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Death & Loathing in Shad Thames

Running along the southern shore of the Thames, just past the iconic Tower Bridge, is an area known as Shad Thames.

Shad Thames is characterized by expensive apartments and boutique shops, all converted from old warehouses which once served London in the days when the city was the largest port in the world.

Various metal walkways, which once clattered with burly dockers lugging cargo between warehouses, stretch between these luxury buildings, lending the area a very unique character.

Thanks to its amazing views of Tower Bridge, the area is also very popular with tourists and, consequently, a number of cafes and restaurants have sprung up in order to serve this influx. One of the most notable of these eateries is Le Pont de La Tour’ a restaurant where former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, decided to take U.S President, Bill Clinton for a meal back in 1997 (I wonder if they argued over who was going to pick up the tab?!)

The beautification of this area is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Right up until the late 1980s, this area was derelict and desolate; its dystopian appearance making it the ideal choice for a chilling opening scene in the BBC’s sci-fi serial, ‘Dr Who.’

The story, entitled ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’, was broadcast in 1984, and thus shows the area of Shad Thames as it appeared back then.

(In case you were wondering, the murderous policemen are in fact disguised mercenaries from the distant future, transported to early 1980s London by a ‘time corridor.’ The futuristic killers are involved in a plot to help liberate the Daleks’ leader, ‘Davros’ who is serving time in suspended animation onboard a prison ship, somewhere deep in space… all very plausible stuff I’m sure you’ll agree!)

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Right next to Shad Thames, set around Mill Street, is an area which was once known as Jacob’s Island. This too is now also a locality defined by swish apartments and restaurants.

You wouldn’t realize it seeing it today, but Jacob’s Island was once one of London’s most notorious slums.

The decrepit area was built around St Saviour’s Dock; the point where a short river, known as the Neckinger enters the Thames.

At one time, St Saviour’s Dock boasted a gibbet, from which convicted pirates were hung and their condemned bodies left to rot. Because of this, St Saviour’s Dock gained the gruesome nickname; The Devil’s Neck cloth, and it is believed that this is where the term ‘Neckinger’ originates from.

Today, the River Neckinger is one of London’s ‘lost’ rivers; flowing underground towards the Elephant and Castle area. However, a small section can still be glimpsed at St Saviour’s Dock today; sandwiched between Shad Thames and Mill Street.

When the tide is out, this stretch of the Neckinger is transformed into a sludgy, sticky length of mud:

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Going back to Jacob’s Island itself, the area was once so poverty-ridden that, in the mid-19th Century, it was labelled as “the very capital of Cholera” (Cholera being a vicious, lethal disease which is typically contracted by drinking water infested with human waste).

In the early 1850s, Henry Mayhew (author of the ground breaking journalistic work, ‘London Labour and the London Poor’) described Jacob’s Island as having;

“Literally the smell of a graveyard… a feeling of nausea and heaviness came over anyone unaccustomed to imbibe the moist atmosphere. Not only the nose, but the stomach told how heavily the air was loaded with sulphureted hydrogen…

The water was covered with scum almost like a cobweb…in it floated large masses of rotting weed and, against the posts of the bridges, were swollen carcases of dead animals, ready to burst with the gases of putrefaction.”

It is shocking to think that a large number of unfortunate souls dwelled within such conditions, but they did (and it’s perhaps even more surprising how the area has been transformed from a place of utter desperation into a place of pricey riverside apartments. How times change…)

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Another Victorian writer who was well accustomed with the area was none other than Charles Dickens.

In his 1838 novel, Oliver Twist, the celebrated author chose the menacing setting of Jacob’s Island as the location in which to kill off one of his most terrifying characters- the prolific burglar, murderer and all round thug, Bill Sikes.

In Chapter 50 of the novel, Sikes comes to Jacob’s Island as a fugitive on the run, having recently killed his lover, Nancy.

Seeking refuge in an abandoned warehouse, he is quickly tracked down by a large, angry mob. As the crowd of vigilantes begin to break down the door, Sikes decides to escape via the roof and, with the aid of a rope, plans to lower himself down into the relative safety of the Neckinger’s muddy ditch:

“Of all the terrific yells that ever fell on mortal ears, none could exceed the cry of the infuriated throng. Some shouted to those who were nearest to set the house on fire; others roared to the officers to shoot him dead…

The murderer emerged at last on the house-top by the door in the roof, a loud shout proclaimed the fact to those in front, who immediately began to pour round, pressing upon each other in an unbroken stream…

Roused into new strength and energy, and stimulated by the noise within the house which announced that an entrance had really been effected, he set his foot against the stack of chimneys, fastened one end of the rope tightly and firmly around it, and with the other made a strong running noose by the air of his hands and teeth in almost a second. He could let himself down by the cord to within a less distance of the ground than his own height, and had his knife ready in hand to cut it then and drop.”

This desperate plan is doomed to fail. As he stands on the roof, Bill Sikes is suddenly terrified by a disturbing flashback of the moment he murdered Nancy:

“The eyes again!” he cried in an unearthly screech.

Staggering as if struck by lightning, he lost his balance and tumbled over the parapet. The noose was on his neck. It ran up with his weight, tight as a bow-string, and swift as the arrow it speeds. He fell for five and thirty feet. There was a sudden jerk, a terrific convulsion of the limbs; and there he hung, with the open knife clenched in his stiffening hands…”

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In 1968, the Oscar-winning film, ‘Oliver!’ was released; an all singing, all dancing musical adaptation of Dickens’ grim tale. Bill Sikes was played with terrific menace by notorious hell-raiser, Oliver Reed and, despite a few changes to Sikes’ death scene (in the movie version, Sikes has Oliver with him, and his death comes via a well-aimed bullet), the film’s climax does an excellent job of evoking the brooding intimidation of the Jacob’s Island environ.

Bill Sikes is not the only fictional character to have met a grisly end via a Shad Thames warehouse. Returning to the 1984 Doctor Who story, ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’, it seems that the BBC decided to spend a sizable amount of their budget on staging the spectacular death of one of the Doctor’s most fearsome foe! :

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Today, Shad Thames and Jacob’s Island are tranquil, picturesque places- a far cry from the death and squalor of years gone by. If you enjoy London history (and good restaurants), the area is a must see.

Just be sure to keep an eye out for falling Daleks!  

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3 responses

  1. I’m a fan of the area, not least for the great views!

    1. You clearly have good London taste!

  2. […] Greenwich Railway opened) as the place where the vile Bill Sikes meets his untimely end (please click here to read […]

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