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.
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.