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Once-thriving Tobacco Dock now more like ghost of Marie Celeste

PUBLISHED: 13:35 22 August 2008 | UPDATED: 13:33 05 October 2010

General view of Tobacco Dock at Pennington Street, Wapping, East London, UK August 12, 2008

General view of Tobacco Dock at Pennington Street, Wapping, East London, UK August 12, 2008

Carmen Valino

WALK along the quayside of the once-bustling Tobacco Dock and you might just think you're on the Marie Celeste. The hustle and bustle of what was once the busiest of the London Docks which later became a prestigious shopping centre just 10 minutes from Tower Bridge has fallen silent, its eerie lack of people a ghostly shadow of its former glory. This is Tobacco Dock in Wapping today, after the last commercial tenants departed from the heart of the old London Docks

Julia Gregory

WALK along the quayside of the once-bustling Tobacco Dock and you might just think you’re on the Marie Celeste.

The hustle and bustle of what was once the busiest of the London Docks which later became a prestigious shopping centre just 10 minutes from Tower Bridge has fallen silent, its eerie lack of people a ghostly shadow of its former glory.

If it was a deserted township in the Old West instead of a dockside, all that would be missing would be the tumbleweed rolling across its now-desolated piazza.

This is Tobacco Dock in Wapping today, after the last commercial tenants departed from the heart of the old London Docks.

The Frank & Stein sandwich shop which served up sarnies and hot snacks to City Fringe office workers until recently appears to have served its last filling between two slices and gone from the centre.

But centre managers remain tight-lipped about plans for Tobacco Dock, despite the local authority’s anxiety to see the historic quayside wharf enjoy a new lease of life as a film location and corporate events venue.

The Grade I listed wharf hidden away off The Highway at Porters Walk, Wapping, was choc-a-bloc with storage and unloading of tobacco in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Then the old London Docks were closed down and by the 1980s the wharf became a magnate for trendy shops.

But today, the vast complex is more like the Marie Celeste. Lights blaze in all the empty shops and 1980s musak’ blares out through the empty cavernous building.

Behind the scenes, it has been used as a film and TV location, while more recently the series Ashes to Ashes, with Philip Glenister and Keeley Hawes, was filmed there.

The building was converted in the 1980s into a 140,000sq ft shopping centre which cost of £47 million. High street names like Monsoon, Next, Body Shop and Our Price were all attracted there.

But the bubble burst a decade later and the new owners tried to transform the massive building into a factory shopping outlet.

Later, Messila House took over the centre and appointed architects to draw up a redevelopment scheme.

But there are no current plans lodged with Tower Hamlets council.

Messila House wouldn’t comment. All their Graham Betts would say was: “It’s an investment of ours.”

But he told The Times back in 2006 that he hoped to submit a detailed plan including shops, a four-star hotel and apartments to the planning authority. That hasn’t happened yet.

The building is well maintained with a management office and security guard.

But it was placed on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk register in 2003, although its condition is described as fair’.

The building was also used as a location for The Knock drama series from 2000 to 2004, about customs and excise officers, with Anthony Valentine and David Morrisey.

It has also hosted The Golden Compass post screening bash and a Stars in Their Eyes evening last year, with guests arriving in red Routemaster double-decker buses—the dock was transformed into a pirate’ town and they were met by a motley crew of sailors and serving wenches!

Conference producer Fiona Marsh said: “Tobacco Dock isn’t advertised—so it’s quite a fun little secret because people don’t know it’s there.

“There’s plenty of space for different rooms to be decorated differently.”

Tobacco Dock hosts September’s three-day London Tattoo convention this year, which has outgrown its previous Truman’s Old Brewery venue in the East End’s more crowded Brick Lane.

It is expected to attract 20,000 spectators from September 26 to 28.

Maybe then Tobacco Dock might throw off its Marie Celeste’ shadow.

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