For centuries, Limehouse was almost a twin of Rotherhithe on the opposite bank of the Thames. Both were predominately maritime communities, home to prominent seafarers, shipbuilders of war and merchant vessels, ropeworks and allied trades. Their characters began to diverge early in the 19th c, when Rotherhithe with its much greater river frontage, began to be developed by dock companies. Limehouse had the Regent’s Canal Dock, but its hinterland became filled with housing, as London spread to the east.
The Rev. Birch wrote a good narrative history of his parish, not glossing over its social and crime problems. Charles Dickens’ association with the area is explored, notably “Our Mutual Friend”. He does however scotch the popular image, fostered by the like of Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu novels, of Limehouse as a den of oriental vice, opium smoking and gambling. The inhabitants of “Chinatown”, a very small part of Limehouse were generally speaking quiet and law abiding, enjoying strong ties with a similar community in Liverpool.
Birch does go into some detail over one particular anomaly. When St. Anne’s church burned down, it took the initiative of non-conformist members of the Vestry to motivate the parish in fundraising to supplement the insurance money. He later notes a steady decline in church attendance from the 1870s onwards. This book is an interesting read, and hard to find these days. My copy cost £50 in 1994.