Oi oi, and ahoy,
I started this weeks stroll way down in Millwall because there were a few things I needed to check out down that way before I started, and I knew that Limehouse (as a political boundary) wouldn’t take too long to cover, being that the Grand Union Canal Basin (now the Limehouse Basin) takes up most of it ! By the time I got to the boundary just past Westferry Circus, I was already soaked and a tad knackered. But I must say that one of the main reasons that enjoy being on the Isle of Dogs, back in the 80’s, early 90’s and now, is that you can be alone, truly alone, if you wish. Aside from Island gardens there are still large stretches of peace to be had, especially on a rainy and a windy December morning.
So after a little rest (I am 48 don’t you know!) I hit Limehouse. Just before crossing the ward boundary from Canary Wharf into Limehouse proper, I stood on the Westferry Circus roundabout peering down towards the impounding station and tried to imagine the graving docks that used to be here, where the impounding house is was once the entrance to the South Dock, and just behind me, Westferry Circus sits more or or less on top of the original Limehouse Basin, filled in in the late 1920’s.
This definitely wasn’t the first time I’d been back here since regeneration, but after finding a few very interesting websites including Mick Lemmerman’s amazingly thorough https://islandhistory.wordpress.com/ , I decided to check it out again. Taking my trusted National Library of Scotland OS map of late Victorian London and one from just after the war (the most detailed maps available) on my tablet, I headed for a ‘now and then’ extravaganza! First stop is what is or used to be known as Limehouse Hole. You notice it especially at low tide as it’s kind of a tiny harbour that has been there for hundreds of years. The second place I come to is kind of where the place name ‘Limehouse’ comes from. Without being too technical about it, it arises from the Limekilns that sprung up around here. This is a small dock area, known as Limehouse Dockyard in Victorian times, which still exists and used to have many dry docks sprouting from it. These were filled in and the space used for more warehousing comprising of the Aberdeen & Dundee wharves.
Winding my way away from the river I notice on my old maps that this area in the 1890’s was all terraced housing but on my post WW2 map, there were plenty of flats put up around here including the wonderful Potters Dwellings block opened in 1904. But just before I reach the dwelling, i notice an old door. Looking seriously in need of some love or destruction, I can only assume the door and wall were once an entrance of sorts to the old Dundee Wharf.
Taking a turn here and I head up towards the old railway viaduct, parts of which form the oldest urban railway viaduct still in existence anywhere in the world ! Onto Limehouse Causeway and if you know your Limehouse history, you’ll be aware that this particular area south and north east of what is now Westferry DLR station was London’s first Chinatown. Ming Street on the NE side of Commercial rd, Pennyfields to the north, and The Causeway to the south appear to be centre of the Victorian Chinese community that grew up here in the 1890’s, and it must be said that the Chinese community only ever numbered at most in the mid 500’s. The community of Chinese grew from trade from China. The British were infamously flooding China with opium at this time in return for nicking their tea, and some of the sailors stayed in this area. It’s a shame that the area became synonymous with seedy drug dens run by the ‘devilish Chinese’ as the real truth is that it was Britain providing the drug trade in the first place, hence the two main opium wars between the countries. Dickens, Wilde, and Conan Doyle can claim some responsibility for the over exaggeration in the overplaying of the seedy opium den idea, but maybe it’s Sax Rohmer’s ‘Fu Manchu’ character that really grabbed everyone’s imagination.
After WW2 Limehouse gave way to Soho as being the main Chinatown area in London. As a side note, their were two Chinatowns in the area split by the railway. To the north in Pennyfields & Ming Place the Chinese were generally from Shanghai, while to the south along the Causeway and in Limehouse, they were predominately from Canton and the south of China.
As you walk along the Commercial Road, you notice a few ‘seamen, or sailors houses’ with one on the corner of Beccles Street being so fancy as to have the name ‘The Sailor’s Palace’! Maybe it was typical East End humour. Wedged in between the railway to the south and the Commercial Road to the north, we find a few interesting old buildings, most notably Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s Church and directly next door, Poplar Town Hall. Hawksmoor a protege of Wren, built many fine churches around London. The grounds of the church are like any around town except this one has what looks like a pyramid sitting in the grounds.
Apparently in one of Arthur Wards Fu Manchu books, this is the entrance to his lair, but in reality, and as surreal as it looks, it was possibly to be part of the original church that was never built.
As mentioned the old town hall next door is an amazing relic of politics gone by. I had the good fortune to be able to stumble around it during an open day. It’s run down, but semi functional, reeks of local importance with snifters of real ideas about what the community wanted and felt, ie : Clement Attlee was once the Mayor of Stepney and MP for Limehouse.
Around the back I stroll pass a decorative pub, the Limehouse Church Institute (now ‘luxury flats!) find the still standing old Limehouse Station, before taking an exit on the Western side of the church yard, where for a few minutes I find myself thrown back in time. The old gates, the lantern, the decrepit walls, the old pub and early Victorian house, all within a few yards of each other. I’m sure this little street must have been used in period dramas at some point, as it’s ideal.
I drop a few steps down to the Limehouse Cut as a beautiful barge passes by with the DLR running overhead, and St Anne’s in the background, made for a great photo opportunity.
It had been raining, leaves on the ground, all conditions that would generally cause the British rail system to come to a halt but down here on the towpath, joggers are flaunting their stuff. Lycra waits for no man! I vacate the towpath and head up into Ropemakers’ Fields. The circular part here was where two schools once stood and the southern part the Barley Mow brewery. At the western entrance to the park stands a rather out of place old building. Once the Black Horse pub, presumably the ‘tap’ for the Barley Mow brewery, it stood as part of a terrace facing Narrow Street.
So, speaking of Narrow Street, this little part of Limehouse is famous for its little row of early Georgian terraced houses, including the ancient Grapes pub. We know that the terrace here is early Georgian as the window are not indented and lay flat with the outer wall. The Grapes, frequented by Dickens, Pepys and Ian McKellen, can trace its history back nearly 500 years, older than most countries!
Further to the east on Narrow street are the wharves of The Dunbar family amongst others, carefully restored and turned into expensive warehouse apartments. On the corner of Narrow St and Three Colt St, stands the Old King’s Head pub. Closed for many years, one of its incarnations was as a banana distributor. Looking across the road to the north, it’s nearly impossible to think that this area was so heavily industrialised as well as being so densely populated with terraced houses all around here.
Beating a hasty retreat, I leave the Grapes kicking and screaming and carry on west.Here I head to the main lock and the entrance to the now Limehouse Marina. Before that I stumble of a wonderfully named street ‘Shoulder of Mutton Street’. This street once divided a power station on the east side and to the west, a paper mill. Before these existed there was Blyth’s Wharf and the Bridge dry dock. The aforementioned dry dock has gone but as I walk further along I notice a inlet of substantial water. This it turned was the original entrance from the Thames to the Limehouse cut, now known as Albert Mews. The cut was constructed in 1770 to give a shortcut from the docks here to the River Lea.
It was built some fifty years before the Grand Union Canal. The cut now runs into the marina itself but before reshaping the dock, it ran through what is Albert mews. This little remainder of the the cut is an indicator to how much has changed around here in 30 years. There is very little between Ropemakers’ park and the locks of the Grand Union to ever give you an inclination that this place was industrial hubbub at one time. Again, check out ‘Britain from above’ website for fascinating pictures of the area before regeneration. As you cross the bridge to the Cut, on the left number 48 has a rather enviable view of The River from it’s garden, amazing!
Onto the main lock and entrance to the Marina and take a quick trot across the locks before heading back to Narrow street and noticing the revelling taking place inside what is now The Narrow, a Gordon Ramsey run restaurant sits directly opposite what were at one time the substantial London Soda Works and the Liverpool Steam Wharf. Not sure many would patronise the gastropub if that was still the view today !
It was a little further down the road that I knew I was going to hit the border with Shadwell ward, and that bar walking around the western side of the old old dock, and standing in awe at the world’s oldest urban railway viaduct, according to an information board in the dock (although I have a feeling the ones down at London Bridge may be older) my Saturday stroll for this week was coming to an end. I passed what would have been numerous wharves back in the day, but are now faceless steel and glass flats, but do notice that part of the New Sun Wharves still stand opposite the mundaneness of the flats opposite.
It was here that I decided that I’d take a tumble down a few steps ! It had been raining and there were erm…..some wrong kind of leaves on the ground. Luckily for me it wasn’t at all embarrassing, Hopefully nobody noticed I’d left the Grapes only a little while before !
So, that’s nearly it for Limehouse ward. I had no choice really but to walk back along what is the Limehouse Link approach before turning left and observing the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. All my life the white tiled tunnel has always intrigued me for some reason ! Before jumping back on the DLR, I take a quick couple of pictures of the viaduct over the dock as there is nobody around. Astonishing these really are, and so old.
As mentioned in my Millwall post, there was a TV comedy/drama from the 80’s called Prospects, set on the Isle of Dogs. It’s fascinating to see what the area looked like only thirty or so years ago and in eps 3 or 4 I think, this part of Limehouse is filmed a fair bit and the changes are utterly unbelievable.
I do wish however that I had a time machine. I would truly love to come back to this extraordinarily interesting place before regeneration took place. I skirted around it as a kid growing up a couple of miles away but now my interest has been tweaked again, the old has gone and the place has changed forever, but so many will never forget.
It’s Friday night, I’m on the mineral water tonight because I want an early kick off for tomorrow’s stroll. Not sure which part of town I’ll visit. I haven’t been up north for a while, might fancy a bit of Kensington or maybe a bit of Deptford or Lambeth, who knows. That’s the absolute beauty of this city. It just never stops throwing up interesting aspects wherever you go !
Ps: Please check my walks part of my website as I hope to get cracking on them in February. Here you’ll find local history, political espionage, pre millenium terror on the streets of London, and lost industries walks around town. I’m trying to arrange walks across town in all areas for the future.
Please mail me if interested.
Only a tenner to you Guv !
Peas out & ta ta for now.