For this week, the entry on to my London Shoes website is about a small specific area of London right alongside the Thames and not very far away from where I worked in Carnary Wharf – but, although small, a place that has a wealth of nautical and social history.
The subject matter for my jaunt this week is:- “Narrow Street” and “Limehouse” – London E14
Narrow Street is erm… a ‘narrow street’ running parallel to the River Thames through the Limehouse area of East London.
The street itself is the oldest part of Limehouse, and located in it are some of the few remaining and best preserved terraced houses in London, originating from the early 1700’s Georgian period.
The earliest reference to the area of Limehouse itself, dates right back to 1356 when the district was known as “Les Lymhostes” because of its connections to lime kilns used in the pottery industries that operated from there in the 14th century.
Also – because of the towns position on the Thames, particularly in relation to the River’s tides and currents etc, Limhouse was a natural location as a landing spot for boats and ships – it’s very first wharf being constructed there in 1348.
Throughout the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, the whole area grew rapidly and became one of the leading centres in London for world trade – so much so that by the early 1600’s half of the town’s population were either mariners, or connected to other nautical trades such as ropes making, ships chandlers and producing pottery utensils for ships etc.
In fact there was so much congestion in the area along this particular part of the river front, what with all the wooden residencies of the workers and the businesses producing nautical necessities – it is believed that is how ‘Narrow Street’ got its name – simply because of the crammed closeness of all the buildings situated along it.
The famous Elizabethan explorer Sir Francis Drake, set off on one of his voyages to the New World from the Limehouse wharf.
In 1661, the famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote a lengthy piece about a visit he made to a porcelain factory located in Narrow Street, while on his way to view work on boats being built for herring fishing.
In 1766, the Limehouse Bridge Dock was constructed for barges and small ships to access the ‘Limehouse Cut’, which was a man-made canal that led further inland to the River Lee.
Although most of the trading ships cargoes were unloaded further up the Thames at the Pool of London – the ‘Limehouse Basin’ was opened in 1820 as the Regent’s Canal Dock, specifically to transport unloaded smaller goods and cargo, on to barges on the Regent’s Canal – making Limehouse an important connection between the Thames and the canal systems, where cargoes could be transferred from larger ships to the smaller canal boats.
The ‘Basin’ and the ‘Cut’ were linked together in the early 19th century – but over the following 100 years, the use of Limehouse Basin as a major distribution hub eventually declined with the growth of the railways – so much so that as a result of the development of technology, the ‘Limehouse Basin’ became one of the very first of London’s docks to close in the late 1960s.
From the Tudor period right up until the late 1800’s ships crews were employed on a casual basis – and a lot of foreign sailors found themselves disembarking at places such as Narrow Street in Limehouse, whilst ‘in-between’ jobs/journeys – and this had the effect of creating mini-communities of different nationalities.
In the late 1800’s, Limehouse became an area where particularly large communities of Chinese sailors (and their families) settled.
Chinese sailors generally traded in tea and opium, and Limehouse became notorious for its opium dens. It was also famous for its Chinese Laundry’s – and as a result the area developed its own Chinatown district – the first in London — and Limehouse even had its own Confucian temple.
This caused quite a few ‘social’ problems in the area, especially in the late 1800s, and Londoners became quite prejudiced against the Limehouse Chinese. These attitudes were not helped by popular books such as the “Fu Manchu” series, which focussed on Limehouse opium dens and its criminal problems. Even Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes regularly come to Limehouse in his novels, in search of his opium.
Today, there are still a number of residential streets in the Limehouse area that reflect the Chinese influence on the area.
Even the 1930’s/40’s entertainer George Formby referred to Limehouse in one of his most popular hits of the time “Chinese Laundry Blues” – see lyric extract below:-
“Now Mr. Nu, he’s got a naughty eye that flickers.
You ought to see it wobble when he’s ironing ladies ‘blouses’.
Mr. Wu, what shall I do, I’m feeling kind of Limehouse Chinese Laundry Blues”
Like much of the east end of London, particularly near the old dock areas, Limehouse remained a settling point for immigrants, but after the devastation of the Second World War many of the Chinese community in the Narrow Street and the Limehouse area, relocated to Soho in London’s west end.
So – after a day of strolling up and down a freezing cold and blustery Narrow Street, and the rest of the area –and in desperate need of a ‘cheeky’ beer – I decided to visit probably one of Limehouse’s most famous and most popular tourist attractions – “The Grapes” pub in Narrow Street – a boozer that itself is steeped in history.
“The Grapes” is a small early Georgian building that has been a pub site for over 500 years – and it has certainly been resilient throughout the centuries as it has survived the industrial revolution, centuries of redevelopment and even The Blitz!
One of its main claims to fame is that it was once a favourite drinking den of the author Charles Dickens – who used it as an influence by referring to it as “The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters pub” in the opening chapter of his 1685 book “Our Mutual Friend”.
In 2011 the legendary actor “Sir Ian McKellen” and a couple of his mates, bought the pub – and still own it to this day.
In fact Sir Ian frequents the pub regularly, and the barman told me that he is particularly fond of the Monday evening quiz nights.
Behind the bar is the actual wooden “staff” that Sir Ian used when portraying the character of Gandalf in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ blockbuster films.
So – Narrow Street & Limehouse – a really good place (on a warm sunny day) to spend an enjoyable few hours.
Hope you enjoyed this piece and its accompanying photos.