Home » Dock Life » The Strange Story of the Tobacco Dock Shopping Centre in Wapping

The Strange Story of the Tobacco Dock Shopping Centre in Wapping

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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12 Comments

  1. C Young says:

    Great story about Tobacco Dock/London Dock. My paternal Gt Grandfather lived in Limehouse and worked as a lock gate keeper in London Dock for 37 years from 1888. I have the engraved walking stick he was given by the dock service on retirement. He was born in 1861 and orphaned at 11. Like many in that situation he ended up in a sail training ship & then went to sea & traveled the world as an Able Seamen on several tall masters, including the famous 4 mast barque Wendur which broke speed records. My maternal Gt grandfather was an indentured Lighterman, as were several of his sons.
    The whole London dock/shadwell basin area is filled with remnants of a fascinating bygone age, despite the housing estates that now blight it.

    • Hi C Young.

      Thanks for the comment and information about your relatives, I bet they had some stories to tell of their exploits. Can you imagine travelling the world as a young boy on a sailing ship !!!!
      The old dock system is fascinating and I regularly write articles about the docks, strangely London Dock often gets overlooked which has led me recently to writing a few articles about Shadwell Basin and now Tobacco dock. I agree with you that you can still see remnants of the past if you know where to look and that is why it is important to write about this remarkable part of East London.

  2. My granddad worked in London Docks too – shame he passed away before I was born – I’d love to be able to talk to him about his experiences there.

    • Hi Mick,

      It is strange that they have been largely forgotten, I suppose it is still easy to see where the West India Docks but not the London Docks.
      I have just read your Victorian History of Industry on the Island, it is amazing and a valuable resource. It might be the subject of another book ?

  3. Being a local (living in Limehouse), I often wander around this area too, and likewise I’m fascinated by the local history. I’d always wondered what the story was behind Tobacco Dock, so I was very interested to read your post.

    I wonder if the venture wasn’t just a little ahead of its time? As the area is now becoming increasingly more residential/gentrified I wonder if such a development might not be brought back to life and made a success now if it had the right investment and promotion – one only has to look at St Katherine’s Dock and Canary Wharf to see how popular these places seem to be for shopping and eating out.

    But still, as you rightly observe, we should be grateful as it’s good in a sense that this development – although a commercial failure – in effect helped preserve a rich part of the local history and the architecture of the docks. I’m always amazed at just how large and imposing the brick walls are. I hope something positive can be done to ensure the place continues to be preserved in some form/function for the future.

    Best Regards, Tim

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your comments, I agree with you it was a bit ahead of its time but not sure they knew who they were catering for !.
      I always find it amusing when people walk past the ships and dock who have never seen it before, typically London they just give it a glance and walk past.

  4. I worked in the 1980s at a national daily newspaper near Tobacco Dock and often used to pop down into its gloomy though well-lighted interior to buy rather good coffee. Later in the day I and a few friends might snack at lunch-time in the huge and luxurious Henry’s, one of the wine bars that came and went. We’d have gone to those venues more often but outside there were pleasant pubs between near the Thames that served good ale and reasonable food. Shameful admission: there was also a chip shop in Wapping High Street that I would patronise during an amble through the quarter. A social-enterprise cafe a few hundred metres south of Tobacco Dock was another favourite of mine, less so of a colleague who once joined me for lunch there. He was very alarmed when the giant of a chef lost his mental equilibrium for about 30 seconds and ran through the tables of diners waving a large carving knife and shouting. I loved it: the most excitement I’d had for weeks and anyway, a back-office type ran out from behind the counter to pacify the disturbed chef, wearily, as if it were a regular event.

    Occasionally I’d see other little stories played out, and I am not referring to the social couplings of my fellow hacks – nothing noteworthy about those. A teenage couple from the Sylheti or other strict local Muslim families would huddle ambitiously in the shadowy corner of the long, stone-floored and negligible-footfall main shopping hall, confident that their parents or other elders who knew them would never venture into such a place. Alcohol and perhaps pork were on sale within.

    In the sunny months the adolescents, some traditionally and colourfully dressed, would choose a bench under the saplings by the well-tended canal outside the Dock for their early forays into illicit romance. As with teenagers everywhere, those black-haired youths who had failed to attract a female might stand around, trying to look threatening to the white adults. But the few who happened to be sitting by the canal simply continued to nibble a takeaway lunch or smoke a reflective cigarette as they juggled a polystyrene cup of tea or coffee.

    The Tobacco Dock restoration was high standard, although the Stepford Wives-type music played over the PA was silly in its pathetic attempt to promote consumerism. The only ship I remember was a lately contrived pirate galley aimed to attract toddlers and thus their parents. I was one of the few who ever took their child to ramble over the uninspiring assemblage.

    Yet why the development was a commercial disaster is hard to explain. I noticed that whenever I went into the Arab owner-company’s office in the building to ask about rental prices of premises – inevitably called units – the haughty female occupant would slowly look up from doing her nails to imply that the supposedly fabulously rich owners did not give a damn about whether or not the shops were all let – and they never were. One was sometimes let to me at no charge: to hold branch meetings of my union. I used to chuckle at what the powerful owners would say if they knew of their support for such an outfit.

    I wonder who now owns Tobacco Dock.

    David Altheer
    Dalston

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for the comments and the entertaining memories, nice to hear some of the human stories behind Tobacco Dock.
      Good to see that you are still using your considerable talents at Loving Dalston.

  5. The area is wonderful, still underrated, yet occasionally appreciated even by outsiders. As you will know, only this week a famous New Yorker who photographs slebs opened her latest exhibition in Wapping: http://bit.ly/1RGnNCd I think Tim, above, is correct: Tobacco Dock’s time may yet come. Let us hope local residents can be involved this time.

    • Hi David,

      I agree with your sentiments and I think I will wander down to the exhibition next week.

      • I missed the piece about the exhibition at the time, and am intrigued that anything is happening or was happening then at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. The Wapping Playhouse Project established there was closed by its brilliant developer after 20 or so years because of the pressure of gentrification – which of course had only happened because the Playhouse had turned the area around. Then the people who move into the hip new apartments complain about any noise/activity around. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/jun/26/jules-wright
        It sounds as though Tobacco Dock might have some of the same problems, but it looks from its website as though it’s solved many of them. As an architecture student when docklands was being ‘discovered’ what I learned about Tobacco Dock was that its ceiling heights were too low to be good for conversion: the height of two bales of tobacco. But oh, that brick vaulting – gorgeous.

      • Hi Judith,

        Thank you for your insights into the Tobacco Dock complex in Wapping and providing a reason why it was not turned into flats.

        As much as I love the Island, Wapping and Limehouse are full of interesting little spaces that I do like to explore.

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