Limehouse, East London: A Hidden Gem with a Rich History

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 as Lymhosteys. As well as Limehouse’s role in local pottery production, the area was a well-known and significantly sized port. Like much of the East End, it is close to the river and the traditional docklands.

In the medieval period, Limehouse was 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.

View from the Thames of the entrance of the Limehouse Dock of the Regent's Canal.
Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

China Town

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 somewhat 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 for opium.

Limehouse was London’s first Chinatown between the 1880s and the 1960s. It was home to a tightly-knit community who were demonized in popular culture and eventually erased from the cityscape. Connie Hoe, who was born to a Chinese father and an English mother in early 1920s Limehouse, remembered it as an “urban village” where “everybody knew everybody else and we were like one big family”.

Chinese sailors discharged from East India Company ships settled in the docklands from as early as the 1780s. By the late nineteenth century, men from Shanghai had settled around Pennyfields Lane, while a Cantonese community lived on Limehouse Causeway. These Chinese sailors began to diversify their incomes by setting up hand laundry services and restaurants.

However, due to a combination of bomb damage during WW2 and later redevelopment, Limehouse’s Chinatown no longer exists. The current Chinatown off Shaftesbury Avenue was established in the 1970s by an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong.

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.

Limehouse Basin Viaduct
Limehouse Basin DLR Viaduct

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, and it is thought that it came from India via Germany. This first outbreak of the disease was to kill 800 people and caused problems again in later outbreaks.

In 1922, Limehouse’s local MP was Clement Attlee, a future Prime Minister of England. He worked on social projects in the Limehouse and Stepney areas for many years, and 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 grew. However, you can still see boats and barges in the basin if you visit Limehouse today, as the area still has its marina. The docks here closed in the late 1960s, which caused problems with unemployment. The area remained relatively 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

Limehouse Railway Viaduct Arches
Limehouse Railway Viaduct Arches

If you visit Limehouse, take a walk along Narrow Street to see one of the city’s last surviving early Georgian terraces. 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 During WW2

Limehouse is an area located in East London that has a rich history. During WW2, Limehouse was affected by bomb damage. The original Chinatown of London used to be found on Limehouse Causeway. Still, due to a combination of bomb damage during the Second World War and later redevelopment, it no longer exists.

WW2 Limehouse aerial photo.
Ttocserp, CC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Life in Limehouse

Before the closure of London’s docklands in the late 1960s, Limehouse was a bustling fishing community. Vintage photographs show men carrying cured fish ready for dispatch, children playing in the street, and workers rescuing a sunken barge. These photos provide a glimpse into what life was like in Limehouse during its heyday.

Transformation of Limehouse

After the closure of London’s docklands, Limehouse went into decline. However, by the mid-1980s, it had transformed into a luxurious residential area between the City and Canary Wharf. It became home to financial workers in the city and is currently home to former foreign secretary Lord David Owen and actors Ian McKellan and Steven Berkoff.

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.

Limehouse Restaurants: A Guide to the Best Dining Spots in East London

Limehouse is a vibrant and diverse East London area with a rich history and a thriving cultural scene. Whether looking for a quick bite, a romantic dinner, or a family-friendly feast, Limehouse has something to offer for every taste and budget. Here are some of the best restaurants in Limehouse that you should try.

Big Easy – Canary Wharf

If you are craving hearty American fare, head to Big Easy – Canary Wharf, a lively restaurant serving generous portions of barbecue ribs, burgers, steaks, and seafood. You can also enjoy live music, happy hour deals, and a stunning view of the Thames from their terrace.

Boisdale Of Canary Wharf

For a more sophisticated dining experience, book a table at Boisdale Of Canary Wharf, a Scottish restaurant specialising in fine whisky, cigars, and live jazz. You can savour dishes such as haggis, smoked salmon, Aberdeen Angus beef, and lobster thermidor while listening to some of the best jazz musicians in the country.

La Figa Restaurant

If you are in the mood for authentic Italian cuisine, look at La Figa Restaurant. This cosy and friendly restaurant serves fresh, delicious pizza, pasta, salads, and desserts. You can also enjoy their wine list, which features a selection of Italian wines from different regions.


If you want to spice up your palate, try Kirvem, a Turkish restaurant that offers various Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes. You can sample their kebabs, mezes, salads, soups, and desserts made with fresh ingredients and spices. You can also order their mixed grill platter with lamb chops, chicken wings, kofte, and more.

Yurt Cafe Limehouse

If you are looking for a relaxing and charming place to have a coffee or a light meal, visit Yurt Cafe Limehouse, a unique café housed in a yurt. You can enjoy their homemade cakes, sandwiches, soups, and salads, as well as their organic coffee and tea. You can also browse their books and magazines or join their events and workshops.

These are just some of the many restaurants that Limehouse has to offer. Whether you are a local or a visitor, you will surely find something to suit your taste buds in this vibrant and diverse area of East London. Bon appetit!

(1) Big Easy – Canary Wharf.
(2) Boisdale Of Canary Wharf.
(3) The 10 BEST Restaurants Near Limehouse Basin Canalside – Tripadvisor.
(4) The 10 BEST Restaurants Near Limehouse Station – Tripadvisor.


Limehouse is a historic and vibrant area in East London with a lot to offer visitors. From its historical landmarks to its lively markets and restaurants, there is something for everyone in Limehouse. If you are looking for a place to explore London’s history and culture or enjoy a day out in a vibrant and diverse area, then Limehouse is the perfect place.

I hope you enjoyed reading about Limehouse. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below. I would love to hear from you!

34 thoughts on “Limehouse, East London: A Hidden Gem with a Rich History”

  1. I am seeking any information relating to a Limehouse estate known as Dusthills.It came into our family in 1500 and was finally left in c1664. The estate stood north of the Ropewalk.

  2. 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.

  3. 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….

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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 ?

    • 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!

    • 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.

    • 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!!


    • 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

    • 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

  11. 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?

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • Hi Ruth, my mum was born and lived in Pennyfields 1928-1940’s. She went to the Chinese School, in the Chinese Mission, which was in Pennyfields in the 1930’s. (Opened in 1935 by Irene Ho Tung.)

  12. 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


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