Time Travel Explorer Blog

Clocking docks in Wapping

by Peter Watts 15. February 2011 18:04

If you want to give yourself a shock when using Time Travel Explorer, head for Kennet Street in Wapping, just off Thomas More Street. Here it is on the contemporary map, it's the straight road that runs parallel to the funny looking wiggly street just south of News International.

Now switch to 1830 and there you are, suddenly standing in the middle of the great blue expense of London Docks. Did you bring your rubber ring?

London Docks were built in 1805, three years after the West India Docks on the Isle of Man, and their closeness to the City gave them a great advantage over some of the other dock networks. Here is what Wapping looked like shortly before they were built in 1799.

The London Docks consisted of a large Western Dock (the one pictured above) and a smaller Eastern Dock, both of which had locks that led directly to the river, essentially allowing boats to avoid the bulge of the London mainland at Wapping. They were connected by the tiny Tobacco Dock. (The architect Terry Farrell has pointed out that the net result of all the docks in London essentially had the effect of 'straightening' the river, as they created short cuts to navigate through all the curves.)

The docks were built by John Rennie, who also built London Bridge, and were amalgamated with nearby St Katherine's Dock in 1864. Built for sailing ships, by the 1930s they were already too small for big cargo ships and in 1968 they were closed and sold to Tower Hamlets, who immediately filled them with concrete.

The land was turned into housing in 1981, but a stroll through Wapping still provides many glimpses of what used to be here, from old dock walls to unexpected Port Of London Authority emblems. The warehouse at Tobacco Dock is one of the few buildings to have survived intact. It was turned into a shopping centre in 1990, which proved to be a commercial failure, and now stands eerily empty, a zombie mall for this fascinating, often-changing and unfairly neglected area of riverside London.


Mapping Jack the Ripper: 3. Elizabeth Stride and Berner Street

by Matt Brown 11. February 2011 10:59

The third 'canonical' victim of Jack the Ripper, Elizabeth Stride, was found with her throat cut in a yard off Berner Street, south of Commercial Road, on 30 September 1888. The body was discovered still oozing blood - the Ripper had almost been caught in the act.

As with other posts in this series, I won't dwell on the circumstances surrounding her death, as the internet is already full of such accounts. Instead, this post will look at how the area around the site has developed over the centuries, using the Time Travel Explorer app.



The two earliest views, 1749  and 1799, show the area as undeveloped. Commercial Road, to the north, was not constructed until the early 19th Century, although a similar east-west track (White Horse Lane) is in existence. The murder site sits on the boundary of two parcels of land. In the earlier view, farmland or orchards lay to the north while pasture land is to the south. A few cottages and farm buildings can be found nearby on Church Lane.


Stride forward, if you'll excuse the pun, thirty years and we see a very different picture. Commercial Road has been constructed, linking the docks to the City, and with it came countless streets of houses and tenements. For a shocking account of life in these slums at the turn of the 20th Century, I recommend Jack London's The People of the Abyss.

Elizabeth Stride, like most prostitutes, was a denizen of these mean streets and lived in the notorious criminal rookery of Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields at the time of her death. The place where she met her end, off Berners Street and known as Dutfield's Yard, is indicated by the red dots. The yard is not labelled as such in any of the views, but you can see what a warren of passages and service spaces the area supported. Happy hunting ground for a knife-wielding man of shadows.

Today, Berners Street is known as Henriques Street after philanthropist Basil Henriques. The yard is long gone, although its location was photographed before development. An image of the site today can be found here.

Previously: Annie Chapman, Mary Ann Nichols

'Thank God for the quiet grave'

by Peter Watts 3. February 2011 10:00

So far on this blog we have concentrated on the ways in which old maps allow us to see the ways in which London has changed, but now let us consider how it can sometimes stay the same, for centuries. And where better to start than a graveyard, the ‘quiet grave’ spoken of by Keats in the blog title.

St George’s Gardens in Bloomsbury, close to the Foundling Museum, was once the burial grounds of two churches - St George-the-Martyr in Queen Square and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St George, Bloomsbury. These days they are a peaceful and well-tended spot, containing little of note other than a Chapel of Rest, a statue that used to belong to the Apollo Theatre on Tottenham Court Road and – for fans of Iain Sinclair – a decent-sized obelisk in one corner. The burial grounds were said to have been laid out by Hawksmoor, and he is also believed to have designed the monument for Robert Nelson, who was the first man buried here in 1715.

Then, St George’s Gardens were a spot on the very edge of the city and these were the first London burial grounds to be laid out at a distance from their church. As can be seen in the map of 1746, they were in the middle of fields north of London with barely a building in the sight. The two burial grounds lie at an angle, adjacent to each other – and today a series of stones down the centre shows how the cemetery was once divided into two parts, one for each of the two churches that shared the space.

Fifty years later, in 1799, strikingly little had changed and the burial ground was still adrift amid the fields of soon-to-be London.

Skip forward to 1830, though, and we are looking at a different picture. Bloomsbury was now very much in evidence, with streets surrounding the burial grounds on all side. Still, though, they retain their distinctive shape and were almost certainly still in use - most central London burial grounds were only closed in 1850 when the Burial Act led to the construction of the giant cemeteries at Nunhead, Kensal Green and elsewhere. It's believed St George's carried on burying the dead of London until 1855. 

After closing, many burial grounds were simply built over, but St George's survived. Here it is in 1862, almost completely unchanged.

In 1885 it was converted into a park, but most of the graves and memorials were left intact. And here it is today, a serene scene of familiar constancy for almost 300 years, while London has changed all around it. People often find graveyards to be a peaceful retreat from the modern world, and this could be one of the reasons why.