This week’s London Shoes expedition took me to the east end of London, and to a small area down by the Thames a mile or so to the east of the Tower of London.
It may just be a small district, but it is a place steeped in history – and a place where plenty of its historic landmarks still exist, for everyone to appreciate and enjoy.
So – the publication onto the London Shoes website this week, is all about “Shadwell”-London E1.
Shadwell is a district of East London, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, situated on the north bank of the Thames, and it sits alongside and merges in with its close riverside neighbours Limehouse and Wapping.
Local archaeological digs have revealed that there were settlements in the Shadwell area as far back as the Roman occupation.
Up until the medieval times Shadwell was really just an uninhabited area of marshland – however, from the 16th century onwards, various draining projects were undertaken for the purpose of reclaiming some of the land from the Thames, and this reclamation work resulted in the development of various local maritime related industries and subsequently the construction of residential homes.
River related activities soon became the main industry of the area, with roperies, tanneries, breweries, mills, a huge waterworks and wharfs being constructed in the area.
The development of road links to and from London from the 16th century onwards, also contributed to the increase in industrial activity and trade and the growth of Shadwell’s population.
By the mid 1600’s the majority of Shadwell’s population were nearly all seafarers or people connected with maritime related trades.
Throughout the next couple of centuries the population of Shadwell became overcrowded, which resulted in its inhabitants experiencing poor housing and sanitary conditions – to the extent that the area soon became known for being one of London’s worst slums .
By 1801 the main commercial industry of the area, the ‘Shadwell Water Works’, were sold to the London Dock Company – who then developed two “Basin’s” – the east basin in 1832 and then the north basin in 1858. The London Dock Company then constructed a new entrance into these basins, from the Thames – that enabled the newer and larger ships into its waters.
Throughout the 1800’s Shadwell saw a massive increase in immigration as it became home to a large community of Asian seamen, brought over from British India by the East India Company. There also developed a large population of Anglo-Indians, from intermarriage between seamen and local girls – as well as smaller communities of Chinese and Greek seamen, who had also married with local girls.
However, by the beginning of the 1900’s the Shadwell Basin and the docks of its neighbours Wapping and Limehouse, started to become a bit outdated because quite simply, they could no longer cope with the rapid advances in shipping technology, and the new ships were now far too big , to fit it into these smaller docks.
Because of this, the shipping cargoes had to be unloaded downriver and then ferried by barge all the way back to warehouses in Shadwell and Wapping – which was obviously far too costly.
As a result of all this development in technology, and also the destruction that all the London docks took throughout the WW2 blitz – there was a gradual decline in the local maritime and nautical industries that had operated in Shadwell.
By 1969, Shadwell Basin and the other London Docks had all closed, and were bought up by the Tower Hamlets Council.
During the 1970s, Shadwell Basin and the other docks became derelict, before being bought up by the ‘London Docklands Development Corporation’ – who then went on to develop and regenerate the entire area, into what it is today.
In 1987 the Shadwell ‘Dockland Light Railway’ station was opened – and in recent years the Shadwell ‘Overground’ station has been developed – both stations provide direct links to central London, and also links out to the ‘burbs’.
Unlike some of the other London Docks which have been completely filled in, the Shadwell Basin still remains pretty much what it was like back in the day – and is now very popular with sightseers, cyclists, water sports enthusiasts, fishing – and of course, with the housing developments it has seen over the past couple of decades, the Basin area is a very desirable place to live.
The ‘Basin’ isn’t the only aspect of Shadwell’s history –one particular incident that put Shadwell on the map was the infamous “Battle of Cable Street” back in 1936.
East London has a long history of revolutionaries and activists, particularly in those areas that were once seen as the poorer and disadvantaged districts. One such person was “Sir Oswald Mosley” who was the one time leader of the ‘British Union of Fascists’.
On Sunday 4th October 1936, Mosley organised a demonstration march attended by all his ‘Black Shirt’ followers from all over the country. The fascists marched through the heart of London’s east-end, which at that time had a large immigrant population, predominantly Jewish.
The Metropolitan Police were called in to protect the thousands of British Union of Fascists marchers from the equally thousands of ‘anti-fascism’ demonstrators, that were made up of anarchists, communists, socialists and the Jewish communities – all of whom adopted a ‘they shall not pass’ stance by erecting road blocks and barricades made up of old furniture and anything else they could find to disrupt the flow of the march.
Tensions and emotions were obviously at fever-pitch, and by the time that Mosley’s ‘Black-Shirts’ reached Cable Street in Shadwell, it kicked-off everywhere, with fascist, the anti-fascists and Police all involved in a riotous street fight, that resulted in around 175 people, including women, children and Police, getting badly injured, which also led to around 150 arrests.
History references this entire event as the infamous “Battle of Cable Street” – and on the side of Shadwell’s old town hall building, there is a massive mural that depicts this event – and there is also a red plaque on display in Dock Street commemorating this historic incident.
Shadwell also has 2 wonderful churches that are rich in history and help define the district:-
St Paul’s– is Shadwell’s old parish church originally built in 1665, and known as the ‘Church of Sea Captains’. During the Great Plague the site was used as one of London’s plague burial pits.
The legendary explorer ‘Captain James Cook’ worshipped at St. Paul’s and his eldest son was baptised there.
The original church was demolished in 1817 and the present building, was erected in its place in 1821 – and it is said that 75 sea captains are buried there.
St George-in-the-East – Was built in 1729 and was Shadwell’s Anglican Church dedicated (obviously) to Saint George
The church took a hit from the WW2 bombing blitz, which destroyed a lot of the church’s interior, but the exterior walls and its “pepper-pot” towers remained intact.
St George-in-the-East is located on Shadwell’s Cannon Street Road, between ‘The Highway’ and ‘Cable Street’ – and it once appeared in the 1980 film The Long Good Friday starring Bob Hoskins.
In Shadwell’s King Edward’s Park, down its entrance near the Thames, is one of the four ‘shafts’ that once led down to the ‘Rotherhithe Pedestrian Foot Tunnel’. Originally this wonderful little ‘shaft’ building used to be a pedestrian route to the tunnel. The metal grills fixed to its windows, still have the lovely old ornate ‘London County Council’ (LCC) iron work designs on display.
So – Shadwell E1 – an area steeped in history, and a great place to spend a few hours exploring the ‘Basin’ (the most significant stretch of water surviving from the old historical London Docks) – and a place where you can also check out the Cable Street mural – the 2 magnificent churches – and also admire the splendour of the Georgian and Victorian housing and commercial buildings that still exist in some of Shadwell’s streets.
After a few hours trekking round Shadwell, and before setting off back home, I nipped into a pub called the ‘Hungerford Arms’ in nearby Commercial Street, for the mandatory quick ‘cheeky’ beer – there has been a pub on this sight for a couple of centuries, and the present building date’s way back to 1871.
All in all, the sights of Shadwell make a very pleasant day out.
Hope you enjoy the accompanying photos.