Above: The unusual name for a street which runs west of Wapping Lane.
A quick glance at the map of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets will reveal that it has a very long boundary with the Thames. Most of the land is flat and is barely above the level of high tide. The land rises slightly around Shadwell but only by a matter of about 40 feet. Throughout time much of the land flooded on high tides, particularly under stormy conditions.
It would have flooded in Roman times but Roman roads were laid out to avoid low-lying ground wherever possible. It also flooded in Saxon times when there were small communities living at locations like Poplar, Limehouse, Stepney and Wapping. To try to prevent land flooding on a high tide, the Saxons built dykes beside the Thames – often referred to as ‘walls’ – following the line of the land beside the Thames.
Blackwall owes its name to the dark wall of mud that was constructed to try to stop the Thames flooding the low-lying land on high tides. Further up-river, Millwall was another ‘wall’ or dyke that was constructed in early times. The dyke at Millwall was so substantial that, around the 17th century, several windmills were built on top of it to use the wind-power as it blew across the marshy land – hence ‘Mill Wall’ which became Millwall as a place name. In Wapping, not far from Wapping Station is a street called Green Bank – yet another reference to a dyke built across the low-lying land. Another longer street not far away is Wapping Wall and even further west, running parallel with Wapping High Street, is Hermitage Wall.
If you have been tempted to look at a street map, to find the names just mentioned, there is also Marsh Wall which runs east-west from Westferry Road to Manchester Road. This name is ‘the exception that proves the rule’ because it is a modern street with a modern street name – laid out by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in the 1980s when they were redeveloping the area. However, the name of ‘Marsh Wall’ has been taken from a name to be found on Cary’s map of 1786 but its original position was as the name of a track that is today the line of Westferry Road.
As a footnote, if you cast your eye over a street map of London there are plenty more street names with ‘wall’ in them to be found on the south side of the Thames – like Bermondsey Wall East. There is also Upper Ground in Lambeth but here we are digressing from the title of the heading which clearly states ’Tower Hamlets’.