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Lion Rampant: Duncan Dunbar and the Age of Sail by Michael Rhodes

Modern Limehouse is mainly a quiet residential area, however in the 19th century it was a bustling throng of businesses, ship builders and associated workers. Within this maelstrom of activity was Dunbar Wharf under the auspices of Duncan Dunbar. His fascinating story is told in a new book by Michael Rhodes. The book entitled Lion Rampant: Duncan Dunbar and the Age of Sail charts the rise of Dunbar from his birth at Dunbar Wharf to his death when he was one of the richest men in Britain.

Duncan Dunbar junior was not a self made man but built upon the considerable fortune left by his father Duncan Dunbar senior who arrived at Dunbar Wharf in 1779 after a short time working on Robert Milligan’s sugar plantation in Jamaica. His friendship with Robert Milligan and James Hibbert would be very beneficial for Dunbar when they became the leading lights behind the creation of the West India Docks.

Photograph – Isle of Dogs Life

Dunbar Senior used these contacts when he began his export business which began at Ropemakers Fields in Limehouse as a brandy, wine and beer merchant. Dunbar had noticed a gap in the market providing alcoholic drinks to the various outposts of the British and used his contacts with Milligan, the East India Company and various suppliers to build up a lucrative trade. An interesting by-product of this trade was that traditional British dark beers were not suitable for long journeys, so India Pale Ale was developed by a number of brewers, notably Hodgsons in Bow. The book throws some light onto the ongoing debate about IPA, part of the confusion is that Dunbar IPA was popular throughout the empire but it was often brewed at the Barley Mow brewery owned by Taylor Walkers and exported under the Dunbar label.

Photograph – Isle of Dogs Life

The success of these enterprises allowed Dunbar senior to expand his business along the Thames waterfront and Ropemaker Fields. He took over full control of his business and gradually included his sons John and Duncan as partners. After Duncan Senior died in 1825, the sons were left the business and property at Dunbar Wharf. Although Duncan was only 22 and John 17, they had worked in the business for many years and had a wide network of family and acquaintances.

The main part of the book charts the rise of Duncan Dunbar junior from Dunbar Wharf in Limehouse to shipbuilder and owner of the largest fleet of sail ever assembled. He also founded two insurance companies and two banks and dominated trade routes to Australia, New Zealand, India, and Asia. It is estimated that his ships brought to Australia and New Zealand one-third of all arrivals and supplied transport for the Burmese War, the Crimean, Second Opium War and Indian Rebellion.

However for all his success, Dunbar remains quite an enigmatic figure and a pioneer who has been largely forgotten by history. Over the years this has always been the source of some mystery to myself who has long been fascinated by Dunbar Wharf and its long and varied history.

This book does provide some clues to his personality with a section that delves into his personal life. Duncan Dunbar junior was actually born in a small room at Dunbar Wharf and grew up in Limehouse before being sent to Forres Grammar school in Scotland. Duncan Dunbar senior was a great believer in Scottish education and Forres contained a number of the wider Dunbar family. At the age of 15, Duncan Dunbar junior worked full time at Dunbar Wharf learning the family trade.

Even in his early 20s, Duncan Dunbar junior was a large imposing man and had a reputation as an engaging and enquiring personality. He had followed his father’s footsteps by becoming a member of Blackheath Golf Club, he developed into quite a competent golfer winning the Summer medal more than once. Blackheath Golf Club was much more than just a sporting outlet, many of the members were wealthy and held prominent positions in the business and political world.

However as his business grew, Dunbar had less time for golf and was in demand to sit on Business and commerce organisations like the City of London club, Lloyds Registry, he became a director of the West India Dock Company. He remained unmarried but was surrounded by family at his home in Howrah House in Poplar. Despite his rise in society, it seems that Dunbar was generally liked for his approachable demeanor and good humour, he also seemed to have something of ‘the common touch’ being popular with the Dunbar ship captains and crew.

Duncan Dunbar by Camille Silvy, 18 January 1862, © National Portrait Gallery, London

As he grew older, he developed an interest in art and moved to Porchester Terrace in Bayswater. This move from East to West London was significant on many levels suggesting he was ready to enjoy the fruits of his labours and would leave the day to day running of the business to trusted members of staff. A photograph in the book shows Duncan Dunbar in 1861, the photograph reflects his position as one of the moving forces of the Empire.

However, the stress and strains on his constitution would eventually come to the fore and suddenly in 1862, Duncan Dunbar junior collapsed and died in his Bayswater home. He was only 58 and his death rocked the Stock Market and the business community.

This book comprehensively charts Dunbar’s rise and provides evidence about how quickly Dunbar’s business empire was carved up between family members and the executors of the considerable 1.6 million pound estate. It was the demise of the Dunbar business that probably explains why Duncan Dunbar’s name disappears from history and his legacy is little understood.

Hopefully, this book will change people’s perceptions of Duncan Dunbar, the author has travelled the world accumulating information from a variety of sources to create the most definitive biography of Duncan Dunbar to date. This fascinating biography places Dunbar and Limehouse at the centre of global trade that provided the template for the modern world. Products and labour from around the world became interlinked in a way that had never been seen before. The effects of that trade changed the world forever and this book is a timely and important reminder of the process and people behind that trade.

If anyone wants to buy a copy of the book, find a link here

Online Maritime Records at Lloyd’s Register

Photo – Lloyd’s Register Foundation

In these strange times, I have found there is plenty of time for research, therefore I was delighted to find out about a new resource to investigate from Debbie Levett, Secretary for Friends of Island History Trust.

Debbie informed me about the Heritage & Education Centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and their digital online records. I had visited the centre some years ago and was fascinated by the information in their records. However the access to the physical records was not straightforward and I thought it was more useful to search for information in other ways.

Fortunately many of those records have now been catalogued and digitised, and are searchable online for free and available for public use.

Photo – Lloyd’s Register Foundation

When I visited their office, I was fascinated by the history of Lloyd’s Register which was the first maritime classification society, the Register began in 1760 and has inspected and surveyed vessels on the basis of the quality and condition of their workmanship and materials. These vessels were given a classification and entered within our annually published Register of Ships as a record of safe ships, and later, a record of all vessels over 100 tons regardless of whether they had been surveyed.

Photo – Lloyd’s Register Foundation

The society operated at ports and offices all around the United Kingdom and Ireland, and eventually, across the globe. The society eventually accumulated a large collection of material (1.25 million documents), that are being digitised and catalogued, consisting of survey reports, correspondence, photographs, ship plans and certificates, dating back to 1834. Around 200,000 of these are now online with more scheduled at a rate of around 30,000 a month.

Photo – Lloyd’s Register Foundation

From a local point, it is worth mentioning that Lloyd’s Register has long had a presence in and around the Isle of Dogs and a number of the records deal with the main shipbuilding areas of Limehouse, Blackwall and Millwall.

Photo – Lloyd’s Register Foundation

I will be exploring the site over the next few weeks and hopefully will bring some of the stories related to ships built on the Isle of Dogs.

The portal to the online catalogue can be found here


Chinese New Year Family Festival at the Museum of London Docklands – 8th and 9th February 2020

Chinese New Year (c) Museum of London

Celebrate the Year of the Rat at the Museum of London Docklands with the return of the popular two-day Chinese New Year family festival.

Chinese New Year (c) Museum of London

Located very near to London’s original Chinatown in Limehouse, the museum is the perfect place to enjoy the Chinese Lunar New Year festivities.

Chinese New Year (c) Museum of London

The event will include Chinese calligraphy, ancient folktales, ribbon dancing, board game making, dance performances, martial arts demonstrations, creative workshops, arts & crafts plus much more.

Chinese New Year (c) Museum of London

The event is free but you must book in advance for some of the activities which may have a small charge.

Chinese New Year (c) Museum of London

The Isle of Dogs and Limehouse have a long tradition of being the location of Chinese communities and this event is a great way to celebrate that connection.

For more information, visit the Museum of London Docklands website here

Remembering Steam Wagons in London

Credit – Barry Ashworth

Recently , I mentioned Barry Ashworth and his long career at Dunbar Wharf, when he first started work at the wharf in the 1960s he came across a number of documents and photographs from Dunbar Wharf’s previous owner, Francis Vernon Smythe. One of those photographs illustrates a long forgotten mode of transport on London streets and the various connections within the British Empire.

The fascinating photograph in question features a steam wagon collecting silver ingots in the City of London, more information is given at the bottom of the photograph with the caption ‘Steam Wagons loading Bar Silver for the British India Steamer.’ On the side of the trucks is F.V. Smythe of Dunbar Wharf, Limehouse. The photograph is taken outside the offices of Durham Stokes which was a stockbrokers in Old Broad Street and seems to be in the early 20th century.

The British India Steamer referred to in the photograph is the British India Steam Navigation Company which was formed in 1856 as the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company. It became the British India Steam Navigation Company in 1862, Lord Inchcape, became chairman in 1913 and the company became part of the P&O group of companies in 1914, it kept its own identity and organisation for another nearly 60 years until 1972, when it was fully absorbed into P&O.

At its peak, the company was one of the largest shipowners of all time, the company owned more than 500 ships and managed 150 more for other owners. The main shipping routes of the line were: Britain to India, Australia and Kenya but ran services throughout Asia and Africa. Silver Bullion was an important cargo for the ships from the UK to satisfy the demand for the metal in India where it was used in a variety of ways especially in its currency.

Alley & McLellan steam wagon (Mechanical Transport,1911)

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the steam wagon was considered the alternative to horse drawn vehicles especially for heavy hauling and short journeys. They first made an appearance in London in 1879, a newspaper report gives more details.

1879 A New Steam Waggon

A new style of road vehicle, designed to be propelled by mechanical power, has made its appearance in London, England. The carriage closely resembles an ordinary dog-cart; the shafts are very short, and incline together, meeting two feet in front of the dashboard; between them there is a third wheel, working upon an upright shaft, which could be turned by a handle placed the same as that of a bicycle; this handle is worked by reins in the hands of the driver. The motive power is obtained by the combustion of beozoline, a small jet of which is admitted into the burner. Itis then set on fire, and is completely consumed by a current of air, which until the machine is in action, is produced by turning the small handle already alluded to. The burner, about the size of an ordinary chimney-pot hat, and quite as elegant, is lined by coils of a copper tube containing water.

Thorneycroft steam wagon (Modern_Engines, Vol III)

By the early 20th century, steam wagons were a common sight on London roads and in 1903 there was a parade in the capital of the latest models.

1903 A Steam Waggon Parade.

On May Day last a display took place in London which may probably lead to an important annual function in future years This was a parade of self-propelled vehicles for carrying heavy freights, and this description, so far as last week’s gathering was concerned, is synonymous with “steam waggon,” for all the vehicles that attended were propelled by the time-honoured engine and boiler. Possibly by next May Day the internal-combustion engine may have been sufficiently improved to take its place as an important factor in the propulsion of heavy freight-in waggons.

The parade of thirty steam powered vehicles had been arranged by the Thorneycroft Steam Waggon Company, as in the older established cart-horse parade, the object was the encouragement of drivers, and three prizes were offered.

However by the 1920s, petrol and diesel lorries were considered cheaper and more efficient and steam wagons were considered slow and sometimes dangerous.

1929 Steam Waggons in London: Coroner Criticism

A rider to the ‘effect that steam waggons should no longer be licensed unless the driver has a full and unrestricted view of the whole road was added by the Jury at a Westminster Inquest. A verdict of accidental death was returned in the case of Laura Hodman, 18, typist, of High Street,Islington, who while crossing the Victoria Embankment to catch a tramcar during the rush hours on Tuesday evening was run over by a steam waggon.

Mr Ingleby Oddle (the coroner) said that the accident was a simple one. The girl did not look to see, If anything was coming on her left, the driver of the steam waggon was sitting on the near side, and could not see on the oft side at all, having to rely on his fireman.

“It is perfectly obvious , to me that the time has long since, gone by when vehicles of this type should not be permitted on the streets at all.”

The time of the steam wagon was almost over and new road taxes and limits on weight sent them to scrapyards in large numbers, although some were saved and preserved and can sometimes seen at steam fairs. Steam wagons were largely a short lived British phenomenon and quickly became forgotten as internal combustion powered vehicles took over the roads.

It is always remarkable how one photograph can takes us back to a forgotten piece of London history and many thanks to Barry Ashworth for permission to use the photograph and related information. I have undertaken some research into the photograph but if anyone has any more information, please comment below.

Hay Barges on the Thames

Charles William Wyllie (1853-1923) ‘A view on the Thames’ credit Barry Ashworth

Recently I had a conversation with Barry Ashworth who worked for a long period at Dunbar Wharf, during the conversation he mentioned a painting he acquired at auction. The painting is entitled A View of the Thames by Charles William Wyllie and shows a barge full of hay berthed near Limehouse.

Charles William Wyllie (1853-1923) ‘A view on the Thames’ credit Barry Ashworth

It is a fascinating painting that clearly shows the famous Limehouse waterfront near the Grapes that have attracted a number of artists. However it is the barge laden with hay that really draws your attention and is a reminder that within the streets of London that for a long period it was not cars but horses were that were king.

Hay-boat on the Thames. 1859. From The Book of the Thames from its Rise to its Fall,

There were thousands of horses on the streets of London and they had to be fed and it would have been a common sight to see Thames sailing barges heavily laden with hay. Although generally known as hay barges, for those in charge of the barge they were known as ‘stackies’. There were special adaptations made to the Thames sailing barge to allow the large amount of hay to be stacked on board. To provide some stability, below the hay were bricks for the various developments in London. The hay was collected from the farms of Suffolk, Essex and Kent and transported up the Thames. Once the hay and other cargo had been unloaded in London, the barges were then filled with manure from the horses which were taken back to the farms to spread on the fields.

Hay-Boats on the Thames, 1872 After Gustave Doré

This cycle was played out over a long period of time and became a way of life for the bargees that plied their trade up and down the Thames.

Hay Barge off Greenwich by Edward William Cooke Date: 1835 (National Maritime Museum)

As with most things, progress bought technological changes with the arrival of the combustion engine which slowly took over the London streets until the early 20th century when horses were not needed in large numbers and the hay trade declined.

In the early 21st century, the hay barges have virtually been forgotten until we come across paintings like Barry’s that remind us of the past.

Charles William Wyllie was part of family of artists that became known for their marine landscapes, river and coastal scenes. His brother, William Lionel Wyllie was considered one of the country’s most famous marine painters. Charles trained at Leigh’s School of Art and at the Royal Academy Schools.


In Dickens’ Path by Alfred Gardner

Recently, I was delighted to receive the latest book from Alfred Gardner who is best known for his two books, East End Story and Watch Your Fingers.

The new book is called In Dickens’ Path and is a series of short stories. The first story called ‘In Dickens’ Path’ features a fictional meeting between Charles Dickens and a twelve-year-old Limehouse errand boy called Gideon Woolfe.

Alf had drawn on his own family tree for the character of Gideon Woolfe, Gideon was actually Alf’s mother’s grandfather and was born on the border of Limehouse and Ratcliffe in 1839.

To put the story in context, Alf provides some background of both the area and Dickens connection with Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliffe and Limehouse. As a young boy, Dickens would visit Limehouse to see his godfather, Charles Huffman who was a Limehouse sail maker, rigger and ships chandler. Even when Dickens was a celebrated writer, he was known to travel around the area looking for ideas for his stories and articles.

In Dickens’ Path finds the great writer relying on Gideon’s knowledge of the area and quick wittedness to help him with his enquiries.

The next story, An Indelible Impression carries on the theme of being rewarded for kindness but with a modern twist.

A Surprise Encounter brings together an Army sergeant who used to bully his recruits and one of his victims.

It Tugs at the Heartstrings reflects Alf’s love of opera and A Cottage to Let illustrates a life in the country is not always idyllic.

Bogus Callers is about a couple of nasty confidence tricksters and A Canine Tale follows the adventures of an enterprising Dachshund.

Alf lived in the East End for most of his life until he moved recently to the South coast. His books often exposes the kindness and unkindness of modern life and these short stories provide plenty of interest especially if you are a fan of Charles Dickens and the Limehouse area.

This book of short stories is only available from Alf directly and all profits will go to the Children with Cancer UK charity.

If you would like more information or buy a copy of the book, contact Alf at agardner1941@btinternet.com

In Search of Old Ratcliffe

Ratcliffe 1795

Anyone who has looked into the history of Docklands will come across the small enclave of Ratcliff or Ratcliffe which is located between Shadwell and Limehouse. It is now a district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets which just adds to the confusion because the new Ratcliffe is above Commercial Road whereas the old Ratcliffe was generally below that main thoroughfare.

Ratcliffe 1804

The name of Ratcliffe is probably most known for the notorious Ratcliffe Highway, the road from the Tower of London towards Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs. The Ratcliffe Highway was the scene of a infamous murder of seven people of 1811.

The name Ratcliffe derives from a small sandstone cliff that stood above the surrounding marshes which had a red appearance, it was originally called Redcliffe. Ratcliffe from the fourteenth century was known for shipbuilding and the fitting and provisioning of ships. In the sixteenth century, various voyages of discovery were began from Ratcliffe, including those of Willoughby and Frobisher. The Brethren of Trinity House made Ratcliffe their headquarters in the early 17th century before they moved to the City.

One of the most interesting structures at this time stood at the bottom of Butcher Row, it was a Market Cross of considerable age which was still standing in 1732. The market that stood at this place later moved to Ratcliff Square.

Ruins of Ratcliffe after the fire of 1794

In the 17th and 18th century, Ratcliffe developed an unsavoury reputation with waterfront made up of lodging houses, pubs, brothels and music halls. In 1794, almost half of the hamlet was destroyed in a fire
which began when a barge loaded with saltpetre exploded, the resulting fire destroyed over 400 homes and 20 warehouses and left 1000 people homeless.

Although the slums returned in the early nineteen century, by the late 19th century the area was cleaned up and populated with people associated with the maritime trade.

Looking at the old maps, the area of old Ratcliffe gradually became  absorbed into Limehouse but it is possible to find odd references to the historic old area.

Ratcliffe 1851

The hamlet was divided between the parishes of Limehouse and Stepney until 1866, when it was constituted a separate civil parish (as Ratcliffe). From 1855 it was administered by Limehouse District Board of Works, and in 1900 became part of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney.

Ratcliffe 1908

Generally the old maps show Ratcliffe occupying the land between Love Lane and Butcher Row with the boundary of Commercial Road to the north.

One of the most historic slipways to the river is the Ratcliffe Cross stairs which was a crossing for centuries and the starting off point for a large number of voyages. Part of the Old stone slipway to the River Thames has Grade II listing.

Making your way inland you come across Ratcliffe Lane near the Limehouse DLR station. This was not really on the old maps and does not go anywhere in particular.

More interesting is the Ratcliffe Cross Street which runs from Commercial Road down to Cable Street, once again this is a relatively new road but is in the general area of Ratcliffe Square which was a well known part of old Ratcliffe.

Not on a lot of maps is Ratcliffe Orchard  which is really just a footway, what makes this interesting is that there was for a long period an orchard in the area but it was not called Ratcliffe Orchards on the old maps.

The area that was known as Ratcliffe for centuries was one of the most notorious areas of the old docklands, now it is a rather strange mix of small industrial units and a few residential areas. Little remains other than place names of the place that was known all over the world has the starting place for adventures and the location of lodging houses, pubs, brothels and music halls that crowded the waterfront.

The Story of Dundee Wharf


Dundee Wharf

Some weeks ago, I told the story of Aberdeen Wharf and the close ties between this small corner of Limehouse and Scotland. Eric Pemberton who regularly provides the site with interesting ephemera has provided some information on Dundee Wharf which gives us more information about these long forgotten ties.

Dundee Wharf is a now a striking residential development with a prominent position on the River Thames. The modern buildings was built-in 1997 but occupy land that has had a variety of uses for centuries. Before it became Dundee Wharf in 1901, it was a shipyard known as Limekiln Dockyard.

Dundee Wharf is on the embankment known as the Dunbars. The Dundee, Aberdeen, Caledonia and Dunbar Wharves were once owned by the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company.

dundee wharfgift

The Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company first began its passenger service between Dundee and London in 1826 and were one of the first to introduce paddle steamers on the route in 1835, the ships were considered the most luxurious and fastest steamers on the East coast route.

Gradually the era of paddle steamers gave way to screw steamers and the company began to expand their fleet with cabin ships which had berths for 65 first class and 60 second class passengers as well as 75 deck passengers. Business was so successful, the company opened its own terminal at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse in 1901. Although as the following newspaper report from 1906 points out, business at the wharf was good but health and safety was a bit of an issue.

An astounding discovery was made on the steamer Perth when she arrived at Dundee from London. A dock labourer named Stewart, was found to have been buried in the hold of the vessel among the cargo. He had been imprisoned for sixty hours, and during that time had neither food nor water nor light. Stewart was engaged in loading the steamer at Limehouse Wharf, when he was buried among the cargo, which consisted mainly of jute, and was taken to Dundee, which, owing to fog, was not reached until sixty hours later, or double the normal time. As the vessel was being unloaded at Dundee the men heard a cry from below: ‘That’s right mates, heave away,’ and soon afterwards Stewart was found half-doubled up among the bales. He was in a very exhausted condition.

During the war years of 1914 – 1918, many of the company’s ships were requisitioned and in 1918 the company found itself with no vessels to maintain its sailings. Eventually they were able to find ships and returned to the Dundee to London sailings and expanded with routes to Lisbon, Seville, Antwerp and Barcelona .

dundee wharf 1928

Limekiln Dock and surrounding warehouses,(Large warehouses on Dundee Wharf in the middle) 1928.

The interwar years were relatively profitable for coastal line ship companies who carried passengers and various cargoes. Some of the products bought down from Scotland included jute products, popular magazines from D.C. Thomson, jams made by Keillers, printed stationary and postcards produced by Valentines .

Dundee, Perth & London boat 1933 (1)

Dundee Perth and London Shipping Company Ship 1933

The outbreak of Second World War saw vessels requisitioned once again and more seriously, Dundee Wharf was badly damaged in a bomb attack during September 1940 and was out of action for a considerable time.

dundee wharf 1953

The SS Angusburn moored at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse, 1953.

After the war, the ships resumed the passenger service to London but were facing increasing competition from both road and rail services. In 1946, the company introduction of the three general purpose vessels “Angusburn”, “Angusbrae” and “Angusmuir”, which travelled around the world with various cargoes and became familiar sights in many ports in different parts of the world.

angus burn 1953

The SS Angusburn moored at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse, 1953.

In 1954, the company acquired a minority interest in a small London-based firm, Lockett Wilson Ltd who used Dundee Wharf to run sailings to Paris. The coastal trade became increasingly difficult to operate profitably during the 1950’s and 1960’s which led to ending of the liner service between Dundee and London which the company had been run since its formation in 1826. The last “London boat” made her final sailing in 1961 and eventually Dundee Wharf was sold in October 1969.

Once again many thanks to Eric Pemberton for bringing another piece of Docklands history to light, it is remarkable to consider that the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company  were bringing passengers and cargoes from Scotland to this small part of Limehouse for over 100 years.



Limehouse and The Great Storm of 1703


Whilst recently researching about Limehouse Hole, I came across the fascinating story about  The Great Storm of 1703 and the way that the ships in the Thames were destroyed on the Limehouse riverfront.


One of the great chroniclers of the Great Storm was Daniel Defoe who produced a book based of eyewitness reports which is now considered one of the first pieces of Modern Journalism.


Daniel Defoe 1706

Defoe had spent most of 1703 in trouble, one of his published pamphlets about Dissenters  led to him being placed in a pillory for three days  in July and then imprisoned in Newgate Prison.  He only obtained his release in November after agreeing to act as a spy .  Within a week of his release from prison, Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703,  on the 26th and 27th November. He was particularly interested in the shipping on the Thames and provided the following report.

Nor can the damage suffered in the river of Thames be forgot. It was a strange sight to see all the ships in the river blown away, the pool was so clear, that as I remember, not above 4 ships were left between the upper part of Wapping, and Ratcliffe Cross, for the tide being up at the time when the storm blew with the greatest violence, no anchors or landfast, no cables or moorings would hold them, the chains which lay cross the river for the mooring of ships, all gave way.

The ships breaking loose thus, it must be a strange sight to see the hurry and confusion of it, and as some ships had nobody at all on board, and a great many had none but a man or boy left on board just to look after the vessel, there was nothing to be done, but to let every vessel drive whither and how she would.

Those who know the reaches of the river, and how they lie, know well enough, that the wind being at south-west westerly, the vessels would naturally drive into the bite or bay from Ratcliff Cross to Limehouse Hole, for that the river winding about again from thence towards the new dock at Deptford, runs almost due south-west, so that the wind blew down one reach, and up another, and the ships must of necessity drive into the bottom of the angle between both.

This was the case, and as the place is not large, and the number of ships very great, the force of the wind had driven them so into one another, and laid them so upon one another as it were in heaps, that I think a man may safely defy all the world to do the like.

The author of this collection had the curiosity the next day to view the place, and to observe the posture they lay in, which nevertheless it is impossible to describe; there lay, by the best account he could take, few less than 700 sail of ships some very great ones between Shadwell and Limehouse inclusive, the posture is not to be imagined, but by them that saw it, some vessels lay heeling off with the bow of another ship over her waste, and the stem of another upon her forecastle, the bowsprits of some drove into the cabin windows of others; some lay with their stems tossed up so high, that the tide flowed into their fore-castles before they could come to rights; some lay so leaning upon others, that the undermost vessels would sink before the other could float; the numbers of masts, bowsprits and yards split and broke, the staving the heads, and stems, and carved work, the tearing and destruction of rigging, and the squeezing of boats to pieces between the ships, is not to be reckoned; but there was hardly a vessel to be seen that had not suffered some damage or other in one or all of these articles.

There were several vessels sunk in this hurry, but as they were generally light ships, the damage was chiefly to the vessels; but there were two ships sunk with great quantity of goods on board, the Russel galley was sunk at Limehouse, being a great part laden with bale goods for the Streights, and the Sarah galley lading for Leghorn, sunk at an anchor at Blackwall; and though she was afterwards weighed and brought on shore, yet her back was broke, or so otherwise disabled, as she was never fit for the sea; there were several men drowned in these last two vessels, but we could never come to have the particular number.

Even taking account of perhaps some exaggeration, the sight of hundreds of ships wrecked along the Limehouse riverfront would have been an extraordinary sight and there were also reports  of  chaos at Blackwall.

The Great Storm of 1703 was considered one of the most severe natural disasters ever recorded in England. It arrived from the southwest on 26 November (7 December in today’s calendar). In London, 2,000 chimney stacks collapsed. It was said every church steeple in the city was damaged, fatal casualties numbered 23 dead and over 200 severely injured, mostly by falling masonry.

The damage across the nation was considerable with human losses estimated at 8000 to 10000, an estimated 300,000 trees fell down or uprooted. Four hundred windmills and eight to nine hundred houses were destroyed, and over a hundred churches severely damaged.

Defoe’s The Storm is an extraordinary record of the event with contributions from all over England. The book was very popular at the time, but both the Storm and the book have largely been forgotten. It is ironic that Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is more famous and considered an eye witness account, it wasn’t ! Defoe was only four at the time.

The Story of the Limehouse Pier

limehouse pier

Many of the posts on the blog are the outcome of research suggested by contributors, Eric Pemberton often sends one of his interesting postcards which engages my curiosity and makes me determined to find out more about the subject. Eric sent a postcard recently which was a reminder that certain parts of the river have an intriguing history all of their own.

Historically, The riverside district from the South West India Dock (Impounding) entrance lock up to Dunbar Wharf was known as Limehouse Hole. The name was in use by the seventeenth century, this was one of the first parts of the parish of Poplar to be developed, but almost nothing survives of its earliest 17th century development, In the 18th to 20th century, Limehouse Hole was developed with a number of shipping-related enterprises. There were shipbuilders, barge-builders, boat-builders, ropemakers, sailmakers, mastmakers, blockmakers and ship-chandlers.


1908 Map

Due to its location on the river, Limehouse Hole was a popular place for watermen to ply their trade, which they did successfully from the seventeenth century. In the ninetieth century, watermen were losing business to steamboats and tried to encourage trade by erecting a floating pier at Limehouse Hole Stairs. It was erected in 1843 but did not have the required effect and was gone by 1860. However it was the first pier in Limehouse Hole, but not the last because when a passenger steamboat service to the locality was proposed, a new floating pier was erected at Limehouse Hole Stairs in 1870. This pier, a walkway on three pontoons, was designed by Stephen William Leach  was removed in 1901 for the building of Dundee Wharf. The postcard sent by Eric dates  from the early 20th century and features another Limehouse Pier, this construction  was built for the short lived  ‘Penny Steamer’ service in 1905 but managed to survive until 1948.

stairs limehouse

Other views of the pier are from Thames Riverscape  and the Britain from Above photographs. In 1937 the Port of London Authority commissioned Avery Illustrations to document both banks of the Thames between London Bridge and Greenwich/Island Gardens. This Thames Riverscape now provides an invaluable record of the Thames from this period.


The aerial picture from Britain from Above shows the pier in 1928 and clearly shows how far it extended.

The pier was not the most successful ever but it did feature in a 1927 poem by Helen Markham

At Limehouse Pier, the tide is strong,
And there are curious things adrift,
But the wind hath a nobler song,
Salt with the sea’s sharp kiss, and swift.
A flowing fire is on the river,
Like wine outpoured, wine-gold, wine-red,
or purging of her piteous dead.
The great crane engines swing and quiver.
And the lost sea-birds wheel and cry,
The long, slow barges, dreamfully,
The little brown-sailed boats, go by
Intent to find the sea.

To a large extent, Limehouse Hole has now disappeared underneath Westferry Circus and  the Riverside developments, this  stretch is now known as part of the longer Limehouse Reach but for centuries the name of Limehouse Hole and to a lesser extent Limehouse Pier were known all around the world.