Home » Posts tagged 'wapping'

Tag Archives: wapping

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

The Story of Aberdeen Wharf in Limehouse


Regular readers will know that Eric Pemberton often sends some of his interesting postcards to the site, which often provides a clue to events or places that have  been forgotten. Recently he sent a postcard of the SS Aberdonian at Aberdeen Wharf which is a reminder of the close connection of the Limehouse riverfront to Scottish trade and passenger services and the importance of coastal shipping lines before the 1950s.

aberdden badge

The Aberdeen Steam Navigation company was founded in 1836, an amalgamation of the Aberdeen and London Steam Navigation Company and the Aberdeen and London Shipping Company. It operated a regular service, first from Wapping and later Limehouse between London and Aberdeen, using first a number of small sailing vessels before moving to steamers in 1828. In the 19th century, a large number of coastal shipping companies had vessels that transferred goods and passengers from a large number of UK ports to London.

linney 1927

Old Aberdeen Wharf, the Wapping Police Station, and St John’s Wharf. All three buildings are still standing,

Photo A G Linney,1929

The first Aberdeen Wharf  built-in 1843 – 1844 by the Aberdeen Steam Navigation company was in Wapping next to the police station, however in the late 1870s they  acquired part of Limehouse Dockyard and developed the land . A four-storey block of warehouses in four divisions was built on the north side of the new dock where parts of the ground storey were left open from quay to yard for transit handling. The capacity of the warehouses was about 770,000 cu.ft and the site had its own hydraulic power supply.

aberdeen wharf 1882

Aberdeen Steam Wharf 1882

Aberdeen Steam Wharf was chiefly used for the storage of goods brought from Scotland, notably tinned salmon and other sundry goods, however passenger services were run especially in the summer. The SS Aberdonian was one of the passenger ships that plied that particular trade. The trade must have been quite profitable because the company provided sailings until 1945 except for wartime when many of the ships were requisitioned. At the end of the war, the company was taken over by the Tyne-Tees Steam Shipping Co., Newcastle, part of the Coast Lines group. Passenger services were temporarily resumed after the end of World War II but only lasted until 1948 when they finally ceased. Competition from road and rail traffic led to the end of the cargo trade between Aberdeen and London which eventually finished in 1962 and the company officially closed in 1964.

aberdeen wharf 1937

Aberdeen Wharf was badly damaged in the Blitz and some of the riverside warehouses were cleared in 1948–9, the remaining 1870s warehouses were demolished in 1971–2, Aberdeen Wharf was cleared in the late 1980s for use by contractors working on Westferry Circus and riverside parts of the Canary Wharf site.

1953air from above

In this photo from 1953, Dundee Wharf in the foreground, with some of the 1870 warehouses and then low level building of Aberdeen Wharf.

Today on the riverfront, little remains of Aberdeen Wharf and the Aberdeen Steam Navigation company, however there is a plaque that few people notice that marks their location and reminds us of  another interesting piece of Docklands history.


This particular corner of Limehouse  has a number of connections to Scotland with Dunbar Wharf and Dundee Wharf close by. Even though the Aberdeen Steam Navigation company traded from the site for almost 100 years, its history has largely been forgotten.


Many thanks to Eric Pemberton for his contribution to this post.


Submarines in Shadwell Basin – 1939 and 1951


Whilst researching the Pamir in Shadwell Basin article, my attention was taken with a Pathe News report of a couple of Royal Navy submarines to the Basin in 1939. For all the ships that come up the Thames to London, it is very rare a submarine makes the journey.  That is why, when a Dutch submarine come into West India Dock a couple of years ago it created quite a bit of attention.

Local writer Alfred Gardner also remembers a couple of submarines after the war arriving in Shadwell Basin and quite a number of local children were allowed to look inside and tour the boat.


The visit in 1939 involved the Royal Navy submarines,  HMS Otway and HMS Osiris. The short film shows the submarines on the Thames near Wapping and shows one of the submarines entering the Basin and moving to its berth. Both the submarines seem very different to the more streamlined modern models.


The HMS Otway was a Odin-class submarine built by Vickers Limited of Barrow-in-Furness and launched in 1926, she was actually built for the Australian Navy and made the trip to Australia setting the record  for the longest unescorted voyage undertaken by a British submarine. However the cost of maintaining the submarine led to the Australians giving them back to the Royal Navy . Although expensive to operate the HMS Otway did see service during World War II , after the war the submarine left RN service in 1945 and was broken up in Scotland.


The HMS Osiris was also a Odin-class submarine of the Royal Navy and built by Vickers-Armstrongs in Barrow-in-Furness and  launched in  1928, in 1939 she was sent to the East Indies Station in Colombo. By 1940 she was transferred to the British Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria where she saw quite a bit of action. Once again, at the end of the war, the submarine was considered surplus to requirements and  she was scrapped in South Africa.


The visit of the two submarines in 1951 was to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of Submarine Service. Both HMS submarines Auriga and Acheron were open for public inspection in Shadwell Basin.

HMS Acheron was an Amphion-class submarine of the Royal Navy,built-in HM Dockyard, Chatham and  launched 25 March 1947 , HMS Auriga (P419), was also an Amphion-class submarine of the Royal Navy, built by Vickers Armstrong and launched 29 March 1945. Unlike their pre war cousins, these two had a longer shelf life lasting  until the mid 1970s.

Seeing Shadwell Basin today, it would seem inconceivable that it was the berth for submarines, but the evidence is there is you look for it. If you would like to watch the short Pathe News Film, you can find it here.

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 Dockland Paintings of John Minton


John Minton  by John Minton c.1953
(National Portrait Gallery, London )

 Whilst  researching Wapping in the war recently I was side tracked by coming across the paintings of John Minton. Unlike most of the Second World War paintings, Minton showed the effects of the bombing in a quite a strange way with usually one  individual in a bombed out landscape.


Wapping by John Minton
1941 IWM (Imperial War Museums)

He produced a number of pictures of  Wapping, Poplar and other parts of Dockland. His ghostly figures seem to inhabit  the strange wastelands of destruction  and he tends to look down on the destroyed buildings from an aerial view.


Blitzed City with Self Portrait
by John Minton  1941 IWM (Imperial War Museums)

Minton  was well known in the 1940s and early 50s as a  painter, illustrator, stage designer and teacher.

Picture 7550

Desolation, Poplar, 1941
by John Minton  1941 IWM (Imperial War Museums)

He studied art at St John’s Wood School of Art from 1935 to 1938 and was greatly influenced by his fellow student Michael Ayrton. Minton and  Ayrton, designed the costumes and scenery for John Gielgud’s acclaimed 1942 production of Macbeth. In the following year, Minton began teaching illustration at the Camberwell College of Arts, and from 1946 to 1948 he was in charge of drawing and illustration at the Central School of Art and Design.

Picture 7548

Looking Down on a Bombed Building by the Thames, Poplar
by John Minton  1941 IWM (Imperial War Museums)

As well as his teaching, he produced a considerable body of work which included paintings, illustrations for Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food, he also designed posters and wallpapers.

Picture 7544

A Town Destroyed, Poplar
by John Minton  1941 IWM (Imperial War Museums)

His drab and dark British painting were often in contrast to his bright and colourful paintings of scenes in the West Indies, Spain and Morocco.


Rotherhithe from Wapping
by John Minton 1946 (Southampton City Art Gallery)

Although there were some notable exceptions in his Docklands paintings with colourful paintings of Rotherhithe and Greenwich.


The Thames from Greenwich, London
John Minton 1955 (Leeds Museums and Galleries)

Unfortunately Minton’s  success in the 1940s was not repeated in the 1950s and during  that period he suffered psychological problems, had issues with alcohol abuse, and in 1957 he committed suicide.

American writer Ernie Pyle in Docklands – 1941


Ernie Pyle

Recently I came across the book, Ernie Pyle in England and began to read his recollections of visiting London and a number of other cities in late 1940 and early 1941.

Although virtually unknown in the UK, Ernie Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist known for his columns in the Scripps Howard newspaper chain. From 1935 to  1945, he was a roving correspondent  covering many of the areas of action including North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific. He was killed in combat on Iejima during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

In the war,  he enjoyed a  large following in some 300 newspapers and was among the best-known American war correspondents.  Part of his popularity was his laid back and whimsical informal style  and his empathy with the people and places he visited.


In the following two pieces you can get a taste of his style as he travels around the heavily bombed dockland areas in 1941.


London, January  1941

This is the way the people of London are. Last night I was standing in the dimly lighted office of the marshal of a big air-raid shelter in the East End.
A bareheaded man with a mustache, a muffler and a heavy overcoat was sitting in a chair tilted against the wall. I hadn’t noticed him until he spoke.
“Have you been around Wapping?” he asked.
Wapping is a poor, crime-heavy, conglomerate, notorious section of London. Also it has been terrifically bombed, as has all of London’s waterfront.
“No, I haven’t,” I said, “but it’s one place I’d like to see.”
“Well,” said the man, “I’m a policeman and tomorrow’s my day off. I’d like nothing better than to show you around Wapping if you would care for me to.”
Would I care for it! To get around Wapping with a policeman as a private guide— you can’t beat that if you’re out to see London. I jumped at the chance.

So Mr  Ian Rubin, London bobby, and I walked six miles around Wapping. We did back alleys and dark places, burned warehouses and wrecked churches, block after block of empty flats. We did Wapping with a finetooth comb. And so I’m in a position to say that as far as Wapping is concerned there almost isn’t any Wapping any more.
Wapping is one part of the big borough of Stepney. Today its population is a mere few hundred. The entire ward was compulsorily evacuated in that first awful week of the blitz. They put people on boats and took them down the Thames. Those who have come back are mostly men.
In normal times Wapping would be a swarming, noisy mass of humanity, a population as dense as in our Lower East Side in New York. Today I walked block after block and met only half a dozen people. There was no sound in the streets. The place was dead. It was like a graveyard.

We walked into the big inner courtyard of a square of tenement flats. Rear balconies on each floor formed the walls of a square. The windows were all out; the walls were cracked; abandoned household belongings lay where they had been thrown. In the balconies above, no faces peeped over the railings. There was no sound, no movement, no life in the whole block. It was the terrible silence of that Wapping courtyard that got me.

Policeman Rubin and I walked on. We went into the station of a demolition squad— the men who pull down dangerous walls before turning over the general job of demolition to others. These are brave men. Five of them, in workmen’s clothes, were sitting before a crackling fireplace. There was nothing for them to do today— but there might be any time. They were very friendly, but I could barely understand their Cockney speech. One of them asked me if it was possible to write a letter to San Francisco. One of his fellow workers answered for me. “Sure, you dummy,” he said. “You can write anywhere you want.” Everyone of these men had been bombed out of his flat, one of them three times. Their wives have been evacuated, but they stayed on to work— a part of London’s great civilian army.

We stood now in a vacant lot where until last September there had been a five-story block of flats. It was fully occupied when a bomb hit. On the wall of a building across the alley you can still see the handprints of a man who was blown from his flat and smashed to death against the wall. We stood amid the wreckage of a church, in which Policeman Rubin himself had toiled all night helping to reach a mother superior who had been buried in the debris. She was dead when they found her.

We went to see the Church of St. John of Wapping, well known to American tourists. Only the steeple was left, and it was being torn down for safety’s sake.
We passed a pub where in the old days pirates and smugglers used to gather from the ends of the world to sell their illicit goods. It has been boarded up since September. We passed an undamaged warehouse, where big sacks of East Indian spice were being loaded onto drays, and the smell was sweet and wonderful. ,

We came to a street sign that said, “Danger. Unexploded Bomb.” So we walked around it. Policeman Rubin showed me where a time bomb fell at the edge of a school. They couldn’t get it out, so it lay there nine days before blowing the school to smithereens. The wreckage of the school still lay there in a heap.


I saw firemen damping down the inside of a warehouse in which a small new blaze had sprung up after months of smoldering. I saw great mounds of burned newsprint paper, and other mounds of scorched hemp. I saw half walls with great steel girders hanging, twisted by explosion and fire. But I saw whole warehouses, too; for Hitler didn’t get them all. We wandered back and forth through dead, empty streets, and looked at hundreds of ground floor apartments where rubble-covered furniture stood just as it had been left. The owners probably will never come back for it. We walked for another hour, Policeman Rubin and I, and then suddenly we came upon a small store with the wallboard front and little show-window center which are today the badge of a bombed establishment that’s still doing business. And when I saw that window it dawned on me that in a solid hour of walking this was the first open store window I had seen. Every other doorway and window in an entire hour of walking through the heart of a city district was a doorway or a window into a room that no longer held human beings or goods.

That is the way in Wapping today. There will have to be a new Wapping when this is all over.



January, 1941

We got on a bus, a friend and myself, to see more of London’s devastated East End, where the poor people live, London buses are double-deckers, and you can smoke on the top deck, so we sat up there. You don’t just pay a flat fare in London. The conductor comes around and sells you a ticket to wherever you want to go. But we weren’t sure just where we
wanted to go, not knowing London well.

“I think we’d like to go around the Isle of Dogs,” I told the conductor. So he told us where to change buses.

While waiting for the second bus we bought four apples (thirty cents) and ate them. This second bus took us only a short way, and we had to get off and walk two blocks, for the street had been blown up. A big group of men in workmen’s clothes stood waiting for the next bus.

“Is this where we get a bus to the Isle of Dogs?” we asked.

One little stoop-shouldered fellow with yellow teeth and a frazzled coat said, “Just where do you want to go?”

We said we didn’t know. He laughed and said, “Well, this bus will take us there.”

So we all got on, and after a while a big man who was with the little fellow moved back and said he and the little fellow were going to walk through a tunnel under the Thames and would we like to get off and go with them. We said, “Sure.”

It was a foot tunnel, not big enough for cars. These two men work on barges carrying freight up and down the Thames. They leave home one morning and don’t return until the next afternoon. They were carrying tin lunch boxes now. The big fellow had been to New York six times, before the first World War, working on ships. He told us about it as we walked through the tunnel.

At the other end we came out into what is known as Greenwich. The two men walked us past Greenwich College, which is very old. We stopped before some iron gates and peered through them at some far domes.

“Now that there,” said the little fellow, “that’s the fymous pynted awl.”

“The what?” I said.

“The pynted awl,” he said. “You know, doncha, the fymous pynted awl— the pynted ceilin’, you know.”

And then I realized he was saying “painted hall.” So we looked appreciatively.

“All American tourists knows it,” he said. “The artist he lyed on his back in a ‘ammock for twenty years pyntin’ that ceilin*, and when he got through he found a mistyke in it and he went cracked worryin’ about it.
Nobody else to this d’y has ever been ayble to find the mistyke. You tell the Americans the bombs heynt touched the pynted awl.”

We came to the little fellow’s corner, so we shook hands and said good-bye. The big fellow got on a double decked trolley with us, and do you know that this cockney, a complete stranger, insisted on paying our fare and him as poor as a church mouse! He said people had been nice to him in New York. But that was twenty-five years ago.

After a while we said good-bye to him and got on another bus. It took us down into Blackwall Tunnel, back under the Thames. Then we got out and walked down into the neighborhood of the great West India docks. They won’t let you onto the docks, but we could peep through.

It was raining now and very cold, and it was getting dark. We walked amid wreckage and rubble and great buildings that stood, wounded and empty. It was ghostlike and fearsome in the wet dusk. Poor, pitiful East End! True, Londoners say the slums should have been knocked down long ago, but this is a grievous way to go about it.

The Great Freeze of 1895


Frozen Limehouse 1895

 Now the cold weather has arrived, the Island is exposed to the cold gusts of wind off the river. However for all the discomfort of the present, it is nothing compared with some of the major problems of the past. The Great Freeze of 1895 is a prime example .

Recently I came across the above picture of a frozen Limehouse in 1895, it seems quite picturesque to the modern viewer but the arctic conditions had tragic consequences to many people especially in the East End.
Newspapers of the time were quick to point out that the cold spell  was causing serious problems.

London, February 12. There is no abatement of the abnormally cold weather which has prevailed in northern Europe for the last week. The Upper Thames is frozen over, and huge blocks of ice breaking away from the mass are floating down, the river, causing much damage to the smaller shipping craft. Water traffic is consequently at a complete standstill. Many cases of death from cold and exposure are reported, the privation and distress in the east end of the city being particularly severe. The cold is so intense that birds are found frozen to death on the branches of the trees, and thousands are perishing. The severe weather has also directly caused considerable mortality, a number of deaths from exposure having been reported among postmen, omnibus drivers, cabmen, and labourers.


Dr Joseph Murie 1895 (National Maritime Museum)

The cold weather stopped workers from working in the docks where ships were frozen in. If the worker did not work they did not get paid and the arctic conditions lasted so long, people were so desperate they turned to charities for help. Another newspaper visited a Salvation army in Whitechapel.

The Salvation Army food depot in Whitechapel Road, for instance, is crowded, mostly by women and children, in the afternoon. Practically all these women are working women, charwomen and so on said Commissioner Cadman, and the frost has deprived them of their work. They come here to get a half-penny or a penny meaL and we let them. That single picture in the Salvation hostel brought home most vividly the struggle for sheer existence which is going on but some figures which Mr Wynne Baxter, the coroner for East London, put at the disposal of a member of the Chronicle staff, indicate that many are falling in the struggle. His district covers that bleak portion of the metropolis running from Poplar up through Stepney, Wapping, Bow, and St George in the-East to WhitechapeL Last week he attended about sixty inquests, while in the same week last year the number was only thirty-two. The only meaning to be put on this tremendous contrast is that the frost is responsible for the doubling of the death-rate. In the coroners’ districts for North-east London and North London the number of inquests has also gone up almost as alarmingly. Have people died directly and simply from cold ? it may be asked. Many cases might be given as a melancholy answer to it, but two that have come under Mr Wynne Baxter’s attention daring the past few days may suffice. An old woman living in St. George’s- in-the- East went out in the morning to fetch some perquisites, bundles of waste paper or something else was in the habit of getting. She was found, not having got very far, seated in the street, where the cold had killed her. Perhaps that is putting the tragedy in fewer words than a medical man would, but they really represent what happened. Another old woman was found dead in bed — such a bed ! — in a two roomed house in Poplar, where she and her husband lived. She had been suffering from bronchitis, and he was lying ill in the other room. Neither room had a fireplace, and the door of one opened directly into the street. She was killed by the cold without question, and how could it be otherwise ? Such reading is not pleasant, but it is good for us all to know what is happening.


Rotherhithe 1895 ( Southwark Library Collection)

Even fighting a fire in the London Docks was made almost impossible by the conditions.

During the late frost, after attending a fire at the London Docks, involving the-loss of some £60,000 or £80,000, those of the firemen who proceeded homeward, at 9 o’clock in the morning, along Commercial Road, presented a most remarkable appearance. In a large number of cases their helmets were frozen to their heads, and icicles nearly six inches in length hung from them and also from the men’s coats; This, however, was not surprising, considering the circumstances in which they had carried on their arduous labours. So intense was the cold, indeed, that when an engine stopped working for a few moments the water froze in the hose. As the water was thrown out of the nozzles the ice formed round the end of the metal until there were complete rings of ice several inches long on the end of the nozzles, through which the water passed. When two men held the same ‘ branch ‘ they froze together as they stood, and yet close to the fire the heat was so intense, that it was impossible to face it for any length of time. The water as it ran out on to the ground froze instantly, and the firemen soon became completely encased in sheets of ice, which froze on their uniforms, hair, and beards. The ladders  became perfect pictures, being covered with long lines of ice. The ruins of the fire presented a most picturesque appearance. Enormous icicles were hanging from the roofs, while the walls were entirely covered with a pure white frost. The hanging cranes and lamp-posts had been converted into pillars of ice, which, however, were a constant source of danger to the men employed near the scene, owing to the liability of the ice to break away and fall in large quantities. The telegraph and telephone wires which led into the ruined warehouses, but which were broken down, were also covered with thick ice and frost.

0015 24.tif

The Frozen Thames at Greenwich: 1895. British School ( Museum of London)

It was not just Britain that suffered, the United States and Eastern Europe were badly affected. Eventually things got back to normal but the full cost both in human lives and deprivation will never be known. Extremely cold winters have caused havoc since 1895, but the scenes of massive ice floes on the Thames have never really been repeated.


Greenwich Reach – W Hudson (National Maritime Museum)

A Tiger Loose in Limehouse – 1839

Whilst doing a little research about the Regent’s Canal, I came across the following story which is relatively unknown compared the Jamrach and the Tiger incident illustrated above that happened in 1857 on Ratcliffe Highway.  Well before Jamrach set up his emporium, George Wombwell  was the undisputed King of the Menageries and he had a base in Commercial Road near to the Regent’s Canal.

From there he travelled all over the country to the many fairs to exhibit his wild animals, however he also used his base in Commercial Road to buy animals bought from all over the world by sailors  who berthed in the local docks. He would then sell the animals  on to Zoo’s and other interested parties.

The following newspaper report is from 1839 and is interesting for more than one reason, the local characters such as Mr Thomas and the Irish Coal Whipper  are particularly entertaining.

wombwell 6666

Escape of a Large Bengal Tiger  – 1839

Escape of a large Bengal tiger from Wombwell’s menagerie at Limehouse, near the Regent’s-canal Dock-bridge. It appeared that the animal broke loose from its den about half-past seven o’clock, and found its way into the Commercial-road, where it was first seen leisurely walking along by Mr Thomas, a boot and shoe-maker in Ratcliffe Highway. He first observed the animal near the White Horse-gate. and, supposing it to be a bear, called out to a female who was near him, ” Stand back. here is a bear coming ” The young woman immediately threw off her pattens, and ran away down an adjoining street leading towards Shadwell, and was not seen again.

Directly afterwards the tiger passed Mr Thomas who had sought refuge in a doorway. After the tiger had passed him. Mr Thomas, lost no time in communicating the circumstance to all the policemen in the vicinity, who proceeded in various directions, and warned the passengers of the locality of the dangerous beast. The tiger in the meantime continued his course along the Commercial-road, the people flying in great terror on his approach, until he met a large mastiff dog, which he instantly attacked, striking the dog on the back with his paw and crushing him with a single blow, and seizing the poor animal with his teeth threw him into the air. The dog fell lifeless on the ground, and the tiger then continued to amuse himself with the carcase for some time, running up and down the road with it until he reached a house near the bridge. The gate of the garden having been left open, he entered with his prey and laid down to devour it. The only person at-home was a servant girl, the family being absent at church. Hearing a noise in the garden she took a light, and went to the door to ascertain the cause. upon opening the door several policemen called out to ‘her to close it directly, and keep within the house: and it was fortunate she did so, for at that moment the tiger, attracted by, the light, was about to spring upon her.

The tiger remained in the garden for some time, busily engaged in devouring the dog, until a policeman, more bold than the rest, advanced towards the spot, and closed the gate upon it. A stout rope was immediately procured, and a slip noose having been made It was thrown across the animal, which made a sudden spring towards the railing, about six feet in height, separating the garden from the foot path. In doing so, the noose fastened itself round it, and the tiger remained with its head towards the ground, and loins on the rails for some time, roaring tremendously and alarming the whole neighbourhood.

The mob, which had kept at a respectful distance while the animal was at liberty, now advanced; but although the beast was under some restraint, it struggled violently, and made use of its fore paws. One man, an Irish coal whipper, who got too near, had his cheek torn open and his belly severely lacerated. So great was the curiosity of the populace, that the police had great difficulty in keeping them beyond the reach of danger! and some fool hardy, half-drunken ballast-getters and coal whippers were with some difficulty, restrained from making an attack upon the tiger.

The keepers of Wombwell’s menagerie were soon apprised by the police, and brought ropes, which they fastened round the tiger’s neck, and after a good deal of resistance led him back to his den. One of the keepers was severely injured while securing the animal, which tore his hand, and put him in great pain. It was some time before the neighbourhood recovered from the alarm which this event occasioned. It appears that the door of the tiger’s den had been incautiously left open, and it broke a chain by which it was secured to the side of the cage or caravan, and got out.

The aftermath of the drama was Mr Wombwell was bought in front of the  local magistrates who had been told there had been other occasions when an animal had escaped. Apparently a Polar Bear had escaped a few months previously which had nearly killed a passer-by. Mr Wombwell’s defence was that all the animals had been trained to appear on the stage and were docile, he claimed it was the dog that had frightened the tiger and led to the incident. Amazingly he got off with the recommendation that he should make sure there was no reoccurrence.


George Wombwell

But even if Mr Wombwell kept his promise, the people of Limehouse , Shadwell and Wapping were not safe from attacks from wild animals.  In 1857, a large tiger escaped from Jamrach’s menagerie and attacked a young boy, Jamrach himself wrestled with the tiger and eventually rescued the boy.

To celebrate this event,  there is a statue  now in Tobacco Dock that show the incident between the tiger and the little boy.

tobacco dock

Jamrach’s and Wombwell’s were not the only menageries on Commercial Road or in the area, thankfully by the twentieth century these type of establishments were dying out and people could walk down the road without  the possibility of facing a tiger or a polar bear.

Tour de France in Tower Hamlets July 7th


Anyone who is a regular reader of the blog will know that the Isle of Dogs and the surrounding area only tends to get national or international fame when the London marathon takes place.

However this year we have another global sporting event on our doorstep, when the Tour de France travels though the Royal Docks, along Aspen way, through Limehouse , Wapping, Shadwell before reaching the Tower and finishing in the Mall.


If you wish to watch the one of the world’s great sporting events, here is some information that you might find useful.

Monday, July 7 will see the world-famous Tour de France cycle race – the world’s largest annual sporting event – coming through Tower Hamlets as part of the Tour de France of the race within the UK.

After setting off from Cambridge, the race will pass through Essex before arriving in Greater London via Epping Forest. It will run through Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Stratford before entering the borough at Leamouth. The riders will take the A1261 Aspen Way and the A1203 Limehouse Link/The Highway past Poplar, Shadwell and Wapping, before  finishing on The Mall at around 15:30.

It promises to be an exciting occasion and the borough will be a great place to see the world’s best riders as they race along the roads surrounding Canary Wharf, St Katharine Docks and Billingsgate Market competing for the famous Yellow Jersey.

The whole route is un-ticketed so everyone can watch for free and witness the thrills and spills of the famous race. People are encouraged to watch the race locally, pick a spot and stick to it, to make the most of what the day has to offer

Ahead of the actual race, spectators can enjoy the Tour’s Publicity Caravan – a convoy of floats, vehicles and entertainers who travel ahead of the race handing out promotional goodies.

Estimated arrival times for the Caravan and the fastest* cyclists, to help you plan your day, a

Caravan Race
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park  13:20  14:55
Royal Victoria Dock                      13:35  15:05
Aspen Way                                      13:45  15:10
Tower Hill                                       13:50  15:25
The Mall (finish)                           13:55  15:30

A number of events and activities will be taking place along the route in London where spectators, visitors and cycling-enthusiasts will be able to soak up the atmosphere. These include the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the Tour de France official FAN Parks, located at Green Park and Trafalgar Square, which will be open between Saturday 5 and Monday 7 July and will host a variety of activities. These locations will be free and an ideal location to watch the race live on giant screens.


The Story of the London “Fifty” by Anthony L Holmes


Melbourne Police Force 1860 (Victoria Police Museum)

Many people know that convicts were transported to Australia in large numbers, it was estimated that between 1788 and 1868 around 164,000 convicts made the journey.

However  recently I have been contacted by Anthony L Holmes to inform me of a lesser known story of the Fifty London Policeman who went to Australia in 1853 to preserve “Law and Order .”

Although Anthony has lived in Australia since 1982, he was born in Orpington, Kent  but used to travel regularly to Poplar to visit his grandparents. When he left school  he served  his  apprenticeship at prestigious Heals & Son in Tottenham Court Road with  weekly visits to The London Collage of Furniture in Commercial Road in the 1970s. After his apprenticeship he worked  as a  French Polisher in a number of  furniture factories in and around the East End including  Younger Furniture, Monia Road, Bow and H & L Epstein at Hanbury Street / Brick Lane.

Anthony has written an account of what happened to these adventurous police pioneers and especially of one of Anthony’s ancestors, a Wapping policeman called James George Judge.

The London Fifty

With the discovery of gold in Victoria, Australia in the 1850’s, the small local police force was quickly overwhelmed. Immigrants flooded into the colony, and many police abandoned their posts to pursue dreams of riches.

On one day in November 1851, 50 of the 55 members of the Melbourne City Police resigned, leaving the force in a state of total disarray. Various experiments in recruitment were trialled in the early 1850s, the least successful of which was the recruitment of military pensioners from Van Diemen’s Land, described by one police official as ‘the most drunken set of men I have ever met with’.

Efforts to recruit trained police from England met with more success, with 50 men who had served in the London Metropolitan Police, known as the ‘London Fifty’, enlisted in May 1853.

whistler wapping wharf1859

Wapping Police station by Whistler 1859

One of the  ‘London Fifty’ was a James George Judge born  1831 in Saint George in the East to parents William and Elizabeth Judge.  He came from a distinguished Policing family in Wapping , his father William Judge and his uncle Joshua Judge were both Thames Police Inspector’s .

James George Judge had joined the Metropolitan police in 1850 initially his beat included policing the docks, however he suffered a family setback a year later when his father William died of a heart attack at Wapping Police Station.

We don’t know what effect this had on young James, but  soon afterwards he applied to undertake a ten-year stint working as a policeman  in Australia and in 1852, he and 49 other policeman were selected to serve in the Victorian Police in Melbourne to maintain Law and Order in the Gold Fields of Victoria.

This group of Policeman were affectionately known as the “London Fifty” they all resigned from the Metropolitan Police on the 10th December 1852 and they were paid a half a year’s salary in advance 34l 4s 8d.

The London “Fifty”  travelled by steam train to Baltic Wharf in Plymouth, Devon where they remained for two weeks training while awaiting for a suitable tide. They finally set sail on an emigrant ship called Earl Gray on the 14th January 1853.  This vessel had been commissioned to transport the Police to the colony of (Port Melbourne), Victoria, Australia.

James George Judge and the other policemen arrived in Melbourne on the 2nd May 1853.

However it was not long after the arrival that problems began to surface, the Police group began to complain by refusing to abide by the local police regulations in so far as the hours of duty were concerned, they “avowed their willingness to do duty according to London time and hours under which they were engaged and would never submit to Melbourne time and such duties as being asked of them”.

This got sorted out quickly when they were reminded that under their contract they were to serve a minimum of 5 years with a penalty of 50 pounds for any breach of contract—-they were reminded of this penalty which resulted in the “revolt” being quelled very quickly.

They, as a group were apparently not highly thought of due to being “foot police”, the hierarchy had a preference for mounted police to be used in both the gold fields and the metropolitan areas. The group as a whole appears to have been distributed primarily in the metropolitan districts.

By October 1853 of the original fifty, twelve had deserted and another  twenty-eight  could not be traced. Of the 14 that stayed in the force, 10 later became sergeants, with 2 rising to the rank of Inspector.

Their senior London Officer was Inspector Samuel  Edward Freeman, who later became a J. P.

To understand why there was so much dissatisfaction amongst the recruits it important to see their role in the Gold fields which was totally unlike the policing they had carried out in London.

The Local Government of the day were building up “Law & Order” using the imported Police to “police” the Gold Fields.


Gold License ( Courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum)

The gold licence system caused considerable unrest on the diggings. It was regarded as a tax and greatly resented since it was applied regardless of the success or failure of the digger. However, the gold commissioners and Police known as ‘traps’ enthusiastically policed the gold fields, checking on licences and arresting and fining the unfortunate diggers who could not produce them. The Police ‘licence hunts’ were often brutal, corrupt, unfair and inefficient. These licence hunts came to symbolise the government’s oppression of the diggers and directly led to major protests on gold fields in Sofala in 1852, Bendigo in 1853 and the Eureka Rebellion in 1854. A year after the Eureka Rebellion the gold licence was replaced by a Miner’s Right which cost one pound a year for the right to dig and also entitled the owner to vote in parliamentary elections. Peter Lalor, the miner’s leader at Eureka was elected to the Victorian parliament.

During the gold rush of the 1850s, policemen collected taxes for the government and policed unlicensed miners. On Sunday, 3 December, 1854, miners unhappy with the gold licensing system and the administration of the goldfields at Ballarat barricaded themselves in what became known as the Eureka Stockade. A military force, including 94 police, attacked the miners’ camp. Up to 30 rebels were killed and four soldiers died. No police lost their lives but the events of that day are forever etched in Victoria Police history.

It is unclear exactly  how many years James George Judge remained in the Victorian Police service as the paper trail runs thin.  However his marriage to Margaret Bertrie Spence, on the 3rd of  July 1871 age 40 shows his occupation as an Innkeeper, eventually they had ten children together.

In 1875 James was granted land and become a Gold Miner at Bairnsdale, Victoria allotment 1C, Cobungra, Victoria on 29 Jan 1875.  Four years afterwards sources from Victoria government gazettes tells us James must have run into trouble for not paying land tax and the land was sold off at the Golden Age Hotel on the 29th August 1879.


The James Flood Book of Early Australian Photographs. Golden Age Hotel, Omeo, Victoria 1850

There is evidence that James George Judge remained as a Gold Miner in Sunnyside, Omeo until he died aged 78 of natural causes on the 7 September 1909 in Glen Valley, Omeo Highway, Victoria,


Sunnyside, near Omeo in 1920 [picture]. Harvey, J. H. (John Henry), 1855-1938, (photographer)

He was buried in  Glen Wills Cemetery , North of Omeo and South of the Mitta Mitta township. This Cemetery is now cared for by the people of the nearby Glen Valley.


Glen Wills Cemetery (Photographer John Smith descendant to James George Judge.)

The story of how a Wapping policeman ended up as a Gold miner in the outback of Australia is a reminder of the many people who especially in the 19th century left these shores never to return.

We will probably never know if any of the London “Fifty” ever made it back to Britain or if any struck “Gold” whilst in Australia.

But Anthony’s story makes sure that  a  hidden chapter  of  London police history  is not  forgotten.