The pubs on the stretch of the Thames from the Tower of London to Canary Wharf are pleasant places to enjoy a night out with friends. Many of these north bank drinking establishments go back hundreds of years and walking into them today you can really feel the history. In the nooks and crannies now occupied by both tourists and locals, once sat sailors and those that worked on the wharfs. While the docks have long closed to commercial traffic, there’s nothing more pleasant on a warm summer’s evening than sitting on the terrace of one of these pubs and watching the sun setting over the calm waters of the Thames.
When Thomas Beames visited the area for an 1852 book he found that it was dominated by its pubs, noting that is “It is difficult to conceive how so many can thrive.” But by nightfall, his wondering ceased as the place was filled with sailors eager to spend their cash after months or years at sea: “Sailors are proverbially ignorant of the world; they live for years together at sea; and having few opportunities of getting on shore, they never go far inland: whilst they are at sea, their wages accumulate, and they come home with full pockets, more imprudent than children.”
While Beames describes some sailors drinking beverages by the bar, others are in the “the large, lofty, well-lit dancing rooms, the walls of which are decorated with nautical scenes very fairly painted.” Greenwich Hospital, Portsmouth Harbour and Southsea Common, along with vessels in full sail, are depicted. Beames described the atmosphere:
“As soon as the evening sets in, the gas is lit, two or three paid musicians take their post at the top of the room, the floor is cleared, and dancing commences, many of the dancers in fancy dresses, especially the females; the men too are fantastically arrayed, some in Indian dresses, some as soldiers, but the mass preserve their usual costume : spirits are handed round pretty freely, and in the rear of the dancers are benches and tables like the boxes in a coffee room. In some of the houses professional singers are hired for the entertainment of the company; they sing in character, and a temporary stage is erected at the end of the room, with appropriate scenery, which forms a background to the singer, and gives effect, by its colouring and correspondence, to the subject of the song.”
The descriptions that Beames provides of the pubs makes them sound very attractive and fun places to spend time – and full of the same character that greets modern day visitors. But what would surprise people today is how much the area surrounding these establishments has changed. While luxury apartments now dominate on the riverfront, Beames visited for his Rookeries of London book and found people living in terrible conditions. Given that paid work was precarious and hard to find many turned to crime. He found inhabitants living in shabby wooden houses that pre-dated the Great Fire of London of 1666 and were “crumbling with age”.
Beames was particularly interested in the area surrounding what is today Limehouse DLR, a district bounded by the Thames in south, in the north by Commercial Road, in the east by Limehouse Basin and in the west by what was known as the Minories. Ratcliff was the fourth Rookery that he visited (for this series of blogs I’m exploring all six of the Rookeries he wrote about)
A community was established here from the time of Elizabeth I to serve the sailors that used the docks. John Stowe, writing in 1608 described “a continuall streete, a filthy straight passage, with alleys of small tenements, or cottages builded, inhabited by saylors, and victuallers, along by the river of Thames almost to Radcliffe, a good mile from the Tower.” The area then expanded rapidly in the 18th century when the churches at Limehouse, Poplar and Bow were built. And with the opening of new docks (West India Quay and St Katherine’s opened in 1802 and 1828 respectively) many flooded into the area for work, creating considerable overcrowding. Commerical Road was laid out in the early 19th century to link the City with the new port area. The arrival of the first railway line here in the 1840s also helped define the district that greets visitors today.
Despite all the shabbiness and poverty that Beames wrote about, in the 19th century this area of London was still a place of contrasting fortunes. While some lived in absolute poverty (labelled by Charles Booth on his 1898 poverty map as “Lowest class. Vicious. Semi criminal”) on the boundary of the district there were some fine homes (which Booth would classify as “Middle class. Well to do.” Brunswick Terrace, which forms part of Commerical Road, has four surviving handsome Grade II listed houses dating from the 1820s / 1830s. They can be found just behind Limehouse DLR station, underneath a railway bridge, and feature Greek Doric columns.
By the time of Beames Ratcliff was a popular location for professional thieves preying on drunken sailors who returned from their long travels with their pockets bulging with cash. He described the “the petty pilferers who abound in London, men, who would steal an eye glass or a pocket handkerchief.” Women worked closely with male thieves and acted as decoy so that “when the conversation between the sailor and the prostitute had been carried on to a certain point, the man, with whom she was in league, would come up and abuse the sailor for speaking to his wife; and, after a great deal of acting, the sailor would give a sum of money to be quit of a disagreeable charge.”
Beames visited one of the places where sailors lodged when they were on shore, describing it as a “rendezvous” for French, Italians, Germans, Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks. Standards at these establishments varied, but here he said residents were taken advantage of when they were vulnerable: “when they come home intoxicated, they are robbed of large sums of money.” On the ground floor of one there was “a small common room, garnished with prints on nautical subjects” with a parrot flapping its wings in the background. Upstairs were the dormitories where the sailors slept. Beames said the rooms were fitted out “like the cabins of steamers, with tiers; so that there were an upper and lower range of beds or rather berths, and thus a place was found for double the number of sleepers which it would have held if the floor alone had been occupied.”
Near the sailors’ lodgings, Beames found a house that was occupied solely by thieves. Entering “through a confined ill-paved alley” he described how the first room he entered had an uneven floor and whitewashed walls stained with smoke. There was a large fireplace, “round which were gathered five or six thieves cooking their evening meal, or lounging on benches.” In the two dormitories that Beames saw, 12 and 15 thieves slept respectively – the linen was not dirty and they paid 2d. per head, per night. While the front door was reportedly closed at 2am, there was 24 hour security with it being guarded on shifts.
But Beames did not think that the thieves he met in the house lived up to the ideals of a stereotypical villains. They were friendly and happy to talk: “Their manner was courteous and civil; they made way, that we should have the full benefit of the fire, and entered readily and with great good humour into conversation. One of their number amused us much by playing off a series of tricks with a cup and ball…”
As Beames walked the streets he found “the pavement was broken and uneven, dotted here arid there with pools or puddles of stagnant water, which seemed to have accumulated and to have been of long-standing. The houses inclined considerably over the pavement with their ragged crumbling fronts-the first story particularly seemed to overhang the ground-floor, as though it had been originally built so; the roofs with their broken tiles, the plaster with which some of the houses were covered peeling off and the crazy doors by which you entered speaking of years of neglect.”
Beames found 15 men, women and children, sleeping two or three in a bed in a small room only 10 foot by foot 12. Three more slept in a “sort of coal-bin” given the overcrowding. The rooms were poorly ventilated and many residents had terrible coughs. Beames was told that during summer months inhabitants “sleep perfectly naked, the heat enabling them to dispense with clothing; they think their linen will be cleaner if they put it aside for the night.” Here the “occupants were not thieves but chance comers, tramps, sellers of different street commodities; many of them, from their brogue, evidently Irish.”
The area was badly damaged by the Blitz and the precise quarter that Beames described so vividly has been extensively re-developed in recent years. Given its working class origins, it is appropriate that a considerable number of housing association properties have been built within walking distance of Limehouse DLR station. There is also now a lovely park (St James Gardens), next to the retreat provided by the Royal Foundation of St Katherine (a religious institution dating back to medieval times). And locals can visit the John Scurr Community Centre (named after the MP who fought for equality and access to education for East End families 90 years ago).
Glitzy expensive apartments line the perimeter of the now calm waters of Limehouse Basin. The smart riverside pubs that I’m so fond of are not far away either. And while Commercial Road has some very smart modern apartments, there also can be found here boarded up shops and less-than-touristy pubs. London always had been, and always will be, a city of contrasts.