Tobacco Dock, London
The first time visitor to Tobacco Dock could be forgiven for thinking that they have arrived at a building nearing completion. It is immediately clear that the nineteenth century warehouse has been lovingly restored from a repository for imported goods into a modern shopping emporium. Everything is in place, fancy fixtures and fittings, stylish walkways and smart glass fronted units fully prepared for arrival of High Street names to breathe new mercantile life into the historic brick walls. Unfortunately Tobacco Dock is not waiting to be launched but rather sits becalmed after opening its doors in 1990. The crew that once manned the shops have long since abandoned ship and on this retail Marie Celeste CCTV cameras search for non existent miscreants.
Yet the story started so brightly back in the booming mid 80’s when stock markets were sky high and yuppies were busy buying red Porsches, listening to Phil Collins and carrying mobile phones that weighed half a tonne. During these heady days Brian Jackson and Lawrie Cohen had the bold idea to build a version of Covent Garden in the east end. Their ambition cannot be doubted and the selection of the stunning Tobacco Dock as a location seemed inspired.
The warehouse into which Cohen and Jackson would invest millions was designed by architect David Alexander as part of a much larger development built in 1811-14. This was a period of rapid commercial expansion along the Thames and businessmen hurried to keep up with the explosion in the sea-going transportation of goods. With London at the epicentre of the global market the demand for new storage and reception facilities for raw materials was enormous. In response Alexander collaborated with engineer John Rennie to mastermind the construction of London Dock. When completed the site covered 30 acres and specialised in high-value luxury commodities such as ivory, spices, coffee and cocoa as well as wine, tobacco and wool, all stored in elegant warehouses and cellars. Tobacco Dock was one part of this giant scheme and originally covered 20,000 square meters. The two fifths which remain standing today showcase an evolutionary architectural phase which, before the use of metal beams, combined timber and cast iron to make horizontal roof spans.
In 1969 the Docks were closed to shipping and slowly the land became derelict. By the start of the 80’s only the Skin Floor Warehouses at Tobacco Dock survived, but the land, now owned by the London Docklands Development Corporation, started to be renewed. Sadly Rupert Murdoch and his ‘Fortress Wapping’ became part of this process but architect Terry Farrell’s conversion job on Tobacco Dock proved far more palatable. Timing, alas, was everything and as the scheme opened its doors in 1990 so the recession smashed the horn of plenty. The £47 million lavished on the project could not disguise the short falls in the planning. Poor transport links left the Dock marooned and unloved while the developers were forced to consider that ‘If you build it they might not necessarily come’. By the middle of the decade all the chain stores had vacated their units.
After going into receivership the dock effectively closed its doors and now this vast centre has only one outlet, the Frank & Stein sandwich shop, original tenants, still gamely serving the lunchtime trade. Despite this site is expensively maintained employing cleaners, a full time security staff and even a kestrel to chase away pigeons. Walking around the desolate arcade feels like entering George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, though, to be honest, shopping in a centre without shops is a good way to avoid the catatonic effects of modern ‘retail therapy’.
In 2003 English Heritage placed the grade one listed building on their register of risk. Concern had mounted that such an important structure should be left idle. Under pressure Messila House, the mysterious Kuwaiti owners, are putting together a development package said to include a hotel as well the obligatory ‘luxury apartments’. Tobacco Dock may well be getting some new customers.
How to get thereTobacco Dock, 50 Porters Walk, Limehouse, London, E1W 2SF.
Head for Wapping or Shadwell Tube stations, the Dock is about a ten minute walk from both.
- London Docklands. An Architectural Guide. Elizabeth Williamson & Nikolaus Pevsner. Penguin Books (1998).