Skip to content

Madge Darby, Historian of Wapping

July 1, 2012
by the gentle author

“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 Darby

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.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. July 1, 2012

    How fascinating and what a remarkable woman. I hope Madge doesn’t disapprove but I briefly (early 1980′s),squatted a flat in a brick built block of flats which had been emptied of it’s tenants. I don’t know where they were rehoused or what was been planned for the site. It was right by the river. We used to explore the empty flats which were still carpeted and noted the pride with which people had kept their homes. I recall it as a warm yet ghostly experience and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to grow up and live by the wonderful Thames. By the way, Madge has a splendid dresser and those pieces decorated with birds are magnificent.

  2. Ruth permalink
    July 2, 2012

    I love those Wapping Pierhead houses & have often dreamed of living in one and watching the river go by from my windows! I’m so glad that someone with roots deep in the area lives in at least one of them.

  3. July 5, 2012

    Great piece! I had heard that the term ‘what a whopper’ ( Wapper ) was from the time when pirates where hung to rot on Wapping Pierhead. The corpse would bloat up and people cried “What a whopper”!

  4. December 21, 2012

    i would like to let madge darby know that i remember her mum,brother & herself,i left
    wapping in 1974 went basingstoke ,overspill of londers,my freddie done decorating for
    your mum,and what a lovely lady,very sad to hear you lost your mum&brother,your books
    are full of memories for me.also been reading books by patrick hanshaw about wapping,which
    was very true to life in wapping.i was bred & born in wapping in st george,s in the east hospital
    baptized,confirmed & married in st peters also went to st peters school.
    went to st peters on st peters day this year and walked in the childrens possession,was surprised
    how the children acted after the service,made a remark to the vicar about this,he said the church was a village church not a museum,this has made me very sad ,it was so uncalled for .
    i hope you get this email.yours sincerely emily culley

  5. Phillip Harding permalink
    May 23, 2013

    I have just read the piece by Madge Darby, my Granddad owned The Gun Tavern at 75 Wapping High Street damaged in the war and is now a restaurant. Good luck Madge and keep the world remembering Wapping. Phillip

  6. July 5, 2013

    I was recently re-reading Madge Darby’s book on Captain Bligh and a Google search came up with this article. How good it is to hear of her and see her looking so well.

    It was back in the 1980s that I joined an evening walking/history class that explored this fascinating area of London. Madge Darby was one of the guides along with the very friendly and knowledgeable Ray Newton. How I looked forward to these evening outings and how much I learned!

    Although not born in London I do still remember Wapping Wall before the re-development began and when it was still very much an abandoned and derelict cobbled street. The Dockmaster’s House area where Madge lives has been enormously “improved” since those days, but still has the feel of the old London Dock.

    It is good that Madge and others in the area still keep the old tradition in the public eye. I send them all my very best wishes.

  7. Janet Ware permalink
    September 24, 2013

    I was born in 1945.I also went to St Peters school & church my mother used to clean for Father Fox. We moved to essex about 1952 or 53.Lived in riverside mansions.My father a docker Charles Dobson & my Mother Letitia. Hope you can get back to me.

  8. December 31, 2013

    How nice to read all the comments about Wapping, I was also born in Wapping and went to St.Peters School. I lived in Riverside Mansions and I remember Janet Dobson well.

  9. patrick green permalink
    March 25, 2014

    lovely I was born in wapping in 1945 I had twin terry I lived matlida houses my dad was docker

  10. Sheila Rogers (nee OBrien) permalink
    March 29, 2014

    I have only just read this article on Madge. I also was born in Wapping in 1948 and although I moved out when I married in 1967, my mum and dad lived in Jackman House until 2006 but they often talked of Madge who is well known by all Wapponites. My dad was also a docker as was most of my uncles.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS