Monday, March 19, 2007

Wapping: the Pier Head and the Old Custom House

The Old Custom House, 3 Wapping Pier Head
pen and sepia ink and coloured pencil
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

For my next sketch, I walked down Wapping High Street past Wapping Station (the other end of the Thames Tunnel), the "Town of Ramsgate" and Wapping Old Steps to Wapping Pier Head just east of St Katherine's dock and the Tower of London and south of what used to be the London Docks. My two sketches of Wapping Pier Head show (top) No. 3 Pier Head - the Old Custom House and (below) the East side of the Pier Head.

Wapping Pier Head
pencil and coloured pencil

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

The Georgian houses at Wapping Pier Head are probably the best Georgian dwellings overlooking the River Thames in the whole of London. They certainly come with a hefty price tag anytime one comes on the market - which isn't very often.

The large houses were originally built around 1812 for officials of the London Dock Company. They now form, in effect, a square - with the river being the southern edge and Wapping High Street being the northern edge. Running through the middle used to be the original lock entrance to the London Docks - hence why one of the houses (No 3 in the drawing below) was the Custom House for the London Docks - where officials examined all goods being imported through the Docks.

By the 1930s however the lock had become far too small for the size of the ships operating then and the lock was filled in later in the 1960s - at which point the whole of the London Docks were used for new housebuilding which was a priority after the amount of bomb damage in the area during the second world war. The lock is now a garden between the two terraces of fine houses.

The East London Postcard Company website) has several images of the Thames and the docks.
A couple of websites (Wikipedia and Exploring East London) provide a lot more information for people wanting to find out more about Wapping. It's probably been one of the most 'transformed' areas of London - from the excavation for the London Docks to the intense bombing of the second world war to the infill of half of the docks and its regeneration during the back end of the twentieth century which I used to be involved in many many moons ago.

Wapping also has its quirky and somewhat infamous past. For example, Wapping used to be the site of 'Execution Dock', where the Admiralty executed pirates and other criminals active on the water by hanging. Since the Admiralty only had jurisdiction over the water/sea, their gibbet had to be constructed below the low water mark (ie in the water) which meant that the bodies of executed men would be left dangling until they had been submerged three times by the tide. The gibbet can still be seen on the foreshore in front of the Prospect of Whitby Pub at the other end of Wapping High Street. One of the people who like visiting the pub was Judge Jeffries, the hanging Judge. However he was recognised, caught and then hanged at the Tower because he stopped in a nearby ale house - doubtless for a 'swift half' - before his planned escape to the continent and from retribution. In more modern times, Fortress Wapping was the nickname given to the Murdoch's News International Printing Plant, built on the infilled docks after vacating Fleet Street. Many is the time I drove down The Highway past the plant, the strikers and the police during the big (and violent) Wapping Dispute/strike in 1984/5 which changed the print industry in the UK forever.

You don't get information like this with every sketchbook blog you read! ;)

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