Ask most people who know their way around East London where Limehouse Basin is, and they will say that it’s this. It’s marked as such on many maps, and was even referred to as such in newspapers and other documents published in the 19th century.
I’d hesitate to say that these people are wrong, but – formerly – this was not Limehouse Basin, this was the Regent’s Canal Dock. My hesitation is because I am a believer in the natural development of place names and language; formal rules certainly have their uses, but are not mandatory in deciding what something should be called.
However, as we’re being formal for a moment, the piece of water known as Limehouse Basin was not off Narrow Street; it was about half a mile to the east, and connected the West India Import and Export Docks with each other and the Thames.
The main business of the West India Docks was the loading and offloading of ships which were sailing to and from the sea, and which used the eastern entrances to the docks. Limehouse Basin was mostly used by lighters which were passing between the docks and the quays further upriver. These were smaller ships, and at two acres, the basin was much smaller than the Blackwall and South Dock Basins at the eastern end of the West India Docks.
The West India Docks opened in 1802, and Limehouse Basin and the entrance locks were supposed to open in the same year. However, on 13th October 1802:
…a high tide passed over and behind the uncoped south wall and, though 4ft 6in. thick, part of it collapsed. Jessop blamed Walker, claiming that the walls had been laid 22in. lower than he had specified. [Chief Dock Engineer] John Rennie was called in to report on the incident, and in doing so he made extensive criticisms of the work. He stated that the wall should have been thicker and more markedly curved, and that stone bonding-courses should have been used.
Survey of London
The basin was eventually opened in July 1803. At the end of the 19th century, at the other end of the docks, Blackwall Basin was significantly enlarged, and a new impounding system (the system which kept and still maintains the water level) introduced. The Limehouse entrance lock was considered detrimental to the effectiveness of the impounding system, and so it was closed (in 1894).
Survey of London:
…after the Limehouse entrance lock closed in 1894 the basin was little used. It survived as a lay-by for barges and repair of boats, and as a cut between the Import and Export Docks.
The closure of the entrance lock meant that Limehouse Basin lost its original purpose, and in the 1927-1928 the basin:
…was filled in … to save on maintenance and to increase storage ground, using material from the excavations for the Millwall Passage
The following is a later view of the centre of the previous photo, and shows the situation after the basin was filled in, with a truncated section of the entrance lock.
The Observer newspaper on 10th February 1929 saw the filling-in of Limehouse Basin as marking the definitive passing of the age of sailing ships, and described it eloquently thus:
Referred to in the newspaper article is the closed entrance lock at the western end of the basin, with its capstan, and post grooved by decades of sailing ship ropes. Beyond them, a fence to separate the docks from the public road (a section originally known as Bridge Road, later part of Westferry Road).
Visible behind the fence is the distinct shape of the iron swing bridge which crossed the now-redundant entrance lock (the Island had a few bridges of this type). The bridge is highlighted in this photo, in which the form of the filled-in basin can be clearly seen:
The bridge was not demolished until 1949 (possibly WWII got in the way of earlier plans for demolition).
In case you’re curious about where Limehouse Basin was in modern money, the following shows the development over the years. Today, Westferry Circus and other stuff belonging to the Canary Wharf Group is over its site.