Travelling along the Thames – The East End

The Thames is full of things to look at. As it winds its way through the city and out into the suburbs, every bend in the river opens the door to another fascinating fact about London.

The best place to explore is from the river itself, and we are running a series of blog articles that focuses on different stretches of the water, so that you can find out more about the sights and stories of the landmark buildings and historical areas.

Last month we looked at the Pool of London, from London Bridge to below Tower Bridge. This week we are looking at one of the most colourful areas of London – the East End.


Butlers Wharf may be full of glitzy apartments and restaurants now, but in Victorian times this stretch of London was definitely somewhere you did not want to be after dark. Execution Dock was where the notorious Captain Kidd, who had been convicted of piracy and murder, was executed on the second attempt in 1701, and St Saviours Dock was where they would display the bodies of pirates who were captured and hung.

Dickens’ London

It wasn’t just pirates that met their maker in the East End. Dickens was fascinated by London’s murky East End. He described Concordia Wharf and Jacob’s Island as the “filthiest, strangest and most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London”. He set Oliver Twist largely around the Shad Thames area – with Bill Sykes’ den opposite St Saviours Dock. His description of the area at the time is brilliantly revolting!

“. . . crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that Bill Sykes met his grizzly end by falling off a rooftop at St Saviours Dock, landing with a splat in the mud.

The Mayflower

As you sail along, look out for a small white pub sandwiched in between office blocks. This is the oldest pub on the Thames and is named after The Mayflower, a pilgrim vessel that in 1620 sailed to the New World with 102 passengers and crew. Rumour has it, to avoid paying mooring taxes the Captain tied up alongside the Mayflower pub so that passengers could board before sailing to Plymouth and on to America. The story of the Mayflower and the horrendous disease, tragic death and survival of its passengers, is now iconic in the early history of America. The signing of the Mayflower Compact (the first governing document of Plymouth Colony) that was signed on the ship provides the basis of the nation’s democratic government.

A slippery swim?

Before you take a dip, think of an East Londoners favourite meal… eels! These slimy bottom-dwellers arrive as larvae in the Thames from the Sargasso Sea. They then stay in the river for at last 20 years to mature before travelling the 4,000 miles back across the Atlantic. That is of course if they make it. East Londoners have traditionally eaten jellied eels since the 18th century. If you fancy a taste after your cruise, the oldest surviving shop, M Manze, has been open since 1902.

The Blitz

East London was badly bombed in World War II and as the main port for London, the Eastern section of the Thames took a battering. Greenland dock, the oldest of London’s wet docks, was razed to the ground by German bombers. Its neighbour – South Dock – was drained and used for the construction of concrete sections for the Mulberry Harbours used on D-Day. Travelling further towards Greenwich, West India Quay is most famously linked to Black Saturday – when over 1000 bombs hit the docklands, causing an inferno that covered 250 acres of land. The fire was so intense that glass in buildings of Surrey Quay, shattered in the heat.

Canary Wharf

It is hard to imagine the grime that Dickens was talking about, when you look at the shiny skyscrapers at Canary Wharf. It’s also hard to imagine that this has only been part of the London landscape for just over 20 years. This major business district is one of London’s two financial centres and has the second tallest building – One Canada Square. It has 14,000,000 square feet of office space and houses about 90,000 workers! It’s incredible to think that this has all more or less ‘sprung up’ since the 1980s, with the first of the big buildings opening in 1991. It is particularly impressive when you hear that the company charged with regenerating the area filed for bankruptcy in 1992. It was only when Canary Wharf Limited (later the Canary Wharf Group) company was set up in 1995, the area started to look attractive, and it wasn’t until 2004, when it taken over again, that it became such a coveted business area. What we see now is just 10 years of prosperity!

By Guy Wimpory

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