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Canary Wharf

An example of 1980s urban regeneration, focusing on commerce and retail

Background information

The history of human activity on the Isle of Dogs dates back to the 13th Century, when the Stepney Marshes were drained for agricultural use.

The area is most famous, however, for its role in the trading history of London. The Port of London began operating as a point of departure for merchant trading vessels as early as the 16th Century, but it was the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century that resulted in the most rapid expansion of the docks. The West India Docks were opened in 1902 and contributed to what became the world's largest port. Industries built up around the ports and by the 1930s 100,000 people were employed in the area.

The peak year for the London Docklands was 1961 - in this year over 60 million tonnes of cargo was processed by the docks. However, by the 1970s new technologies and the increased size of cargo ships meant that the London Docklands was no longer able to compete with other ports. By 1981 all of the docks had been closed, resulting in massive unemployment and decline in the area.

During the 1980s, under the London Docklands Development Corporation, the Isle of Dogs was made an Enterprise Zone, offering incentives to try to attract businesses and developers to the area. Investment was helped by new transport initiatives: the Docklands Light Railway and London City Airport. Construction started on Canary Wharf - once a cargo warehouse - in 1988.

During the 1990s, rapid development of buildings such as One Canada Square and the extension of the Jubilee Line enabled the location of many businesses and corporations to the area. The first tenants moved in during 199, and the area is now home to companies such as Citigroup, NatWest Bank plc, Barclays plc, Morgan Stanley, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Reuters and many more.

With the opening of the Canada Square shopping mall in 2000 and the East Wintergarden events venue in 2003, there are now over 90,000 people working in the area, almost as many as during the 1930s! The Canary Wharf Estate is over 97 acres in size and contains 14.1 million square feet of office and retail space.

Fieldwork tasks

The list below shows the range of fieldwork tasks that can be completed at the Canary Wharf site.

  • Visit to the Museum in Docklands (New Port New City gallery) and completion of worksheet

  • Environmental quality surveys at three points within the Canary Wharf Estate

  • Digital photography task

  • Historical maps and clues

  • Business, estate agent and shopping surveys

  • Questionnaires

Find out more about the history of Canary Wharf

More information about the history of the site is available on the following websites:

The history of the docks

Why do you need docks?

The advantage of an enclosed dock is that loading or unloading can be carried out at any time. The River Thames is a tidal river so it can rise and fall up to 20 feet between tides. It therefore requires a lock between the river and the basin, otherwise loading and unloading could only take place for about two hours a day and would be a much more difficult operation. The docks in the upriver area are shown in table below. They are the oldest and smallest of London's docks.

Name of Docks, Date fully opened, Imports

  • East India - 1806 - Exotic spices

  • West India- 1802 - Sugar/ rum and coffee

  • London ( Wapping and Limehouse ) - 1805 - Tobacco , rice, wine and brandy

  • Surrey (South side of river ) inc Greenland Dock - From 1700 - Originally whaling ships then Timber and trade with Baltic and N America

  • St Katherine's- 1827- General and varied

  • Millwall- 1868- Grain and other food

The quays and warehouses

A dock also provides a large area of quayside for ships. Most of the early docks had an import and export dock, as it was convenient to keep import and export work separate. The long, thin basins were edged with Quays and brick sheds or warehouses where cargo would be offloaded or stored before being shipped out elsewhere. Unloading was done by hand initially and as there was a limit to how high goods could be stacked there were three floors in the sheds. The docks dealt mainly with international trade. Large ships coming from elsewhere in the UK tended to unload on the water on to lighters which then docked in the smaller wharves up stream - this was much cheaper as not controlled by the shipping companies

Associated industry

The main inward cargos were unprocessed .The concentration of processing and manufacturing industries in the docklands area meant there were lots of flour mills, food manufactures and tobacco companies in the area. Ship repair was another large industry, plus many dock related such as rope-makers, chain-makers, boiler-makers, firms making sacks, casks and drums, engineering works specialising in lifting gear or ship's propellers.

Population and housing

In the 1920s the population of the area grew to around 25,000. The housing was dense and of poor quality. The island was quite isolated, and because it concentrated on serving docks' needs it had a narrow and increasingly old fashioned skills base. Heavy bombing in the war destroyed much of the housing and led to 1960s rebuilding. The result was reasonable quality housing, but lots of high rise blocks. By 1980, due to the closure of the docks and the decline of the employment base, there were a lot of vacant properties. The majority of the housing was council owned, with only four per cent owner occupied.

  • Population of 4,000, in 1851

  • Population of 21,000, in 1901

  • Population of 15,500 with only 7,000 in work, in 1981

Transport and communications

Within the Isle of Dogs transport and communications with the rest of London and beyond were poor. The A13 East India Dock Road was the only road in and out of the area and was highly congested. There was only one bus route and no rail or tube connections.


Retail on the Island was limited to a few small parades of small shops. There were limited recreational spaces and poor primary healthcare facilities. The area had plenty of pubs and a few daytime cafes but no restaurants.

Downloadable resources for the Canary Wharf site

There are eight activities that can be carried out on the Canary Wharf site. The aim of the activities is for students to get a feel for this regeneration project, which was started in the 1980s but is ongoing. Through the activities they will collect social, economic and environmental data for their case study, and will also start to think about the positive and negative impacts of the scheme.

Museum in Docklands

The Museum of London, Docklands, located within the Canary Wharf estate, contains a range of displays and galleries which focus on the history, archaeology and contemporary cultures of this part of London. It is housed within a former warehouse on North Dock.

The gallery that is of most relevance to this fieldwork study is the ‘New Port New City' gallery located on the second floor, which concentrates on the decline of the docks and the role of the London Dockland Development Corporation in regenerating the area. School visits to the Museum must be booked in advance.

Environmental Quality Surveys

Within this study, three environmental quality surveys were undertaken at contrasting localities: on North Dock (an area of mainly housing and restaurants), at the exit of Canary Wharf tube station (in the heart of the Estate) and in Jubilee Park (one of the few green areas in the Estate). This allowed for comparison between the different areas.

Photo task

The photo task provides a focus for students' digital photography of the area. They are asked to think carefully about the photos they take, taking three photos to sum up the area socially, economically and environmentally. Completing this task at each site visited enables a useful visual comparison to be made.

Historical maps and clues

Providing the students with a historical map of the site they are visiting allows them to identify changes in land use and function. These changes can be annotated onto the map. In addition, students may notice clues about the area's industrial past, for example the derricks that remain on the dockside.

Business survey

Information boards situated around the site show the names of the businesses that occupy the office buildings on the Canary Wharf Estate. This activity encourages students to think about the types of businesses that are present, and to identify any patterns that exist.

Estate Agent survey

The Knight Frank Estate Agency is located to the west of Cabot Square. It displays properties for sale in the Canary Wharf Estate, and also often has a property magazine stand outside. This activity investigates the range of property prices in the area, and also asks students to make a simplified calculation to work out how much they would need to be earning to afford some of these properties.


The students from Guildford High School had some difficulty persuading passers-by to stop and answer their questionnaire, "they're all too busy!" they complained. However, this in itself is indicative of the nature of the area. This survey aims to find out people's perceptions of the site and their thoughts about past and future changes.

Shopping survey

The Canada Square and Cabot Place retail areas at Canary Wharf are amazing. This activity encourages students to think about who the shopping malls are catering for, and includes a survey of the number of convenience, comparison, specialist and chain stores present.

Museum in Docklands

The Museum of London, Docklands website provides further information about displays, along with some good teaching materials, for example this KS3 West Iindia Quay tour. The museum also runs sessions for KS3 and KS4 students, and is currently developing materials for AS and A2.

File nameFiles

File type



Olympic Park Reasons to Relocate to Canary Wharf


37 KB

Olympic Park Reasons to Relocate to Canary Wharf (1)


131 KB

Olympic Park Museum Worksheet


130 KB

Olympic Park Museum Worksheet (1)


48 KB

Olympic Park Environmental Quality Survey


239 KB

Olympic Park Environmental Quality Survey (1)


103 KB

Olympic Park Photo Task


61 KB

Olympic Park Photo Task (1)


28 KB

Olympic Park Historical Map


998 KB

Olympic Park Historical Maps and Clues


36 KB

Olympic Park Historical Maps and Clues (1)


80 KB

Olympic Park Business Survey


63 KB

Olympic Park Business Survey (1)


36 KB

Olympic Park Estate Agent Survey


41 KB

Olympic Park Estate Agent Survey (1)


120 KB

Olympic Park Questionnaire


72 KB

Olympic Park Questionnaire (1)


43 KB

Olympic Park Shopping Survey


39 KB

Olympic Park Shopping Survey (1)


70 KB

Olympic Park KS3 West India Quay Tour


213 KB

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