Mr Bell Discovers London’s Docklands


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St Katherine Docks was opened in 1828 and was one of the new style docks that were constructed in London after 1800. Before these were built the port of London (or Pool of London) was made up of a disjointed mass of antiquated old wharves, quays and shipbuilding yards that were dotted along the banks of the Thames. London was prospering with the growth of the British Empire and it became clear that the old ports couldn’t cope with the increase in shipping.

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Merchants were getting frustrated that their ships would sit on the Thames for days or sometimes weeks before their cargo would be unloaded, as well as being vulnerable to the weather there were also river pirates to contend with. The merchants began to push for reform and in 1799 legislation was passed allowing the construction of the West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs. These docks became the template of what was to come, large areas of water that could accommodate the biggest ships and high perimeter walls that kept out unwanted visitors so goods could be stored safely in warehouses.

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The site of St Katherine Docks in Wapping had previously been the hospital of St Katherine’s by the Tower, founded in 1147 by Queen Matilda as a religious community and hospital for the poor and sick.

By the early 19th century St Katherine’s stood as a strange medieval relic in the heart of a vast slum. A long battle was fought to save the hospital but the developers ultimately won, the residents were forced to leave and, with the exception of the hospital, received no compensation.

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The slums were demolished and labourers, mainly Irish, arrived to excavate the dock. Many of the labourers stayed and settled in London after the building work was finished seeking employment on the new dock.

Engineer Thomas Telford was employed to design the docks. They comprised an eastern and western dock connected via a basin to the south that in turn fed into the Thames through a lock.

St Katherine Docks specialised in luxury goods such as ivory, spices, shells, sugar, rubber, wines, perfumes and marble. The docks were surrounded by a high security wall, now largely gone.

Along the north side of the dock is Ivory House with its impressive Victorian clocktower, it’s named after the goods once kept there.

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The old dock gates facing East Smithfield have a pair of elephant figures on top of them, another reminder of the ivory trade that came through these docks.

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St Katherine Docks were never large enough to attract the bigger trade ships, and infact were never really a great commercial success, struggling financially. In 1864 they were merged with their competitor, the London Docks. In 1909 St Katherine Docks along with the other docks in London, came under the common control of the Port of London Authority. During the Second World War the docks in London were devastated, although they managed to re-open they struggled financially and were unable to cope with containerisation introduced in the 1960’s. As a new generation of modern ports opened in places like Felixstowe and Tilbury it became increasingly clear that the London docks could not survive, and in 1968, St Katherine Docks was the first to close, the others would all be closed by 1980.

Today St Katherine Docks is once again an affluent area with a yacht marina surrounded by expensive flats, swanky bars and restaurants, a lovely place to spend some time.

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Next door is Marble Quay, named after the fine stone once imported here from Italy. Nearby is the Dickens Inn, its frontage a modern reconstruction of an old galleried inn but actually built on the shell of a Georgian building. In front of the Dickens Inn is a working replica of Telford’s footbridge that spans the eastern dock entrance, the original footbridge is on display here too.

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Wapping High Street is a thoroughfare with its origins in the late 16th century when a link was required between the quays of the City and the storage warehouses further to the east along Wapping Wall. On the left of the High Street is a round red brick building once used by the Port of London Authority and dating from the early 20th century. Behind this is Hermitage Basin. Both were part of the London Docks that were opened in 1805 and once dominated this area.

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Hermitage Basin is one of the few dock basins to survive. The basins were pools of water that acted as conduits or holding areas between the Thames and the main dockyards to ensure the efficient flow of traffic. Since 1980 when the last of the London docks closed many of the basins have been filled in. The area around Hermitage Basin is now filled with upmarket flats and although it is still filled with water its channel to the Thames has now been blocked.

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At the north end of the basin is a narrow strip of water called Spirit Quay that leads to Tobacco Dock.

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Wapping Basin is the second of three basins that connected London Docks to the Thames. Unfortunately the entrance has now been filled in however it is flanked on either side by the magnificent Georgian houses of Wapping Pier Head. These housed the officials of the London Docks.

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Near the Pier Head Houses is the Town of Ramsgate pub, named after the sailors from Ramsgate who once moored their ships nearby and arrived at the pub via the Wapping Old Stairs that still run alongside.

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If the tide is out the Wapping Old Stairs are worth walking down, there’s a great view of the blocked up riverside entrance to the Wapping Basin from here. The stairs were used for centuries by pirates, smugglers and ordinary travellers. The bottom of the stairs is said to be the site of Execution Dock where the Admiralty hung pirates and smugglers for around 400 years up until 1830. It was here where William “Captain” Kidd was hanged in 1701.

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Opposite the Town of Ramsgate pub is the former churchyard of St John’s Church. The only part of the building to survive the Blitz is the church tower which is now incorporated into an apartment block.

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To the right of the tower is the former church charity school, which retains its original stone figures of a boy and a girl. The church was built in 1756 and the school four years later.

On Reardon Street there’s a plaque on a wall that commemorates former Wapping resident Vice Admiral William Bligh (1754 – 1817). Bligh was a great seaman, but his achievements are overshadowed by his command of the Bounty and the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian in 1789. Christian was recruited by Bligh in Wapping and they drank together in the Town of Ramsgate pub before setting off on that ill-fated voyage.

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Containing a Grade I listed warehouse built in 1812, Tobacco Dock, as its name suggests served as a storage place for imported tobacco, as well as other expensive goods including spirits and wine.

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Tobacco Dock was also the connecting dock between the now filled in Eastern and Western Docks and is the only substantial part of London Docks to survive.

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The Highway, formerly the Ratcliff Highway, was notorious in the 18th and 19th centuries for its high levels of crime and vice. The Ratcliff Highway Murders were committed here in December 1811 and were regarded as the most gruesome in the capital’s history until the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 that were carried out by Jack the Ripper.

On the Highway is the church of St George-in-the-East, the burial place for the murder victims. The church was built between 1714 and 1729 and is one of only six churches in London designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a pupil of Wren. The huge 160 foot tower’s clock was designed to be seen by ships on the Thames. The interior of the church was gutted during the Blitz and was rebuilt in the 1960’s.

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Raine’s Charity School on Raine Lane dates from 1719. The building still retains the original figures of a charity girl and boy on the outside and the stone lintel over the main entrance announces “Come in & Learn Your Duty to God and Man – 1719”.

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On Wapping Lane is the Anglo-Catholic church of St Peter’s London Docks which dates from 1866. It’s first Vicar, Charles Lowder, was known as the “Father of Wapping” because of his dedication to the local people, particularly during a great cholera outbreak in the 1860’s when he refused to leave his post.

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Turner’s Old Star pub on Watts Street is thought to have once been owned by the painter J. M. W. Turner. He was drawn to this area near the Thames because of the quality of the light.

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Back on Wapping High Street there are a number of former warehouses that have in recent years been converted into offices or flats. Even after the Georgian docks were built many of the smaller wharves and quays along the river continued to operate. In the 19th century this part of Wapping was known as “Sailor Town” with 37 pubs lining Wapping High Street.

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Not surprisingly crime was a major problem in Wapping, and as a result Britain’s ¬†first police service – The Marine Police Force – was created here in 1798, nearly 30 years before the Metropolitan Police came in to being. The original force used rowing boats to patrol the Thames. In 1839 it became the Thames Division of the Met. Today the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service is still based in Wapping High Street, the modern white building is the force’s boat yard. ¬†The headquarters are a few doors down in a building dating from 1907 but standing on the site of the original headquarters founded in 1798.

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The Captain Kidd pub is just down from the police headquarters and was once part of the workshop of the neighbouring St John’s Wharf. Dedicated to the pirate mentioned earlier its terrace offers amazing views of the Thames.

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A little further down Wapping High Street are Phoenix Wharf, King Henry’s Stairs and Gun Wharf. The last two names recall that Henry VIII’s foundries, used in the production of cannon for his Navy ships, were based around here.

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