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!
Fascinating stuff as always. Thank you
Many thanks 🙂
Amazing. When I worked at News International, next door, I used to walk past this bizarre venue every day. Bar the odd tattoo convention, it was always eerily quiet. It looked like it would have been a great shopping centre were it not in the middle of what even locals would consider nowhere.
Thanks very much, Jamie. It’s always fascinating to hear first hand accounts of the places I write about.
Really fascinating well researched and presented blog. I learnt a lot. Thanks.
Many thanks for your kind words.
Yet another very good post on our fantastic capital. I used to be a mounted police officer and remember sitting on my horse here, right next to the ships you mention. i wondered then what the place was. the sound of horse shoe iron ringing on the cobbles probably woke some ghosts
Thanks Richard, really appreciate your kind words.
[…] The history of Tobacco Dock, London’s ghostly mall. […]
Thank you. Really enjoyed this post, to the point of digging out some photos from the early 90s, myself and friends standing next to the statues and the long pirate mural near the ships. I really wanted it to succeed at the time, there was and is something special about the place, history oozing through it’s brickwork. I really hope something positive is done with it. Thanks again for the reminisce.
Many thanks, Jo. So happy I was able to bring back some memories for you 🙂
At least now the public transport links are much better. Fascinating story, thanks for sharing.
My partner and I stumbled upon Tobacco Docks one weekend before it was closed up in 2008. We couldn’t figure out what it was, until we found an open door, walked in and discovered this deserted shopping mall. There wasn’t a soul in sight, so we just started exploring. It was so strange. My partner started climbing up on the bear statue and a voice boomed out over the PA system: ‘Please don’t climb on the statues’ that we realised we weren’t alone! We’d been watched from the mall’s security office the whole time! Such a strange experience. I’ve been back to visit since at an event held there last autumn. It was a ridiculous idea that they could make it into a successful shopping destination but it is such a great building – I hope they manage to put it to some use.
Many thanks for your great comment; love the first hand account of Tobacco Dock in it’s final days… so creepy to know that you were being watched like that, even though the place was empty!
Thanks again 🙂
Wow! an excellent blog well done.
Tobacco Dock holds fond memory’s for me as I bought my first property in 1989 just around the corner in Waterman Way and the bars and shops were a wonderful addition to Docklands life, after getting married and moving west we now visit St Katherine’s Dock by boat and last year I brought my family and a number of friends to proudly show them my old home and shopping centre,only to find it locked up and abandoned,,,,,,, Tragic!
I really hope something can be done to rejuvenate this historic location.
Thanks for sharing that, Mark 🙂
I am a London Blue Badge Tourist Guide and have been visiting the complex infrequently for several years. It is one of my favourite places in London. I understand it is a public right of way and as such is open from 10.00 am till 3.00 pm. A call to clarify would be sensible. The number is on the present owner’s web-site.
Hi Lynda, thanks that’s really interesting. When I took my photos it was between those hours and the complex was locked up- but it was a Sunday. I may have a drive over there on a weekday when I get a moment, would love to have a wander around in there 🙂
It’s best to give them a bell first as the complex is being promoted as a venue and if there is something going on plus pre and post the public can’t go in. ‘Elf & safty ! ! I am taking a group there next week. Bear in mind you need to be out be 3.00.
Hi , I have just returned from staying with friends for two days in that area. I am not really all that familiar with London and I found the whole area fascinating, I did not wander around as a lone female in her late fifties but as soon as I came home I Googled Tobacco Dock and found your article fantastic. Thankyou. Kent
You’re most welcome 🙂 Many thanks for your comment.
Hello mate, I’m a London black cab driver. I dropped off a passenger opposite Tobacco dock on Saturday and suddenly realised that the place seemed to be deserted. It’s a long time since i’ve been near there and didn’t realise it had actually closed ! I have also just found this website while searching under “Tobacco dock” and it’s a fascinating story ! the way you have put this article together is fantastic ! well done mate, be lucky
Such kind words, Gary- many thanks indeed. Cheers and be lucky 🙂
Thank you for a fascinating and superbly detailed background article on Tobacco Dock. I thought it might still be open and, having moved away from London some years ago, was sad to read of its demise. I used to love visiting there in the 1990s, and even remember attending a theatre performance of an Edgar Allan Poe story in one of the cellars! As others here have stated, this is a great venue and has a real sense of history. Regarding its future usage, a conference centre wouldn’t be the end of the world, though I think something that would enable a wider group of people to visit and appreciate its many charms would be preferable and more deserved.
Many thanks for the great comment, Adam. I love the idea of Edgar Allan Poe’s work being acted out below Tobacco Dock!
Thanks again 🙂
It was hired by Reuters for a Christmas party in 2012 I believe.
Thanks for the info, Paul.
Great blog. Like Mark above, I lived in Wapping at the time Tobacco Dock opened. It was great and we couldn’t believe our luck! Some big chain stores, but lots of interesting little shops too. There was a lovely one in the basement that sold old prints and maps. Spent many a happy hour in Henry’s Bar (which I think is in the army film) and there was also a super Italian restaurant called Amerigo Verspucci’s (I think). The car park did annoy me a bit, as before it was built I had a view from my flat in Riverside to Tower Bridge! What a shame the building has been left for so long. I wonder if it would have better success as a shopping centre now with all the new development – and the proposals for the old News International site.
Many thanks for the kind comment. I always love hearing people’s memories of these places; really brings them to life in my mind 🙂
I remember the excellent antique map and print shop. Maybe the owner will see this and make contact. In the meantime there is a similar, probably more expensive, shop in the Canary wharf shopping centre. I think it is still there although it moves around from unit to unit. Last time I saw it was in a unit off the main drag under the main Canary Wharf Tower.
I encountered Tobacco Dock (and the cathedral-sized car park) this weekend, on a walk up from Wapping to Shadwell with my father-in-law. Finding what looked like a prime development all dead and locked up on a Saturday afternoon was a real puzzler. Thanks for shedding so much light on the mystery.
Thanks for your message… glad I could help!
Wow, what a fascinating and brilliantly written article! Your excellent photos/videos really added to the quirky and strange story.
I had no idea that T.Dock had such an odd and interesting past.
Just wanted to say thanks for putting your findings up online and I’ll be pointing my mates in the direction of your website from now on.
Hope all is well with you in Cabbie-Land….I’m off to read more stories on your website now.
(a drummer from Costa Del Croydon).
Thanks again, Mez! Hope the gig went well.
In the mid-70s I saw a boat chase being filmed for Tomorrow Never Dies on the waterway adjacent to Tobacco Dock. The bit where Bond’s speedboat ploughs through a balsawood-constuction (fictious London Canoe Club) before leaping over the road. I was on my way from Wapping station to work on The Sun sports desk and say all the catering units, extras etc. By that time there just Frank & Srein’s and Henry’s left. So sad as it is beautifully constructed, as you say along the liines of Fisherman’s Wharf.in San Francisco.
Many thanks for the comments, Patrick. ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ was filmed in the 1990s though… so don’t worry, it wasn’t as long ago as you think 😀
Thank you. Great blog. I stumbled upon this dock whilst wandering around Wapping getting lost. I found the place in and around the dock eerily quiet. I could see people inside but couldn’t figure out how to get in. Knowing nothing about the dock decided to check it out when I got home. Found your very informative blog and will go back and check it out again. Great stuff. Ta. Vicky.
Many thanks for the kind words, Victoria. Glad I could help!
Reading the history is so incredible, I’ve lived in wapping all my life, 18 now and always wondered about Tobacco Dock, sometimes the gates and doers are open and I’ve frequently had a cheeky walk through the ground with my dog as a short cut to McDonald’s aha and last year there was a massive evening to welcome the new plans of using at as event space. It really is a mystical little building.
Many thanks for the kind comment, Lauren. I envy you, as I’ve never been there when the gates are open! I’ll have to try and get there during the narrow time period in which they are 🙂 Thanks again.
Hi, I’ve mentioned before, Tobacco Dock is open every day until 3.30 pm unless there is an event. Not sure about weekends. I understand there is a public right of way through the site which is why it i s open every day. Check by phone 7680 4001. Entrance is via the gate in the middle at the front ( facing The Highway ) or a gate at the left side in the brick wall. Don’t be put of if you call you only want a look. It is one of London’s most magical places. I have wondered around quietly and discretely a number of times. There are also loos. Good luck
Thanks for the advice, Lynda.
it looks as if a revival may be under way. Runefest is holding a convention there later this autumn.
it is a tribute to you that so many people have written in with their memories of the place. Thank you.
That’s really kind of you, Stephen thank you. And good news about the revival too 🙂 Thanks again.
This was really interesting. Thank you so much for the historical insight!
I found it Googling the venue for the Scandinavian Show that is being held there this weekend.
Thanks, Ginnie glad I could help 🙂 Hope you enjoy the show.
Hi, I visited London with a friend yesterday and we had a stroll along the South Bank from The Eye and had lunch in The Dickens pub in St Catherines Dock. Afterwards we looked at our little map and saw Tobacco Dock and decided to have a look. We walked through the newish appartments and houses until we eventually found it after seeing the barrells and Boars heads up on the south corner of the building. We were both amazed at how eerily quiet this whole area is considering how close it is to the hustle and bustle. Just googled it this morning and want to say how fascinating and educational your article is.
Hi Sean, that’s really kind of you to say, many thanks 🙂 Glad you were able to discover the place.
I’m going there next week as Taste of Christmas is being held there. Its usually held at Excel but has moved this year. Having read your interesting facts, I’m really looking forward to my visit.
Thanks, Chris hope you enjoy your visit 🙂
I believe Tabacco Dock would be a great success if it would reopen. Maybe the rent should be reduced to attract business and keep costs low. It’s better than keeping the mall empty for years!
I couldn’t agree more, Guido. Hopefully the complex will be back with us one day…. there have been a few conferences there recently which is a good start 🙂
Changing trains at shadwell today I noticed a sign for “pirate ships”, intrigued I followed the signs to tobacco dock, I was puzzled why it was all locked up and so eerily quiet, except for the builders at work across the road.
Had a google of it whilst walking back to the station and came across your interesting & informative blog. Thanks for enlightening me!
You’re very welcome, Wayne 🙂 Thanks for reading.
Is music still piped in?
I don’t know… it was silent when I took the photos but it may be at certain times….
Great article! Just been looking into buying tickets for the 2014 Meatopia (http://www.meatopia.co.uk/) and discovered it was being held here so decided to have a google and came across your write up. Looks like the place is being more regularly used from the website http://tobaccodocklondon.com/… can’t wait to visit now I’ve read about the history in your write up!
Thanks, Alex hope you enjoy it!
[…] More about history of Tobacco Dock here […]
I live just up the road and often passed through with my dog, I had wondered why it was open at all, now I know, Frankenstiens forced it too…maybe hoping for a pay off lol. I first went here a few times as a despatch rider delivering when it first opened…all those posh shops and nobody going there!
Nice comment, seawitch57 😉 Many thanks
Hi Wow what a great post ive just been flashed back to the 90’s I was employed in Henrys (greenhall’s days) It was the best job ever. I loved the location and the bar was everything the 90;s was about. I used to drink champers daily and enjoyed serving the staff from News International. Henrys Tobacco dock was an amazing venue very opulent. The crew where awesome, I left for the rivals Babe Ruths which was another legendary establishment in its day. I would love to work that bar one day again.
Great memories, thanks for sharing 🙂
Great blog. Thank you. I went round the center back in about 2001 when I was on a course nearly opposite. My breath was taken away by the architecture and atmosphere – even though it was so empty! It is interesting to know now what happened. I always believed it must be buzzing now with flats in the area being occupied. Great shame!
Thanks for your kind comments, Sue much appreciated 🙂
That was a really interesting piece about T/Wharf. My family and I were on a weeks holiday in London in the mid 1980’s when we stumbled across this place. It was newly opened and there was only a couple of shops open. I’ve never forgotten the wonderful atmosphere and the fantastic vaulted ceilings. I’ve often wondered how it was doing and now thanks to you I know.
Great comment, Sue thanks for sharing 🙂
Hi. Really interesting, well written and illustrated article. A friend of mine had an upmarket jewellery shop in Tobacco Wharf. We met another friend’s new American husband for the first time in the restaurant overlooking the ships. They’ve both retired now, so it was a long time ago! Last year (or was it the year before?) I went to an Asian Festival weekend there. It was good to see inside the place again.
Why don’t they build some little teeny studio flats inside so I can have a tiny perch in Wapping, my favourite place in London!!
Sound like great memories, Cathy thanks for sharing them!
[…] until 1854, taking manufactured goods west and returning with tobacco and spices from the Americas. View from the Mirror is another Time Out recognized blog by a London taxi driver with an extensive article on Tobacco […]
What a fascinating history! my husband and I recently stayed in London in an apartment in Discovery Walk – right by Tobaccco Dock. We did wonder about this silent place (though there was a conference for the ‘Lush’ company at the time) with its little canal with Pirate Ships and what looked like floating islands of weeds for ducks.
We got to love love Wapping, our temporary home, and I’m glad to know something of our surroundings. Thank you for the wonderful article. London is such a great city – and I hope to come back.
Many thanks for the kind words, Michelle 🙂
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