An introduction to Wapping from a 1938 pamphlet called ‘Week-end at Wapping’ that I bought on eBay.
The pamphlet concerns ‘Pierhead House’, which was owned by ‘Toc H’, or Talbot House, a Christian movement that began during WW1 for soldiers in Belgium and was used for weekend retreats. I’ll be publishing the rest of the pamphlet in another post.
(Originally printed in “ The Log,” April, 1929)
THOSE who do not know this bit of London yet imagine that Wapping is an unlovely hole not far from the Tower of London somewhere near the river and, worse still, near the East End. But the river has its beauty, and the East End its people—the bravest and biggest-hearted folk to be found anywhere. There is the romance of the waterside even in the name of Wapping, which probably is derived from the “ Warping ” of boats along the bank or dockside; but “ Woze,” unfortunately, suggests very simply the “ ooze ” or mud which is notorious in the lower reaches of the Thames.
Think of the romance too, of Wapping Old Stairs—and Dibdin’s song. It was on these Stairs also that the infamous Judge Jefferies was caught as he essayed to escape by river from the mob which tried to lynch him; and Cherry Gardens Pier-it is many a long day since cherry trees grew hereabouts though the oldest Waterman may have a tale to tell you, true or otherwise. In Nightingale Lane, one of the Stuart Kings killed a stag he had hunted from Epping Forest. Perhaps in those days the nightingale sang of nights in a leafy lane, but now high walls and warehouses and water quays on each side have replaced the trees and grass and frog-haunted ponds. Some say, though, that the word is derived from the old “ Knights Guild ”—“ Knighten-Gild “Wand so you conjure up a picture of pageantry and military splendour, instead of the cool shade and rustic peace.
Near here too, once stood the old Hospital of S. Katharine of which Besant wrote in his novel “S. Katharine-by-the-Tower.” This was founded by Queen Matilda, wife of Stephen, as a Chantry Where masses were said for the souls of her two children who died in infancy. Every succeeding Queen of England has been Patron of S. Katharine’s during her lifetime, and has contributed something, both in spirit and in kind, towards its growth. In 1825 the wonderful old buildings and the ancient Abbey Church were pulled down to make way for St. Katharine Dock, but the endowment remained, and part of it to-day exists further eastward as a Maternity and Child Welfare Centre, of which H.M. Queen Mary is now the gracious and interested Patron. The memory of Queen Matilda’s babies is ﬁttingly perpetuated in an institution which aims at preventing, by modern knowledge and scientiﬁc methods, the sickness and death rate of children from preventable infantile complaints. The old tombs and the oak and the Royal Coat of Arms are to be seen in the Chapel of S. Katharine in Regents Park.
From Hermitage Wharf by Tower Bridge you may take ship for Scotland by the East Coast, to Leith for Edinburgh. The site of the Hermitage would be hard to ﬁnd, though there are relics of an old monastery to be seen in the vaults of some of the neighbouring dock warehouses. Building excavations and road repairs nearly always reveal “ smugglers’ tunnels” and some “hidden treasure” – “treasure” now perhaps to the archaeologist only—bits of Roman pavement, or old coins, cups and bowls, even the reputed bones of whales and other sea monsters.
Wapping is an island—if a queer sort of island—but it is encompassed by water. You must cross water, though it be only a lock, to get to Wapping. The river bounds it on the south side, and the other three sides are cut off from the “mainland ” of Stepney and Whitechapel by docks and basins —Hermitage, Wapping and Shadwell Basins – the London Docks. The entrance to Wapping Basin is ﬂanked by Georgian houses, built solidly as they knew how in those days, a hundred or more years ago. Some of these are used as ofﬁces by the Dockmasters and Customs Officials, for smuggling can still be a lucrative line of business, even in these days. Others are occupied by Port of London officials and their families, or by Police Inspectors. On the left at the Pierhead is a Day Nursery where Wapping Mothers, who must go out to work, can leave their babies in safety and comfort for the day; also a Treatment Centre under the L.C.C. for school children who can have minor ailments and injuries attended to, or receive dental treatment.
The one-time residence of the Dock Superintendent stands on the opposite corner, and is well known as the Toc H Retreat and Conference House. The approach from the road is through a courtyard fringed with trees, a quiet spot, very sunny, and yet cool and airy on the hottest day. On one side there is a swing bridge and lock gates; on the other, the never failing interest of the river with its shipping passing to and from the Pool of London. Inside, the house has its own beauty; curves and arches, a stone staircase, tall rounded windows, all facing south or east and riverwards. It may surprise you by its atmosphere of peace and stillness, so near the haste and bustle of the “High Street” and busy river.
A few doors away lives a teaching community of Roman Catholic Nuns, their blue habits and white coifs lending a picturesque and almost un-English touch to the neighbourhood. This is enhanced by the cobbled streets, the water-ways and the Flemish tower of the Parish Church over the road amidst the trees, so that—particularly by moonlight—one can imagine the scene to be some old Belgian quayside.
lvory—mammoth tusks of prehistoric beasts—some of it worth millions, carpets from Bokhara, timber from Scandinavia, wool from Australia, dairy produce and vegetables from France and Holland, silks, tea and spices from the East, Spanish wines and Russian jewels, tin from Wales, and coals, possibly from Newcastle; all the glamorous riches of the East, the more prosaic treasures of the Western hemi-sphere, ﬁnd their way to us by Wapping and the London Docks.
As you stand on the river brink, gazing westward, Tower Bridge is silhouetted against the sunset. Above the lapping of the river and the cry of the gulls, you hear the sirens calling, and a bell ringing for the Bridge to open to let through perhaps, a Dutch Eel Boat for Billingsgate; a red sailed Kentish barge, laden with cement; maybe a crowded pleasure steamer; once in a while a Research ship for the Antarctic; or an emigrant ship with human freight for the Americas; sometimes a Scandinavian barquentine, with sails furled, being towed up river for repair; or an American Naval training
schooner: but always there are the motor-boats of the river police, the “ dumb ” barges loading and unloading the world’s merchandise, and the busy tugs and tenders thronging the Pool to give Wapping greeting. By night red, green and golden points of light speak to us in passing, and are reﬂected again in the translucent water, and the moon inserts a silver gusset from shore to shore.
So we who Work or live by London’s River see something of the mingling of business and romance, fact and fancy, wealth and poverty, drabness and splendour; of the courage and high purpose of the “ Merchant Adventurers,” past and to come, and of the endurance, the faith and vision that can underlie and inspire commercial enterprise even in the twentieth century.
J. D. I. W.