We have laboured long and hard trying to understand what "H.R" and these dates refer to, but have yet to find an answer. Here is a report on our searching.
The dates cover the years:1862-94 and the inscription has the type of variability that suggests the dates were not all carved at the same time. Victoria was on the throne all that time but most of the years do not relate to significant years in her reign.
Maps are often a good place to start and we found maps covering the period 1870-1914. While it's interesting to track the changes to the site over that time, very little changed at this corner, so the maps don't help solve the puzzle, but here they are for the record: 1870; 1887; 1894; 1914.
The river end of the site was known as Charrington's Wharf and/or Seaborne Coal Wharf for the whole period. Looking at the corner of the main road, Broad Street, and the small Bell Wharf Lane: sometime 1870-94 a narrow range of buildings running down the east side of Bell Wharf Lane was demolished. The 1887 map shows this range, (mainly 'D', Dwellings), on the corner, and then number 2 Broad Street, a 2-bay building of 3 stories with a passage under the eastern part. The current building certainly looks as if it was designed to have a building tight on its west side, and it has 2 bays with a driveway under the eastern bay. We are confident this is the building shown on all the maps.
The business using the site in 1887 was Charrington, Sells, Dale and Co. which Grace's Guide 1 identifies as a "Coal and Coke Merchants and Briquette Manufacturers, many branches in the London area". Grace's Guide 2 gives: "Originally three firms, viz., Wright, Dale & Co., founded 1731; Jones, Sells & Co., founded about 1742; and Charrington & Co., founded 1790. The first two of these amalgamated in 1856, being joined three years later (1859) by the other firm." All this happening before our first date, 1862.
St George in the East has some extensive research of the area and a photo of our building in 1978, standing alone in a demolition site, but far too distant to make out any inscriptions. Here one of our dates, the last, is mentioned: " ... In 1894 John Charrington senior dropped out of the partnership, which was continued ..." This is the best clue we have - perhaps the dates refer to the years in which members of the Charrington family were appointed as partners in the firm.
Edith's Streets gives (but without a date which would be so useful): "2 Broad Street and Ravensdale Club. This boxing club is also The Highway Club. The building appears to be with Lowood Street School or something in a very similar style." Elsewhere we learn that Lowood Street School (bombed in WW2) was between The Highway and Shadwell Station. The boxing club presumably used the building between Charrington's moving out and the developers moving in, which we think was a short time, so it seems very unlikely that the dates are anything to do with the club, such as a record of their historic victories.
The photo at St George in the East shows that, by 1978, our building had become part of Free Trade Wharf, which seems to have expanded westwards. Free Trade Wharf gives some of the more recent history of the site: "The old disused warehouses were bought in 1977 by the Inner London Education Authority, for a site for City of London Polytechnic. When this plan was abandoned, the land was acquired by Regalian Homes; the developers of the SIS Building. Designed by architects Holder Mathias Alcock, the first phase of Free Trade Wharf was built in the 1980s, and the first flat sold in the 1987." That is a bit misleading. The warehouses of the original FTW are listed so they were not demolished. The new development is on the land occupied by the warehouses etc. between the FTW and Bell Wharf Lane including most of the Charrington site. Just the building with the inscribed dates was retained, even though it's not listed.
We wonder if 'Two centuries in the London coal trade - the story of Charringtons' by Elspet Fraser-Stephen, privately printed 1952, would solve the puzzle. Otherwise we are stumped. If you have suggestions please let us know.
Site: Charrington's coal wharf + Captain Cook (2 memorials)
E1, The Highway, 326, Free Trade Wharf
This building's address was previously 2 Broad Street.
The puzzling inscription can just be seen in our photo, on the front of the building, at the corner near the blue plaque.