Above: The old dock from a picture in ‘Wonderful London’ (Vol 1, p146), edited by St John Adcock and published about 1926.
“Upper Thames Street – Part 1”
We start our journey along Upper Thames Street at its western end and we will gradually work our way eastwards. As we shall see, in early times Upper Thames Street – then known simply as ‘Thames Street’ – started at a T-junction with a small street that is today known as ‘St Andrew’s Hill’. That street was in line with the ancient Puddle Dock.
Above: Puddle Dock shown on John Rocque’s large scale map of 1746.
The name Puddle Dock is today the name of a short street in the City of London. It is near where Puddle Dock used to be and it is a reminder of the quaint name that goes back to at least the 1500s. Until the 1970s it was a small inlet in the bank of the Thames near Blackfriars Station. The dock is named and shown on the Agas map of c1561 which is London’s earliest map. It is also shown more accurately on John Rocque’s large scale map of 1746. The dock is seen as a narrow straight man-made inlet.
Running south on Rocque’s map, beside a church called St Andrew by the Wardrobe, we see a winding street called ‘Puddle Dock Hill’ which led down to the northern end of Puddle Dock itself. This was where the western end of Upper Thames Street began. Almost all of Rocque’s map is now changed and so we look for clues as to where that point would be today. Fortunately we do not have to look very far because the winding street – now known as St Andrew’s Hill – remains to be seen on a modern map. The church just mentioned also remains. Its curious name relates to the fact that it once stood beside the building holding all the clothes of state in medieval times, with the name ‘The King’s Wardrobe’.
Above: Puddle Dock shown on the Bartholomew Atlas of Greater London, published in 1961.
In the 1860s the street plan near Puddle Dock was greatly altered with the construction of Queen Victoria Street. It joined at a strange ‘fork’. If we ‘fast forward’ one hundred years to 1961, we can see the street layout on Bartholomew’s street map. In those 100 years there were really no major changes to the street plan.
By 1961 the Second World War had been over for six years and much of the City was still derelict. Many buildings had been destroyed in the bombing and there were still many pieces of open land still covered by building rubble. Beside the Thames, old Victorian warehouses lined the riverfront. The old Puddle Dock remained, also surrounded by old warehouses. Most of them were derelict even though they were still standing. The dock was, of course, unused and had probably not seen much activity ever since the photo at the top of this article was taken in the 1920s.
The Mermaid Theatre
In the 1950s a famous actor, Bernard Miles (later Lord Miles of Blackfriars), was looking around the City of London in the hope of building a theatre. He lived in north London and had formed a small theatre there and he was looking for a new site to build a larger theatre site. He found a old warehouse on the east side of Puddle Dock and converted it into a successful theatre.
In 1957 work began on a blitzed wharf in Puddle Dock. This was a long, low building with portico of four cast iron Doric columns (originally those of the wharf entrance) framing entrance doors to a small foyer with adjoining bar. Stairs ascended to a modern theatre with open stage, the single-stepped raked auditorium within the old walls; seating arranged with central block and side blocks either side of the aisles. There was a restaurant with separate entrance at stage end, which commanded an excellent view of the river. Although the exterior looked rather uninteresting – being just a plain brick-built warehouse – the interior looked like any other theatre. It opened in 1959 and was very popular.
In 1981 Miles accepted a developer’s offer of free improvements in return for air space over the theatre. In the course of the City Corporation’s road improvements the restaurant lost its view, being separated from the river by a new highway. Cutting a long story short, Puddle Dock was then filled in and Bernard Miles secured a new theatre, built slightly north of the original warehouse. Its success was short lived because Miles died in 1991 and without his drive, the productions at the theatre gradually declined.
In September 2008 the Corporation of London City Planning Committee, against the advice of the Theatres Trust and noted actors, producers and artistic directors, granted a certificate that stripped the former playhouse of its theatre status. It then became a conference centre. Future plans are for the Puddle Dock building to be converted into a conference centre and fitness suite, plus offices, a nightclub and retail and restaurant space. Campaigners are concerned (as of 2015) that the entire building may be demolished, planning permission for redevelopment was granted in 2003.
Above: The street name plate near the original site of Puddle Dock.
Completing the Story for Upper Thames Street
In the 1970s nearly all the old warehouses lining the riverfront were torn down and the Victorian scene was gone for ever. As can be seen on the modern Google map, new road improvements were made to allow west-bound traffic from Queen Victoria Street to join Victoria Embankment. This involved considerable concrete works in the area. In the 1980s the whole of Upper Thames Street was converted into a dual-carriageway with further demolition of old buildings along the whole length of the street. The result has been that it is almost impossible to visualise the original layout, even for those who knew the area well.