Limehouse got its name from the lime kilns in the area. These were used by potteries that crafted products for shipping companies and ships in the East End docks. Some also believe that the name referred to the sailors who disembarked from their ships in this area.
They were nicknamed “Limeys” or “Lime Juicers” as they had regular rations of lime juice when at sea to prevent scurvy. It is most likely that the lime kilns theory is the correct one, as Limehouse’s name predates sailor scurvy rations.
Places to Visit in East London; Limehouse
The earliest reference to the area is thought to have been in 1356 when it was known as Les Lymhostes. In the early 1400s, the area was also recorded with the name of Lymhosteys. As well as the role that Limehouse played in local pottery production, the area was also a well-known and significantly sized port. Like much of the East End, it is close to the river and the traditional docklands areas.
In the medieval period, Limehouse was actually a large and important London port. It tended to focus on production rather than cargo handling and was well known for shipbuilding, rope making and ship supply businesses. By the time of Elizabeth I, Limehouse was a leading trade centre and, after her death, it was estimated that almost half of the 2,000 people who lived in Limehouse had some seafaring connection.
The local population was mixed and varied. As with other parts of the East End, Limehouse became a popular place for sailors looking to settle down and for immigrants looking for work on the docks and in shipping. Limehouse became popular with African sailors and developed a large Chinese community over time.
This caused a few problems in the area, especially in the late 1800s. Chinese sailors traded in tea and opium, and Limehouse became infamous for its opium dens. The area developed its own Chinatown district – the first in London — and facilities sprang up for the Chinese community, including a Confucian temple and a Chinese Christian Mission.
Local people and other Londoners could be fairly prejudiced against the Limehouse Chinese. These attitudes were not much helped by books such as Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series, which played on the local opium dens and criminal problems. Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes come to the area in search of opium.
Although the Chinese population moved out of the area after the Second World War to settle in London’s current Chinatown district in Soho, you can still see parts of the legacy they left behind in some street names, such as Canton Street, Pekin Street and Nankin Street.
Famous Historic Landmarks in Limehouse
One of the major landmarks of the area is the Limehouse Basin. This connected the Thames and the canal system, allowing cargoes to be switched directly from ships on the river to narrow boats that could then transport products throughout the country. It was originally known as Regent’s Canal Dock.
The East End docks areas were often the starting point of infections and epidemics. Sailors and passengers coming in on ships from abroad could carry infectious diseases. The first case of cholera in the country happened here in 1832. It is thought that it came into the country from India via Germany. This first outbreak of the disease was to kill 800 people and was to cause problems again in later outbreaks.
In 1922, Limehouse’s local MP was Clement Attlee, a future Prime Minister of England. He had worked in the Limehouse and Stepney areas for many years on social projects. The slum conditions that were so rife in the area helped turn him from a conservative to a socialist. Before being elected to parliament, he had also been the mayor of Stepney.
The basin at Limehouse declined in popularity and commercial usefulness as the country’s rail network started to grow, but you can still see boats and barges in the basin if you visit Limehouse today as the area still has its own marina. The docks here closed in the late 1960s, which caused problems with unemployment. The area remained fairly rundown until the new Docklands developments in the 1980s – it is now a desirable place to live with a mix of new developments and historic housing.
Limehouse Historic Architecture
If you visit Limehouse, take a walk along Narrow Street to see one of the last surviving early Georgian terraces in the city. The pub next door to the houses here, the Grapes, was once a regular haunt of Charles Dickens who used to visit Limehouse to see his godfather. He used the pub as the model for The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Our Mutual Friend.
The explorer, Francis Drake, set off on one of his voyages to the New World from a spot close to the pub. It is currently part-owned by the actor, Ian McKellen.