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.