Wombat's City Hostel, 7 Dock Street

1830-5 as the Sailors' Home facing Well (Ensign) Street, extended to Dock Street in 1863–5 (that side rebuilt 1954-7) | Part of Sailors' Home

The early history of the Dock Street and Ensign Street area
Contributed by Survey of London on March 1, 2019

The lands immediately west of Well Close were gardens in the outer precinct of the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. They were irregularly built up by and during the late seventeenth century. A substantial copyhold property either side of all but the south end of Salt Petre Bank was enfranchised in 1655 by parties led by Henry Loades, a merchant adventurer whose principal claim to fame appears to be that he gave a rattlesnake to the Royal Society for dissection. The land then reportedly housed just three houses and three cottages, though the wider address was recorded as hosting 37 mostly two-hearth properties in 1675. Ten years on Loades’s property was recorded as holding seven houses, five cottages and a glasshouse. That explains Salt Petre Bank (Dock Street's earlier name) – saltpeter was used in glass manufacturing. By 1678 Edward Dallow was making green bottle glass on the southern part of the land between the bank (road) and the close; Philip Dallow was appointed royal glassmaker in 1689. Rocque’s map of the 1740s shows Glass House Yard to the southwest and Glass House Hill, a mound in open space, to the centre east. The Dallows also had a second glasshouse in the vicinity; there was another Glass House Yard north of East Smithfield further west (see p.xx). The Salt Petre Bank glassmaking premises passed to Richard Russell, senior then junior, and their partners in the mid to late eighteenth century. A large house on the west side of Well Street with at least one ornamental ceiling, which had probably pertained to the Dallows, was insured in 1768 by the elder Russell who also held several local pubs (the Horse and Horseshoe, the Black Boy, and the Black Horse, see below), and other local property.

Well Street was formed as such as part of the Well Close (Marine Square) development led by Nicholas Barbon. In leases of 1683 the whole of its west side went to John Hinde, a goldsmith banker, and the east side was divided between Hinde, Felix Calvert (Calverd), a brewer, and John Wilson. Among numerous sub-leases William Prideaux, an associate of Barbon’s, took more than a dozen house plots that were generally 16ft wide. The east side was soon mostly built up, and four two-storey houses of this period survived into the 1960s as 21–27 Ensign Street. The west side, where glassmaking continued, stayed mostly open except at its north end. Loades Court, north of the glasshouse on the Sailors’ Home site, was a late seventeenth-century development of six houses. Henry Loades senior died in 1696, his son Dr Henry Loades, a physician, in 1698 when the estate was divided among heirs. By the 1770s John Ekins, treasurer at the Royal Exchange Assurance Office, had control of the property, subsequently held in trust by John Webster followed by Thomas Webster.1

There were many other courts and alleys. On the Loades estate off the west side of Salt Petre Bank, and beyond a large skittle ground set back from the Rosemary Lane junction, there was, from north to south and connecting to White’s Yard (later Glasshouse Street then John Fisher Street): Half Moon Court (gone by the 1790s); Hog Yard (later Shorter’s Rents then Flank Street) leading with a northerly dogleg to Cherubin/m Court; and Black Boy Court. Carpenters Yard ran south off what was the east end of Rosemary Lane, now the west end of Cable Street, and was also gone by the 1790s. Numerous small houses included some back-to-back groups. Some small timber houses stood on the east side of what had been Salt Petre Bank until the 1840s. Inhabitants were generally poor. From the mid 1680s a watch house stood at Well Street’s junction with what became Cable Street. That too had gone by the 1790s.

From at least the 1690s there was a brewery midway along the west side of Salt Petre Bank, north of the Black Boy and its eponymous court. Salt Petre Bank’s other public houses were the Black Lion, the Cart and Horses, and the Two Pots, all there by 1730 and soon joined by the King of Prussia near Rosemary Lane. There was also the Horse (later Horns) and Horseshoe on Rosemary Lane’s south side where it met Cable Street, the Black Horse on Well Street’s west side, and, by the end of the century, the Royal Standard opposite on the south side of Graces Alley. The Salt Petre Bank brewery was held by James Stutter by 1776 and then leased for 60 years in 1802 to Anthony Calvert of the Wapping- based victuallers, Camden, Calvert and King, who intended but did not carry out redevelopment.2

There was a sugarhouse on Salt Petre Bank from the 1720s, possibly on the site on the west side that pertained to Thomas Hodgson from about 1830. It passed through many hands including those of Daniel Austin from 1798. In about 1752 John Arney established another sugarhouse on the east side of Well Street, with premises extending back to Wellclose Square. His son Scheve Arney was succeeded here by Ludwig Witte in 1800 and the building was enlarged around 1810. John Wagener enlarged again, to the northeast, in the 1850s, with Charles Dyson as his architect. Sugar refining ceased here in the early 1870s.3

Carsten Dirs and Major Rohde were refining sugar elsewhere on Well Street in the 1760s and 70s (possibly further south), then Diederich Wackerbarth and Samuel Maud had a seven-storey sugarhouse from the 1780s to about 1815 on what had been Glass House Hill, part of the site that is now 18 Ensign Street. Around 1801 three more substantial sugar houses were built all but in a row on the east side of Salt Petre Bank replacing houses near its north end. Sixty- one year Loades estate leases went to Maud, J. S. Meyer, and Smith, Suhrsen & Austin. These buildings were cleared in the 1840s. Land to the south between Salt Petre Bank and Well Street was open as a deal yard, leased to James Nowlan in 1801.4


  1. Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), P/MMD/1/1–7; P/MMD/2/2; P/SLC/1/17/37–9; P/LEL/1/1: The National Archives (TNA), E179/143/370, f.35v; PROB11/435/326; PROB11/445/52: London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/337/516926; MS11936/321/491470; Land Tax returns (LT): John M. Sims, ‘The Trust Lands of the Fire Office’, Guildhall Miscellany, vol. 4/no. 2, April 1972, pp. 98,109,111: William Morgan, London etc Actually Survey'd, 1682: Rocque's map, 1746: Historic England Archives, RCHM inventory card, 1928: Charles Hutton et al (eds), The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. 2, 1809, p. 561: Derek Morris and Ken Cozens, Wapping 1600–1800, 2009, pp. 140–1 

  2. LMA, MR/LV/05/026; LT: TNA, WO55/1776: THLHLA, P/MMD/1/2–7; P/MMD/2/1–2: Morgan: Rocque: Horwood's map, 1799 and 1813: Morris and Cozens, Wapping, pp. 52–55 

  3. LMA, THCS/214; MBO Plans/440–2; LT: THLHLA, P/FAR/1/3/3/1; P/FAR/1/3/8: Bryan Mawer, surveyoflondon.org/map/feature/1395/detail 

  4. THLHLA, P/MMD/2/1–2; L/THL/J/1/16/13: LMA, THCS/280; LT: Horwood: Mawer, surveyoflondon.org/map/feature/1370/detail/ 

Well Street's theatres (demolished)
Contributed by Survey of London on March 1, 2019

In the late Georgian period large theatres enhanced and dominated the west side of Well Street. Theirs is an ill-starred history. The Royalty Theatre was built in 1785–7 replacing Loades Court, immediately north of and no doubt (against depiction) overshadowed by Maud’s seven-storey sugarhouse. John Palmer (1744–98), an actor known as ‘Plausible Jack’ who had a flourishing career at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, had decided to run his own company and open a new theatre in east London along the lines of Sadler’s Wells. He planned this with the Rev. William Jackson, the politically mutable editor of the Morning Post. Palmer obtained a licence for music and dancing from the authorities of the Tower Liberty at the Court House in Wellclose Square, having first petitioned and gained some kind of approbation from Charles (Lord) Cornwallis, the Constable of the Tower. Resort to this jurisdiction was an attempt to bypass legislation that confined stage-plays to the West End’s patent theatres. It explains the otherwise improbable siting of the theatre. Magistracy’s role in the project was not mere passive consent. It was James Robinson, a Tower Hamlets magistrate living on the New Road in the parish of St George in the East, who agreed a 300-year lease of the Well Street property with John Ekins and others in September 1785, undertaking to spend £1,000 within two years on a substantial building. This was executed in November 1788 and backdated to March 1786, taking into account Robinson’s expenditure building the theatre that was tenanted by Palmer. Robinson was at this point in league with Daniel Williams, a Tower Liberty magistrate known to have been a ‘trading’ (corrupt) justice.

All involved would have been aware of a history of opposition to attempts to establish theatres in east London. Western monopolists aside, this had been informed by fears associated with the area’s largely working population. The attraction for the promoters was potentially huge audiences, the anticipated solution a site in the Tower Liberty. A generation later the project was characterised as ‘the Quixotic attempt of a celebrated performer to raise his fame and fortune by a bold venture’.1

Palmer claimed to have raised £5,000 by subscription and to have borrowed extensively to meet building costs that he said exceeded £15,000. A foundation stone was laid in December 1785 after a procession from the Wellclose Square Court House and lavish Masonic ritual. It credited John Wilmot as the ‘Architect and Builder’. He was the brother of David (Davy) Wilmot, another notoriously corrupt Tower Hamlets magistrate. The Wilmot brothers had earlier been partners as Bethnal Green builders, and were responsible for much poor- quality housing in that area. John Wilmot had been appointed a district surveyor, to enforce the Building Act of 1774 in Bethnal Green, a position no doubt gained through his brother’s influence. Working with Wilmot as the theatre’s ‘surveyor’ was John Robinson, the London Hospital’s surveyor who lived on Wellclose Square, and who was doubtless related to James Robinson. Cornelius Dixon was the Royalty Theatre’s scene-painter, seemingly responsible for décor more generally in what was praised as an impressive interior.2

The Royalty Theatre was a surprisingly substantial building given its location and fragile grounding. Behind a scarcely embellished, even severe, three- storey nine-bay brick façade there was a spacious and elegantly finished auditorium with a capacity of 2,594; by way of comparison, Henry Holland’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane of 1791–4, the largest theatre in Europe, had seating for 3,919. The Royalty was hailed as being on a par with the great West End houses, its semi-circular balconies ‘infinitely superior’, its stage larger than that of Covent Garden’s Opera House. A rich decorative scheme, finished with red and gold, had Doric and Composite orders rising to third-tier columns ‘not within any of the architectonic orders, but of the fancy kind’.3

The Royalty Theatre opened on 20 June 1787 with _As You Like It _as a benefit for the London Hospital. Managers of the West End’s patent houses led by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, under whose management Palmer had acted at Drury Lane, immediately undermined the place. They had gained the support of the Lord Chamberlain in deeming Palmer’s licence ineffectual. This deterred well- known performers from taking up engagements. A prevailing view that the theatre was illegal stymied Palmer and Jackson from staging further plays, despite strong local support. Varieties were staged, but performers and Tower Hamlets magistrates were prosecuted, James Robinson charged with having acted corruptly. From February 1788 the theatre was shut for long periods. Palmer spent a spell in debtors’ prison in 1789, turned his back on the Royalty and died on stage in 1798. Jackson fled to France from where he returned in 1794 as a spy with a mission to foment revolution. Caught and convicted, he committed suicide in 1795, dying in the dock of the King’s Bench. James Robinson died less spectacularly in 1799.

The theatre saw intermittent use through the war years for pantomimes and the like, including by Philip Astley who also staged an exhibition of ‘hydraulics’ at the beginning of 1804, probably anticipating Sadler’s Wells’s ‘aquatic theatre’. The establishment was criticised as a magnet for prostitutes and thieves. Daniel Williams, now the senior magistrate at the Whitechapel Police Office, had changed horses. He wrote in 1802 to oppose an application for renewal of the Tower Liberty licence, stating ‘that the allurements held out by the Performances at that Theatre, to the Workmen and Servants of the numerous Manufacturers in that Neighbourhood, may induce them to live in habits of dissipation and profligacy, become idle and disorderly and in consequence may be tempted to rob their Employers: when also the immense number of Sailors returned in consequence of Peace and resident near that situation and the Laborers employed in the New Docks are considered as the probable Audiences of that Theatre, the Publick Peace stands in great danger of being frequently interrupted’.4

In 1814 Joseph Vickers built the East London Gas Works in a small yard between sugarhouses immediately west of the theatre’s north end. He soon took on the theatre as well, and, opposition having softened, opened it as the East London Theatre. From 5 August 1816 the theatre was lit by gas, including the stage in what has been claimed as a world first. Staging comic operas and the like, it became a ‘fashionable lounge’.5

Here Clarkson Stansfield, who had been a seaman, found work as a scene-painter until 1819. In that year Joseph Glossop, proprietor of the Royal Coburg Theatre (later the Old Vic), took on the management and had the interior thoroughly remodelled, probably to designs by one T. Cooper, an architect. The whole property was sold to the Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company and Glossop relaunched the theatre as the Royalty in 1821, opening with The Sailor’s Frolic. He departed a year later and his associate James Dunn carried on as proprietor, only to face ruin when the theatre and the gas works were destroyed by fire on 10 April 1826 after, it was said, stage lights were left improperly extinguished.6

Jacob Schlenker, a Dock Street sugar refiner, took a 35-year lease of the theatre and gasworks sites in 1827, with the gasometer still standing. The remains of the theatre, which had been to some extent insured, was quickly transferred to David Samson Maurice, a Fenchurch Street printer who lived on Prescot Street, and John Carruthers, a Bishopsgate Street tea dealer, though bankruptcy proceedings had been launched against Carruthers in 1826.7 Maurice and Carruthers rebuilt ambitiously and far more grandly, with architectural sophistication and innovative iron construction. The Royal Brunswick Theatre (sometimes New Brunswick Theatre) was begun in August 1827 and opened, remarkably quickly, on 25 February 1828. Three days later its iron-framed roof failed and the whole building collapsed catastrophically during a morning rehearsal causing thirteen deaths, including that of Maurice, and widespread horror. The architect had been Thomas Stedman Whitwell, who had worked around 1811 at the nearby London Docks, where the structurally innovative architect Daniel Asher Alexander had been in charge. Whitwell then established a practice in the Midlands before returning to London. His career was effectively ruined by the theatre’s collapse, for which he was held responsible, though he blamed it on the suspension of heavy machinery from tie beams. Philip Hardwick, architect at the neighbouring St Katharine’s Docks, then building, was reportedly the first on the scene of the disaster to take responsibility for the rescue operation.

Whitwell’s façade had taken inspiration from that of the Teatro di San Carlo opera house in Naples. Without space for a portico, he set seven entrance bays in a rusticated ground-level basement under a continuous balcony to a piano nobile. The five central upper-storey bays had a Giant Order pilastrade, the capitals of which bore theatrical masks, the pilasters linked by a bronze treillage screen. Channelled rustication to the outer bays rose to friezes supporting a shallow arch in a pedimental gable, the arch flanked by low- relief representations of literature and painting. The stage was to the south, and the auditorium was laid out on elegantly curved lines with two circles and a gallery. There was a capacity of 2,000. Fire-resistant construction had been pursued, with the roof reported as being of wrought iron. Given the date and the collapse, cast iron seems more likely. Before it failed, this roof ‘excited general notice from its lightness and ingenious construction’.8 All that survives is a row of (listed) cast-iron bollards with crowned ‘RBT’ monograms on the Ensign Street pavement. That said, the parti of the Royal Brunswick Theatre had a clear influence on the building that succeeded it on the site.


  1. Robert Wilkinson, Londina Illustrata, vol. 2, 1825, p. 299: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive (THLHLA), P/LEL/1/1 and P/MMD/2/1–2: The National Archives (TNA), PRO30/55/87/107: Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 56, pt 1, March 1786, p. 224: The World, 3 Dec 1787: _Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) _for Palmer and Jackson 

  2. Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 56, pt 1, Jan 1786, p. 74: The Times, 9 May 1787, p. 4: TNA, PRO30/55/87/107: Wilkinson, pp. 299–300: London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), MR/B/SM/013: H. M. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of English Architects, 1660–1840, _4th edn, 2004, p. 305: Julian Woodford, _The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, the Godfather of Regency London, 2016, pp. 19,37,83 

  3. T__he Times, 9 May 1787, p. 4: THLHLA, cuttings 795.1: ed. F. H. W. Sheppard, Survey of London, vol. 35: The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 1970, p. 52 

  4. The Diary, 23 May 1789: Morning Post, 10 Jan 1804: TNA, HO42/66/111, ff. 317–8; HO42/21/99, f. 232; PRO30/55/87/107; PROB11/1319/148: LMA, MJ/SP/1787/07/111: THLHLA, cuttings 795.1: M. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century, 1925 (edn 1964), pp. 287–8, 395–6: Copartnership Herald, vol. 4/39, May 1934: _ODNB _for Palmer and Jackson: Julian Woodford, ‘At the Royalty Theatre, Wellclose Square’, Spitalfields Life, 4 Nov. 2016, http://spitalfieldslife.com/2016/11/04/at-the-royalty-theatre-wellclose-sq/ 

  5. Morning Post, 5 Dec 1817: Pieter van der Merwe, ‘A Great Light in the East: Gas and the Wellclose Square Theatre 1816’, paper at the Society for Theatre Research conference on Regency Theatre, Downing College, Cambridge, 29–31 July 2016, see https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/museum-life/guest-post-the- first-gas-lit-stage 

  6. Morning Post, 7 Sept. 1819; 13 Dec 1821: Morning Chronicle, 10 June 1820; 12 April 1826: Clarkson Stansfield 1793–1867, exhibition catalogue, 1979, pp. 14,47: The Drama or Theatrical Pocket Magazine, vol. 1, 1821, pp. 302–3: E. W. Brayley, Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Theatres of London, 1826, pp. 8–82: Colvin, p.270 

  7. John Bull, 11 April 1826: THLHLA, P/MMD/1/8: The Standard, 19 Oct 1827: Ancestry 

  8. Ipswich Journal, 13 Oct 1827: Morning Post, 23 Aug 1827: Morning Chronicle, 29 Feb and 1 March 1828: Portfolio of Amusement and Instruction, 1 March 1828, pp. 145–60: The Mirror, 8 March 1828: G. C. Smith, A Narrative of the Falling of the Brunswick Theatre, 1828: LMA, SC/SS/07/024/297–8; SC/PZ/ST/01/186: Colvin, p. 1047 

A Friendly Place
Contributed by David Charnick on May 22, 2018

In his Notes on Life and Letters of 1921, the author and former merchant seaman Joseph Conrad reflects on his experiences of the Brunswick Maritime Establishment and Sailors' Home, which he knew between 1878 and 1894. He calls it the Well Street Home (Well Street being the former name for Ensign Street, where the Home's much-altered original frontage still stands). Conrad refers to the Home as 'a friendly place':

'I have listened to the talk on the decks of ships in all latitudes, when its name would turn up frequently, and if I had to characterise its good work in one sentence, I would say that, for seamen, the Well Street Home was a friendly place. It was essentially just that; quietly, unobtrusively, with a regard for the independence of the men who sought its shelter ashore, and with no ulterior aims behind that effective friendliness. No small merit this. And its claim on the generosity of the public is derived from a long record of valuable service.'

When I lived in the sailors' home... and a few broken plates
Contributed by Norbert_Lanfranco on Aug. 2, 2017

I lived in the sailor home, Dock St, in '57, moved to the Hearts of Oak pub, Dock St. In Ensign St, corner of the Highway, my landlord was a Maltese man, Mr Sapiro... when drunk he used to throw plates and pots out the first-floor window into the Highway. I hope it brings you a bit of history!

Photograph of bollards marking site of Royal Brunswick Theatre, 1964
Contributed by Survey of London on Dec. 19, 2016

These iron bollards, which survive, are marked RBT for Royal Brunswick Theatre, which stood, briefly (1828), on the west side of Ensign Street (then Well Street). Like its predecessor, the Royalty Theatre (1787-1826) it was destroyed by fire. The image is a digitised colour slide from the Tower Hamlets Archives collection:

https://twitter.com/LBTHArchives/status/761853569037398016

The Sailors' Home to 1862
Contributed by Survey of London on March 1, 2019

The Sailors’ Home, also known at first as the Brunswick Maritime Establishment, was built on the site of the Royal Brunswick Theatre in 1830–5 with Philip Hardwick as its architect. Enlarged to Dock Street in 1863–5, substantially altered in 1911–12, rebuilt on the Dock Street side in 1954­­–7, adapted to be a hostel for the homeless in 1976–8, and again converted to be a youth hostel in 2012–14, this has been, mutatis mutandis, a major local presence for nearly two centuries, all the while used as a hostel. As the first purpose-built short-stay hostel for sailors anywhere, it represented in its original form the invention of a building type, the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich notwithstanding. It was to have seminal influence on the development of lodging-house architecture.

The prevalence of sailors in east London’s riverside districts was not new at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but populations did increase and living conditions declined. The new wet-dock system meant sailors had to leave their ships immediately without ready access to land-based employment, as there had been previously. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 left an estimated 100,000 seamen redundant from the Royal Navy. The Rev. George Charles ‘Boatswain’ Smith (1782–1863) came to the fore in addressing the lot of these sailors through evangelism. A seafarer himself in his teens who had served with distinction under Nelson in the battle of Copenhagen, Smith had become a Baptist missionary. He established a floating sanctuary on a remodelled sloop in the Thames off Wapping Stairs in 1818, and the British and Foreign Seamen’s Friend Society and Bethel Union in 1819. He then took the former Danish Church in Wellclose Square in 1825 for use as a Mariners’ Church. In the same year Anglicans established the London Episcopal Floating Church Society, which acquired another ship for seamen to use for worship. Smith, a witness to extreme poverty and deprivation in and around Wellclose Square, was next instrumental in establishing an asylum for destitute sailors in a warehouse in Dock Street, which opened in January 1828. He was in addition a pioneering advocate of temperance.1

Paid upon coming ashore, sailors, both naval and mercantile, were prey to exploitation and theft by boarding-house and brothel keepers and others, a practice known as ‘crimping’ that was widespread and generally tolerated. Smith was determined to force reforms and had tried to introduce a system of approved boarding houses as used in other ports. In his eyes the Royal Brunswick Theatre and its predecessor had been a haven for crimping. The collapse presented an opportunity. In September 1828, just six months on from the disaster, Smith convened a meeting on the site with a view to raising there ‘a General Receiving and Shipping Depot for Mariners’.2  This was to be a religious mission, aiming at moral reform through reducing the influence of prostitution and drink. As such it was a late example of the Georgian impulse to ‘improvement’ and control through institutional architecture. Alongside Smith were Captains Robert and George Cornish Gambier, RN, brothers and nephews of Admiral James Gambier, himself an evangelical, and Capt. Robert James Elliot, RN, who was also a topographical artist. George Gambier was the Secretary of the London Episcopal Floating Church Society and he and Elliot were directors of the Destitute Sailors’ Asylum. A committee was formed tasked with acquiring the ground from the creditors of Maurice and Carruthers. The Sailors’ Home or Brunswick Maritime Establishment, so-called, launched appeals in early 1829, aiming to unite ‘the Regularities of social Order with the moral Decencies of Life, the Principles of Christian Loyalty, and the Duties of Religion.’3

Within the year eminent naval and other figures had been recruited to promote fund-raising (first trustees included William Wilberforce) and the freehold of the site was obtained. But Smith, an uncompromising and combative character, fell out with George Gambier, the Treasurer, over the latter’s unworldly sympathies for Henry Irving’s radical Nonconformity that led him to leave fund-raising to faith. Smith stepped down as Secretary and set up a rival Sailors’ Rest project leading other Dissenters to withdraw support for the Home. Elliot took charge as the Home’s Secretary, contributed more than £1,000 of his own money, and steered the project into Anglican safety, securing the patronage of the Bishop of London, Charles James Blomfield. Hardwick was engaged and on 10 June 1830 Elliot laid a foundation stone. Hardwick conceived the project in stages, to be built gradually as funds became available, ultimately to provide space for 500 men, each with their own cabin or sleeping place. Progress was slow. By the end of 1831 a brick carcase had been raised and roofed, but there things stalled for want of money, in part because of Smith’s rival project, which collapsed in 1832, and another short-lived competitor on Well Street opened by the Destitute Sailors’ Asylum, but abandoned in 1833. There was also an enforced diversion into the forming of a sewer extending beyond the site. Basement vaults and other main internal structures were formed in late 1833, and the Home opened on 1 May 1835 with accommodation for 100 men on its lower levels, and more than £2,000 still needed for completion. The first sailors admitted were the crew of an American ship in St Katharine’s Docks. A peaceful atmosphere introduced by the ‘sobriety and steadiness’ of these ‘temperance men’ was broken a few days later by the arrival of English sailors, coming from India and bringing ‘intoxication, swaggering and noise’.4

The Sailors’ Home was originally a three-storey, basement and attic brick building facing Well Street. Stucco dressings included channelled rustication to the ground floor, as survives. This and the bay rhythm of the façade were retained from the theatre, it is possible even that the lower-storey wall to Well Street was not wholly rebuilt. Hardwick connected the outer bays with a portico of large cast-iron Doric columns similar to those he had placed at St Katharine’s Docks. The south end of the building was replaced in 1893–4, an additional floor was inserted in 1911–12, and the columns were removed in 1952.

The basement had a kitchen to the north and baggage stores for sailors’ chests and bedding to the south, central vaults being for general storage and domestic offices. The main central space at ground-floor level was a waiting hall open to all seamen. It had a York stone-flagged floor with a grid of nine tall cast-iron columns. The floor and columns are both still partly extant, but concealed. This hall was also used for assemblies and worship, and had small box offices for payment and registration, where the men’s ‘characters’ were recorded. Flanking dormitories named ‘Bombay’ (north) and ‘Calcutta’ (south) had two tiers of cabins either side of passages with rows of lavatories at one end. The cabins, each about 8ft long, 5ft wide and 7ft high (2.5m x 1.5m x 2.2m), probably drew on the precedent of Greenwich Hospital’s accommodation for naval pensioners. On the originally comparably tall first floor a central dining and reading hall had a similar array of columns and was flanked by two more double-tiered dormitories (‘Canton’ north and ‘Madras’ south). Upper floors were initially used for a school, lecture room and museum of ship models and curiosities. As inmate numbers grew in 1842–8 the outer upper-storey rooms were gradually fitted up as single-tier dormitories, dedicated in honour of donations as ‘Royal Adelaide’, ‘City of London’, ‘City of Edinburgh’ and ‘Sydney’, increasing the Home’s capacity to 328. The central second-floor room remained divided as a navigation school and a boardroom containing the museum. There was provision for a small savings’ bank, a shipping office (to get sailors placed on vessels), a library and a chaplain. A single bath was introduced in 1845. The Home also employed outdoor agents or runners to outmanoeuvre crimps and bring sailors from their ships.5

Henry Mayhew, in a full description that was not uncritical of the Home’s management, noted in 1850 that seamen addressed the institution’s officers as friends not as superiors, and recorded a testimony from one among them that ‘the steadiest-going seamen will always speak well of the Sailors’ Home’.6 Henry Roberts, closely familiar with the Home having acted as its architect in the 1840s when he was also the first architect of the pioneering Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes and responsible for model lodging houses, later acknowledged that the Sailors’ Home ‘must in some respects be considered the prototype of the improved lodging-houses.’7  The Home’s achievements notwithstanding, its Chaplain, the Rev. Robert Hall Baynes, worried in 1858 that ‘the neighbourhood abounds in gin-palaces and prostitutes, the latter to a fearful extent.’ 8

Annual numbers of boarders rose from 528 in the first year to 1,263 in the third, 2,183 in 1840 and 3,833 in 1842. Steady increases continued, to 5,544 in 1853 and 8,617 in 1861. Most of the sailors were of British or North American origin, but not all. By 1862 there had been 544 boarders from Africa.9

The land and the gas house behind the Sailors’ Home had been leased in 1842 with a view to possible extension, even before the formation of Dock Street and the building there of St Paul’s Church. It was used as a skittle ground. Part of the new Dock Street frontage was secured in 1854 and the notion of enlargement was revived as inmate numbers continued to increase. The freehold of another northerly frontage on Dock Street frontage was acquired in 1859, but more southerly ground proved slower to obtain, a lease not being secured until June 1862 – the freehold was purchased in 1889.10


  1. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) for Smith: Roald Kverndal, Seamen’s Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth, a Contribution to the History of the Church Maritime, 1986, passim 

  2. Morning Post, 11 Sept 1828 

  3. Newcastle Courant, 28 Feb 1829: The Times, 1 May 1829: _ODNB _for Elliot: Kverndal, pp. 92–3, 325–33 

  4. National Maritime Museum (NMM), SAH/60/2–3: Morning Chronicle, 11 June 1830: Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 6 May 1835: Kverndal, pp. 332–40 

  5. NMM, SAH/1/1, pp. 159,165,280,296; SAH/1/13, p. 4; SAH/60/2–3; SAH/60/10: The Builder, 4 Oct. 1862, p. 708: Historic England Archives, 3583/29–49 

  6. Morning Chronicle, 11 and 19 April and 2 May 1850 

  7. Henry Roberts, The Dwellings of the Labouring Classes, 1867 edn, p. 15 

  8. Lambeth Palace Library, Tait 440/433 

  9. NMM, SAH/1/4; SAH/60/2 

  10. NMM, SAH/1/1, pp. 44,233; SAH/1/4, pp. 21,250–2,291,467; SAH/1/7, pp. 362,391; SAH/60/10: The National Archives, WORK6/145/9 

The Sailors' Home from 1862, with hostel conversions (1976–8 and 2012–14)
Contributed by Survey of London on March 1, 2019

In late 1862 a building committee took the Sailors' Home's extension plan forward and Edward Ledger Bracebridge, a Poplar-based architect personally known to Lord Henry Cholmondeley, the committee’s Chairman, was appointed with a brief to design a new block facing Dock Street and to reconfigure the 1830s building. The Rev. Dan Greatorex, newly appointed Chaplain and a member of the committee, objected to Bracebridge’s first scheme on account of its impact on light to his house, immediately to the south on Dock Street. A significantly more expensive amended scheme (first estimated at £8,000 as against £5,500) was approved and built in 1863–5, with James Mugford Macey as builder for a contract sum of £10,626. Thomas Wayland Fletcher was the Clerk of Works. Lord Viscount Palmerston laid the foundation stone on 4 August 1863 and the Prince of Wales opened the building on 22 May 1865. A commemorative stone plaque bearing that information is still to be found facing the hostel’s internal courtyard where it was moved, recut, in 1956.

In the earlier block’s basement, the kitchen was enlarged and a scullery replaced a staircase that had risen through the main halls, now opened up by the removal of ancillary functions to the new block and the placing of an open-well stone fireproof staircase in a linking range. The original central upper-storey spaces were adapted to be more dormitories. The outwardly Gothic and polychrome Dock Street building’s basement had a room for the navigation school, a recreation room, two baths and service rooms. The ground floor had offices to the front, including the seamen’s savings’ bank, with waiting halls to the rear, the first floor a boardroom and officers’ mess room to the north, and a library and recreation hall to the south. The two upper storeys were laid out as a single room, the Admiral Sir Henry Hope Dormitory (Hope, who died in 1863, had been the Home’s Chairman from 1851). This extraordinary space comprised four galleried tiers of sleeping berths or cabins (108 in all) to east and west of an atrium open to the roof with south-end staircases. The gain in accommodation was 160 berths for an overall capacity of 502. Behind the new block a basement-level courtyard gave access to an enclosed skittle alley abutting the earlier building’s northwest corner. A range of water closets ran alongside another yard behind the vicarage.1

In 1874–5 the single-storey skittle alley was reconstructed, extended to the south and raised to be a three-storey and basement range (which survives) to provide an additional dormitory for ships’ mates and space for a clothing store, sales of clothing from the Home having increased since their introduction in 1868. John Hudson and John Jacobs, both of Leman Street, were architect and builder respectively. The same men combined to give the 1830s building an additional attic dormitory in 1876. A drinking fountain still in situ near the northwest corner of what was the main waiting hall is surmounted by an inscribed plaque recording a benefaction of 1873 from William McNeil, a formerly resident seaman. There is also documentation of a drinking fountain given by John Kemp Welsh in 1875. Thereafter an Officers’ Smoking Room went up on the north side of the yard.2

By this time there were many other hostels for sailors, but the Sailors’ Home was the parent exemplar. Outside, crimping was still prevalent, and the Home was drawing more than 10,000 boarders annually. Ale was served, but there was no bar. It remained a Christian foundation, but not zealously so, aiming to ‘encourage habits of decorum, economy, and self-cultivation, and to contribute in educating {seamen} as missionaries of Commerce to the ends of the earth’.3 Between 1879 and 1884 Joseph Conrad (Jozef Korzeniowski) stayed several times at the Home and studied in its navigation school. Conrad called the Home a ‘friendly place’, ‘quietly unobtrusively, with a regard for the independence of the men who sought its shelter ashore, and with no ulterior aims behind that effective friendliness.’4

Educational provision was reshaped in 1893 in collaboration with the London County Council, which had a new role overseeing technical schools, to create the London Nautical School and the London School of Nautical Cookery, to train cooks for the merchant navy. After the Merchant Shipping Act of 1906 made certified cooks compulsory, Lloyd George reopened the enlarged cookery school in 1907.5

The Black Horse public house, originally at what became 10 Well Street, had been extended around 1860 with premises immediately north of the Home’s Dock Street site. George Edward Rose was the proprietor (it was later the Rose Tavern), and Frederick Robert Beeston was probably his architect. The Home acquired this on a long lease in 1895 for conversion to a cartage depot after the Mercantile Marine Office on Well Street had displaced the establishment’s earlier stable yard and the original building’s south range.6

That sacrifice had reduced the Home’s capacity to 300, a limit that had further to be reduced to 200 following a threat of closure in 1910 when the LCC stipulated improvements to the original dormitories, in particular for the provision of light. An appeal for funds was launched and Murray, Delves & Murray, architects (Stanley Delves, job architect) prepared plans for works carried out in 1911–12 by Harris and Wardrop, builders. These involved the insertion of an additional floor in the Well Street block with internal reconstruction to form a light-well above the ground-floor waiting hall, which gained a skylight and was now designated ‘the Lounge’. Structural steel carried down to the basement. The dining hall moved to the ground floor of the north range and the cookery school to the skylit attic (until the 1930s when it moved to the basement). Bars and a first-floor chapel were introduced and the navigation school soon departed. All the sleeping cabins were now on the upper storeys. No. 14 Well Street was acquired and demolished to permit the formation of windows in the Home’s north flank wall, which was faced with channelled rusticated render. External fire-escape staircases were also added. Following this reconfiguration the establishment rebranded itself, incorporating as the Sailors’ Home and Red Ensign Club in 1912.7

Despite the reduced berths, the numbers of boarders continued to average more than 10,000 a year. By 1919 the Home had admitted a total of 639,005 sailors, 336,088 of them English, 51,388 from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, 18,500 from Germany, 11,376 from Russia, 2,483 from the ‘Cape and Mauritius’, 1,154 from West Africa, 7,958 from the West Indies, 2,523 from the East Indies, 1,914 from South America, and 1,387 from China and Japan. After this the origins of the sailors were no longer recorded in annual reports.8

Numerous minor alterations were carried out in the 1930s, including conversion and refenestration of the clothing store for staff cabins in 1931 to raise capacity to 235. More than 20,000 were boarded in 1933, usage that was sustained after the war when the merchant navy reserve pool was introduced, bringing seamen greater security of employment. Additional accommodation being needed, the Home’s architect, Colin H. Murray of Murray, Delves, Murray & Atkins, advised a comprehensive approach in 1937 and was asked to prepare plans for complete rebuilding. War meant postponement, but Murray did advance a scheme for rebuilding the Dock Street building in 1942.9

By 1945 Murray was working with Brian O’Rorke on a more ambitious phased project for the replacement of the whole complex (now simply called the Red Ensign Club). This envisaged three slab blocks laid out on an offset H plan to make best use of the two street frontages, rising at the centre to twelve storeys for a total 307 bedrooms (no longer called cabins) above lower-level common spaces. London County Council approval was secured, but in the post-war years building licences were not forthcoming. O’Rorke (1901–74), New Zealand born, had come to notice in placing joint third in the competition to design the RIBA’s headquarters and gone on to build a reputation for designing passenger-ship interiors. In 1946 he succeeded Edwin Lutyens as architect for the National Theatre, for which his designs remained unbuilt. He took over as architect for the new Club, leaving Murray, Delves, Murray & Atkins in charge of maintaining the existing buildings. Wells, Cocking and Weston were appointed consulting engineers, Ian Cocking in the lead. Commander A. E. Loder (Secretary and Chief Steward) and Commander A. Westbury Preston were key inside figures in seeing through the rebuilding project, as was Rear Admiral Sir David Lambert as Chairman in the early 1950s.

Ambitions grew, with 6–10 Ensign Street to be acquired for demolition to square off the site, and brief hopes that the Church Commissioners would permit building above St Paul’s Vicarage. But costs kept rising with inflation and a diminishing number of boarders gave rise to concern in 1949 that expansion was no longer warranted. O’Rorke scaled down the plans by two storeys, and a licence for the first phase was granted in 1950. A new problem arose when the Merchant Navy Welfare Board was unable after all to contribute funds. With a shortfall of £35,000 of an estimated £275,000, and costs still rising, in 1951 O’Rorke suggested rebuilding the Dock Street range with the taller central block to its rear for £160,000 to prevent further delay. This was agreed and Charles Price Ltd (led by Kenneth Price) was given the contract for the new building for £179,488 in March 1952. First Hardwick’s Ensign Street block was re-modernised, to plans by Murray with R. Mansell as contractor. A staircase was inserted in the northeast corner of the ground- floor lounge, which was otherwise laid out with a billiard table and a ‘television set’. The Dock Street rebuilding ensued from 1954 and was completed in 1957 for a final cost of £218,400. Even so, the central block had also had to be abandoned, the new capacity was just 240 and there was a deficit of £63,000.10

O’Rorke’s building has six storeys and a setback attic, a steel frame and reinforced-concrete floors, metal windows and copper roof covering. Above curtain-wall glazing for the façade of the two lower storeys that housed communal spaces, it is brown-brick clad. The flat-faced Modernism is herbivorous yet stark. A lighter touch was introduced in the intertwined rope- pattern ironwork of the first-floor balconettes. A lift motor-room tower rising above the southeast staircase was a remnant of the centre-block plan. There had been disagreements as to the relative size of cabins (still, after all, so-called) for seamen and officers. The hierarchical view prevailed and it was 1966 before washbasins were installed in each room. The former pub and cartage depot to the north on Dock Street was demolished for yard access, and 8–10 Ensign Street came down in 1954 for a contractor’s site and then a car park.

Following the closure of the London and St Katharine’s Docks in 1968–9 and continuing financial difficulties the Red Ensign Club closed at the end of 1974. Hostel use was quickly re-established, the buildings being converted in 1976–8 for the Look Ahead Housing Association Ltd (Beacon Hostels), founded in 1973 by Mary Jones, a retired civil servant. The complex became a hostel for single homeless men, with the London School of Nautical Cookery carrying on in the basement. Christopher Beaver Associates were architects for the conversion, Finchley Builders and then J. W. Falkner & Sons Ltd, carried out the work in phases. Capacity at what came to be called the Aldgate Hostel (sometimes Beacon House) shrank from 180 to 150 beds. Many of those housed were construction workers and there was also use as a halfway house for men released from prison. By 2012 Look Ahead had closed this and all its other large ‘industrial-era’ hostels to shift to smaller specialist services.

Another conversion was carried out in 2012–14, the property having been acquired by Michael Sherley-Dale, whose residential property company, JMS Estates (IOM) Ltd, leased the premises to Wombat’s Hostels. This firm, founded by Marcus Praschinger and Sascha Dimitriewicz with a name deriving from the genesis of the business in their travels in Australia, had opened its first youth or backpacker hostel in Vienna in 1999 and gradually expanded across Europe. The refurbishment of the Dock Street–Ensign Street hostel was by Andrew Mulroy architects, with Eastern Corporation as the main contractors, and Peter Thompson as the project manager. In a light-touch approach, little external fabric apart from the entrance doors and canopy was replaced. The middle range of the 1860s was raised by two storeys and its long-since disused staircase was removed. The main internal change was from single bedrooms to dormitories. Wombat's London opened with 618 beds. The vaulted cellar was made a café and bar with exposed brickwork, and the internal courtyard was landscaped as a garden. In 2015 the access road to the north was infilled with a three-storey extension using Moleanos (Portuguese) limestone cladding for the façade. An additional attic bedroom storey on the Ensign Street building was formed in 2018–19, with a two-storey addition to the infill block set to follow on, all designed and overseen by Mulroy and Thompson with Eastern Corporation.11


  1. National Maritime Museum (NMM), SAH/1/5, passim; SAH/1/13, pp.280,283: Historic England Archives, 3583-029–57: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), P/MIS/75: The Builder, 25 April, 18 July, 8 Aug. and 26 Dec. 1863, pp. 303,522,567,919: Illustrated London News, 27 May 1865, p. 505 

  2. NMM, SAH/1/6, pp.418,421,439,493: London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), District Surveyors Returns (DSR): Ordnance Survey map 1894 

  3. Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 24 May 1872 

  4. Joseph Conrad, ‘A Friendly Place’, Notes on Life and Letters, 1912, p. 203: Alston Kennerley, ‘Joseph Conrad at the London Sailors’ Home’, The Conradian, vol. 33, no. 1, spring 2008, pp. 69–102 

  5. LMA, SC/PHL/02/0229; LCC/EO/HFE/05/147: NMM, SAH/57/3 

  6. DSR: The National Archives (TNA), WORK6/144/9; WORK6/145/8; IR58/84823/4099: Post Office Directories 

  7. NMM, SAH/3/2, pp. 1–12: THLHLA, Building Control files 21363, 21689; cuttings 365.1; P16978–82: LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/146: TNA, IR58/4823/4100: DSR 

  8. LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/146 

  9. NMM, SAH/3/2, pp. 71–230: THLHLA, Building Control file 21363: LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/146: DSR 

  10. NMM, SAH/1/12–13, passim; SAH/60/20–22: THLHLA, Building Control file 21363: LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/146; GLC/AR/BR/06/028958 

  11. THLHLA, Building Control file 21363: Tower Hamlets planning applications online: information kindly supplied by Peter Thompson 

1860s Dock Street frontage of the Sailors' Home, c. 1905
Contributed by Aileen Reid

Dock Street hostel from the north-west in 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Dock Street hostel from the west in 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Dock Street hostel with vicarage from the south-west in 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Royal Brunswick Theatre (Front Elevation)
Contributed by David Charnick

1896 - Dock Street Frontage of the Sailors' Home
Contributed by David Charnick

Wombat's, entrance lobby from the south in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Wombat's, entrance lobby north end in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Wombat's, 1950s staircase from the northeast in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Wombat's, internal courtyard from the north in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Wombat's, basement bar with vaults from the 1830s, in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Wombat's, basement bar with vaults from the 1830s, in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Wombat's, basement bar with vaults from the 1830s, in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Wombat's, corridor in 1860s range, view to the west in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Drinking fountain and plaque on wall of former waiting hall
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Wombat's, Ensign Street elevation from the southeast in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall