King Henry Yard and the New Buildings

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June 26, 2013 by auntkatefirmin

When I looked at the baptism for the fourth child of John & Sarah Firmin and saw that they were living in the “New Buildings” in 1825 I said to myself – “that’s one you’ll never find.”  First there are too many options for a location by that name, and second much of East Smithfield was completely transformed either by docks or more recent housing developments. Not only did I have to eat my words, I wasn’t even looking for this location when I found it!

Location heading from 1827 London tax records.

Location heading from 1827 London tax records.

A while back, on a whim, I checked ancestry to see if anything new had been indexed that included John Firmin and I stumbled across the London Tax Records.  The page from 1827 showing “E John Firman” didn’t give me a lot to go on to be certain this was the right person as that page didn’t show any street names.

Not being familiar with this source, I paged back to get a sense of the context and the mystery was solved!  Not surprisingly, the tax collectors followed a logical path through their district. There on page 25 was King Henry Yard, followed by the New Buildings with 11 houses and Little Burr Street, also containing 11 houses, continuing on to page 26.  John paid 6 shillings and eightpence tax for the house he occupied in Little Burr Street.

Honestly, I was quite astonished.  The tax book is signed 1 August 1827 and I had expected that due to the construction on the St Katharine Docks, starting in May 1827, the buildings would be empty. Not only was I surprised to find that the only available tax record for John Firmin allowed me to locate the New Buildings, I was very interested to see that there were still taxpayers at properties that would be torn down in a matter of months. Many of the tenants were already gone by August as the “St Catherine Dock Company” paid the tax for 31 houses in King Henry Yard.  My guess is that the properties were vacated based on how close they were to the excavations.  King Henry Yard and Little Burr Street would eventually be covered by warehouses but were not part of the area that was excavated.

The prior year, when John Firmin and his family were in the New Buildings, the tax for all 11 houses was paid by Joseph Pritchett, presumably the landlord.  For both years there are 33 houses in King Henry Yard and an unspecified number of warehouses.  In 1829, after the docks were completed, the tax records continue to list the payments of the St Katherine Dock Company based on the former streets and houses.  Unfortunately there is a gap in the digitized records between 1811 and 1827 so we can’t see the names of the taxpayers in the years John Firmin lived in King Henry Yard.

East Smithfield before St Katherine Dock, from Wikipedia.

East Smithfield and the liberty of St Katherine by the Tower before St Katherine Docks.
Proposed docks in blue. From Wikipedia.

As the map above shows, the building of the docks (blue) and the surrounding walls and warehouses (pink) meant that the inhabitants of 23 acres were displaced by the construction.  That’s over 11,300 people – most of them not compensated in any way as they were only renters, not property owners. If you know what you are looking for, you can make out the words “new buildings” on the southern portion of King Henry Yard. (I marked this in yellow).

In the years 1820 to 1827 the Firmin family was essentially in the same location, as the New Buildings and Little Burr Street are connected to King Henry Yard.  Starting in 1825 when the construction of the docks was approved by an act of Parliament, they would have known that their time in the area was limited.  Between August and December of 1827 they had moved less than half a mile north, to Glasshouse Street.

Here’s what their former neighborhood turned into:

View of the proposed St Katherine's Docks, 1825.

View of the proposed St Katherine’s Docks, 1825.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

This view gives a good sense of the location of the docks to the immediate east of the Tower of London.  It also shows the innovation of the warehouses close to the water’s edge to allow direct unloading.  Like the other docks surrounded by warehouses it has the effect of creating a fortress that cuts up and isolates the surrounding property.

The construction of the St Katherine Docks.

The construction of the St Katherine Docks. The Tower of London is visible in the background.
© National Maritime Museum, London

The opening of the docks was a grand occasion:

The opening of the St Katherine Docks on 25 October 1828.

The opening of the St Katherine Docks on 25 October 1828. The “Elizabeth” entering the docks.
© Trustees of the British Museum.

St Katherine’s Dock was only one of a series of docks built along the Thames to accommodate the vast quantity of goods flowing in and out of the port of London.  Overall, it was less successful than some of the others.  The bottom line is that shortly after the dock was built, metal began to replace wood, and steam to replace sail, with the result that the standard cargo vessels were too large to be accommodated there.

Britain from Above in 1932, showing the Tower and the docks.

Britain from Above in 1932, showing the Tower and the docks.

More resources:

Don’t miss the London Life with Bradshaw’s Handbook entry, chock full of links, with modern and historical pictures.

If you’re in London, the Museum of London has a detailed model of the docks.

Enjoy the photos from this East London walk featuring the area around dock.

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