rail Bridge, in an advisory role.
The enabling Bill passed through Parliament easily enough, even though Fenner and Fairlie quarrelled with Wilson and briefly opposed their own Bill. But the costs soon escalated, not least because of the high price of the land for the docks fixed by four powerful landowners, the Earls of Strafford and Strathmore, the Countess of Glengall and the Ironmongers’ Company. The dock company turned for help to an effective but ruthless financier, Albert Grant, later an MP and three-time bankrupt. He took control for a while, but the interests of other shareholders were successfully defended by Acton Ayrton MP, who joined the board and shortly became chairman.
Despite these and other problems, work started in July 1865 and water was let into the docks on schedule in August 1867. Thanks to the slump which followed the collapse of the Overend Gurney bank the previous year, the need for new wharfage had declined and the decision was taken to turn the development into conventional import/export docks. This meant extra work before the docks could open, but the first ship finally entered on 14th March 1868, albeit greeted by limited warehousing and unfinished quays.
The first few months were very difficult, with little business and disputes about unpaid debts, but in due course the docks became successful, handling mainly timber and grain. Ayrton became a Government minister and was succeeded as chairman by Charles Parkes, who also chaired the Great Eastern Railway. George Birt and Frederic Duckham, general manager and clerk of works respectively at the Royal Victoria Dock, were engaged for the same roles at Millwall. After 25 years as chairman, Parkes stood down in 1893 and was replaced by Birt.
There is a sad postscript. In 1899, when Birt was off sick, someone noticed irregularities in the accounts. It emerged that he had been falsifying them for a quarter of a century to make the company look a larger enterprise than it was. He absconded, but was found living under a false name and sentenced at the Old Bailey to nine months hard labour.