Nearly two hundred years old, the huge Grade I listed brick and timber built former tobacco warehouse in Wapping is sadly now probably more famous for being a ghostly abandoned site than for its long heritage.

Canal side entrance

Built in 1812 to house, unsurprisingly, tobacco delivered to London’s Docks, the abandoned site was restored in 1990 to form an upmarket shopping centre. Ill-fated from the start, the building was hit by the recession, then the failure of the area around it to develop as expected and has lain empty for over a decade.

Legend had it that the presence of a solitary sandwich shop serving the near by offices meant the whole place had to be kept open, but every time I have gone past the place on occasions over the past few years, the doors have been firmly closed.

I was in the area today to visit a nearby Catholic Church (or which more another day) and thought I’d have a quick look – and Lo! for the place was actually open. Well, apart from some barriers on the lower floor preventing access to parts of the place.

However, most of the upper deck was open, giving views of the building’s amazing timber and glass roof.

Along the upper floor

The two sailing ships in the canals out the back are still in situ as I have seen many times before, but it is the interior of the building which is the star of the area.

Tobacco Ships

It is a lovely, if mournful place to wander round. Sadly, my perambulations down one dimly lit and quite atmospheric corridor were interrupted by the security guard telling me not to take photography.

Why? WHY? WHY?

Yes, I had to ask three times, and he finally volunteered that I was trying to take photos of the offices. Which I wasn’t, but I really wasn’t in the mood to argue.

One of the side corridors

While I can understand why it failed as a shopping centre, I am puzzled as to why no attempt was made to convert it into small offices for start-up and media companies. It’s the sort of property they lap up for offices.

According to English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register, the Local Authority is commencing a master plan process for the building this year. Personally, I hope something happens sharpish, so that the building can celebrate its double-century as a working building again.

Some more photos over at the usual place.

There is an eight-floor multi-story car park near the Dock, but sadly my hoped for “awesome views from the top” were thwarted by the whole place being sealed off from the 2nd floor upwards. Might try to find the managing agent and beg permission to borrow the keys!

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20 Comments

  1. Andrew Long

    I’ve been there twice. First time was in the early 1990′s when it was full of up-market restaurants, boutiques etc A real happening place.

    The last time I went there there was nothing but a few outlet mall shops.

    Think the location is not great plus its quite a way from the nearest DLR/tube station.

    Had it been built closer to St Katherine’s Dock or Canary Wharf – it would probably have a fighting chance.

    • IanVisits

      While I agree that proximity to Canary Wharf might have helped, it is but a few minutes from either Wapping or Shadwell stations. Is a walk of a few minutes is considered too much now?

  2. Cynthia Bijl de Vroe

    I agree with you Ian. I’ve never understood why it wasn’t re-opened once the whole Canary Wharf development took off. It’s such a lovely building, it seems a waste that nothing is being done with it. I remember being there more than 10 years ago when only a few shops were open there, but then again, at that time Canary Wharf was still as dead as a Dodo in the weekends!

  3. Hi Ian,

    I’m interested in buildings, especially disused ones, and have big dreams to bring some back to life (working on a plan at the moment). I’ve been in this building in 2005 for a corporate Christmas Party (for 3000 people) – massive, cavernous, really interesting – the company set up different themes in the various units. I wonder if it’s the sort of place that could be converted into a mix of studios, workspaces, market space, event space.

    Proximity to transport links plays a part, but it is also the setting. I haven’t been by there recently, but being next to the massive News International press factory and the diversity in the surrounding community probably means it needs a sympathethic, creative, inclusive solution that is not consumption and retail-led. It’s a bigger project than I was imaging for my work (looking for 10,000 to 25,000 sq.ft.), but I wonder who owns it and what the local community would want in the space.

    By the way, your blog looks very interesting. I like how people can submit events. I wanted to set up a site so that people could submit disused buildings and ideas for rejuvenating them. What else do you do? Maybe there’s an opportunity for collaboration in here somewhere.

    All the best,
    Bonnie

  4. Definitely right about the atmospheric feel – it still gives me the shivers when I go there and I live in Wapping

    It’s a much talked about place here and everyone would love it to be used for something. That said, it’s well maintained and did come to life completely last month when it was used for the International London Tattoo Convention: it was really odd to walk past at 2am and hear loud music and see drunk people stumbling out of it.

    I only discovered it this year, but would definitely recommend a re-visit if you’re able to get on the top of the car park as the view’s amazing and it’s so peaceful. Someone here recently said it’s the perfect place for a picnic, although maybe not in the winter…

  5. Jody

    Is there a schedule of when this is open or is it total luck? Would love to visit but it’s a long way for me to travel, so I don’t fancy being met by closed gates! For example, is it ever open at weekends? Thanks

    • IanVisits

      I wish there was a schedule, as I wouldn’t have wandered past it so many times in the vain hope of going inside.

  6. ND

    Hi, I’d like to take friends of mine there for a walk this Sunday. Do you think it will be open? I see a large locked door with a Tobacco Dock sign in your first photo. Is that where you entered and would you expect it to be open on a Sunday?

    Many thanks,

    ND

  7. IanVisits

    See my reply above about not knowing when it is open.

  8. Dan

    I visited Tobacco dock in 1990 as part of a 6th form college trip in business studies, studying the development of the docklands, we visited lots of sites and this one was the most interesting, I remember its atmosphere vividly. Seemed to be wasted as a shopping centre, i remember we all thought at the time would make a great night club.

  9. MikeS

    I watched the rise and fall in the late eighties and early nineties when I worked next door at the News International plant. When it first opened things looked quite promising as traders graduallymoved in including some of the big boys like Monsoon. It was always a bit upmarket, though, and aimed its business at the tourists. A pity as a large number of folk worked at the News International plant who could have done with more down-to-earth businesses like grocers, hardware, electronics, chemists etc. etc. I used to go in there at lunchtimes for a bag of chips and a coffee from Frank and Stein and sit around readi ng the papers.
    Things began to look up in the early nineties when the operaters of the open-top Round-London-Sightseeing-Tours diverted their buses along Pennington Street and parked outside the complex enabling the passengers to wander round the shops. Sadly this only lasted for one season. The buses left and one by one so did the traders. To try and boost visitors the open area between Pennington Street nd The Highway was developed into a car park, although there was rarely a car to be seen there. The only activity I remember was when a fun fair set up on the site for a couple of weeks.
    In the end only Frank and Stein’s cafe remained and the place became an empty shell with just the pigeons and the security guards for company.
    This is all a tragedy as the building work inside is fantastic – all top quality. As restoration projects go it really is superb. I can’t help feeling that a major failing is that passers-by just don,t notice the place. The front is largely a plain brick wall with nothing to attract attention except for the words ‘Tobacco Dock’ in stand-alone letters fixed to the wall top.

  10. Gerry

    I visited today as I happened to be passing, and I was surprised to find the place virtually deserted. The last time I was there must have been nearly twenty years ago, and I recall it as quite a lively development with lots of upmarket shops and restaurants. Now it’s a ghost town.

    The ground floor is mostly cordoned off with workers doing something, though it’s not clear what. The public toilets are functioning and well maintained, and the upper floor is all accessible, but the only thing to look at is the architecture.

    The architecture is very interesting, but the whole place exudes an air of sadness – sort of all-dressed-up with no place to go.

  11. Carole Semaine

    Went to a Secret Cinema screening there last night. What an amazing venue – it deserves to be resurrected, sympathetically.

  12. Philip Hamilton

    I recall some storys that were circulating at the time of its restoration, apparantly, so the story goes, there was a small parade of shops in Wapping Lane one of which was a small supermarket and also a greengrocer, during the consultative phase of Tobacco Docks planning aplication an objection was raised by these businesses to Tobacco Docks plans to have a large food retailer (I believe it was M&S) as one of its tennants at which point the tennant in question withdrew thus sealing the fate of the place, it struggled on gamely for a while and then tried to reinvent its self as a factory outlet location but failed miserably. I hope it finds a new use soon, if the non food retailing clause was removed from its planning permission then it might stand a chance.

    • Roger Taylor-Brook

      I am desperately trying to trace a Phil Hamilton once from Shadwell or Docklands, married to Jill. Where are you my old friend?
      Roger

  13. Ryan F

    ive always known this place as a ghost town. shame really its a lovely luilding from the outside, everytime i went past there it was forever closed

  14. Danny

    i myself was working at the dock back in 1990 where phase II was still being finished, it was a great shopping place with lots of small shops and resturants , winebars, and 2 great sailing ships down the back, i went there earlyer this year , to have a look at how the area had changed, And was sad to see the whole place was still closed , this place realy needs to be re opened.

  15. eddy

    am working around the corner from tobacco dock for a couple of weeks and go by the gated entrance as your top photo. was intregued by the two ships and of its history which i have just discovered. just an update, sadly it’s still a ghost town and with the 2012 games now just months away, cannot see any developments to capitalise on this major london event. even with the evermore need for housing, insead of building on our much needed, but ever decreasing space , how about this for high-class property – just a thought ?

  16. Rachel standage

    I was there today it is a lovely building and some companies still hire it out to this day, i was there for the yearly tattoo convention and it was packed! Its a shame to think its deserted most of the year :-(

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