East of London riverside hamlets prior to the 19th century —Page 3

An engraving of Limehouse in 1751 by John Boydell in the early part of his career. He went on to become a successful publisher and Lord Mayor of London in 1790. This view shows 18th century riverside houses and a variety of craft, including a naval cutter heading downstream with passengers, a sea-going ship, sailing barges, and two men manoeuvring a wherry. Several sets of stairs lead down to landing places on the foreshore. In the distance a tall ship is undergoing repairs at Lime Kiln Dock.

In 1661 Pepys was again at Limehouse where “they have a design to get the King to hire a docke for the herring busses [small boats for herring fishing] to lie up in”. Three years later he was back again. “With Mr.Margetts to Limehouse to see his ground and ropeyard there; which is very fine, and I believe we shall imploy it for the Navy.”

By the 17th century the waterfront had become a busy area, reflected in the building of new churches for the growing communities of Wapping (1617) and Shadwell (1656). The East India Company built their elegant chapel at Poplar in 1650, rebuilt in 1776, consisting of materials imported from the Far East and with wooden columns made from the masts of East Indiamen. When the community of Shadwell grew in size, the chapel of St.Paul’s was built in 1657. In 1670 the parish of St.Paul’s was created, separating it from that of St.Dunstan’s. Quakers established a meeting house in Ratcliff in about 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. There was such a demand for timber for rebuilding the City following the Great Fire that a community of Danish and Norwegian importers established themselves at Well Close Square to the north of St.Katharine’s. They built their own church in 1696, designed by their compatriot (and colleague of Sir Christopher Wren) Caius Gabriel Cibber. It remained a Scandinavian church for more than a century and was converted into a British seamen’s mission in the 19th century. Swedes established their own church close by, to the north of Wapping, in 1729. As the easterly hamlets grew in size, these small 17th century churches were joined in the early 18th century by Nicholas Hawksmoor’s much larger and magnificent St.Anne’s at Limehouse and St.George’s in the parish of St.George-in-the-East.

Sailors arriving during the summer and autumn on long-distance voyages over-wintered in the riverside hamlets as they waited for their next passage. They led a hard life, away at sea for long periods in often dangerous conditions, and on low pay. Back on land they were often at risk of being pressed into the Royal Navy. There were times when naval sailors were discharged unpaid, creating great hardship and leading to some taking to crime to survive. At several points during the 17th century London’s seamen rioted. They boosted the local economy until their money was depleted., often squandered on alcohol and women. Wapping, in particular, was noted for its many alehouses, of which The Prospect of Whitby and The Town of Ramsgate still remain. It was normal for a certain number of crew members to die on the long voyage out to the Far East and they would be replaced by Asian seamen for the return journey. These men, known as ‘lascars’ became a common sight around East London as they waited for work on a ship sailing back to their homeland.

The East India Company and Hudson’s Bay Company both had warehouses at Ratcliff, between Broad Street and the river, the Shipwrights’ Company had their hall in Butchers Row, and the coopers had their headquarters and a charity school, founded in 1536, in the village. The riverside part of Ratcliff, a total of 55 acres, was destroyed in July 1794 when a pitch kettle at Cloves’ barge-builders overturned. A fire spread through wooden shacks to barges on the river and then to the East India warehouse used for storing highly flammable saltpetre (potassium nitrate). According to a contemporary account, wind drove the flames through the narrow streets destroying 630 buildings and leaving 2,700 people homeless. It is said to have been London’s most devastating fire between the Great Fire and the Blitz.

While executions of general offenders were typically held at Tyburn, the hanging of pirates took place at ‘Execution Dock’ on the foreshore at Wapping. It was not a specific location but wherever the temporary gallows were erected. Once caught, the pirate would be tried by an Admiralty Court at the Old Bailey. On the appointed day, they were taken in procession from the prison and out to Wapping, cheered or jeered by spectators along the route. Typically, a group of pirates were hanged together. Such an example was the Orkney-born John Gow (later immortalised by Daniel Defoe), who was executed in June 1725 along with seven members of his crew. Following death, their bodies were tarred and left to hang on the riverside as a warning to others. Executions were generally held at low tide, allowing large crowds of spectators to gather on the riverside, with the bodies remaining in situ for several tides before being taken for dissection by surgeons for medical research. Perhaps the most famous pirate to be hanged at Execution Dock was Captain William Kidd in May 1701.