PLA History

The Port of London Authority was established in 1908 by the original Port of London Act.

Not many people know that the governing body was originally comprised of members elected by the PLA's customers:

18 elected members, elected by 'payers of dues, wharfingers [wharf owners] and owners of river craft'


10 appointed members:

4 appointed by the London County Council,

2 by the Board of Trade,

1 by the Admiralty

1 by Trinity House and

2 by the PLA themselves.

1968 they introduced a Private Act of Parliament which created the PLA as it is today. Now none of their board are elected: up to 8 members are appointed by the PLA themselves and the remainder (between 3 and 1, excluding the chair) are made by the Secretary of State for Transport.

PLA democracy, then and now

Now in 2019 they are proposing a Harbour Revision Order to enhance and extend their 1968 Act without having to go through Parliament.

Pre 1908 - Caretakers of Thames not Owners of Thames

In 1843, the Mayor and Corporation of the City of London etc. (‘City’) were taken to court by the Crown for granting wharf licences to various persons out of their alleged ownership of the bed and shores of the Thames. The City said that they were the owners of that bed and shores since the time of Henry II and/or being conservators gave them adverse possession of the bed and shores and/or that the Crown were not the owners. The City said they were entitled to have charged for earlier wharf permissions and were entitled to charge for the complained of constructions on and along the bed and shores. The Crown said they were not and each side prepared their cases.

Case papers from each side are in the City of London Archives at Farringdon (City papers) and the National Archives at Kew (Crown papers). The Crown had to assemble earlier grants of the bed and shores often in older Latin phrasing and other papers. The City had to assemble its own case likewise.

The report of the case (reported in 1845) noted that the Crown had laid a very detailed Information before the High Court alleging its title and other facts and the case report sets out the essentials of that Information.

After much to and fro the City settled the matter with Articles of Agreement in December 1856 between the Crown and City. Essentially the Articles agreed that:

(1) a conveyance would be entered into;

(2) the City would pay over its back rents and payments for works permissions given since the case had started and before;

(3) the City would accept the statement of facts set out in the Information;

(4) the City would accept (as set out in the Information) that they were mere conservators of the Thames;

(5) being conservators of the navigation meant that the City could never have owned the bed and shores and could never have (by long exercise of navigational authority) gained ownership of the bed and shores and could never do the same in the future (much like a forester in a wood could never own the wood itself or a highway authority can never own the subsoil of the highway);

(6) the Crown would grant the bed and shores but it would thereafter be held by the City ‘as conservators’ with income to be paid into an improvement Fund for the improvement of the navigation with one third of the income to be paid over to the Crown;

(7) the City would give account of its income to the Crown to make sure none of the income was diverted to the City away from the improvement Fund; the whole Fund and the bed and shores and navigational powers would further be held and exercised and comprised in a ‘charitable public benefit trust’ (the public benefit charitable trust is very Victorian in nature) and

(8) other things to do with money and other bits and bobs.

In January 1857, the conveyance of the bed and shores to the City was duly undertaken. The bed (below low water) and shores (between high and low water) were to be held by the City ‘as conservators’ on several trusts all bound up for the public benefit (being one of the permitted common law charitable purposes) with all income being divided between the Fund (two thirds) and the Crown (one third).

The Crown has always been prohibited (since 1704) from alienating any of its lands and this includes the Thames so passing management to the City without ownership accords with the prohibition against alienation imposed on the Crown since the time of Queen Anne (1665–1714).

Queen Anne was best of friends with the first Duke of Marlborough’s wife hence the big give away of Crown land to the Duke to celebrate Marlborough’s victories in Europe, all of which prompted Parliament to legislate to stop the Crown giving away the kingdom to all future and current Sovereign’s buddies and chums.

Prior to the Thames Conservators Act of August 1857, the City held the bed and shores as conservators or managers of the Thames on charitable public benefit trusts as a result of the conveyance of January 1857.

The Thames Conservators Act 1857 could never pass ownership of the bed and shores of the Thames from the Crown to the newly created body of the Conservators of the River Thames as passing ownership from the Crown is prohibited by the Crown Lands Act 1829 and previous Crown Lands Acts back to 1704. The Crown is in a unique constitutional position as being unable to deal freely with its property as all other constitutional bodies are so fully entitled.

Instead, the 1857 Act merely consolidated navigational management powers passing them from the City and others to the newly created Conservators of the River Thames and also created further statutory powers of management of the bed and shores.

The Port of London Act 1908 passed all the common law and statutory powers of management held by the Conservators of the River Thames to the newly created Port of London Authority.

The Port of London Act 1908 also added a few more statutory powers essential to the modern port operation.

In 1915, the Crown passed its existing one third income from the Thames it had enjoyed since 1857 to the Port of London Authority probably to assist with the war effort.

The Port of London Authority and its predecessors in statute and common law have never owned the bed and shores of the Thames being mere conservators of the navigation much like a forester in a wood or the Civil Aviation Authority in the airspace above 200 metres. A forester does not own the mushrooms and trees and game and the Civil Aviation Authority does not own the airspace

There is no need for ownership to have passed away from the Crown and other owners as ownership is not needed to operate the navigation. Indeed, the Crown is prohibited from alienating its lands so management is the best solution.

The Crown and other bed and shore owners keep their ownership with the Port of London and its predecessors managing or conserving the navigation by controlling works (also known as ‘purprestures’) fixed to the bed and shores and generally operating the river. Subject, of course, to the rights of the subject set out in the Information mentioned at the start of this.

The subjects of the Crown have rights to navigate and moor and the City was bound by all the important recitals in the conveyance of January 1857 to accept the entirety of that Information as the Information is expressly to be accepted prior to agreeing to convey and grant the bed and shores thereafter to be held ‘as conservators’ of the navigation.

Nevertheless the PLA continues to register river bed to itself with HM Land Registry.

The December 1856 Articles and February 1857 Grant were made between the City of London and the Crown. The Crown could only alienate its land if the habendum (the part of a deed or conveyance which states the estate or quantity of interest to be granted) to any grant was comprised of certain statutory words so as to give effect to alienation.

The Crown Lands Act 1829 required words effective to convey a particular estate (words of fee for freehold and words of leasehold for leasehold). This is apart from the long standing prohibition against alienation of any Crown land by the Crown Lands Act of 1704

Needless to say there are no statutory words effective to alienate any part of the Crown’s ownership of the bed and shores of the Thames.

The Crown acted through Commissioner Charles Alexander Gore and he does appear on the list of Commissioners for Woods etc.

The transcripts do not attach properly with all their page numbers and index numbers so what you see are the plain text transcripts.

The Articles and Grant meant that management or conservation of the bed and shores of the Thames within certain geographical limits (rather than any title in the bed and shores) were granted by the Crown. The conservation of the bed and shores were further to be held by the City of London (in its capacity ‘as conservators’ or managers of the navigation) on several charitable or public benefit trusts.

All very Victorian and worthy and sufficient to keep the bed and shores out of the greedy hands of the City of London.

The modern PLA are making the same claims to ownership of the bed and shores that their predecessors, the City of London, had agreed in 1856 and 1857 that they and their successors would never thereafter make again.

Charles Alexander Gore must be spinning in his Victorian mausoleum.