Lloyd Shepherd is a writer whose first novel, The English Monster, is set in Regency-era Wapping and based on the Ratcliffe Highway murders. Here he takes us on a tour of Wapping and the dock London lost.
London is packed with haunted districts and forgotten streets. It’s what keeps the poets and psychogeographers and urban shamen in business. As the metropolis extends and rebuilds, entire worlds are buried or reformed. Sometimes the past is wiped out, but sometimes it remains, like the itch from an amputated arm. For me, the place which is most haunted by its past is Wapping.
There’s a very practical reason for this. Walk around Wapping, and you get the sense that the topography has been interrupted. Old walls loom, seemingly at random, hiding fairly nondescript housing, as if this were a gated community without a gate. Little channels of water run in straight lines beside these houses, hemmed in by massive masonry which is embedded with solid ironwork.
Stand at the point where Pennington Street meets Wapping Lane. Look back towards the City (go there now, quickly, because there’s development happening and the view will disappear shortly). Here, London is on two levels. Pennington Street is a cobbled old thing with a dirty, tall Georgian wall running alonside it. Above it – literally above it – runs the Highway, and you realise looking up at it from down here that Wapping is at sea level, even below it in some places. Sailing up there on the Highway is St George’s in the East, one of Hawksmoor’s haunted churches.
Two hundred years ago on the Highway, which used to be called the Ratcliffe Highway, the Marr family were slaughtered, their heads smashed in and their throats slashed. The murders shocked a whole nation; Thomas de Quincey reported people barricading themselves indoors in the Lake District, for fear the Ratcliffe Highway killer took a trip up north to carry on slicing and smashing. The supposed perpetrator of these and a later set of murders was buried at a crossroads up there behind St George’s, at the junction of Cannon Street and Cable Street. But we’re not here for that.
Head west up Pennington Street, away from Wapping Lane, the old wall on your left. You are now walking alongside Wapping’s ghost, the disappeared thing which gives this whole district its oddly interrupted character. You are walking alongside what was once the London Dock.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France. The little Emperor was attempting to close off continental trade to British ships, trying to choke its money supply. One of the reasons he failed was that British trade seemed impervious to such efforts; it grew relentlessly, taking in the West Indies, the East Indies, the Americas, the Baltic. British ships were everywhere, and the place they mostly returned to was London, which by then was the busiest port in the world. It would remain so until after the Second World War.
It’s hard to imagine now, but 200 years ago the river was crammed with shipping. Wharves lined both sides of the river from Lambeth down to the Tower. The biggest threat to trade, ironically, was not the little Emperor’s attempts at strangulation. It was that London’s informal riverside wharves could no longer cope with demand.
Meetings were held, merchants pontificated, politicians pondered, and eventually a solution was arrived at. London needed to build docks. At the end of the 18th century, the only wet dock within reach of London was Howland’s Wet Dock, on the Surrey shore, which had for years been the place whalers brought the enormous carcasses of their catches to be rendered down into oil and fat. But Howland’s was on the wrong side of the river; at the time, there were only two bridges serving the City, London and Blackfriars, with Westminster even further upstream. What was needed was a dock system on the north shore of the river, connected by road to the markets of the City.
Numerous projects were proposed, all of them by private shareholders. Two projects would eventually secure Parliamentary backing. Building started on the first project, the West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs, on 12 July 1800. The new Docks opened on 22 August 1802. The appeal of this first system was obvious. The Isle of Dogs was, in comparison with other places, virtually uninhabited – no inconvenient inhabitants to be cleared. And it was relatively straightforward to drive a new road through to the City from the Docks, called, inevitably, Commercial Road.
London’s second dock system was not so straightforward. The plan was to build a dock as close into the City as possible, which would mean massive clearances of local population. A 20-acre dock was proposed, ringed by a wall and by warehouses. It was forecast to cost almost three times as much as the West India Docks. The location was Wapping. The London Dock was conceived.
But it was a difficult birth. The foundation stone was laid on 26 June 1802. In it were placed two glass bottles containing the then-current gold, silver and copper coins, a medal commemorating George III’s short-lived recovery from illness and another celebrating the even shorter-lived Peace of Amiens. Land was cleared, thousands of people lost their homes, and after several delays the first ship entered the Dock on 31 January 1805.
The London Dock had a monopoly on all tobacco, rice, wine and brandy coming into London, apart from that arriving from the East and West Indies. Its warehouses to the north and south were enormous, and beneath stretched huge cellars which were compared in their capacity to the pyramids of Egypt. Wapping was, from this point, effectively cut off from the rest of London, squeezed in between the Dock and the River. Other Docks followed – St Katharine’s, and then the Surrey system which incorporated the old Howland Wet Dock, which was renamed Commercial Dock and later Greenland Dock, as it is today. At the end of the 19th century, the Victorians added the Albert and Victoria Docks, further downstream. As the 20th century began, London’s river no longer looked like a smooth undulation; it was now more like a snake that had swallowed a Lego set.
In the second half of the 20th century, as container ships grew more and more enormous and were unable to sail far up the Thames, the docks of London fell into decline. Private money had built the docks, and we had to wait for private money to redevelop them. The West India Dock became Canary Wharf, a glass-and-steel monument to a new kind of trade. The Surrey system was turned into a shopping centre and housing. St Katharine’s became a rich man’s playground ringed with offices. The Royal docks lined a new airport.
And the London Dock? Well, the London Dock was killed.
Specifically, it was filled in, at least the bit that opened in 1805 (the Shadwell Basin, still there today, was a later addition). The Dock was closed in 1969, filled in in almost immediately and then left to rot for a decade (look at this amazing Flickr photoset for a visual narrative of this neglect). All the area seemed to be good for at this period was as a setting for urban dystopia and cop show car chases.
Slowly, housing and light industry returned, but it wasn’t until Rupert Murdoch moved the printing and editorial operations of News International to Wapping in the early 1980s that anything like "business" returned to this part of London. Now, even News International is moving out. What we are left with is a memory of something; a shadow of history. You can walk around the perimeter of the old Dock; in places it is obvious, in others less so.
The highlights for me are that old wall running along the cobbled Pennington Street; the beautiful Georgian housing at the Pierhead, which used to look over the entrance to the Dock and which now contain film stars and television presenters (allegedly); the River Police Office on Wapping Street, opened in 1798 as a kind of joint venture between the merchants and the government, and still in its original building (there is an amazing museum inside, but you need to make an appointment to view it); and the old stairs beside the Town of Ramsgate pub, where you can still get a smell and a touch of Olde London, and where the tide rises and falls a much greater distance than you would ever imagine.
Wapping still feels hemmed in, a kind of urban island. The roads into it are sheepishly signposted, and the main street running alonside the river is still cobbled. It’s a redolent place but also a quiet one. Go and have a look.
All photos by Lloyd Shepherd