From an 18th century slum to a bustling complex of luxury homes and shops, the St. Katharine Docks in Wapping have a fascinating history. In this post, we’ll share the story of the London landmark that now features as part of our Foxtrail London scavenger hunt — read on to discover the hidden secrets of the St. Katharine Docks.
A medieval hospital and place of liberty
Although you’d never be able to tell by looking at the luxurious housing, glamourous bars, and millionaires’ yachts currently lining the quayside, the St. Katharine Docks actually had rather humble — and holy — beginnings. Before the docks were built, the site was once home to a medieval hospital and chapel called St. Katharine’s by the Tower, thanks to its proximity to the Tower of London. It all began in 1147 when Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen, provided the funds to build a hospital for the townspeople, staffed by six monks and nuns and some ‘poor clerks’.
Back in those days, it was still very much a quiet part of the young city. As the area had a non-parochial ‘liberty’ status — meaning it wasn’t owned by the church — and was protected by the Queen, the hospital was able to survive the tumultuous years following the dissolution of the monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign. By the 1600s, the area had become a busy part of the city centre.
A 19th century slum
However, as the population of London increased, the area around St. Katharine’s by the Tower gradually became a tangle of crooked narrow streets brimming with crime and poverty. As the area was outside official church jurisdiction, the slum was home to those looking for somewhere to ply their often less than honest trades away from the restrictions of the City Guilds. With street names like Dark Entry, Cat’s Hole, Shovel Alley, Rookery, and Pillory Lane, it’s not difficult to imagine what life was like for the people who lived in the slum of St. Katharine’s by the Tower during the 18th and 19th century.
The creation of the docks
By the 1820s, public demand was building for another dock along the north bank of the river Thames to help make room for the ever-increasing number of cargo ships arriving from overseas. In 1825, permission was granted for the demolition of 1250 crowded slum houses to make way for the creation of the St. Katharine Docks, featuring two large basins and a complex of warehouses. Work began in 1827 with the demolition of the old medieval hospital of St. Katharine’s by the Tower and what one contemporary chronicler called “some of the most insanitary and unsalutary dwellings in London”. But that wasn’t such a welcome change for over 11,000 former tenants of the slum, who were forced out without a penny of compensation.
It cost over £2 million to build the St. Katharine Docks. The development had an East and West dock, with spacious warehouses built close the quayside so goods could be transported and stored as quickly as possible. The docks were opened without much fanfare on 28th October 1828.
The docks in decline
For a number of years after opening, the docks were a bustling port. A huge selection of luxury items would have passed through the docks every day, including wine, tea, ivory, sugar, marble, rare jewels, perfume, and spices. While the docks and warehouses were well-used, their limited size became a problem, as they couldn’t accommodate the increasingly large cargo ships. By the turn of the 20th century, the docks had fallen into decline.
During the Second World War, docks and warehouses were a major strategical target for German bombers. The St. Katharine Docks were very badly damaged in the Blitz, and all warehousing around the East dock was destroyed. The West basin was still sometimes used, but it wasn’t large enough to harbour large modern ships, and the docks were eventually closed for good and sold off to the Greater London Council in 1968.
Regeneration: the docks today
While a few buildings popped up on the West dock during the 1970s and 80s, the site of the East dock was left derelict until the 90s, when interest began to grow in redeveloping the area. Work was completed in the late 1990s, and the dock was reopened as a glamourous marina. Nowadays, the area that once bustled with clippers, cargo ships, and dock workers is lined with the gleaming yachts and luxurious flats, offices, shops, bars, and restaurants.
There are still a few traces of the old docks left for those who know where to look, though. The Dickens Inn was once an 18th century warehouse that — somewhat miraculously — has managed to survive years of redevelopment and even the Blitz to become an inviting historical pub.
History is everywhere you look in London and, no matter how long you’ve lived in the city, there are always new things to discover. If you’re keen to explore the hidden secrets of the St. Katharine Docks, why not tackle our Foxtrail London trail, which takes you right into the heart of this historic area? Not only will you get to see the docks up close, but you’ll also get to uncover the secrets of lots more famous landmarks and sites. To learn more about what happens on the trail, get in touch with our team.