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Category: River Thames

Thomas Neale: the man who invented Shadwell

THOMAS NEALE was very much a man of the late 1600s. A master of a dozen fields, who could move effortlessly between jobs, he was an MP for 30 years, the Master of the Mint, and set up the first properly organised postal service in the United States. He was also the proud bearer of one of the many arcane posts in the gift of the monarch. As Groom Porter to Charles II he was the king’s gambling tsar, charged with settling disputes at gaming tables and closing down gambling houses; he even developed a fairer and truer die to outsmart gambling cheats.

Thomas Neale

Thomas Neale

By the end of his short life (he lived from 1641 to 1699), this remarkable man had burned through two fortunes (one courtesy of his wife, the richest woman in England) and he died penniless. But as a young man, he was responsible for transforming a benighted and boggy stretch of East End waterfront into a thriving commercial concern. Neale, almost forgotten today, should be as lauded as more celebrated developers such as William Cubitt, who at least got a slice of the Isle of Dogs named after him. For it was Neale who gave us Shadwell.

Until the 17th century, the area that would become Shadwell was bleak marshland. That began to change with an Act of Parliament in the 1660s that authorised the reclamation of 130 acres of Wapping Marsh. Until then, the sole function of the wasteland had been to flood with the rising of the Thames, and then drain water back to power the mills at Ratcliff. And as late as 1615, the riverside from Ratcliff up to Wapping was undeveloped, save for a few houses to the north (one of which, on the site of King Edward VII Memorial Park, was obviously of some importance, having a brewhouse and an orchard attached).

It was land that nobody had bothered too much about in the preceding centuries, but the rise in trade and shipping in the 1600s would change all that. The maritime adventures of the previous century had transformed England from a minor country off the coast of Europe into a genuine seapower, as Willoughby, Frobisher et al set sail from from Ratcliff. Britain’s trading routes had developed alongside, with the Port of London growing in step. In 1615 there were just ten ships of more than 200 tons in the Port; by 1640 that number had grown to 100. First Deptford, then Blackwall and Ratcliff had been developed, now eyes turned to the moribund waste of Shadwell.

Shadwell Basin

Shadwell Basin

For three centuries the land had been in the ownership of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s – nobody was quite sure how, as Shadwell lay within the territory of the Manor of Stepney, but for 300 years it had fallen to St Paul’s to maintain the river walls and ditches. The land had been taken from the Church under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, but with the restoration of the monarchy it passed back to the Cathedral, and to their surprise, they found themselves in charge of a valuable piece of real estate.

Enter Thomas Neale, once again, for among his many other jobs he was lessee of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s. He also already knew the area, as along with friends he had speculatively invested in East India trade and the development of the Ratcliff riverfront. Neale now began a huge programme of draining, reclaiming and laying out roads. It was a skill he would later apply to the development of Seven Dials in Covent Garden (despite the variant spelling, Neal Street is named after our man). He built a waterworks and a mill, with housing fanning out behind the newly developed waterfront. As the shipping business arrived so did the ancillary businesses develop, with ropemakers, breweries, bakies, tanneries, chandlers, smiths and the dozen other businesses of the working port. He even built Shadwell’s own church (it was now a parish) in St Paul’s Shadwell.

isaac newton

isaac newton

All of this was done while Neale was still in his twenties and he had an even more colourful career ahead of him. From 1678 until his death he was Master of the Mint, succeeded by another Stuart polymath, Sir Isaac Newton. Newton apparently complained that the Mint he inherited was a nest of “idlers and jobbers”. He was in charge of a mining company, and set up another to recover treasure from the many wrecks that littered the floors of the world’s oceans. Whatever Neale did, there was one common theme: speculation, and the love of a punt on a scheme that could make him very rich. Him or his patrons – it was Neale who was behind the notorious lottery-loans that poured cash into William and Mary’s Exchequer, boldly labelled “a profitable adventure to the fortunate, and can be unfortunate to none”.

Unfortunately there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to speculation and Neale’s difficulty seemed to be not so much raising cash, as holding onto it. Perhaps it was too much time spent around gambling joints as the Groom Porter, perhaps one grand scheme too many, but by 1694, Neale was struggling financially. Fortuitously he would marry the richest widow in England, and became known about London as ‘Golden Neale’. Alas, it wasn’t to last. He died penniless, having blown another fortune, just five years later.

Charles I’s pirate – John Mucknell

WHEN TODD STEVENS set off for a shallow shore dive off Scilly one winter’s day, he had high hopes. Previous expeditions had yielded gold coins, 17th century guns and an anchor. It was all a legacy of the Scilly Isles unique geographic position. Sitting some 20 miles off the toe of Cornwall, the archipelago controlled the western approaches to northern Europe and south

Author and diver Todd Stevens

Author and diver Todd Stevens

to the Mediterranean. Ships must pass the islands on their way east to the East Indies and west to the Caribbean. Unsurprisingly, pirates had settled on Scilly as the perfect base from which to plunder the growing sea trade of England, France, Spain and the Dutch – indeed the disgruntled Dutch would declare war on the islands in 1651, a war which would not officially end until 1986.

Todd, a transplanted cockney who has made Scilly his home (the West Ham cap, proudly worn, is evidence of his East End roots), was in for a much bigger find though. Fighting against the powerful current, he cleared the sand to find the skeleton of a huge vessel. And in doing so, he was led to the story of one of British maritime history’s most unlikely ‘heroes’. Could this be the wreck of the John, an East Indiaman turned pirate vessel, famously lost off Scilly during the English Civil War? The story of Mucknell and Todd’s search for the truth, is told in Stevens’ fascinating new book*.

Drunk, violent and unpredictable, East India Company captain John Mucknell was disloyal to his employers and to the rule of law, stealing his own ship and turning to piracy. Yet Mucknell ended his days as Sir John, a Vice Admiral in Charles I’s own fleet of pirates, and his widow received a royal pension. Mucknell was a Stepney lad, not high-born but certainly of respectable family. The Mucknells were Catholic and worshipped at St Dunstan’s: John had been baptised in the church in the year of his birth, 1608. And he had spent his entire working life as a servant of the East India Company.

Todd Stevens, magging off the coast of Scilly

Todd Stevens, magging off the coast of Scilly

By the 1640s, Mucknell was an established and trusted captain, but he was also a loose cannon. England was in the throes of the Civil War. A loyal Royalist, John was violently at odds with the Puritanical Roundheads and would express his opinions loudly and drunkenly about the inns of Stepney. The Company received reports of his erratic and sometimes paranoid behaviour, but nonetheless in 1643 were to give their man a plum posting: charge of the new John, a state-of-the-art vessel, lighter, lower and fleeter than its predecessors, and carrying 44 guns. They had made a huge mistake.

Mucknell hatched an elaborate plan (though much of the detail seems to have got lost in a fog of rum). The ship was bound for Surat, in Gujarat, India. The East India Company planned that Mucknell would be bringing back a cargo of spices and silks, and there were agents aboard to buy and sell goods. En route, the skipper was charged with picking up a wealthy Portuguese ambassador. But John had other ideas. He had already instructed wife Elizabeth to head for the Royalist stronghold of Bristol, where he would meet her once he had stolen the ship.

Things swiftly deteriorated on the John, and Stevens convincingly argues that Mucknell engineered discord. There were drunken fights and the crew split between loyalists to the Company and those wanting to join Mucknell and rob the ship and its passengers. Mucknell attempted to cast anyone in opposition as ‘a Roundhead’ though its unclear how much his fight was ideological and how much for monetary gain. Within weeks of setting off from Wapping, Mucknell had lost the

John Mucknell's protector, the Prince of Wales, would later reign as Charles II

John Mucknell's protector, the Prince of Wales, would later reign as Charles II

rest of his fleet, before marooning passengers and many of the crew on the small isle of Johanna, off the coast of Mozambique. He then fled back to Bristol, picked up Elizabeth and headed to the Scillies. It was 1643, and the long and bloody English Civil War had another eight years to run.

There are reports of pirates operating out of Scilly since the 11th century. When Mucknell arrived, at the helm of an impressive new 44-gunner, he was immediately able to dominate, and form the rag-bag ‘navy’ into a fighting force. They were unpredictable; there was little honour among thieves and when Naval ships came out to challenge the pirates it was frequently every man for himself. But in the midst of Civil War, the pirate Mucknell found himself enjoying unlikely protection. King Charles was only too happy to see the Puritans get a bloody nose, and he issued letters of marque, authorising Mucknell to attack and rob ships. The pirate was now a privateer, licensed by his monarch. The dissolute merchant mariner, who had no real battle experience, now found himself elevated to Vice Admiral. And the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, knighted him.

So although he was attacking ships of the English Navy, our man was doing so as Vice Admiral Sir John Mucknell, and he was about to get a powerful ally. Prince Rupert of the Rhine was the archetypal Cavalier, a dashing young man, a born soldier and overall commander of the Royalist forces by his mid-twenties. He had no maritime experience but was put in charge of the pirate fleet operating out of Scilly, and for the next years he would inflict defeat after defeat on the Navy, ransacking East India Company ships, and picking off any foreign vessels that came too close. The Scilly pirates had a vast area of control, operating as far west and south as the Azores, and so controlling the Atlantic sea routes. At his side was Sir John Mucknell.

There were reverses, and after one bloody skirmish Mucknell retreated to Wexford in Ireland to regroup. But by 1651, as the war reached its denouement, he was back, operating out of Scilly. And it was on one of those forays into the Atlantic, off the Azores isle of Terceira, that our man disappears from history. With eight years of bloody piracy behind him, the end seems to have been more mundane, as Rupert’s flagship The Constant Reformation, simply took on water and sunk, taking 300 souls with it. Documentation is scant of course, but there is no record of Mucknell taking another posting after that date.

Are these the ship's cannon from the long-lost ship John?

Are these the ship's cannon from the long-lost ship John?

Did John perish alongside those 300 in the sinking of The Constant Reformation? Or was he saved alongside Prince Rupert (who would go on to live into his sixties and become head of the King’s Navy after the interregnum). Certainly by 1660 he was dead. In that year, we find his wife Elizabeth petitioning the new king, Charles II “for her husband’s pension of £200 a year, for service, granted in 1645, which was five and a half years in arrears when he died”. Basic maths might suggest that Mucknell had been lost in the battle off Terceira. Elizabeth had been “driven from her habitations at Poplar and Bristol, her goods seized and she forced to fly beyond the seas.”
For centuries Mucknell and the John were lost to history. But Todd’s explorations kick the whole story off again, and this year English Heritage announced plans to dive the wreck. The story of the King’s Pirate is not done yet.

* Pirate John Mucknell and the Hunt for the Wreck of the John by Todd Stevens. AuthorHouse Publishing. ISBN 978-1467001588. Order details at
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Execution Dock, Wapping

DURING MOST of London’s history, murderers, thieves and other miscreants received swift justice. An open-topped cart to Tyburn, and a swift drop from the gallows was the judicial response to a bewildering variety of crimes, some of them minor to modern eyes. But for

Roque's 1760 map of Execution Dock, Wapping, London

Roque's 1760 map of Execution Dock, Wapping, London

four centuries, the East End had its own answer to Tyburn Tree. The hamlets east of the City were the maritime hub of London, from where English ships travelled the globe, to return with their cargo or booty. Appropriate then that criminals on the high seas would meet their end at Wapping’s Execution Dock.

The Dock had its roots in the huge expansion of English naval power during the mid-1300s, fuelled by the military ambitions of one of England’s longest-lived kings, Edward III. The monarch, who reigned from 1327 to 1377, developed his country into one of Europe’s great powers, resisting the might of France and Spain. Key to this was a powerful navy and, with England isolated by water, pirates were not just a threat to the economy and English trade, they threatened the very security of the realm.

So stern measures were developed to counter the activities of the privateers, whose number had only increased with the rise in English seapower. After the Battle of Sluys in 1340, Edward established the High Court of Admiralty to deal specifically with piracy and spoil (goods purloined from enemy ships in time of war). From the late 1500s, the admiralty court would sit at the Old Bailey, home also to the Central Criminal Court, but its victims would take a different

Hanging of a pirate at Execution Dock, Wapping

Hanging of a pirate at Execution Dock, Wapping

route to the gibbet. Most ‘inshore’ prisoners would be housed at Newgate (just next to Old Bailey) but their maritime counterparts would more likely be incarcerated at Marshalsea Prison, on the south bank of the Thames. (East End chronicler Charles Dickens was traumatised as a child by his father’s spending time in Marshalsea for debt). The guilty men (and occasional women) would be brought on an open cart from Southwark, across London Bridge, past the Tower of London and to Wapping.

But if you had to go, better to go in style perhaps. The prisoner would be flanked in his carriage by the hangman on one side and a chaplain on the other – victim, damnation and salvation all in one small cart. And the wagon would be preceded by the Marshal (the sentencing judge) on horseback with a silver oar clasped in hand. En route to the gallows, the condemned were even allowed to stop for a final quart of beer at the Turk’s Head Inn, which stood at 30 Wapping High Street until it was destroyed by enemy bombs during the Blitz. This final drink was a small act of humanity common to many British cities. The Last Drop Tavern in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, next to the city’s main gallows, offered a similar service to Auld Reekie’s miscreants.

There would always be a good crowd too – Londoners always loved a public execution – and not just in the streets. The gibbet was erected at the low water line, recognising the fact that his crimes had been committed at sea. And within yards of the gallows, dozens of little boats would be bobbing, packed with onlookers keen to get a good view of the hanging. The deaths were

Madame Tussaud's grisly take on Execution Dock, Wapping

Madame Tussaud's grisly take on Execution Dock, Wapping

brutal even by the standards of public execution. Early on of course, the victim was hoisted up and left to choke. But even after ‘the drop’ was brought in, breaking the neck and causing immediate death, the maritime felons had it rougher. A shorter rope was used, meaning they would still dangle and suffocate. Especially popular was ‘the marshal’s dance’, as the hanged thrashed arms and legs furiously around in their death throes.

The humiliations didn’t end there. Many victims of the rope would pay for a decent funeral if they had the means. In latter years, with the advent of the bodysnatchers and burkers, some would pay friends to ensure their corpses weren’t purloined for dissection (which had been allowed since Henry VIII’s time and was the norm by the 1700s). And at least at Tyburn they cut you down quickly after you’d been dispatched. But at Wapping, the corpses were left until three high tides had risen and washed over their heads. The worst offenders would then be cut down, coated with pitch to preserve them for as long as possible, and hung

Prospect of Whitby, Wapping High Street, London

Prospect of Whitby, Wapping High Street, London

‘pour decourager des autres’ down river at Blackwall Point or across at Rotherhithe’s Cuckold’s Point, down at Tilbury Point or at Woolwich. Incoming crews would be warned off piracy by the site of a rotting, crow-pecked corpse – and there were famous names, such as Captain Kidd.

The last hangings at Wapping were in 1830 and in 1834 the Admiralty Court was wound up, its powers transferred to the Central Criminal Court. How many unfortunates had been dispatched down the centuries? It’s impossible to be sure, but between 1735 and 1830 there were 78 confirmed hangings and six ‘probables’. The enthusiasm of the Crown for killing pirates was
without limit it seems. But there were exceptions. Certain privateers sailed just close enough to the wind to be of use to the monarch, and even commanded naval vessels – Raleigh and Drake spring to mind. Though it was a dangerous game and both ended up on the gallows. Others of those managed to escape the gibbet and die in their beds. And it’s one such – John Mucknell, a rough Stepney lad who rose to be a knight of the realm, who we discover next week.

An entertaining if historically questionable take on the Captain Kidd story. Charles Laughton could never be accused of underplaying his role … but what is Tower Bridge doing in a movie set in the 17th century!



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Dock deaths and the Poplar Hospital

Docklands hospital in Poplar

Poplar Hospital catered for the wounded from the East India Docks

THE NAME of the infirmary was tellingly blunt. The ‘Poplar Hospital for Accidents’ suggested that the East End of the 1800s was a dangerous place where bad things happened. And though it would become a refuge for East Enders suffering every kind of ailment, primarily it was created to cope with the constant stream of broken and shattered men carried from the East India Docks – the most dangerous place of all.

Dock work was inherently dangerous of course. The frequently half-cut dockers (cheap booze being one way to make a hellish job bearable) were manoeuvring large, heavy objects between moving ship and stable shore across narrow gangplanks, often slick with ice or other muck. They worked in a confusion of men and vehicles, alongside precipitous drops into the filthy Thames, with sharp grappling hooks being swung around with sometimes careless abandon. But a series of historical turns would make the job more dangerous still during the 1800s.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Port of London was completely gridlocked, with ships taking days or weeks to be emptied, turned round and sent back to sea. The answer was to build a series of new, enclosed docks, increasing capacity while bringing down costs to the merchant companies, and thus of the goods they were importing. The West India Dock was built in 1802, the East India in 1803, London Docks in 1805 and half a dozen more would follow. The dock owners were now losing less stock through theft, with their well-protected docks, and so prices could come down further. It would lead to an economic boom for England and the beginnings of the great days of London retail. East End stores and market stalls were now selling imported fabrics, tea, coffee, rum, oranges and bananas, and East Enders could afford to buy them.

But with increased capacity came competition, as the dock owners cut prices to vie for business. That meant lower wages for the dockers, who were already on a daily rate or were being paid by the quantity they shifted throughout the day. And there was more competition for jobs, as new labour came in from the English countryside and from Ireland, forcing down wages further. Corners would be cut, and so accidents would happen.

The work itself was dangerous, dirty and tiring (and tired men had more accidents). Bags would burst, showering dockers with iodine, phosphate, asbestos, lead, cement or guano. A docker of more recent vintage, Bill Abbott, recalled the perils of working with inexperienced men, saying: “I’ve had chaps working with me down a ship’s hold that never handled a hook or done a job down a ship’s hold in their lives. On one occasion, put on sugar, and I gave him a hook…And said “now put your hook in there”, and I’m saying that, as he did so he went literally – bashed his hook right through the middle of me hand. I’ve still got a little hole there now. Almost pinned me hand to the bag of sugar.”

Bill got off lightly. Cargoes could fall from nets or slings as they were being winched to and fro. The busy river would roll ships around at the dock, casting men over the side, to be drowned or crushed between hull and dock. Within the holds of the ship, barrels and chests would be dislodged, crushing men beneath them. In the confused melee of river traffic, collisions occurred, despite the skills of the watermen and lightermen – even those experienced river pilots went over the side from time to time. On the dock itself, cranes, winches, tractors, locomotives and platform trucks all added to the accident count.

So in the early 1850s, a drive was launched. Money was raised by charitable donations and the former Custom House was purchased and transformed into the new Poplar Hospital in 1855. It was soon bursting at the seams and had to be expanded twice over the following years; at one point, it was estimated that a dozen new cases were being treated at the hospital every hour of the day and night, and the hospital bore a plaque “in grateful recognition of the splendid services rendered by the Hospital to the Staff of the London and India Dock Company, since the Hospital was established”.

Seventy years on, its role hadn’t changed. Poplar Borough Council published its Official Guide to the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar in 1927, and reported that: “Accidents in the Port of London, in the docks and shipping, amongst the factories and the engineering works, are of frequent occurrence, and often of the most terrible character … immediate attention to the injured is often a vital consideration.”

The injuries were horrific of course. Crushed limbs, severe lacerations, arms or legs often amputated by falling machinery or whipping ropes. And the Poplar Hospital, while a boon, was still severely limited in what it could do for patients. By the mid-1800s, anasthaesia was becoming established at least. In the early 19th century surgery had been an horrific affair, with pain relief consisting of biting on a strap of leather and a strong will. Unsurprisingly, many died of shock during their operations. One estimate put the post-operative death rate in London hospitals at over 90 per cent in the early 1800s. And it was a common saw that you were safer outside hospital than in. Infection was rife, with no understanding of what caused disease, let alone antibiotics to combat it. A docker might go in with a serious wound only to die from infections picked up in hospital. By the late 1800s, antibiotics had joined anasthaesia, and surgical techniques had improved, but survival rates were still pitifully low.

Times would change of course. The hospital suffered bomb damage in 1941 but wouldn’t close until 1975. In 1982 it was demolished to make way for new houses – the old Victorian buildings and limited space no longer suitable for the demands of modern medicine, though the people of Poplar would miss their local hospital. But by then of course, the docks were all but dead. Downriver, at Tilbury, the docks may still be dangerous places but the advent of health and safety awareness meant the carnage of the docks was history.

How Cubitt moved the East End to the West End

The Cubitts were the family of master builders who reconstructed much of London in the first half of the 18th century.

Eldest brother Thomas built part of Buckingham Palace, large chunks of Belgravia, Bloomsbury and Camden Town. He eventually became so rich and powerful that he even helped underwrite Prince Albert’s pet project of the Great Exhibition in 1851 and personally funded the building of a kilometre of the Thames Embankment.

Middle brother William, who eventually became Lord Mayor and a Tory MP, built and gave his name to Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs, while youngest brother Lewis built Kings Cross Station, parts of Euston and many of the bridges that carried the railways around Britain.

But perhaps the family’s most remarkable achievement was transplanting a large chunk of the East End to the West End – and building a new suburb in the process.

Thomas was one of London’s first master builders and revolutionary in his method of gathering all the trades together under the umbrella of his firm. He had a humble birth, in 1788, the son of a Norfolk carpenter. He followed his father into the trade but had much grander ideas. There was good money to be made as a ship’s carpenter travelling the trade routes to and from India, and by his early twenties he had salted away enough cash to realise his dream of starting his own firm in London.

The capital was enjoying a huge building boom in the early years of the 19th century. London had never truly recovered from the devastation of the Plague and Great Fire, London had struggled through more than a century of economic stagnation and low population growth, and that only maintained by immigration from overseas and the home counties. But by the turn of the 1800s, London was growing again, and quickly.

Trade with the Empire was mushrooming, and had to be supported by a huge development of the docks of the East End, creating thousands of new jobs. To fill them, thousands of men and women poured in to London each year from Ireland and the shires of England. The canals were snaking out from London to take goods around England, and within a few years a massive investment in railways would transform the economy and infrastructure of the land.

As well as the huge ‘capital projects’ as they would be called today, homes were needed for the builders. The supremely organised and dynamic Thomas, running his own building firm from the Grays Inn Road in his early twenties, was perfectly positioned. His first big job was the London Institution at Finsbury Circus. Then he set to work making the homes for the new Londoners who were building the docks, railways, canals and houses of the growing city. The villages of Camden Town, Highbury and Stoke Newington became London suburbs, their fields and market gardens buried beneath cobbles and brick.

Meanwhile, over in Westminster, landowner Lord Grosvenor was about to see his real estate rocket in value. The Grosvenor estate had begun with the marriage of Sir Thomas Grosvenor to Mary Davies in 1677. Mary brought with her the unpromising dowry of 500 acres of land north of the Thames and west of the City. Marshy and sparsely populated, the land languished for half a century, before the slow repopulation of London made it worthwhile for the family to develop first Mayfair and next Belgravia. Now Lord Grosvenor was eyeing an inhospitable patch of marshland south of Buckingham Palace: the location was ideal, but the land unusable according to many he consulted. In 1824, he turned to the new master builder of London in search of an answer.

Cubitt, creative as ever, had the perfect solution. Over in the East End, the medieval hospital of St Katharine, along with 1250 houses crammed alongside, had been marked for redevelopment by an 1825 Act of Parliament. 23 acres would be demolished and dug out as the new St Katharine Dock. The slum-dwelling inhabitants, mostly dock workers themselves, would be made homeless (probably having to move into even more crowded slums); only the landowners would be compensated.

But if the developers were indifferent about where the former residents went, they did have the problem of what to do with the thousands of tons of earth dug out of the banks of the Thames. Step forward Thomas Cubitt, with a fleet of barges which for months steamed up and down the river – dumping acres of East End soil into the Pimlico bog. Within a few years, elegant new terraces of white stucco would rise from the mud of Wapping-in-the-West, and Thomas Cubitt would become a rich man. The Grosvenors became, and remain to this day, far richer still.

The precocious Thomas, still in his thirties, now handed the business over to younger brother William. He would go on to develop Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs and – with brother Lewis – make a fortune from the railway boom. Thomas was now rich enough to pursue his own projects. He died in 1855 and Queen Victoria (for whom he built Osborne House as well as helping out Albert with his Great Exhibition) described him as “a real national loss. A better, kindhearted or more simple, unassuming man never breathed”.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel this week (9 April 2006)* marks one of the real pioneers of British industrial design. A multi-skilled engineer who built tunnels, bridges, steamships, railway trains and railway stations.

As well as a prodigious appetite for work, Brunel was a man who took risks, and alongside his spectacular successes were dramatic failures … sometimes with tragic consequences. The anniversary has particular significance for the East End of London. Brunel had worked on the Thames Tunnel, and during the 1850s he would launch the Great Eastern, the biggest ship ever, from the Isle of Dogs.

Brunel was born in Portsmouth the son of Sophia and Sir Marc Brunel, who had emigrated from France. The young Brunel was sent back to his father’s country to study, and at just 20 was made chief assistant engineer on his father’s Thames Tunnel project. The tunnelling shield, the first of its kind, supported the bore of the tunnel and allowed men to work inside. The technology forms the basis of tunnelling to this day.

It was unpleasant and dangerous work. The diggers were waist deep in foul water, there were two major floods, and several men were killed. On one occasion Isambard himself was almost drowned, and was never to fully recover. The tunnel took years to build, was a financial failure as a foot tunnel, and was then converted for use for the East London Line (Wapping-Rotherhithe).

Brunel had gained an extraordinary amount of engineering knowhow by his late twenties and began a prodigious career – one littered with ‘firsts’. In 1830, aged 24, he won the competition to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol – it had the longest span of any bridge in the world. Brunel became a bridge specialist: the new railways and roads meant bigger and better bridges were being built. The Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar followed, as did the Maidenheead Railway Bridge. It was another first – the widest and flattest brick arch bridge in the world. Brunel seemed able to work in any material, and on any project.

Aged 27, Brunel was chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. Again he went out on a limb, deciding the lines from Paddington should be broad gauge, which he argued offered greater comfort than the standard gauge – Brunel brushed aside the fact that every other railway was using the standard gauge pioneered by George Stephenson. His railway became an engineering monument that defied nature – with dramtic viaducts and tunnels making light work of any obstacle (Box Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the world). After Brunel’s death, though, the Great Western adopted standard gauge.

Some inventions never got off the ground, including the Atmospheric Railway, which was to use vacuum power to move trains through Devon. But Brunel looked ever forward, and even while he was wrestling with the demands of the railways, he was looking at transatlantic passenger travel. New ways of making steel and the advances in steam power meant this was now a reality, and the bold Brunel convinced his bosses at the GWR to build the Great Western, simultaneously. advertising the railway. Typically it was to be no normal ship.

At 72 metres in length, she was the biggest steamship ever. The Great Western eventually made 74 crossings to New York, cutting the journey time in half. He went on to build bigger and better ships, including the Great Britain and the Great Eastern. Launched in 1858, this vessel dwarfed the Great Western, being 700ft long and carrying 4000 passengers.

Thousands flocked to the Isle of Dogs to see the work in 1858. She was the pride of Britain but, just before completion things began to go wrong. Several men died during the final stages of her construction: it was rumoured that a riveter and his mate were entombed between her twin hulls. From then on, hollow knocking sounds were heard below decks at night, horrifying the supersititious workers.

The launch was a disaster. Chains took the strain of moving the 19,000-ton vessel but snapped, hurling workmen into the air. Brunel called a halt with a man was dead and four others badly hurt. It took four months to drag the Great Eastern inch by inch to the water. As the ship steamed into the Channel, the skipper allowed steam to build up and there was an explosion. Scalded seamen struggled to the deck. One flung himself overboard in agony only to be mangled in the ship’s huge wheel. Three more died before the day was out. Visitors to Millwall today can, at low tide, still see the launching ways and piles built for the Great Eastern.

The strain told, and Brunel died of a stroke in 1859, just days before the maiden voyage to New York. He was just 53. Yet in the BBC poll of ‘Great Britons’ in 2002, Brunel came second only to Winston Churchill. The reason is probably that in his risk taking he came up with so many firsts.The Great Eastern would never make money, yet it had an importance that Brunel could never have anticipated. It was the ship used to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable … putting Europe and America in telecommunications contact for the first time.

*Events take place all year. A complete programme of the events during the Brunel 200 celebration can be found online at

Brunel and the Great Eastern

Tens of thousands of people flocked to the Isle of Dogs to see the biggest ship in the world being built.
She was the pride of Britain until, just before completion in the 1850s things began to go horribly wrong.
Because so much money had been poured into building the gigantic Great Eastern, cuts were made and risks taken. Several men died during the final stages of her construction. It was rumoured they included a riveter and his mate entombed between her twin hulls.
From then on, thoughts of the two trapped workmen made many of the crew nervous. Hollow knocking sounds were heard below decks at night and the ship was dogged by ill-fortune throughout her life.
It was a complete turnaround from the fortune that smiled on the ship when she was first designed by the golden boy of Victorian engineering, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Brunel had already built a tunnel under the Thames, constructed railways and designed the Clifton suspension bridge. Everything in his working life was big. Even his railway stations, like Paddington, were the size of cathedrals.
But he went a feat too far in creating an enormous steamship which could carry her own coals on a voyage to Australia and back. He needed a partner to bring the idea to reality and, in choosing John Scott Russell who owned a shipyard at Millwall, he chose the wrong man.
Russell was a braggart who could not live up to promises he made to Brunel. He failed, for instance, to find suitable land on which to build the huge ship.
As a result she was built in a far from ideal spot and had to be launched sideways into the Thames at Millwall.

The launching was a disaster. Huge crowds turned out on the appointed day when Miss Hope, daughter of a shipping company director, smashed a bottle of Champagne against the hull.
Chains took the strain of moving the 19,000-ton vessel but could not cope. They snapped, hurling workmen into the air. Brunel called a halt but, by then, one man was dead and four others badly hurt.
The launching ceremony was postponed with the ship having moved only four feet.
It took four months to drag the Great Eastern inch by tortuous inch to the water. By now the national press was hooting with derision and Brunel became ill with worry.
Even when the ship steamed out into the Channel, disaster was at hand. The skipper allowed too much steam to build up and there was an explosion.
Scalded seamen groped their way up on deck. One flung himself overboard in agony only to be mangled in the ship’s paddlewheel. Three more died before the day was out.
The Great Eastern limped back to port, her splendid Victorian fittings ripped to shreds, and did not re-emerge for a year.
Brunel died a broken man aged only 53 and, although the Great Eastern lived on for 30 years, she seemed jinxed.
She lost money as a transatlantic passenger steamer and was converted to the ignominious job of laying ocean cables.
Brunel’s dream, of using her on the Australia run, was never realised and eventually she was broken up for scrap.
Not much remains today of the Great Eastern apart from photos and souvenirs.
But visitors to Millwall today can, at low tide, still see the launching ways and piles that were built for Britain’s ill-starred queen of the seas.
For further reading: The Big Ship by Patrick Beaver; Brunel and his World by John Pudney.

Tower Hill Beach

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.

Lost rivers of London

Lost Rivers of London by John Rennie

The City of London wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for the River Thames. And the reason that the East End is more than just a collection of country hamlets is because of its history as a river gateway to the City, as people and produce poured into London from around the world over the last two millennia.

But the Thames isn’t the only river in the history of Tower Hamlets. Once there were other watercourses, now buried beneath the industrial and residential development of the East End, but all of which played their part in its past.
Until the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, the Abbey of St Mary Graces stood at Tower Hill, not far from the subsequent site of the Royal Mint.

Old maps of the abbey show a river running down each side of what was then
called Nightingall Lane – now renamed Thomas More Street. Some sources suggest that the river rose at what is now Royal Mint Street. But Kenneth Reid, writing in the archives of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society back in 1954, makes a more realistic claim that it followed a course from Wellclose Square, which fits in better with the contours of the land.

Wapping’s Crashe Mill

It was possibly on this river that Wapping’s Crashe Mills stood. This watermill is
recorded in 1233 as belonging to the Priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, and was a tidemill, most likely providing power for the milling of grain.

The unromantically named Black Ditch appears on Horwood’s map of the parish boundaries of London, which appeared in 1799. The river apparently rose at Rhodeswell Road in Stepney, and headed east as far as Bromley-by-Bow before looping back in an arc across what is now the start of the East India Dock Road. It then fed into the Thames at the easternmost end of Narrow Street.

Veitch’s plan for the Sewerage of the Metropolis, which appeared in 1851, shows the Black Ditch as now being an underground watercourse, little more than a sewer. And Joseph Bazalgette’s massive programme of underground waterworks for the City in the mid- and late-1800s enclosed many ancient streams and rivers in pipes, and transformed them into waste and outflow sewers.

The lost River Walbrook

Strange to think that, hundreds of years ago, there were major rivers feeding into the Thames from the banks of the City. The Walbrook – which gives its name to the existing City ward – was fed by one tributary which rose just to the east of Aldgate and another which appeared by the side of Shoreditch High Street.

The Walbrook gave into the Thames between Southwark and London Bridges, but began to be choked with rubbish during Roman times. It was excavated, canalised and used for traffic up to medieval times. It was finally covered over in 1440 at the instigation of Robert Large, Lord Mayor of London.

The untamed River Lea

Before its canalisation, the River Lea was a far more sprawling waterway, and one of its major tributaries was Hackney Brook. Now completely lost, Hackney Brook rose at two points near the Holloway Road, crossed Mare Street – known as Merestret back in 1443 – and flowed down to Hackney Wick before meeting the Lea a little way to the south. The Hackney Brook was no minor stream. The Report on the Public Bridges of Middlesex, published in 1825, described the brook flooding to 100ft in width at Hackney Wick Bridge.

All these rivers are now hidden, but they still flow along their ancient courses. Nowadays, they are only seen when torrential rain causes flooding, but they are there just the same, forming a large part of the Victorian sewer system that still serves London.

Further reading: The Lost Rivers of London, Nicholas Barton, published by QPD.

Thames moorings

London is a city built on a river. Two millennia ago, the Romans chose a conveniently defensible spot for the capital of ‘Britannia’ – travelling upriver until they found the first spot at which they could build a bridge. The future Tower Hill rose above a wide stretch of water, perfect for a port. 1800 years later, it had grown to be the biggest port on the planet, and London one of the world’s great cities. Britain had an empire that spanned the globe, its wealth founded on the ships that plied their trade in and out of the Pool of London.

Limehouse Reach by Aubrey Hunt

Limehouse Reach by Aubrey Hunt

The Romans began a remodelling of the river that has gone on to this day, cutting deep quays in the shallow, sloping banks of the Thames. By the second century AD, London had wharves and warehouses, and goods coming from the Mediterranean and North Africa. By the 8th century the Anglo-Saxons had made the city a centre for shipbuilding and King Alfred’s reign saw the extension of the port down to Queenhithe (a dock still in use into the 20th century). By the 11th century, the city was home to the Navy, and with the Norman Conquest came not just the Tower of London but also an influx of merchants from Normandy and Flanders.

Much of the growth was built on conflict and misery. The Hundred Years War saw London boom in size during the 14th and 15th centuries on the back of shipbuilding and supply. And London was a centre for the slave trade until the 19th century. Whaling was another staple, and in the case of the Empire, ‘trade’ was frequently a euphemism for theft, with the East India Company and others growing fat on plundering the riches of Africa and Asia. But by the early 1900s, the docks and the river were in steady decline, and by the latter half of the 20th century, London seemed to have turned its back on the river. Londoners travelled by tube, bus or car, but rarely by water.

Gradually though we’ve turned back towards the Thames. The desolate docks have been transformed into Docklands and river traffic has increased. But it’s easy to forget that the river is more than simply scenery. People have continued to live and work on the Thames. Now, a long overdue project will chronicle that existence – and hopefully continue to encourage the river back into life. ‘A Sense of Place’ is led by Hermitage River Projects in what was once the navigational centre of London.

Thames at Limehouse

Thames at Limehouse

Working with Hermitage Community Moorings and funded by a £49,100 Lottery grant, the charity has built a harbour to ensure the preservation of traditional sea and river boats. It will be the best kind of museum, a living and working one. Thames sailing barges, fishing boats, coasters and tugs – some of them more than a century old and all lovingly restored – will make this a London history obsessive’s dream. The Heritage Lottery Fund cash will allow Hermitage to gather documents, films, photos, archaeological relics to provide background and context to the new fleet: the archive will be housed in the Pier House, which floats alongside – everything about this project lives on the water.

The interesting thing is that life and work on the Thames may have died down during recent decades but it was never extinguished. The Thames River Police have been patrolling the waters for more than two centuries; there are four other police services, the Fire Service has a boat and there are the customs officers. And of course there are the boatyards, dry docks, chandlers, diesel stations, marine engineers and shipwrights so essential to the boats of the Thames. In a nice twist, the Hermitage project, with its collection of vessels, will be putting more work their way. And, right by the Hermitage moorings, the last eel fisherman in the Upper Pool maintains his eel pots. Once there were dozens, but the changing tastes of East Enders (and the pressure on eel stocks) means that Bruce Pope now works alone.

During those two millennia an enormous range of trades and skills grew up around the river. As London ships pushed further around the globe, accurate instruments of navigation were needed. London’s makers of compasses, chronometers, sextants and back staffs acquired a reputation for high quality design, skilled manufacture and innovation. Other trades are gone forever. By the time Samuel Pepys was writing his diaries in the late 1600s, there were 10,000 licensed watermen on the Thames, ferrying passengers to and fro on their wherries, skiffs and clinker boats. Today they still have their livery company in the City, but activities are limited to ceremonial dashes such as Doggett’s Coat and Badge and the Great River Race. Some old practices are making a comeback. Todays toshers and mudlarks are doing it for fun and are armed with metal detectors but a century or two back people made a business out of sifting the mud and filth for the riches that Londoners had lost.

Everything found its way, somehow or other, down to the river bank. New trades have grown up too – the crews of the dozens of pleasure craft that work the Thames are the true descendants of those lightermen and watermen who for centuries fought (sometimes physically) for the choicest passengers. Most excitingly perhaps, a new generation of riverside dwellers is getting involved once more. Children from nearby Hermitage Primary School are getting involved as part of their curriculum work. And the project is looking for community vounteers to get involved – interviewing and recording the reminiscences of those last watermen and lightermen, and the crews of the boats that still work the river.