Tobacco Dock stood at the centre of the old London Docks and the ornamental canal that ran through it, brought in 350 ton vessels laden with Australian wool and American tobacco ready to be deposited in the expansive Tobacco Warehouse that occupied the site. Built in 1811, the Great Tobacco Warehouse was once a hive of activity dealing mainly in tobacco, wines, wool, and animal skins.
The warehouse was purpose built to handle tobacco, which was introduced into England in the early 1600s. It came from the then new colony of Virginia and very quickly became popular. Not only was it smoked in large quantities, but it was also chewed and sniffed. Governments of the day quickly saw the potential revenue from tobacco and by the early 1800s they were receiving millions from tobacco duty alone. Much of this was stored in the Great Tobacco Warehouse where the floors were packed with 24,000 hogsheads of tobacco when filled to capacity.
The powerful smell of tobacco was accompanied by the pungent aroma of wine, which emanated from the wine vaults underneath the warehouse. The London Docks were famous throughout Europe for their extensive vaults. Underneath its many basins, the vaults were inter-connected like a subterranean city entirely filled with wines and brandy. In Victorian times, it was possible to obtain what was known as a "tasting permit" and be taken on a cooper-led tour of the vaults.
Nearly twenty years after the docks fell into disuse, the warehouse was converted into a £30 million shopping centre in 1989. It was assumed that this shopping facility would regenerate the former docks area by encouraging the wealthy to live and shop here, whilst simultaneously providing employment for the local people. However, within a year of its opening, the shops closed down reporting too little business. Despite being empty now for over decade, the building remains well-preserved and worth a look around.
Regeneration projects like the tobacco dock although a failure, represent a wider economic trend, that is, Britain's shift away from being a productive economy to a service and retail-based economy. Britain now excels in its reputation as a financial world centre and its key economic activity has changed from the making of goods to the sphere of financial circulation. This wealth is actually dependent on production that often takes place elsewhere, for example in China and India where new value is being created.