The sound of clattering hoofs and heavy wooden wheels with iron bands, screeching and slamming on the cobbles; screaming and yelling; coachmen on carriages and gentlemen in gigs; the odd supercargo among all the auctioneers, procurators, hawkers, tradesmen, clerks, warehousemen, waiters, sailors, packers, porters, dockers, beggars and thieves.
London in the early 1800s – in the neighbourhood around Cutler Street, the treasures from far-away countries, desirable merchandise and magical things, are amassed. The transhipment takes place in Blackwall, by the Thames, downriver from London. The goods are sent on sloops and carried on barges to their final destination.
Since the river was dredged and made navigable up to London in 1806, the ocean-going ships harboured at East India Docks. For the final leg of the journey, the commodities were transported by horse and carriage via Commercial Street up Cutler Street.
‘Hundreds of tons of costly tea, packed in wood by the Cingalee,’ wrote poet John Masefield. Port, spices, silk, oriental rugs, genuine pearls, precious metals, china, lacquer furniture, ivory, tortoise shells and ostrich feathers – everything was kept in the warehouses around Cutler Street.
The style was Georgian; austere architecture with classic elements, such as porticos and pilasters. The Georgian era ranged from 1714 to 1830, when the four first sovereigns of the German house of Hannover ruled England. They were all called George. Then came William, and after him, Victoria.
The first building to be erected among the warehouses near Cutler Street was the Tapestry Building, at the time called the Old Bengal Warehouse. The year was 1771. The building was owned by the Honourable East India Company, who had a monopoly on trading with India, acquired a couple of centuries back. The sub-continent was more or less perceived as the company’s internal concern. The era would be characterised by misrule, exploitation and widespread starvation.
The East India Company traded all over the world. It was the company’s tea cargo that was heaved overboard in 1773, by the American colonists disguised as North American Indians. The event went down in history as the Boston Tea Party. Direct-action, as it’s called nowadays. Allegedly Chairman Mao was quoted saying ‘Revolution is not a tea party.’ In this case he was wrong. The Boston Tea Party triggered the beginning of the American War of Independence.
The Tapestry Building was a wonderful treasury, an astonishing cabinet of curiosities, an oriental souk. The poet captured the magic:
Cinnamon, myrrh, and mace you showed
Golden paradise birds that glowed
More cigars than a man can count
A billion cloves in an odorous mount
You showed, for a most delightful hour
The wealth of the world and London’s power
Under the reign of Victoria in the mid-1800s, the power of the Empire was at its height. The sun was in zenith. London had claimed everything, including the Prime Meridian, time itself, and from all corners of the world, goods were shipped to the East Indian Warehouses near Cutler Street.
The old warehouses are simple yet grand, ordinary yet majestic, with their plain brick façades and stark paned windows. The buildings were constructed for packing and storing, functionality was everything.
Today, the Tapestry Building has been transformed into homes, more specifically 14 beautifully decorated apartments with an exclusive location – St. Paul’s Cathedral, City, Tower Bridge, Royal Exchange, Old Spitalfield’s Market and Shoreditch, with its restaurants, galleries, and small shops only a short walk away.
Inside, it is light with high ceilings. Wooden beams and steel bars bear witness to the past. Columns with simple cast-iron capitals and coffered ceilings made from stand-alone truss structures give the rooms a kind of robust beauty. At times, the pillars are willowy as flower stems.