St Katharine Docks took their name from the former hospital of St Katharine's by the Tower, built in the 12th century, which stood on the site. An intensely built-up 23 acre (9.5 hectares) site was earmarked for redevelopment by an Act of Parliament in 1825, with construction commencing in May 1827. Some 1250 houses were demolished, together with the medieval hospital of St. Katharine. Around 11,300 inhabitants, mostly port workers crammed into insanitary slums, lost their homes; only property owners received compensation. The scheme was designed by engineer Thomas Telford and was his only major project in London. To create as much quayside as possible, the docks were designed in the form of two linked basins (East and West), both accessed via an entrance lock from the Thames. Steam engines designed by James Watt and Matthew Boulton kept the water level in the basins about four feet above that of the tidal river.
Telford aimed to minimise the amount of quayside activity and specified that the docks' warehouses (designed by the architect Philip Hardwick) be built right on the quayside so that goods could be unloaded directly into them.
The docks were officially opened on 25 October 1828. Although well used, they were not a great commercial success and were unable to accommodate large ships. They were amalgamated in 1864 with the neighbouring London Docks. In 1909, the Port of London Authority took over the management of almost all of the Thames docks, including the St Katharine.
The St Katharine Docks were badly damaged by German bombing during the Second World War and never fully recovered thereafter. Because of their very restricted capacity and inability to cope with large modern ships, they were among the first to be closed in 1968, and were sold to the Greater London Council. Most of the original warehouses were demolished and replaced by modern commercial buildings in the early 1970s, with the docks themselves becoming a marina. The development has often been cited as a model example of successful urban redevelopment.