Whilst studying ‘The Knowledge’ in order to achieve the goal of becoming a London taxi driver, one of the thousands of locations I noted during my travels was ‘Tobacco Dock’, a sizeable complex located in the historic riverside area of Wapping.
Considering I carried out my explorations late at night, I paid little attention to the fact that Tobacco Dock was locked and gated. It was clearly a shopping mall, and I simply assumed that the place had been secured for the evening.
It was only when I became a fully-fledged cabbie that I discovered the unusual truth about the place… Tobacco Dock had lain defunct and eerily empty for many years; its time as a shopping centre having been an almighty flop…
Tobacco Dock’s Origins
Tobacco Dock’s first incarnation was as a large warehouse, constructed in 1805 to serve London’s vast cargo shipping industry.
It was designed by Scotsman John Rennie, a specialist in such structures who also helped forge the dockyards of Liverpool, Dublin and Greenock.
Rennie was also the architect behind the pre-1971 London Bridge which now stands in Arizona’s Lake Havasu.
As its name suggests, Rennie’s Wapping warehouse was primarily intended for stashing copious amounts of tobacco.
However, other vices- namely wine and brandy- also found a home alongside the stacks of flammable weed. Valuable animal furs- stored on what became known as the ‘Skin Floor’- were accommodated too, the warehouse eventually growing to encompass an area of 80,000 feet.
As was the norm with such riverside facilities, Tobacco Dock was encircled by a mighty brick wall to guard the precious goods from London’s many quick-fingered thieves.
Decay in the Docklands
With the advent of container ships and the deep-water port at Tilbury, Tobacco Dock finally closed its doors to seaborne trade in 1968 and, like the rest of London’s docklands, rapidly slid into ruin.
Despite the dereliction, those in authority recognised the architectural importance of Tobacco Dock, granting it a Grade One listing in 1979 in order to guard against demolition.
Although officially protected, the building still found itself home to squatters, stray dogs and, according to a report from The Times, two dodgy mechanics who used the old dock as a base for an illegal lorry-dismantling scam.
The state of Tobacco Dock as it appeared around this period can be witnessed in the music video, Messages by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, who shot their promo amongst the corrosion in 1980 (click below to view):
The Covent Garden of the East End
In 1986, a scheme was launched to revitalise Tobacco Dock; to transform it into an exciting shopping destination bravely dubbed the “Covent Garden of the East End”.
Over the next few years and under the creative hand of architect, Terry Farrell (whose other projects include the remodelling of Charing Cross station) Tobacco Dock was transformed into a stylish shopping mall at a cost of £17 million, the scheme being greatly influenced by San Francisco’s ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’.
Thanks to the Grade One listing, the building was required to maintain Rennie’s original iron pillars and subterranean arched-brick vaults (which are believed to have been built by prisoners captured during the Napoleonic Wars).
However, early on in the refurbishment, Tobacco Dock’s owners, Lawrie Cohen and Brian Jackson found their project threatened by Rupert Murdoch who had been granted permission to demolish part of the old dock in order to expand the massive News International HQ which loomed next door.
Given just three months to come up with nearly half a million pounds to secure the threatened area, Lawrie and Brian were bailed out at the last minute by building contractor, Harry Neal.
Two years behind schedule, Tobacco Dock opened for business on March 22nd 1989, with units occupied by shops such as Next, The Body Shop, Monsoon and Just Facts (purveyors of Filofax; the ultimate Yuppie accessory!)
There was just one snag…
The shoppers and tourists failed to turn up.
An article published in a 1990 edition of The Sunday Times painted a grim picture:
“Yesterday in Tobacco Dock buskers played to empty vaults and shopkeepers stood in their doorways waiting for elusive customers.
Amjal Chaudhry, 31, who sells exotic jewellery and craftwork from one of the largest shops in the village was pessimistic. ‘In the last few months or so, few people have come by. We get about three or four a day. Today I took £30 in the till and it doesn’t cover the costs’, he said”.
Out of Reach
Commentators generally agree that Tobacco Dock’s primary fault was its location.
Although marketed as being a short walk from Tower Hill, the stroll required a promendade along the Highway; a roaring arterial route choked with jams and fumes.
Upon its opening as a shopping centre, Tobacco Dock’s nearest stations were Wapping and Shadwell (on the then East London line and newly opened DLR), both of which suffered poor connections with the rest of London’s tube and rail network (a situation which has since changed drastically thanks to the DLR’s expansion and the creation of the London Overground).
A large, multi-story car park for the anticipated crowds was built opposite Tobacco Dock… but this too was a folly, with traffic-weary vehicle owners opting to steer well clear.
Curiously, Tobacco Dock’s car park remains open to this day; the pay and display machines idle, the parking bays forlorn and unsettlingly empty.
Following its anti-climactic opening, Tobacco Dock limped on but, by the mid-1990s, it had been pretty much abandoned; the vacant shops and walkways echoing to the sound of light music which was still mysteriously piped into the complex.
To the odd soul who did manage to stumble across Tobacco Dock during the 1990s, the deserted centre would’ve probably felt akin to the sinister Monroeville Mall; the American shopping centre featured in the 1978 zombie film, Dawn of the Dead! (Click below to view):
A glimmer of hope flickered in 1995 when plans were put forward to convert Tobacco Dock into a factory outlet village.
However, the idea came to nothing- probably not helped by the fact that the concept was mooted by Gerald Ratner, the tycoon who’d disgraced himself by declaring that the jewellery on sale in his shops was “total crap.”
Shutting up Shop
For most of its life as a shopping centre, the only businesses to remain open for any length of time were two eateries; Henry’s Café Bar and Frank & Stein’s.
Henry’s Café closed in 2000, leaving Frank & Stein’s as Tobacco Dock’s only active business; its presence bizarrely requiring the centre’s operators to keep the rest of the deserted complex open and maintained.
When Frank & Steins finally ceased trading in 2008, the owners of Tobacco Dock were finally able to bar the gates for good.
The failed shopping centre has been a deserted ghost village ever since, viewable only through gates and railings dotted around the perimeter.
Wapping Lane and Discovery Walk are the most revealing locations, commanding a wide view over the empty shops and two replica ships- the Sea Lark and the Three Sisters.
Created especially for Tobacco Dock at a cost of £1.5 million, these showcase vessels were intended to house a bar and small wax museum. They now stand silent and destitute, the most visible reminders of Tobacco Dock’s immense failure.
Oh well… at least there’s still a ships’ cat!
A Local Legend
On the Pennington Street side of Tobacco Dock, it is possible to peer through the gates and catch a glimpse of two cobweb-strewn statues; one of a bear and one of a boy standing before a tiger.
These models were intended to act as collection boxes for the World Wildlife Fund, although I doubt they raised much considering Tobacco Dock’s average customer turn out!
The bear is a nod to the many animal furs which were stored on Tobacco Dock’s ‘skin floor’, whilst the tiger refers to an incident involving Charles Jamrach; a local legend who, in the 19th century ran a nearby pet shop.
Originally from Germany, Jamrach specialized in exotic creatures, selling to zoos, circuses and noblemen. Thanks to deals done with the crews of the many ships pouring into London from across the globe, the canny pet shop owner ensured his menagerie was always well stocked with enticing beasts.
According to legend, in 1857 a tiger newly arrived from Bengal managed to escape Jamrach’s shop. Heading off along Wapping’s cobbled streets, the sharp-toothed tourist encountered a young boy…. who promptly found himself scooped up in the tiger’s jaws.
Luckily, Jamrach had given chase and, having caught up with his prey, proceeded to thrust his arm into the tiger’s throat, thus forcing the creature to drop his reluctant passenger.
Amazingly, neither the boy nor Jamrach came to any harm. The mischievous tiger was later sold to Wombwell’s Menagerie for the handsome sum of £300…
Fresh Hopes for Tobacco Dock
Despite its dormant status, Tobacco Dock still manages to find an interesting use every now and then.
In 2008, the same year it closed for good, the failed mall was employed as a filming location for the popular BBC series, Ashes to Ashes.
The mall has also featured in a Ford Ka advert.
During the summer of 2012, Tobacco Dock found itself playing an unexpected key role in the London Olympics.
With thousands of soldiers drafted into provide security for the epic event, the former warehouse and shopping centre was quickly transformed into a large barracks, providing a unique setting for the troops to bed down in.
A video detailing this unusual role can be viewed below. It contains some excellent footage of Tobacco Dock’s now elusive interior.
At present, Tobacco Dock is owned by a Kuwaiti based property company who are looking to turn the neglected site into a thriving conference venue.
More information on this scheme can be found here…. Let’s hope these promising plans don’t go up in smoke!