If someone asked me to sum up Limehouse I might struggle to give them an answer. It’s the furthest frontier of East End, more popular with bankers than hipsters, although its ranks have swelled over the years with Irish, Jewish, Chinese and Bangladeshi arrivals. Thanks to David Lloyd George, it has even given its name to a verb – “To Limehouse” – meaning to make an incendiary political speech. But what is it actually like?
My induction to the area came at the hands of an ex who lived on Cable Street. His live-in landlord was a Scottish builder with a penchant for lobster, black furnishings and young South Asian men. Throw in a married Welshman who used the flat on weekdays to indulge a kilt fetish and the place began to feel like a bad joke. Small wonder my ex upped sticks to live with a Brazilian drag queen in Bow, but I digress…
Cable Street itself is mostly quiet, the preserve of old Bangladeshi couples and workmen during the day. Its claim to fame is the 1936 “Battle of Cable Street” in which an assortment of Jewish residents, communists and Irish dockworkers joined forces to prevent a march by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Although claimed as a popular victory against the far right, in the short term the battle provoked a rise in anti-Semitism and support for fascism. It also led to the Public Order Act (1936), which banned the wearing of political uniforms in public places.
At the east end of Cable Street is a derelict warehouse that apparently hosts drag nights and an S&M dungeon as well as artists’ studios. As it happens, Limehouse is something of an East London gay hotspot, with a popular sauna and a famous old boozer called the White Swan. My only foray into this scene was a visit to another gay pub in the maze of streets off Commercial Road. We walked in out of the cold, only to be confronted by the even colder stares of a roomful of middle-aged women, evidently celebrating someone’s birthday. It was the wrong pub. The right one, when we found it, was dingy and reeked of last chances.
Another unexpected feature of the area is a persistent legend that it was the site of London’s first Chinatown. The early twentieth century novels of Sax Rohmer abound with Chinese-run opium dens set in Limehouse. Similar dens can be found in Poirot and Sherlock Holmes stories. Hollywood caught on, with stereotype-ridden films like Broken Blossoms, also known as The Yellow Man and the Girl. Meanwhile, one of singer George Formby’s early record successes features the lines “Oh Mr Wu, what shall I do? I’m feeling kind of Limehouse Chinese Laundry Blues”.
The reality, according to local historians, is rather disappointing. In all likelihood the Chinese population never rose above a few hundred, and while there were a handful of Chinese cafes and laundries, it was hardly the vice-ridden subculture of the popular imagination. The community seems to have dwindled with the decline of the London Docks and there are few signs now that it ever existed. On a recent visit I spotted the “Chun Yee Society – Chinese School on Sundays” on Birchfield Street, which subsequent research indicates was established in 1906. Other than that, some evocative street names (Nankin Street, Amoy Place etc.) and a few takeaways – clearly modern – are the only whiff of China in Limehouse today.
Traces of an older Limehouse can be found in St Anne’s church, set slightly back from the thundering traffic of Commercial Road. It is one of six London churches designed by genius Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early eighteenth century, his imprint unmistakeable in the church’s geometric simplicity and white chunkiness. On the other side is Newell Street, quaintly cobbled with a cluster of Georgian houses. For a few seconds you could imagine yourself somewhere else entirely.
As a whole, Limehouse feels torn between old and new. There are some magnificently grimy Victorian relics on Commercial Road, including a Town Hall on whose noticeboard a local philosopher has scrawled “Time Kills”. Across the road, The Mission, a behemoth dating from 1932, originally offered religious succour to sailors and has since played host to a social revolutionary movement and a notorious homeless shelter before the inevitable conversion to luxury flats.
Down near the river, Narrow Street is famous for The Grapes, a pub that Dickens describes in Our Mutual Friend. Elsewhere, the suffocating grip of gentrification can be seen in the ubiquitous gated riverside apartments. A few metres away and you’re on the Thames Path, dodging lunchtime joggers and eavesdropping on Canary Wharf executives scheduling tele-cons with Singapore. Nearby Limehouse Basin feels like Monte Carlo with its yachts and expensive property. Am I the only one who aches with longing when confronted with pictures of a smoky old dock of decades gone by, wondering whether I’ve come to London too late?
In the end, Watney Market, in neighbouring Shadwell convinces me that I haven’t. A century ago it was one of the busiest markets in East London, supporting a hundred shops including one of the first groceries owned by a Mr J. Sainsbury. Granted, things went downhill in the decades that followed, but it now seems to be enjoying a new lease of life in the hands of the local Bangladeshi community. There are stalls selling saris, and stores where you can stock up on jackfruit seeds and a sign outside Alauddin Sweets exhorting passers by to Keep Calm and Say Mashallah (“God has willed it”). On balance, I think I will.