Wapping scene, 1900 (AOT, NS1013/1/305)

Wapping was the unofficial name for a closely-settled working class district alongside Hobart's first wharf. Like its London namesake by the Thames, it was a low-lying, flood-prone district dominated by the nearby docks. Two streams emptied into the flat, marshy area including the town's water supply and drainage system, the Hobart Town Rivulet, polluted with human and industrial contamination.

Wapping was Hobart's economic centre in the early years of settlement with shipbuilding, whaling, sealing and commercial ventures providing employment. There were numerous pubs and boarding houses in the area, and the Theatre Royal, its most durable landmark, was an important community venue for entertainment, lectures, public meetings and sporting events. By mid-century, however, its fortunes had declined due to the effects of the 1840s depression and the development of port facilities on the other side of Sullivans Cove. This decline was exacerbated by repeated flooding, and Wapping became an area of social decay with a reputation as a slum and notorious red-light district. But it was a popular housing area because of cheap rents and proximity to wharves, markets and local industries such as butcheries, tanneries, soap and candle factory, the gasworks and Peacock's jam factory. The district's long association with public transport began in 1875 with the construction of Hobart's railway station and workshops. Later, a tram depot was also established there. Wapping's population peaked at 1200 in the 1880s.

Wapping's demise as a residential area began early in the twentieth century due to successive redevelopments sponsored by the Hobart City Council, but the grandiose commercial visions were never realised. By the early 1960s the remaining houses had been demolished and the area zoned for transport purposes. However, in the twenty-first century, a revitalised Wapping offers tourist accommodation in sympathetically restored historic buildings and high-quality residential inner city housing.

Further reading: S Petrow, 'Hovels in Hobart', THRAPP 39/4, 1992; Spiller Gibbins Swan Pty Ltd, Wapping Neighbourhood Outline Development Plan, Hobart, 1993; The Wapping History Group, 'Down Wapping', Hobart, 1988.

Wendy Rimon