This part of East London is believed to take its name not from lime trees nor from a house bearing that name. Rather it owes its origins to the process by which chalk shipped from Kent was converted into lime.
The process of ‘lime burning’ – which took place in these parts on the northern bank of the River Thames – involves heating the chalk in a bottle-shaped kiln, also known as an oast. Hence ‘lime oast’ became corrupted into Limehouse.
The earliest reference to the name comes from the early medieval era but in later centuries the area was noted not so much for its lime-burning but its links with shipping – particularly following the opening on the Limehouse Cut in 1770 which linked the Thames with the River Lea and allowed goods to taken from the north of London directly to ships on the Thames without the need to navigate around the Isle of Dogs (see our earlier post on the Limehouse Cut). Limehouse Basin (pictured above, from the Limehouse Cut) opened in the early 19th century.
The area, which became increasingly industrialised as a result, is also known for its links to the Chinese community – and this included, in the Victorian era, opium dens, but the association ended around the 1950s by which time the Chinese community had largely moved to Soho (where Chinatown still stands today).
Authorised by an Act of Parliament passed in 1766, the Cut was built in 1770 to link the River Lea (or Lee) – which it joins at Bromley-by-Bow – to the Thames at Limehouse.
It was designed to enable sailing barges coming down the Lee to avoid navigating the rather difficult curves in the lower reaches of the river at Bow Creek (and waiting for the tide to come in to the Thames so the barges could then go around the Isle of Dogs to the docks).
In 1968, the exit lock which led from the cut directly to the Thames was replaced by another short section of canal which linked it to what is now known as Limehouse Basin and was previously known as Regent’s Canal Dock.
The cut these days features an innovative floating towpath which leads under the A12, the northern approach road of the Blackwall Tunnel, and the old factory buildings which once lined it are giving way to modern apartment complexes and office blocks. Pictured is a section of the Limehouse Cut near the Limehouse Basin end.
The SS Robin being towed to its new mooring in East London on a floating pontoon. PICTURE: James Spellane/SS Robin Trust.
The world’s oldest complete steamship, the SS Robin, made a dramatic return to the Royal Docks in East London earlier this month. Built in 1890 at the Thames Ironworks shipyard on the River Lea, the coastal cargo steamer was operational for more than 80 years, initially around the coast of Britain and the English Channel and later in Spain where it bore the name Maria. The 300 tonne vessel has just been through a three year restoration project spearheaded by the SS Robin Trust. It has now taken up a temporary mooring on a new floating pontoon while final conservation work is completed. It is anticipated that the steamship – which is listed on the ‘Core Collection’ of the UK National Historic Ships Register meaning it’s seen as historically significant as London’s two other maritime landmarks, the Cutty Sark and HMS Belfast – will be opened to the public. For more information, see www.ssrobin.com.