Prior to the Roman Occupation, the British and Irish Isles were populated by Celtic tribes. The Roman Empire never made it to Ireland and they eventually settled on Hadrian’s Wall for containment and trade, instead of conquest and occupation, in Scotland. England’s Celtic population was absorbed into the Roman Empire, and successive waves of migration from Continental Europe saw much of its culture disappear.
Celtic history continues to live on through language (not to mention the gene pool). The River Thames derives its name from the original Celtic: Tamesas, meaning ‘dark’.
A walk from Limehouse Basin to Tower Bridge along the river through the Wapping district, is to walk through London’s history: a history built on the tides of the Thames. From Roman-times, this area has been central to England’s (and later Britain’s) maritime trade. It became home to all the trades that kept the merchant fleet afloat: sailers, sail makers and maritime instrument makers all congregated here. Huge warehouses containing goods of all descriptions lined the banks of the Thames.
Pubs, gambling dens and brothels proliferated, and the area had a very unsavoury reputation – the Prospect of Whitby, a pub overlooking the river, was once known as the Devil’s Tavern because of its violent reputation. The area attracted thieves, smugglers, pirates and lowlifes of all sorts. Its not surprising that there was a ‘hanging dock’ over the river, where criminals would receive “a short drop and a sudden stop”.
Here, amidst the chaos of narrow, crowded and frequently dangerous streets, travellers and exotic goods from around the world would arrive into one of the world’s truly international cities. Passengers and cargo alike, would be disgorged into the teeming streets and congested alleyways that formed Wapping.
As if to offset this seedy world, the area also has plenty of churches – and there were numerous nineteenth century Christian Missions active in this area. One of the most famous churches is St. John the Baptist. Constructed in 1617, it was demolished in the 1750s to make way for a new church. It stands, incongruously, next to the Turk’s Head pub: as so often, virtue and vice go hand-in-hand.
The cemetery is the burial place of Thomas Rainsborough, a colonel in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army during the English Civil War. Rainsborough was a leader of the Leveller movement, and their spokesman at the Putney Debates. During the debates, Rainsborough argued for universal suffrage for all men, regardless of their wealth or status. It was a radical position in 1647, and one that brought him into conflict with Cromwell.
Rainsborough was buried in 1648 following a procession of thousands of Levellers through the Wapping area. His tomb contained an inscription declaring that Rainsborough had made, “Kings, Lords, Commons, Judges shake, Cities and Committees quake”. The latter presumably a reference to the Putney Debates.
This part of the Thames was an economic thread to the rest of the world. From the sixteenth century onwards the river teemed with boats of all shapes and sizes. Traditionally, ships docked at wharves constructed on the river. However, the expansion of Empire, and the huge growth in global trade, led to the construction of London Docks and St. Catherine’s Dock in the first half of the nineteenth century. Most of the old wharves are now apartments.
In the late nineteenth century the area shed its notorious reputation for poverty and crime. Yet, in the early twentieth century the area was economically depressed. Things got worse with the world-wide depression of the 1930s. This was the working class East End, home to significant immigrant communities, including a large Jewish community. In the 1930s, the scene was set for ugly confrontations between Oswald Mosley’s pro-Hitler, proto-fascist ‘Blackshirts’, and anti-fascist groups. This struggle culminated on 4th October, 1936 when Jewish, Socialist and Communist groups joined with Trade Unionists and Irish dockers to block a march by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists through the East End. The ensuing bloody confrontation became known as the Battle of Cable Street.
The Second World War brought wholesale destruction to Wapping from German bombing. In 1945, Wapping was devastated. It remained run-down and derelict until the 1980s, when, not coincidentally, two things happened: Margret Thatcher’s government set up a Development Corporation to regenerate the area; and Rupert Murdoch moved News International (owner of four British newspapers) to a new headquarters in Wapping. Murdoch’s move was designed to crush the power of the printing unions. As if mimicking the conflict of the 1930s, fierce battles were waged in the streets of Wapping between strikers and police. After a year of strikes and dispute the unions lost.
Today Wapping is a Thatcherite dream come true. Within sight of Tower Bridge, regeneration had pumped money into the area: former warehouses to the Empire are now ‘luxury’ apartments occupied by bankers and finance executives; glitzy restaurants have mushroomed. You don’t have to look too far to find entrenched poverty amidst the new-found glamour, but that was never part of the Thatcherite narrative.
If there is one area of London that charts the city’s history, it must be this stretch of the River Thames…and that’s even before mentioning Tower Bridge.