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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.

31 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.

  11. Trish permalink
    July 11, 2014

    I am looking for relatives who live in Wapping from the 1800s their surname were Heather and I believe my great great great grandmother was the post mistress there
    Regards Trish Howard

  12. Angela Ferris - nee WEBB permalink
    August 1, 2014

    I to recall the Darby’s.I was born in Wapping during the early 1950′s mum’s name Bobo Boorman – nee Webb, who lived in Wapping all her life. I went to StPeter’s church and St Peter’s school, with my sister’s June and Margaret. My mum worked in St Peter’S school. Spent many nights over at the Pier Head girls club the very large house which over looks the Thames. Recently took a nostalgic walk around Wapping how it’s changed. Had a lovely meal in the Town of Ramsgate, back in the 1960′s my friend parents ran the pub. Mrs Culley, I remember your daughters Christen and Carole,

  13. August 14, 2014

    As a penniless American college student, I stumbled upon Wapping one Sunday evening in 1985. It was love at first sight. The windows were missing from some of the warehouses along the High Street, and I could still smell the spices. There’s a magic about the place.

  14. Andrew Chapman permalink
    August 18, 2014

    I lived in Raines Mansions from my birth in 1952 until 1971 when we – my parents Ernest and Rose (nee Morris) and my sister Lynne – were moved out to allow demolition of Raines Mansions ( not that there was anything wrong the the flats themselves). I recall many of the names of the people above including Bobo Boorman who my mother knew well.

    I now live in Mile End but have only the fondest memories of growing up in Wapping.

    My email address is and happy to respond to any old Wappingers!


  15. Mrs Kathleen Jackson nee'Budd permalink
    November 7, 2014

    I have found these storys fascinating especially today as I found out by chance that my paternal great Grandmothers ,Grandfather George James Armstrong was born in 1793 in Old Gravel Lane and, baptised 5/5/1793 at St Johns Wapping. His Father George was a waterman His mother was named Mary. George James eventually became a coal merchant living in bridge Street Stepney in 1841 .where my two times Grandfather Martin Armstrong was born, He was married to a French woman Stephanie Charlotte Catherine Lemoine One of their Daughters Cicely Horcholle Armstrong married my Great G.father Henry Samuel Herbert Budd. Cicely was My Dads Grandmother, probably no interest to anyone else but to me very important to know my links to London My Maternal Grandfather was a porter at Billingsgate in the nineteen twenties for his brother Robert Gillards firm based at St Mary at Hill with stalls in the market ,selling his own cured I am very proud of my London Heritage.

  16. Jan permalink
    January 9, 2015

    I am very proud of being born in wapping 1950 , my father mother and their families all lived in wapping, going right back to 1840, as far as I can go sees my g/g/grandfather coming from Ireland and working in the docks as a coal tipper,in wapping. My uncle said they were called irish cockneys, what a lovely view from madge window looking over the river.

  17. john duncombe permalink
    March 2, 2015

    I too was born in Wapping in 1946 and certainly remember Madge and her brother Jeffrey when they lived in, I think, St Gabriel’s in Wapping Lane when we lived in Woodside Mansions.

    Our respective flats were separated by the Goodwins factory, who made canvas sheeting for lorries and tents etc.

    I and others who were in the St peters Scout troop still go back to the Town Of Ramsgate every year, which is right next door to Madges house, for a few beers and more than a few reminiscences. Most years Madge is in there having a quiet half, maybe this year Ill say hello…

  18. Cynthia Allen (nee Owen) permalink
    March 26, 2015

    I have only just found this site and what interesting reading.
    According to the family records I have, my Gt Grandfather Thomas Cousins Owen was born in No 2 Pierhead in 1838 and was baptised on 17th October 1838 in the parish of St Boltolph. His father my Gt Gt Grandfather was also a Thomas and he was shown in the 1841 census as Dockmaster of St Katherines Docks. He died in June 1846 aged 47 and he is buried in Nunhead Cemetary in Linden Grove.
    I came to London last year and went to the Maritime Museum in the hopes of finding out more about my family but sadly drew a blank, but while there I had a lovely wander round took many photos of St Katherines Dock and the Pierhead houses.
    Is there anyone who would have any info on this family I would be delighted to hear from them.
    Cynthia Allen

  19. Jill Lanham permalink
    April 14, 2015

    I was just trying to find out some more info about the Petley family when I came upon this site – very thrilling. Sophia Petley, Robert Petley (1776 – 1845)’s daughter is my great great grandmother. Her daughter Hannah, had my grandma Daisy (who was born in Wapping), and she had my Mum Dorian who is still alive at 92. She says her Mum learnt to walk on Wapping Flats and they all went to St Peter’s church and knew Father Pollock. Mum remembers Harry Darby. So Madge is my 2nd cousin 1 x removed! I am keen to find out more about my Watermen and Lightermen ancestors, the Petleys, the Evans, the Gorbetts etc. Maybe I need to get a copy of Madge’s books? Please get back to me.

  20. Jill Lanham permalink
    April 14, 2015

    I made a mistake above – it should be Wanstead Flats not Wapping Flats – please can you alter it. Thanks Jill

  21. Roy west permalink
    May 31, 2015

    very interesting seeing all the replys about Wapping,I also grew up in Wapping born in Exeter in 1941,we moved in to the dolls house(pearl street buildings) and had lots of good times in Wapping ,I wished I still lived there now and know the pear head as a young lad where we went there to (nitty Norhs),I went to St. Peter’s school also as a kid in Agatha street the infant school then round meeting house ally the secondary school,there I was head boy and won the pollock prize a missal/prayer book which I still have that was in July 1954,first job I had was in the yard of SUNTUGS Alexander’s,then worked in the gun wharf as a tea sampler then joined the PLA transport,Wapping was a wonderful community then full of hard working family’s and good people and marreid a Wapping girl from riverside mansions then Jeannie Barrett,we lived in the dolls house during the war and I can still remember being carried on my dads shoulder running to the shelters.

  22. Janet Ware permalink
    June 13, 2015

    hi Carol O’Reilly
    ,Can you get back to me.What number Riverside Mansions did you live? &care you on F/B.

  23. Gill permalink
    June 16, 2015

    Hi what a delight to come across this site having just found out that my grandfather lived in the but also owned/run his own bakery in wapping street/lane and apparently it is still a bakery. would love to know where I can get the history of the bakery his surname was dolder and he left the shop in the war to take his family to safety – sadly he did not return to the area

    look forward to hearing from you with any info on this or where I can purchase such info.

  24. Roy west permalink
    June 20, 2015

    Gill the bakery that was in Wapping lane 1949 and probably before then was called SHELVEYS, not 100% if that was the spelling but as a kid we used to go in there and ask for stale cakes,and on good Friday remember lining up for the lovely hot cross buns,the shop was opposite watemans (frenches ) the sweet shop.

  25. Gill permalink
    June 27, 2015

    Hi Roy

    thank you for your comments – I so need to come up to wapping – do you remember roughly the number of the shop? whether there could be any photo’s?

  26. Noybo permalink
    June 30, 2015

    The bakers on Wapping Lane is P&J. An ordinary traditional local bakers but the best bread anywhere in London. Here is a picture

  27. Gill permalink
    July 16, 2015

    hi guys

    my auntie seems to think it used to be in gravel lane (renamed since) and that the bakery is not far from a block of flats does this sound right?

    coming up at of July – very excited

  28. Roy west permalink
    August 11, 2015

    It was in gravel lane just past St Peters church on the left and just past the pub that was then called the three Swedish crowns and the block of flats if my memory serves me right was WELSH house and opposite was the estate that included jack an house above the parade of shops.

  29. Edna permalink
    August 15, 2015

    My Mum and Dad had Frenches sweetshop. I remember the west family, my brother Bob was friends with Kenny, he still lives in wapping. He turned 80 this year. I live in Hornchurch. I think Peter West lived there for a while. My grandparents lived in wapping, most people would know my grandmother as Aunt Beat or as the Insoles. I often think of wapping, best place in the world to have grown up.
    Nice to read and recognise some of the names of the wappingites

  30. James King permalink
    August 23, 2015

    I too lived in Wapping in Whitethorne House Prusom Street in the fifties. My Grandad Mat Wilson was the caretaker at Riverside Mansions in the early days. He went on to become caretaker at John Scurr House Ratcliffe. I wonder if any body can remember him.

  31. Maureen West permalink
    August 23, 2015

    Hi Edna,
    Just reading through this site. Nice to know that Bobby is still around. I am married to Kenny and it was us who lived in Elm Park, not Peter. I remember meeting you there one day. I only lived in Wapping when we got married, but it was a lovely, lovely place and as others have said, a nice community, more like a village. We now live in Herne Bay as do a lot of the West brothers. Please give our regards to Bobby.

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