Tower Hill Beach by John Rennie
Summer’s here, and that means East Enders will be preparing for their summer holidays. Ibiza, Florida, the West Indies, there’s no limit to the travel destinations these days, as people take advantage of cheap flights to follow the sun.
A generation or two back it was different of course. Then it would be Margate, Clacton or Southend, and you took pot luck with the English weather.
But from the early 1930s, there was a holiday destination much closer to home. A sandy beach and – if it was a fine day – you could be there in ten minutes. But who ever heard of a beach at Tower Hill?
River Thames and Tower Bridge
We’ve all seen the Thames at low tide. But crossing Tower Bridge and looking down at the silted mudbanks exposed by the receding water, it’s unlikely you’ve ever fancied sunbathing down there.
But the Tower Hill Improvement Trust thought it was a marvellous idea, and one of the most bizarre ventures in recent East End history came to fruition in 1934.
The Trust knew that even weekend and bank holiday trips to the seaside were a luxury beyond many East End families.
So, in 1934, they brought in bargeloads of sand, and heaped them atop the muddy banks. More than 1500 tons of the stuff created a beach for 500 people between St Katharine’s Steps and the Tower.
King George V opens Tower Hill Beach
The Lieutenant of the Tower of London opened Tower Beach to the public on 23 July 1934. King George V decreed that the beach was to be used by the children of London and that they should be given ‘free access forever’.
It was an instant beach for East End children and they responded accordingly. It was a huge hit. Between 1934 and 1939 over half a million people used the beach. Many visitors came from the East End, particularly from Stepney and Poplar.
The children built sand castles and swam in the ‘sea’ while their parents lounged in the sun – there were even rowing boats for hire – a trip under Tower Bridge and back again would cost 3d (just over 1p). It was only for five and a half hours each day though, at high tide the beach disappeared.
The beach closed for the first time during the Second World War. So many children had been evacuated from the borough that it wasn’t thought worth opening it.
With the cessation of war the Tower Beach opened again – amazingly it was only finally closed down in 1971.
Local lad Colin Jackson used to sneak on to the recently closed Tower Beach as a schoolboy in the early seventies. For him and his pals it wasn’t about sunbathing, but a much older East End tradition – mudlarking.
Museum of London
‘We used to go down there and go mud-larking and treasuring. At home I’ve got bits of old junk that we found, I’ve still got them now to this day. We used to go clay pipe hunting,’ he remembered.
As an adult he revisited the beach at an open day hosted by the Museum of London. ‘
“There was all these guides from the Museum of London teaching the kids about the years that different clay pipes come from,” he said.
“Then they gave them all rubber gloves and told them to go looking in the little puddles and under rocks'”.
So many thousands of the little clay (tobacco) pipes were tossed into the Thames over the centuries that such a search would turn up examples to this day.
The beach was eventually closed because the river was considered too polluted and unsafe for bathing.
In fact the eddies and riptides of the river here meant that it had never been a good idea for kids to go swimming – though Tower Beach never had any problems.
And ironically in the early seventies, the river was probably about to become the cleanest it had been for 1000 years … as river trade almost completely disappeared.