Tobacco Dock has been at the centre of hosting all manner of commodities for over two centuries – from luxury imports to tech symposiums. The listed timbers and curved brick vaults have witnessed trade deals, tiger attacks, sleep deprivation challenges and Victorian tasting days not to mention world-class conferences and events.
Where it all began
Tobacco Dock was completed in 1812, designed by John Rennie (who was also the architect behind the pre-1970 London Bridge). Today’s Tobacco Dock, while still generous in scope is just two-fifths of the original 70-acre site. That’s the same area as 40 football pitches. A high wall was constructed around the perimeter to protect the valuable goods from light-fingered thieves and remains in place to this day.
The distinctive subterranean barrel arched vaults are believed to have been built by prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars and were used to store all manner of goods which had been brought to London from across the world.
As you might guess from the name, one of the main commodities that were stored here was tobacco, brought over from Virginia. It was also used to store wool from Australia, rum, wine, molasses, brandy and animal skins. At full capacity, the Great Tobacco Warehouse could accommodate 24,000 hogsheads of tobacco.
It would have been a bustling place filled with noise and excitement. There is a small clutch of statues in our Vaults level which commemorate the different people who would have been working and living around Tobacco Dock – sailors, apprentices, sailmakers, rope makers, even the odd monkey brought back from exotic travels!
As well as the noise and hubbub, the powerful smell of tobacco would have mingled with the pungent aroma of wine emanating from the vaults beneath the warehouse. A subterranean city stretched out under the warehouses – a vast interconnected maze of vaults filled with wine and brandy. In fact, later on, in Victorian times one could obtain a ‘tasting permit’, allowing the holder to partake of a tour of the vaults.
A furnace situated at the far northeast corner of the site earned the unusual moniker ‘The Queen’s Tobacco Pipe’, due to its use for burning all sorts of contraband, especially tobacco and cigars.
Crouching tiger, daring rescue
In 1857 Tobacco Dock was the location of an extraordinary rescue. A colourful local business on the bustling Ratcliff Highway was Charles Jamrach’s Exotic Animal Emporium. This eccentric German businessman had a roaring trade in all manner of unusual animals and birds. One day his Bengal tiger escaped and went wandering down the road. A little boy, who had never before seen such a creature, reached out to stroke the cat. Unsurprisingly the tiger responded by grabbing the boy by his neck and carrying him off into Tobacco Dock, presumably to devour him in peace and quiet.
Jamrach gave chase and incredibly managed to fend off the beast with his bare hands. The boy was rescued unharmed and the tiger shipped off to the famous animal collector George Wombwell, earning Jamrach the handsome sum of £300. Unfortunately for him, records show that the boy’s parents sued the animal dealer for the same amount. He wrote bitterly about the incident in his memoirs!
A statue commemorating the incident can be found by the Pennington Street entrance.
For over a century Tobacco Dock continued as a busy warehouse, but the advent of large container ships and the deep-water port at Tilbury meant that seaborne trade began to dwindle, and Tobacco Dock eventually closed its doors in 1968. Like the rest of the surrounding London docklands, the dock slid into dereliction.
Fortunately, the architectural significance of the building meant that it was granted a Grade One listing in 1979, protecting it from demolition. Despite its protected status, this difficult period saw Tobacco Dock playing host to squatters, feral dogs and cats and even an illegal lorry dismantling racket!
The state of the warehousing in those days is recorded for posterity in the unlikely form of an eighties music video! Messages, by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, was filmed in the disused building. It’s barely recognisable save the distinctive lantern roof glass roofing, seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXvlzUCB74o.
The Eighties saw a boom for the country’s wallets and a correspondingly affluent lifestyle. The Yuppie was born and Tobacco Dock, it was hoped, would be the perfect place for them to come and spend their hard-earned cash. £70 million was spent on its renovation and it was touted to become the new Covent Garden. The ‘pirate ships’, Sea Lark and Three Sisters, which you can still see moored on the Quayside area in fact replica models built to house a museum to teach children about the history of the area.
Timing is everything, however, and unfortunately, the shopping centre’s opening in 1989 coincided with a downturn in the economy. Sadly, the shoppers didn’t turn up and the centre closed just two short years after its opening.
Star of stage and screen
The intervening years saw a sad stage in this special building’s history. It sat empty and lonely for many years, gently dilapidating. Two cafés clung on and remained open for business, serving journalists and print workers at New International, then located next door, meaning that the entire complex was open. Fortunately English Heritage placed the Grade 1 Listed Building on their Heritage at Risk register in 2003 and a move to find viable uses for the building were sought.
It was used as a filming location for various projects including ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and for an advert for Ford Ka, in which they dressed up the building as a fake shopping centre – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGAEUo2nu9U
During the 2012 London Olympics, it even became a barracks for military personnel helping to provide security around the event. They even put an aircraft missile launcher up on the roof!
Tobacco Dock was reborn in 2012 as an event and conferencing space. It hosts over 150 events every year and is home to the world’s only Grade 1 Listed workspace. From mega conferences for up to 10,000 to evening drinks parties up at our rooftop bar, Skylight, the Tobacco Dock of today is a very different place to the one John Rennie designed all those years ago. We’re intensely proud of this amazing building’s history and look forward to seeing what the next 200 years bring!