Many of the original buildings were demolished during the construction of the London Docks and Wapping was further seriously damaged during The Blitz. As the London Docklands declined after the Second World War, the area became run down, with the great warehouses left empty. The area's fortunes were transformed during the 1980s by the London Docklands Development Corporation when the warehouses started to be converted into luxury flats.
The area was first settled by Saxons, from whom it takes its name (meaning literally "[the place of] Wæppa's people"). It developed along the embankment of the Thames, hemmed in by the river to the south and the now-drained Wapping Marsh to the north. This gave it a peculiarly narrow and constricted shape, consisting of little more than the axis of Wapping High Street and some north-south side streets. John Stow, the 16th century historian, described it as a "continual street, or a filthy strait passage, with alleys of small tenements or cottages, built, inhabited by sailors' victuallers".
Wapping's proximity to the river gave it a strong maritime character for centuries, well into the 20th century. It was inhabited by sailors, mastmakers, boat-builders, blockmakers, instrument-makers, victuallers and representatives of all the other trades that supported the seafarer. Wapping was also the site of 'Execution Dock', where pirates and other water-borne criminals faced execution by hanging from a gibbet constructed close to the low water mark. Their bodies would be left dangling until they had been submerged three times by the tide.
The Bell Inn, by execution dock was run by Samuel Batts. His daughter, Elizabeth, married James Cook in 1762 at Barking, after the Royal Navy captain had stayed at the Inn. The couple initially settled in Shadwell, attending St Paul's church, but later moved to Mile End. Although they had six children together, much of their married life was spent with Cook absent on his voyages, and after his murder in 1779 at Kealakekua Bay, she survived until 1835.
The area's strong maritime associations changed radically in the 19th century when the London Docks were built to the north and west of the High Street. Wapping's population plummeted by nearly 60% during the century, with many houses destroyed by the construction of the docks and giant warehouses along the riverfront. Squeezed between the high walls of the docks and warehouses, the district became isolated from the rest of London, although some relief was provided by Brunel's Thames Tunnel to Rotherhithe. The opening of Wapping tube station on the East London Line in 1869 provided a direct rail link to the rest of London.
Wapping was devastated by German bombing in World War II and by the post-war closure of the docks. It remained a run-down and derelict area into the 1980s, when the area was transferred to the management of the London Docklands Development Corporation, a government quango with the task of redeveloping the Docklands. The London Docks were largely filled in and redeveloped with a variety of commercial, light industrial and residential properties.
In 1986, Rupert Murdoch's News International built a new £80m printing and publishing works in the north of Wapping. This became the scene of violent protests after News International's UK operation moved from Fleet Street to Wapping, with over 5,000 print workers being sacked when new technology was introduced.
The plant was nicknamed "Fortress Wapping" when the sacked print workers effectively besieged it, mounting round-the-clock pickets and blockades in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to thwart the move. In 2005, News International announced the intention to move the print works to regional presses based in Broxbourne (the world's largest printing plant, opened March 2008), Liverpool and Glasgow. The editorial staff will remain, however, and there is talk of redeveloping the sizeable plot that makes up the printing works
When the church was hit by a bomb during the Blitz the original interior was destroyed by the fire, but the walls and distinctive "pepper-pot" towers stayed up. In 1964 a modern church interior was constructed inside the existing walls for the active congegration, and a new flat built under each corner tower.
Behind the church lies St George's Gardens, the original cemetery, which was passed to Stepney Council to maintain as a public park in mid-Victorian times.
The "Execution Dock" was located on the Thames. It was used by the Admiralty for over 400 years (as late as 1830) to hang pirates that had been convicted and sentenced to death by the Admiralty court.
The Admiralty only had jurisdiction over crimes on the sea, so the dock was located within their jurisdiction by being located far enough offshore as to be beyond the low-tide mark. It was used to kill the notorious Captain Kidd. Many prisoners would be executed together as a public event in front of a crowd of onlookers after being paraded from the Marshalsea Prison across London Bridge and past the Tower of London to the dock.
Three venerable public houses offer much-needed refreshment after these expeditions, all conveniently located by stairs. By Pelican Stairs is the Prospect of Whitby, which makes the much-disputed claim to be the oldest Thames-side pub still in existence. Be that as it may, there has been an inn on the site since the reign of Henry VIII, and this is certainly one of the most famous pubs in London. The inn is named after a then-famous ship that docked regularly at Wapping. A replica of the old Execution Dock gibbet is maintained on the foreshore next to the pub, though the site of the Execution Dock was nearer the Town of Ramsgate pub at Wapping Old Stairs.
Less well-known, but nonetheless popular, is the Town of Ramsgate, again on the site of a 16th-century inn, located next to Wapping Old Stairs to the west of the Prospect.
Situated half way between the two is the Captain Kidd, named after the Scottish privateer William Kidd. He was hanged on the Wapping foreshore in 1701 after being found guilty of murder and piracy. The public house occupies a 17th century building, but it was only established in the 1980s.
Fictional residents also include Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe, an officer in the British Army during the Napoleonic wars; and Dr. Lemuel Gulliver, the title character of Johnathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, who lives in Wapping at the beginning of the novel before going to sea.
During the 90s Wapping was home to American entertainer Cher.