St Katherine's Dock and the Tea Clippers

Last week I described the rise and demise of the London Tea Auction. This week I would like to develop this theme and talk about the London docks and the tea clipper ships and the part they played in the development of the tea trade. 

Tower Bridge - Modern Day

St Katherine’s dock sits on the banks of the river Thames, close to Tower Bridge and was used for the unloading and storage of Tea chests. It opened in October 1828 and as the trade expanded Butlers Wharf, which is just opposite, opened in 1893. They are both very close to the London Tea Auction in Mincing Lane, Rood Lane, and Plantation Lane where many Indian and Sri Lankan, tea companies operated. During its 140-year life, Clipper ships including the famous Cutty Sark, and more modern steam ships docked to unload tea chests including many from PMD Tea. These ships were made of teak and weighed between 1100 and 1500 tons and made the slow passage from China around the Cape of Good Hope to London. Later came the clipper ships, which were lighter and built of iron ore and wooden planking which made for faster sailing from the East.

Tea Chest loading on the Brunswick Estate in previous decades

In the early days the docks and warehouses were used for “bulking” tea. Unlike today where there are established “grades” of tea, in the early days this was not the case so bulking was used, because buyers did not like to purchase teas that had leaves of varying sizes.  The teas were emptied into a heap on the floor and thoroughly mixed. This was to ensure consistency. The chests were then repacked and catalogued for auction. This process continued until 1884 when the grading system started.  (Read our blog here on the grades of tea) 

Today St Katherine Docks and its warehouses no longer hold any tea. The tea auctions and the tea companies have left London. However, area is still a thriving waterside community.