Tuesday 1 September 2015

London's Sailortown in the 18th Century

I fulfilled an ambition at the weekend; to run down The Cut to Limehouse Basin, head on to Narrow Street via Ropemaker Fields, and then on round the Isle of Dogs, using as much of the Thames Path as possible. I was glad to have done it on Monday as the Greenwich Tall Ships hooted their welcome on reaching Island Gardens, and I paused to enjoy the atmosphere. As luck would have it, the river theme continues in to September with the Totally Thames festival and its 150 events over the coming month.
As the festival launched, I was lucky enough to catch Derek Morris at the Guildhall Library today, and listened avidly as he trounced history academics from the past couple hundred years, and wrote off the library's collection of books about the East End. As an opener, it certainly got my attention. He has just completed his own history, with his book 'London's Sailortown 1600–1800, A Social History of Shadwell and Ratcliff, an Early-Modern London Riverside Suburb' (2014) by Derek Morris and Ken Cozens. 
Tower of London
Every London talk should begin at the Tower of London. In the 18th century it was important because it was Ordnance office for the army and navy. At the start of the year, the powers that be would meet and decide with whom they were going to pick a fight. Given they were dependent of the weather - just as generations of war mongers were previously - logistics dictated that action would take place between Easter and the October. This necessitated tonnes of rations for the thousands of sailors, not to mention each man's gallon of beer a day.
Wealthy Wapping

His (bully) beef with the standard academic view of this part of London is the obsession with poverty, crime and squalor. His take is potentially revolutionary as he presents a view of East London which is vaguely recognisable as contemporary. As the 18th century visitor approached the well to do area of Mile End from Essex, they were faced with three miles of retail therapy, including carpet shops, suppliers and makers of cricket balls, tobacconists. Indeed as you go into London from there now, you encounter a variety of street markets, wholesale fashion emporia, specialist shops etc. It was fairly middle class.

He cited the number of millionaires around Leman Street and Prescott St. For instance, St George's German Lutheran church dates from 1762-3. The congregation was founded by Dederich Beckmann, a wealthy sugar boiler and father-in-law of the first pastor. It served as a religious centre for generations of German immigrants who worked in the East End sugar refineries and in the meat and baking trades until their expulsion during the First World War (1915). This meant that the poor simply couldn't afford to live by the river because of the massive rents commanded. Just as the rents are high today, according to the archive research he has done, it was the same then.

St. Paul's Shadwell, as its saint suggests has links with the Cathedral. The Dean was responsible for a lot of leases, with many royal connections. The church was a rare example of one built during the Cromwell interregnum. The old parish church, traditionally known as the Church of Sea Captains, was built in 1656, and rebuilt in 1669 as the Parish Church of Shadwell. Captain James Cook - who Morris mentioned frequently - worshipped there. Also baptised there was Jane Randolph, mother of Thomas Jefferson. Sadly it seems that the original church was demolished in 1817.


He moved on to a comparison of occupations by area, for instance river and sea trades was at 90% in Shadwell but a mere 40% in Wapping. By 1635 a collection of small docks had sprung up, spreading along the north bank of the Thames. Industries such as rope makers, glassmakers, sugar refiners, coopers, brewers, distillers, timber merchants grew up. Written off by many historians, these 'dirty out of city industries' generating huge profits for the family owners. Many later generations took their cash and invested it in land, both in the UK and Ireland. One family - the Hennikers are still to be seen in Stratford street names - were originally wealthy Wapping timber merchants.

Further ship related industries took their place on north bank: sail makers, ship repairers, instrument makers, anchor smiths, ship chandlers, ship brokers, victuallers. All of these needed access to the river, and although the first generation owners lived above their business, the second generation moved out to their step towards wealth and prosperity.
He made his case for a wealthy and educated merchant class, mentioning John Suxspeach. He was a Quaker and inventor of a slide rule, which was granted a patent in 1753. He died leaving over 700 vols in his library, a massive learned collection covering many languages and disciplines. These people were making fortunes out of the shipping industry and living in Shadwell. The Shakespear family made money from making ropes from 1619-1894 and built up a network within the City, using Freemasons, livery companies and masters.

Company Connections
Two of the largest corporations had their genesis in the East End of London; the Hudson Bay and East India Company. The HBC ran on a strict timetable, again governed by the weather. They had to be there on the1st July so all supplies were needed by April. It was essential that suppliers were reliable. It occurs to me that the local knowledge must have been incredible - how knowledgeable must these people have been, about destinations, suppliers, routes?!

One such expert was Charles Raymond who was 16 he made his first voyage, on an East Indiaman managed by his uncle Hugh Raymond, bound for Madras and Bengal. In 1734, at the very early age of 21, Charles Raymond was accepted by the East India Company as captain of the Wager, on which
he made four voyages for the Company. Another was Sir James Creed (c. 1695-7 February 1762), a merchant of London and a director of the Honourable East India Company.  He was in business in the manufacture of white lead, for which he obtained a patent in December 1749. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in February, 1743. Information about the lead company is in the Newcastle archives and unindexed.

Global Trade

He stressed that trading took place all over the world - from Shadwell to St Petersburg through William Hubbard. In 1766 he moved to Russia, opening a high class English shop selling the best of British. He also owned trees in Finland and there is evidence that when the drought threatened the logging, he sent begging letters to shareholders to get them through the year.

From Shadwell to the plantations of West Indies. And the U.S. and Thomas Jefferson's mother was from Shadwell. The taverns demonstrate further the multinational nature of the area. If you were a mariner from Scotland, you went to the Dundee Arms, Swedish to the King of Sweden, from the north, the Town of Newcastle. As pay was only intermittent, a 1000 wills of mariners left cash to thei landlords.

Wives of Mariners
More work is required on the wives, who were left alone for years on end. There is evidence of seamans' wives clubs, the 'Merry wives of Wapping' which seemed to entail a lot of drinking. Captain Cook's wife Elizabeth had a fine support network, however on his murder, she destroyed a lot of family papers.


He mentioned at length the history of the East London docks and the City of London opposition from the livery companies who didn't want to lose their monopoly. He has been doing research on the compulsory purchase of the built up areas on which they wanted to develop. Up to as many as 2000 houses were knocked down, but who else benefitted? The local waterworks were not happy about having lost so many customers so they were bought out by the docks. Given the modern hoo-ha surrounding the London Super Sewer, it seems that Thames Water is still causing issues today.
As they were building the docks it is interesting to note that no contemporary record of Roman remains were discovered. When modern works were being carried out a large settlement was carefully recorded - Morris lamented that they could not explore further. From the earliest time, it seems, this part of London was cosmopolitan, wealthy and had links with all of the known world at the time.

What a wonderful start to a festival - and thank you Guildhall Library for hosting this event, even if your books need rewriting! There is an incredible reading list which he provided, you need further information.

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