Home » 2016 » January

Monthly Archives: January 2016

A Small Star in the East – The Remarkable Story of Nathaniel and Sarah Heckford


Dr Nathaniel Heckford (I842-71)

Charles Dickens was a great chronicler of London life and towards the end of his life wrote a series of sketches that were published in the book, The Uncommercial Traveller. One of the stories involves Dickens in a quite depressed mood visiting Ratcliff and Stepney, here are a few extracts from the story.

The borders of Ratcliff and Stepney, eastward of London, and giving on the impure river, were the scene of this uncompromising dance of death, upon a drizzling November day. A squalid maze of streets, courts, and alleys of miserable houses let out in single rooms. A wilderness of dirt, rags, and hunger. A mud-desert, chiefly inhabited by a tribe from whom employment has departed, or to whom it comes but fitfully and rarely. They are not skilled mechanics in any wise. They are but labourers,–dock-labourers, water-side labourers, coal-porters, ballast-heavers, such-like hewers of wood and drawers of water.childrens_hospital_from_london_a_pilgrimage_

Women in a children’s hospital by Gustave Doré from London: A Pilgrimage 1872

Dickens visits a number of people in their homes and notices that poverty and lack of work was bringing people to the edge of destitution. However, his journey takes him to Ratcliff where he come across an institution that brightens his mood.

Down by the river’s bank in Ratcliff, I was turning upward by a side-street, therefore, to regain the railway, when my eyes rested on the inscription across the road, ‘East London Children’s Hospital.’ I could scarcely have seen an inscription better suited to my frame of mind; and I went across and went straight in.

I found the children’s hospital established in an old sail-loft or storehouse, of the roughest nature, and on the simplest means. There were trap-doors in the floors, where goods had been hoisted up and down; heavy feet and heavy weights had started every knot in the well-trodden planking: inconvenient bulks and beams and awkward staircases perplexed my passage through the wards. But I found it airy, sweet, and clean. In its seven and thirty beds I saw but little beauty; for starvation in the second or third generation takes a pinched look: but I saw the sufferings both of infancy and childhood tenderly assuaged; I heard the little patients answering to pet playful names, the light touch of a delicate lady laid bare the wasted sticks of arms for me to pity; and the claw-like little hands, as she did so, twined themselves lovingly around her wedding-ring.

A gentleman and lady, a young husband and wife, have bought and fitted up this building for its present noble use, and have quietly settled themselves in it as its medical officers and directors. Both have had considerable practical experience of medicine and surgery; he as house-surgeon of a great London hospital; she as a very earnest student, tested by severe examination, and also as a nurse of the sick poor during the prevalence of cholera.

With every qualification to lure them away, with youth and accomplishments and tastes and habits that can have no response in any breast near them, close begirt by every repulsive circumstance inseparable from such a neighbourhood, there they dwell. They live in the hospital itself, and their rooms are on its first floor.

The dispenser of medicines (attracted to them not by self-interest, but by their own magnetism and that of their cause) sleeps in a recess in the dining-room, and has his washing apparatus in the sideboard. Their contented manner of making the best of the things around them, I found so pleasantly inseparable from their usefulness!


‘Turn him out, Ratcliff.’ Men are packed into the half open door lit by the interior of the home. Illustration from Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Dore, ‘London, a Pilgrimage’, published in 1872.

When this hospital was first opened, in January of the present year, the people could not possibly conceive but that somebody paid for the services rendered there; and were disposed to claim them as a right, and to find fault if out of temper. They soon came to understand the case better, and have much increased in gratitude.

Insufficient food and unwholesome living are the main causes of disease among these small patients. So nourishment, cleanliness, and ventilation are the main remedies. Discharged patients are looked after, and invited to come and dine now and then; so are certain famishing creatures who were never patients. Both the lady and the gentleman are well acquainted, not only with the histories of the patients and their families, but with the characters and circumstances of great numbers of their neighbours–of these they keep a register.

An affecting play was acted in Paris years ago, called ‘The Children’s Doctor.’ As I parted from my children’s doctor, now in question, I saw in his easy black necktie, in his loose buttoned black frock-coat, in his pensive face, in the flow of his dark hair, in his eyelashes, in the very turn of his moustache, the exact realisation of the Paris artist’s ideal as it was presented on the stage. But no romancer that I know of has had the boldness to prefigure the life and home of this young husband and young wife in the Children’s Hospital in the east of London.

The husband and wife in question were Nathaniel and Sarah Heckford and their largely unknown story is one of sacrifice and commitment to the children of the 19th century East End.

In 1866, Nathaniel Heckford was working as a surgeon and doctor at the London Hospital. When the cholera epidemic developed he volunteered to help a friend, Dr Woodman, who was in charge of the Wapping District Cholera Hospital. It was there he met his future wife, Sarah who was a student of medicine who had gone to the hospital as a volunteer nurse .

In 1867, Sarah was married to Mr Heckford and most people thought that Nathaniel who had won gold medals for surgery and medicine in his student days would begin a career of a consulting surgeon in the West End. However, he believed that he would use his talents in the East End to help to deal with some of the area’s health problems. Both Nathaniel and Sarah decided to start a Children’s Hospital, eventually they found premises in two old warehouses at Ratcliff Cross, close to the river.

Initially the hospital had ten beds for children and was called the ” East London Hospital for Children and Dispensary for Women ” and in January 1868, on the first anniversary of  their wedding day, the hospital was opened.

Demand was high with large numbers of ” in ” and ” out ” patients, the hospital became the first in London to admit children under two years old.

The article by Charles Dickens bought in badly needed funds which enabled the hospital to expand its number of beds and staff. However the success of the hospital was tainted by the realisation that Nathaniel had consumption, with time now limited, plans were developed to hand the hospital over to a committee and provide funds for a new purpose-built hospital . Nathaniel’s health deteriorated and he was ordered abroad to recuperate, the couple realising they were living on borrowed time decided to come back to England to finalise plans for the new hospital. Eventually Nathaniel succumbed to the disease and died in 1871 aged only 29 years of age.


East London Hospital for Children about 1900

Nathaniel may have died but his dream carried on and in the summer of 1875, the foundation stone of the new hospital was laid and in autumn of the following year the new building was finished and the tablet placed in the hall. It said

In Memory of

Nathaniel Heckford, M.D., M.R.C.S.

Born in Calcutta, April, 1842

Died 14th December, 1871

Aged 29

He Founded this Institution

At His Own Cost

In a Warehouse at Ratcliff Cross

January 28, 1868

He Lived For It

And Died

A Few Days After The Site

Of This Building was

Purchased by the

Committee of Management of the


The new hospital in Shadwell was called the East London Hospital for Children The original 180 beds were later in 1881 increased by the addition of a further floor. This voluntary hospital continued to thrive and gradually acquired an international reputation. In 1932 the name was changed to the Princess Elizabeth of York Hospital for Children and later in 1942 this hospital was amalgamated with the Queen’s Hospital, Hackney Road, to form the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children.

lady trader

This is not quite the end of the story, the remarkable Sarah Heckford may have come from a wealthy background and been inconvenienced by some disabilities from  a childhood disease but she still travelled alone to India and Italy, before in 1880 travelling alone by horseback across the Transvaal of South Africa and became an itinerant trader facing considerable dangers which she wrote down about in the her book, A Lady Trader in the Transvaal. In more recent times, her incredible life has been  she has been the subject of other essays and books  including a biography by Vivien Allen.

Although the exploits of the Heckfords have largely been forgotten, in the area near to Ratcliff Cross stairs  is Heckford Street that is named after the couple.

Many thanks to local writer, Alfred Gardner who bought this story to my attention.

HMS Severn in West India Dock


West India Dock welcomed the arrival of the HMS Severn, the HMS Severn is a River-class offshore patrol vessel of the Royal Navy and is the ninth ship in the Royal Navy to have this name.


She was built by Vosper Thornycroft in Southampton and launched in 2002, the main function of the ship is to serve as a fishery protection vessel within the United Kingdom’s waters along with her two sister ships Mersey and Tyne. All three were commissioned into service in 2003. HMS Severn has a length of 79.5 m (260 ft 10 in) , beam of 13.6 m (44 ft 7 in) and carries a crew that can range from 30 to 50.


Unusually for a River-class vessel, HMS Severn in 2014 was deployed overseas to patrol the North Atlantic. She patrolled the Caribbean region, visiting 29 ports in 20 different countries and islands including all of the British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean – Turks and Caicos, British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, Anguilla and Grand Cayman.


More recently, the ship was involved in a joint operation involving UK and French law enforcement which involved seizure of around 2.4 tonnes of cocaine from a freighter a few miles off the UK’s south coast. It was estimated that the cocaine had a street value of £350m.


HMS Severn is here for a four-day visit  to be part of London Fire Brigade 150th anniversary celebrations,the ship was greeted by one of the Lambeth-based fire boats – Fire Dart – which saluted Severn with jets of water as she approached North Greenwich.


On Monday, the ship is hosting a capability demonstration on board in the evening for specially invited guests, including the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade. Two buglers from The Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines, Collingwood, will perform during a ceremonial sunset.

Rule Britannia : The Royal Yacht visiting London in 1954


Regular readers will know that local collector, Eric Pemberton often sends postcards or interesting photographs about the Island which I feature on the blog.

This week, Eric has sent a postcard that celebrates the arrival of Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia into London passing through Limehouse Reach  in 1954. This was the first time, the royal yacht had made its way up the Thames and was watched by hundreds of thousands of people all along the riverside. People living on the Island joined the crowds when the yacht made its way around the Isle of Dogs and into London.

britt3 (2)

The 413 ft long HMY Britannia was built at the shipyard of John Brown & Co. Ltd on the Clyde and launched by Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

Britannia’s maiden voyage was on 1954 from Portsmouth to Malta before travelling to pick up the Queen and Prince Philip in Tobruk at the end of the royal couple’s Commonwealth tour. Also on board were the young Princess Anne and Prince Charles who had travelled to meet their parents.

The Commonwealth tour saw the royal couple travelling around the world visiting Bermuda; Jamaica, Panama Canal, Fiji, Tonga; New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, Aden, Uganda, Libya, Malta, Gibraltar before finishing in London.

brit 4

Most of the tour was undertaken by air or boat, but it was only in the Tobruk to London leg that the Britannia was used and would be the first opportunity for Londoners to see the royal yacht. A newspaper report of the time gives some insight to the excitement of the arrival.

The Queen’s Home in London

LONDON: Queen Elizabeth II, tired, but happy, came home yesterday from her 6-months’ world tour to a London of pealing bells, marching bands and dense crowds roaring a welcome to her. As she drove into Buckingham Palace through a sea of waving flags a plump Cockney woman shouted, “We’ve missed you, duck. Don’t stay away so long again.

It summed up the mood of the millions who had lined the banks of the River Thames to cheer as she sailed triumphantly in the Royal barge through the heart of her capital. It was like last year’s Coronation all over again— except yesterday it did not rain.

Like they did then, Londoners had camped all night on the pavements to make sure of a place on the route.The Queen, the Londoners saw as she drove through the capital was a slimmer Elizabeth than the one who left in November, 1953.

The. day of the carnival began at the mouth of the River Thames where Britannia had anchored, for a few hours in the early morning. As soon as the: Royal yacht began to move on her 52 mile voyage up the winding river the clamour of welcome started. Guns boomed a salute and ships hooted their sirens, Everything that could float, bedecked with everything that was colourful enough to look like a flag, put to sea in the river estuary to follow the Queen. All along the banks, crowds stood on tiptoe to cheer and motorists sounded their horns.


At Woolwich, a large number of jet fighters of the R.A.F  and Royal Canadian Air Force screamed down to less than 1000 feet above the yacht.

On Britannia’s bridge stood the Queen waving to the crowds with her family and Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister beside her.Then came the end of Britannia’s voyage; The great bascules of Tower Bridge were raised and the yacht steamed through and came to a stop.

britt3 (1)

During her Commonwealth tour, the Queen had opened six Parliaments, unveiled three memorials, opened a road, planted six trees, inaugurated a dam, laid the foundation stone of a cathedral, dedicated a shrine, opened a school, made’ four broadcasts and held 11 investitures,attended 50 State balls, garden parties, lunches and dinners, 135 public receptions and presentations, 27 children’s displays and seven race-meetings. No wonder she looked tired and people began to question whether it was a good idea for royal visits to last so long. For all the obvious goodwill, there were questions asked if Britain which was still struggling economically could afford a ‘lavish palace’ of a yacht for their monarch. These were questions that would often reappear throughout the yacht’s service, eventually Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 and is now permanently moored as a visitor attraction in the port of Leith near Edinburgh.

Many thanks to Eric Pemberton.



Annie Leibovitz’s WOMEN Exhibition and the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station


The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station may seem an odd location for an exhibition by one of America’s leading photographers, but last week saw the opening of Annie Leibovitz’s WOMEN: New Portraits exhibition.

Women: New Portraits includes photographs of the famous and not so famous including  Amy Winehouse, Michelle Obama, Adele, Taylor Swift, Jan Goodall, Sheryl Sandberg, Cindy Sherman, Caitlyn Jenner, Amy Schumer and Aung San Suu Kyi.


‘WOMEN: New Portraits’ a global tour of new photographs by Annie Leibovitz launches in London. Commissioned by UBS, the exhibition opens to the public on 16 January at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, kicking off a 10-city world-wide tour. Access to the exhibition will be free. Photo by Stephen White, courtesy of UBS.

The collection focuses on “women of outstanding achievement” and is a continuation of Women, a project that began over 15 years ago in collaboration with writer Susan Sontag.


‘WOMEN: New Portraits’ a global tour of new photographs by Annie Leibovitz launches in London. Commissioned by UBS, the exhibition opens to the public on 16 January at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, kicking off a 10-city world-wide tour. Access to the exhibition will be free. Photo by Stephen White, courtesy of UBS.

The exhibition features new photographs and work from the original series, as well as other unpublished photographs and there will be  a series of free learning programmes that accompany the exhibition which will explore ways of  working with young people in local schools and communities.

Annie Leibovitz began her career as a photojournalist for Rolling Stone in 1970 and is famous  for her numerous portraits for Vanity Fair, Vogue and numerous other publications.  Her most famous photographs include John Lennon, The Rolling Stones and Demi Moore.


‘WOMEN: New Portraits’ a global tour of new photographs by Annie Leibovitz launches in London. Commissioned by UBS, the exhibition opens to the public on 16 January at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, kicking off a 10-city world-wide tour. Access to the exhibition will be free. Photo by Stephen White, courtesy of UBS.

A walk around the exhibition is a rather surreal experience with the wide range of photographs attached  to boards, large screens showing the works and a circle of chairs all within an old part of the power station.  The exhibition is free and will run from January 16 to February 7th 2016.

Annie Leibovitz’s new photographs,will be shown in 10 cities over the next 12 months. The tour starts in London and then moves to Tokyo, San Francisco, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Istanbul, Frankfurt, New York and Zurich.


If you attend the exhibition, it is well worth looking around the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station which for decades provided hydraulic power to London. The hydraulic network was part of a city-wide network run by the London Hydraulic Power Company. At its height in the 1920s, the company was powering around 8,000 machines through 186 miles of pipes spread over the capital. One of the fortunate by products of the pipes in winter was they were heated, so if it snowed it would melt the snow on the pavement above.


While the network mainly supplied lifts, cranes and dock gates, it also operated theatre machinery (including revolving stages at the London Palladium and the London Coliseum, the lifting mechanism for the cinema organ at the Leicester Square theatre and even provided the backup mechanism at Tower Bridge.


Wapping was one of five pumping stations that kept the mains pressurised, assisted by accumulators. Other stations were based at Rotherhithe, Grosvenor Road in Pimlico, City Road in Clerkenwell and the East India Docks which was originally operated by the Port of London Authority, but was taken over and connected to the system.

The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station was built-in 1890 and was first run using steam until it was later converted to use electricity. Remarkably it remained a pumping station until 1977 when it was designated a Grade II listed building . The Leibovitz exhibition is not the first art event in the building, in the 1990s the site was converted into an arts centre called the Wapping Project and included a restaurant.

A trip to Wapping to the power station offers an unusual opportunity to see some photographs from one of America’s most famous photographers and a forgotten relic of London’s industrial past, if that is not enough over the road from the power station is the historic Prospect of Whitby pub where you can enjoy a meal and a drink.


The Historical Fireboat Massey Shaw at the London Boat Show 2016


The London Boat Show is the showcase for all things connected with the boating world and is usually first place to see the latest marine innovations, design and technology. The 2016 Show hosts over 400 gleaming new boats and plenty of other nautical equipment. For all of the latest marine technology, it was outside in the quayside where I came across a group of historic boats and one boat in particular that is very familiar to those who live or work around West India Dock.


I was fortunate to be present in late 2013 when the Massey Shaw arrived and was lowered into West India Dock where it has been berthed every since. Although it is often overlooked when other ships visit the dock, Massey Shaw is one of the most interesting boats in the dock and has a remarkable history.


Massey Shaw was built by J Samuel Whites at Cowes and launched in 1935, she was named after Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, the Superintendent of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (now the London Fire Brigade). When the ship was delivered to the Fire Brigade, it saw action soon afterwards when it played its part in putting out a major fire in Wapping. A newspaper report of 1935 gives more of the details.

Still Ablaze

Colonial Wharf at Wapping , Sept. 26. Twenty-four hours after the out break of fire at the Colonial Wharf, Wapping, firemen are still at work, seeking to subdue the flames which, though under control, continue to burn fiercely through the lower floors, with occasional explosions. The walls are gradually collapsing, and the stream is flowing with liquid rubber from the burnt stores. The river floats continue their attack on the burning building, and firemen are perched precariously on cranes on adjacent wharfs. Fire engines from all parts of London and the suburbs were arriving during the day, bringing men to relieve those who had been on continuous duty for long hours, and a few of whom had suffered minor injuries. It is expected that it will be days before the fire is extinguished. It spread to an adjoining warehouse today, but was controlled. The district is covered with soot, and the schools and tenements are uninhabitable.

(c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The London Fireboat ‘Massey Shaw’ Approaching Dunkirk at 11pm, 2 June 1940 by Rudolf Haybrook, Date painted: c.1940 Collection: IMW (Imperial War Museums). Haybrook was one of the ‘Fireman Artists’ in  WW2.

However it was in the Second World War that the boat really made its name. The boat  played  a major part in protecting the Thames riverside in the war, but it gained national fame by being one of the small boats that went over to Dunkirk to rescue British troops trapped on the beach. Once again a newspaper of 1940 tells the story.

Fire Brigade Boat Aids B.E.F.

LONDON, June 3.-Among vessels of the great fleet participating in the rescue of the B.E.F., London’s fire boat Massey Shaw was not the least prominent. Volunteer firemen manned the Massey Shaw, and under the command of a naval lieutenant they crossed the Channel on Friday and brought back 60 soldiers from the beach. Under a naval crew, she returned to Dunkirk on Saturday and transferred 500 men from the shore to larger ships, and then brought back 46 to England. Later taking aboard a volunteer crew, the Massey Shaw resumed her saving work.

Taking a small fireboat over the channel was a major undertaking, the craft was built to go up and down the Thames not to cross the sea. The courage of the crew in Dunkirk made the Massey Shaw famous, however further heroics would be needed for the next few years when the small fireboat put out countless fires from the Blitz and other bomb attacks. Due to the damage on shore to roads and water mains, the fireboats were often the main way that fires near the river could be extinguished.


The Massey Shaw carried on in service after the war until the 1960s when she became a reserve boat. In the 1970s, the Massey Shaw was decommissioned and remained moored pending the LFB’s decision on her future. By the 1980s, Philip Wray, Dick Helyer, and several other concerned individuals found the Massey Shaw abandoned in St Katharines Dock and began to lobby the Fire Authority to save this historic vessel. Gradually a Society was founded and restoration began, a lot of hard work undertaken by volunteers was undone in 1990 when The Massey Shaw sunk close to the LFB Headquarters at Lambeth. The boat was salvaged and restoration began again until the Massey Shaw was seaworthy enough to attend the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS) 50th Anniversary return to Dunkirk.


Since 2000, the Massey Shaw has been seen at numerous events along the river and on television on the programme Salvage Squad on Channel 4, a Heritage Lottery Fund grant has allowed more restoration and the funding of a education project. In May 2015 , Massey Shaw returned to Dunkirk with the “Little Ships” armada to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of troops from the beaches in 1940.


Even if you do not visit the Boat Show, when you around West India Dock, look out for one of the heroic little boats of the Second World War.

If you would like to find out more about the boat and the Trust, visit their website here


The Highlights of the Winter Lights Festival at Canary Wharf – 11th to 22nd January 2016


On the 11th January, Canary Wharf launched their free Winter Lights Festival that features sculptures, structures and installations by some of the most innovative artists and designers around the world using a wide range of different forms of light technology.

The advance of light technologies means that they are becoming increasingly popular by artists who are developing light installations that will provide interactive, performance or visual spectacles.

Walking around the installations on the launch night illustrated the wide range of installations and here are a few of the highlights.

One of the largest installations is the 18ft high illuminated inflatable figure created by Amanda Parer in Westferry Circus. This installation is inspired by the cult science fiction film Fantastic Planet [1973] that is set in the distant future in a world populated by gargantuan humanoids.


Some of the pieces use digital technology to use signals in the air to create displays, Julius Popp’s bit.fall  uses live news feeds to create a digital typography waterfall. Located in Chancellor Passage under the DLR track, this installation uses sophisticated technology which operate a series of valves that let illuminated droplets of water fall to form letters and words that appear in mid-air before cascading into Middle Dock.


Totem by the Bitone Collective in Cabot Square responds to the presence of mobile phone signals in the air around it, active or passive. The stronger and more numerous the signals the brighter and more vivid the sculpture appears.


Another large installation is Globoscope by Collectif Coin in Jubilee Park, Globoscope is composed of luminous spheres. Through a programme of digital sequences, using sound and light, the whole space becomes animated with each interconnected sphere representing a point or pixel in a digitised landscape.


Also in Jubilee Park is my light is your light by alaa minawi, created to highlight the plight of Syrian refugees. The poignant silhouettes of a family of six hopelessly fleeing a conflict zone have been created in lines of neon light.


A number of installations are based near Crossrail Place including the interactive Liquid Space 6.1 by Daan Roosegaarde. Liquid Space 6.1 detects people approaching and rotates in their direction. Stand beneath its bulbous ’head’ and it recognises your presence by emitting coloured lights and sounds from the installation’s three sides which shift in shape and size.


The Pool by the Jen Lewin Studio in Montgomery Square is another fun interactive installation, giant concentric rings of touch-sensitive circular pads create whirlpools of light, colour and movement are created as you run, jump, step or hop onto the pads.

The Winter Lights Festival at Canary Wharf certainly brightens up the cold dark winter’s night and provides entertainment for young and old.

Best seen after 4pm, all the installations and light effects will come alive throughout the evening until 9pm, the Winter Festival runs between 11th and 22nd January 2016.

If the Winter Festival whets your appetite for the bright lights, you can head into Central London between the 14th and 17th of January, where you will find more light displays in the Lumiere London festival.

For more information about the Canary Wharf Winter Lights Festival visit their website here

The Strange Story of the Tobacco Dock Shopping Centre in Wapping


Many regular readers will know that one of my favourite Sunday morning walks is from the Isle of Dogs to the Tower of London, my particular route takes in many places that were part of the old London Docks especially Shadwell Basin and Tobacco Dock. Shadwell Basin is the only part of the old London Dock network that is still filled with water and Tobacco Dock is the last remaining part of the vast warehouse complex that dominated the site in the 19th and early 20th century. Although the surviving warehouse is only two-fifths of the original tobacco complex, it does give some idea of the enormous scale of the warehouses and the surrounding wall.


Ironically. the Tobacco Dock complex is now less known for its historical importance but rather for the building of a shopping centre in the late 1980s that became a retail disaster.


The story of the shopping centre is a cautionary tale of developers getting carried away with the idea that redeveloping the old docklands was a way to make a lot of money quickly.

In the 1980s, Wapping became synonymous with Rupert Murdoch and News International who had moved into the area. It was assumed by many that other companies would follow their lead and that land in the area would be in demand for residential and industrial use. With limited shopping options in the area, A Kuwaiti investment company provided the money to redevelop the old warehouse complex. Most people agreed the conversion was very tastefully done with two modern arcades of shops on two floors inside a structure that retained many of its Victorian industrial features. Other elements of the past were added with a statue that commemorates a local incident where a Bengal tiger escaped from Jamrach’s menagerie into the street and picks up and carries off a small boy. There were also two large life-size copies of sailing ships outside the front of the shopping centre which was a reminder of the time when sailing ships would enter the docks.

tobacco dock

By the time that Tobacco Dock shopping centre with adjoining large multi-story car park opened in 1989, the UK economy had taken a turn for the worse and it became obvious that the location and poor transport links would not bring in the shoppers. Failed retail concerns are not new but it was what happened next, that added to the strangeness of this particular story.

By the mid-1990s, the shopping had been abandoned by most of the shops until only two eateries remained, yet bizarrely the entire shopping centre remained open to the public who never arrived when there were shops and were not likely to turn up for a café and a sandwich shop, indeed the main customers seemed to have been those working in Murdoch’s ‘Fortress Wapping’ next door.


Remarkably, the eateries managed to struggle on until 2000’s before they called it a day and the shopping centre closed its doors for the final time. In 2003 English Heritage placed Tobacco Dock, a Grade I listed building, on their Heritage at Risk register and all viable uses for the building were considered.

The complex began to be used for corporate and commercial events including the Channel 4 reality television show Shattered, ironically it was also used for scenes in the 2008 BBC drama series Ashes to Ashes that highlighted some of the excesses of  1980s London.

Another unusual use of the complex was in 2012, when the Ministry of Defence used Tobacco Dock as temporary accommodation for 2,500 soldiers bought in to guard London during the Olympics. Recently it has been relaunched as an events venue with a number of events taking place not always successfully, last year’s Oktoberfest event made the headlines for the wrong reasons, being forced to close down on a number of issues.


Walking past the dock is a surreal experience , with the rusting ships and high walls  standing forlorn as the odd jogger runs past.  In a strange way, the building of the shopping centre may have saved the area from being completely flattened for redevelopment, therefore we need to hope that some use can be found for one of the most impressive survivors of the old Docklands and that everyone can begin to enjoy the remarkable building that was the jewel in the crown of the London Docks for over 200 years.