From fish market to red carpet: The evolution of London’s Docklands

By james read, guest blog author on 18 Sep 2015
An electric trolley carrying tobacco, 1925

A man with an electric trolley carrying tobacco, 1925

London’s Docklands have gone through huge change in the last 70 years – from being one of England’s primary ports, to falling into disuse as cargo ships outgrew the Thames. It has seen vast industries come and go – the same warehouse that once stored tonnes of tobacco is now a dance floor, and what was once a 900 year-old fish market now hosts film premieres.

Tobacco Dock

The Tobacco Dock was built in 1811 in response to the burgeoning trade demands of the British Empire. It is a huge warehouse, and was initially used to store the tonnes of tobacco imported from newly-independent Virginia. It could store up to 13,000 metric tons awaiting payment of duty, with room for 8 million gallons of wine in the vaults underneath. In one corner was a furnace named the ‘Queen’s Pipe’, which was used to burn any goods on which tax wasn’t paid – on one occasion “45,000 pairs of French gloves” were reportedly burnt here.

A sample of tobacco being inspected by a Port of London Authority customs official

A sample of tobacco being inspected by a Port of London Authority customs official

As London’s shipping trade declined in the 20th century though, the Dock fell out of use. In 1989 it was bought and remodelled into a shopping mall by architect Sir Terry Farrell. Since it was Grade I-listed, all its glorious, original furnishings remained, with retail plots fitted in between the arched brick vaults. Unfortunately neither London’s transport network nor housing developers had quite reached Wapping, and the flow of customers was almost non-existent. By 1995 only a single restaurant and a sandwich bar remained, recalls an employee of recent neighbour News International, in a fascinating blog charting the Dock’s decline. The sandwich shop, Frank & Steins, remarkably limped on until 2008, when the husk of a shopping centre finally closed.

In 2012 it was used to house soldiers deployed to help provide security for the Olympic Games, after contractor G4S was found to be chronically understaffed, and since it has hosted events ranging from acid house raves to video game conventions.


Billingsgate Fish Market

An illustration of Billingsgate market  1872

An illustration of Billingsgate market by Gustave Doré, 1872

As one industry moved out of the Docklands, another moved in. Old Billingsgate Market was one of London’s oldest, established by royal charter at the beginning of the 15th century. 200 years later, a parliamentary Act was passed making the market fish-only – though eels could not be sold, as this privilege was given to Dutch fisherman on the Thames who had fed Londoners after the Great Fire (this is now rescinded and you can buy eels as you please). The market was originally sited on Lower Thames Street, just east of London Bridge, which was well-placed for merchant ships as they became too large to fit any further down the river.

A fish porter working at Billingsgate, 1893

A fish porter working at Billingsgate, 1893

As Lower Thames Street was widened in the 70s to allow for more street traffic, the market needed to find a new home. In 1982 it was relocated to the Docklands on the Isle of Dogs, where the last of the docks had just closed, but long before the rise of the Canary Wharf skyscrapers. The land was purchased by the Borough of Tower Hamlets, and leased to the City of London Corporation for a nominal rent paid in fish. And Old Billingsgate Market? It’s now used for film premieres and awards dinners.


To learn more about how the Docklands have changed over the last 70 years, visit the New Port, New City gallery at the Museum of London Docklands.

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