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History at QE2 Pier

'The monarch does not own the river, despite many tendentious claims to the contrary, any more than the Corporation of London owns that part of the river that flows through the city. In truth the river belongs to no one.'

Peter Ackroyd


QE2 NORTH - Blackwall, Leamouth, Bow, Stratford


M Blackwall

Blakewale, an ancient river embankment, was in 1606 the embarkation point for the founder of the first Virginia colony, John Smith. It was also the place chosen by the East India Company to set its shipyards in 1614, and later enlarged to become the East India Docks.

M Blackwall Reach

In 1560, Martin Frobisher resolved to find the North West Passage to Cathay and set off from Blackwall. He returned with a kidnapped Inuit guide and a small black rock. In 1577 leaving Blackwall again, his ships loaded with miners, he met an unfavourable Inuit reception, but claimed Hudson's Bay for Elizabeth I, and loaded up with 200 tons of 'gold' ore, later found to be completely worthless.

Although London based Cook and Franklin amongst many others failed, the NW Passage was finally traversed in a single voyage only in 1906, by Amundsen.

The Gun

At 27 Coldharbour, this pub is unreliably reputed to have hosted trysts between Nelson and Lady Hamilton.

M East India Docks, Cutty Sark

Back from their two-year missions, 18thC and 19thC East Indiamen, amongst them the ‘Cutty Sark’, unloaded their cargoes of spices, teas and raw materials to lighters at Blackwall Reach. Goods were then rowed or carried on an ebb tide by watermen to the Legal Quays for assize. The Company shipyards had all that was necessary to refit and revictual the clippers before their outbound voyage carrying British manufactured goods.

Originating from the 1790 ‘Brunswick Dock’, newer deep water docks were completed to handle the sheer volume of imported goods, to prevent theft by river borne pirates, and in an attempt to escape the high unloading fees the watermen charged. Goods from Bali, Java, India and China could be safely unloaded, then transported to the Company's Cutler Street Warehouses, near Aldgate.

The Company even built a church for its captains and workers, St Mathias in Poplar High Street.

Because of its Bengal holdings, many of the Company's sailors were recruited in India. These ‘Lascars’ were often dumped in London, to find food, work and lodgings where they may. The area's Bengali population has been here much longer than many think.

The PLA closed the docks in 1967; they were filled with rubble and later converted into 80's housing, selling at astronomical prices.


M Lea (Lee)

The Thames’ main London tributary was used by 11thC Viking raiders to sack Waltham Abbey.

M Bow Creek (Leamouth)

At its confluence the River Lea was known as Luymudhe, or Leamouth, a site of distilling, milling and later chemical works. In WWII the river burned for days after bombing released alcohol into the water. It is currently being developed to provide water-borne access to the 2012 Olympics.

M Trinity Buoy Wharf, Bow Creek

Trinity Lighthouse at Orchard Place is London's only remaining lighthouse.


M Mylesende (Mile End Rd)

Leading from Aldgate and through the hamlet of ‘Stratford-at-Bow’ a mile away, the Roman Colchester road headed for a ford across comparatively dry land in the Lea valley. Originally crossing at Eldeforde (Old Ford) the crossing later moved south to Stratford, meaning ford on the (Roman) Street.


QE2 SOUTH - Deptford, Greenwich, North Greenwich (O2), Charlton


M Ravensbourne

The Randesbourne, or Boundary Stream by Old English name, once powered many mills, but now functions only as a storm-relief sewer. There have however been several plans in recent years to rejuvenate the stream in a way that has happened with its south-western cousin, the Wandle. There is a fanciful story that it was named by Julius Caesar after a raven led his thirsty troops to the source.

M Depeford (Deptford)

Deptford was where the Roman Watling St (from the Old Kent Rd) crossed the Ravensbourne on its way to Canterbury. Deptford Creek, the mouth of the Ravensbourne, came to be known as a major Navy town.

Royal Naval Shipyard, Deptford

Founded by Henry VIII to service the Royal Navy, this was the departure point for Drake's 1585 circumnavigation in the 'Golden Hinde'. Drake was knighted on board by Elizabeth I, and his ship was berthed here as a national monument until it rotted in the water.

The ships that fought the Spanish Armada in 1588 were built in the Deptford yards, and in the 1770s Cook's Resolution, which effectively brought huge swathes of the southern and Pacific oceans under British sway, was also fitted-out here.

Prison Hulks

Decommissioned Navymen were moored here when prisons such as Millbank Penitentiary and Newgate became unable to cope with the huge numbers of 19thC transportees. Terribly crowded these prison hulks were often quarantined after outbreaks of disease such as cholera, or yellow-fever.

The Hudson's Bay Company

In 1668, two ships financed by an English consortium left Deptford. One turned back at Ireland but 'The Nonsuch' made it to Canada. After its return, with the consortium incorporated as ‘The Hudson's Bay Company’ by royal charter of King Charles I, they won a monopoly for trade in the bay that controlled virtually all of the northern Canadian fur trade.

Accruing a massive profit from the exchange of cheap blankets for expensive furs, the Company became the de facto English rule of the northern region. It was also deeply involved in West-Coast American exploration, issued its own money, and set up a massive network of trading posts, still effectively extant as Canada's largest department stores.


M Grenewic (Greenwich)

This is the oldest royal park in London containing traces of Iron Age workings, and the site of a Tudor Fort; unsurprising given its commanding view over the Thames estuary. The Greenwich Foot Tunnel replaced the ancient horse Ferry service that had run from the Isle of Dogs to here since 1676.

M Placentia, Royal Naval College

Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon at this former Royal Palace and both of his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth were born here. The palace was to be rebuilt by Wren in 1664 but it was eventually converted into the Royal Naval Hospital when the cash ran out.

The crippled and scruffy old sailors were unfortunately deemed too unsightly for such a grand building and it soon became The Royal Naval College. This was the intellectual heart of the Senior Service whilst for centuries England ruled the Oceans, and hence controlled world trade. Samuel Pepys worked here regularly.

The Navy was not without its problems though and manning ships was often hard. Press gangs roamed the Thames' sailor-towns in search of seasoned crew in times of trouble.

Greenwich, Old Royal Observatory

Founded by Charles II and designed by Christopher Wren the observatory was funded because a command of astronomy was deemed by the Navy to be central to understanding navigation. At 1pm every day in Flamsteed House a golden ball drops. This was once used by outbound sailors to co-ordinate their chronometers, essential for calculating Longitude. The Prime Meridian was set here, after long argument, as an indication of Britain's contemporary naval clout.

M St Alfege's Church

In 1012, the Danes, encamped on nearby Blackheath, clubbed The Archbishop of

Canterbury to death with Ox bones left over from a feast, after he had repeatedly refused to authorise a ransom for his release in ‘Danegeld’. Hawksmoor rebuilt the church using funds raised from the Coal Tax after the Great Fire of 1666. At his wife's wish General Wolfe, who assured Canada for the British in the Battle of Quebec, was buried here, when the state had wanted to bury him in St Paul's Cathedral.

The Cutty Sark

The burned out hulk of this tea clipper stands on site of the vanished ‘Ship's Tavern’. Built in Dumbarton to service the imperial trading network, she was moved here in 1922. The Clipper (these ships clipped time off ocean journeys) carried the new season's tea for the East India Company, amongst others, and in 1885 made the record trip from Australia to London in only 72 days. The Clippers were made redundant by the Suez Canal and steamers.

The Trafalgar Tavern

This pub in Park Row was famed for its Whitebait suppers in the 19thC. It became a Seaman's hostel in 1915, and then a pub again in 1965.

High Bridge Wharf

In the 16thC The Pope forbade Venetian Galleys to sail upstream beyond this bridge.

Greenwich, Trinity Hospital (Alms Houses)

Built by the Earl of Northampton and still in use as alms houses run by the Guild of Mercers of the City, a wall mounted plaque in front of these 17thC buildings shows the high-water reach of several exceptional tides.


In the 11thC the Danes camped on Blackheath controlling both the Thames Estuary and the Dover Road, effectively cutting London off from the continent.


Enderby's Wharf

Originally whalers, Melville's 'Royal family of whaling', the Enderbys became Merchant Adventurers and diversified into ropemaking and eventually cables. This is where Brunel’s SS Great Eastern was loaded with the first transatlantic cable in 1865. Charles Enderby was a founder member of Royal Geographical Society.

Ballast Quay

River dredgings and extracted dock rubble were profitably sold as ballast. Trinity House had won a royal monopoly in turning this muck into brass. Unfortunately, along with the ballast, nearly all the archaeology of the Thames bed has been scraped away below Westminster Bridge.

M Bugsby's Marshes

This tidal mudflat, where bodies of executed pirates were hung in cages, may have been named after a New World Buccaneer. Like much of the Thames’ riverbank, it was a mosquito-ridden hellhole before being drained by Dutch engineers in 1625. Later the site chosen for the Millennium Dome, it is now home to the O2 Arena.


The Thames Barrier

Before erection of this long-planned barrier the threat of flooding was continual in central London. In 1242 waters reached 6 miles inland beyond Elephant and Castle. In 1579 fish and wherries were recorded in Westminster Hall, and in 1928 Millbank was washed away. It was the 1953 floods in which 300 inhabitants were drowned downstream on Canvey Island that finally prompted a concerted flood relief programme.

Unfortunately many of the embankments built then, whilst highly-effective at flood protection, are now deemed ecological disasters. The Environment Agency, with offices here at the Barrier, is championing the reintroduction of salt marshes, living river banks, and the encouragement of greater biodiversity in the modern Thames.

History of the piers

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