Limehouse a Brief History of London

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.

Limehouse Viaduct Arches

Limehouse Viaduct Arches

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.

32 comments on “Limehouse a Brief History of London
  1. Barbara Kagy says:

    I found my 5th great grandfather Hugh Griffin born 1594 in Limehouse and married at St, Dunstan’s church in Limehouse shortly before they left for America.

  2. Alison says:

    In my genealogical research I have discovered several generations of the Burford family who ran a distillery at Limehouse Hole in the 17th and 18th centuries. The earliest, John, is described as a fruiterer and owned a warehouse in Margett’s Rope Yard. I’d love to uncover more about their history….

  3. Sue Conroy says:

    I myself was born in limehouse and I would love to get hold of a picture of Kilner Street from around 1953 to 1963. Sadly so far I have not found one. I would appreciate any suggestions.

  4. Jane Ashby says:

    Attn Ruth Horne
    Ref. A Life Remembered (George Piercy) by Jane Ashby

    Hello Ruth
    We were in contact a couple of years ago regarding my research on my gt grandfather. I now have self published a book on his life. Would you be interested in a copy?

    Withbest wishes

  5. Sue says:

    Hi Malcolm. My husband was a child in Limehouse. Jane Ashby I also have Piercy ancestors and some from Yorkshire. Could you send me any information.Many thanks.

  6. On a river boat trip from Westminster to Greenwich, the commentator told us that Limehouse go it’s name from the lime for rebuilding, supplied by the Dutch following the fire of London. New building was to be of bricks & mortar so there was a big demand for lime.

  7. Hilary Thomas says:

    I am looking at the history of a William Thomas, ropemaker, who left his business to sons William, John and George, having previously put the boat “George up for sale. His business was in Narrow Street, Limehouse. He died in 1803, describing in his will the machinery and tools for making ropes. Possibly from Wales or of Welsh descent, wife Mary. Judging by what was left in his will he seemed to be doing well, but it would appear that the sons went bankrupt in 1825 – and that they owned the ship “Friendship” which was supposed to be in bad condition with rot in the Gunwhales and elsewhere.
    Family possibly originally from Fishguard.
    By the way, I loved the Fu Manchu novels, even named my cat Fu Manchu.

  8. Ken says:

    Hi Jane, hi Ruth,

    It is incredible, if not by “divine” intervention (!), that I found you two here – a great grandaughter of Missionary George Piercy! I lead a group of Chinese who are planning to “re-kindle” the spirit and mission of the Chinese Mission House – we have been greatly inspired by it and taking it as the “starting point” of our modest endeavour.

    Last friday,we went to tour the area, walked along Pennyfields, Ming Street, then to Pekin Street, Nankin Street, over to Canton Street and had a very pleasant welome by the St. Mary & St. Joseph Church at Pekin Street. “Something” very heart warming and inspiring happened when we arrived at Pekin Street that we could not explain – we then went all the way to ruin on St Saviour Church at Bartlett Park, which inspired us more ( and now planning to put together a plan and a bid to re-build the ruined Church – all inspired by our discovery of the Chinese Mission House! We “only” need several £ million to re-build that church 🙂 ).

    Anyway, it would be really good to meet you both at the site! Jane, we would love to read your book. Ruth , we would love to hear the progress of your own research on your grandmother. Would you both be so kind to email me at ” visionandmissionorg ” at ” gmail “dot” com ” ? ( I wrote the address that way to prevent spam bot from harvesting the address, I hope anyway).

    Malcom, thank you for writing the article / blog – you have facilitated something special!

    God Bless. Ken

  9. Jane Ashby says:

    Hello Ruth

    Your Gt Grandmother sounds interesting, I believe the Mission House in the 60s became a Chinese Restaurant, but its good to hear that it was in use up till and including WW2. Can you tell me the year your Gt Grandmother was there ?

    • Ruth Horne says:

      Hello Jane,
      I know she left China in 1920 ish, I am now working to find out exactly what order she did things in. I know that she was living in Putney in 1944 and still had connections with the Chinese in London at that time. I think she was involved with various bits of missionary work, she seems to have a connection to a mission house in Gower St as well. I am guessing, but I think that she was probably in Limehouse in the mid 1920s or early 30s and may have moved over to Gower St later on, perhaps during the war. I know she used to preach in a little Tin Church in London possibly in Limehouse, she preached in Chinese! She was quite a person. I guess your great grandfather was another! I wonder what inspired him to set up the mission? Was it at the time when the Chinese were being somewhat persecuted in London and other areas?When was your gt Grandfather at the mission? I wonder if they could have met!

      • Jane ashby says:

        Hi Ruth. My Gt Grandfather was a Wesleyan Methodist. He went to Canton in 1851 and spent 30 years there on his return still wanting to help the Chinese he founded the Chinese Mission in 1883. Sadly he died in 1913 so would not have known your Grandmother. His name was George Piercy a farmer’s son from Yorkshire, like your GT Grandmother he was quite indomitable. I am currently writing a book on his life and the Mission in Limehouse will form the last part.

        • Ruth Horne says:

          They were incredible people, so determined.

          Please let me know if you come across anything about the “Tin Church” in your research. I’ll look out for your book!!


          • Jane ashby says:

            Ruth. I will look out for anything on the tin church and thank you for your kind words on my book, I am hopeful it will be finished soon.

            Best wishes

          • Ruth Horne says:

            Hi Again!

            I don’t know if you are based in London, but wondered if there would be a possibility to meet up and chat about these ancestors. it’s so interesting that they’re on such a similar track. Obviously totally understand if not.
            Do let me know when the book is coming out, good luck with getting the last bits done.

            All best

  10. Ruth Horne says:

    I am looking for the Chineses Mission in Limehouse too! I think my great grandmother was involved in the 1920s-40s. So far I have found a reference to Ruscoe Road in Canning town.
    I wonder if you have had any success with locating the site of the building?

    • Jane Ashby says:

      Reference the site of the Chinese Mission House, it was situated at 92 West Indian Dock Road Limehouse. My Gt Grandfather George Piercy was instrumental in founding this Mission in 1883.
      I hope this is of interest to you.

      • Ruth Horne says:

        Hello Jane,
        Thank you for this information, it’s really useful. My Great grandmother was from Australia, she worked as a missionary in China before coming to London and working in the Chinese community in Limehouse before and during WW2.

  11. Jane Ashby says:

    I am exploring the history of my gt grandfather George Piercy who ran The Chinese Mission in Limehouse from 1885 and would appreciate any information. I am particularly interested in knowing what happened to the MissionHouse if anyone knows, Thanks

  12. I am exploring London with Bradshaw’s Hand Book to London, 1862, and have just walked the Limehouse Cut. I will add a link to your site. Thank you!

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