A dock along the banks of the Humber in West Hull had been promoted as early as the 1830s by Alderman Thomas Thompson. In 1860 a “West Dock Company” was formed to promote a dock in like position, backed by the Hull Corporation, North Eastern Railway, the Hull Trinity House and leading Hull figures. The company proposed a dock of around 1,000 yards (910 m) long and of 14 acres (5.7 ha) area. In response the Hull Dock Company promoted a rival scheme; both were put to parliament and the Dock Company obtained an act in 1861.
The Hull Dock Act of 1861 sanctioned the building of a new dock on the Humber foreshore. Whilst the dock was under construction two further acts were enacted: the 1866 act allowed the extension of the dock westwards, and the 1867 act allowed further expansion to the west and south. The dock sanctioned in 1861 was to be 2,500 feet (760 m) long, the 1866 act increased the length to 3,350 feet (1,020 m) and the enclosed area to 22.8 acres (9.2 ha), and water depth of 29 to 24.5 feet (8.8 to 7.5 m) from high spring to neap tides. The total land area including locks, basins and reclaimed land to the west was 76 acres (31 ha). The engineer was John Hawkshaw and the site engineer J.C. Hawkshaw.
Construction began in October 1862 with the foundation stone of the north dock wall laid by William Wright in May 1864. The southern dock walls and quays were on reclaimed land, and cofferdams were built which enclosed and split the works into three parts. Quay walls were built of sand and lime mortar with stone from Horsforth onto concrete foundations of on average 10 feet (3.0 m) thick laid on a clay strata reached by excavating down through clay and sand. During construction, on 17 September 1866 one of the south dock walls burst allowing the Humber to flood in. The breach was repaired by 13 October. During the construction of the lock pit the excavation work were troubled by "boils", which undermined the work (Underground 'streams' forcing up through sand, with an origin in the aquifers of the Yorkshire Wolds.) Boils caused a breach in the river bank on 17 September 1866, letting water in the works. In November construction began of a dam of around 380 feet (120 m) total from the south wall to the bank near the Humber dock to protect the works. Boils appeared in the lock pit on 3 March 1867, and required extensive specialised remedial work to finish the foundations, taking till 20 November for the flow from the boils to be dealt with. Due to the difficulties encountered during construction the length of the lock, originally intended to be 400 feet (120 m), was reduced to 320 feet (98 m). The width was 80 feet (24 m).
Machinery on the dock, including capstans and the lock gates were worked by hydraulic power. The dock incorporated its own power supply, consisting three 20 by 6 feet (6.1 by 1.8 m) (long by diameter) boilers supplying a 40 horsepower (30 kW) steam engine which powered both the hydraulic system via a hydraulic accumulator at 700 pounds per square inch (4,800 kPa), as well as being able to pump mains water around the dock. The works also required the resiting (1864) of the goods line and sidings of the North Eastern Railway's (NER) Hull and Selby line; when complete the dock included a connection to the NER, and had doubled track or wider rail sidings on both quays, with the rails crossing the lock entrance by a hydraulically operated swing girder bridge. The dock's sidings were connected to the NER's system west of the dock.
A small wharf was built outside the main dock for shipping activities of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR); both the wharf and main dock led into an entrance basin of 5 acres (2.0 ha); this was partially filled in c.1875 to create more space for the MS&LR. The Railway Creek was constructed as part of the works for the new West Dock (Albert Dock); beginning 1863, a new harbour was formed east of Limekiln Creek; the Limekiln Creek was kept open until the alternative provision for the NER and MS&LR companies had been made. After completion of the works the small east-west running Railway Creek harbour connected at its east end to the Albert Dock basin. In 1873 the NER had a warehouse built at the site, designed by Thomas Prosser and modified by Benjamin Burley, both NER architects.
The cost of the dock was £559,479 of which £113,582 was for the excavations, a similar amount for the dock walls, and £88,655 for the entire lock constructions excluding the lock gates and machinery. The dock was opened in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales (Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and Alexandra, Princess of Wales) in 1869, and was named Albert Dock.
Both the Albert and William Wright docks were closed to commercial vessels in 1972, and converted for use as fish docks, the Hull fish fleet moved to the docks in 1975. As of 2010 both docks remain in use for general cargo traffic, as well as being the landing point for the much reduced Hull fishing industry.
In December 2013 a North Sea storm surge and high tide overtopped Albert Dock from the Riverside Quay waterfront and through the lock gates, resulting in flooding in Hull City Centre. The dock flood defences were improved by 2015.
Whilst the Albert Dock was still under construction the Dock Company obtained another act in 1866 allowed the extension of the dock westwards, and an 1867 act allowed further expansion to the west and south. Construction began in 1873 with R.A. Marillier as engineer and John Hawkshaw as consulting engineer. The dock was planned as an 8 acres (3.2 ha) extension of the Albert Dock accessed via a 60 feet (18 m) channel. The foundation stone was formally laid by William Wright in 1876.
The dock opened in 1880 and was named William Wright Dock after the name of the Chairman of the Dock Company. The dock was 5.75 acres (2.33 ha) in size.
In 1904 the North Eastern Railway (NER), then the main owner of the Hull docks, applied to parliament for powers to build a quay along the bank of the River Humber, adjacent to its Albert Dock, and related works. Permission was obtained in 1905 to construct the a quay of up to 5,580 feet (1,700 m), and to dredge to a depth of 16 feet (4.9 m) below low water of ordinary spring tides.
The quay was designed as deep water quay for foodstuffs and other goods requiring rapid handling, avoiding delays in entering locks, or waiting for a low tide to turn; Additional works included construction of a two storey warehouse for the fruit trade on the adjacent side of the Albert Dock, and replacement of the single line railway swing bridge over the Albert Dock entrance with a double track bridge.
A quay of 2,500 feet (760 m) was constructed along the timber wharf outward of Albert Dock, extending around 90 feet (27 m) further into the estuary. The construction consisted of a bank of Middlesbrough slag around 40 ft. deposited abutting to the former quay wall, with about a 45° facing slope supported at the base by sheet piling. The remaining depth of the quay was formed on Blue Gum and Pitch pine timber pilings, spaced around 10 feet (3.0 m), with the long Blue Gum piles extending above the ground level to form the supports for the structure's roof. As built the quay was equipped with hydraulically powered capstans for shunting, and electric cranes; a water supply for ship supply and firefighting was fitted, and gas lighting used. The electric equipment was supplied by Craven Brothers. Hydraulic power was supplied via an accumulator tower which also functioned as a clock tower. (Demolished post WW2.)
The pier also incorporated a passenger station for continental boat trains. 600 feet (180 m) of the quay was equipped for passenger traffic, with the quay decking raised 3 ft. to provide a platform. The station was used as a terminus for boat trains.
The quay came into use in 1907. Initial operations were by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&YR) and NER's joint ferry to Zeebrugge, followed by ships to Norway operated by Wilson Line, and to Rotterdam by the Hull and Netherlands Steamship Company. The quay was fully completed by 1911.
During the Second World War Hull Blitz the quay was destroyed by fires started by enemy bombing during the nights of early May 1941. During the 1950s a new 1,065-foot (325 m) long concrete quay was constructed and officially opened in 1959. The south side of Albert Dock modernised to a similar design as the new Riverside Quay in 1964.