Madge Darby, Historian of Wapping
“People have always come here, either to convert us or to rip us off.”
No-one knows more about the history of Wapping than Madge Darby, a woman who has made it her life’s imperative to recount the story of her people. And when Madge speaks of Wapping – as she does frequently – she uses the word “us” or she simply says “we.” This is her natural prerogative, because there are records of her family beginning with an Elizabeth Darby, christened there in 1636, while on her mother’s side, her great-great-grandfather, Robert Petley, and his family were turned out of their home at the beginning of in the nineteenth century for the building of St Katherine’s Dock. Thus, the story of the Darbys is the story of the place and it is a narrative with a certain poignancy because, at eighty-five years old, after so many generations, Madge is now the last of the Darbys in Wapping.
Yet Madge is not a sentimentalist and she is very much alive, occupying a central position in the neighbourhood – culturally, as chairman of the History of Wapping Trust and topographically, residing in an old terrace at Wapping Pierhead, cheek by jowl amongst the celebrities and bankers who have come to Wapping in recent years. It was here I visited Madge last week, discovering her in the dining room surrounded by the paperwork from the latest edition of her history of Wapping, “Piety & Piracy.”
“People have always come here, either to convert us or to rip us off,” she declared to me in explanation of the title of her book. And her eyes sparkled with emotion as she waved an estate agent’s circular which revealed that a neighbouring house had just sold for millions, thereby offering evidence of the nature of piracy in contemporary Wapping. Born in 1927 in Old Gravel Lane, five minutes walk from where she lives today, Madge and her family were twice displaced from their home, once for a road widening that never happened and once as part of a slum clearance programme.
“I’m not in favour of the housing policy that has pushed most of the indigenous people out and broken up the community,” she admitted frankly, deeply disappointed that recent generations of her family have been unable to find homes in the neighbourhood. A situation that she ascribes to escalating property prices and a social housing programme which, for decades, made little provision for those without children, forcing them to seek homes elsewhere.
“We were lucky to find this before the prices went up,” she said, casting her eyes around her appealingly dishevelled terrace house that she moved into in 1975 with her brother and mother, both of whom she cared for there until they died. “These houses were built in 1811 for dock staff and when we came there was only one tap. It took us years to save up to get heating installed.” she recalled. As a child, Madge came for piano lessons with a Miss Edith Pack in one of the adjoining buildings, overlooking the entrance to the docks, and was commonly distracted by the ships passing the window. Apart from a brief period of evacuation to Whitchurch, Madge was in London for most of the war, attending Raine’s School which operated in Spital Square before moving up to Dalston where Madge took her school certificates, prior to entering Queen Mary College to study History in 1945. In Madge’s memory, the streets of Wapping always smelled of spices, while in Spitalfields the smell of cabbages from the market prevailed.
Madge explained that her approach to history is based upon the evidence of surviving documentation. “Our dear mother used to say to us,’You’ll have to burn all those old letters in my bureau when I’m gone.’” Madge told me with a twinkle in her eye, “And I always replied, ‘Why? Where are you going dear?’” After her mother’s death, Madge published these letters in five volumes, comprising correspondence and diaries that tell the intertwining histories of her family and Wapping from 1886 until the beginning of our own century. The final volume is Madge’s personal memoir, commencing, “As soon as I became aware of the world around me, I found that I lived in Wapping. Wapping seemed to me a wonderful place and I could never understand how anyone fortunate enough to have been born there could wish to move away.”
We left the house and walked out to take a stroll upon the lawn at the Pierhead, overlooking the Thames, and we sat together overlooking the water in the sunshine. But while I only saw an empty expanse, Madge could remember when the docks were working at capacity and the river was busy with traffic. Madge told me about the previous inhabitants of the Pierhead before the current residents from the world of celebrity chatshows and bankers’ bonuses. Then, searching further in her mind, she spoke with excitement of Captain Bligh and Judge Jefferies in Wapping, both of whom are subjects of her books. “Wapping only became part of London in the seventeenth century,” she informed me with a tinge of regret, “Stowe describes it as one of the suburbs.”
With her thick white hair cropped into nineteen-thirties-style bob and her lively blue eyes, Madge was the picture of animation.“We carry on, we do our best,” she reassured me, speaking both of herself and of Wapping.
Madge’s house is one room deep, with windows facing onto the road and towards the river.
Madge in the rose garden at Wapping Pierhead outside the former Dockmaster’s House.
The house in Cable St where Madge’s father, Harry Darby, was born.