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So Long, Madge Darby Of Wapping

October 21, 2018
by the gentle author

It is with sadness that I report the death of Madge Darby, Historian of Wapping, at the fine age of ninety-one in September. I am privileged to have met Madge who – more than anyone else you could find – originated from Wapping and spoke for the people of Wapping. Madge was the last of ‘the Darbys of Wapping.’

“People have always come here, either to convert us or to rip us off.”

No-one knew more about the history of Wapping than Madge Darby, a woman who made it her life’s imperative to recount the story of her people. And when Madge spoke of Wapping – as she did frequently – she used the word “us” or she simply said “we.” This was 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 ninety-one years old, after so many generations, Madge was the last of the Darbys in Wapping.

Yet Madge was not a sentimentalist and she occupied 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, 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 away, 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 ascribed 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 until they died there. “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 took 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 Sq 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 was 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 was 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.

“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.”

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.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. John Barrett permalink
    October 21, 2018

    I would have liked to have met Madge this Wapping pillar but I didn’t !perhaps I will one day. This is a talent or people person that has just moved on. Poet John, Poetry Soc & Bus Pass Poets.

  2. Ken Perkins permalink
    October 21, 2018

    The only Raine’s School I know of was founded in 1719 & what I believe is the original building still stands in Raine Street Wapping E.1 —possibly re named from Charles Street. I attended Raine’s Foundation 1957 to 1963 in Arbour Square & that building dates from 1913. I am a member of the Old Raineian’s Association & don’t know of any reference to the school ever being in Spital Square or anywhere in Dalston. Interesting. It is now in Bethnal Green. Your Spitalfield’s Life E Mails always enjoyable. Thanks.

  3. Di Corry permalink
    October 21, 2018

    Safe onward journey Madge….although I am sure your spirit will linger around the Wapping that you and many of us Eastenders knew and loved before the ‘piracy’.

  4. Barbara Anglezarke permalink
    October 21, 2018

    Such an interesting blog GA! And so sad that she has gone – all that knowledge and history – and those amazing twinkly eyes. Would have loved to have had a Wapping walk with her. Thank you.

  5. October 21, 2018

    What an interesting woman: historian and carer, significant member of the community. I am so glad they moved to particular house. It must have given her so much joy.

  6. pauline taylor permalink
    October 21, 2018

    I am so sad to read this news this morning. It was the history of Wapping and Madge that first introduced me to Spitalfield’s Life and you GA so I have much to thank Madge for. RIP Madge.

  7. Dorothy P permalink
    October 21, 2018

    This is such sad news. I have a postcard from Madge on which she gave me permission to use extracts from her book “Waeppa’s People” in my family history “Piper Love Stories”. I used her photograph of Old Gravel Lane where my grandfather was born.

    If you would like to have that book, Gentle Author, and the postcard, I will send them to you for your collection. My history was published in 2012, so Madge’s book is gathering dust on my shelf. I know you will treasure it, along with all your other old London memorabilia.

  8. Peter Coxell permalink
    October 21, 2018

    Very sad to hear this news. My wife and I attended St Peters Church and knew Madge and her brother Geoff very well. We were very fortunate to visit Madge last year on a visit to Wapping and had a lovely chat over a cup of tea about the “good old days”. God Bless Madge RIP>

  9. Stella Herbert permalink
    October 21, 2018

    Again the stories you post resonate with my own family background in east London. I have just discovered that in 1866 my gt. gt. grandmother was picked up by a police constable in Old Gravel Lane where Madge was born all those years later.
    Her husband had just died in the last London cholera epidemic. She had a young baby with her who had been christened in St. George’s just a few days after her husband’s death – she was deemed ‘lunatic’. Was she suicidal and headed for the Thames when found? After a brief stay in the Work House she was sent to Bow Asylum, the baby remained in the work house but died a few months later. Her other children were also in the work house.
    She did leave the workhouse to resume her work as a seamstress – but not for long as she died in Bart’s from consumption just a few years later.

    There was a happier ending as her three surviving children grew up and the firm of tin can manufacturers started by one of them, is still in business to this day! And she has quite a few descendants!

  10. October 22, 2018

    Dear Mrs Madge Darby — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  11. Sara from Iowa USA permalink
    October 22, 2018

    Great post. I feel like I now know Madge a bit. Most of the world rushes past elderly people, paying them no attention. I suppose it’s always been like that. Only the thoughtful think of the past.

  12. VANDA HUMAN permalink
    October 24, 2018

    Rest in Peace Madge. If only I could have met you and had a lovely chat. I am fascinated with history especially people who grew up during WW2. Safe journey.

  13. Alwyn Peel permalink
    November 13, 2018

    Madge leaves happy memories of visiting her at her home some years ago plus the interesting correspondence we shared. A lovely , interesting lady who will be missed by many.

  14. March 2, 2020

    Hello, Just wondering if Madge’s papers about Bligh were deposited in a library or archive?

  15. Michelle ball permalink
    August 12, 2021

    My Nan and her sisters featured in a photo in an old book about wapping
    It said the Hobbs sisters daughters of our cleaner Rose
    Just wondered if it was one madge wrote as no one can find it

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