A trip to Wapping

A trip to Wapping

I went to a guided with Ken Titmuss the other day – he  is on Twitter as @oldmapman.

I am also very interested in the history of London.  London in the 18c is not the same as London now. A lot of places which are now part of London, were then completely separate villages.

London in the 18th century was the City of London, plus places such as Wapping, Shadwell, Rotherhithe, Deptford and Bermondsey.

Looking at London now, it is hard to remember a time when London was a place of industry. London was a working port for many centuries. The port closing in the late 1960s took away a large part of London’s existing reason for existing.

In the 1740s, Wapping was an area that was quite isolated. It was a  marshy area with market gardens. There were some wharves. The area was then drained. A series of docks were built during the course of the 19c century.  The London Docks was built in 1805. The Rotherhithe Tunnel was built in 1860 by Marc Brunel. St Katherine’s Dock was built in the 1870s. The docks are all closed up and some of them are now flats.

The thing that sticks in my mind is the comment by Ken that in the 18th century, the people who lived by the river, living by the river, were mainly poor. Whereas now, living by the riverside is fashionable. And indeed, London is now over-developed, especially around the Thames.

The first thing that struck me, was how close you can get to the river.  I felt transported back to the 18th century. I could imagine highway men, smugglers and poor dock workers.  You can look across the river and see Bermondsey.

The other thing that I noticed was the old factories and wharves – some of which have been been well preserved.


The first police force in London was the river police based in Wapping. They were formed in 1798. They pre-date the ordinary Metropolitan Police by some almost 50 years.

We came across a pub which actually had a noose for hangings.


We walked down the High Street which has retained the old wharves. We then came to the area that used to be the dock and is now flats.

We then turned off the main street and headed off into the more residential part of the area. Here we found a block of flats that had been built by a local benefactor- Sir Sydney Waterlow. He had made money in printing and then moved into banking.  started the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. This was one of many philanthropic efforts to improve housing for London’s working population. People who invested in the company expected a commercial return of 3% or 4% . The society built properties all over what one might call old London


That is one of the differences between then (mid 19th century) and now. Then, people who had done well felt some obligation to give back to society by founding/funding schools, housing, churches etc. Now, that sense of obligation is much diminished. TThe Society built a number of properties in various parts of London. Bourneville in Birmingham, Saltaire in Bradford and Port Sunlight in Liverpool are all examples of this spirit of philanthropy. That obligation seems to be much diminished these days.

As we continued to walk around the residential area of Wapping, we came across the Catholic and Anglican churches which are side by side, which is quite rare. One or other had been a workhouse. We came across the Turk Head pub which is now a community café.

Much, much later, the London County Council built an estate in Wapping. The estate was finished in 1926.The estate is made up of 12 blocks all of which are named after famous sailors and mariners from the area. Few are household names. The only one that I had heard of was Martin Frobisher. He was around at the time of the Spanish Armada. Another of the blocks is called George Vancouver, named after the man who accompanied James Cook on his voyages and after who Vancouver in Canada is named.

We also looked in at the church of St Peter of the London Docks built in the middle of the nineteenth century.  This was a very High Anglican church. It was started as a “missionary” church with the priests living a life of service to the low income residents.   It was very similar to the work of Basil Jellicoe in Summers Town.

Wapping is a fascinating microcosm within London. I want to find out more about London as a port city.




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