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Escaped tigers and white elephants … the Tobacco Dock story

IT SEEMED such a great idea. A prime chunk of derelict real estate, right at the epicentre of the coming Docklands boom. Just like in the Long Good

The Old Tobacco Dock, Wapping

The Old Tobacco Dock, Wapping

Friday: what could go wrong? As the rubble of the demolished docks was swept away, vast acres of new land were exposed to view. To the west lay Rupert Murdoch’s monstrous Fleet Street on Thames at Wapping. To the east, the glittering towers of Canary Wharf were just beginning to emerge from the Isle of Dogs clay – a bit like spring flowers after a particularly long and brutal economic winter.

Tobacco Dock was and is a beautiful building too. When they constructed docks in the early 19th century they built them to last. And of course, being bonded warehouses for the holding of valuable imported Virginia tobacco, the structures had to be secure, to stop the fragrant cargoes from going over the wall. The fashion of the late eighties was to no longer demolish the massive Georgian buildings of the old docks, but to repurpose them for a yuppified ‘Docklands’, with modern interiors being created within the old shells. Frequently, of course, new ‘faux’ warehouses would be built to fill in the gaps.

So the owners of Tobacco Dock, Lawrie Cohen and Brian Jackson, (working with gifted architect Terry Farrell, who who artfully reconstructed Charing Cross station) and surfing a retail boom,

Replica ships evoke memories of Tobacco Dock's past

Replica ships evoke memories of Tobacco Dock's past

must have looked at their Grade One listed purchase, to be transformed from Napoleonic warehouse to 1990s’ shopping centre and presumably thought: “What can go wrong?” And so they opened their doors, on 22 March 1989 … and nobody came.

If the building had had a colourful early life (we touch on Jamrach and his escaped tiger, as well as the Queen’s Tobacco Pipe below) the years leading up to launch had been beset with snags. The owners had swallowed the expensive necessity of preserving the essential elements of Sir John Rennie’s original design. The great architect of London Bridge, the London Docks and much more of the infrastructure of maritime and commercial London had rested his roofs on huge iron pillars, while the warehouse itself stood atop vast subterranean, arched brick vaults, built for the storing of the tobacco. Legend has it the elaborate brickwork was assembled by French prisoners taken during the Napoleonic Wars.

But planning permission seemed to go out of the window as the owners discovered that Rupert Murdoch had been given planning permission to knock down a section of the old dock, and use the land to expand the looming Fortress Wapping next door. The pair had just three months to match Murdoch’s bid, and were bailed out at the eleventh hour by builder Harry Neal, who came up with £500,000.

The shops that took the units in the new centre were very much of the 1980s. There was a Body Shop, a Next, a Monsoon and a Filofax shop – all Tobacco Dock lacked was an outlet selling jumbo mobile builders’ phones. But the traders who had counted on footfall from shoppers and tourists waited in vain. The Sunday Times nipped next door to get a story but that was about it. Amjal Chaudry, who took a unit to sell craftwork and jewellery told the paper in 1990 that he was seeing three or four people a day, taking £30 if he was lucky.

Charles Jamrach's Ratcliff Highway Shop

Charles Jamrach's Ratcliff Highway Shop

The problem? As property and retail experts will always say: it’s about location, location … oh and location. You could say the mall was a short walk from Tower Hill, but who was going to take that walk along the traffic and fume congested highway. It was hard to get to, as well. There was Wapping station on the East London Line and Shadwell on the recently opened DLR, but both were poorly connected, unlike today, with the Ginger Line Overground and the ever-expanding DLR. The owners built a multi-storey carpark opposite, but even that set new records for a London car park with no cars in it.

The centre found occasional uses – as a location for pop video shoots (among them Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Messages), for a commercial for the Ford Ka, and for filming of BBC time-slip drama Ashes to Ashes five years ago.

The remarkable fact was that the complex didn’t close. The shops left, one by one, until by the late nineties there were only two businesses left: Frank & Stein’s and Henry’s Cafe Bar. In the mid-nineties a new plan was launched, to transform the Dock into a factory outlet complex. A bad omen perhaps was that this idea was floated by Gerald Ratner, the man who had destroyed his own jewellery company with a Russian Roulette approach to PR. And in 2000, Henry’s Cafe closed, leaving Frank & Stein’s as the only tenant. The owners were now forced to keep the complex open for another eight years, at which point the restaurant closed, and they could bar the gates for … the last time?

View of Tobacco Dock from the road

View of Tobacco Dock from the road

You can’t get in there now, though you can see the replicas of sailing vessels the Three Sisters and Sea Lark, and the statues of animals commemorating the adventures of Charles Jamrach, who ran a zoo/petshop on the Highway in Victorian times. The story, perhaps embroidered over time, has a tiger escaping and seizing a local boy in its mouth, with Jamrach heroically prising the lad from the beast’s jaws. Tiger and boy are here in statue form, gazing quizzically at each other. Perhaps they are wondering where everybody is? There is a bear too, another reminder of the eccentric menagerie. No expense was spared in making Tobacco Dock work – but to no avail.

With thanks to View From the Mirror’ a Taxi Driver’s London,

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