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The Last Sailmakers’ Loft In The East End

January 10, 2015
by the gentle author

I am grateful to Paul Talling of Derelict London for permitting me to republish his recent photographs of the Caird & Rayner building in Limehouse, the last sailmakers’ loft in the East End

“Built in 1869 as a sailmakers’ and chandlers’ warehouse, 777 Commercial Rd was occupied by Caird & Rayner from 1889 to 1972 and never substantially altered, retaining its original cast-iron window frames and loading doors that open onto the Limehouse Cut. The building is the only original sailmakers’ and ship-chandlers’ warehouse surviving in the East End. A few years ago, a housing association tried to destroy it to build flats and even attempted to overturn the listed status of the property but this was blocked by English Heritage. Neighbouring derelict shops and small business units have already been demolished to make way for a large housing development. Yet, after various changes of ownership in recent years, there are no immediate plans for 777 Commercial Rd which remain vacant, apart from some live-in security and some very ferocious guard-dogs. This building is very dangerous and has some surprises for  intruders.” - Paul Talling

“The company produced water treatment plant, often for naval use, and they were regarded as a strategic industry during the war. Due to the risk of being bombed out of London, the wartime government decreed that Caird & Rayner should have a shadow factory to which business could be transferred if the need arose. A property was located in Watford and taken over by Caird & Rayner ‘for the duration’ but remained in the company thereafter. During the sixties, when business declined and it was decided to relinquish the Commercial Rd site and concentrate on Watford, our family moved in about 1967 to a place in Hemel Hempstead.

The move out of Commercial Rd had it’s ‘moments’ – the building was a constructed as a sailmakers loft, which meant the main part had just a ground floor and a full height space in which to hang and manage sails, with a gallery round the insider perimeter at first floor level. In the building’s use as an engineering works, machine tools had been installed on the gallery – lathes, milling machines, drills and the like. As machinery came out for transport, the weights were tallied up, but only until the company got scared when they realised the place should have long ago collapsed under the load.” - John Kirkwood whose father worked at Caird & Rayner until his death in the eighties

Photographs copyright © Paul Talling

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34 Responses leave one →
  1. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    January 10, 2015

    How strange, I was standing in front of this very building only today, (Friday) I spent quiet a time wandering about trying to see through any gap’s in doors and windows from the front and the towpath at the back, I know it has stood empty and abandoned for many years but until I saw these pictures I had no real idea just how dilapidated it was inside, I knew that a housing association had been trying to do something with the building but I have often been mystified as to why nothing had actually been done for such a long time, I was unaware that their attempt to demolish it had been blocked and although my first response to this news is good, I cant help thinking that it will be very difficult to find a new and viable use for this building, and even if anyone were prepared to commit the enormous sum of money that would be required to restore the fabric of the building I’m not really sure that it would lend itself to any practical use apart from the obligatory “luxury flats”, it would be sad to loose such a building with its historical past but whether or not anyone can come up with a realistic plan for its future remains to be seen.

  2. John Casey permalink
    January 10, 2015

    Is there no “duty of care” on the owners of listed buildings like this? If not, it seems to me, there ought to be. Otherwise, they can just wait till the building collapses under it’s own weight, and hey presto! land to build new luxury flats on!

  3. January 10, 2015

    What a beautiful outside and roof.

  4. January 10, 2015

    What a shame that such an interesting and historic building has been allowed to decay. I remember passing it daily for many years on my way from Poplar to Stepney. Another landmark will be lost. Valerie

  5. January 10, 2015

    Fascinating are those buildings, where nature recaptures her area… In Kassel we have a lot of them from the former HENSCHEL Locomotives Works. They are protected monuments now.

    *** I AM CHARLIE ***

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  6. Jude permalink
    January 10, 2015

    Great photos. Particularly the one with the blue chair centre stage.

  7. January 10, 2015

    A wonderfully inspiring building and one worthy of sensitive restoration to commercial use thank you for this article good to read

  8. January 10, 2015

    it worries me that most of these images that we see these days are taken on digital cameras and transfered to Cd’s or memory sticks and will be lost or not be able to read them in the future ,unlike film that can be put in a box and taken out in fifty+ years time and will work just by holding up to the light and looking at it .this is not a film verses digital argument its just a worrie .will the people of tomorrow have the same opportunity’s to see the past as we have .???

  9. Eileen Bates permalink
    January 10, 2015

    How sad ..it’s easy to imagine it when it was once a hive of activity…

  10. Ian permalink
    January 10, 2015

    If ever a building deserved the tag of “handsome” then it is this one. I hope someone can find a use for it that would preserve it as closely to its original appearance as possible. What the world DOESN’T need is another generic, bland block of flats or something that keeps only the facade of the building whilst creating something entirely unfitting behind it.

  11. January 10, 2015

    I wonder if you have any picture of the sailmaking operation when it was happening?
    I have a particular interest in canvas in all guises, in particular for the making of sail cloths.
    Thank you.
    Cynthia

  12. Ros permalink
    January 10, 2015

    where do all the delicate and varied colours come from in these beautiful photos? Are the ruins and peeling paint really like that or has colour been added?

  13. Bidfid permalink
    January 10, 2015

    The only way a local authority can require an owner to maintain a building is if it is listed. If it is, they can serve notice, and if the necessary work is not done, they can step in, do the work themselves and recover the cost from the owner.

    1. Is the building listed?

    2. Who is the current owner ?

  14. Zinèbe permalink
    January 10, 2015

    Thank you so much for this article with photos, I live opposite the sailmakers building and have always wondered what it was like inside. On the outside the structure looks pretty derelict and dangerous, I always fear that parts of the structure/windows fall off and knock some poor soul walking on the towpath down the cut… The building works on the site next to the sailmakers building are pretty heavy, they’ve knocked down the derelict building revealing beautiful graffitis and now they’ve got the cranes and all construction machines working at full blast.
    A neighbour told us that the sailmakers building is protected as part of the Limehouse cut conservation area.
    I don’t really know what’s the future of the building, it sure is beautiful, it’s part of the local heritage and there should be a way to convert it into a wonderful cultural space, it reminds me of the 104 rue d’Aubervillers when I lived in East Paris, it was a former municipal undertaker building, beautiful and empty for years until it was turned into a cultural centre http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cent_Quatre

    Let’s hope for the power that be to choose this kind of project over a luxury apartments one.

    Zinèbe

    #JeSuisCharlie

  15. Tony Bock permalink
    January 11, 2015

    What a shame this fine
    building has been allowed to deteriorate. Wouldn’t it make an excellent gallery space?

  16. Quentin Robinson permalink
    January 11, 2015

    A splendid building like this should be turned into a heritage centre. Maritime of dourse. It looks structurly sound and that’s what’s important. It looks grotty but remember there was a time when people would repair buildings like this, not tear them down and start again.

  17. Helen Moules permalink
    January 11, 2015

    As someone who lives nearby and passes this building several times a week, I’ve wondered for a long time about the history, ownership of and future plans for this building, so am grateful for insight into it. I hadn’t appreciated it’s origins but have since wondered if you or other readers are also familiar with another sailmaker’s building a short distance away that seems to be on the market with plans for a mixed use development:

    http://www.estate-office.com/investment/particulars.htm?type=Development&id=192&name=West%20India%20Dock%20Road,%20London%20E14

  18. annabel hayward permalink
    January 11, 2015

    hello, i really enjoy your articles. my daughter has recently moved to a flat to rent off Shepherdess Walk. She showed me the Eagle pub which comes apparently from the nursery rhyme, Pop goes the Weasel! Can you explain what the words of the rhyme mean? would love to know.

  19. Dick Wynne permalink
    January 13, 2015

    @Annabel: ‘pop goes the weasel’ is slang for the pawning of a watch (necessary after paying for the half a pound of tuppeny rice, half a pound of treacle…)

  20. Judith Martin permalink
    January 21, 2015

    It’s great to see this again, but sad nothing has been done to preserve it. Another coup for the wonderful Spitalfields Life.

    I looked round this building about 10 years ago in the company of the remarkable Tom Ridge, who was responsible for getting it listed. @ Bidfid : It really isn’t in good condition – I’m confident the front office range has major dry rot (huge fruiting bodies on the ceiling) and heaven knows what was under the revolting sodden red carpet tiles. I’m not qualified to judge the condition of the engineering ranges but there were some pretty hefty cranes in place, so they must be fairly sound. Happily ironwork isn’t prone to dry rot. The sail loft seemed the soundest at the time – the earliest part of the building, from a period when an industrial site would be over- rather than under-engineered. Tower Hamlets could indeed serve repairs notices etc. but not many local authorities are willing to be so brave. It’s also on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register, which also makes a rescue job easier.

    The housing association was Peabody (delete if necessary). Their plans were shamefully bad. Tower Hamlets were brave to reject them but Peabody should now get off the pot – assuming they are still the owners. I doubt there’s money for a marine heritage centre there, although it is certainly a remarkable area – the Seaman’s Refuge is just nearby (now I think, and ironically, glitzy flats) and immediately opposite is Hawkesmoor’s St. Anne’s. Tom Ridge told me that when the conservation area line was being drawn it was deliberately skipped across the road just to include Caird & Rayner.

  21. Judith Martin permalink
    January 21, 2015

    Two minutes online and I find the site is no longer owned by the housing association. Since 2007 it’s been owned by a property company registered in the celebrated tax haven of the Isle of Man. The Land Reg documents don’t say who they bought it from, so it’s possible the Peabody application was only speculative. It was still unspeakable. It’s perfectly possible to rescue buildings held off-shore – Hastings Pier is a triumphant example – but it’s trickier.

    Where is this sort of topic in all the political speechifying we’re going to be deluged with before May? Offshore companies, negligent owners, stupid property prices – all need attention.

  22. January 23, 2015

    I was an extra for a movie filmed in there. The director is Jason Arber his company is: http://phantomlimb.net/

  23. Judith Martin permalink
    February 4, 2015

    An update: I find that Tower Hamlets served a preliminary repairs notice last July,which has been complied with. So some improvement, but it’s still a long way from being sound, with a secure future. But three cheers for the council, as not many take this route. The notice was served on 6 different entities, but I don’t know who took responsibility for the work.

  24. February 5, 2015

    In September 2014 I ventured down to Limehouse and the Docklands for the first time after several trips to London (I live in California) only to be immediately struck by this building. I took a few pictures and wondered what it was (I figured something to do with the maritime legacy of the area). I am glad to have learned of their interesting past. another smashing post

  25. Chris permalink
    March 3, 2015

    I work on the building site next to the sail makers. My parents are both historians and as such I have a fascination with old buildings. I have been lucky enough to visit the sailmakers and factory next to it, built later but still equally interesting.

    The building is in a pretty bad state and in need of repair. It is (from an engineer’s view) very well built and very interesting. I wouldn’t recommend anyone gaining access on the sly as it really isn’t safe in places.

    The building being built next door is intended to be sympathetic to the area and hopefully is a vast improvement to the 1960s building that is now all but demolished.

    Does anyone have any information about a local pub that I believe was in the area called the Cape of good hope?

  26. Caroline permalink
    May 18, 2015

    The Cape of Good Hope was on the corner of Commercial Road, and St Ann’s Place, I believe. The earliest documentation was from 1795, when my ggg grandfather was the publican. Last mentioned in 1938, see link below:

    http://pubshistory.com/LondonPubs/Limehouse/CapeofGoodHope.shtml

    Caroline.

  27. September 3, 2015

    My grandparents were married at St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse in 1905 and their home address was given as 777, Commercial Road, Limehouse. As my grandfather was a licensed victualler at that time, I wonder if he was connected with the nearby “Cape of Good Hope” public house.

  28. Hazel Rider permalink
    September 6, 2015

    This article is so interesting to me. My Great Great Grandfather, William Shield, was a sailmaker from Scotland but he lived and worked in the London Dockland most of his life and married a girl from Limehouse. He would have worked in a Sailloft very similar to this by the Limehouse docks, although I think he would have been a little too old to have worked in this particular one. He ended his days at the Sailmakers almeshouses in Tottenham. in the 1881 censes the address was given as Bruce Grove Almeshouses. I am currently doing a genealogy study of my family of which very little is known. But from William onwards they all lived and worked in the East End, Poplar in particular. He had lived in Margaret Street and Gate Street near the docks. If any one has any ideas where I could locate where he would have worked or indeed any other suggestions as to his life, I would be most grateful.

  29. Jumico permalink
    January 6, 2016

    Such a beautiful place, I always pass by this building from Westferry towards my school ay Bishop Challoner. I always wondered what it looked like in the inside.

    I’m doing my final year project for Architecture and I was wondering if anyone themselves or other people if they have the existing drawings and/or plans for this building. It would be really great help!

    Thank you.

  30. February 6, 2016

    Essex cockney, I use to work in an auction, and some house clearances we would get lots of paperwork and photos , I would separate them and we would give them back, but now and in the future all there will be is sd cards lol

  31. SIMON DIABLE permalink
    November 4, 2016

    Around 1982 as a teenager and up to mischief I and some friends managed to get into this building through a broken window on the tow path. It was then being used in some form of engineering as there were many lathes etc and we couldn’t find anything worth pinching….not that we would have done!!!!

  32. January 1, 2017

    Very late to this topic, sorry. In 1999 I put in a bid for the building. Initially we were looking to rent with a year rent free to bring the building back to life but it was clear the owner knew they could sit on the building as it was for as long as they liked and watch its potential value rise. We ended up offering a substantial amount to purchase the building but the owner wanted £1 million.

    It had been used by a printing company in the 80s and 90s and as we were also a printing company it would have been ideal. The plan was to convert the upper floor with the round window into an apartment for me to live in when I stayed in London . The view over docklands from the roof was amazing.

    We ended up taking on the old Millwall working men’s club building at 1 Cuba Street E14, which sadly now has been demolished and turned into flats…

  33. jim king permalink
    January 9, 2017

    Caird & Rayner (Nautical engineers) occupied this building at 777 Commercial Road E14 in the sixties.
    I worked there as an apprentice in the drawing office from 1960 to 1965.
    Caird & Rayner manufactured boilers evaporators, fresh water makers for ships including many for the Royal Navy.
    Eventually Caird & Rayner moved to Watford in the late seventies.

  34. Dani permalink
    March 14, 2017

    Hi all, not sure if this will get picked up as I see this is an old post – the Sailmaker’s Warehouse is under significant immediate threat from unethical property developers. Some locals, including me, are trying to mount opposition to proposed housing development within and surrounding the building, to the detriment of the local community.

    If you’re interested, please comment here asap and we can get in touch!

    Thanks

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