East London Gun Wharves

Visit Wapping in Historic East London

Although badly damaged by bombing raids in the Blitz and affected by the closure of its docks industry, the East End’s Wapping area still has some little historical gems that are worth a visit. Wapping has been inhabited since Saxon times and has played a part in some of London’s more interesting moments.

Places to Visit in the East End of London – Wapping.

Wapping’s name probably comes from the Saxons who first inhabited the area – it is thought that they were led by someone called Waeppa. It runs along part of the embankment of the Thames and much of its trade history has a connection with the water. For many centuries, the locals who worked and lived here served sailors and sea travellers and were involved in businesses such as mast making, boat building, instrument making and victualing. This was a prosperous area for many centuries.

The most famous part of Wapping is one that you may not be able to locate exactly. For over 400 years, it was home to London’s infamous Execution Dock. This was a gibbet that hung over the Thames on a dock, and it was the place of execution for pirates and seagoers who had broken the law. They would be hanged at the dock and their bodies would then traditionally stay hanging until three tides had submerged the bodies.

According to the law, the Admiralty only had jurisdiction over crimes at sea, hence the fact that the dock and gibbet were located beyond the low tide mark. The most famous person to be executed here was the pirate, Captain Kidd.

River Police History and Wapping

River Police in Wapping
River Police in Wapping

Wapping is also supposed to be the place that first invented a marine police force. A local magistrate established a group of police officers in the late 1700s, which was tasked with stopping crime on ships moored in the area.

There was a lot of theft and damage to ships by London criminals and this Marine Police Force evolved into today’s Marine Support Unit. This is still based in Wapping High Street – the building is also home to the Thames Police Museum.

Wapping saw some major changes in the 19th century. It had previously been one of the docklands hubs of the area, but new docks were built in different locations and the area became less pivotal to London’s sea trade. It is estimated that Wapping lost almost 60% of its population at this time, as industry moved out of the area.

Wapping got a bit of a boost, however, in the early 1800s when Marc Isambard Brunel constructed the Thames Tunnel. This ran from Wapping to Rotherhithe on the other side of the river and was the first tunnel running underwater in the world. It is now part of the London Overground network. Although beset by problems, there was a point when the tunnel was a great tourist attraction, which may have benefited some of the locals.

Despite the fact that Wapping was now peripheral in docklands terms, it still suffered badly from bombing raids during the Second World War. The area, like much of the East End also suffered again as London’s docks in the area closed down after the war and moved away. For a period of time, the area was run-down and had few prospects for improvement. It took until the 1980s for regeneration to begin in earnest. Wapping is now coming alive again and is home to some desirable, and usually fairly expensive, waterside homes and businesses.

Battle of Wapping and News International

In recent years, Wapping has become synonymous with the media magnate, Rupert Murdoch. In 1986, his company, News International, built a massive publishing factory in Wapping. The area became the scene of industrial protests, including the “Battle of Wapping” when Murdoch moved production to Wapping from its traditional base of Fleet Street and introduced new technologies that cost 5,000 workers their jobs. This move effectively ended Fleet Street’s traditional role as the base of British publishing.

Hidden Historical Gems in Wapping

Visitors to Wapping today can still find some little historical gems that are not found anywhere else in the capital. The area still has some ancient stairs that give access to the Thames shore. If you dig around in the banks of the river at low tide, you stand a chance of unearthing something pretty old. The best stairs to use for this are Wapping Old Stairs and Pelican Stairs by The Prospect of Whitby pub.

This pub is a must-see for visitors to London. It is supposed to be the oldest pub in London that stands by the side of the Thames. This may or may not be true, but there has been a pub on the site since the time of Henry VIII so there is some history there. There is a replica of the Execution Dock gibbet close to the pub, although this probably was not its exact location.

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5 thoughts on “Visit Wapping in Historic East London”

  1. Hi Malcolm

    I’m compiling a tour guide of London’s most hidden gems, (not the usual tourist sights) and I am currently working on London Bridge to Wapping. Bearing in mind that readers would ideally be walking, do you have any offbeat items that still exist in this area that I could possibly include?

    Kind regards

  2. Do you know if there was a Venetian-style building right on the Thames? Or was it trick photography used in the P.D. James TV Dalgliesh mystery, “Original Sin”, with the building called Innocent House? I can’t find any reference to it, except Foscari in Venice, or find any such building ever existing in Wapping. It certainly doesn’t seem to be there now. Thanks for any help.

  3. Please let me have details of your tours of Wapping. Shall be in London mid April 2015 for a nurses’ AGM at the Royal London Hospital. Thank you.

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