8 Secrets Of Tobacco Dock

By Zoe Craig Last edited 84 months ago
8 Secrets Of Tobacco Dock
Tobacco Dock. Photo by Yorkshire Stacked.

1. It used to be a lot bigger

Built in 1811, Docklands' massive brick Tobacco Dock was used, as the name suggests, primarily for storing imported tobacco.

In an interesting, tried-and-tested pairing, the warehouse was also used for wine storage (could make for a great lock-in, we imagine).

Plan drawing of London Docks in 1831. Tobacco Dock is the large almost-square building marked 'Tobacco Warehouse'. Most of the docks have since been filled in.

But the surviving structure is just two-fifths of the original Tobacco Dock complex: it really was huge.

The original walls encompassed 70 acres of buildings, quays and jetties; the equivalent of 40 football pitches.

2. It was the scene of one of London's most incredible animal v people showdowns

In the 1850s, trading exotic animals in London was a lucrative business.

Charles Jamrach was one of several well-known exotic animal traders working in Victorian east London. In 1857, while being taken to Jamrach's shop, a tiger broke free on Betts Street near Tobacco Dock.

Nine-year-old John Wade saw the big cat, and was fascinated: he tried to stroke the tiger's nose, who promptly swiped the boy across the face, knocking him out, and then picked the kid up by his jacket and carried him off in his jaws.

Jamrach stepped in at this point and "came running up and, thrusting his bare hands into the tiger's throat, forced the beast to let his captive go." The boy survived, and went on to sue Jamrach over the incident.

Statue of Jamrach's tiger at Tobacco Dock. Photo: Matt Brown

The statue commemorating the event can now be found at the entrance to Tobacco Dock.

3. OMD filmed a video here

Wondering what Tobacco Dock looked like in the 1980s?

Well, there's great video evidence of the space, thanks to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, who recorded their music video to the song Messages in the space.

4. It was London's shortest-lived shopping centre

When London's docklands were redeveloped in the 1980s, Tobacco Dock was earmarked as a new shopping destination, a 'Covent Garden of the East End'.

After a sympathetic £47m modernisation, retaining the building's original Victorian industrial shell, two arcades of shops, spread over two floors, opened in 1989.

Tobacco Dock as an empty shopping centre. Photo by Past London.

Two pirate ships were installed for children to play on after traipsing around the early 90s delights of Next, Monsoon, Our Price and the Body Shop.

The old-industrial-building to modern-shopping-centre formula has worked elsewhere all over the city: in Camden, Leadenhall Market, and Hays Galleria. But the timing, transport links and economic downturn meant just six years later, the place was a ghost town.

The empty shopping centre remains as a strange monument to late-80s ambition.

5. About Those Pirate Ships...

Yes, if you're wondering: the Tobacco Dock pirate ships are fake.

But they are designed and named after real ships.

Tobacco Dock. Photo: Mike T.

The Three Sisters was a 330-ton trade ship built at the nearby Blackwall Yard in 1788. It travelled to the East and West Indies importing spices, and importantly, tobacco. When Tobacco Dock was a shopping centre, this ship was used to teach kids about piracy, which is why the pair are referred to as 'pirate' ships.

The Sealark was an American merchant schooner captured by Britain's HMS Scylla in 1811. The Royal Navy took her into service as a 10-gun schooner. You can read more about her here.

6. It's on the At Risk register

In 2003, English Heritage placed the Grade I listed Tobacco Dock on the Buildings at Risk register.

Since then, despite noises about redevelopment (a four-star hotel, apartments, shops and so on) the site remains empty.

Tobacco Dock. Photo by Richard Cudlip.

One architecture student source suggests that the reason for this is the structure of the building itself: the ceiling heights (the height of two bales of tobacco) are too low to be good for conversion.

7. It hosted the army during the Olympics

Whenever you hear the words 'London 2012' and 'army' together, it's usually those purple-clad volunteers that people are talking about.

But the army proper had a big part to play when London hosted the Olympics in 2012.

And 2,500 of the soldiers who worked on providing security across the Olympic Games in London used Tobacco Dock as their temporary accommodation.

8. Tobacco Docks Today

Since 2011, Tobacco Docks has hosted various events including Secret Cinema, Runefest, awards ceremonies, parties and dance events.

You can check out the centre's fairly packed events calendar here.

Last Updated 24 April 2017