Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Treasure cliffs! ... monster ships ... phantasmagoric storehouses, citadels of merchandise, mountains of tanned goatskins enough to stink all the way to Kamchatka! Forests of mahogany in thousands of piles, tied up like asparagus, in pyramids, miles of materials! ... rugs enough to cover the Moon, the whole world ... all the floors in the Universe! ... Enough sponges to dry up the Thames! What quantities! ... Enough wool to smother Europe beneath heaps of cuddly warmth ... Herrings to fill the seas! ... Himalayas of powdered sugar ... Matches to fry the poles! ... Enormous avalanches of pepper, enough to make the Seven floods sneeze! ...

- Celine, Guignol's Band

A couple of weekends ago, DV and I went for a walk around Shadwell, Wapping and Limehouse - all stops on the Docklands Light Railway, all names from a lost world. Not a world we should be nostalgic for, no doubt, but an Imperial mercantile world razed to the ground and replaced with ... another mercantile world - of a different, but still Imperial nature.

While you can't see Canary Wharf from Shadwell DLR, a barely-audible, tangible drone emanates from the Isle of Dogs onto places like this. Shadwell was a port from the 17th century until the late 20th century, and its maritime history is inscribed into its present - sometimes fetishistically (aspic-preserved pirate-ships, the undead Tobacco Dock), but also in the different ethnic communities that make up its population.

The Church of St George in the East, between the Highway and Cable Street, is one of Hawksmoor's six churches. Iain Sinclair believes that the positioning of these churches indicates occult forces - indigestible historic nuggets, needled by the Thatcherite visions of regeneration, gentrification and Heritage, which persist to this day. "You can't understand Thatcher," he says, "except in terms of bad magic. This wicked witch who focuses all the ill will in society ... She becomes a godhead to those who want to destroy the city's power. But the godhead is created for a system which destroys her, as always happens. Now she's been banished to a kingdom of whisky and mockery."

In the tranquil gardens of St George's, which were re-opened earlier this summer, sit two roofless cottage-like buildings which, so a faded sign over the door tells us, used to be the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney's Nature Study Museum.

The museum, which was shut down on the eve of the Second World War, contained an ant-hive, a beehive, an aviary, a large Italian toad called Tom and a group of monkeys, who were fond of biting visitors. It was also home to a cockatoo, which the staff regularly washed with benzol. In the summer months, city children - bereft, as always, of nature - would visit in their thousands. In its derelict state, it is more natural than ever - but this is dirty, ratty, cobwebby nature, and there are plans afoot to open it up again as a museum.

Armed with Paul Talling's book on Derelict London, we wandered round the ruins of the museum, pickicked on Tesco's sarnies in the gardens and admired Dave Binnington's Rivera-like mural of the Battle of Cable Street. Following Hitler's remilitarisation of Germany, Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia and Franco's assault on republican Spain, Mosley and the British Union of Fascists had planned to invade this working-class, multicultural district on the 4th of October 1936. Despite an unsuccessful protest to the Home Secretary by local Mayors, the march was sanctioned, and Police beat protestors back in order that Mosley could proceed, but the Fascists were blocked from marching by 300,000 local people under the banner of "no pasaran" - they shall not pass.

We were not the only people to admire Binnington's extraordinary mural - its defiant portrayal of resistance in the face of Fascist violence dominates this part of Cable Street. It has been vandalised by groups of Fascists since its inception, and in 1993 the BNP attempted to deface it permanently by smearing black paint all over it. Happily, Tower Hamlets Council and local groups raised £18,000 to re-paint it and it is now covered with a lacquer, so that any future damage can be easily wiped off.

Tobacco Dock shows the failure of the Yuppie fantasy – a shiny consumerist dream which aimed to turn the grime of labour upon itself. This retail space – once used for the storing of tobacco, wine and spices, more recently neoliberally detourned into a shopping mall – had the misfortune to open its doors during a particularly pip-squeaking recession. By the mid 1990s, only a sandwich shop called Frank & Steins remained.

Now abandoned, Tobacco Dock is guarded by CCTV, cleaners, a team of security guards, two bears (micturating bears, according to DV) and a kestrel to keep the pigeons away. The site is now owned by Messila House who, with a nod to Icarus, have earmarked it for a new hotel and luxury residential complex.

There were some helpful notices outside to ensure our health and safety:

As we passed a Catholic church with an unsavoury anti-abortion flyer stuck to the door, DV reminded me that missionaries were drawn to poor, itinerant communities. The docks at Wapping were opened in the early 19th century, and many of the early dockers were Irish. Today, Wapping appears surprisingly cohesive - many of the wharf conversions are relatively tasteful and nestle among late 70s low-rise Council housing estates. The unity is somewhat undone by the proliferation of private, gated blocks of flats that overlook the Thames (Heritage clearly does not stretch to maintaining the public's right of way along the riverpath). In the car-park of one of these estates sat an abandoned vintage car. Further along was a gate which we assumed was locked, but since another couple found a way through to the Iguazu-like froth of Pelican Stairs, one supposes that this area feigns to be more exclusive than it really is.

In the 1960s, Betjeman rented a house near here which hovered over the river: "I put my bed on the river side of the room and it was delicious to go to sleep to the solacing sounds of water." Wapping was the site of the first enclosed dock on the Thames, and Brunel and his father built a tunnel under the river to connect this isolated area to Rotherhithe on the south bank.

By the end of the 60s, the Docks were in decline, due variously to their dilapidation, the advent of containerisation and the disintegration of Imperial markets. By 1981, all upstream docks had closed and the local economy had collapsed.

The Port of London Authority, which owned the docklands, and Tower Hamlets Council, which administered them, pursued profitable development opportunities. Newham and Southwark Councils, to the East and South, explored ways of investing in local housing and neighbourhoods. Either way, draining and cleaning the docks and restoring the land was estimated to cost around £1bn in early 1970s money.

A consortium of local Councils and the GLC proposed massive public investment over two decades, but following the structural adjustment programme imposed by the IMF in return for its bail-out of the British economy, public funds were in short supply.

An early piece of Thatcherite planning legislation, the Local Government, Planning and Land Act of 1980, enabled Urban Development Corporations (publicly-funded bodies tasked with finding market-led solutions to urban regeneration) to compulsorily acquire land from Local Authorities and then sell it to the most profitable bidder. The newly-formed London Docklands Development Company got its hands on 600,000 acres of land via the Act – this was land originally intended for public housing, but the LDDC, seeking market solutions to maximising profit. The docklands were granted the status of Enterprise Zone (the equivalent of China’s cotemporaneous SEZs), and enjoyed liberal tax-breaks.

Local people could no longer deliver their verdicts to local elected Councillors; UDCs were not accountable to the public, except insofar as they were appointed by the Secretary of State. Tenders were evaluated on the extent to which they draw in capital to the area; any effects, deleterious or otherwise, on the local community were disregarded.

In Urban Process and Power, Peter Ambrose notes that “between 1981 and 1989 the number of new lettings available in the London boroughs fell by 41%, new building fell off by 91% and 17% of London’s public housing stock was sold off.” As a result, £223m of rate-payers’ money passed over to landlords of bed and breakfast and other temporary accommodation.

Riverside Mansions, Wapping, whose residents were told to leave in the early 80s. Now redeveloped, they now sell for up to £300k (from this Flickr sequence)

We had a drink in the Prospect of Whitby, formerly the Devil's Tavern, where Dickens and Whistler and Turner got merry with smugglers and pirates. An anonymous band from the late 90s (Starsailor? Seahorses? Anyhow, something with a maritime theme...) played anaemically on the jukebox. It was dark and oaky inside, and DV was excited by the prospect of piracy, but we could find neither the foghorn on the shelf nor the newspaper report on Scarface Sanders.

Wapping High Street once contained nearly 150 pubs, and several brothels. The closure of the docks in 1969 left Wapping empty, a spectre of its former self. After Rupert Murdoch moved his media empire from Grays Inn Road and Blackfriars to new, high-tech, automated facilities at Wapping, many manual printers lost their jobs. As much as the Miners' Strike, the Wapping Dispute between Murdoch and the print unions showed that in the post-Fordist economy, traditional industrial jobs were no longer safe.

Free Trade Wharf - a gated community with a form apparently cribbed from the Habitat 67 complex in Montreal - was completed in 1990. It has a 24-hour concierge, a swimming pool and gym, sauna and spa, and landscape gardens. The cheapest flats were sold in 1990 for £107,000, the most expensive for £190,000.

The estate is typical of late 80s housing built under the auspices of the LDDC. From 1982 to 1988, 2,819 units of housing were built on the Isle of Dogs, of which 22 were shared-ownership and 60 were available for rent. As the decade progressed and land prices increased, the proportion of “affordable” housing built decreased. By the end of 1987, only 42% of new-builds were below £40,000 (1987 money) and only 12% of that 42% were sold to former Council tenants. Around half of house-buyers were well-paid City workers. We should be reminded of Ruth Glass's counsel against gentrification:

One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences [...] Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.


Many of the LDDC's developments generated a 500% return within three years, so that a property bought for 40k in 1984 would sell for up to £200k in 1987, although prices went down just as steeply after the stock market crash.

Twenty years on, Tower Hamlets Council are planning to flatten houses along and around Linehouse Cut and the River Lea to make way for London 2012. It was getting dark and the Cut didn't feel like the cosiest place to spend a summer's evening. Escaping the pull of the Blackwall Tunnel Approach, we climbed the steps up to Cotall Street.

1-94 Cotall Street backs onto Bartlett Park in Limehouse. Like Robin Hood Gardens, it stands in the shadow of Canary Wharf, and the local Council are in the process of knocking it down. Its residents had their tenancies terminated at the end of December 2008, and all have now left. In April 2009, around the time of the G20 summit, the seeds of a squat were born, and now (apparently) all 94 flats are being used. One of the new residents pointed out that Tower Hamlets had tried to make the flats uninhabitable so that squatters would be put off:

“Loads of the flats had been totally gutted - the electricity cables ripped out, doors ripped off their hinges and windows smashed, the plumbing all pulled apart and the toilets hammered into pieces. Some of the flats were a real project to get sorted, but it's been fun because everybody here mucks in and helps each other out. A couple of days working on a place and it becomes totally hospitable ... The vibe here is really friendly. Pretty much everyone gets on well. We're having more and more communal barbeques and we're starting to screen films in the communal flat. Now that the weather's picking up people hang out on the roof, just sharing stories and learning from each other.”

A couple of weeks ago, the Sun reported that couples living in the Cotall Street squat have the temerity to make love on the roof (or "perform sex acts," as the Sun salivates with typically prudish hypocrisy). Weighing into the debate, local MP Jim Fitzpatrick says: "There's no proper solution bar demolition." That’s the spirit! Streets's the best place for 'em!

Alas for poor Nu-Labourite Fitzpatrick, the squatters may be a thorn in the side of the developers. Where Tower Hamlets could issue their tenants en masse with notices of eviction, each of the 94 squatters must be treated separately. Which means 94 separate court cases, and 94 separate headaches for the Council's lawyers. Recall what Iain Sinclair said - "the godhead is created for a system which destroys her" - and understand that the Cotall squatters have a very different kind of God on their side...


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