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Shadwell Basin History


A Brief History of Wapping

by Zoe Spencer


Wapping was originally a Saxon settlement, believed to be that of Waeppa's people, and although it is not known exactly where the original site of the village was, it is known that this area was marshland until the 16th century when it was drained. It then became rich meadow and garden ground until it was acquired for the London Docks. The docks brought with them thriving business and with that seafarers. Many of the seamen of Charles II's navy lived in Wapping, and Samuel Pepys, who was a regular in some of the local inns, often wrote of the disturbances the seamen created. In 1666 Pepys describes the riots of the seamen over their working conditions and poor pay, he wrote:

"…the Duke of Albemarle is gone with some forces to quell the seamen &endash; which is a thing of infinite disgrace to us."

In 1798 the river police force was founded in an attempt to combat the pilfering that was costing half a million pounds each year. The force was made up of seamen and watermen who lived dangerously and were often involved in bloody battles with the thieves of the river. The Thames police headquarters is still based in Wapping today. The blue and white building in which it is housed is adjacent to where the original precinct would have been.

The warehouses in this area are Victorian, letting directly onto the river. At one time they would have all had the catwalks, that is the walkways high above the streets, joining inland warehouses to allow the transfer of goods. There are still two remaining across Wapping High Street.

Along the road from the Town of Ramsgate pub you will come across the Pierhead. There is a small inlet from the river; this is the area where the Thames fed into the first of the London Docks. In 1800 the London Dock Act was passed, allowing the docks to be built in Wapping. The Dock Company also wanted a large amount of land around the docks for the construction of offices and warehouses. Many homes and small businesses were swept away and poor people were left, without compensation, to move to other areas of London. Daniel Alexander, the architect of Dartmoor prison, designed the London Docks, and they were classical in design, as demonstrated in the two buildings at pierhead that are now the only remaining complete Alexander buildings in Wapping. The docks had a monopoly for 21 years: all ships arriving in London with goods such as rice, wine, tobacco or brandy had to unload here.

Even before the docks, Wapping had a long history of seafaring. Sir Walter Raleigh's ship was equipped in Wapping and Ratcliffe before he sailed from Limehouse for Guyana in 1546. Young James Cook lived in Wapping and first charted the east coast of Australia in 'Endeavour' with a crew including six other Wapping men. Captain Bligh of the 'Bounty' also lived for many years in Wapping.

Tobacco Dock was built later than the dock that had been adjacent to it, using revolutionary iron columns. This is all that remains of Alexander's warehouses. They were redeveloped recently with the intention of becoming an exclusive shopping centre. However, it suffered during the recession and is not yet complete.

By 1969 the docks at Wapping were empty. In the area between Tobacco Dock and Garnet Street, in what was the Eastern Dock, trees were planted, after the 18th Century fashion, and it was optimistically called Wapping Wood. However, the trees could not survive and the result is the small park we have today. If you look carefully, you will notice some telltale signs of its days as a dock, such as the iron mooring rings.

The steel bridges at either end of Shadwell Basin are rolling bascule bridges, so called for their seesaw action. In the days when the docks were in use these bridges were the only means of access, apart from by boat, into and out of Wapping. Shadwell Basin was the last of the Wapping Docks to be built, and the only one to remain to the present day.

Development in the Shadwell area was greatly encouraged by the enterprising speculator Thomas Neale, who built the chapel, St. Paul's by Shadwell Basin in 1656 (rebuilt in 1821). Most of the 8,000 dwellings in the area at the time were small and wood-framed, in-filled with bricks. The area between the Highway and the river became one of the most wretched slums in Victorian Britain. At the beginning of the 19th century Malcolm said:

"Thousands of useful tradesmen, artisans and mechanicks and numerous watermen inhabit [Shadwell] but their homes and workshops will not bear description."


The Inns of Wapping


In the mid 18th century there 36 taverns in Wapping, along Wapping Wall and Wapping High Street, one of which was run by Hannah Snell, who was famous for having disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the army, then later joined the marines.

Walking down the alley running by the side of the Town of Ramsgate pub you will reach Wapping Old Stairs. Try to imagine this sight through the eyes of Charles Dickens, who frequented the inns of Wapping. Dickens no doubt witnessed the activity going on down the stairs; he would have known the waterfront of this river as a decrepit decaying place. It seems likely that he got much of his inspiration for the characters of his books from these areas. Indeed he attacked the 'poor law' that saw many of the poor in Wapping suffering the workhouses, in "Oliver Twist", in which he describes one of the Wapping workhouses. Imagine the stench of the washed-up sewage clinging to the stairs at high tide. In Dickens's time London had far outgrown the capacity of its natural environment to absorb human and animal waste, and persistent outbreaks of cholera eventually triggered a scheme for London sewerage.

John Newton, a Wapping slave-trader, landed his cargoes for sale near the Town of Ramsgate pub. Later, when he was converted from supporting slavery, and actively rallying against the barbaric trade, he wrote "Amazing Grace".

In the backyard of the Town of Ramsgate are the gallows put up to commemorate the capture of Judge Jeffreys, the so-called Hanging Judge. He was well known in the area and often turned up to court after one too many ales. It is said by some that it is in this public house that he was captured as he tried to make his escape to France by boat in 1688. It has been suggested that he was lured back ashore by the temptation of a final tipple for the road! Sir George, born in 1648, was the first Baronet Jeffrey of Wem. On the 100th anniversary of his death it was said of him:

"...though a Judge his legal learning was small, but his talent in cross-examination was great and his language, though always colloquial and frequently coarse, was forceful."

Judge Jeffreys was taken to the Tower of London where he died a natural death aged 40 &endash; the cause of which was a large kidney stone aggravated by his excessive drinking.

The Turks Head Inn supposedly held a licence to serve the last quart of ale to the condemned pirates on their final journey from Newgate prison to Execution Dock. Execution Dock, where Wapping Underground station is now, was the official place of hanging. The criminal was hung from a rope and left for three tides, then the body was covered in tar and hung in the streets as a warning to others. The notorious Captain William Kidd was hanged there in 1701. The last men to be hanged at Execution Dock were George Davis and William Watts, who were hanged for murder and mutiny on the High Seas on the 17th December in 1830.

The artist Joseph Mallard William Turner supposedly owned Turners Old Star Pub. It is thought that Turner often visited Wapping for inspiration under the pseudonym "Admiral Puggy Booth". Some believe that Turner enjoyed Wapping as a place of debauchery, and that the erotic sketches found in his estate, were all done here. There is some doubt as to the truth of this. However, it is thought that when he painted "The Fighting Temeraire" he must have been on the river shore at Wapping, as the old boat of Trafalgar fame was dragged to the breakers yard at Rotherhithe across the river.

It is surprising that an area, which once had an unsavoury reputation and image, attracted the likes of Turner, Dickens and Whistler into its inns. They were all known to frequent the Prospect of Whitby, previously named the Pelican and established c.1520. In Samuel Pepys's day it was locally known as the Devil's Tavern because of its association with river thieves and smugglers. The pub's name was changed in 1777 after a ship named the Prospect, which was registered at Whitby, moored off the tavern and became a landmark.

Wapping was a place of many marvels, its seamen brought back wondrous souvenirs from the distant lands they discovered. In the early 18th Century a sailor sold an unknown plant here at the Prospect of Whitby, to a local market gardener &endash; it became known as the fuchsia.

The pub has many interesting features, including the flagstone floor and the pewter bar top. On the balcony at the back of the pub there stands a set of gallows, again in commemoration of the Hanging Judge Jeffreys. To the right of the pub there is a small alley leading to the Pelican Stairs, when the tide is low you can go down onto the foreshore.

It is not hard to imagine Wapping as it once was; the narrow streets lined by the high walls of the warehouses with the evil smell of the Victorian river drifting into the streets; the thriving dockland community by day and dimly lit by gas-light and eerily sinister by night.


Where did the names Wapping and Shadwell come from?

Many places settled by the Anglo-Saxons have names ending in '-ing', which in old English meant 'son'. In place names it was usually short for 'ingas' meaning 'sons' or 'people of'. Many believe that the name came from a chieftain, Waeppa, and that the name means 'the people of Waeppa'. Others think the name came from 'wapol' meaning 'bubble' or 'foam', an apt description for the marsh at Wapping.


The name Shadwell is believed to be derived from 'Schadfleet', meaning shallow river, by some. But perhaps it comes from 'St Chad's Well', a spring discovered by St Chad.



Further Reading


Ashworth, N. (1992) Wapping Tales

Darby, M. (1990) Captain Bligh in Wapping, History of Wapping Trust

Darby, M. (1998) Waeppa's people: A History of Wapping, published by

Connor and Butler, on behalf of the History of Wapping Trust

Ritchie, R.C. (1987) Captain Kidd and the war against pirates

Smith-Mason, C. (1998) The Stones of Wapping DOICA Ltd

The Wapping History Group (1994) Down Wapping, Hobart's vanished Wapping








A Brief History of Wapping - Zoe Spencer

Map of Wapping and Shadwell circa 1850

Map Wapping and Shadwell in the early 17th Century