Tag Archives: wapping

Survivors in Wapping, 1976

Survivors was a TV series made by the BBC in the mid-1970s that explored Britain’s post-apocalyptic near future. With most of the world’s population killed by plague, the survivors were ‘reduced to trudging across the countryside in their parkas’ (Dominic Sandbrook in Seasons In The Sun) in search of food and shelter. The creator, Terry Nation, went on to make Blake’s 7. The series featured numerous guest stars – Brian Blessed, Patrick Troughton – as well as faces that would become better known in the 1980s like Dot from Eastenders, Peter Duncan from Blue Peter and Trigger from Only Fool’s And Horses.

It’s Trigger, aka Roger Lloyd-Pack, who you may recognise in the pictures below. They come from an episode shot on  a bleak wasteland in Wapping in 1976.

In the absence of an actual post-apocalyptic landscape on which to film, the decimated docks of Wapping made a handy substitute. The main location is the site of the current Hermitage Riverside Memorial Gardens – then a bombsite but now the location for London’s only memorial to the civilian dead of the Blitz – but there are several interesting looking buildings in the background. Reader Steve, who sent me the pictures, wants to know if any of these buildings remain. (Other than Tower Bridge, obviously.)

If you know, please tell us in the comments below.

steves032

steves033

steves034

steves035

steves036

steves037

steves038

Wappingness

This is an edited version of a piece about Wapping  written in 2011.

‘Explore Wapping,’ exhorted Samuel Johnson to Boswell, ‘to see the wonderful extent and variety of London.’ It is fine advice still. Johnson was speaking in the 1790s, when Wapping was London’s principle settlement for sailors, a hive of cobbled streets and damp, narrow alleys that led to the numerous wharves and jetties of riverside London, but his instruction rings true today. Explore Wapping and see how London can demonstrate a seemingly infinite capacity to reinvent itself, how it will welcome newcomers and how it celebrates its past while never neglecting to engage with the future. Few cities have such a knack at looking simultaneously backwards as well as forwards, and few places in London do this better then Wapping. Here, Morrissey explores Wapping landmarks in his 1992 video, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, just as the area was undergoing heavy gentrification.

To understand Wapping try approaching it from St Katherine’s Dock, the pretty riverside development that lies adjacent to the Tower of London. Leave St Katharine Dock at the point where it almost touches the Thames and you will arrive in Wapping at the very western end of Wapping High Street, the charismatic street that runs parallel to the river for the length of the district. Here, on the corner with Kennet Street, is a large stone wall, decorated with icicle-like drips of cement. Inside the wall is a large red brick building, which still proudly wears the emblem of the Port Of London Authority, although this has over time turned the sort of misty green colour you associate with cannons dredged from the ocean floor.

This is the old dock house, a remnant of when Wapping was home to London Docks, and it stands next to Hermitage Basin, one of the few parts of the dock complex not to have been filled with concrete and covered with roads and houses in the 1970s. Hermitage Basin once offered a way for ships from around the world to get from the mammoth London Dock to the Thames, but now it is a sweet little ornamental lake surrounded by houses, and a home itself to a sedate family of regal swans and the odd mallard.

Hermitage Basin is a fine example of what you could call Wappingness: the way Wapping has come to terms with its past, making sensible accommodation with what has been before. This has not been an easy task. Wapping has been battered by change over the centuries, first when the docks were built in 1805, carving great watery holes throughout the neighbourhood and reducing the population of 6,000 by two thirds, and then when they were filled in again in the 1970s, eradicating what had been Wapping’s identity for more than 150 years. The warehouses and docks of Wapping were also heavily targeted by German bombers during the Second World War. But still it prospers.

Signs of Wapping’s maritime heritage are everywhere. Before the docks arrived, it was a place of wharves, jetties, warehouses, boatbuilders, sailmakers, brothels and pubs, having been originally settled by the Saxons and used by London’s sailors for centuries. The building of the docks over reclaimed marshland helped cement these long links with the sea, even if they replaced the bustling village atmosphere with vast warehouses and a more transient population. The London Docks were the closest docks to the City of London, which gave them a significant advantage over those docks that had recently been built on the Isle of Dogs.

In these Wapping warehouses, dockers would unload treasures from right across the British Empire, including tobacco, rum, whalebone, spices, cocoa, coffee, rubber, coconuts, marble and wool. Settlers from overseas lived in Wapping – nearby Limehouse was home to London’s first Chinatown and is now home to a thriving Bangladeshi community – and artists, writers and poets would come to Wapping to glimpse exotica in the form of both the goods brought from overseas and in the working-class men and women who lived and worked in the area. They would then disperse around London and the East End, taking some of the essence of Wapping with them across the Highway into Whitechapel, Spitalfields and beyond. Later still, artists set up studios in the derelict warehouses of Wapping in the 1970s, heralding a trend that soon spread throughout east London.

The chief attraction, of course, was the river, although the Thames itself can only intermittently be glimpsed between the tall warehouses that act almost like a river wall. But stroll round Wapping and you’ll see signs of its maritime history everywhere in the shape of weathered dock walls, converted warehouses and industrial walkways that allow passageway high above the cobbled streets. Here are restaurants and pubs that pay homage to the past, plus a pretty canal that stretches in a narrow strip from Hermitage Basin in the west to Shadwell Basin in the east, offering a slender shadow of the bustling docks that once stood here. Between buildings on Wapping High Street you can see numerous ancient stone stairs, green with age, that lead directly down to the river.

Such is the all-pervasive water-soaked atmosphere that Wapping itself can even feel like something of an island, bordered on three side by the liquid barriers of the Thames, St Katherine’s Dock and Shadwell Basin and with a busy main road, the Highway, to the north, cutting it off from the rest of London. And within this island, there is just as much to explore as there was in Johnson’s time. You can find London’s oldest riverside inn, the grisly site of pirate executions, an abandoned shopping centre, a gorgeous listed church, a power station turned art gallery, a historic foot tunnel, London’s only memorial to the Blitz, a beach that the Beatles posed on, mudlarks searching for Tudor bric-a-brac, Wapping Wood and an escaped tiger. So follow Johnson, explore Wapping, embrace Wappingness.

Secret London: inside Wapping’s abandoned Tobacco Dock

014

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?

010

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?

016

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.

012

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.

011

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.

013

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

 

Morrissey and London: ‘I like it here, can I stay?’

Like many adolescent boys who thought they were cleverer than they really were and were scared of girls, I was obsessed with The Smiths and Morrissey.

The Smiths are a Manchester band, but by the time I became a fan, Morrissey had – like so many Northerners – fled the provinces for London where he spent the next few years revelling in the size, confusion and culture of the Big Smoke. Instead of Whalley Range and the Moors Murders, he sang about Earl’s Court and the Krays and as he entered his ‘Glam Nazi’ era he became obsessed with distinctly London aspects of working-class life such as skinheads, West Ham and the Cockney Rejects.

This was Morrissey’s London period; you could argue it began with the Smiths songs London (1987) and Half A Person (1987), and lasted until he was hounded out of the capital for going a bit crap around a decade later. Sure, London still cropped up in later songs – 2004’s Come Back To Camden, for instance – but the love was gone. He would later sound like any other tedious expat whn complaining to the NME that ‘if you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you won’t hear an English accent. You’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent.’ But it was fun while it lasted.

Interesting Drug (1989)

Although Morrissey’s previous solo singles were very London-influenced, this was the first – rather odd – video to be clearly filmed in London. But where? The red bus glimpsed at 1:21 may tell somebody with better eyesight than I. Is it a 34, placing this somewhere between Barnet and Walthamstow?
Update: Comments suggest this is Battersea, so not the 34 after all. Maybe the 37?

Our Frank (1991)

A pretty poor song, but the video marks the start of Morrissey’s skinhead obsession – it was not long after this that he took to performing before a skinhead backdrop and brandishing the Union Jack at Finsbury Park. There are lots of buses here, and also a gorgeous ghost sign at 1:47. But where is it shot? Charing Cross Road? The City? Victoria? Anybody?
Update: Comments place this definitively as King’s Cross.

We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful (1992) 

I hated this when it came out, but I was wrong because it is brilliant and the video is a treat as Morrissey wanders around a still not-quite-gentrified Wapping with the gang of bequiffed young boys who have put a smile back on his own thin and youthful face. Most Morrissey fans get a kick out of seeing the old boy looking happy, which is why his recent ‘love’ album, Ringleader Of The Tormentors, got such strangely good reviews. The abandoned pub in this video is now the Turk’s Head cafe and you can also catch a glimpse of Oliver’s Wharf, which was one of the first warehouses in the area to be redeveloped into housing.

You’re The One For Me Fatty (1992)

An awful song, but an unmistakable setting as a young skin takes ‘fatty’ on a date, while Moz whines about how ‘all over Battersea’ there’s ‘some hope, and some despair’, over a shot of the power station. Interestingly, a scene from one of Morrissey’s favourite Northern kitchen sink dramas, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ was filmed by director Karel Reisz around here, in Culvert Road, Battersea. Of Reisz, we’ll hear more later.

Boxers (1995)

From the start of Morrissey’s decline – and height of his obsession-with-male-physicality – this ho-hum single was filmed at the legendary York Hall, Bethnal Green, as can be seen in the rather elegant closing shots.

Sunny (1996)

Such a terrible song I didn’t know anything about it until now, as I had long lost interest in Morrissey at this point, but it’s filmed in Victoria Park in East London. And the cover featured this iconic Morrissey shot, outside old Kray haunt the Grave Maurice (now, I think a fried chicken shop).

There were many other London influences in Morrissey’s songs at the time, with the Kray-referencing Last Of The Famous International Playboys, the song Spring-Heeled Jim (a reference to the Victorian London monster Spring-Heeled Jack), the song titles Piccadilly Palare and Dagenham Dave, and the album titles Your Arsenal and Vauxhall & I, as Morrissey explored the seamy side of London life. He was also rumoured to be making his first acting appearance at around this time as the South London gangster Charlie Richardson, although sadly that never came to pass.

I’ll leave you with one last example. This clip is of Kennington kids discussing the infamous case of Derek Bentley, who was sentenced to death for his part in the shooting of a policeman in Croydon, and it comes from Karel Reisz’s classic London documentary ‘We Are The Lambeth Boys’. It was sampled by Morrissey for the track Spring-Heeled Jim, which featured on the Vauxhall & I album. How much more London can you get?

Mudlarking

Last winter, I went mudlarking on the Thames shore. This is an edited version of the article I subsequently wrote for Eurostar (image below from Knowledge Of London).

You’ll see them at low tide, wandering alone with bent necks along the damp and desolate mudflats of the Thames. These are the mudlarks: amateur archaeologists, beachcombers and scavengers who delight in rediscovering lost detritus from London’s past. Although they are wearing waders and carrying metal detectors, they look much like giant birds, storks or herons, as they walk with heads bowed and eyes fixed on the floor, scrutinising the mud and pebbles for hidden treasure. They’ll occasionally scratch at the surface with an extended toe if they see something they fancy. And then they’ll pounce, darting down to peck something from the ooze, before deciding whether to add it to the day’s hoard.

The tidal Thames has been described as ‘London’s largest and richest archaeology site’ and it’s certainly the longest in the country, stretching from the Thames Barrier to Teddington Lock. For centuries, the river in central London was used by boats bringing cargo from all over the world. Thousands of people worked in these docks and warehouses, and items that have fallen from boats or pockets or been casually discarded by Tudor dockers are still lodged in the London mud, waiting to be revealed whenever the tidal river withdraws.

Mudlarks have been prowling here for centuries. In Georgian and Victorian times, they were the desperately poor searching for things to eat or sell. By the 1960s, the term referred to unofficial archaeologists who formed the Society Of Thames Mudlarks in 1980. A few years later the Port of London Authority (PLA) – the body in charge of the river – offered the mudlarks licences to dig on the foreshore in return for having their finds officially recorded by the Museum of London. The mudlarks have thus helped build an unparalleled record of everyday life on a medieval river.

Ian Smith is one of them. His patch is the north bank of the Thames between London and Southwark Bridges, outside Customs House, where pre-Victorian cargo ships would have been checked for contraband. This was once the Pool of London, the main unloading point for boats that could not fit between the pillars of old London Bridge, and a place rich in treasures. ‘I started in 1973 as a schoolboy,’ says Smith on a bracing winter morning. ‘I grew up in Battersea and saw a TV show about a man who found these old clay pipes in the Bristol Channel. So I came down to see what I could find. I spent about a year working down the river bit-by-bit until I got to Blackfriars where I saw this group of people, a little cluster of them, and I went over with my collection of pipes. And where they’d been poking about there were pipes everywhere, loads of them, they were just ignoring them and looking for other stuff. So I started chatting and that’s how I got started.’

The thick black mud of the Thames conceals rich treats, everything from prehistoric flints to Victorian toys. The mud is anaerobic – without oxygen – so preserves just about anything. Kate Sumnall works for the Museum of London and the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a Finds Liaison Officer; it is her job to manage the licence scheme and register everything the mudlarks find. She says, ‘London is different to most places in terms of the preservation and the proportion. You wouldn’t get iron daggers in a field, it would be eroded, but Thames mud is anaerobic so things don’t decay. And you also don’t have aggressive chemicals and ploughs, which damage items in the ground. You can still find medieval leather in the Thames.’

Smith believes the Thames has three other benefits. ‘London is almost unique,’ says Smith. ‘Most rivers aren’t tidal, so that’s one thing, but you’ve also got the river going through the centre of town rather than round the outside. And the third thing is that in the Victorian era all the docks got moved over to the Isle of Dogs, so that means the early stuff has been left in the ground rather than dredged away centuries ago.’

This is what makes the Thames such a popular and lucrative haunt for the mudlarks. There are around 50 with official permits, granted by the PLA after an individual has spent at least two years on the foreshore getting experience and demonstrating a history of recording their finds. ‘The mudlarks have huge value,’ says Sumnall. ‘They have sold us entire collections in the past and these have gone on to form a crucial part of the museum. But they are also immensely helpful in recording where things are discovered over time, which helps build up a bigger picture of London history.’

When Sumnall is contacted by somebody who wants to be a mudlark, she’ll often put them in touch with Smith, who has an unrivalled knowledge of the river and its secrets, knowing where to look and when. At low tide, he clambers down the steps on to the foreshore carrying the tools of his trade – a bucket and spade and a battered metal detector wrapped in waterproof plastic – to begin his hunt. After just a few minutes he returns with a 13th-century arrowhead, 16th century pipes, medieval buttons and a shard of Tudor pottery. But this is bric-a-brac to an experienced mudlark. Smith, an antiques dealer by trade, specialises in medieval pewter pilgrims badges which were sold at points of pilgrimage, but has found all sorts of things. ‘I found a hoard of forged coins from 1470,’ he says. ‘People would clip a bit of silver off the edges of coins and these forgers must have been chased so they flung the bag of coins into the river to get rid of it and I found it centuries later.’

London’s history as a world port dates back to the Roman era, which can make for interesting finds. Sumnall tells the story of a bone harpoon that they originally thought came from the Stone Age, but after carbon dating turned out to be from around 1650. ‘That really threw us, but we realised it came from a part of the foreshore where the whaling docks were located and it’s possible it came from an Arctic civilisation and arrived in London on a whaling ship. But obviously we can’t be sure.’

Another recent discovery was a 400-year-old lead toy coach, found by a London decorator, Albert Johanessen, who says his most important equipment is not a metal detector but ‘his eyes and a stout pair of wellies’. Smith possesses these, but after 40 years of mudlarking is realistic about what he’s going to find. ‘You’re never going to find treasure like the Staffordshire Hoard because nobody is going to bury gold in a river, but you find ordinary everyday stuff that people chuck away: tools, rings, badges, glass and pottery.’

You certainly find a lot of clay pipes. These carpet the foreshore in London, thousands of them dating back to the sixteenth century when tobacco was first introduced to the capital. The pipes were sold pre-filled and although they were reusable were often discarded, thrown into the river by those who worked in the docks. These 400-year-old fragments are fascinating to newcomers but to the trained eye are more like Tudor cigarette ends and rarely get taken to the museum to be registered.

But there is one Londoner who is interested. Jane Parker is a designer who last year began to collect pipes to make into necklaces and bracelets. She currently sells them on her website but hopes to get a stall at a London market soon. ‘I went to the Museum of London Docklands (in Canary Wharf) and afterwards walked to the river,’ explains Parker. ‘The tide was out so I went down on to the beach. I saw these clay pipe stems and decided I’d make something from them and started making them for friends who had left London as a momento.’

Parker doesn’t have a PLA licence, which means she can’t dig but is allowed to collect anything from the surface. With pipes that’s all she needs. At the right spot, Parker reckons she can pick up 400-500 usable pipe stems in an hour. ‘I want stems that have been pummelled by the tide, and are soft and worn at the ends. The smaller and finer, the newer they are. Some of them have a line down the middle that show they’ve been cast in a mould, while the bigger, chunkier ones are hand-made, the holes aren’t centred and they aren’t smooth.’

You can also see the fruits of the foreshore in a special display at the Museum of London devoted to items found in the river, covering everything from prehistoric axes to medieval skulls. The museum takes in around 1,000 items a year from the mudlarks and despite Smith’s belief that ‘the best times are over, so much has already been found’, Sumnell thinks there’s still plenty to discover. ‘We’re definitely finding different things,’ she says. ‘They heyday of the pilgrim badges may have passed but we’re seeing more Roman stuff than I can keep up with, especially in areas of heavy erosion. There’s still a lot of interest in mudlarks, and we’re always getting new ones.’ A new generation itching to uncover the secrets of the Thames.

Bollardian

I first came across John Kennedy’s brilliant Bollards of London blog shortly after he started it two years ago, when I idly googled ‘London bollards’ one evening (that is the sort of thing I do).

I’ve been fascinated by bollards for years, ever since I pretended to be  an art cinema-loving ponce and went to see Ben Hopkins’ weird London demi-classic The Nine Lives Of Tomas Katz at the ICA and was transfixed by a montage scene involving talking bollards.

Many years later I sent M@ from Londonist on a quest to locate London’s top ten bollards, but John has taken this to the extreme and now has over 100 London bollards on his site.

Bollards are great. They are everywhere and they are all different. Here are two I snapped last week, located within metres of each other in Wapping but very different. 

This one is fat, old and very rusty.

This one is new, shiny and very, very short. It barely comes up to my knees and nobody would ever describe me as a giant.

Amazing eh? If you agree, check out John’s site, where he will shortly be presenting my top three London bollards from his collection.

Can you contain yourselves?