The Docks of London including Wapping, Limehouse, Surrey Quays, Saint Katherine’s Dock, Rotherhithe, Silvertown, and Tobacco Dock.Part One – Wapping
It is raining today and there is a rainbow; a stunted shard of muted colour that hooks out of the pewter sky before bending to earth. It is a sorry excuse for a rainbow but rainbow it nonetheless is. Winter is here now and it has been raining for a week. Some of the roads have large puddles that gather in overrun kerbsides. Silvertown’s streets were awash and the cobblestone, hobble down old roads of Wapping glisten as the sun weakly reflects in the wind blown pools. Wapping is our starting point.
I had prearranged to meet Dave outside the old Tobacco Dock and he duly arrives looking like a badly drawn Hobbit. On his head is a woolly hat that sits bag like over his skull. He is wearing several layers of clothes including a camouflage waterproof that sensibly protects him from the imminent downpour. Underneath this is another jacket which in turn hangs over a jumper beneath which is a T-shirt. The cumulative effect of so many layers makes my partner in crime look as though his torso is a large bowling ball balanced upon a pair of punitive pins. His dark blue jeans hover over a pair of walking boots that have a weather-beaten, determined air about them that almost mocks the current weather with some serious attitude. Slung across his shoulder is a camera bag but he also has his trusty digital palm sized camera shoved in the front pocket of his jacket. He looks like a man on a mission. We greet each other in a way only a long absence can evoke and in the manner of all male Londoner’s.
We meet outside Tobacco Dock for two reasons:
1. It is an old haunt and one we both captured in word and with images on our old blog site, Krome Alchemy therefore it is familiar ground for both of us.
2. It strikes us as being instrumental in the past, present and future of what was once London’s docklands.
The reason for starting our London Chronicles here in Wapping is because it is central to the very fabric of what makes up the Eastend. It has the postcode of E1, which is East One, the first area east of the City of London. It, along with places such as Whitechapel, Stepney, Bow and Limehouse are what were and still are the beating heart of Cockney London where the ‘proper people’ are.
It was here in Wapping in 1805 that The London Docks were constructed downstream from the City, the City that ran so much of the world during this period. It wasn’t for another two decades that St. Katherine’s Dock was built leaving Wapping close to the capital and its flourishing industry.
In total, the London Dock’s occupied thirty acres of land and was designed by Daniel Asher Alexander and John Rennie. Among the riches that passed through the docks were coffee, tobacco, tea, ivory, spices, wine, timber, wool and cocoa; elephants, tigers, monkeys, bears and subtle silks of disarming colours. Warehouses were built to accommodate these goods, warehouses that defined the era with their elegance and resplendent style. It was one the golden times of British history; after a surge of activity that lasted for some one hundred and fifty years the docks closed for business in 1969.
The land stood idle and derelict for twelve years until in 1981 it was bought by the London Docklands Development Corporation who then went about the business of redeveloping the area. Much of the redevelopment took the form of residential properties but there was also a lot of businesses built too. For awhile the rebuilding of the Docks, certainly on Surrey Docks, Canary Wharf, Greenland Dock and Canada Water, was thought to be where the financial epicentre of the City would be and huge tower blocks were built in a Manhattan type fashion but the thought of replacing one of the oldest financial capitals by a newer one failed, the square mile that is the City still drives Britain and many other countries finances. Canary Wharf does look good though with its ready break buildings of chrome and glass.
Tobacco Dock was converted from the old warehouse that was built in 1812 to a shopping centre in 1990. The cost to do this was a staggering £47 million. The intention was to create e thriving, Covent Garden type area, all in the heart of the Eastend, with shops, cafés, restaurants and interior street entertainment. Sadly the project failed as the old dock is not in a major retail area.
Since then and up until recently (2009) you were able to walk around the place even though it was empty with the only human presence being a security guard and a single shop selling sandwiches.
When the shop closed so the shutters came down on Tobacco Dock and there no longer is access to the place. The following notes were written in 2006 when Dave and I first visited.
The first thing that hits you as you walk into this aging architectural wonder is the ghostly absence of people. This complete lack of human activity is made even more acute by the mannequins that lay in a heap behind the now empty shop windows as though a massacre has occurred and the bodies have all been laid in stasis, frozen behind glass.
There is a chilled spooky feel about the place as history hangs heavy from the towering ceiling and the spectral sounds of Victorian boot heels echo dimly in your subconscious. Your footfall reverberates and shadows play upon your eye and mind as you pad over the debris of times past. Even more alarming though is the odd way this place was bought and rescued from neglect and decay in the eighties, at a huge cost, only for it to be left, open and with security men roaming its confines, for the public to walk around whenever they choose. I think bizarre is the word that best describes this place, bizarre but oddly attractive. The best and most succinct description to offer is to liken the modern day Tobacco Dock to a landlocked Marie Celeste
The upper floor is a series of smaller shops and offices with the middle, the central floor being almost exclusively for shops, all of which are empty of course with some still having odd bits left behind but in the main are just vacant boxes framed with dusty glass. Below, down in what would have been, I assume, the warehouse, are a series of curious tunnels with wonderfully constructed brick built arches. The ceilings are curved and pocked marked and there is a strange acoustic as you walk, a faint echo that somehow drags the past back into sharp focus so that you can almost hear and see the bargemen and barrow boys in their grim working clothes, blackened hobnail boots scuffing the red brick walls as they trundle along.
As with so many things that have a history attached to them so does Tobacco Dock have its own tall tales and legends. One such tale, and true, is the story of the Bengal tiger and the eight-year-old boy.
More than a hundred years ago when Wapping Highway was still called Ratcliffe Highway there sat a shop of noble antiquity with the vaguely exotic name of Jamrach’s Emporium. It was a unique shop selling a variety of curiosities among which included a selection of wild animals. Apparently a great many wealthy people thought nothing of purchasing alligators, monkeys, brightly coloured birds, elephants, and tigers. As the shop was close to the London’s Dockland it not only attracted the capital’s elite but also a vast range of seafaring men all of whom would fetch forth the artefacts they had found on their journeys to a distant land which , for a pretty price, they would sell to Jamrach’s Emporium.
Mister Jamrach, the proprietor of Jamrach’s Emporium, kept all the animals enclosed in iron cages and it is said that they were all well cared for, probably not for any altruistic reasons but more for the commercial fact that Mister Jamrach sold the beasts to naturalist collectors and zoological institutes, neither of whom would have bought exhibits that were poorly treated or undernourished.
It was in the early part of the nineteenth century that a mature and large Bengal tiger, newly acquired, escaped from Jamrach’s Emporium. Having broken free of the wooden crate it had been transported in it nonchalantly wandered down the Eastend roads sending people running for cover. Naturally enough the cockneys of Wapping had never seen a tiger up close before and quite rightly ran indoors for fear of their lives shutting their front doors firmly behind them. Everyone hid away apart from one brave lad aged only eight who, having never seen such a big cat before, decided to investigate. His intention was to stroke the big pussy cat on the nose, to pet the creature. The tiger, having never met such a boy before and unaccustomed to having small primates walk up and stroke it, cuffed the boy around the head knocking him out. The tiger then picked the boy up in his mouth and walked off with him. Mister Jamrach was horrified and bravely ran to the unconscious boys rescue where, as bold as brass, he thrust his hands into the tiger’s mouth and forced the wild beast to let go. The boy was unscathed and the tiger taken back to its cage without any further ado.
Tobacco Dock now sits waiting for someone to utilise it for whatever plans they may have. It is of architectural and historical significance though and has been given the highest grade that any listed building can achieve: grade one.
In its heyday it was a storage facility for imported tobacco, hence the name, and its brick vaults and splendid ironwork should be kept as they are forever.
This is a collaborative work between Vigor and Duffy, that is David Vigor and Russell CJ Duffy and is part of the Wilful Walks series.