Places of Note

When you approach Wapping Police Station from Wapping High Street, the modest building looks fairly innocuous. Almost dwarfed by the buildings of Aberdeen Wharf on the right and St John’s Wharf on the left, it is perhaps difficult to imagine that this is the birthplace of the oldest police force in the world.

In the East End of eighteenth century London, importers were losing £500,000 of goods (that is a staggering £46 million at today’s rates) each year to theft. Estimates are not available for the theft of exports…

A way was sought to prevent or at the very least reduce the level of crime, and a proposal was put forward in 1797 to create a body of men who could patrol the Thames by John Harriot, an Essex Justice of the Peace. Following his plans being put before the West India Merchants and Planters Committees, funding was obtained and the creation of the Marine Police began on 2nd July 1798 in the building that still houses the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police.

An initial force of around 50 river officers were trained and armed. They needed to be. It was estimated that almost 11,000 of the 33.000 people who worked the river trades were known criminals. The reaction to the new force was understandably hostile as the river thieves found that were losing an easy living.


Wapping Police Museum

A riot took place outside the station when around 2,000 men arrived with every intention of torching the place with the magistrates and some police officers inside. Whilst Harriot was able (and brave enough) to successfully disperse the riot, one of his officers, Gabriel Franks, was shot and died later in hospital. He became the first recorded police death.

The government became convinced of the benefits of the Marine Force (particularly after receiving letters confirming that the deterrent of a regular, patrolling force was working) and in July 1800 moved the force from private to public control. The force flourished, and became well established in the East End. In 1811, it was a Marine Police Force Officer who was first on the scene of the dreadful Ratcliffe Highway Murders. Eventually in 1839, the control of the Marine Force (together with other independent law enforcement groups like the Bow Street Runners) passed to the newly formed Metropolitan Police Force.

Nowadays, the station is home to the Marine Police Unit who continue to patrol the Thames – but the building also houses the wonderful Thames River Police Museum. This is to be found in what used to be the old carpenters workshop, and gives a fascinating glimpse into the origins of the world’s oldest police force.

Visits can be made to the Museum, on a strictly appointment only basis, and the request must be made in writing. Tours are run by two retired members of the River Police who guide you around the various exhibits, and upon entering the museum visitors are confronted with a wide range of historical artefacts. Many models exist of the type of vessels that they’ve used in the past, together with old nautical uniforms, weapons, trophies and such like.


Wapping Police Museum Exhibits

One item that takes pride of place is the ensign of the ill-fated paddle steamer Princess Alice. This steamer, returning from an evening trip to Gravesend on 3rd September 1878 was struck by the coal carrier Bywell Castle and split in two. She sank within four minutes and over 650 people perished in the cold and polluted water of the Thames.

It was recommended at the enquiry into the Princess Alice disaster that the Thames Division should have steam launches to enable them to respond quicker to emergencies rather than the rowing boats that had been previously used…





Should you wish to visit the museum, please send your enquiries to:

Thames Police Museum
Wapping Police Station
Wapping High Street
Wapping, London, E1W 2NE

And enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope.

Brady Street Jewish Cemetery Title
If you had asked anyone in the East End where Brady Street Jewish Cemetery was in the late 1800s, they would have stared at you blankly. Unsurprising really, as the thoroughfare now known as Brady Street was then known as North Street, and some years before that, Ducking Pond Lane.

A short stroll away from bustling Whitechapel Tube Station, Brady Street is a nondescript aside off the Whitechapel Road, but behind a high brick wall on the western side of the road hides a quiet and calm cemetery – part of the strong Jewish influence that had come to dominate Spitalfields and the surrounding areas.

Yiddish signs were already an everyday sight in the Victorian East End – theatre posters and newspapers of the time carried the language and Jewish culture began to permeate the already ancient buildings. By the turn of the century, for example, there were 15 kosher butchers in Wentworth Street alone.

A number of smaller synagogues called ‘chevras’ had been built in the area and these provided welfare to the Jewish community as well as being a place of worship. It became obvious therefore, that the Jewish people in the area needed somewhere to bury their dead.

Old Map of Brady Street Cemetery

Map showing the ‘Jews Burial Ground’ in North Street

Brady Street Jewish Cemetery (It was marked as the much brasher ‘Jews Burial Ground’ in maps of the day) was originally leased by the New Synagogue at the end of May 1761 – The freehold transferring to them when they bought it in 1795.

When the cemetery became full in the 1790s, the decision was made to place a four foot layer of fresh earth over the central part of the site, creating a flat topped mound, called the ‘Strangers Ground’ which was used for subsequent burials. Because of the additional layer, the headstones are placed back to back to identify the ‘occupants’ of the graves.

Eventually, the site was given notice that burials should discontinue from the beginning of February 1856. The closure date was extended a number of times, but the cemetery eventually closed on 31st May 1858.

However, in 1980, the local council began proceeding to apply for a compulsory purchase order so the site could be redeveloped. As the law stands, any cemetery that has had no internments for 100 years can have its occupants removed and the land reclaimed for commercial use.

Victor Rothschild's Tomb

Victor Rothschild’s Tomb

In order to protect the cemetery from this fate, a one off internment took place in 1990; that of the third Baron, Nathaniel Mayer Victor Rothschild, who was buried by his ancestor Nathan Mayer Rothschild – founder of the British branch of the Rothschild banking dynasty. As a result of this action, the site cannot be developed until at least 2090.

Access to the cemetery is limited, but you can still see into one corner by peering through the ivy covered wrought iron gateway near its entrance.

Half hidden down a small pedestrian path called Graces Alley, a short way between Cable Street and The Highway is one of the East End’s gems and the world’s oldest surviving grand music hall – Wilton’s.

Unlike so many buildings in the East End that have been ‘gentrified’ over the years, the first time visitor to Wilton’s Music Hall would be mistaken in thinking that this is a crumbling relic of a bygone age.

Wilton’s was originally an alehouse from around 1743 and was renamed The Mahogany Bar in 1826 as the then landlord was the first to fit a magnificent mahogany bar and fittings into his pub. This was quite unprecedented in an East London pub of the time, and may well have set the scene for the traditional ‘Victorian’ look that we associate with public houses today. After about ten years, a concert room was built around the back of the pub and it became known as The Albion Saloon.  For the first time, it became legally entitled to put on full length productions.

The buildings that finally make up Wilton’s today comprise five terraced houses – and to the modern eye are extremely shabby, but there was a good reason for their appearance. The bar was kept as the public entrance, and the music hall was actually built in the area behind the existing frontage. This represented common practice at the time, for as you can imagine, ‘street frontage’ for music halls was extremely expensive.

Wilton’s Music Hall in its original form only lasted for around 30 years, before a fire forced its closure, but during its heyday, Champagne Charlie (George Laybourne) and George Ware, who wrote the music hall classic ‘The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery’ both performed here. A Methodist Mission eventually took over the tenancy and during the Great Dock Strike that hit the East End in 1889 served over 1000 hot meals a day in the soup kitchen that had been set up in the Mahogany Bar.

Wilton’s Music Hall remained in the hands of the Methodist Mission for almost seventy years until 1956, helping the poverty stricken East Enders through the trial and tribulations of The Blitz at the height of the Second World War.

As part of the enormous changes to the East End in the 1960’s, the building was earmarked for demolition as part of the slum clearance programme, and the Methodists were asked to leave. Fortunately, the plight of the building came to the attention of among others, Sir John Betjeman, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. They started a campaign to stop its demolition, and the building was finally purchased by the Greater London Council, gaining Grade II listing in 1971.

Regrettably, the years of neglect had taken their toll and the building itself was suffering from a considerable amount of structural damage and extensive decay. However, a concerted campaign of fundraising has led to its gradual restoration (although a lot of work has still to be done) and thanks to the efforts of the fundraising team, the public can still sit in the grand auditorium and experience for themselves first hand shows, history tours and special events that Wilton’s Music Hall puts on to this day.

Walk a short distance from Spitalfields Market on a Sunday between 9am and 3pm, and you will stumble upon another world famous East End Market – and one of London’s oldest – Petticoat Lane.  Originally called Peticote Lane, the area around Petticoat Lane was decimated by the Great Plague of 1665, when London lost a fifth of its entire population.

The existing market has been operating in its current location from the mid 1700’s and was named after the Petticoats and Lace that were sold in the area by the Huguenot weavers who had populated Spitalfields after fleeing their native France. Another interpretation of the name is that unscrupulous traders would “steal your petticoat from you at one end of the market and sell it back to you at the other end…”!

Petticoat Lane Market was not formally recognised as a trading area until an Act of Parliament was passed in 1936 but its relationship for being populated by ne’er do wells and fraudsters made it unpopular with the authorities and a popular way of disrupting the market was for emergency vehicles such as police cars and fire engines to be driven from one end of Petticoat Lane to the other with sirens blaring and bells ringing!

Nowadays, the market has a more salubrious reputation, selling items such as leather jackets at the Aldgate East end, whilst the rest of the market is largely given over to bargain clothing. A large selection of fashion items are always on sale with many end of season lines being made available at knock down prices at almost a thousand stalls.

Other items such as bric-a-brac, electrical good and shoes are also readily available, and whilst many visit the market for the items sold on the stalls, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the lane itself is lined with shops selling a huge range of highly coloured African and Asian fabrics.


So, where exactly is ‘Petticoat Lane’? The sign at the top of the article is a bit of a misnomer as due to the prudishness of the Victorians, Petticoat Lane was renamed Middlesex Street in 1846 – the thought of a lane being named after ladies undergarments was deemed far too racy!

Execution Dock
If you were to stand on the centre of Tower Bridge today, and glance to the east, your eyes would fall upon the site of East London’s most infamous hanging area – Execution Dock.  Execution Dock was used for over 400 years by the Admiralty courts to execute pirates, smugglers and mutineers that had been sentenced to death. As the Admiralty was responsible for crimes that had been committed at sea (either abroad, or in home waters) the dock symbolised that jurisdiction by being located just beyond the low-tide mark in the river. The “dock” consisted of a scaffold and short rope for hanging, and was to be found off the shoreline of the River Thames at Wapping. The final hangings on Execution Dock were for two men called George Davis and William Watts. Both individuals were charged with piracy and were executed on December 16, 1830.

When an individual was charged with piracy they would be held in Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. The Marshalsea was an infamous private prison, located on the south bank of the River Thames.
Marshalsea Prison
From the 14th century until it closed in 1842, the prison housed a wide variety of prisoners, particularly men under court martial for crimes at sea and ‘unnatural crimes’. Any found guilty and subsequently sentenced to death by the Admiralty Court would be paraded from the prison over London Bridge, (Tower Bridge had not been built at this time), past the Tower of London and down towards Wapping where Execution Dock was located.

The procession of the condemned man would be headed by the High Court Marshal on horseback who carried a silver oar representing the authority of the Admiralty. Prisoners would be transported in a cart to Wapping, and they would be accompanied by a chaplain who encouraged them to confess their sins.

To reflect the severity of their crimes, the condemned were subjected to a cruel and lingering death. Unlike an execution at Tyburn, hanging would be done with a shortened rope. Instead of a long drop breaking a prisoner’s neck, he would suffer a slow and agonising death from strangulation on the scaffold. As the body twitched and jerked, onlookers who had lined the Wapping shore nicknamed the spasms ‘The Marshal’s Dance’.
Execution Dock Gallows

It was not uncommon for onlookers to charter a boat on the Thames in order to get a better look of the hanging.  The bodies of pirates at Execution Dock were not immediately cut down once the execution had taken place and it was customary for these corpses to be left hanging on the nooses until at least three tides had washed over their heads.


The infamous Captain Kidd, who had subsequently been convicted of piracy and murder, was executed at the dock in 1701. However, during his execution, the hangman’s rope broke and Kidd was actually hanged on the second attempt. His remains were tarred and were placed in an iron gibbet alongside the River Thames at Tilbury for years as a dire warning to any other potential pirates, as to what fate awaited them.Gibbet after Execution Dock

Whilst the modern day location of the actual scaffold of Execution Dock is a little hazy, a 1746 map shows the ‘Execution Dock Stairs’ at Wapping,  whilst the present day sites of a building at Swan Wharf, 80 Wapping High Street, and a public house named ‘The Captain Kidd’ at 108 Wapping High Street are both strong contenders.

Despite initial appearances, Dennis Severs’ House is not a museum at all, but a private house that is open to members of the general public and acts as a sort of ‘time capsule’ to The East End of London’s past.

Dennis Severs, an American who sadly passed away in 1999 bought this run-down, and un-modernized Eighteenth century house in 1979. Rather than follow his contemporaries, he decided not to restore the building, but instead to “bring it to life“. Other artists were moving into the Spitalfields area at the time, and given its background as a slum area, was quite bohemian. For example, artists Gilbert & George live nearby.

Severs decided to live here, at 18 Folgate Street, E1, without electricity and other home comforts we now take for granted. Folgate Street is an atmospheric narrow road with tall townhouses and period lampposts. In fact, there’s a gas lamp flickering over the entrance to the house and should you fancy a drink, The Water Poet pub is opposite. Red wooden shutters cover the windows on the ground floor of the building and silhouette cut-outs appear in the first floor windows

Severs set about the house, creating a Huguenot silk weaver’s home for a ‘Mr Isaac Jervis, his family, and their descendants’.

The Jervis family are imaginary – a fiction of Severs – but the attention to detail in the building is incredible. However, Severs was not a historian and never wanted anyone to think of his home as a museum. It was his interpretation of how Eighteenth century domestic life would have been, and unlike state funded museums around the country, was put together on a very limited budget.

Unlike so many museums, a visit to Denis Severs’ House gives us a glimpse into the lives of the fictional inhabitants he created. Before the public are admitted (on strictly limited days, incidentally) fresh food, drink and flowers are added so although you never see them there are plenty of signs that the Jervis family are close by. It’s all lit by candlelight and there’s a real fire burning in the kitchen.


There are ten rooms to explore and each looks like a real home, with full domestic trappings – It’s dark inside – remember it is only lit by candlelight – but there are plenty of hints around to help you find out more about the family. As you move around the home it seems more real as it is not ‘perfect’, and you get to see the rooms a visitor would not normally enter.

By the time you reach the top floor, the scene that opens up before you is as if time has moved on – paint is peeling off the walls, everything is dirty and there are holes in the ceiling. It gives you a real sense of the poverty that would have befallen the ‘family’ in later life.

Try out this hidden gem (the nearest tube station is Liverpool Street) – it’s an unusual London Tourist Attraction – one that is far away from the so called tourist trail.

Just off the Whitechapel Road in the East End lies a small, fairly insignificant looking doorway. It may not look as imposing as other London tourist attractions, but venture beyond and you will find you have stumbled onto Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. Whitechapel Bell Foundry was established during the reign of the Virgin Queen – Queen Elizabeth I in 1570, and has been in continuous business since.

A long procession of Royal visitors have entered the Whitechapel Bell Foundry – unsurprising really, given its 400 years of manufacture and casting – in fact the foundry’s history spans that of twenty seven crowned heads of England, and when the casting took place for two bells for Westminster Abbey, both King George V and Queen Mary visited the buildings.

The foundry buildings themselves date from four years after the Great Fire of London and it is thought that the original property was burned to the ground in the ensuing firestorm. Some of the current workshops were part of a building that was originally a coaching Inn known as the Artichoke.

One of the most famous bells in the world, Big Ben, which hangs in what is now known as the Elizabeth Tower at the Houses of Parliament, was the biggest bell ever to be cast at Whitechapel. The gauge that was used to make the mould for the bell still hangs on the wall of the foundry moulding shop to this day, and can be seen by visitors on one of the twice monthly tours that the foundry operates.


The London Hospital in the East End was originally founded in September 1740 and went by the name of The London Infirmary. It changed its name to The London Hospital in 1748 and on its 250th anniversary in 1990 changed its name once more, this time becoming the The Royal London Hospital. The first patients were treated at a house in Featherstone Street, Moorfields in November 1740 but by spring 1741, the hospital moved to Prescot Street, and remained there until 1757. It then moved to its current location on the south side of Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, almost directly opposite Whitechapel Tube Station.

Joseph Merrick - The 'Elephant Man'

Joseph Merrick – The ‘Elephant Man’

One of the hospital’s more famous (or perhaps more correctly, infamous) inhabitants was Joseph Merrick, known as the “Elephant Man”.  He was discovered by Frederick Treves, a surgeon at the London Hospital in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Treves found Joseph Merrick being exhibited at a sideshow along the Whitechapel Road and brought him back to the hospital to live. Merrick spent the last few years of life at The Royal London Hospital and his mounted skeleton is currently housed at the Medical School, but is not on public display. However, there is a model of a church in the hospital that was built by Joseph Merrick while living there.

The Royal London has a medical museum which is located in the crypt of a 19th-century church. It reopened in 2002 after extensive refurbishment and is open to the public free of charge. The museum covers the history of the hospital since its foundation in 1740. There is a fascinating forensic medicine section which contains original material on Jack the Ripper, Dr Crippen and the Christie murders. There are also displays on Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’) and former Hospital nurse Edith Cavell.