The Tobacco Dock: Imperial Artefact16 minute read

The Tobacco Dock is a brick warehouse located in the East End of London, in the area known today as the Docklands. It was constructed in the early 19th century, at the peak of the industrial revolution, as part of a larger system of enclosed docks specializing in exotic luxury commodities such as ivory, furs, and tobacco (Harper & Bros., 1851). A shift in economic values and technological progress lead to its shutdown in 1968, and after decades of sitting unused, the Tobacco Dock underwent a period of redevelopment in the 1980’s that saw it converted into a shopping complex (Pearce, 1989). When the project proved unsuccessful, the Tobacco Dock became once again a vacant space and remained that way until Messila House, a Kuwati investment company, took over the property and employed it as a multi-purpose event space for occasions such as housing the ministry of defense during the Olympics and hosting the annual British Academy Games Awards. The Tobacco Dock, still owned by Messila House, stands today as an imperial artifact in that it is a relic of London’s dominant trade days, a fossil of a colonial enterprise, but its more recent revitalizations complicate its symbolic value. The Tobacco Dock is a building, a structure with a spatial dimension, and should thus be analyzed with an architectural consideration, as a physical body that is inhabited by an ongoing history and informed by layers of spatial memory. This essay considers the Tobacco Dock’s origins as a site of London’s trade operations and thus a symbol of the city’s consumptive power, but moreover as a space in which the city’s history dwells as a living condition, ultimately positing the Tobacco Dock as a quasi-living entity whose palimpsestuous history forms its queer identity. Through a palimpsestuous reading of the Tobacco Dock, this paper supposes London’s queer identity and proposes the Tobacco Dock as a structural demonstration that culture dwells inescapably in an imperial framework—it can be repurposed but the history is haunted and inerasable. This essay concludes by discussing how the controversy around London’s protection of an imperial structure like the Tobacco Dock as a heritage site reflects the same tension around identity that can be seen in Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union.

The same shift in economic values and technological progress that brought about the rise of the Tobacco Dock resulted in its fall. The Tobacco Dock, along with most of its counterparts, closed its doors in 1968 due to the development of containerization requiring deep sea ships because the rigid physical infrastructure could not accommodate modern consumer needs. Although the Tobacco Dock remains today, by nature of being a privatized event space, a site of consumption where spectacle acts as its current commodity, the present reality of the Tobacco Dock is more complex than its original symbolic significance because the space has undergone multiple revisions since its initial closure in 1968. Before looking into this complexity and considering the cultural implications of The Tobacco dock as an imperial artefact, we must first consider the constitutions of Culture and Empire because their constructions are integral to how we understand the historical evolution of the Tobacco Dock. According to Don Mitchell’s use of the theory of “simulacrum” in which “Reality itself is a representation of nothing more than other representations behind which there are never any ‘real’ things”, authenticity as a general condition or state of being is unachievable because value in itself does not exist (Mitchell, 2000, p.76). Rather, value is constructed, and can be understood as what cultural theorist Fred Inglis calls “fierce little concentrations of meaning” (Mitchell, 2000, p.71). According to Inglis, “values are renewed, created, and contested,” a process through which “culture” can be produced, reproduced and transformed (Mitchell, 2000, p. 71). Don Mitchell argues that this process of dialogically negotiating culture into existence is what halts the “infinite regress” of culture in which, he posits, because no coherent definition of culture exists, by trying to define it, culture comes to refer to everything or nothing at all (Mitchell, 2000, p.76). Culture is made meaningful through “a process of social struggle” and by “contending parties seeking to define the world in their own terms” (Mitchell, 2000, p. 77). In other words, Mitchell is arguing that culture is produced through the constant struggle over the power to define one’s authentic existence, a dynamic process that resembles a conversation, a dialogue. If culture arises from a dialogue of values, a perpetual rearrangement of signifiers, then the fact that the Tobacco Dock went through multiple abandonments and repurposings demonstrates that it did not stop evolving symbolically when it closed in 1968, but rather continued to host a socio-economic conversation from which a complex cultural identity has emerged and will continue to emerge.

The notion of the Tobacco Dock possessing an ever-changing cultural identity is reinforced by the relativism of the concept of Empire. Gilbert and Driver call for a critical understanding of “Empire” arguing that Empire, like culture, is an idea whose meaning is shaped and developed through various imperial experiences (Gilbert and Driver, 2000, p 23). The Tobacco Dock is shaped by and shapes London as an imperial city. Empire, like culture, is not a thing, but an ideological process made meaningful through competition and exchange of value as well as values (Gilbert and Driver, 2000, p 23), and as demonstrated above, involves signs and signifiers that are deemed valuable depending on evoked situational meanings. Gilbert and Driver explain that empire “happened in the minds and practices of people within Europe as well in the what they wrote, read, and imagined. Etc” (Gilbert and Driver, 2000, p.24) and in this way, “empire” is still alive as it continues to be experienced, remembered, preserved, and celebrated. Evolving conceptions of Empire show that physical reality is shaped by how we interact with and consume representations of reality, but it is important to remember that the reverse is true as well—physical reality shapes our experience and thus understanding of reality. The dialectic relationship between physical structures and social, political, and economic structures is important as it traces how meaning is attached, created, re-created, and transformed to representations of reality and identity. We can uncover significance by considering the social, political, and economic context in which it functions, and by how it has changed. And thus, by reading the changes, both physical and intangible, that have happened to the Tobacco Dock, both to the structure itself and within its space, we can understand the Tobacco Dock not as a static symbol but as an entity whose meaning is evolving like a conversation. The Tobacco Dock’s identity originates from its significance as an imperial artifact but the chapters that followed its use as a port, namely its time spent abandoned, its time as a shopping center, and its recent and present functions as a multi-purpose event space, layer its history and identity in a way that one can only read as palimpsestuous.

Before developing a palimpsestuous reading of the Tobacco Dock’s history and positing it as a symbol whose identity is queer, it is important to first assert the Dock’s importance as an imperial artifact. The Tobacco Dock was constructed in response to changing industrial demands. With the invention of the steam engine, the existing infrastructure could not support the rapidly diversifying economic and physical markets, and thus was an effort to make London’s port more modern, efficient. Its symbolic value as an imperial artifact is best understood by the fact that the warehouse was the site of a furnace coined the “Queen’s Pipe” whose purpose was to “[consume] all the damaged tobacco which [came] into port” (Harper & Bros., 1851, p. 513). The nickname for the furnace was first introduced in an 1851 piece by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine entitled “The Queen’s Tobacco-Pipe” which presented “the royal pipe” as a signifier for the Tobacco Dock’s furnace, and compared the royal pipe to the “consumptive tobacco power of Victoria of England” (Harper & Bros., 1851, 513). Since the Tobacco Dock and all of its goods belonged to the Queen and the furnace was used to burn tobacco that had been deemed unfit to store in Her warehouse, it made sense to call it the “Queen’s Pipe”. It was not so much England’s power to accumulate massive quantity of goods that made the Tobacco Dock impressive, but rather the “stupendous smoking power of the queen”—the queen was so wealthy that she could not only burn money but also did so “by the hands of her servants” (Harper & Bros., 1851, 513). Further, while the magnitude of accumulation as well as destruction is indeed notable, what is equally important to consider about the Tobacco Dock is the particular type of good that it housed: tobacco. The view of the “smoking power of the queen” as “stupendous” is contingent on an understanding of tobacco as a signifier of opulence. The act of smoking, in the Victorian world, signified opulence because tobacco was a luxury good and the privilege of smoking had to first be afforded. The luxuriousness of tobacco and the consumptive nature of the Queen’s Pipe furnace contextualize the concluding statement of the Harper’s article, which declares the Queen’s Pipe to be “the Pipe—and as we have said, it establishes the Queen of England, besides being the greatest monarch on the globe, as the greatest of all smokers” (Harper & Bros., 1851, p. 516). The Tobacco Dock, because it held tobacco and because it was the warehouse in which the Queen’s Pipe was contained, came to be known as the houser of the Queen’s power and to represent, at a most fundamental level, London’s imperial power through consumption.

In her 2006 article “Reinscribing De Quincey’s palimpsest: the significance of the palimpsest in contemporary literary and cultural studies,” Sarah Dillon describes how palimpsests, which “were created by a process of layering whereby the existing text was erased, using various chemical methods, and the new text was written over the old one” (Dillon, 2005, p. 244) can be used to inform present readings of contemporary culture and identity. Dillon develops the fact that the past writings in palimpsests were “often imperfectly erased” into a notion of a haunting, a reemergence that resembles trauma, by explaining that after erasure, “[the past layers’] ghostly trace then reappeared in the following centuries as the iron in the remaining ink reacted with oxygen in the air, producing a reddish-brown oxide,” (Dillon, 2005, p. 244). When read like a palimpsest, the Tobacco Dock, as a space, can be seen to contain imperfectly erased histories. Although its physicality has been left untouched, the Tobacco Dock has phased out multiple times due to the socio-economic flux around it. After being listed as a Grade I building in 1979, protecting it from demolition, The Tobacco Dock sat empty until 1986 when development plans were established to revitalize the area into a major shopping destination (Aspden, 2003). The shopping center was seen as an opportunity to re-invest in and re-invent East London—known for being a poor, dangerous, working class area, but the project was a disaster. After the failure and subsequent closure of the shopping center in 1995, Peter Watts wrote on his blog that the “Tobacco Dock is completely empty, a ghost forever frozen in 1989, when the world was at its feet. Come here and you can smell the late-80’s ambition and the disappointment and failure when it all started to unwind. It’s like the backdrop to a George Romero zombie film, or a metaphor for rampant commercialism wrapped in the setting of a failed shopping centre” (MEOKO, 2012). Following the turn of the century the Dock was used as a “cultural event space” for concerts, parties, exhibitions, and conferences (MEOKO, 2012). In a 2010 article “Abandonment, Failed Capitalism: the Changing Face of the Tobacco Dock,” Joseph Gamp summarizes the Tobacco Dock’s complex history by calling it a “history-surviving…mighty structure” that “from its industrial heyday in the 19th century, through its darker days as an empty shell, [has] now reached communal hub status in the 21st century a community and space for youthful fans of contemporary music and culture” (MEOKO, 2012). The Tobacco Dock’s changing functionalities, which are layered into its spatial body like a force of haunting, reflect a palimpsestuous composition, and moreover, a queer one. It could be argued that the reading of the Tobacco Dock’s history as a queer palimpsest is a large theoretical departure from its origins as an imperial artifact, but Dillon says that “it is not the gender or orientation of the author which determines a queer reading, but the palimpsestuous queerness of texts themselves” (Dillon, 2005, p. 258). In this case, the text is the history itself, and as long as one can acknowledge the multiple superimpositions of new functions that have been layered into the Tobacco Dock’s history, then the Tobacco Dock can be read as a space possessing a queer identity.

Dillon relates “the queerness of the palimpsest and the palimpsestuousness of queer” by explaining that the comparability of the two is rooted in “structural similarities between the palimpsest and queer,” both of which are characterized by what she calls “the essential involutedness of identity” (Dillon, 2005, p. 258). To retrace the logical sequence that brought us here, culture, according to Don Mitchell, arises from the struggle to define identity, and cultural identity is found in cultural dialogue. And since the Tobacco Dock’s repurposings trace a socio-economic conversation, by reading the history of the Tobacco Dock one is reading the history of London’s cultural dialogue, its struggle to identify itself. The dialogue is layered, palimpsestuous, and because cultural identity arises from dialogue, and palimpesestuousness is structurally comparable to queerness, the cultural identity that arises from reading this dialogue is that of queerness. Thus we see the Tobacco Dock as a microcosmic representation of London’s own chaos, its queerness, which leads us directly into the cultural implications of the Tobacco Dock as an imperial artifact, which is simply that London remains a part of an imperial system and is elementally bound to ever-changing superimpositions of power. Gilbert and Driver describe London has a city whose identity is rooted in chaos by saying that “the very difficulty of representing London as a single coherent and monumental imperial centre could be a positive marker of the particular character of British imperialism” (Gilbert and Driver, 2000, p. 25). They go on to describe London “as a central space in constant motion, a site of restless commerce and frenetic activity” and to say explain that “It was this movement, rather than static monuments and architecture, which was the prime public indicator of London’s world centrality” (Gilbert and Driver, 2000, p. 26). The Tobacco Dock being used for so many different events microcosmically represent London’s chaotic motions, a chaos that this paper posits to be a queerness. Moreover, the fact that the Tobacco Dock is a structure that has remained physically the same but has conditionally changed—it has remained standing but has housed a variety of functions—suggests that no matter how chaotically the culture of London changes, all of its changes, and every phase of the city, will be contained by and within an imperial framework. The roof over the Tobacco Dock was the same imperial roof that resided over the shopping center, the same imperial roof that now shadows every concert, convention, and gathering that takes place in the Tobacco Dock. In the same way that a palimpsest’s past layers haunt its present reading, the Tobacco Dock’s physicality which are linked to its origins as a symbol of the Queen’s consumptive power, have and do and will continue to bleed through and hang over every phase of London’s existence.

The significance of the Tobacco Dock, a queer imperial artifact, being protected as a heritage site, implies London’s and greater Britain’s popular desire to protect and preserve its unique, queer, imperial history. Heritage protection legislation, which emerged as a response to the blitz bombings in WWII, has undergone reform because some parties have contested the city’s lack of transparency to protect certain built forms (Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, 2004). Protecting imperial structures such as the Tobacco Dock, which implies that imperial structures are vital to heritage, is put up against the view that London should protect other sites that, although not tied to imperialism, are arguably more significant to London’s present relationship with global history, such as sites of bombings. More often than not, rather than preserving half-destroyed sites of trauma, new buildings and new histories were superimposed on these sites, palimpsestuously. Around the same time that new structures were being built over bombed sites, the Tobacco Dock was chosen to be preserved. The controversy over the heritage protection laws in London reflect the same dichotomous tension that can be seen in Britain’s recent decision to exit the European Union. Britain’s recent vote to exit the European Union can be understood largely as an attempt to assert its individuality within Europe and the world. Britain’s vote to leave the EU can be read as an attempt to re-assert its individuality and position as an imperial power. The core tension of Brexit can be read as a tension between protecting Britain’s imperial history and individuality, versus protecting Britain’s greater relationship with the world—the same tension that characterizes every decision to preserve imperial structures in London. By leaving the EU, Britain is putting up the same type of wall between itself and the outside threats that was once constructed as a part of the Tobacco Dock to protect its goods, a wall that still stands as a part of the Dock today. The Tobacco Dock, its brick walls and high vaulted ceilings, as a structural representation of the desire to protect London’s imperial consumptive power, mirrors the reality of Brexit as a struggle of reasserting Britain’s “stupendous smoking power.”


Aspden, P. 2003, English Heritage lays foundation for preserving buildings, London (UK).

Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (2004) Review of Heritage Protection: The Way Forward.

Dillons, S. (2005) Reinscribing De Quincey’s palimpsest: the significance of the palimpsest in contemporary literary and cultural studies. Textual Practice. 19:3, pp. 243-263.

Gilbert, D., and Driver, F. (2000) Capital and Empire: Geographies of Imperial London. GeoJournal, vol. 51, no. 1/2,, pp. 23–32.

Harper & Bros. (1851) ‘The Queen’s Tobacco-Pipe’, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (March), pp. 513–516.

MEOKO (2012) Abandonment, failed capitalism: The changing face of tobacco dock. Available at: (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

Mitchell, D. (2000) Cultural geography: A critical introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Pearce, D. (1989) Conservation today: Conservation in Britain since 1975. London: Taylor & Francis.

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