“I’ve been walking about London for the last thirty years, and I find something fresh in it every day.”
– Walter Besant, on his deathbed, 1901
Built on the former Tower of London station and originally named Marks Gate, Tower Hill Underground Station is one of London’s popular destinations for tourists. With over 20 million people going through the ticket gates every year, Tower Hill sits opposite the Tower of London and is a short walk from the famous Tower Bridge. Within a few metres of the largest remaining segment of the Roman London Wall, since 1967 Tower Hill has been the stop to go to in order to begin exploring the historic City of London.
Taking into account the number of cameras and selfie-sticks seen in the vicinity, most tourists are satisfied by seeing and photographing themselves in from of the legendary buildings. Regardless as to whether visitors are willing to pay the price to enter the castle or Tower Bridge Exhibition, they are undoubtedly the objects of most people’s trips to the area. Yet, there is so much more to discover, it is just a case of knowing what to look out for and what is worth exploring.
Tower Hill falls under the London Borough of Tower Hamlets which in turn covers the majority of the East End. Although named due to its association with the Tower of London, the borough includes Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, a section of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and the West India Docks. From Tower Hill station, it is only a short walk to a part of the old commercial docklands, now mostly privatised, St Katharine Docks.
St Katharine Docks took its name from the former hospital and cemetery, St Katharine’s of the Tower, which was built on this site during the 12th century by Matilda of Boulogne, the wife of King Stephen. The medieval hospital was demolished in the early 19th century to make way for a £2 million dockyard development designed by the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834). Unlike some of the other docks, Telford insisted that the warehouses be built as close to the water as possible in order to limit the amount of activity on the quayside. This explains the narrow passageways between buildings and the riverside.
Unfortunately, the new docks were not able to accommodate the typically large ships that brought goods to London, therefore St Katharine Docks mainly handled luxury commodities, for instance, tea. Although tea may not seem much of a luxury product today, the limited methods of transport meant it was a lot more difficult to ship the leaves from Asia to Europe than it is today.
The docks were targetted by the Germans during the Second World War, leaving most of the warehouses in ruins and any hope of continuing to trade there impossible. Until the 1960s, St Katharine Docks was mostly left in a derelict state, but gradually it was developed into a leisure region and residential estate. Now referred to as a marina, the docks are used to moor privately owned boats and yachts. The quayside also contains cafes, restaurants, shops and a hotel, making it an upmarket division within the Docklands.
Despite the destruction caused by the war, one warehouse remained standing. Originally built in 1858, Ivory House, so named for the vast loads of ivory that were stored there, now accommodates a parade of shops, restaurants and luxury apartments. Although the original warehouse also received rare commodities such as perfume and wine, ivory was its primary product.
London of the nineteenth century was the main importer of ivory – more than anywhere else in the world. Approximately, 500 tonnes of ivory was imported to the capital each year, 200 of which was stored in Ivory House at one time. It is estimated that this would have been the equivalent of 4000 elephants. The ivory was either shipped off to workshops in other countries or sent to craftsmen in London to be transformed into piano keys and billiard balls.
Despite Ivory House being the only remaining warehouse of the original docks, it is not the oldest building. Located on the opposite side of Marble Quay – a small section of St Katharine Docks – stands a beautiful building containing the most popular pub on the River Thames: The Dickens’ Inn. Formerly functioning as the King’s Brewery back in the 1740s, the building was originally situated further down the docks.
When works began on St Katharine Docks in the 1960s, a gradual process of repairing the war damage, the original building of The Dickens’ Inn was airlifted from one site to its new location. It was hoped that its prominent position on Marble Quay would help to attract tourism to the area.
The inn was opened in May 1976 and has, hence its name, great connections with the illustrious London author, Charles Dickens (1812-70). The pub, which also functions as a grill and pizzeria, was formally opened to the public by none other than Cedric Charles Dickens, the great grandson of the famous writer. The young Dickens believed that his great grandfather would have loved the inn, especially as many of his characters and books were set around similar areas of London.
St Katharine Docks is divided into sections that retain their original names. There are three subdivisions of the docks that are separated by quays and bridges. They are aptly titled East Dock, West Dock and Central Basin.
The names of each quay hint at the usage of the docks, providing a ghost of London’s memory and the action it must have seen in this area. Commodity Quay, Marble Quay and The City Quay give some indication of the shipments received there and the potential bustling of each location.
There are also references to people and events that date further back than the existence of the docks. As mentioned, St Katharine was the name of the hospital that originally stood on this site, therefore passages such as St Katharine’s Way make complete sense. However, on the north east side of the docks, lies Thomas More Street, which without any historical context, is a rather curious choice of name.
This area of London has many references to a man named Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). He was a speaker of the House of Commons and Chancellor to the Duchy of Lancaster, later becoming Lord Chancellor. The reign of Henry VIII produced great changes to the Christian faith with the development of the Church of England. Unfortunately, More’s strong religious beliefs prevented him from accepting Henry as the head of the church and, therefore, was imprisoned in the Tower and eventually beheaded. Sir Thomas More put God before the king and became a Catholic Martyr. In 1935, Pope Pius XI canonised More, and, in more recent years, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him the “heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians.”
Dotted around St Katharine Docks are historical items and modern sculptures that turn the area into a miniature outdoor museum. Although so easy to walk past without paying the slightest bit of attention, the docks have so much to offer if only one is willing to take the time to appreciate them. For posterity, many of the original bollards used for mooring ships have been retained sporting the words “St Katharine by the Tower” around the edge of the circular top. In the centre, a human figure sporting a halo and sword is depicted next to a ship’s wheel. This is a portrayal of Saint Katharine, a daughter of an Alexandrian King. After converting to Christianity, Katharine refused to sacrifice to the gods of the empire, even after being ordered to do so by Emperor Maximinus. As punishment, Katharine was sentenced to death by being broken on a wheel.
Another historical item located in St Katharine Docks is a large anchor that sits at the mouth of one of the footbridges around the Central Basin. Not much information is offered about the anchor, however, a plaque nearby states “Anchor salvaged from Dutch merchantman ‘AMSTERDAM’ which foundered off Hastings 200 years ago.” Two hundred years before the date that the anchor was put on display would place the sinking of the ship during the period that St Katharine Docks was being put to good use. Presumably, the Amsterdam was a ship that frequented the docks, hence the relevance of its recovered anchor.
Modern sculptures interspersed amongst the old help to bring the docks into the late twentieth and twenty-first century. Some of these depict different animals from elephants to different types of birds. The most impressive, however, is situated just outside the entrance to St Katharine Docks, on the opposite side of the Tower Thistle Hotel, which separates the docks from the main body of the Thames. This statue is titled Girl With a Dolphin.
Sculpted in 1973 by David Wynne (1929-2014), Girl With a Dolphin also functions as a fountain, the water emitting in an upwards stream between the two characters. Wynne was mostly interested in sculpting animals and was excellent at portraying movement in his work. In this instance, it appears the figure of a girl is flying above the jumping dolphin unsupported by anything beneath her. It is a snapshot of a very brief moment in time.
The riverside area contains a few other attractions including another anchor and an eighteenth-century cannon. Between these two relics is another modern sculpture reminiscent of the dock’s past. Produced by Wendy Taylor (b.1945) in 1973, Timepiece is a huge sundial made up of a larger-than-life washer and needle. The chains that support the slanted sculpture are comparable with the chains attached to anchors used on the merchant ships that visited the area.
One more relic of the past can be found on the Central Basin side of the Tower Thistle Hotel. Here, a crane, known as a jigger, is attached to a wall in a similar fashion to the way it would have been fastened to the wall of a warehouse. Using Hydraulic Power, these jiggers, developed by William Armstrong (1810-1900) in the mid-nineteenth century, would hoist cargo in and out of boats and barges.
The most obscure feature exhibited within St Katharine Docks is a giant crown sculpted in the area by Arthur Fleischmann (1896-1990). The almost 11′ long block of Perspex, weighing two tons, is the largest block of Acrylic in the world. It was produced for Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968) but was rejected by the director. Fleischmann, who was known for working with plastics, acquired the unwanted block and used it to sculpt a crystal crown that he was commissioned to produce for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. Originally, the crown was displayed in an open-aired rotunda titled Coronarium Chapel until it moved to the wall of the building opposite in 2000. The rotunda is now a Starbucks.
Along the quayside past the Girl with a Dolphin is one of the best spots to view Tower Bridge. The bridge is the most iconic structure in London and has stood proudly in place since 1894. Originally powered by hydraulics before switching to electricity and oil in the 1970s, the lower section of the bridge can be raised to let passing boats through. If you are lucky, you may see it in action.
Continuing along the quayside in the direction of Tower Hill provides a whole host of things to look at. There are more sculptures and interesting architecture, benches made of mosaics, bright blue lamp posts and so forth. As the path goes past the Tower of London, information boards appear with information about the various sections that can be seen from the river. The most famous, and therefore most popular, part of the castle is Traitor’s Gate, which can be seen equally as well from the outside as it can by the people who have paid to go inside. Without paying a penny, enough information is provided to be able to learn a few fascinating historical facts.
Nearby the souvenir shop outside the Tower of London entrance is a small cylindrical structure that at first glance appears to serve no purpose. This was once an entrance to the former Tower Subway constructed in 1869 which took passengers through a tunnel under the River Thames – the first of its kind in London.
It is amazing how much history can be found in one location and there is still far more than those already mentioned. Nearby the Tower Hill station entrance is Trinity Square Gardens, which contains a number of memorials to those who fought and died for Britain and Commonwealth countries. A vaulted corridor contains the names of Navy members who went missing at sea during the First World War. A sunken garden contains the names of those who suffered the same fate in the Second World War.
It is not only the wars that Trinity Square Gardens pays homage to; indicated by a small plaque is the location of the scaffold where more than 125 people were executed, including the above mentioned Sir Thomas More.
“To commemorate the tragic history and in many cases the martyrdom of those who for the sake of their faith, country or ideals staked their lives and lost.
On this site more than 125 were put to death. The names of some of whom are recorded here.”
Who knew that a visit to Tower Hill could provide such an extensive and detailed look at the history of London? It is not possible to take everything in during one day and future visits will unearth even more wonders. Climbing up to the observation platform above the underground station entrance provides a fantastic view of the castle. Centred in the middle is a large sundial that (on sunny days) tells the time whilst simultaneously explaining the history of London with a decorative timeline around the edge of the dial. Going as far back as the first century AD, it chronologically reveals the most significant events of the past leading up to the present era.
More details about the history of London can be found in the underpasses and subways that lead towards St Katharine Docks. Artist, Stephen B. Whatley, was commissioned by the Historic Royal Palaces and The Pool of London Partnership in 1999 to produce thirty paintings that explain the history of the Tower of London. These can be viewed in the Tower Hill Underpass. The Tower Bridge Approach Subway contains different information including particulars about St Katherine’s Hospice.
With so much more to find, Tower Hill deserves another trip. This goes to show how wonderfully interesting London is and underlines the idea that some of the best things in life are free. Wherever you are in London, keep your eyes wide open; you never know what you may discover.
Special thanks to Treasure Trails for providing such an in-depth self-guided tour of St Katharine Docks with an exciting Treasure Hunt game. Take a look at their website for more information about the trail. (Other areas are available.)