Above: An old cast-iron nameplate at the western end of today’s Prusom Street. The right-hand end has been damaged. It is mounted on the corner wall of a pub called the White Swan and Cuckoo. The two lamps, used to light up the wall of the pub at night, only add to the clutter in the image.
Every now and again, as you walk around London, you stumble across a name that will strike you as curious for one reason or another. Right up until the 1980s, a turning off the north side of Wapping High Street had a large painted sign on the wall of a large warehouse with the unusual name of ‘Prusom’s Island’. The warehouse was later converted into apartments and the sign was removed when Wapping – along with many other riverside parts of London – was redeveloped by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). Unfortunately, the author never took the trouble to photograph the sign and it would seem that nobody else did either. There are no surviving photographs in the local history library. The street was renamed ‘Hilliard’s Court’ and the ancient name has been lost for ever.
Who was Prusom? Did he exist? Was he a real person or is the name a corruption of some other word? Where was the island? What kind of an island was it? These are all questions that spring to mind when you see the name and, after considerable searching in the local history archives as Tower Hamlets, very few answers can be found.
The name ‘Prusom’s Island’ appears on old maps of London for the riverside locality of Wapping. It is tempting to think that ‘Prusom’ might have been a family name but even that has not been established. There may never have been a ‘Mr Prusom’, it might just be a corruption of some other name or some other word.
Similarly, with ‘Island’ in the name, the question arises as to the extent of the land. One thing seems definite – there was no island in the sense of a piece of land surrounded by water. However, much of the land in and around Wapping was low-lying and flat beside the Thames and subject to constant flooding. The land does rise as it reaches The Highway (which is further inland) but the streets shown in Wapping were often under water due to high tides. The surrounding land was known as ‘Wapping Marsh’, possibly with water to be seen in ditches. The name Prusom’s Island may have arisen because a small piece of land became an island in times of flooding which, for Wapping, was a continual problem.
Village Life in Wapping and Its Trades
Wapping developed as a hamlet – one of the many Tower Hamlets – that were beside the Thames, including Shadwell, Ratcliffe and Limehouse to the east. It was not until 1694 that Wapping became a separate parish and the church of St John was built. The church was bombed during the Second World War and not rebuilt but its fine church tower survived and is still standing beside Scandrett Street.
In the early 13th century there were two mills by the riverside in Wapping leased from the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s. All the corn for the common bake-house at the cathedral was ground at those mills. There were also beer houses. The medieval hamlet looked out onto a patchwork of ditches, dykes and pasture. On very high tides, it was just a large marsh, dotted with islands, like Prusom’s Island which survived as a street name until modern times.
Wapping was closely associated with the sea. It was a place where sailors lived and became a place where those associated with ships lived and worked. John Stow’s history of London describes Wapping as ‘a continual street or filthy straight passage with alleys and small tenements or cottages inhabited by sailors’ victuallers.’ Stow was writing around 1600 when there was a long street, lined with houses following the curved line of the Thames.
There were ship-builders and small docks along the river bank. Men with skills in making ship’s chandlery also lived there. Another trade was rope-making, with rope-yards nearby. There was biscuit-making (producing ship’s biscuits) as well as mast-, oar- and block-making. In short, nearly everything needed to fit out a ship was made in or near Wapping.
As Wapping became a village, many of the residents probably spent their whole lives living there. However, unlike many country villages, this was constantly experiencing sailors staying for a few weeks or months before going back to their ship, after it had been repaired. Ships from many locations around the globe also visited Wapping and so the villagers probably became used to strangers in their midst, often talking in unfamiliar languages. With this in mind, it is possible that the name ‘Prusom’ is a corruption of some other name or even the misunderstanding of a foreign word. Due to the passage of time, we shall probably never know how the name arose.
Above: Part of Stanford’s map of 1891 showing the street name of Prusom’s Island.
The Spelling of the Name
• One of the earliest maps to show the name is Morgan’s Map of 1682. It shows the name as ‘Sprucers Island’ or ‘Sprucens Island’.
• Documents of 1693 show the name as ‘Sprucon’s Island’, ‘Pruson’s Island’, ‘Prussian Island’ or ‘Spruces Island’.
• John Rocque’s map of 1746 shows the name ‘Pruson’s Island’ as a street. Horwood’s map of 1799 shows the name ‘Pruisian Island’ as a street.
• Lockie’s Topography, published in 1810 is rather like a street directory. It lists the name as ‘Prussian Island’. There is also a comment saying ‘perhaps where sailors from Prussia settled’.
• Christopher and John Greenwood’s map of 1830 shows the name ‘Prusian Island’ as a street.
• A street address in 1834 lists the name as ‘Prusom’s Island, Wapping’. One commentator added ‘Prusom’s Island, which was at the eastern end of Cinnamon Street’.
• Edward Stanford’s map of 1891 shows the name ‘Prusom Island as a street (see map).
• Hermione Hobhouse, in the ‘Survey of London’, Vols 43 and 44, written in 1994, refers to ‘the long-lost name of Pruson (or Spruson’s) Island’.
• Today, there is a ‘Prusom Street’ nearby. Prusom Street was, until 1912, called ‘King Street’ and later it was known as Old Gravel lane’. There is no longer a street called ‘Prusom’s Island’.
Wapping as a Place Name
Wapping is known to have been a settlement in Saxon times. Some historians claim that the name derives from a local leader or chief called ‘Waeppa’ or an area known as ‘Waeppa’s people’. The earliest mention of Wapping was spelt as ‘Wappinges’ in 1220; and as ‘Wappingge atte Wose’ in 1345. The name is most likely to be related to the old English word ‘wase’ meaning mud which could be used here for a marsh.
The name of Wapping was usually associated with marshy land beside the Thames, sometimes being known as ‘Wapping in the Wose’.
The hamlet of Wapping stood on very marshy land. An exceptionally high tide was able to flood the low-lying area. Just after Christmas 1323 was a ‘mighty flood, proceeding from the tempestuousness of the sea’ which breached the river wall, probably where Wapping Wall is now.
The street called Wapping Wall and the nearby streets called Green Bank and Hermitage Wall are all reminders that dykes that were built in the area to protect the land against flooding from the Thames. It was not the only land beside the Thames that was subject to flooding but the numerous dykes – later to become streets called ‘Walls – indicate that flooding for the residents was a constant danger.
It is possible that Prusom’s Island was a piece of land that remained above flood level when the surrounding land was under water – probably because it was slightly higher than some of the surrounding marshes.
Prusom’s Island (Development)
Standing on the north side of Wapping High Street, where it joins onto Garnet Street at its eastern end stood a large warehouse. In the mid-1980s it was converted by Wates Built Homes for use as 35 flats. Swinhoe Measures Partnership were the architects. Because the site was either on or very near to the the historic site of Prusom’s Island, the developer chose the same name for the building. The address is 135 Wapping High Street, Wapping, E1W 3NH.
The Prusom’s Island scheme earned the Housing Design Award in 1989. The conversion of Prusom’s Island was carried out as part of Wates’ overall scheme, the main part of which was the building of Towerside. According to the developers of Prusom’s Island (Development), the warehouse was ‘owned in the 1880s by Middleton and Sons, Wharfinger and Steam Shipping Company which handled all goods except tea and tobacco.
The remaining large warehouse is listed Grade II and it is one of many Victorian warehouses in Wapping to be retained and converted for modern uses. This has resulted in the area having a distinctive feel to it – almost as though the buildings are continuing to be used for their original purpose. There are strict planning rules applying to the immediate area which is a conservation zone encompassing both sides of Wapping Wall and both sides of the eastern end of Wapping High Street. Not only have the original warehouses been preserved and redeveloped but also new blocks of apartments have been designed to harmonise with the older structures.