Geographically, Limehouse is commonly thought by newcomers to be centred on Narrow Street and the Limehouse Basin, whereas it is actually centred co-incidently on Limehouse Town Hall in Commercial Road. It stretches from Limehouse Basin in the West to the edge of the former Chinatown in Pennyfields in the East; and from the River in the South to the Victory Bridge at the junction of Benjonson Road and Rhodeswell Road in the North.
The area gives its name to Limehouse Reach, a lengthy section of the Thames which actually runs all the way from Shadwell, through Ratcliff and then Limehouse and on to Millwall.
Limehouse Basin opened in 1820 as the Regent's Canal Dock. This was an important connection between the Thames and the canal system, where cargoes could be transferred from larger ships to the shallow-draught canal boats. This mix of vessels can still be seen in the basin, canal narrow boats rubbing shoulders with sea-going yachts.
From the Tudor era, until the 20th century, ships crew were employed on a casual basis. New and replacement crew would be found wherever they were available, local sailors being particularly prized for their knowledge of currents and hazards in foreign ports. Crews would be paid off at the end of their voyage. Inevitably, permanent communities became established, including colonies of Lascars and Africans from the Guinea Coast. Large Chinatowns at both in Limehouse and Shadwell developed, associated with the crews of merchantmen in the opium and tea trades, particularly for Han Chinese. The area achieved notoriety for opium dens in the late 19th century, often featured in pulp fiction works by Sax Rohmer and others. Like much of the East End it remained a focus for immigration, but after the devastation of the Second World War many of the Chinese community relocated to Soho.
On 12 February 1832, the first case of cholera was reported in London at Limehouse. First described in India in 1817, it had spread here via Hamburg. Although 800 people died during this epidemic, fewer than had died of tuberculosis in the same year, cholera visited again in 1848 and 1858.
On January 25, 1981 MPs Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, William Rodgers and David Owen made the Limehouse Declaration from Owen's house in Limehouse, which announced the formation of the Council for Social Democracy in opposition to the granting of block votes to the trade unions in the Labour Party to which they had previously belonged. They soon became leading politicians in the Social Democratic Party.
Other notable performances on film include those by Hoagy Carmichael in To Have and Have Not (1946) and by Borrah Minevich and His Harmonica Rascals in One in a Million (1936). The area also appeared in Anna Mae Wong's 1929 film Piccadilly, where as the toughly alluring Shosho, Ms. Wong was said to embody the Limehouse Chinatown mystique.
Captain Christopher Newport lived in Limehouse for several years up until 1595. He rose through the sailing ranks from a poor cabin boy to a wealthy English privateer and eventually one of the Masters of the Royal Navy. He became rich pirating Spanish treasure vessels in the West Indies. In 1607 he sailed the Susan Constant, followed by the Godspeed and Discovery, as Admiral of the Fleet to Jamestown. He helped secure England's foothold in North America through five voyages to Jamestown. He sailed his entire life, dying on a trading voyage to Bantam, on the island of Java in present day Indonesia. His sailing experience in Limehouse made him known as Captain Christopher Newport, of Limehouse, Mariner.
Charles Dickens’ godfather ran his sail making business from Church Row (Newell Street); and James McNeill Whistler and Charles Napier Hemy sketched and painted at locations on Narrow Street's river waterfront. Contemporary residents include the actor Sir Ian McKellen, Matthew Parris, and comedy actress Cleo Rocos, actor Steven Berkoff, comedian Lee Hurst , as well as politician Lord David Owen. Limehouse was also the home of the late film director Sir David Lean.
St Anne's Limehouse was built by Nicholas Hawksmoor. A pyramid originally planned to be put atop the tower now stands in the graveyard. The church is next door to Limehouse Town Hall and close to Limehouse Library, both Grade II listed buildings, the former now used as a community centre. Across the road is the Sailors' Mission, where Situationist International held its conference in 1960. The building subsequently became a run-down hostel for the homeless which became notorious for its squalor, although it has since been converted into a luxury apartment block.
Further to the southwest, Narrow Street, Limehouse's historic spine, which runs along the back of the Thames wharves, boasts one of the few surviving early Georgian terraces in London. Next to the terrace is the historic Grapes pub, rebuilt in 1720 and well-known to Charles Dickens, featuring as the Six Jolly Fellowships in Our Mutual Friend. Almost every building on the other side of Narrow Street was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, including hundreds of houses, the Barley Mow Brewery and a school. One notable exception is a former public House, known locally as 'The House They Left Behind', because it was the only Victorian Terrace to survive. It still stands today, with the aid of three large supporting pillars.
Narrow Street forms a part of the north bank of the Thames Path, the walk is between tall former warehouses and modern flats. Many were built with planning covenants granting river access, but these are now often barred to the public. Vehicular access is limited, as the area is cut off by the entrance to the Limehouse tunnel and parking is strictly controlled, however this makes the area reasonably quiet for cyclists. Public access to the foreshore is prohibited, apparently part of the security arrangements for former Foreign Secretary, David Owen.