From its foundation, Limehouse, like neighbouring Wapping, has enjoyed better links with the river than the land. The land route being across a marsh. Limehouse became a significant port in late medieval times, with extensive docks and wharves. Although most cargoes were discharged in the Pool of London before the establishment of the docks, industries such as ship building, chandlering and rope making were established in Limehouse.
Limehouse Basin opened in 1820 as the Regent's Canal Dock. This was an important connection between the Thames and the canal system, where cargoes could be transferred from larger ships to the shallow-draught canal boats. This mix of vessels can still be seen in the basin, canal narrow boats rubbing shoulders with sea-going yachts.
The dock basin with its marina remains a working facility. The same is not true of those wharf buildings that have survived, most of which are now highly desirable residential properties.
From the Tudor era, until the 20th century, ships crew were employed on a casual basis. New and replacement crew would be found wherever they were available, local sailors being particularly prized for their knowledge of currents and hazards in foreign ports. Crews would be paid off at the end of their voyage. Inevitably, permanent communities became established, including colonies of Lascars and Africans from the Guinea Coast. Large Chinatowns at both in Limehouse and Shadwell developed, associated with the crews of merchantmen in the opium and tea trades, particularly for Han Chinese. The area achieved notoriety for opium dens in the late 19th century, often featuring in pulp fiction works by Sax Rohmer and others. Like much of the East End it remained a focus for immigration, but after the devastation of the Second World War many of the Chinese community relocated to Soho.
On 12 February 1832, the first case of cholera was reported in London at Limehouse. First described in India in 1817, it had spread here via Hamburg. Although 800 people died during this epidemic, fewer than had died of tuberculosis in the same year, cholera visited again in 1848 and 1858.
On 30 July, 1909 the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George made a polemical speech in Limehouse attacking the House of Lords for its opposition to his "People's Budget". This speech was the origin of the phrase "To Limehouse", or "Limehousing", which meant an incendiary political speech.
On January 25, 1981 MPs Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, William Rodgers and David Owen made the Limehouse Declaration from Owen's house in Limehouse, which announced the formation of the Council for Social Democracy in opposition to the granting of block votes to the trade unions in the Labour Party to which they had previously belonged. They soon became leading politicians in the Social Democratic Party.
Today Limehouse has become a popular place to live, with property overlooking the Thames and Limehouse Basin housed in expensive converted warehouses and modern apartment blocks. Away from the river there continues to be much social housing and areas of social deprivation.
- Limehouse was a major setting in the 1999 limited series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Volume 1) published by WildStorm's America's Best Comics imprint. In the year 1889, oriental crime lord Fu Manchu used the Limehouse district as a base of operations. Using a partially constructed abandoned tunnel beneath Rotherhithe and the Thames river, he developed a fleet of vessels made from an anti-gravity material known as Cavorite.
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