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Ports and Harbour Heritage Projects

Coastal ports and harbours have always been central to England’s economy. Economic growth and expanding global links from the 1700s rapidly increased the scale of maritime trade and goods-handling.

Larger ports able to process the larger volumes thrived, leaving smaller ones serving only local needs or falling out of use. The trend still continues. Read more about Historic England’s Port and Harbour Heritage research and partnership working below.

Black and white image of Liverpool Albert Dock in 1958. Small boats are moored at the side of a warehouse.
The docks at Liverpool were at the heart of the economic life of the city and the north-west of England. © Eric De Mare/Historic England

Change and adaptation

Rapid adoption of the container system in the 1960s forced radical modernisation and restructuring on our historic port infrastructure. Some existing ports, such as Tilbury, underwent massive expansion, complemented by new purpose-built ports as at Felixstowe.

Many other ports and docks suffered partial or complete closure, including previously significant facilities in the heart of London’s now-former Docklands and most of Liverpool’s docks.

The built heritage of the former ports left many ideal for sympathetic conversion. The resulting residential, service and retail areas provide a highly distinctive mix of old and new buildings.

Liverpool Albert Dock in 2008. An image shot between two colourful, adjacent boats moored at the Dockside with a warehouse in the left background.
Many docks were closing in the 1980s and 1990s and have now been converted to provide homes, shops and cultural destinations for residents and tourists. © Peter Williams/Historic England

Historic England is carrying out a series of projects around the coastline, starting with those facing the North Sea and those in Cornwall,  that will increase our knowledge of surviving port heritage. 

Whitby Harbour in bright sunshine. Terrace houses cling to the cliff top in the foreground whilst the sun reflects off the sea in the harbour in the background.
Whitby Harbour, one of the North Sea ports whose heritage and pressures for change are being studied by Historic England as part of a national review. © Historic England

Working in partnership

Looking ahead, a report commissioned from Fisher Associates shows how Historic England and the ports industry can work together to improve heritage protection at ports.

Historic England will complement this with a guidance document helping port operators understand their heritage from past generations.

Following the same principle, Historic England has commissioned the Naval Dockyards Society to report on the post-1914 heritage of the naval bases at Portsmouth and at Devonport, the largest naval base in Western Europe.

A sunlit image of perfectly aligned doorways in a building at Devonport Plymouth Dry Dock 3. There are two floors of doorways with entrance steps for Dry Dock work.
Within the naval base at Devonport there is a wealth of historic structures dating from the 19th and 20th centuries. This is one of the naval base’s monumental dry docks designed to maintain the navy’s fleet of ships. © Mike-Hesketh Roberts/Historic England

As a result of this report, the Government will then be able to upgrade both sites in a way that is sensitive to the existing heritage while at the same time bringing much-needed new jobs.

The top of a capstan at Devonport Plymouth Dry Dock 3 installed in 1939. The capstan is a rusty orange colour and has the word ‘Carlisle’ embossed on it prominently in the foreground of the image.
This 1939 capstan, installed at Devonport Plymouth Dry Dock 3 at the outbreak of World War II, has survived through all the changes that have taken place in the dockyard over successive decades. © Mike Hesketh-Roberts/Historic England
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