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The Growth of London as a Port from Roman to Medieval Times
Lecture by Gustav Milne
Given at the Museum of London on October 17, 2016
When the 58,000 tonne Caledon carried its cargo of South African fruit and wine into the Thames estuary on 6th November 2013, a new chapter in the port of London’s long history began. It was the first ship to berth at London Gateway, the massive container port built for DP World at Thurrock, in Essex. This is some 30 miles east of the ancient City where the first (rather more modest) port had been established some 2,000 years earlier. Londinium’s Roman harbour had waxed and waned between AD50 and AD500, before a new Mid Saxon beach market subsequently developed to the west at Lundenwic, just off the Strand near Aldwych in c. AD 600.
By AD 900, the entire Saxon settlement, complete with beach market, had relocated back to the site of the abandoned Roman city on the orders of King Alfred the Great. The open harbour was initially centred in the western half of the City, but once the first medieval timber bridge was built in c AD1000, the beach market was extended eastwards to the Billingsgate area. A period of expansion then saw the beach market transformed into a medieval merchant port by the 13th century, and by the end of the 14th century, the officials working in the new Custom House were kept busy cataloguing diverse cargoes brought to the City from all over Europe.
It is this series of harbours that is described here, illuminated partially by documentary records, but especially by half a century of archaeological endeavour. Rather than describing a history of the port of London, it seems more appropriate to say PORTS of London, since the locations, vessels, cargoes and waterfront facilities differed as much as the prevalent languages, cultures and currencies.