Interesting aspects of a part of London's East End
I thought that I knew all about Wapping until I met Fergy. He spent a sunny day with me showing me many historical places that I had not known about. When he offered to show me around that area, I was worried that he would insist on going to the one pub in Wapping that I have visited, the very crowded and tourist ‘infested’ ‘Prospect of Whitby close to Shadwell Basin. I need not have been concerned.
Wapping is now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It stretches along the northern shore (left bank) of the Thames east of the Tower of London, and inland to the Highway (the A 1203). The name Wapping derives from the group Saxon people, the ‘Waeppa’, who lived in the area. Until recent decades, Wapping, being so near the Thames, was intimately involved in all aspects of maritime life – both good and bad!
We began our walk at the Tower of London. After passing through the now very ‘glitzy’ redeveloped St Katharine Dock, filled with luxury yachts and cruisers, we began walking along the long winding Wapping High Street that follows the shoreline of the Thames.
We came across a grassy open space. This green riverside park, the Hermitage Riverside Memorial Garden, is surrounded by blandly designed, unexciting modern apartment blocks. They stand where many decades ago the homes and workplaces of many east Londoners once stood.
Between September 1940 and May 1941, London was heavily bombed by German warplanes. The so-called ‘Blitzkrieg’ was designed to demoralise the population of London, but failed to do so. However, it left much destruction of buildings and many human casualties. A monument in the gardens commemorates the civilians killed during the Blitz. The monument is a rectangular metal slab in which a dove-shaped window has been cut. It was designed by Wendy Taylor.
The park and its waterfront provide an excellent place from which to view both Tower Bridge and the new 'Shard' skyscraper.
Our next stop on that warm sunny day, the ‘Town of Ramsgate’ pub, was for refreshment.
Long and narrow, stretching from the street to the waterside of the River Thames, this pub has an association with the notorious ‘Hanging Judge’, Judge Jeffreys. Just after King James II fled from Britain (in 1688) and when William of Orange (William III) was approaching London, Jeffreys tried to flee in order to follow the King abroad.
Having entered the ‘Town of Ramsgate’ in disguise, he was recognised by someone whom he had condemned, but had been later reprieved. A mob tried to lynch Jeffreys, but instead were persuaded to deliver him into the ‘protection’ of the Lord Mayor of London, who secured him in the Tower of London where he died of kidney disease. A small plaque in the pub records this story briefly.
Unlike its busy neighbour the ‘Prospect of Whitby’, this is still a ‘genuine’ local pub, not a ‘tourist trap’. It offers a good range of drinks as well as good food. The chicken curry that I ordered was not only tasty, but also it had been made from scratch in the pub’s kitchen rather than been brought in from an outside source and rewarmed.
Sadly, the small waterfront garden was cluttered with scaffolding connected with building works that were being carried out on its much larger neighbouring building, a converted warehouse (formerly ‘Oliver’s Wharf’). Once this building material disappears, this charming little garden will be a nice place to sit in decent weather.
Opposite the pub, there is a grassy open space with trees and a few old gravestones around the edges. This was the graveyard of St John’s Church, which stands on Scandrett Street that runs along the eastern edge of the graveyard. St Johns was built in 1756, but it was badly damaged by bombing in 1940 and most of the church had to be demolished. Today, the lovely tower of the church can be seen, and its ‘shell’ has been filled with a new building used secular purposes.
Next to the church on Scandrett Street (‘Church Street’ in the 1870s), you can see the facade of the former St John’s Old School, also now used for purposes other than that for which it was built.
Founded in 1695, the present buildings date back to 1765. Two attractive ‘Bluecoat’ figures (sculptures), a boy and a girl, are placed above the separate entrances that were used by the fifty girl pupils and the sixty boy pupils, who attended it.
The children who attended Bluecoat Charity Schools wore blue uniforms like those displayed on the school in Wapping.
According to one source - http://www.secret-london.co.uk:
“Blue was used for charity school children because it was the cheapest dye available for clothing. Socks were dyed in saffron as that was thought to stop rats nibbling the pupils’ ankles.”
Another source (https://web.archive.org/web/20130707041720/http://www.bluecoatschoolliverpool.org.uk:80/school/index.asp) provides another explanation of the blue uniforms:
“Blue is not a royal colour - that is purple; it is, however, the colour of alms-giving and Charity. It was the common colour for clothes in Tudor times, and so the charity children were dressed in blue Tudor frock coats, yellow stockings and white bands.”
In any case, the Bluecoat School standing on Scandrett Street has been closed for a long time.
Although the original beautiful façades, which are well-worth seeing, have been preserved, it is used for non-scholastic purposes now.
Moving east along Wapping High Street, we arrived at the site of Britain’s oldest police station. It is a few steps from the Town of Ramsgate pub, where Judge Jeffries, the ‘Hanging Judge’, was ‘arrested’ by an angry mob in the 17th century. Today, a newer police station stands on the site of the original one. Entering this historic police station is something that should be avoided unless you are in big trouble!
The Metropolitan Police, which now runs this police station, dates back to 1829. However, this police station (or, to be precise, the construction of an earlier police station on this site) predates this. There has been a police station here since 1798. This is recorded by a small circular plaque on its façade. In that year, Magistrate Patrick Colquhoun and Master Mariner John Harriott, founded the Marine Police Force, London’s first ever police force, to counter the epidemic of thieving from ships moored in the port of London. Therefore, this police station stands on the site of the oldest police station in the UK, if not in the world!
A narrow alley leads from the street to some rickety waterside steps. From here, you can see the Police landing stage, where, I am told, any corpse dredged up from the Thames is landed before being investigated. Beyond the landing stage and across the river, you can see Rotherhithe clearly. It was from here that the “Mayflower” set forth for New England in 1620.
We walked away from the river towards the ‘White Swan and Cuckoo’ pub on Wapping Lane, which until about 1900 was known as ‘Old Gravel Lane’. The pub was built in about 1850 and occupies a corner plot. Sunlight flooded into it. There were a few other customers, one of whom was sitting upright fast asleep during the whole time we were in there (about 45 minutes).
After a mid-afternoon drink, we headed to another pub, nearby, which was closed, but interesting nevertheless. This is now called ‘Turner’s Old Star’. I would have loved to have entered the building because it was where the well-known artist, and in my view one of the best ever painters, Joseph Turner (1775-1851) spent many a day and night. Turner, who was fascinated by ships, sea, and water, loved being close to the River Thames. In 1833, Turner, who never married but fathered several illegitimate children, met the widowed Sophie Booth, who was to become his mistress until he died. To maintain his relationship with her a secret, he used the name ‘Puggy Booth’ whenever he was with her. When Turner inherited two cottages in Wapping, he remodelled them into a tavern, which he named ‘The Old Star’. Turner installed Sophie as its landlady, and enjoyed visiting her here to continue their romantic affair. In 1987, the ‘Old Star’ was renamed ‘Turner’s Old Star’. A plaque on the pub describes its connection with Turner.
Another plaque records the memory of Lydia Rogers. She was an Anabaptist who was accused of witchcraft in the 17th century, in 1658. Lydia was a mother of two and was married to a carpenter, John Rogers. I wondered why her memorial is attached to the pub. She lived in Pump alley in Wapping, which according to an 18th century list of London's streets was off Red Lion Street in Wapping Docks. Today, what was Red Lion Street is now part of Tench Street, which is close to ‘Turner’s Old Star’ pub.
Professor Malcolm Gaskill (University of East Anglia) suggests that Pump Alley might have been the modern Meeting House Alley on which one side of the pub faces (see: https://innerlives.org/2016/10/14/hex-and-the-city-accused-witches-in-early-modern-london/). He wrote of Lydia:
“This woman was accused of making a blood pact with Satan, a typical kind of diabolic union that one finds in the records, especially from the mid-seventeenth century. The devil cut a vein in her right hand to obtain the blood to use as ink for the contract. Rogers’s motive, it was said, was a lust for money. This meeting was alleged to have occurred late at night on 22 March 1658. Subsequently the minister of Wapping, Mr Johnson, spent time with her, as she lay in a diminished state, confessing to her grievous sin. She showed him the mark where the devil had drawn blood. He prayed with her, and she suffered a raving fit as the devil in her was tormented, so much so that people present in the room had to hold her down. The source for the story is “The Snare of the Devil” (1658).”
From Turner’s pub, we walked past the restored Tobacco Dock towards the border of Wapping at The Highway. Tobacco Dock was constructed in about 1811 to store tobacco. In the 1990s, it was redeveloped, hoping to make it into a recreation area, the ‘Covent Garden’ of east London. It never really ‘took off’, and has being lying largely disused since the 1990s.
We crossed The Highway to visit what Fergy aptly described as “a church within a church”.
From afar, this looks just like an ordinary church, albeit an elegant one. And, so it should be considered, because it was one of the six fine churches in London designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), a clerk and student of the great Sir Christopher Wren.
Enter the church, and then you will discover something unusual. The Hawksmoor church contains a much newer church.
The reason for this Russian doll arrangement is that during the Second World War, Hawksmoor’s church was bombed in 1941. All that remained was the outer shell and some of the towers attached. In 1964, a new church was built within the shell of Hawksmoor’s original building.
The apse of the new church is a replica of that which existed before the bombing. For a very detailed history, see: http://www.stgitehistory.org.uk/churchch.html#andnow.
The last stop on our wanderings was a place of great historical interest that I had heard about, but had never visited before. It was Cable Street, which is also a little way beyond the old boundary of Wapping.
Cable Street, near to the London Docks, was where hemp ropes were laid out and twisted into ships' cables. But, this is not what makes it so famous.
The street was a very impoverished part of London with cheap lodgings, opium dens, drinking holes, brothels, and so on. Many poor people and immigrants lived there, including a good number of Jewish people.
On the 4th of October 1936, the anti-Semitic British fascist leader and admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, Oswald Mosely, decided to organise a march of his British Union of Fascists (the ‘Blackshirts’) through the East End. Provocatively, he included the very Jewish Cable Street on his route. Attempts were made to ban the march, but it was allowed to proceed and was given police protection. The locals and many mostly left-wing sympathisers from all over London decided that Mosely and his mob were not going to be allowed to pass along Cable Street unopposed. Mosely’s opponents barricaded Cable Street, and a huge battle broke out between them and Mosely's mob. The resistance was successful. The Battle of Cable Street prevented the fascists from achieving their aims that day.
The Battle has been commemorated by a wonderful mural created on one wall of St Georges Town Hall, which is on Cable Street. It was painted between 1976 and 1982 by artists including: Dave Binnington, Paul Butler, Desmond Rochford and Ray Walker. This vibrant work of art is full of symbolism, and deserves careful studying.
Most of the original buildings in Cable Street have gone. It is worth looking at the Town Hall upon whose wall is attached a memorial celebrating people from Tower Hamlets, who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
Shadwell Station, served by London’s Overground, is on Cable Street, and it was there that Fergy and I ended our wonderful walk around and about Wapping.