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Whats in Wapping

Book review of ‘Piety and Piracy: The History of Wapping and St Katharine’s

Book review of ‘Piety and Piracy: The History of Wapping and St Katharine’s

The History of Wapping Trust launched their new book, ‘Piety and Piracy’ on 9th May at Raines Hall in Wapping.

The hall was filled to brim as people of all ages listened attentively to local historian and author Madge Darby speak about the real history of Wapping.

Ray Newton concluded the presentation before the audience chatted to members of the History of Wapping Trust and bought signed copies of the new book.

Resident Jo Cox who lives at Hermitage Moorings in Wapping attended the book launch and has kindly shared her book review after reading.

Wapping book review of ‘Piety and Piracy’

New residents to Wapping quickly become aware of the rich history of the area and the centrality of the river to that past. To capture that history from Roman times to the present day within 95 pages is an ambitious venture, and Madge Darby in her new book, Pirates and Piety, is to be congratulated on rising to the challenge. The volume is greatly enhanced by the wealth of illustrations, which accompany and illuminate it.

The theme of the book, and central to any understanding of Wapping’s history is, according to Madge, that; “People come to Wapping to either convert us or rob us.”

In an interview for this review, both Madge and Ray Newton from the History of Wapping Trust rebuke those who think that Wapping’s history started with the arrival of the docks.  And so we learn that the name ‘Wapping’ is of Saxon origin, originally after a chief called Waeppa. In 1147 Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen founded her hospital, which became the Royal Hospital of St Katharine, a religious house with twin duties to celebrate mass for the souls of those mentioned in the charter, and to look after the inmates. The first recorded mention of Wapping was in the early years of the 13th century. Several hermits lived a life of prayer in small cells or chapels, and gave rise to the name, The Hermitage. With the increase in trade in the following century a wharf was built on Wapping Wall. Alongside this increase came the risk of piracy, and in 1440 two pirates were caught and hanged in chains on the gallows by St Katharine’s: their bodies had to be left until three tides had flowed over them. The infamous Captain Kidd was himself executed at Execution Dock in 1701.

In the 15th century St Katharine’s reached the height of its prosperity, with a choir school ‘not much inferior to that of Paules’. By the reign of Queen Elizabeth the whole of Wapping’s water front had been built up. Wapping, of course, has strong maritime links. In the Elizabethan era the navigator and travel writer Richard Hakluyt came to Wapping to consult the sea captains who lived there about naval matters. In 1637 Admiral Rainsborough, a Wapping resident, led a large fleet to the Mediterranean to deal with slave traders, rescuing 350 English men, women and children. Connected with slavery, Madge Darby points out that John Newton, the captain of a slave ship, was born in Wapping in 1725, and later (much, much later according to Adam Hochschild’s authoritative history of the slave trade, “Bury the Chains”) became one the leaders of the anti-slavery movement, writing the great hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’. Another fascinating Wapping character was William Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. In fact Fletcher Christian, who led the mutiny, had come to Wapping to visit Bligh, before the ship set sail.

With the opening of the London Docks in the nineteenth century, there was an influx of Irish men seeking work as builders and dock workers. As much of the work was casual, there was considerable poverty. The churches of St Peter’s, London Docks and St Patrick’s did what they could to try to alleviate the poor conditions in which their parishioners lived. However, 19th century Wapping was not uniformly poor. Booth’s poverty map of London shows that – like today – there were pockets of considerable wealth.

After the First World War, in which Wapping had been a target for air raids, the docks thrived and cargoes came to it from all over the world. With World War 2 there was constant bombing, and in particular the Hermitage was heavily bombed. New immigrants arrived from the West Indies and from Bangladesh, but by 1969 the docks were closed. By 2000 the last piece of river front had been handed over to the developers.

It’s clear that the author doesn’t believe that all developments in the area have been positive. Madge’s own great grand-mother and family were, for example, ousted from St Katharine’s in the early 1800’s to make way for the new docks. In our interview Madge and Ray view the land sell off of the late 70’s and 80’s by the Thatcher Government in largely negative terms. In a final barb the book concludes that by the end of this period there remained ‘no lack of piracy, though of a different sort, as Wapping’s fate was, as always shaped by its proximity to the City of London’… local bankers may shift uncomfortably in their penthouses… ?

For anyone wanting a well-researched, easy to access introduction to Wapping and St Katharine’s this is a good place to start.. As a sequel to this book it would be interesting to hear more about Wapping’s recent history, including, for example,  the impact that immigrants, particularly from the West Indies and Bangladesh, have had on local life and institutions, and the Wapping dispute of 1980’s.

Madge and the History of Wapping Trust are currently planning to re-launch their book on Captain Blyth with new material to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the mutiny on the Bounty. They are also looking for help to produce a book of captioned photos from 1930 to 1970 depicting life in Wapping.

Madge Darby, Piety and Piracy: The History of Wapping and St.Katharine’s. The History of Wapping Trust, 2011. 95 pp, £9.95.

Author Madge Darby

Madge DarbyMadge Darby was born in 1927 in Old Gravel Lane (now Wapping Lane). Resident at Pierhead in Wapping High Street since 1975, Madge has lived in here all her life moving only from Old Gravel Lane to St Gabriels in 1938.

Wapping’s Darby family history stretches back many generations. The earliest written ancestry is the baptism of Elizabeth Darby in 1636 which can be found in the 17th century St John’s Church Registers, but the Wapping roots may go back much further.

Madge Darby was a pupil at Raine’s School in Arbour Square, Stepney before taking a BA (Hons) degree in History at Queen Mary College, University of London.


Photos from the Wapping book launch on 9th May

See pictures from the packed event at Raines Hall in Wapping on 9th May, attended by ages 9 months to 90 and enjoyed by everyone.

Trouble viewing? See photos of Piety and Piracy on Flickr [view full screen slideshow] or [view album]


Where to buy ‘Piety and Piracy’?

The new history book, ‘Piety and Piracy: The History of Wapping and St Katharine’s’ is for sale at the Turks Head Cafe or 44 Frocks Boutique in Wapping and at the Welcome Desk from our local Waitrose (St Katharine Docks Branch) priced £9.95. Also available online soon.

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  • http://twitter.com/charlesdickensl chris west

    I  was delighted to have been allowed to quote from Madge Darby’s excellent book yesterday, at my Talk about the history of St Katharine Docks. A number of people said they wanted to buy a copy, and I pointed them towards Waitrose. Thanks also to Jo Cox for further enlightenment and very interesting comment..