The Dark Waters Project

Dark Waters is an audio-based exhibition about the Thames, and RIBA London has commissioned a unique Dark Waters Ordnance Survey Map for the exhibition.

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You are here: Home > Thames Piers > History at Canary Wharf Pier

History at Canary Wharf Pier

'There has always been crime along the Thames. While hundreds of ships lay at anchor waiting for the tide or for a suitable wharf they were pestered by thieves and wreckers who were intent on stealing their cargo. There were night plunderers, watermen who worked under cover of darkness, and scuffle hunters or long apronmen who specialised in stealing the goods left on the quayside.'

Peter Ackroyd


CANARY WHARF NORTH - Wapping, Shadwell, Stepney, Limehouse, Isle of Dogs


St Katherine's Docks

In the 1820s Thomas Telford, replaced a maze of alleys thus displacing 11,000 inhabitants. The dock was intended for Thames lighters that ferried goods from the large downstream docks to the Legal Quays, but the entrance was soon too small for the latest steamers, and like the other docks, the war and containerisation had made it redundant before gentrification began in the 1970s.

There was a massive ivory house here for storage of huge numbers of imported tusks. The dock was home also to another doomed trade in the 1980's, until the last manned trading floor in London closed its doors.

The Turk's Head Inn

This was the only pub in the area licensed to sell pirates their last quart of ale on the way to the Execution Dock by Wapping Stairs.

M Wappyng Wall (Wapping Wall), Wapping High St

Built as tidal defence this riverside strand was became lined with the buildings off a busy sailor-town, including an incredible 36 taverns, as the area became an important maritime centre in the 17th and 18thC. The area inland was a wasteland known as Wapping Marsh (Wappinge atta Wose; Old English: wāse = muddy marsh) before being excavated to build the London Docks.

London Docks

Funded by a 21 yr monopoly on tobacco, rice and wine, to cover construction costs, these docks closed in 1967 when they were running at a massive loss. The dryer upland roads around the Ratciffe Highway were once lined with elegant merchants' houses before WWII bombing destroyed the area.

M Town of Ramsgate, Wapping Old Stairs

Still standing at 62 Wapping High St, this was where fishermen from Ramsgate once left catch to be taken on to Billingsgate Fish market. In 1688 the notorious 'Hanging Judge Jeffreys' was seized here after fleeing the angry mob that arose on the arrival of the Dutch in the Glorious Revolution. The pub's cellars used to hold convicts bound for Australia from Wapping Old Stairs, and it was supposedly frequented by Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, before their last voyage together.

St John's Church (demolished), Scandrett St

The tower of this former church was layered alternately in brick and stone, and was built to be visible through the Thames mists.

The Captain Kidd

An 18C Pub converted from warehouse, and named after the Navy officer turned Pirate who was hanged at nearby Execution Dock in 1701.

M Execution DockWapping Pier

This is the probable site of the gibbet of Execution Dock where pirates receiving 'The Grace of Wapping' were hung until three tides had washed their feet. The last execution was in 1830.

Wapping Police Station

Founded in 1798, much to the annoyance of the many thousands of dockside thieves, river pirates, and even libertarians suspicious of 'European ideas', the river police predate The Met by 10 years. They were in fact the first British police force and were funded by the West India Company, and not the state.


M Shadwell, Prospect of Whitby

A 3rdC roman watchtower stood by the 'shallow well' as defence against Saxon pirates. The oldest riverside pub in London, dating originally from 1520, was later named after a collier (The Prospect, 1777), and was used as a vantage point by the Thames painters Turner and Whistler in the 19thC.

M St Paul's, Shadwell

Comparatively recently founded in 1820 to commemorate the Waterloo victory of Wellington, a former commander of the East India Company's private army, but also intended to help keep demobbed troops in order, this was known as the Captain's Church. The founder was linked to the East India Company, and Captain Cook, who lived in Shadwell, had his son baptised here. Shadwell Basin is the last remnant of the London Docks which once ran all the way from here to the Tower.

London Hydraulic Company Pumping Station, Shadwell

Part of a London-wide string of stations this building once provided hydraulic (water) power to open Tower Bridge and raise West End theatre curtains.

Stybbanhythe (Stepney)

Built on the only un-marshy land near the river the ancient parish of Stepney, like Battersea to the west was a fertile market-garden for the city, its produce sold at Spitalfields Market.

M St Dunstan's, Stepney

Stepney's oldest church was founded in 923AD but the present building dates from the 1400s. Known as the Mariner's Church, St Dunstan's has a long association with the sea, having been the place for registration of the births, deaths and marriages of thousands of sailors until the 19thC.

M Radeclyve (Ratcliff)

Virtually the only point in the area where solid (Radeclyve/Ratcliff(e) = Red Cliff) land met the river this was an ancient shipbuilding and marine embarkation point.

Ratcliff Cross Stairs, The Muscovy Company

In 1553 the world's first joint-stock organisation, The Muscovy Company, despatched three tiny ships from Ratcliffe to seek an alternative North East Passage to Cathay. The Joint-stock structure allowed many of the nobility, and City grandees to invest without direct mercantile involvement, and could thus raise far larger funds than the chartered companies of that time.

Only one ship returned, and whilst it had failed to get beyond the White Sea, its captain had been taken to Moscow where Tsar Ivan IV had granted exclusive trade rights between Muscovy and the Company as the sole representative of England. The Company later moved its HQ to Seething Lane near Muscovy St and leased St Botolph's wharf to import its furs, wax, and timber.

Ratcliff, King Edward Memorial Park

Previously Shadwell fish market, this park was at one time the only public space between the Tower and the Isle of Dogs. The circular brick tower here is the northern ventilation shaft of Marc Brunel's tunnel, the first in the world under a navigable river. It took 17 years too build, and since it had no approach ramps was very unpopular and was soon bought by the East London Railway Company in 1869. It became one of first sections of underground railway in the world, and now forms part of the East London Underground Line.

M Free Trade Wharf, Ratcliffe

Built originally in the 1790s for the East India Company, the wharf handled huge saltpetre imports, used in gunpowder manufacture and meat preservation. Later a major unloading site for colliers from the North East, this area was nicknamed 'The Madhouse' for its winding lanes. Dutch Coasters were still calling here in 1970s.



Named from lime kilns (OE līm = lime, āst = oast house) that fired chalk from a natural outcrop downstream at Gravesend, the area became London's original Chinatown, infamous for its opium dens, as visited by Oscar Wilde's depraved fictional character Dorian Grey.

Narrow St

Rows of former merchants' houses and warehouses, with overhead walkways to foil thieves, formed an impenetrable barrier between the riverside and the cobbled street. This was the setting for Dickens' 'Dombey and Son'.

Limehouse Basin

Built in 1812 to service inland vessels the basin is the entrance to the Regent's Canal. It was enlarged in 1820 to also admit seagoing vessels and hence to move goods directly from the sea to the land by horse-drawn barges in a time before lorries and an extensive metalled road network existed.

The Grapes, Narrow St

This pub at 76 Narrow St was named in 'Our Mutual Friend' by Dickens as 'The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters'. Supposedly unscrupulous customers posing as watermen would ferry drunks to mid-river, throw them in, and then reclaim their bodies the next day.

M St Anne's, Limehouse

Hawksmoor's tower, clearly visible from the river, flies the Royal Navy flag, which was adopted from this church. The graveyard contains many masons' graves including interesting obelisks, and has one of the highest clock faces in the country, built in same workshop as the St Paul's Cathedral clock.

M Black Ditch, Dunbar's Wharf

The mouth of the long-buried Black Ditch (Blake broke), which once ran as far inland as Spitalfields, this was once an embarkation point for Australia-bound steamer passengers.


M Stepheneth Mershe (Stebenhithe/Popeler mershe) (Isle of Dogs)

Until comparatively recently this was an impenetrable marshland, later almost completely enclosed by dock walls. There are many myths to explain its current name but most likely seems to be 'Isle of Dykes' since the area was probably drained and shored-up by Dutch engineering experts.

M Marshwall, Westferry Road

An ancient riverside track once went round whole Isle of Dogs, but the old name for the dockside road alludes to the inland marshes. Later lined with the massive dock walls, often the only way into this notoriously inaccessible peninsula was by water, on the West Ferry, from Greenwich, or at the Blackwall Stairs.

The Poplar Gut

In the 15thC floods broke through Millwall to form a huge inland Lake that was later converted into the West India Docks.


Gated docks allowing ships to be cut off from the tides were built by private companies from the Tower to Gallions Reach between 1802 and 1921. The first, made possible by a 21-year monopoly on imported Caribbean goods, was built by the West India Company, and proved such a huge success that others rapidly followed.

There is a long and complex history of dockers’ relations with the company and its Thames-side neighbours. Eventually work was contracted on a ‘daily call’ only when a ship was in, or setting off. As the docks were declining competition for the decreasing jobs became more intense. There were also many examples of solidarity too, with strong unionisation, strikes and conflicts with the police and dock security men.

However by the 1960s the docks were running at substantial financial loss because massive modern ships, with their container loads, had outgrown the crowded old docks. The last working dock is at Tilbury further downstream.

Canary Wharf

In the 1980s the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was able to offer generous tax relief, simplified planning permission, and infrastructural support in helping to convert the deserted docks into the iconic East London development. At its centre One Canada Square is the highest building in country, topped with its pyramid and perennial smoke plume. The name is taken from the wharf of the 1937 Fruit Lines Ltd. where imported fruit from the Canary Islands was unloaded. Ironically the Atlantic Islands' original name, Canaria Insula, also means 'The Isles of Dogs'.

Machonochies' Wharf

Isambard Kingdom Brunel built 'The Leviathan' here in 1853-7. A painful birth it took 3 goes to launch this massive ironclad which was four times bigger than contemporary vessels. Later renamed 'The Great Eastern', she laid the first Atlantic telegraph cable. Some remains of the timber launch-slipways are still in place here.

Millwall Docks

Once the largest docks in London, for 100 years the Millwall Docks were dominated by the McDougall's Flour importing and milling company.

Pilgrim's Way, Ferry St

Once, the only feature of the bleak Isle of Dogs was an ancient track that ran past a small chapel dedicated to St Mary. Pilgrims from Walthamstow Abbey would take the ancient ferry on their pilgrimage route to Canterbury via St Alfege's at Greenwich.

Island Gardens

The bodies of executed pirates were hanged in chains here, visible to all passing ships as a reminder of the penalty for piracy or mutiny. From all accounts it seems that most of the approaches to London, by road or river, were thickly lined with gibbets in the 17th and 18thC.


CANARY WHARF SOUTH - Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Surrey Docks


M Beornmund's eg or eye(ot) (Bermondsey)

Named after the Saxon Earl Beornmund mentioned in Domesday, this marshy wasteland was a religious centre as early as the 8thC. The River Neckinger, although shallow, was filled at every high tide and navigable to 'Bermundesye' Abbey. In 1117 a Saxon cross, believed to have fallen from heaven, was found on the river shore and the abbey became a centre of pilgrimage.

M Bermondsey Abbey

Founded as early as 700AD the monastery was renamed after Henry's dissolution of the Monasteries (1538) to become St. Saviour's. St Mary Magdalene church now stands on site of the former Abbey and is amongst the oldest buildings in Bermondsey.

Bermondsey Wall

Embanked by the monks in the 11thC the street was impenetrably lined with wharves by the 19thC.

Butler's Wharf

Once the largest collection of Victorian warehouses on the Thames, this was a major tea unloading site and later, after relaxation of the Corn Laws, there was a massive import boom, and the wharf and its surroundings became the site of a massive packaging and processing industry.

Bramah Tea & Coffee Museum

Tea was imported from China from 1661 but by 1900 mostly came from India and Ceylon. Traded at Butler's Wharf for 350 years, the cargo was unloaded at the East India Docks and then rowed upstream in flat-bottomed Thames barges.

Cottons Wharf (Centre)

In 1861 a bale of jute started the Great Tooley St Fire that burned for 2 weeks and destroyed much of the area.

Concordia Wharf

For the author Charles Dickens this was 'the filthiest, strangest and most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London'.

M Neckinger

The name of the river is believed to derive from the term 'Devil's Neckercher', referring to a hangman's noose. The Neckinger is today a totally buried stream.

M St Saviour's Dock

At the mouth of the erstwhile Neckinger are Tea Trade Wharf, Cinnamon Wharf, Saffron Wharf, Java Wharf, China Wharf; names indicating the provenance of goods once unloaded here, and probably partly the reason for another of the inlet’s names; Savory Dock.

In the 17thC pirates were hanged at the mouth of the river and their corpses placed on display as a deterrent further downstream at Blackwall Point. Charles Dickens set Bill Sykes' death here in 'Oliver Twist'.

Jacob's Island

The area just downstream from where the Neckinger meets the Thames at St Saviour's Dock was historically known as ‘Jacob's Island’, a name still used in East End pubs. Once notoriously squalid ‘the island’ with its many filthy ditches and channels was described as "The very capital of cholera" and "The Venice of drains" by the Morning Chronicle of 1849.

Shad Thames

Warehouses here are now converted into luxury apartments but the tight grid of streets shows the land reclamation pattern in this former marsh. Causewayed streets backed onto marshy squares that were gradually filled with rubble, rubbish, and old packaging materials.


M Hryther-hythe (Rotherhithe)

From Old English hryther = cattle, and hyth(e) = harbour, this was before becoming an important medieval harbour, the site of a fishing village. Low-lying and waterlogged until the 18thC excavation of the Surrey Commercial Docks, the area is now a massive housing estate. Rotherhithe St was first built as an embankment against the Thames, and although it is no longer a bustling riverside port-road, it is still the longest street in London.

The Angel

At 24 Rotherhithe St, this Pub stands opposite Execution Dock in Wapping. Originally known as 'The Salutation' the Bermondsey Abbey Monks brewed and sold beer to pilgrims. The inn was for a while 'The Anchor' before receiving its current name. In the 1660s Judge Jeffreys sat on the balcony to watch pirate hangings across the water. In the 19thC Turner painted 'The Fighting Temeraire' after viewing it from here, on its way to the breaker's yard, after serving alongside Nelson's flagship ‘The Victory’ at Trafalgar.

M St Mary's, Rotherhithe

Founded in the 10thC, the present church of 1737 appears from its wooden beams to have been built by shipwrights. Unusually it stands on a plinth to guard against flooding. Christopher Jones, captain of the ‘Mayflower’, is buried here, and the communion chairs are made from the timbers of the ‘Temeraire’.


The Mayflower Inn

Dating from 1620 this pub in Rotherhithe Street commemorates the site where the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, many from this area, left for America. It is the only pub licensed to sell both British and American postage stamps.

Hope Wharf

Once this was a ‘Sufferance Wharf’; permitted by The City to unload low-value imported goods not requiring the attention of the Legal Quays at the Pool of London.

Surrey Commercial Docks

Originating with the ‘Howland Great Wet Dock’, built in 1696 to serve the Royal Dockyards downstream at Deptford, this was one of the earliest enclosed dockyards after the West India Docks. Amalgamated as the Surrey Docks in 1864, the last of this complex to be completed was Quebec Dock of 1926. Most have now been filled except for Greenland Dock and Canada Water.

Baltic Dock

Tar, oil, and tallow from Gdansk were unloaded here, by a closed and secretive guild of porters. The whole Surrey Dock was a massively inflammable mass, and burned in a single day during WWII bombing.

Greenland Dock

Built in the 17thC this is the largest survivor of the Surrey Docks and was once used to berth sailing ships and Arctic Whalers. Never allowed to handle dutiable goods it specialised in timber and grain and by 1930s, huge amounts of American tinned foods.

M Cuckold's Point

The story goes that King John seduced the local miller's wife. In an uncharacteristic fit of remorse the King is supposed to have given him land stretching from Rotherhithe all the way to Charlton as compensation, a hugely unlikely slice of riverside territory.

M Earl's Sluice

This old channel was once joined by the now-buried River Peck, which ran all the way from Denmark Hill.

History of the piers

Download the exclusive Dark Waters history of the piers pdf here (pdf - 2MB).