The River Thames runs for 215 miles from its source in the Cotswolds to its estuary at Southend-on-Sea. At Teddington, west London, it becomes a tidal river. The Thames widens considerably at Deptford.

At the start of the 20th century, the Port of London remained the central trading post for the British Empire. The Port of London Authority was created in 1909. The last dock to be opened in London was the King George V Dock in 1921. At this time, river and canal trade remained buoyant.

However, by the mid-20th century, a huge decline in the use of the river for trade meant the docks also suffered a downturn, which quickly led to their closure. The last inner-London docks closed in 1981.The Tilbury Docks, 26 miles downstream from Tower Bridge, now became the only operational docks in the Port of London. Along with the decline of the docks, other related industrial activities deteriorated, such as shipbuilding and repair, power stations and breweries.

As the docks closed, building programmes developed that changed the riverside areas from industrial to residential use. Converting empty warehouses and industrial buildings became popular. Many luxury riverside flats were constructed in the Isle of Dogs alongside office skyscrapers such as the Canary Wharf Tower.

In the second half of the 20th century, the Thames riverbanks became the home to a number of arts events and buildings. The Festival of Britain in 1951 saw the development of a huge site on the South Bank that included the Royal Festival Hall. Later developments included the South Bank Arts Complex, the Globe Theatre and the conversion of the Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern.

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