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Dunbar Wharf and the Remarkable Story of Duncan Dunbar


Although the late 17th and 18th terraced housing on Narrow Street is considered of great historical interest, Limekiln Dock and especially Dunbar Wharf convey some of the atmosphere of 19th century docklands industry. The original loading doors and cast iron windows of the small, early 19th century warehouses of Dunbar Wharf are a reminder of how much of the riverside would have looked in the 18th and 19th centuries.


Although often overlooked today, Dunbar Wharf was home to one of the richest men in Britain who ran a large shipping fleet with connections all over the world. The story really begins with Duncan Dunbar senior who leaves Scotland and founded a brewery in Fore Street in Limehouse in the 1790s. His career as a brewer and wine merchant was obviously very successful because when he died in 1825 he left around £ 40,000 in his will. This wealth allowed his son Duncan Dunbar Jnr who was born in Dunbar Wharf to branch out into shipping. Young Duncan’s bought his first ship in 1827 and by 1842 his fleet stood at 11 ships, over next 20 years he ordered 42 new ships. remarkably there is little evidence that he had the ships built locally in Limehouse or nearby Blackwall.


Many of his new ships were built-in the North east at the works of Philip and James Laing, a small number were built at Duncan Dunbar’s own building yard that had built at Moulmein in Burma. the Dunbar clipper ships were famous around the world and were often named after family members or Scottish place names from the family’s home county of Morayshire.

Although there has been suggestions that he exported beer and spirits abroad, the ships carried a variety of cargo. Chartered by the government, Dunbar’s ships made 37 voyages carrying convicts mainly to Australia, a number of his ships were also used as a troopships in the Crimean War. Making full use of the cargo space, ships on the way back from Australia would go to India or China to pick up a cargo which often included spices, jute, teak, rice and ivory.


These perilous voyages around the world occasionally ended in disaster,  his ship the Dunbar was lost when the captain mistook the entrance to Sydney Harbour in a gale leading to a shipwreck and a large loss of life. These disasters did not deter Duncan Dunbar in his business activities which included founding the London Chartered Bank of Australia, being deputy-chairman of Lloyd’s Registry, chairman of the General Shipowner’s Society and deputy-chairman of the East and West India Dock Company.


Duncan Dunbar jnr lived in initially at Dunbar Wharf until he moved in with his parents at  Howrah House in Poplar, his mother’s died there in 1853 when Dunbar bought a house in Porchester Terrace, London. It was at Porchester Terrace that he built on a picture gallery and became a patron of the fine arts. In 1862, Dunbar suddenly died and left an estate worth between one and two millions (which would be worth around £65 million today). He never married and had no children, therefore the majority of his wealth went to other family members who showed no interest in carrying on the business. Within the next two years all of Duncan Dunbar’s ships were sold and that was the end of the Dunbar shipping line.

Remarkably one of Duncan Dunbar’s ships still survives, he bought the Edwin Fox for long distance voyages. Regular contributor Coral Rutterford in New Zealand remembers in the 1970 seeing the remains of the Edwin Fox at Picton where it had been for a number of years, since then it has been made into an attraction called the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum in appropriately enough Dunbar Wharf in Picton.