A combination of tides and currents made this point on the Thames a natural landfall for ships, the first wharf being completed in 1348. Lime kilns or 'Lymehostes' used in the production of mortar and pottery were built at this location in the fourteenth century. The area grew rapidly in Elizabethan times as a centre for world trade and by the reign of James I nearly half of the area's 2,000 population were mariners. The area supplied ships with ropes and other necessities; pottery was also made here for the ships. Ships Chandlers settled here building wooden houses and wharves in the cramped space between street and river, indeed Narrow Street may take its name from the closeness of the original buildings, now demolished, which stood barely a few metres apart on each side of the street.
The Limehouse Bridge Dock was established in 1766, for barges and small ships to access the Limehouse Cut, which led to the Lee Navigation. Limehouse Basin was built in 1820, to transship imported goods to barges on the Regent's Canal. The two were linked in the early 19th century, and the lock from the Cut to the river, filled in.
In 1661, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of a visit to a porcelain factory in Narrow Street alighting via Duke Shore Stairs while en route to view work on boats being built for Herring fishing. The Limehouse area fitted out, repaired and resupplied ships. In 1772, Smith & Sykes ran a sugar house a small factory that baked and refined sugar. In 1823, Taylor Walker & Co Ltd started brewing at the site of today's pub The Narrow formerly The Barley Mow. Limehouse Cut was redirected into Limehouse Basin was one of the first docks to close in the late 1960s. Nicholas Hawksmoors’ Church St Anne's Limehouse was designated a conservation area by the London Docklands Development Corporation in the 1980s.
For much of the 20th century the area was dominated by the tall chimney of Stepney Power Station at Blyth Wharf, which has since been demolished.
Access to the area was always difficult, with the dock standing to the north, and the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel at one end. In 1993 the 1.8 kilometres (1.1 mi) Limehouse Link tunnel was completed; further restricting traffic to the riverside area. The Narrow Street Swing Bridge is sited between the Limehouse Basin Lock and the Thames.
In the eighteenth century a small group of Chinese sailors from Canton and Southern China settled along the old Limehouse Causeway creating the original London Chinatown. The Chinese community later moved to Soho following heavy bombing of the area during World War II often referred to as the Blitz.
A number of historic buildings remain, including The Grapes public house. Next to The Grapes is a rare example of an early Georgian brick terrace. Early Georgian houses can be distinguished from late ones in the way that the windows are not set back from the brick frontage.
The late twentieth century brought much development to the area, with the erection of the Canary Wharf tower close by. Since the 1990s, many new apartment complexes have been built around the Limehouse Basin as well as Victorian warehouse conversions, with Limehouse now being one of the most sought after property sites in London. Its close proximity to the River Thames has made property prices around Limehouse and the Docklands soar over the last decade. However a 2001 Census  listed 5.4% of Homes in Poplar and Limehouse as being without central heating and/or private bathroom.
The street is home to a number of good pubs and restaurants, including The Narrow, a gastropub run by Gordon Ramsay, and Booty's Riverside Bar, an independently-owned pub which dates back to the 16th Century, with 19th century frontage. In the 18th century Booty’s was an engineering shop for the barge builders, Sparkes. By the 1870’s it was a licensed bar called The Waterman’s Arms owned by Taylor Walker, before being absorbed by Woodward Fisher, a lighterage firm run by Anne Fisher, popularly known as ‘Tugboat Annie’, a local real-life London version of the character in the film of that name. One of the great East End characters, she commanded a fleet of 200 barges.
Famous residents include the actors Sir Ian McKellen and Steven Berkoff, and politicians Lord David Owen, Cleo Rocos and Matthew Parris. It was also the home of the iconic film director Sir David Lean, whose Narrow Street house, regarded as one of the best riverside houses in London, is still owned by his family.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Narrow Street's harsh conditions and extreme poverty attracted the attention of early social reformers and latter political agitation for better working conditions led to the creation of some of London's earliest trade unions.
Its picturesque buildings and atmospheric location abutting onto the River Thames also attracted artists and writers.
The Anglo-Saxon word tirl, means 'narrow street' or a 'gate' to keep horses and other cattle out of the city.