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Tobacco Dock & 2010 International Tattoo Convention

Tobacco Dock & 2010 International Tattoo Convention

Tobacco Dock is Grade 1 listed, the highest a building can be awarded.  It’s a mysterious and fascinating place as well as having ”architectural and historical” significance.

[25 October 2010 - see Tobacco Dock Redevelopment Plans]

Today it sits dormant most of the time, waiting patiently to be redeveloped.  In 1989 an attempt to turn it into an exclusive shopping complex failed and it’s now deserted other than occasional use for filming, events and corporate functions; the replica pirate ships outside are now what many people first think of if you mention it which is sad.

Like much of  Wapping, there’s a mass of history behind Tobacco Dock and we also have some ideas from residents how it could be put to use in the 21st Century.  Less likely now perhaps, but there’s still a lot of speculation it could become:

A Future Covent Garden of the East End?

Tobacco Dock will host the 6th International London Tattoo Convention on 24-26 September 2010. Last year the event attracted significant media interest bringing over 20,000 people to Tobacco Dock and Wapping. More details below, but first Tobacco Dock past to present from our guest Wapping Writer, CJ Duffy:

Tobacco Dock 1812

Tobacco Dock History

It was here in Wapping in 1805 that The London Docks were constructed, downstream from the City, the City that ran so much of the world during this period. It wasn’t for another two decades that St. Katherine’s Dock was built leaving Wapping close to the capital and its flourishing industry.

In total the London Docks occupied thirty acres of land and were designed by Daniel Asher Alexander and John Rennie. Among the riches that passed through the docks were coffee, tobacco, tea, ivory, spices, wine, timber, wool and cocoa; elephants, tigers, monkeys, bears and subtle silks of disarming colours. Warehouses were built to accommodate these goods, warehouses that defined the era with their elegance and resplendent style. It was one of the golden times of British history; after a surge of activity that lasted for some one hundred and fifty years the docks closed for business in 1969.

The land stood idle and derelict for twelve years until in 1981 it was bought by the London Docklands Development Corporation who then went about the business of redeveloping the area. Much of the redevelopment took the form of residential properties but there was also much commercial development. For a while the rebuilding of the Docks, certainly on Surrey Docks, Canary Wharf, Greenland Dock and Canada Water, was thought to be where the future financial epicentre of the City would be and huge tower blocks were built Manhattan-style but the thought of replacing one of the oldest financial capitals by a newer one failed. The square mile that is the City still drives Britain and many other countries’ finances. Canary Wharf does look good though with its ready break buildings of chrome and glass.

A Shopping Centre for £47m

Tobacco Dock was converted from the old warehouse that was built in 1812 to a shopping centre in 1989. The cost was a staggering £47 million. The intention was to create a thriving, Covent Garden type area, all in the heart of the East End, with shops, cafés, restaurants and indoor street entertainment. Sadly the project failed as the old dock is not in a major retail area.

Since then and until recently (2009) you were able to walk around the place even though it was empty with the only human presence being a security guard and a single shop selling sandwiches.

Tobacco Dock by David Vigor

When the shop closed so the shutters came down on Tobacco Dock and there is no longer access to the place. The following notes were written in 2006 when Dave and I first visited.

The first thing that hits you as you walk into this aging architectural wonder is the ghostly absence of people. This complete lack of human activity is made even more acute by the mannequins that lay in a heap behind the now empty shop windows as though a massacre has occurred and the bodies have all been laid in stasis, frozen behind glass.

There is a chilled spooky feel about the place as history hangs heavy from the cowering ceiling and the spectral sounds of Victorian boot heels echo dimly in your subconscious. Your footfall reverberates and shadows play upon your eye and mind as you pad over the debris of times past. Even more alarming though is the odd way this place was bought and rescued from neglect and decay in the eighties, at a huge cost, only for it to be left, open and with security men roaming its confines, for the public to walk around whenever they choose. I think bizarre is the word that best describes this place, bizarre but oddly attractive. The best and most succinct description to offer is to liken the modern day Tobacco Dock to a land-locked Marie Celest.

The upper floor is a series of smaller shops and offices with the middle, central floor being almost exclusively for shops, all of which are empty of course with some still having odd bits left behind but in the main are just vacant boxes framed with dusty glass. Below, down in what I assume would have been the warehouse are a series of curious tunnels with wonderfully constructed brick built arches. The ceilings are curved and pocked marked and there is a strange acoustic as you walk, a faint echo that somehow drags the past back into sharp focus so that you can almost hear and see the bargemen and barrow boys in their grim working clothes, blackened hobnail boots scuffing the red brick walls as they trundle along.

As with much of Wapping, Tobacco Dock has its own tall tales and legends. One such true tale is the 100 year old story of the Bengal Tiger and the eight year old boy starting in Ratcliffe (now called Wapping) Highway.  Read more in the Willful Walks of Vigor and Duffy – The London Chronicles.

Tobacco Dock: Filming & Events

Not an advertised venue, but good conference organisers and producers manage to find it.  A few well known recent uses include:

  • 2000-2004 The Knock, a drama series about customs and excise officers
  • 2004 Shattered, a Channel 4 reality show
  • 2007 Golden Compass post screening bash
  • 2007 Stars in their Eyes evening
  • 2008 Ashes to Ashes, a BBC drama

ABN Amro Christmas Party 2005After filming parties and corporate events continue to be held in Tobacco Dock.

Back in 2005 I attended the ABN Amro Christmas Party …from what I recall, a lot of late arrivals as many people (including taxi drivers at the time) didn’t seem to know where either Tobacco Dock or Wapping was!

But once everyone had finally arrived, Tobacco Dock came to life.  Turning brilliantly into a party venue with each room having a “theme”: food, decoration and entertainment so well coordinatd by the organisers and perfectly fitting for the location it made a refreshing change to characterless hotel venues.

From a “party-goer” perspective we all had a great evening and it certainly raised awareness about the existence of Tobacco Dock and Wapping, but I’m not sure how nearby residents are affected by the late night night events and if they cause problems.

London International Tattoo Convention 2010

Coming to Tobacco Dock 24-26 September 2010 and following the success last year with over 20,000 visitors it looks to be even bigger in 2010. To cater for visitor numbers, the organisers are opening up all the areas and rooms inside so even if it’s not something you’d normally attend it’s a rare opportunity to explore inside of Tobacco Dock!

More information on the Tattoo Convention at www.thelondontattooconvention.com

If you’re planning to go, we’d love a write up for the site or some photos of the interior to share with everyone, so please Contact Us.

Tobacco Dock: The Future?

Tobacco Dock by Anna Faherty

After the failed shopping centre conversion, Tobacco Dock was taken over by Kuwaiti owners Messila House. It was put on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk register in 2003 although it’s condition has been judged as “fair” and seems well maintained with a security guard and management office.

Graham Betts of Messila House told the Times in 2006 that he hoped to submit a detailed plan for shops, a four-star hotel and apartments but this hasn’t happened yet and there are no current plans loged with Tower Hamlets Council we know about.

Suggestions by residents of possible uses include:

  • “Westfield” shopping centre with class
  • Small Cinema
  • Cultural Centre
  • Housing
  • Car park
  • Museum

Maybe the timing just wasn’t right for redevelopment in the 1990′s, coinciding with economic recession?  Recent interest and activity in Wapping combined with the 2012 Olympics nearby may be enough to finally get redevelopment finally off the ground? Let’s hope so.

Reference: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobacco_Dock

Location: Finding Tobacco Dock

Tobacco Dock
50 Porters Walk
Wapping, E1W 2SF [view map]

Head for Wapping Overground or Shadwell Tube stations and the Dock is less than ten minutes walk from either as well as being on the D3 and 100 bus routes.

Kind thanks to all contributors:

Edited by: Vickie

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  • Jampot1938

    Does anyone know what has happened to the bronze statues relating to Jamrachs menagerie.  He was my great great grandfather and I would be grateful for any news.

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  • James

    Walked through there this morning and as deserted as ever. No signs of anything going on at all. Even went downstairs (past the renovation barriers) but didn’t look like there was much going on!

  • http://www.paulbrockphotography.co.uk Brock

    can’t find anything on the planning applications, other than references to the 13-year-old plan to build a multiplex cinema!

  • James

    No, sorry Brock but going to have to check it out!

  • http://www.paulbrockphotography.co.uk Brock

    Open this weekend as well. A few barriers up preventing access to the lower floor saying “renovation works in progress”. and the car park between there and the highway is getting ripped up as well….anyone got any news?

  • Paulie-k

    The gates were open when I walked to church at 10am-ish-looked like a few people were poking about.

  • http://www.paulbrockphotography.co.uk Brock

    and someone managed to get in today and get some shots of it empty:


  • james
  • Brock

    Tattoo Convention now in full swing….envious of those inside but not so much I can justify £20 ticket.

    Details at:

  • josephine

    For info, just read more about the Tattoo Convention coming to Tobacco Docks in #Wapping on Visit London: http://tinyurl.com/37eu9e9

  • Sinead

    I live just across from Tobacco Dock and have always been intrigued by the derelict building. For the last number of weekends, the gates have been opened and people have been wandering in and out. It is really well kept, and clean. Even the bathrooms seem to be in full working order! The vaulted basement especially would make a great late night bar.
    Maybe the new development at 21 Wapping Lane (any news on that actually?) will help raise some interest in bringing this back to life…………

  • Jay

    Looking forward to the convention as I missed last year. And I really hope they do something with TD soon as it’s such a waste sitting empty.
    And great we have a website in Wapping. What with the new overground as well, things are really starting to look up here!

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