Brewhouse Lane

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March 23, 2015 by auntkatefirmin

The modern Brewhouse Lane is about two blocks long and parallels Wapping High Street. It is one block north of the Thames, and my understanding is that by the mid 19th century the area was largely comprised of rows of warehouses. On the basis of what I can see using Google street view, many warehouses remain and in the block bounded by Brewhouse Lane, Bridewell Place, Wapping High Street, and Wapping there is an interior courtyard as shown in the following screen shot:

The entrance to a courtyard on Brewhouse Lane with portions that might date back to the Victorian era.  From Google street view.

The entrance to a courtyard on Brewhouse Lane with portions that might date back to the Victorian era.
From Google street view.

I can’t be certain how closely this view resembles what Henry might have seen, but he had to have passed this location almost daily at some points in his life. I’m not certain exactly where on Brewhouse Lane the property used by the Firmins was located, but we’re only talking about a few blocks. I believe that at least parts of these buildings were there in Henry’s day and the modern courtyard gives some notion of the type of yard where the Firmin horses would have been stabled and the waggons stored and maintained.

Rocque 1746 with The Orchard, Brewhouse Lane and Willow Tree Alley highlighted. Map from wikimedia.

Rocque (1746) with The Orchard, Brewhouse Lane and Willow Tree Alley highlighted. Map from wikimedia.

As I mentioned, the Rocque map has been invaluable for locating the streets and alleys in the census and other documents. (The later Horwood map of 1799 has not been nearly as helpful in this case). The Orchard appears on this map and a few others through about 1837, but mostly the maps either do not have enough detail or at some point the use of The Orchard as a street name was dropped. The last mention I have found (so far) of The Orchard is in the 1851 census.

The Orchard (blue), Brewhouse Lane (light blue) and Willow Tree Alley (green) roughly as they were around 1841 and 1851 based on earlier maps and the census route.  From Google satellite view.

The Orchard (blue), Brewhouse Lane (light blue) and Willow Tree Alley (green) roughly as they were around 1841 and 1851 based on earlier maps and the census route.
From Google satellite view.

The 18th and 19th century Brewhouse Lane was more industrial than residential with warehouses, timber yards, and the Pickard Brewery.

In the neighborhood, close to where The Orchard met Wapping High Street, is the Thames Police Station on the site where the Marine Police were established in 1798 to handle marine crimes such as theft of cargos. It is both a reminder of the marine focus of the neighborhood and a landmark in the history of policing.

A combination of fire insurance indexes, map-reading, and google books has left the impression of a variety of businesses at different times: a brewery, a nearby soap manufacturer, an iron foundry, a sugar refinery, warehouses, and a cooper with a business that may have spanned at least the 34 years from 1791 to 1824. In 1817, numbers 1-9 on Brewhouse Lane were insured but the occupants are not listed in the index record.

In the years before the Firmin family arrived, picture a bustling dockside area with wharves, nautical instrument makers, public houses, and slop-sellers. The construction of the various London Docks from 1799 to 1810 isolated the area next to the Thames and siphoned off some of the trade from the wharves to the docks, leading to a decline in the neighborhood. A document which includes information relating to lands in Wapping Estate held by the Board of Governors of Bridewell Hospital gives a pretty clear picture of the area in 1837.

Plan of London Docks by Henry Palmer 1831 via Wikimedia.

Plan of London Docks by Henry Palmer in 1831 via Wikimedia.

By 1837, the properties to the south and east of Brewhouse Lane are described as “very dilapidated” and “by no means superior to the worst part of St Giles’s.” Very strong words; before Whitechapel became a synonym for depravity, St Gile’s was the byword for a bad part of town. According to the report, one of the few exceptions to the run-down nature of the area was the good condition of the warehouses in Brewhouse Lane.

By 1841 when Henry & George’s brother John Firmin was listed in the census, there were only five residents listed in The Orchard (all in the same dwelling) and one family in Brewhouse Lane. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that others also lived there but it’s clearly not a residential street. The other adults are listed simply as laborers and “Messenger L Dock” so the accommodations are probably spartan. There must have been watchmen or some arrangement for the security of the warehouses, but apparently there were no on-site live-in managers – unless John was an on-site manager for part of the Firmins’ business.

By 1851 more dwellings (three on each street) on the two streets are listed as having residents and the occupations listed are more professional. Thomas Hall, father-in-law of George Firmin, is listed as a carman employing four workers. In addition there is a cooper, a flour factor, two more carmen (presumably employees rather than employers), a farrier, and a worker at the sugar refinery (listed as a “scum boiler’s laborer”). Despite (or perhaps because of) being industrial, it seems to be more prosperous than some of the nearby alleys where mariners, laundresses and needleworkers live (for example Willow Tree Alley and Queen’s Head Alley).

In 1856 Henry Firmin is listed as a carman in Brewhouse Lane in a Post Office Directory. The  relation between his business premises and those of Thomas Hall is as yet unknown. He apparently continued to have business premises in Brewhouse Lane until his death in 1877.

In the end, not much remains but a small glimpse into a cobbled yard where waggons and horses were stabled during one of the busiest eras for shipping in London. If the 1851 census is typical, then perhaps there were as many as four waggons owned by the business picking up loads from the docks and delivering them to shops and businesses in Stepney or the City – but perhaps not all of the employees were drivers. Henry Firmin clearly had a valuable business but there is no documentation as to how many employees or waggons were in use in his time; a little more research could turn up the types of cargoes typical of the wharves & warehouses there. After Henry’s death the business must have been sold as his only child, Henry, worked with glass and was variously described as a “glass embosser,” a “sign writer,” and a “glass writer.” Henry was the last of the Firmin carmen as his brother George was not a carman.

We can imagine the clop of the horses’ hooves on the cobbles and the smell of the streets but beyond that we’ll need more research.

Red Lion Brewhouse, East Smithfield.

Red Lion Brewhouse in East Smithfield. c Trustees of the British Museum.

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