Limehouse Chinatown: The Chinese Community in Tower Hamlets
Between the 1800s and early 1960s Tower Hamlets was the centre of London’s Chinese community. Many early settlers were seamen finding temporary accommodation in the Limehouse area. Later, many went on to marry local women and settle in the area.
Limehouse was called ‘Chinatown’ from the early 20th century as many Chinese businesses emerged. These were in the food and laundry trades and the street names reflected the community. There was then a decline in number in the borough because of:
- ‘Slum’ clearances
- new post-Second World War housing provision by local authorities
- new migrations to London
Chinatown in Westminster grew from the 1960s and communities grew across other London boroughs. This creation of local community associations from the early 1980s reflects this.
There are a variety of records that provide evidence of the Chinese community. These including printed material including maps, photographs and archive records. You can find the records on our online catalogue.
We hold around 33,000 photographs and illustrations relating to Tower Hamlets.
Key street/road names to explore are:
- Pennyfields (street)
- Pekin Street
- Birchfield Street
- Limehouse Causeway
Key subject class marks to explore are:
- 410 Chinese People
- 655 Restaurants, cafes, coffee houses including London’s Chinatown
- 363.1 Chinese Scouts
- 222.13 Chinese Mission House
- 222.13 London Chinese Evangelical Mission
- 365.1 Stranger’s Home
Some photographs date from the 19th century but the bulk of the images date from the 20th century. Photographs can be viewed in our reading room and some digitised images are also accessible online in our Digital Gallery.
We also offer an in-house and remote reprographics service for users who would like copies of our photographs. This includes black and white photocopies and digital scans. For further information, please refer to our copying charges.
Extensive images of local interest are also available elsewhere. A major resource is the London Picture Archive.
We hold London-wide trade directories which date from the early 19th century to 1991. These provide lists of businesses which operated in London arranged by address and trade type.
We hold both hard copy editions and some copies from the Guildhall Library collection on microfilm.
Digitised copies of directories across the country are available via Historical Directories.
Our archive collections document Chinese community presence in Tower Hamlets. These are not digitised and thus only available to consult as originals in our Reading Room.
Examples of sources (with catalogue references in brackets) about the Chinese community include:
- ‘Legacy of Limehouse Chinatown: Tracing the histories of London's old Chinatown’ oral history recordings (collection ref: O/LCC)
- Dragon: Limehouse Chinese Festival, by Peter Lush (L/THL/H/1/9/57)
- Minute book of the Building Works Committee of the Stepney Borough Council, Dec 1946-Oct 1947 documenting works effecting the community (L/SMB/A/22/1)
- Chinese Association of Tower Hamlets, Sailors Palace, 680 Commercial Road (L/THL/D/2/185/129/3)
- District Valuer Valuation Notebook 129 (C/INL/C/9/2/141)
- Description of damage to properties during air raids in the Second World War including Pekin Street.
Books (with reference in brackets)
- The lure of London / by R. Thurston Hopkins. Illustrated with drawings by Godfrey Thurston Hopkins (L8653)
- VI "From Trinity Square to Wapping", p. 76-96 (includes a quoted description of Ratcliffe Highway and a Limehouse opium den, ca. 1881)
- XXII "East meets West in Chinatown"
- London through Chinese eyes, or, My seven and a half years in London / by Min-Ch'ien T.Z. Tyau (LC8933)
- Down in Limehouse / by Rev. George H. Mitchell (L4842)
- Master of villainy : a biography of Sax Rohmer / Cay Van Ash and Elizabeth Sax Rohmer (L4638)
- A cloud in the east : and what it means to the west - and to you / Mrs. Carpenter (L613)
- Information on their work in Pennyfields, p. 63-66, with a photograph of some of the Salvation Army's soldiers in Chinatown, London, facing p. 62.
- East London types / by Sir Walter Besant (LC7243)
- Out and about: a note-book of London in war-time / by Thomas Burke (L5201)
- "Back to Dockland," p. 28 (Millwall Dock)
- "Chinatown revisited," p. 35.Vodka and Vatabonds talks about different residents of Stepney some of whom are Russian Jews.
- London nights : a series of studies and sketches of London at night / Stephen Graham (L8379)
- Ch. V "A doss-house night" (West India Docks)
- Ch. VII "At the Settles Street shelter"
- Ch. XX "At Toynbee Hall"
- Ch. XXV "Evenings in Chinatown"
- Ch. XXVI "At Charley Brown's"
- Ch. XXIX "In the fourpenny gallery" (music hall in Poplar)
- Ch. XXXIV "In Rotherhithe Tunnel"
- Ch. XXXV "The Thames Tunnels and the stairs"
- Sailortown / George H. Mitchell (L4894)
- Pages 109-113 "The Chinese colony."
- 'Lesser breeds' : racial attitudes in popular British culture, 1890-1940 / Michael Diamond (LC2142)
- The Asiatic in England : sketches of sixteen years' work among Orientals / by Joseph Salter (L2218)
- An immigration history of Britain : multicultural racism since 1800 / Panikos Panayi (LC7411)
- Immigrants and minorities in British society / edited by Colin Holmes (LP7607)
- The peopling of London : fifteen thousand years of settlement from overseas / edited by Nick Merriman, foreword by Colin Holmes (LC1722)
- The Chinese in London / Ng Kwee Choo (L4637)
- Race, law, and 'the Chinese puzzle' in imperial Britain / Sascha Auerbach (LC8265)
- Lao She in London / Anne Witchard (LC10528)
- Chinatowns in a transnational world: myths and realities of an urban phenomenon / Vanessa Kunnemann, Ruth Mayer (LC6830)
- The Chinese in Britain, 1800- present : economy, transnationalism, identity / Gregor Benton, Edmund Terence Gomez (LC7412)
- Billy and Beryl in Chinatown / Thomas Burke (L483)
- The pleasantries of old Quong / Thomas Burke (L487)
- Whispering windows : tales of the waterside / Thomas Burke (L490)
- Limehouse nights : tales of Chinatown / Thomas Burke (L2408)
- Twinkletoes: a tale of Chinatown / Thomas Burke (L489)
- East of Mansion House / Thomas Burke (L2385)
- The Chinese detective : a novel / by Michael Hardwick ; from the TV serial created by Ian Kennedy Martin (L7428)
Pamphlets (with reference number in brackets)
- Philip William Lamb, MD PhD ChB Edinburgh: 1893-1981 / Jane Lamb (LC2120)
- Seven-day soup / by Harry Pepper (LC6670)
- The Reverend George Piercy 1829-1919 : the father of the Chinese Methodist Church (LC13656)
- Census research report : Tower Hamlets' Chinese population / Jane M. Xavier (LC7341)
- Chinatown Annie : the East End opium trade 1920-35 : the story of a woman opium dealer / by Annie Lai, Bob Little and Pippa Little (LC8079)
- Limehouse blues : looking for Chinatown in the London docks, 1900-40 / John Seed (LC7282)
- These accursed haunts : opium dens, identity and the construction of London's Chinatown c. 1870-1900 / Samuel Norwood (LC7789)
- The dark night of Chinatown : popular representations of the London Chinese in fiction, 1914-1934 / Sarah Cheang (LC1315)
- China in London : zhong guo zai lun dun (LC9690)
- The Chinese / P.J. Waller (LC9686)
- Employment prospects of Chinese youth in Britain : a research report / Alfred Chan (LC9687)
- Chinese community in Britain : minutes of evidence Monday 19 March 1984 London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Inner London Education Authority / House of Commons, Home Affairs Committee, Race relations and immigration sub-committee, session 1983-84. (LC9688)
- Uncle Tom, the Chinese laundry man, and justice in England and Wales, 1888-1905 / by Jeffrey Green (LC13706)
- Chinese Association of Tower Hamlets annual report (LC13815)
- Coming together for equal rights : migrants, immigrants and refugees photographic exhibition catalogue (LC9776)
Further Local History Library collections
- Explore Limehouse Chinatown audio walking tour by the Chinese British Heritage Centre
- See the Chinese and British Exhibition at The British Library, 18 November 2022 - 23 April 2023
- London Metropolitan Archives holds archives and oral histories of the Chinese community in London. Of particular relevance are:
- Personal Papers of May Flack (LMA/4507)
- 'Memories of the genuine children of Limehouse Chinatown'
- An oral history by River Cultures Festival in 2005 documenting people who lived in Limehouse (LMA/4534/01/01/001)
- See Chinese Community Archives at LMA research guide 22 for further details
- National Library of Scotland Ordnance Survey Maps