St Katharine Docks: A hidden oasis in the centre of London
Situated on the east side of Tower Bridge is a little oasis of calm. Where the boat and pedestrian is king and cars are firmly out of sight and mind. Many tourists don’t even know there’s a relaxing place to eat, shop and drink just moments from the Tower Of London. Over 180 years after it was opened, St Katharine Docks is still hosting boats, as well as being a place to live and be entertained.
The River Thames has always been of huge importance to trade and business in London. After all it is the river that helped the Romans decide where to set up camp and found Londonium. The access to the sea via the Thames estuary made it an attractive prospect. Although we don’t use the river half as much as generations of Londoners before us, the waterways of the capital remain a big draw with tourists and locals for scenic reasons to escape the frenetic city.
The name St Katharine dates back to a Medieval church and hospital, which was founded on the site in the 12th century. Over the years, the population swelled with around 3,000 people living in St Katharine’s, which had its own court, school and almshouses by the late 18th century. However, with the country’s world trade booming, there was growing demand for more docks to add to the ever-expanding Pool of London. In 1825, the 23 acre site was earmarked for development, with the church, hospital and slum houses all cleared to make way for the new dock. Around 1,250 houses and tenements were pulled down, leaving 11,300 inhabitants seeking new accommodation elsewhere.
Scottish engineer Thomas Telford (1757–1834) worked with architect Philip Hardwick (1792-1870) on the docks. Telford created the docks themselves in two basins with a lock to the Thames, while Hardwick designed the buildings and warehouses. At the time, theft was a huge problem for trade companies due to the pattern of workers manually lifting cargo from the boat and transferring it on land to the warehouses a short walk away. The new purpose-built docks meant the boats could be brought right up to the buildings with the cargo lifted straight from the vessels to storage. Out of the 23 acre site, just over 11 acres were used as wet docks. The first stone was laid in May 1827 with 2,500 men building the Docks, which officially opened on 25 October 1828. Also on site was the Dockmasters’ House by the lock, which still stands today.
St Katharine Docks soon became popular for sugar, rum, tea, spices, perfumes, ivory, shells, marble, indigo, wine and brandy, arriving from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Today, one of the only existing warehouses is named Ivory House – a nod to the former docks’ trading history. Despite bringing in a speedy new way to unload ships, it wasn’t long before St Kats found itself being outdated by the Industrial Revolution. Cargo ships were getting larger and simply couldn’t be accommodated at St Kats. In September 1921, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) set off from St Katharine’s in his steamship Quest for his last Antarctic voyage.
Being an important part of the Port of London and the proximity to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, St Katharine Docks ended up being a target of Nazi bombers during the Blitz. Between October 1940 and June 1941, an estimated 163 explosives were dropped on the St Katharine and Wapping area. The bombing created widespread damage to the Docks and ships, with the loss of many civilians. Bombing on the night of 7-8 September 1940 of St Katharine’s and the surrounding area resulted in 4,600 casualties and losses, including the sinking of two Canadian grain ships containing 16 sailors. The warehouses around the eastern basin – which is now the main residential area of the Docks – were destroyed. Ivory House, which is recognisable today by its clock tower, managed to escape the brunt of the bombing.
Following the war, the Docks were left in a ruinous state, before they were closed by the Port of London Authority in 1968. After largely being neglected for years, some of the old quayside warehouses were demolished in the Seventies to make way for the Tower Gauman Hotel. Opening in 1973, the hotel boasted some of the best views in the capital, although the design wasn’t quite sympathetic to the late Georgian architecture of the Docks. However, the International House and Commodity Quay were erected in a more sympathetic style in latter years.
Today, St Katharine is a hub of activity, with boat owners, residents and visitors sharing the space. The Docks have managed to embrace their history, while offering contemporary drinking and dining options. The Marina is now open to visiting yachts and barges and can house up to 200. Throughout the year, boat enthusiasts can attend many special events, including the Classic Boat Festival, Totally Thames (formerly known as the Thames Festival) and the start of The Clipper yacht race, among others. There is also a regular food market.
Across the various warehouses and buildings feature a range of restaurants and bars, with many offering waterside dining. One big draw within the Docks is the Dickens Inn, a pub, grill and pizzeria. Although it was opened in the Seventies, the Inn is a reconstruction of an 18th century inn using timber and ironwork salvaged from an 18th century wooden warehouse which stood 70 metres away. It was opened by Charles Dickens’ grandson Cedric Charles Dickens in May 1976. A popular activity is the Medieval Banquet, which provides entertainment, food and drink in an ‘olde England’ style. Among the many restaurants on site include Cote Brasserie, Ping Pong, Tom’s Kitchen, Zizzi and Mala’s Indian Restaurant.
One particularly aesthetically pleasing building is a rotunda currently housing a Starbucks branch. It was built in the Seventies and originally housed a Perspex sculpture to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. The piece of Perspex was originally commissioned by film director Stanley Kubrick in 1968 for his iconic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the largest solid block of Acrylic in the world, weighing two tons and is nearly 11ft long. However, Kubrick ended up rejecting it in favour of a black basalt monolith. Nine years later, it was used by sculptor Arthur Fleischmann, who carved a crown in the material to mark the Jubilee. The rotunda, named the Coronarium Chapel, was built to house it, with the Queen unveiling it on 5 June 1977. However, the piece was moved to the north wall of the Gauman Hotel in 2000, with the chapel becoming roofed and now housing the coffee branch.
- St Katharine Docks, 50 St Katharine’s Way, E1W 1LA. Nearest station: Tower Hill or Tower Gateway. For more information, visit the St Katharine Docks website.
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