‘The eastern division of London will be found to present a marked contrast to the other portions of the metropolis, and will amply repay the stranger for any inconvenience he may experience in his visit to this thronged and busy region.’
The site of St Katharine’s Docks was until the end of the 1700s a ‘liberty’, an enclave independent of the jurisdiction of the City and under the patronage of the Queens of England. It started when King Edgar (959-975) gave thirteen acres of land to thirteen knights with the right to trade. Somehow the land came under the control of the Priory of the Holy Trinity, Aldgate, and in 1148 Queen Matilda, the wife of King Stephen bought land from the Priory to establish The Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St Katharine in memory of two of her children who died as babies. ‘In 1273, after a dispute over its control, Queen Eleanor granted a new Charter, reserving the Foundation’s patronage to the Queens of England. In the 15th century its musical reputation rivalled that of St Paul’s and in 1442 it was granted a Charter of Privileges, which made it and its 23-acre precinct a Liberty with its own prison, officers and court, all outside the City of London’s ecclesiastical and civil jurisdiction.’ For 678 years, the Foundation carried on its work in East London; it was a significant, independent establishment which grew to village size and because it was under the patronage of the Queens of England it remained protected. After demolition the Foundation moved to Regents Park:
Queen Mary, the consort of Edward VII, granted use of the Chapel to the Danes in London. This site has details of the shields of all the Queens who were Patrons of the Foundation. The picture above is the shield of Queen Matilda, the founder of the Foundation. And then in 1948 the Foundation returned to Limehouse where St Katharine’s continues its pastoral work today.
London and its trade were expanding and land covered with medieaval buildings, adjacent to the City, was too tempting to business men. ‘In clearing the ground … 1,250 houses were bought and pulled down, including the ancient Hospital of St Katharine, … and a population of 11,300 had to find ‘a local habitation’ in another locality..’ – can you imagine the outcry if this happened today? And the demolition was without compensation.
(This site has fascinating aerial photographs.) The commercial dock closed in 1968. Today the buildings around the dock include luxury housing and hotel accommodation, and it is still a departure point for river cruises.
The London Docks opened earlier, in 1805, and Mr Bradshaw has a marvellous description of the smells and activities, taken from an article by Henry Mayhew in the Morning Chronicle. Mr Mayhew’s articles were collected into a book, London Labour and the London Poor, and here is an extract which gives a less romantic view of what life was like in the Docks. (This article gives interesting facts, and pictures.) The Docks consisted of the Western Dock, Tobacco Dock, and Eastern Dock; and there were three entrances to the docks, each with a basin – the entrances at Hermitage, Wapping, and Shadwell. The entrances remain but the docks and basins have now been filled in and only the Hermitage Basin and Shadwell Basin, the former Eastern Dock, remain as a significant stretch of open water. ‘In these Docks are especially warehoused wine, wool, spices, tea, ivory, drugs, tobacco, sugars, dye-stuffs, imported metals, and other articles’, John Timbs, 1967.
The site of the London Docks can still be seen on the street layout.
The Hermitage Entrance, leading to the Hermitage Basin, was the western entry to the London Docks. The entrance is at the bottom right of the picture below:
Something bright on a bitterly cold day –
The Wapping entrance to the Western Dock is fascinating and here one can capture a sense of 19th century London.
Wapping Pier Head was elegant housing on either side of the lock leading from the Thames to the Western Dock. Originally built for rich merchants, three of the blocks remain as housing, the fourth destroyed in WWII. The lock is now filled in, partly by paving and partly with a communal garden. (View from the Thames, and here.) And, as is often the case, Spitalfields Life has interesting information to contribute to our understanding of London. Wapping was a marsh until Elizabethan times; now it has ‘..all the characteristics of a seaport.. [and has] a lovely aspect..’. (Article here.)
Execution Dock, a scaffold for hanging pirates in chains, was in this area. Various places are proposed, and this is one, the steps beside the Town of Ramsgate pub. (Fascinating maps here, showing how much of the road layout has been retained.)
The dock walls remain in Pennington Street (photo to be added), and Pennington Street leads to Wapping Lane, once known as Old Gravel Lane and a causeway across the marsh.
These docks had a 21-year monopoly on handling tobacco, wine, spirits, and rice to cover the construction costs. Tobacco Dock provided storage for ‘..24,000 hogsheads of the Indian weed, each hogshead averaging 1,200 lbs..’. Wine was stored in the vaults below to which ladies were not admitted after 1.00 pm (why not, I wonder) and ‘..it is generally considered advisable for the uninitiated to preface their visit with a repast of a substantial character, the very atmosphere of this vinous region having an intoxicating property.’!
Wool was a major trade with special warehouses occupying 6.5 acres of ground: ‘..the E Warehouse in the St. Katharine Dock, and the Crescent, New Wing, New Warehouse, West Quay Shed, No. 7 Warehouse, and North-East Shed in the London Dock..’, according to Charles Dickens in 1881. He also points out they are ‘..fitted with elaborate hydraulic machinery for housing and delivering the wool..’, and situated at the Shadwell entrance to the Docks is this building, the London Hydraulic Power Company:
‘..Many of the Grade II listed warehouses have been successfully redeveloped as residential apartments, retaining their original, significant features. Oliver’s Wharf, unusual for its Victorian Gothic Revival style, … St John’s Wharf, Old Aberdeen Wharf and Gun Wharves serve as distinctive reminders of the commercial activity which characterised this part of the Victorian riverside…’. The remaining warehouses are Victorian with two catwalks remaining (boardwalks joining warehouses high above street level to transfer goods between warehouses). (Some nice Wapping photos here.)
In line with a recent comment that Mr Bradshaw and I are on a ‘pub crawl’, I note that there used to be 36 taverns in Wapping and felt obliged to try at least one!
Shadwell comes next and ‘..between the houses and the river-bank there [were] numerous small docks and building yards…’. Shadwell had been a dock on the Thames in the past, and this map of 1850 shows two basins, and two entries to the Thames. (Interestingly both Wapping Lane and Garnet Lane were known as ‘Gravel Lane’, and Milk Yard still exists!)
This bascule bridge works via a ballast tank and my clever companion for the day, Dennis, worked that out by looking at it – I had to do some homework!
It was too cold to linger and so churches were not seriously investigated, although I noted two. The parish church, St John of Wapping (next to Wapping Basin in the old map above) was bombed in WWII, with only the tower and shell remaining. It has been restored into housing. The nearby St John School is a bluecoat school.
At this point, almost frozen solid, the thinking and the photographs stopped, to be completed on another day, and The Prospect of Whitby beckoned!