Secret London: inside Wapping’s abandoned Tobacco Dock

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It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was the mid-1980s, the economy was booming and Docklands was on the up. Tobacco Dock, an old Grade I-listed warehouse off East Smithfield in Wapping, seemed ripe for redevelopment. Rupert Murdoch had just moved New International next door from Fleet Street, and other companies were sure to follow. What better place to build the new Covent Garden, a lively hub of shops, bars and restaurants, where City fatcats and Wapping yuppies could mingle and spend?

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Terry Farrell did the architecture and Tobacco Dock opened in 1989, an elegant conversion that featured two arcades of shops on two floors inside a skilfully modernised structure that retained its Victorian industrial integrity. A canal provided a classy terrace for restaurants and bars, while the shops were the best of the era: Saab City, Next, Body Shop, Cobra and Monsoon as well as Justfacts, a shop selling accessories for your Filofax, and Uneasy, a shop that sold designer chairs. Think Broadgate Circus. Think Leadenhall Market. Think Hay’s Galleria. Here was the future. What could possibly go wrong?

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Even before Tobacco Dock opened, the UK economy was in recession and one-by-one, the new shops started to disappear. No new companies followed News International, and with poor transport links and a tanking economy, the yuppie money from Wapping’s riverside apartments could not keep the shops alive. By 1995, Tobacco Dock was already a shell, with just two trading outlets, a restaurant called Henry’s and a sandwich bar, both kept afloat by Murdoch’s minions, of which I was one.

Ten years later, just the sandwich bar remained; now that too is gone. Tobacco Dock is completely empty, a ghost shopping centre forever frozen in 1989, when the world was at its feet. Come here, and you can smell the late-80s ambition and the disappointment and failure when it all started to unwind. It’s like the backdrop to a George Romero zombie film, or a metaphor for rampant commercialism wrapped in the setting of a failed shopping centre.

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Bizarrely, the empty centre remains impeccably maintained and open to the public. I spent happy hours in Henry’s when I worked at The Sunday Times in the 1990s and remember even then how strange it felt to march through the vacant complex, serenaded by mood music piped through the PA. When I returned a couple of years ago in search of nostalgia, there was only silence, broken by the sound of my footsteps echoing round the empty chamber, but the floors were still as clean and the fixtures and fittings as freshly painted as when it first opened.

Rows of disused shops lined the central avenue like glass coffins, some still bearing the names of the shops that once operated here. Frank And Stein’s, the sandwich shop that held out longest like a Japanese soldier still fighting the Second World War twenty years after it ended, kept its sign and counter but the door was shackled by a heavy chain. The eviction notice posted in the window a public sign of private tragedy.

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At the back of Tobacco Dock is a pretty canal, featuring a couple of tall ships that were intended for kids to clamber on while their parents ate at nearby restaurants. One such restaurant, an American diner called Peppermint Park, looked recently abandoned but had been empty for years. The week’s specials were still chalked up on the blackboard, but the interior was barren, holes in the wall indicating that these surfaces were once covered by a mass of Americana memorabilia which now probably line the walls of the nearest branch of TGI Fridays. Here too were three faded posters, celebrating ‘Tobacco Dock – The New Heart Of London’, instantly evoking the lost mood of optimism. One of the posters was illustrated by a map, which in a cartographical display of wishful thinking, placed Tobacco Dock squarely in the centre of a buzzing quarter surrounded by the Design Museum, St Katharines Dock, Petticoat Lane and just off-scene, suggested by a tantalising arrow, the myriad delights of Greenwich. Along the bottom of each poster runs a legend, a promise of what lay within: ‘Unique quality shops – Pirate ships – Restaurants – Bars – Entertainments – History’. Well, it’s certainly history. One out of six ain’t bad.

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Footnote: I wrote this piece in 2010, since which time Tobacco Dock has started to open for occasional private events. 

 

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18 responses to “Secret London: inside Wapping’s abandoned Tobacco Dock

  1. Our office Christmas party was held there last year; regretting that I didn’t go now.

  2. i like your post
    i’ve been a frequent visitor to this place, the only other thing i thought you should mention is those kestrels that live there to keep it free of rodents

  3. Extraordinary1

  4. In the mid-1990s I met two Danish tourists in East Smithfield who were trying to find Tobacco Dock: their guidebook, apparently written in anticipation of the place taking off, and before its failure, had recommended it strongly. They were very disappointed when I told them there was nothing to see.

  5. Great article. I used to walk past it quite often and enjoyed watching it die (in a rather ghoulish kind of way). As you say, it’s almost impossible not to see it as a symbol of something. Will go and have another look if I’m around those parts.

  6. Tobacco Dock was relaunched last October as an events venue and has hosted over 50 events since including conferences, exhibitions, fashion shows, film premier after-parties, awards dinners and food festivals. It may have had a sad past, but we hope that marketing the amazing, historic space for event use will ensure a successful future and preserve the Grade 1 listed building.

  7. Great article. It perfectly captures the sense of faded optimism and life that dead spaces have. I find these places irresistible and was almost disappointed to see Jonathan’s post saying that it was alive again as I was about to note it down for a visit. Still, it’s great news really that it’s back as an event space. Good luck Tobacco Dock.

  8. I found myself there once without having the slightest idea what it was. Amazing, with the muzak and all.

  9. Terry Farrell, hmm, not that good with docks then. He’s about to inflict similar obscenities on London’s oldest royal dockyard at Deptford aided and abetted by the developer Hutchison-Whampoa and the insidious Murdoch. Whoever said wisdom came with age !

  10. I liked your post. A poignant reminder that the economy relies on workers with disposable incomes.

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  12. I live in one of the new buildings just across the road from Tobacco Dock and actually never knew this history! (Yes i know wikipedia is a click away but there ya go). I always thought Wapping was a rather interesting place and could not for the life of me understand why News International had an office there.

    So you mean to tell me Tobacco Dock was a full blown shopping centre at some point?! It’s certainly very dead now except for the odd day there’s an event going on there. I will keep my eyes out for any events taking place there as I would very much like to see the inside of it based on your article.

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  14. I run bike tours and used to park up outside between the ships and shops and let my customers have a look around inside and use the super clean loos. It was my favourite stop on the tours. I even (over a couple of years) got to slightly know the reluctant site/security manager. Then just before the Olympics the Army moved in for a few weeks (very odd) and since then there seems to be no public access. There are many mysteries about this place still. The dark skinned man with his arm in a sling and a limp with a nasty looking dog who would never make eye contact nor return my greetings is one of many. I just found this blog, amazing info. Thank you. Mat

  15. Great trip down memory lane. I frequently visited Tabacco Dock when it was fading but not out for the count. Note to Nemo – the dockyard at Deptford is just an ex industrial waste land. Why on earth would you argue against its much needed redevelopment?

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  18. Can anybody remember a statue in tobacco dock likely say 30 years ago?

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