History of Wapping

Early history of Wapping

The first settlement was called "Waeppa's people" - Waeppa presumably being the leader of the Anglo-Saxon group who occupied the place. No great difficultly in seeing how "Waeppa" ultimately became "Wapping".

Wapping Marsh was drained by a Dutchman, Cornelius Vanderbilt, in the 16th century.

In the 17th century, the inhabitants of Wapping were mainly seamen. Pepys described the many disturbances - there were 36 taverns in Wapping High Street alone! Wapping was the 17th century's answer to Ibiza.

In the 18th century, the businesses in the area were boat builders and navigation equipment manufacturers, and all the other trades necessary for maritime activity.






Rise of the warehouses

In the 18th century, Wapping was the ideal place for ships to offload their goods close to London. But theft was a massive problem.

In 1805 the first enclosed docks in London were created at Wapping. 1n 1828 Thomas Telford built similare secure docks at St Katharine Docks. Throughout the century, huge and forbidding-looking warehouses were built all along the south Wapping river front, to store the valuable goods offloaded at the docks. High walls were also built to keep raiders out. Wapping became a fortress.

It was difficult to get in, but also difficult to get out! So Parliament authorised lsambard Kingdom Brunel to build a pedestrian tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe which was completed in 1843. (It was converted into a railway tunnel in the 1860s.)

Imagine: groping your way for hours through a dank dismal tunnel, at last seeing a gleam of light, and then finding yourself in Rotherhithe.






Pierhead Wharf

Death of the docks

The reason always given for the death of London's docks is that they weren't deep enought for container ships which came in duing 1960s. But Wapping had already had its 'container' moment in the 19th century when steam ships were invented, because they were too big for Wapping's wharves. For decades, cargo had to be unloaded onto barges at larger docks downriver, and then ferried on barges to the warehouses in Wapping.

It is amazing that the warehouses in Wapping were still working in the 1950s, but along with the demise of docks gererally the warehouse business in Wapping did not survive the 1960s. The knock-on efffect was that all the local businesses, which were dependant on the docks, closed too and Wapping became a bit of a ghost town.

Added to which, the Germans had particularly concentrated their boming efforts on the London Docks during the War and much of Wapping was devastated.





A warehouse still decaying.

London Docks Development Corporation

Re-inventing Docklands was the world's largest urban regeneration project. In 1981, the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was created to oversee it.

In 1983 the LDDC published its development framework, "The Future for Wapping". With over 90% of the existing housing stock in local authority ownership, more private housing was seen as a key to creating a balanced community and to provide choice. In addition, the old disused warehouses along Wapping High Street and Wapping Wall were identified as highly suitable for residential conversion.

There was already commercial development, with the World Trade Centre and with News International moving its printworks to the infamous 'Fortress Wapping'.

When the LDDC arrived on the scene, Tower Hamlets was infilling docks and demolishing warehouses. LDDC got a large number of buildings listed, and trumpeted the attractions to developers of building near water, not trying to turn it all into more building land.





Modern development

During and since the 1980s, most of the disused historic warehouses lining the river front have been turned into flats. Where buildings had already been demolished or were beyond help, new residential developments have been put up.

The emphasis has been on quality and on ensuring that conversions respect the historic buildings and their surroundings.

Development came rather earlier to St Katharine Dock, perhaps because of its position right next to Tower Bridge. There was a competition in 1969 for the redevelopment of the site. Taylor Woodrow won the competition. (If the Tower Hotel was the winner, I hate to think what the losers were like.) And they converted Ivory House into flats shops and offices, and eventually constructed other blocks round the Dock.





Ivory House, St Katharine Dock