Upmarket restaurants, estate agents displaying ads for luxury apartments and joggers incessantly circling blocks of renovated former warehouses are a few of the things that characterise Wapping, a classic example of London gentrification where a former East End slum has been transformed into the residential utopia of many an investment banker. Dig a little further than the trendy pubs and the tranquillity of its quiet streets turns to eeriness once a very murky past is revealed.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why the vast majority of London’s houses are Victorian in style, the answer is simple: the city experienced an expansion of massive proportions during Queen Victoria’s reign, with new railway lines and roads encouraging commerce and increasing traffic, while industries in the docks grew and encouraged an influx of immigrant workers. Rows upon rows of terraced houses were constructed to accommodate this growth in population, despite this many homes still suffered from overcrowding.
As business prospered the gap between rich and poor escalated, the crime rate multiplied (muggings taking place in broad daylight were commonplace) and the docklands areas found themselves under constant risk of pirate attacks. A watch house at West India Docks had guards constantly surveying the area for any potential criminal activity, which must have been a tedious occupation if ever there was one before the advent of the iPhone.
Less than ten minutes walk from Wapping tube station, at 62 Wapping High Street, is the Town of Ramsgate pub, crammed amongst narrow brick buildings and distinct from afar thanks to a red sign and the hanging flower baskets that hint at the nature of its business. This pub, just like all the other buildings on this street, overlooks the river Thames on one side. Ships would routinely set off and disembark from here, and it was in the cellars of the Town of Ramsgate where convicts were held before being transported to the colonies, more often than not to Australia, where on the one hand they’d be able to enjoy better weather, on the other they would have to deal with punishing manual labour and regular beatings.