The Isle of Dogs in the Fifties

Close to one third of the Isle of Dogs’ housing stock was lost to bombing during WWII – a high proportion even compared to East End levels of destruction – and in 1950 the damage was still evident.

Maria Street diagonally from bottom left, with Janet Street and St Hubert’s House in the background. The cleared site was once the location of Millwall Central School, destroyed during WWII.

A travelling knife sharpener outside St Hubert’s House, with Maria Street and St Luke’s Church in the background. Photo by Rosemary Freeman, courtesy of her son John.

The Happy Go Lucky off license on the corner of Glengall Grove (foreground) and Strattondale Street (right).

Cubitt Town (www.britainfromabove.org.uk). Click for full-sized version.

North Millwall (www.britainfromabove.org.uk). Click for full-sized version.

The north end of The Walls looking south, with Providence House lower left (www.britainfromabove.org.uk). Click for full-sized version.

Buildings on the Isle of Dogs destroyed or damaged beyond economic repair during WWII. Map: Mick Lemmerman

Temporary housing in the form of prefabs and Orlit houses had been built, and there had been some patching up of the buildings which could be repaired, but – due to post-war austerity – new housing developments on a large scale were yet to commence.

Looking north from an upper story of Glengall School, with St John’s Church and West India Docks visible in the distance.

Stewart Street. Photo: Christopher Dunchow

Stebondale Street

Parsonage Street. Photo: Valerie MacDonald Cattle

The scarcity of places to live was reflected in the population figures: in 1950 the population of the Isle of Dogs was under 10,000, less than half its size before the start of WWII (and back to the same size it was in the 1860s, almost a century before).

Graph: Mick Lemmerman

From 1950, major new housing schemes started in Poplar, with virtually all homes being in the form of council flats. This marked a major change to the character of housing on the Isle of Dogs: before WWII there were comparatively few flats and most homes were privately owned. By 1980, however, much of the pre-war Island had been swept away and replaced by new housing estates, with almost 100% of people living in council homes.

During the 1950s, the new developments were probably welcomed by Islanders. The first homes – for example those in the St John’s Estate around Castalia Square, or those in Alpha Grove – were low-rise, sympathetically built and often occupied by (returning) Islanders. Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, was also impressed, writing in 1956:

John Betjeman, The Spectator, 1956

Street layouts also remained pretty much unchanged at first, and pre-WWII Island communities could re-establish themselves. Life was returning to normal, and during a decade which saw economic recovery in the UK. I can imagine there was some optimism amongst Islanders at the time; and if you were a kid then, so many bomb sites to play on!

1950s. Click for full-size version

1950 (wiki)

Clara Grant & Gilbertson Houses were opened in Mellish Street. They were named after Clara Grant, who had done much for poor children at the Fern Street Settlement in Bow, and John F. Gilbertson, a former long-serving member of the Borough Council.

Clara Grant House, Mellish Street

Poplar Borough Council Minutes 1950/51. The Manchester Road development concerned what was later named Betty May Gray House (opened in 1953) named after Betty May Gray whose endowment helped fund the construction (she had nothing to do with the Isle of Dogs, but had left considerable funds in her will with the stipulation that they be used to provide housing in deprived areas).

Work started on Cressall House in Tiller Road with the block opening a year later. It was named after the recently deceased, former member of the Borough Council, George J. Cressall (husband of Nellie Frances Cressall).

Cressall House, Tiller Road

Christine Coleman and brothers outside the entrance to Cressall House later in the decade. Behind them, on the left, the bomb-damaged Island Baths. Photo: Christine Coleman

Seyssel Street, year unknown. Photo: Christine Egglesfield

Jim Devlin singing in the Newcastle Arms (later Waterman’s Arms). Year unknown. Photo: Island History Trust

1951 (wiki)

Scheduled to be an exhibition ship in the Festival of Britain, the Cutty Sark was towed into the Millwall Docks Graving (or Dry) Dock for survey.

February 1951. Cutty Sark in Millwall Docks

Another consequence of the Festival of Britain was the repair and reopening of the West India Dock Pier at the river end of Cuba Street which had been destroyed by bombing in March 1941.

1950/51 Poplar Borough Council Meeting Minutes

Section of an advertising poster

A ferry departing from West India Dock Pier.

Timber firm, Oliver & Sons, whose yard and sheds were also damaged during WWII, took over and cleared the former East Ferry Road Engineering Works site just north of The George.

Oliver & Sons Timber Yard in East Ferry Road. Skeggs House in the background was opened in 1956, which dates this Island History Trust photo to at least the late-50s.

Tooke Street. In the background, Alpha Grove and the Millwall Dock Western Granary warehouses. Photo: David Lloyd.

Further up (or down, depending on your perspective) Tooke Street. Photo: Peter Wright.

If you followed Tooke Street as far as Westferry Road and turned left, you would come across the Millwall Independent Chapel just round the corner.

Millwall Independent Chapel

This unremarkable building had an interesting history. Survey of London:

The first place of worship built on the Isle of Dogs since the medieval chapel of St Mary, this was erected in 1817 by a congregation which had been meeting since 1812, at first in a house on the Mill Wall belonging to John Howard, a mast- and block-maker. Prominent in the founding of the chapel were Prows Broad, whose boatbuilding yard was nearby, and George Guerrier, a grazier, who contributed largely to the cost. Guerrier died in 1824 and was buried at the chapel (the only known place of interment on the Isle of Dogs since medieval times).

The chapel closed about 1908, after which it became a girls’ institute and later a printing works. Disused and dilapidated by 1951, it was pulled down soon afterwards. In 1981 the date-stone from the front of the chapel was in a garden at Shenfield*.

* I’d love to know where in Shenfield…..

1951 also saw LCC proposals to connect Island Gardens with Millwall Park by means of a green space following the path of the old Millwall Extension Railway. A good idea, I think, but nothing came of it. Today, apartments and the rowing club are on the site.

LCC proposal to connect Millwall Park to Island Gardens

1952 (wiki)

24 three-storey houses were opened at Nos 85–131 (odd) Alpha Grove.

Alpha Grove

Alpha Grove

Building work on St John’s Estate started early in the year.  A foundation stone in the wall of 12 Castalia Square marks the commencement of the estate.

Foundation Stone, Castalia Square

Castalia Square Construction. Photo: Island History Trust

St John’s Church, Roserton Street, was damaged during air raids in 1941 and was abandoned and eventually demolished in the 1950s. Survey of London:

Worship continued in a temporary ‘church’ in the hall on the opposite side of Roserton Street. Between 1939 and 1947 St John’s lost 90 per cent of its communicants, and the three Island parishes were merged in 1952 under the title of the Parish of Christ Church with St John and St Luke, with Christ Church as the parish church.

Derelict St John’s Church, possibly during demolition

East Ferry Road, with St John’s Hall on the right being repaired.

The first of the Poplar’s prefabs were demolished in 1952, but it was 1977 before the last was removed.

Wedding of the Barry family. Photo: George Warren / Island History Trust

Canary Wharf

Lorries queuing in Millwall Docks

Cubitt Town School in Saunders Ness Road (now the location of St Luke’s School) was rebuilt in 1938 but the new building was all but destroyed during one of the worst WWII bombing tragedies on the Island (described in this article). The again-rebuilt school was opened in 1952.

Cubitt Town School. Photo: Christine Egglesfield

1953 (wiki)

Another eventful year, this time thanks to the coronation of a new queen. There are very many photos remaining of the street parties on the Island, too many to include here, so here are just a few…

Mellish Street. Photo: John Fairweather (who appears to be sitting bottom left).

Manchester Road, Glen Terrace. Photo: Island History Trust

The following photo shows the footbridge that used to connect Hesperus Crescent and Chapel House Street over a railway siding. The rails were long gone by the time of this photo and later in the decade (in 1959 to be precise) Poplar Borough Council purchased the strip of land and demolished the footbridge.

Hesperus Crescent

Photo: Island History Trust

In December 1952, G. W. Mansell’s lease on a piece of land off Harbinger Road had expired and the site reverted to Poplar Borough Council. The buildings were demolished in 1953, but it took a few years for flats (41-53 Harbinger Road) to be built on the site, eventually opened in 1957.

Site of future Nos. 41-53 Harbinger Road, looking from Hesperus Crescent towards Harbinger Road.

Further north in Millwall, boilermakers John Bellamy Ltd asked the Council for approval to close a portion of Tobago Street so that the land could be subsumed into their works.

Poplar Borough Council Meeting Minutes

Island Gardens in the 1950s. Photo: Island History Trust

Island Gardens in the 1950s.

1954 (wiki)

Manchester Road in the 1950s.In the middle on the left is Stebondale Street. On the right, the Princess of Wales (‘Macs’). Photo probably taken by William Whiffin.

During WWII, 80 per cent of the covered storage at the West India Docks had been lost. Replacements were sheds which were more suitable for mechanized operations, including two at the former Rum Wharf on the south quay of the Import Dock (one of these sheds was later occupied by Limehouse Studios), opened in 1954.

West India Import Dock, South Quay

West India Import Dock, South Quay

The London Tavern on the corner of Glengall Grove and Manchester Road lost its top floors during WWII, and the remains were demolished in 1954.

London Tavern

Dockers waiting for the call-on in East Ferry Road, close to The George.

Poplar Borough Council Meeting Minutes

1955 (wiki)

Survey of London:

The [Millwall Dock] entrance lock was set to be substantially repaired and altered in 1939, but the outbreak of war caused the work to be deferred. The lock was badly damaged in September 1940, when bombing destroyed the middle gates, hydraulic machinery, sluices, culverts and part of the south wing wall.

Damage to Millwall Dock entrance lock

Reconstruction to a revised version of the pre-war plans was proposed for 1949, but the work was postponed because of government restrictions on capital expenditure. By 1955 the cost of reconstruction could no longer be justified, and concern regarding the strength of the inner gates, and the effect of the unused lock on impounding and dredging costs, led to damming of the lock inside the Outer Dock.

Dam at Millwall Dock entrance lock. Michigan House, just south of the lock, was built between 1958 and 1960.

The dam was built in 1956 by John Mowlem & Company using precast-concrete blocks and timber taken from a temporary dam at the Royal Albert Dock. Redevelopment around the quays brought increasing traffic to the Millwall Docks in the 1960s, and a rebuilding of the lock was again considered before it was permanently closed in 1967, its east end filled so that the road bridge would not have to be replaced. The bridge was removed in the late 1970s.

Smiling neighbours watching a wedding group outside Christ Church. Photo: Elsey Family.

George Clark & Sons Ltd. rebuilt their Broadway Works sugar manufacturing plant during the late 1940s and early 1950s, with completion in 1955 (the year before the firm was acquired by Brown & Polson who themselves were acquired by Tate & Lyle).

Rebuilding at George Clark & Sons, Broadway Works, Alpha Grove.

Firemen were called into action at a fire in the area of land between Manchester Road, Barque Street and Saunders Ness Road. The land was owned by the Calder wharfingers, whose Calder’s Wharf was adjacent. In the photo, the firemen are cooling down barrels of collodion cotton and boxes of paint – inflammable materials that really ought to have been stored more securely and not in the open behind housing. The windows of the Barque Street houses in the background were shattered by the explosion and heat from the fire.

May 1955. Photo: London Fire Brigade

As mentioned earlier in this article, St John’s Church was demolished in the 1950s and the close-by former hall refitted as the new church. This church was dedicated in 1955.

Dedication of St John’s Church in the former mission hall

Next to the hall, a new clergy-house was also built, along with numbers 521 and 523 Manchester Road. All three buildings are visible in the following aerial photo.

Part of the St John’s Estate in the 1950s.

1956 (wiki)

Lenanton’s built new concrete sheds and extended their wharf southwards during the 1950s and 1960s, absorbing other wharves along the way. Survey of London:

In 1954–6 the office block was enlarged and remodelled and a works canteen was built above the entrance from Westferry Road.

Lenanton’s

Start of the Island Road Race, organised by the Dockland Settlement. The racers, ran up East Ferry Road to the Queen, and turned right to follow Manchester Road back to East Ferry Road, a distance of 2 miles. If you want to run it today, be prepared to run an extra 50 yards or so due to rerouting of East Ferry Road in a couple of places. Photo: Island History Trust

Running down Glengall Grove towards Manchester Road. Photo: Island History Trust

George Green’s Playing Fields in Millwall Park. Photo: Ada Price

The paddling pool in Millwall Park. Photo: David Lloyd

1956. Many Wrights outside 36 Alpha Grove. Photo: Peter Wright

1957 (wiki)

Jayne Mansfield behind the bar in The George. Photo: Tarbard Family.

Tooke Arms.

Maple House shortly after opening.

Strattondale Street (more or less opposite the library). In the background are the sheds of the Transporter Yard in the Mudchute, where ASDA now stands.

1958 (wiki)

Kingfield Street. Photo: Ada Price (forgive me, Jan Hill, if this photo was taken much later and I just added years to your age 🙂 )

The LCC launched a programme to improve some of the dwellings they had built between the wars. This applied also to flats in the West Ferry Estate (Cahir Street) which had gas hot-water systems installed.

Outside Akbar House. Photo: Christopher Gary Stevens

The following photo shows a bridge-component built by Westwood’s being transported from their Harbinger Road yard. The corner out of the yard into Harbinger Road was too tight for a load of this side, so the lorry drove through Marsh Street into Cahir Street to reach Westferry Road. Note the WWII emergency water supply tank on the right of the photo, still in place almost 15 years after the end of the war.

Transport of bridge-component built by Westwood’s

Photo of ‘Nob’ Davison: Island History Trust

Christ Church. Photo by Rosemary Freeman, courtesy of her son John.

The following photo shows Crews Street. Most of the houses were damaged beyond repair during WWII. The council demolished them and those in Gaverick Street around this time. Only the Kingsbridge Arms and a couple of houses in Manchester Road remained standing. The space was variously used by road hauliers and the occupiers of Lowe’s, Winkley’s and Cyclops Wharves (Survey of London).

Crews Street

Westferry Road (Strafford Street on left). Photo by Rosemary Freeman, courtesy of her son John.

1959 (wiki)

Morton’s, one the Island’s largest employers for many decades had been taken over in 1945 by the Beecham Group who moved the operations to Lowestoft. Survey of London:

The Millwall works were gradually run down. Waterways Ltd, wharfingers, an associated company of Morton’s, occupied the riverside buildings for some years after the Second World War. A food and soft drinks distribution depot, with a north-light concrete shell roof, built in the 1950s on the corner of Westferry Road and Cuba Street, remained in use into the 1980s.

Beecham

Survey of London:

The barge-bridge and the knuckles in the [Millwall Inner] dock impeded the PLA’s post-war modernization plans. Their replacement with an elevated walkway came under consideration from 1950, but before accepting this as necessary, the PLA sought Poplar Borough Council’s agreement to the displacement of the right of way.

There was strong local opposition, however, and so in 1958 the PLA asked Parliament for power to close the route. The Council, the LCC and Charles Key, the local MP, forced the PLA to reconsider and prepare schemes for adapting the pedestrian crossing.

In 1960 the PLA suggested either high-level footways with a double bascule bridge which would cost over £100,000, a tunnel under the dock for about £400,000, or a 180ft-high aerial cable-car for about £50,000. The bridge option emerged as favourite, the tunnel being too expensive for the PLA and the cablecar unpopular with the Council. A high-level bridge would keep the public out of the docks and allow barges to pass, opening only for ships.

The ‘barge bridge’ across Millwall Inner Dock, later replaced by the Glass Bridge.

Millwall Outer Dock

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to carry on reading at The Isle of Dogs in the Sixties.

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Samuel Cutler & Sons

Most of the very many Isle of Dogs engineering firms from the past were unknown to me until I started learning about Island history a few years ago. A few firms, however, were familiar as they were still in business when I was a young kid in 1960s (or they were not operating any more but their signs and factories were still to be seen).

One of these was Samuel Cutler & Sons whose Providence Iron Works were opposite St Edmund’s School in Westferry Road (they also had a few buildings on the other side of the road, adjacent to the school). The following photo was taken in the 1960s, the decade that Samuel Cutler’s closed. By the way, all photos of Cutler’s workers in this article are courtesy of the Island History Trust collection (https://www.islandhistory.co.uk/).

Workers outside Samuel Cutler’s gate in the 1960s. St Edmund’s School is just visible on the left.

Samuel Cutler Sr. opened his original Providence Iron Works in the 1850s on the former site of the Poplar Gas Light Company diagonally opposite Mellish Street. Assisted later by his sons Samuel Jr. and George – the firm Samuel Cutler & Sons manufactured:

… products included roofing, marine boilers and machinery, but they specialized in gasholders and other plant for the gas industry. They later developed a large business as general constructional engineers. (Survey of London).

c1870

A couple of years after the death of Samuel Sr. in 1870, the Providence Iron Works were moved to larger premises further south in Westferry Road.

c1890

Extract from 1924 Institution of Mechanical Engineers Obituary for Samuel Cutler Junior. the driving force behind the continuing growth and success of the company:

Mr. Samuel Cutler was the inventor of the triangular system of gas-holder guide-frame which bears his name, and this was adopted for important gas-holders in Denmark, Italy, in the East, and in South America.

1889

The Kennington Lane gas-holder of the Phoenix Gas Co. was an interesting example of the firm’s boldness and pioneering skill in the construction of large holders.

1950s Oval Cricket Ground. In the background on the right, The no. 1 gas holder.

As the years went on, still larger dimensions were reached. The works at Millwall were well placed for Continental business, and a 4 million cubic foot holder erected at Vienna, and subsequently removed to Berlin, afforded samples of the Firm’s activities.

1900. Goad Insurance Map (British Library).

1903

During WWI

1920s

1920s

1930s

1937. From the river. Note the gas holder in the background on the right, which can only have been a gas holder in construction for a customer of Samuel Cutler’s. The roof of St Edmund’s School is just visible left of centre. Photo: PLA / Museum of London.

Severe damage was caused by bombing in the Second World War. In the following aerial photo just a large amount of bomb-flattened space in the area, and Cutler’s shed roofs have been largely patched up or entirely replaced.

The works closed in the early 1960s – when the firm relocated to Telford – and the whole site had been cleared by the mid-1980s. It was redeveloped in the early 1990s as part of the Masthouse Terrace housing scheme.

What of the many gas holders built by Samuel Cutlers & Sons? The introduction of a national grid pipework for natural gas in the late 20th century meant that gas holders were no longer needed. With one or two exceptions (such as next the Oval), they have largely been demolished despite efforts to have them protected. For example, this gas holder built by Samuel Cutler & Sons in Hornsey was part of an action by locals and others to have it listed.

Hornsey

Industrial Archaeology News Issue 172. 2015 described it as follows:

The truth is Gas holder No 1 at Hornsey Gasworks is a remarkable, innovative and historic architectural structure and it is astonishing that it has remained neglected and unsung for so long.

It was constructed in 1892 and is the oldest surviving example of ‘Cutler’s Patent Guide Framing’, which enables a structure using a lattice of vertical guides and helical girders to provide the necessary rigidity with a relatively lightweight and strikingly elegant appearance.

Samuel Cutler & Sons of Millwall patented this helical shell concept in 1888. This is not to be confused with conventional rectangular frames with cross-bracing – it is a truly geodesic cylinder. It was thirty years in advance of Barnes Wallis coining the term ‘geodesic’ for these lightweight structures for airships and aircraft and fifty years ahead of Buckminster Fuller’s trendy geodesic domes.

The action to save the gas holders was however unsuccessful and they were demolished in 2016.

Hornsey 2016

Closer to the Island there are other gas holders (again, built by Samuel Cutlers & Sons) that are currently under threat: these on the Regent’s Canal near Bethnal Green.

Regent’s Canal, for Shoreditch Gas Works

A couple of months ago, the planning committee of Tower Hamlets Borough Council voted to demolish the gas holders, making room for a housing association to build new homes on the site. Again, various groups have started an action to have them saved (and if you agree, you can sign their petition here: https://www.change.org/p/tower-hamlets-strategic-developement-committee-petition-to-tower-hamlets-council-objecting-to-st-william-homes-planning-application).

One argument is that they can be preserved by incorporating them in the new housing development, as has happened at King’s Cross (gas holders not built by Samuel Cutler & Sons) and in Dublin (where the gas holders were built by Samuel Cutler & Sons):

1980s. Ringsend Gas Holder, Dublin

2010s. Ringsend Gas Holder, Dublin

The company’s name is on a plate at the base of at least one of the large iron supports:

In Dublin, and in other places around the world, you can still find evidence of Samuel Cutler & Sons and other former manufacturing firms from the Isle of Dogs, including even in Hong Kong (if you’re confused by the year, the firm was still operating in 1981, just no longer on the Island).

Aberdeen Gas Holder, Hong Kong

Aberdeen Gas Holder, Hong Kong

You won’t find anything on the Isle of Dogs, though.

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A Few Colourised Old Photos of the Isle of Dogs

There are a number of websites that auto-colourise black and white photos that you upload. The results can be a bit hit and miss, but are frequently interesting, with the colours giving the photos a different energy.

I experimented with photos on one such site, which has since gone offline, and thought I’d share the results instead of keeping them to myself. Not much text or history in this post, but I hope you enjoy the images.

1885. The ceremonial removal of the toll gate at the north end of East Ferry Road.

1900s. The Lord Nelson. It was much more ornate a building, as can be seen in this photo. There is no record of what happened to the statue on the roof.

1900s. The Lord Nelson. The letters and number above the front door reveal that this was the Association of Friends (a friendly aka mutual society) location number 3834. Mind you, the number looks more like 3634 in the previous photo.

c1905. Workers at Hawkins & Tipson’s Globe Rope Works. Photo: Island History Trust.

c1909. 79 Alpha Road. Photo: Island History Trust

1909. Millwall from Greenwich (some readers might recognize Burrell’s, surrounded by chimneys)

1920s. Killoran in Britannia Dry Dock. The houses on the right are the rear of houses in Deptford Ferry Road which once ran up from the Vulcan to the river.

c1930. Totnes Terrace. The rear of this row of cottages is shown on the right of the following photo of Britannia Dry Dock. Photo: Island History Trust

1930s. Penang in Britannia Dry Dock.

c1930. From Greenwich Beach

c1930. Fred & T. Thorne’s building firm in Manchester Road (on the top right is a slight glimpse of a Cubitt Arms sign). Photo: Malcolm Thorne

1930s. Tobago Street. Photo: Island History Trust

1930s. Manchester Road.

1930s. A bridger at Kingsbridge. Apparently a good example of how incorrect the auto-colouring can be; those who know about these things inform me that the ship’s funnel and star are the wrong colour. Photo: A.G. Linney / Museum of London Docklands

1930s. Bullivant’s Wharf, with St Luke’s Church in the background.

1940s (estimated). Workers entering West India Docks

c1946. Mellish Street

c1946. Galbraith Street

1947. Tooke Arms. Photo: Island History Trust.

1953. Coronation street party in Hesperus Crescent. Nellie Cressall on the left. Photo: Island History Trust / Cressall Family

1950s (estimate). Princess of Wales on the corner of Barque Street (left) and Manchester Road (right).

1970. Above Dudgeon’s Wharf.

1970s. George Green’s Youth Club. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

1970s. Looking towards Christ Church from the Mudchute. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

1970s. The Mudchute. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

1970s. The former rope walk/shed. Looking towards McDougall’s and a cow. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

1970s. Billson Street. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

1980s. The Walls. Photo: Mike Seaborne

1980s. Magnet & Dewdrop, Westferry Road. Photo: Mike Seaborne

1980s. Westferry Road. Photo: Mike Seaborne

1980s. Westferry Road. Photo: Mike Seaborne

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Maconochies in Millwall

James Maconochie (1850-1895) and Archibald Maconochie (1854-1926) were two of eight siblings born in England to Edinburgh-born Archibald Maconochie Sr. and Elizabeth Richardson from Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire.

Contemporary depiction of the Maconochie Brothers

The brothers’ first business was a fish-curing factory in Lowestoft, started in 1873. The business was a great success and it expanded to include food processing, packaging and canning, and they were one of the largest employers in the town.

By the end of the 1890s, Maconochies was the largest producer of canned food in the world, and they had a number of premises throughout Britain. In 1896 (a year after the death of James Maconochie from pneumonia), Maconochie Brothers – a name the business would retain despite the death of James – took over the former Northumberland Wharf in Westferry Road on the Isle of Dogs.  This was a couple of years before the company secured a lucrative contract to supply tinned meat and vegetable stew to British troops fighting in the Boer War (1899-1902).

Maconochie’s Wharf. Built on the former Northumberland Wharf, the launching site of HMS Northumberland, built by the Millwall Iron Works.

Survey of London:

From 1902 to 1920 Maconochies completely redeveloped the site, building a pickle factory, a jam, peel and candy factory, vegetable kitchens, riverside warehouses, stores, workshops, a large cooperage, and offices.

1910. Goad Insurance Map (Museum of London). Click for full-sized version

In 1907, Maconochies invented their very popular Pan Yan Pickle, made according to a secret recipe involving pickled fruit and vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce.

1930s

The redevelopment of the Island factory from 1902-1910 also coincided with the outbreak of World War I when Maconochies won a contract to supply meat and vegetable tinned rations to the British Army.

WWI canned army rations

The majority of troops appeared to have disliked the tinned food. Imperial War Museum website:

…a very familiar component of the British soldier’s daily life and diet. It was more blamed than praised and many considered it only edible if mixed with something else. Others (probably a minority) liked it . Brophy and Partridge describe it thus: ‘A tinned ration consisting of sliced vegetables, chiefly turnips and carrots, and a deal of thin soup or gravy. Warmed in the tin, ‘Maconochie’ was edible; cold, it was a man-killer. By some soldiers it was regarded as a welcome change from bully-beef.’ (‘The Long Trail. Soldiers’ Songs and Slang 1914-18′, Sphere Books, 1969, p.119)

Corporal R Derby Holmes:

It is my personal opinion that the inventor brought to his task an imperfect knowledge of cookery and a perverted imagination. Open a can of Maconochie and you find a gooey gob of grease, like rancid lard. Investigate and find chunks of carrot and other unidentifiable material, and now and then a piece of mysterious meat.

Still, Maconochies profited hugely from the contract to supply canned rations and their Millwall works competed with Morton’s to call itself the largest employer on the Island.

Maconochies in the 1920s. Photo: http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk

In 1926 Archibald Maconochie died and his son (another Archibald) took over. It was around this time that the business became a limited company instead of a family business.

From Westferry Road in about 1920. Maconochies main office building is visible on the right, just past The Ship pub, with the clock on the wall. Photo: Island History Trust

In 1926 the Island factory had over 1000 employees, 75% of whom were women.

Thomas Jeffrey Cole – Life & Labor* in the Isle of Dogs:

More than 40% of Island women who had paid jobs at the time worked in food processing plants. Of the two great Island firms in this field, Morton’s and Maconochies, the former was considered to be the better employer. Its wages were no higher than those of its rival, but working conditions were better and the management was thought to be fairer.

* Cole is an American.

1920s. Girls who worked at Maconochies. The two in the middle are Edie Lander, who lived at No. 1 Ferry Street, and Doris Burton, who lived at No. 16 Malabar Street. The other two are from Canning Town. Photo and Text: Island History Trust / Mrs Spotwood.

The Maconochies office building in c1930. Photo: Island History Trust

Viewed from the river in the 1930s

In the late 1930s, the most recent Archibald left the firm to join the army for the duration of WWII, before returning to the company. During the War the Millwall factory was so seriously damaged that production was impossible. Maconochies acquired a new site in Hadfield, Derbyshire and moved their production there in 1945 – the end of their 50 year presence on the Isle of Dogs. After the War Maconochie’s Wharf was used for wool storage.

In the following photo the lighter-coloured sheds indicate repairs to – or replacements for – sheds that were damaged or destroyed by WWII bombing. The lighter sections on the roofs of, for example, Burrell’s are also signs of bomb damage repairs.

c1950. By which time Maconochies had ceased production at the site.

A Maconochies lorry driving past the Tower

During the 1950s, Maconochies started to become a loss-making concern, and in 1965 it entered into receivership. Two years later it was acquired by Rowntree Mackintosh, who themselves were acquired in the 1980s by Nestlé, owner of Crosse & Blackwell (who made Branston Pickles, among many other brands).

Production of Pan Yan Pickle ceased in 2000 due to falling sales. Attempts in 2008 by DJ/celebrity Chris Evans to pressure Crosse & Blackwell into reviving the pickle led to the revelation that the secret recipe had already been lost in a 2004 factory fire.

The former Maconochies factory in Westferry Road was demolished in about 1980, leaving a large empty site that was overlooked by a community mural painted on the side of the adjacent Burrell’s building.

1980s. Peter Wright

In the late 1980s, the site was redeveloped by the Great Eastern Self-Build Housing Association.

Late 1980s

Early 1990s (estimate). Former Maconochies Wharf.

There is one little reminder of the area’s former use…..

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The West India Dock Road – A Short History

Commercial Road (article here) was built to connect the City of London with the newly-built West and East India Docks at the start of the 19th century. At a junction just east of St. Anne’s Church, the new road was divided into two road, the southernmost of which was built in 1802 by the dock company’s engineer, Ralph Walker. This section was also named Commercial Road, and it was not until 1828 that it received the name, West India Dock Road.

The proposed new roads in c1800. (Name labels for the proposed roads are my own, and in the original version of this map, East India Dock Road was not shown at all.)

The following image shows the development in and around West India Dock Road in the following decades. In 1818 the north side of the road was still occupied by fields; urban East London hadn’t quite yet expanded this far east. Even in 1827 north of the road was not yet developed. By 1862, however, West India Dock Road was very much part of a thoroughly urban Limehouse.

Development of West India Dock Road area. Click for full-sized image.

Late 1940s. West India Dock Road in the post-WWII ruins of Poplar. Click for full-sized version. Photo: http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk.

Approaching the West India Dock Road from the east end of Commercial Road in the late 1800s the most striking building was the Eastern Hotel, built in c1860 at the corner of East India Dock Road and West India Dock Road. Although it occupied 1 West India Dock Road, its postal address was 2 East India Dock Road so I’ll be saving its history for a later article about that road, but I had to at least mention the iconic building at the entrance to the West India Dock Road here.

Late 1800s (estimated). Eastern Hotel.

1927

1977. London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=123854)

1990, by which time the Londoner (formerly named Eastern Hotel) had been demolished to widen the junction. Also, the construction of new buildings in and around Canary Wharf was in full swing. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

Recently. Much of the former site of the Londoner is surrounded by a huge hoarding meant to represent a building, complete with an advertising screen.

The Sailors’ Palace

Sailors from around the world visited the West India Docks, and many needed cheap, short-term accommodation. A large number of seamens’ hostels were built locally, often run by missionary societies who mostly wanted to provide a more wholesome alternative to other lodgings and tempations in the area.

Diagonally opposite the Eastern Hotel – on the corner of Beccles Street was the Sailor’s Palace, a hostel run by the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society (it was also their headquarters).

c1950 map (with an incorrectly spelled Pigott Arms)

The building, which still exists, was built in 1901 and was funded by newspaper owner and philanthropist John Passmore Edwards.

c1950 (estimate)

Recently

2-12 West India Dock Road

Left of the Sailor’s Palace were numbers 2-12 West India Dock Road, a row of shops (including in the 1960s one of the many Chinese restaurants in the area).

1965. 2-12 (right to left) West India Dock Road. London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=123812)

1970s. The dental surgery used to be a butcher’s shop.

14 West India Dock Road

To the left of the shops, and visible in the previous photo was 14 West India Dock Road, originally known as the German Sailors’ Home (this building also still exists). Opened in 1908, it was the successor of the ‘Deutsche Seemannsmission’ which was founded in the 1880s in East India Dock Road.

German Sailors’ Home.

The Sailor’s Home was an employment exchange for some time, but has since been converted into flats. The single-storey section on the right became an independent flat with its own entrance from the street. My sister Karen and her then very young daughter Karly lived in this flat for a period in the 1980s. It was small, dark and noisy, and I was relieved when they moved on.

2010s

3-9 West India Dock Road

A row of shops in buildings which were somewhat grander than those on the other side of West India Dock Road. Morris Senefft’s shop at Nos. 3-5 was one of many in the area that specialised in clothing for sailors and other nautical types. A family business, Isaac Senefft was registered at No. 5 as early as 1912.

Nos. 3-5 and 7 West India Dock Road.

1963. Outside 3-5 West India Dock Road. Jim Watts, husband of Queenie Watts, in a screenshot from the documentary, Portrait of Queenie.

In February 1956, the shop was the scene of a murder – West India Dock Road was no stranger to murders* but this one is still remembered by some – when Betty Senefft  was stabbed to death by David Kemp. Also, the murder received national and international attention as the House of Commons had recently voted to abolish the death penalty, but the legislation had not yet been enacted. Kemp was automatically sentenced to hang, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment.

* In 1945, Lilian Hartney was found murdered literally across the road from Senefft’s in Rich Street, outside the former German Sailor’s Home. That murder was never solved.

Later (I am not sure in which year), Senefft’s shop was taken over by a local shopowner, S. Grant. Grant’s were also nautical outfitters in the past, but I think that that part of their business was very insignificant by the time the following photo was taken.

1970s

11 West India Dock Road

This building was built in 1860 by sail makers and ship chandlers, Coubro & Scrutton. Since their departure the building has seen a number of different occupants, including the Salvation Army for a period. It is now Grade II listed.

1970s. Former Coubro & Scrutton premises at 11 West India Dock Road

3-11 West India Dock Road recently.

The Strangers’ Home

To the right of Coubro & Scrutton (and opened a couple of years earlier), this sailors’ hostel was opened in 1857 by Prince Albert. Sailors commonly referred to as ‘lascars‘ from the Indian subcontinent had been hired since the 17th century by the East India Company to carry out a range of (often menial) jobs on ships. Poorly paid and sometimes harshly treated, many lascars could also end up spending weeks and months idle in Britain while waiting for a return ship to India.

1925. Lascars in West India Dock Road

By the mid-1800s ‘lascar’ had become a generic term for almost all non-European sailors, and Christian missionary societies became concerned about their plight. This led to the establishment of the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders  (to give it its full name).

c1900

It was described by Count E. Armfelt in Living London (c. 1902) as having:

…reading and smoking and bagatelle rooms, bedrooms, baggage rooms, kitchens, and dining rooms, where every individual can cook and eat his meal with the ritual which his conscience commands him, undefiled by even the shadow of an infidel.

Wikipedia:

A Chinese community grew around the Home and the 1881 census recorded that of the 22 people who lived there, eleven were born in China, six in India or Sri Lanka, two in Arabia, two in Singapore and one in the Kru Coast of Africa. In 1886 the Home informed the India Office that they were evicting five Punjabi performers and a bear who could not pay their bills.

1902. The main hall of The Strangers’ Home

Despite the welcoming attitude of the Missionaries, there was much antagonism by locals towards the residents of the home. Tower Hamlets Archives:

From January to August 1919 mass riots broke out between white and black seamen in port cities across Britain. African, Caribbean, Chinese, Arab and South Asian sailors had kept the merchant navy running during the First World War but as peacetime began and competition for jobs increased, workers from Britain’s colonies living in port cities across Britain became the targets of racist attacks by gangs of white seamen.

In May 1919 the Strangers’ Home for African, Caribbean and Asiatic Seamen in West India Dock Road, was surrounded by a hostile crowd.

Daily Herald, April 1919

It is well known that Limehouse once had a large Chinese community, and that this was London’s ‘Chinatown’ before the post-War migration of Chinese families to Soho. In the middle of the 19th century there were people of several different nationalities recorded in and around West India Dock: Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Indians, Chinese and others, but no large group of a particular ethnicity. Larger scale Chinese immigration started later in the century, espcially when the Blue Funnel Line established a route to Shanghai in 1865, with Chinese immigrants settling mainly around Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields. Survey of London:

By 1918 the number of Chinese living in Pennyfields totalled 182; all were men, nine of them had English wives. At its maximum size during the 1930s, Chinatown (which included Limehouse Causeway) consisted of 5,000 persons, many of whom were sailors. A few Chinese remained in Pennyfields until the demolition of the street after 1960. As early as the 1920s, many of the houses occupied by the Chinese were described as ‘very old and in many cases extremely dilapidated externally’. Internally most were clean, uncrowded, vermin-free and less susceptible to infectious disease than their English neighbours.

Meanwhile, back at the Strangers’ Home, a lack of funds and the reduced numbers of sailors in need of help led to the closure of the home in 1937.

The Stranger’s Home was demolished and West India House was built on the site, the first post-War block of council flats to be built in what was then the Borough of Stepney.

1946 aerial photo of construction of West India House (www.britainfromabove.org.uk)

A British Pathé film of the opening by Clement Attlee is available on YouTube (odd to hear the commentary referring to the place as Stepney, as I know it as nothing other than Limehouse):

Late 1940s (estimated). West India House. The coat of arms on the side of the building is that of Stepney Borough Council.

An unusual view of West India House from below street level

Present-day image of the former Coubro & Scrutton’s building and West India House.

16-56 West India Dock Road

Across the road to The Strangers’ Home, from No. 16 to 52, was a row of shops and businesses.

1890 map

Various maps and websites show that there was a pub at No. 16 – The Alma. It appears to have survived WWII,  but I’ve not been able to find a photo of it or any information.

The following photo shows a gentlemen’s outfitters at an unidentified location in West India Dock Road. However, a close look at the reflection in the window reveals the sail maker’s building and West India House on the other side of the road.

West India Dock Road

Is the shop just visible on the right of the following photo the same place?

1964. 26-32 (right to left) West India Dock Road. London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=101518)

40 West India Dock Road was a far more substantial building and stretched back as far as Rich Street and Grenade Street. Next door is Dunbar House – possibly named for Duncan Dunbar, a wealthy local brandy dealer whose son (also named Duncan) became a millionaire shipowner in the 1800s. It was for many decades a lodging house.

1925. The three men leaning against the fence outside Dunbar House look to me like the same Lascars as in the photo above in this article.

In 1871, 40 West India Dock Road was owned by the Kirkaldys – a father and sons business consisting of plumbers, painters and marine engineers.

1889

Later, the building was occupied by The Cunningham and De Fourier Company who boasted of selling “the choicest potted meats & fish in the universe”. They were succeeded by a series of ships chandlers.

58-70 West India Dock Road

c1950

The most memorable building for many in this row was at No. 70, on the corner of Manadarin Street, the address of the Old Friends Chinese restaurant.

1960s (estimated)

1970s (estimated)

17-43 West India Dock Road

In the 1880s, immediately to the right of The Stranger’s Home were three houses, which were eventually replaced by a telephone exchange (“London Telephone Service – East Exchange”). Neighbouring them was a Salvation Army Hostel and then Blundell’s London Copper and Brass Works.

Later, the Salvation Army Hostel was replaced by an engineering works, which itself was subsequently absorbed by the neighbours, Blundell’s. Blundell’s eventually became part of the partnership, Blundell & Crompton Ltd. which operated from West India Dock Road until well into the 1960s.

1962

At No. 27-29 is Limehouse Police Station, built in 1940 on the site of an earlier police station.

Original Limehouse Police Station (click for full-sized version)

1960s

1970s

To the right of the police station was originally a row of houses,  a large shop (later a Chinese restaurant) and at the corner of Birchfield Street: the Oporto Tavern (renamed the Westferry Arms) at 43 West India Dock Road.

1920s (estimated) 41 West Ferry Road

1920s. The Oporto Tavern

1960s. The Oporto Tavern

c1980. The Oporto Tavern

Recently (and looking pretty good)

A Small Diversion

Westferry Road meets West India Dock here, but that was not always the case. In fact, it is relatively recent. Until the 1950s, West Ferry Road (as it was then spelled) terminated at Garford Street. Leaving the Isle of Dogs, drivers could turn left and head for Emmett Street, or turn right in the direction of West India Dock Road.

Neither route – due to narrow roads and tight corners – was suitable for the heavy traffic which included many lorries and buses. Westferry Road was eventually extended… past Windward House and past Jamaica House, to meet West India Dock Road opposite the Oporto Tavern.

1950, showing the planned extension to Westferry Road. The map also shows the extent of the bomb damage in the area.

1970s. Oporto Tavern viewed from Westferry Road. On the left, the offices of the building firm R.W. Bowman Ltd and the TGWU building (both demolished).

1983. West India Dock Road and its junction with Westferry Road are at the top of the photo.

72-86 West India Dock Road

1890

Much of this block was destroyed by bombing during WWII, and what remained was cleared on the creation of the junction with the newly-extended West Ferry Road in the 1950s.

45-55 West India Dock Road

1932. No. 45 West India Dock Road is on the left.

The whole block formed by 45-55 West India Dock Road and the houses to their rear was cleared in the mid-1960s to make room for new housing. The following photo shows the cleared area. Across West India Dock Road, the construction of the TGWU building can be seen.

1963. London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=123866)

88-116 West India Dock Road

1890

The 1963 photo above shows a distinctive building at 88 West India Dock Road, the former premises of engineering firm, James Walker & Co.

1800s. James Walker’s premises on the right, the West India Docks on the left.

James Walker – nephew of Ralph Walker who was responsible for building West India Dock Road – was involved in a wide number of major projects during his career, including at Greenland Dock, the first Vauxhall Bridge, Needles Light House, Caledonian Canal, Bishops Rock Lighthouse and the construction of the Commercial Road (he devised the stone tramways) – as well as numerous jobs in the East and West India Docks. In 1835 he became president of the Institute of Civil Engineers. The firm James Walker & Co. still exists, but outgrew its Limehouse base more than a century ago.

1970s. West India Dock Road, Nos. 88 (right) and higher (left)

At No. 92 was another Chinese restaurant that will be remembered by many as ‘Up the Steps’. This building was once a Chinese Mission House, opened to bring Christianity to the Chinese community.

The restaurant featured in an epsiode of the 1980s TV series, Prospects, in which the main characters are tempted to take advantage when the staff bundle out of the building and into the street in order to chase a group of customers who had done a runner. This clip has some great scenes of the interior of the restaurant, West India Dock Road and Garford Street.

Further east, and visible in the following photo, was the Railway Tavern, more commonly referred to as Charlie Brown’s (which became its formal name later).

1970s

1980s. An old road sign is still in place directing drivers to Millwall by turning right into Garford Street. Photo: Tim Brown

Charlie Brown’s (The Railway Tavern)

The Railway Tavern opened in about 1840. The landlord Charles Brown took over in 1896, taking with him a collection of curios and objets d’art that he had started to amass at his former pub, the Duke of Cambridge in Whitechapel Road.

Survey of London:

Contrary to popular belief, Brown’s collection was not the product of casual deals with sailor patrons on shore leave, but was carefully built up through purchases from dealers or via a number of overseas agents. Brown, the origins of whose wealth are obscure, acted as unofficial banker to many customers, and was often supportive of their interests. He is said to have given away large sums in aid of the 1912 dockers’ strike, and he was made honorary treasurer of the Stevedores’ Union.

The Edwardian and 1920s fascination with the Limehouse Chinatown as a hotbed of gaming, white-slavery, drug-taking and subversion — fuelled by popular writers such as Thomas Burke and Sax Rohmer, and a few sensational criminal cases — put Charlie Brown’s at the centre of the tourist’s map of dockland. After the First World War, charabanc-parties of sensation-seekers regularly descended on the pub. Famous visitors included King Alphonso of Spain, the actress Anna May Wong, and local politician George Lansbury.

Brown died in 1932 and his daughter Ethel took over the running of the pub along with her husband. Charles Brown Jr. became landlord of the Blue Posts pub across the road (more about this pub below).

April 1944

No sound on this 1945 film, unfortunately:

The pub was demolished in 1989, having to make room for the Limehouse Link roadway.

57-77 West India Dock Road

57 West India Dock Road, on the corner with Pennyfields.

The following photo by William Whiffin shows the Poplar Training School Band marching in West India Dock Road in the 1920s. Recognizable on the left are Harry Jacobs’ outfitter’s shop, J. Downton & Co (pump makers), Blue Posts (surrounded by scaffolding) and the Fire Station.

1920s. William Whiffin

Year unknown. The same view as the previous photo.

The Toll Gate

As was the case with Commercial Road, West India Dock Road was operated as a toll road by the dock company who also recovered some of its road-construction costs by selling parcels of land along the road. The original toll gate was just south of Pennyfields, but later it was replaced by a toll house in the road close to King Street (later renamed Ming Street) which operated until the abolition of the tolls in 1871.

1868. The toll gate and houses are shown in the centre of the map.

The following photo shows the toll house. Some of the buildings in the background are identifiable in the William Whiffin photo above.

Late 1800s. Toll House. London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=231683)

The Blue Posts

Just past the toll gate, at 73-75 West India Dock Road, was The Blue Posts pub, which is on the right in the following photograph, taken from King (later Ming) Street looking over West India Dock Road towards Charlie Brown’s and Garford Street. It became the Buccaneer shortly before its demolition in 1987–8.

1925. Charlie Brown’s and The Blue Posts

1970s. Charlie Brown’s and The Blue Posts

1987. Charlie Brown’s and The Blue Posts (which by this time had been renamed The Buccaneer). Photo: Tim Brown

Fire Station

The fire station was completed in 1868  The adoption of motorized fire engines led to a reduction in the number of stations required, and a report in 1920 recommended the closure of Poplar Fire Station. The building then had a number of owners before it was demolished in 1987-8 for road improvements:

  • 1920-28 – London Salvage Corps.
  • 1928-69 – T. F. Maltby Limited, stevedores
  • 1970-?? – Crome & Mitchell, nut merchants

1905. Fire Station. London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=215176)

1940s. A lorry which had crashed into a bomb crater. The former fire station is visible across the road.

West India Docks Station

This was opened in 1840 as part of the London and Blackwall Railway. The platforms were timber built onto the viaduct. It was partly rebuilt by the Great Eastern Railway in 1896. It closed in 1926 and was demolished in 1931. The DLR station is in the same vicinity.  The station included some rudimentary goods handling equipment in the shape of a crane and some chutes.

1840s. West India Dock Railway Station left, and the warehouses of West India Docks in the background.

View from more or less the same place in 1990. You can see the warehouses if you look carefully. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

Today, West India Dock Road no longer goes under the railway viaduct to the main West India Dock entrance. For history and images of the other side of the railway line, you might want to take a look at this earlier article: A Small Corner of The West India Docks.

Many other changes have taken place along West India Dock Road since the late 1980s. Or, to put it another way, much has been demolished thanks to the creation of the Limehouse Link road and tunnel. There is little or nothing left to remind us of the colourful history of the road. You can go on to Google Street View and have a look around, but this ‘Then and Now’ image sums if up for me.

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Millwall Iron Works

In the 1860s, the population of the Isle of Dogs was less than 9000 (which is approximately the number of people who work in 1 Canada Square in normal, non-Corona times). Some men were employed at the West India Docks, the Millwall Docks opened during the decade and were not significant employers at the time, and most of the others were employed at the various engineering firms along the river – including at one firm which was an order of magnitude greater than the others: the Millwall Iron Works.

According to the Survey of London, The Millwall Iron Works of the 1860s was the most ambitious industrial concern ever established in Millwall, employing between 4,000 and 5,000 men (the workers naturally did not all reside on the Island, so there must have been a good deal of coming and going at the shift changes, including by those who travelled by ferry from over the water).

Before talking about the history of the works, it is worth showing just how large it was at one stage (27 acres). The land owned by the firm was actually larger than shown here on this satellite photo – as it included the former Ferguson mastworks directly to the east – what is highlighted here is just the land in use for iron works and ship building.

The boundaries of the Millwall Iron Works on a satellite photo.

The works were mentioned and praised in many Victorian publications, often with a certain amount of nationalistic fervour, including in the 1863 book, ‘Dockyard Economy and Naval Power’, by author P. Barry:

Ships are not only built, but the iron entering into the construction of the ships is chiefly manufactured on the spot. The works are both ironworks and shipbuilding works. Nowhere else at home and abroad is the combination to be found. It is peculiar to the Millwall Company and to the Thames Company. They are establishments of infinitely greater national importance than all the seven dockyards, representing together a greater iron ship and armour-plate producing power than is at the present time possessed by the whole of France.

Literally hundreds of vessels and thousands of iron products were manufactured there, frequently using groundbreaking methods, yet the world-famous works were never a financial success and their ownership and size changed frequently over the years.

The reasons were many, including: over-extended credit, expensive start-up and operating costs, investment in experiments, and so on. Another reason, a generous reason: the first owners were at heart engineers with a specific interest in innovation and experimentation, which was not always compatible with making money. William Fairbairn, John Scott Russell and then C. J. Mare – they attempted to make either the best or the largest or the strongest, and none enjoyed profitable operations on the Island. Less than generous: the various owners after Fairbairn were guilty of cronyism, financial mismanagement and business ineptitude.

William Fairbairn

The Millwall Iron Works had their origin in the yard opened in 1836 by Scottish engineer, William Fairbairn (1789-1874) on a three-acre site purchased from mastmaker Charles Augustus Ferguson. This was the first iron shipbuilding yard on the Thames.

1840s. Fairbairn’s Iron Works shown at the bottom, left of centre. Also shown on the map is the Mast House and Pond owned by Ferguson.

William Fairbairn in 1838. Painting by B.R. Faulkner for The Royal Society

The iron paddle steamer Pottinger, built at Fairbairn’s works.

Speaking in 1859, fellow Scot, marine engineer David Napier, who built his engineering works adjacent to Fairbairn’s, said that:

…[Fairbairn] built ‘upwards of a hundred-and-twenty iron vessels’, of which nine were built in sections at Manchester and the rest at Millwall. Millwall got off to a good start. The Ludwig was the first iron steamer built for the Bodensee.

In 1837 the Sirius, built to ply the Rhone from Marseilles, was a triple first for Fairbairn – the longest iron steamer of her day, the first to be launched on the Thames, and the first to be classified by Lloyd’s Register. In 1838 Fairbairn’s twenty-one year old daughter, Anne, launched the first iron steam-yacht, for the Emperor of Russia, an occasion witnessed by ‘thousands of spectators’. By the end of 1840 nearly 600 were employed at the Millwall yard, by which time thirty-one iron vessels had been built.

– Richard Byroms, University of Huddersfield ‘William Fairbairn experimental engineer and millbuilder’

The works never made a profit however and its continuing operation was solely due to the income from Fairbairn’s Manchester works. It couldn’t last though and in 1845 the works were for sale.

John Scott Russell

John Scott Russell

In 1848, the premises were taken over by John Scott Russell and his partners, who massively increased the yard size to accommodate the construction of the Great Eastern (which took place between 1854 and 1858).

1848.

In 1853, the northern section of Scott Russell’s yard – including the recently-acquired Napier’s Yard – all but burned down. Afterwards, William Cubitt & Co. were engaged by Scott Russell to build a new main works building, which is today known as ‘The Plate House’.

1853

Circa 1860. The extent of the works shortly after the launch of the Great Eastern

During the construction of the Great Eastern it became clear to many that Scott Russell was borrowing more and more to keep the business afloat (no pun intended). Wikipedia:

At the beginning of February 1856, Brunel advised the Eastern Company that they should take possession of the ship to avoid it being seized by Scott Russell’s creditors. This caused Scott Russell’s bankers to refuse to honour his cheques and foreclose on his assets and on 4 February Scott Russell suspended all payments to his creditors and dismissed all his workmen a week later.

Russell’s creditors met on 12 February and it was revealed that Russell had liabilities of £122,940 and assets of £100,353. It was decided that his existing contracts would be allowed to be completed and the business would be liquidated.

After Scott Russell’s bankruptcy, before even the launch of the Great Eastern, the bank which held the mortgage on the Millwall Iron Works yard and equipment took steps to lease everything to a new occupant.

Charles John Mare

In c1859, soon after the launch of the Great Eastern, the works were taken over by Charles John Mare, an engineer and MP with a ‘colourful past’.

Mare was … an innovative East End shipbuilder. Thought to be a millionaire when he was returned for Plymouth in 1852, his election proved the apex of his career. He was unseated for bribery in 1853, and declared bankrupt, for the first of four times, in 1855.
Source: https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/2018/12/13/innovation-corruption-and-bankruptcy-charles-john-mare-1814-1898/

Charles John Mare

Previously, Mare had been partner in a shipbuilding firm at Bow Creek listed as ‘Mare, Charles John and Co, iron and wood ship and steamboat builders. Orchard Yard, Blackwall’. However….

Mare became the subject of further public disgrace in October 1855 when he declared voluntary bankruptcy with unsecured debts of £160,000 and total liabilities of £400,000. The news was greeted with ‘universal surprise’ as his dockyard now employed upwards of 4,000 men. In public he blamed his bankruptcy on the delayed payments of clients, but it appears that Mare’s underestimation of costs on a range of contracts, and his profligate investments in property, the GSSSC and his Newmarket racehorse stud all contributed to his perilous finances.
Source: https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/2018/12/13/innovation-corruption-and-bankruptcy-charles-john-mare-1814-1898/

On its liquidation, the firm was taken over by Mare’s father-in-law, Peter Rolt, who renamed it the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co.

In Millwall, Mare fitted up his new yard and engineering shops, and added rolling mills for iron plates and armour, investing about £100,000 in the mill. One large, early contract for the firm (in 1861) was the production of armour plating for HMS Warrior, Britain’s first ironclad warship which was contructed by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co.

Financially, though, things were not going well for Mare (they never did – and he died destitute in Stepney in 1898) and he was again declared bankrupt. His firm was taken over in 1862 by his creditors, the bank Overend Gurney & Company who created a joint stock company (the bank’s directors also became directors of the new company). Within a few weeks this company was liquidated, and another company created, again with a share issue.

1864 share certificate. I just ordered one of these from a collector of such things and am eagerly awaiting its arrival.

The works that had been much enlarged by Scott-Russell were at their largest. Survey of London:

The works were on either side of Westferry Road, linked by a horse-tramway. On the riverside were building slips, landing wharves, sawmills, joiners’ shops, an engine factory, foundries, pattern-, mould- and sail-lofts and a mast factory.

c1870

On the landside was concentrated the heavy plant for iron forgings, including hammered armour-plate, rolling mills for turning out bar-iron and angle-iron, armour plate and the rough bars used in the forge and the rolling mills. The scale of the armour-plate mill was vast, with a flywheel 36 ft in diameter, weighing more than 100 tons.

The armour-plate mill

Continuing his praise of the company and its products in ‘Dockyard Economy and Naval Power’, P. Barry wrote:

They possess a fine launching front of 1,500 feet on the River Thames, and in a time of pressure would no doubt turn out a very large amount of tonnage. At present the works are in course of development under the safe guidance of one of those self-made successful men of which England has so much reason to be proud. The Millwall Company have attained a high reputation for the production of rolled armour-plates. …they have quietly improved and perfected the mixtures for rolled armour-plates, until it may be said there is nothing left to be desired.

1863. Photograph from ‘Dockyard Economy and Naval Power’

Crossing the street from the building yard, the gateway opens on the extensive ironworks. The forge consists of six steam-hammers of the largest and most approved descriptions, furnished with steam and other cranes capable of turning out all descriptions of wrought-iron forgings up to 60 tons each piece.

1863. Photograph from ‘Dockyard Economy and Naval Power’

Mr. George Harrison, the managing director of the company, probably possesses as great experience in the organisation of large bodies of workmen as any man in England. He has supervised and is identified with the completion of some of the most considerable public works at home and abroad. For years past it has been his occupation to set to work and keep at work several thousand workmen, so as always to be within contract time, and so that from every contract a profit may be realised. Higher qualifications for the discharge of the onerous duties of managing director of the Millwall Company could not be thought of.

1863. Photograph from ‘Dockyard Economy and Naval Power’

1863. Photograph from ‘Dockyard Economy and Naval Power’

P. Barry also made note of some employment practices at the works which were quite novel for the time.

There is another noteworthy difference between the labour system of the dockyards and that of the Millwall Company. The half-holiday has been established, the bell ringing at one o’clock on Saturday afternoon. For the convenience and comfort of those workmen who do not reside in the neighbourhood, a spacious dining-hall with a large stove has been provided.

There is also a dining and reading room for the clerks, and before long there will be a library. Mr. Harrison is the patron of a workmen’s rowing club, attends the matches, and bestows medals. A cricket club is encouraged in the same manner. So is a band. Such are the relations subsisting between employer and employed at the Millwall Works.

That workers no longer had to work on a Saturday afternoon was very significant to the development of football and other team sports in Britain. In the following years, teams (often works teams) started to appear in Millwall and further afield. West Ham United, for example, started as the works team of the Thames Iron Works, who had close links with the Millwall Iron Works.

Workers at the Millwall Iron Works

In his book, P. Barry described at length the construction of the ironclad frigate, HMS Northumberland, which at a length of 400 feet and weight of 6,621 tons was a major construction job for the firm.

At the bow of this noble ship the erections for the convenience of the workmen are commensurate with the magnitude of their task. These are the plate-bending rolls, capable of bending plates 16 feet in breadth ; and these are the punching and shearing machines, and they are of great power. A steam-capstan hoists the beams into their places with a rapidity that is surprising. The Northumberland is building in an excavated slip, so as to allow the whole of the armour being fastened before the ship is launched.

Construction of HMS Northumberland

Ordered and laid down in 1861, construction of HMS Northumberland took five years to complete, in part due to frequent changes in design of the ship. On 17th March 1866, large crowds, including the Prince of Wales ‘and other distinguished personages’, assembled on the riverside and in boats to watch the launch. At 14:00 the shores were knocked away, the ship started moving towards the river, but…..

The Newcastle Weekly Courant, 23rd March 1866

The ship was stuck with its stern in the air, and there was a real risk that its back would break under its own weight. During the rest of the day, and throughout the night, workers fixed supports under the vessel in order to protect it. At high tide on Sunday another attempt was made to launch the Northumberland, but to no avail. A few weeks later, on 17th April and during high spring tides, pontoons were used to assist the launch, and this time it was successful.

Successful launch of HMS Northumberland

Less than a month later, however, the bank Overend, Gurney and Company – to whom the Millwall Iron Works were heavily in debt – collapsed, leading to an international financial crisis. Many Island firms were bankrupted as a consequence, including the Millwall Iron Works, Shipbuilding & Graving Dock Company. The liquidators seized Northumberland – which had been towed to Victoria Docks for fitting out – as a company asset and eight months passed before the Admiralty were able to take posssession.

HMS Northumberland

After the collapse of the company, its machinery and inventory were put up for sale by auction….

As for the premises of the Millwall Iron Works, these were fragmented and taken over by various companies, most of which had some connection with metal working or ship building. 1900 insurance maps of the area once covered by Millwall Iron works reveal the names of companies that operated afterwards for decades on the Isle of Dogs – some of which names will be familiar to older Islanders.

Guelph Patent Cask Co. Ltd, Joseph Westwood & Co., Edwards & Co, Millwall Metal Co. Ltd

1900. The boundary of the former Millwall Iron Works is marked in blue. (Goad Insurance Map, Museum of London)

1900. The boundary of the former Millwall Iron Works is marked in blue. (Goad Insurance Map, Museum of London)

Burrell & Co., Livingston & Sons. Maconochie Bros.

1900. The boundary of the former Millwall Iron Works is marked in blue. Maconochie’s succeeded Northumberland Works, which was the site of the construction of HMS Northumberland. (Goad Insurance Map, Museum of London)

The following aerial photo shows the extent of the former Millwall Iron Works around 50 years after the works were last operated by a single business. At the time of the photo, quite a few of the buildings could be traced back to pre-Great Eastern times, and even as far back as William Fairbairn’s first works.

1920s. Blue indicates extent of Millwall Iron Works. Click for full-sized version. (Photo: http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk)

World War II, 1950s/60s redevelopment and LDDC activities obliterated most old Island buildings, but a few remnants of the Millwall Iron Works and its successors still survive.

The building now known as the Plate House at Burrell’s Wharf was built for John Scott Russell by William Cubitt & Co. in 1853 after the fire which destroyed William Fairbairn’s 1837 fitting and turning shop. The octagonal chimney is the stump of a chimney which was part of Fairbairn’s works (it’s original height and shape can be seen in the aerial photo above).

Burrell’s Wharf

In Westferry Road are the former houses and offices built by John Scott Russell and partners in the the early 1850s.

Burrell’s Wharf

Diagonally across Westferry Road is a former forge building (it’s marked on the previous map, if you look closely enough), now in use as workshops and gallery space.

The Forge

On the wall of The Forge is an iron plaque dating from 1860 when the building was a workshop belonging to C. J. Mare & Co.

The Forge

When I was young, I went to Harbinger Primary School. The view on two sides of the school – in Harbinger Road and in Westferry Road – was dominated by Westwood’s. Walking home, I would walk first past the building now known as The Forge, which I remember to be a dark, dirty and unwelcoming place (like all Island factories), before passing Burrell’s Wharf on the right.

Even as I kid I knew that the Great Eastern was launched here, but it’s only recently that I have really come to appreciate that my walk home from school was through an industrial site of huge significance to the history of iron-working and iron shipbuilding. And it’s only since researching this article that I have realised just how dodgy the businesses and their owners were.

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Peepshow on the Port of London – A.G. Linney

In the 1920s, Albert Gravely Linney (1873-1936) was the first editor of The P.L.A. Monthly, the magazine of the Port of London Authority.

A keen and talented photographer, Linney took thousands of photos of the river, docks, wharves and bridges during his travels along the length of the Thames – all of which are now held by the Museum of London.

In addition to magazine and newspaper journalism, Linney also wrote books about Dockland, including Peepshow of the Port London (Sampson Low, c1930), a guide to the sites and sights of the Port of London, at the time the largest port in the world.

Not only is the book generously accommodated with some of Linney’s photos, one chapter is dedicated to the history of the Isle of Dogs and another details the origins of the West India Docks – all in Linney’s own quirky, anecdotal style. Some photos and sections from the book are reproduced here along with images from other sources.

The extent of the insularity of the Isle of Dogs has varied much with the passage of years and it is exact to say that to-day the “island” is smaller than ever before and more curiously shaped than ever before. In the early days I doubt not that the tide came and went over most of it and that rivulets at the northern end probably provided a boundary of more or less significant nature. With the construction of the West India Dock at the outset of the nineteenth century the Isle of Dogs had a very distinct boundary to the north … a clearly tracebable limit which separated it from the mainland.

1800 plan of the proposed West India Docks showing the extant fields, streams, ditches and the inland lake, Poplar Gut. Click for full-sized version

Three years after the West India Docks were opened (1802), the City Canal was constructed. … This City Canal never looked like being a financial success, and (1829) it was sold to the West India Dock Company and for a while was used for floated timber. That the making of the Canal was at that time useful is shown by a glance at the river charts of the day. They mark shoals at each end of Limehouse Reach. It is to be remembered, too, that navigation round the Isle of Dogs by sailing vessels before stream tugs existed was a risky and awkward matter.

Construction of the City Canal. The West India Docks are behind the wall on the left. The foreground of this image is approximately the location of the future City Arms.

On November 30th, 1857, a large company of onlookers assembled to see the Great Eastern enter the Thames, but when the dog shores were knocked off, no movement followed. …

I have seen a photograph taken at the launch of the Great Eastern. It must have been taken at the time of the crucial moment, for it shows, standing on one of the platforms erected for spectators, a number of hard-faced Victorians gazing steadfastly at the efforts to release the monster. In the foreground are some of those vitally interested; not only Scott Russell himself, but Isambard Brunel, Henry Wakefield and Lord Derby. The uniformity of their clothes is remarkable, for each one wears a wide-brimmed tall hat, oddly-shaped coat, and trousers marked by more folds and dents than creases. Wellingtons adorn the feet of all, but as it happens – though Victorians revelled in flowing beards – all save Scott are clean shaven.

Photo from Peepshow of Port of London.

At the close of the 1860’s reconstruction was begun and the old City Canal became merged into the South West India Dock as it now exists. This preserved, of course, the same degree of insularity for the “island” until after the War [WWI], when the Limehouse Entrance to the South Dock was closed – and so remains. … The total disappearance of that connected waterway from the Blackwall Reach Entrance to the Limehouse Entrance of the Import Dock arose because of the filling of Limehouse Basin, a step which also drove yet another witness to the reality of the Sailing Ship Era in London River into Limbo.

I was fortunate enough to obtain a photograph down by Limehouse Basin which is tangible evidence of how things were done in the not-so-long ago when steam had not proved all-powerful.

1928. The filling of Limehouse Basin, looking east from the dock side of “The Walls” with a checking post in foreground. Photo: A.G. Linney, Peepshow of Port of London.

The picture shows an old checking post near the junction of the closed Entrance and the Basin. Such checking posts were used in order to swing or steady a sailer during her progress inward or outward. A turn would be taken round the post and as the pull of the ship was so tremendous, the taut rope would literally eat its way into the wood and even into the hardwood battens screwed to the post to take the wear. Faintly showing can be seen the grooves which the straining rope made. In cases when the rope was very new it sometimes happened that the friction was sufficient to set the post alight.

View of the same post, looking west this time, towards “The Walls” (actually, not a wall but a wooden fence here, where an iron swing bridge crossed the dock entrance). Photo: A.G. Linney / Museum of London

[The West India Dock Company]  determined not only that it should be a good wet dock with definite sections for Import and for Export, but also that the warehouses (belonging to the former) should be of the strongest description and that the protection afforded to everything should be of a solidity and nature calculated to exclude even the most desperate marauder.

Parallel with the formidable inner walls ran another, topped by a wrought-iron railing, outside of which was a twenty-foot broad ditch filled with water to a depth of six feet.

Still to be seen, testifying to the fortress-like quality of the “West India” is one of the guardhouses, the sole survivor of several built to accommodate the troops which protected these docks in their earliest days.

Photos: A.G. Linney, Peepshow of Port of London.

I have shown a picture of the checking-post, all rope-scored, and capstan beside the Limehouse Basin; these have just disappeared, but there are still several relics which point clearly back to the times when “West India” was crowded with sail, literally crowded. Two massive iron-cased pillars stand on either side of the cut from the Import Dock which gave access to the Limehouse Basin. These plated pillars forming the ends of the stout protecting walls rise sheer from the water’s edge and serve to make the dock even more impregnable. Their real use, however, was to deflect the jib booms of windships and prevent them from damaging the adjacent warehouse or walls, and saved the vessels from severe jolts.

Photo: A.G. Linney, Peepshow of Port of London.

Just behind No. 12 Warehouse, Rum Quay, in the Import Dock, stands a tall iron post over forty feet high, surmounted by a bell. Both post and bell have a history attaching to them. The post is an iron mast from a sailing-ship and was seized by the Dock Company because charges had not been paid. The bell sounds directly back into a past when wind-jammers abounded in these Docks, and when fire-fighting methods were of the crudest description. Every morning and every evening for a space of ten minutes this bell and others within the dock area were rung as a signal that all fires, lamps and candles, were to be extinguished.

Photo: A.G. Linney, Peepshow of Port of London.

Here and there on the base of the U of the Isle of Dogs still remain a number of dry docks, of which the Regent’s Dry Dock, Britannia Dry Dock, and Canal Dry Dock may be named.

1926. Looking from Byng Street towards Regent’s Dry Dock in Westferry Road. Photo: A.G. Linney / Museum of London

1928. Deptford Ferry Road (which went from Westferry Road – next to the Vulcan – to the river ). Behind the houses, the mast of the ship, Killoran, in Britannia Dry Dock. Photo: A.G. Linney / Museum of London

And what of the “Island” to-day? …. many industries, mostly of a rather smelly sort (oil refining, chemical manufacture, candle making) are carried on; there are some timber yards and foundries. Poverty is not discernible on any wide scale, but it has to be admitted that the streets are sombrely depressing, though to my view the small streets of Millwall and Cubitt Town are boulevards when compared with the utterly drear, blank depression of those rows of houses such as one finds in pit villages in South Yorkshire and Durham.

c1930. Rear of houses in Cahir Street (L) and Harbinger Road (R). Photo: Island History Trust / Isle of Dogs Housing Society

HOW TO SEE THE PORT OF LONDON. For a visitor with limited leisure …. and for just a sight of the docks from a bus top he might pick up the 56 L.G.O. bus near North Island Gardens [sic] and travel on it on the rim of the Isle of Dogs to the entrance to West India Dock; by so doing he will get a peep into Millwall Dock and passing glimpses into South West India Dock and into West India Dock. From West India Dock Road he can pick up a bus which will bring him right up to the Strand or Trafalgar Square.

1926. A bridger in Westferry Road looking south at Kingsbridge. On the left is a glimpse of the sailors’ home outside the main road entrance to Millwall Dock. Photo: A.G. Linney / Museum of London

I doubt if this route offers much attraction to the walker except when he may slip down to the various stairs which give a peep at the River here and there, and beyond North Island Gardens he we will not find much worth looking at.

The view from Island Gardens. Photo: A.G. Linney, Peepshow of Port of London.

The book is a good read, and a good-quality, inexpensive copy is not difficult to find online. A recommendation to anyone interested in the history of London’s docks in general, and on the Isle of Dogs in particular.

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Commercial Road

Commercial Road is a busy, polluted – and in places ugly – traffic artery which is very significant to me and my family history.  From the mid-1800s, when my ancestor Cord Lemmermann arrived from Germany, and until the late 1900s, the Lemmermans always lived in its vicinity (the last ‘n’ in the family name was dropped during WWI). Me? I was even born there, at the East End Maternity Hospital.

Cord – he anglicized his name to Conrad – came from a farming family just south of Hamburg and, like many of his compatriots in the East End at the time, he ended up working at a sugar baker’s, “a notoriously labour intensive, hot, exhausting, and dangerous place to work” (see this website for a description of the industry).

For more than a century, male Lemmermans worked locally in the docks or on the wharves, or had other labouring jobs. After WWII, some migrated to far off places like Dagenham, Basildon, Aveley and …. the Isle of Dogs. I made a map of where everyone lived over the years, and here is the Shadwell area, with Commercial Road at the top:

Commercial Road is also, literally, connected to the Isle of Dogs (the usual subject-matter of this blog). When plans for the construction of the East India Docks and West India Docks were announced close to 1800, thoughts also turned to how to accommodate the dock traffic between them and the City. The dock owners were keen to ensure swift and reliable transport of their goods; after all, one of the main reasons for building the docks in the first place was to circumvent the delays – and thefts – caused when ships had to wait in the crowded Thames for their turn to be unloaded.

At the time, the main thoroughfares between the City of London and Limehouse were Cable Street and Ratcliff Highway (sections of both roads had various names over the years), but these were already very congested, being the main roads between the City and south Essex. It was proposed instead to build a new road.

The following image, a section of a 1753 image of London Hospital viewed from Whitechapel Road shows how rural the area was. In the background are ships and buildings along the Thames, and St. George in the East, but other than that, just fields.

Section of ‘View of the London Hospital in Whitechapel Road’, 1753. Artist: Jean Baptiste Claude Chatelain

Travellers can be seen passing through the fields, possibly following White Horse Lane. It was proposed to build the new Commercial Road based on sections of this old country path. The following is an extract from the “Plan of a road intended to be made from the West India Docks in the Isle of Dogs to communicate with Aldgate High Street in the City of London; to be called the Commercial Road.”

1800. Plan of projected Commercial Road. (London Metropolitan Archives). Click for full-sized version.

Thanks to an Act of Parliament, the Commercial Road Company (a business set up by the dock owners, its first chairman was George Hibbert) were awarded construction of the new road.

Section of the Act to allow construction of Commercial Road

After the Act was passed, the company set about raising funds, announcing the availability of subscriptions in national newspapers.

Money was also earned selling building plots along the road.

The opening of the Commercial Road in 1806 was quickly followed by the construction of new streets and buildings on both sides. 

1812. Western half of Commercial Road

1812. Eastern half of Commercial Road

By the 1840s the road was completely lined with buildings, and the former fields at their rears had disappeared (the population of London grew from 1 million to 6.7 million between 1800 and 1900). The urbanisation of Stepney was complete.

1843

In the 1860s Commercial Road became a public road, with ownership transferring to the Metropolitan Board of Works, and road tolls were abolished. In 1870, the road was extended at its western end to remove the need for the tight turn into Church Lane.

1860s. Proposed Commercial Road extension

A Journey East along the Commercial Road

The new corner with Whitechapel High Street was known as Gardiner’s Corner after the department store that was built on the location.

c1900. Gardiner’s Corner

In 1972, Gardiner’s, which had closed a year earlier, was enveloped in a huge fire. The damage was so great – the clock tower collapsed at the height of the conflagration – that the famous landmark had to be demolished. The junction has been remodelled at least twice since then, and the corner no longer exists; the area has been reinvented by property developers as Aldgate Place.

1972. Photo: London Fire Brigade

Just round the corner in Commercial Road a fire station was built in 1875. Its engine house was rebuilt in 1900, and the set of buildings was replaced with a new fire station in 1929.

1905. Whitechapel Fire Station, Commercial Road. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=215540)

2015. Whitechapel Fire Station, Commercial Road

The Gunmaker’s Proof House, largely obscured by the van in the following photo, was built in the 1820s. The building to its right, 46 Commercial Road, is the former Hall of the Gunmaker’s Company. In the background, the huge Commercial Road Goods Depot.

1965. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=122975)

Severn, King & Co. had a grocer’s shop in Church Lane and a sugarhouse around the corner, between Union Street and Mulberry Street. It burned down in 1819, and the remains became a bit of a sightseeing attraction for a while.

1820. Remains of Severn, King & Co’s sugarhouse. Image: London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=20034)

Looking back towards Gardiner’s Corner. The garage on the right is approximately on the site of the sugarhouse. Across the road are Morrison Buildings, demolished in the 1970s (a smaller block still exists on the other side of the road).

1967. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=122981)

Present-day equivalent of previous view

The following photo was taken at the corner with Berner Street (now named Henriques Street) in about 1890, two years after Jack the Ripper committed one of his murders in the street. From 1871 to at least 1881, Cord Lemmerman lived at 29 Berner Street with his wife Sophia Elizabeth, three children, and fourteen other people.

c1890. Commercial Road

A few yards east, and still looking east, in circa 1895. The Duke of Clarence pub on the left was at 71 Commercial Road, on the corner of Greenfield Road.

The sites of a few of the previous old images are all on this modern-day photo.

Looking east from Settles Street. In the background the construction of the tower blocks near Watney Street is visible. After years of living in a tiny flat above a clothes maker in Cannon Street Road, my uncle, aunt and cousins – Tommy, Margie, Danny and Katheryn – moved into one of these, Winterton House.

1971. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=122992)

Approximately the same view as the previous photo.

At 226 Commercial Road was the Palaseum Cinema. Ken Roe (cinematreasures.org)

Located … between Anthony Street and Fenton Street. Designed in a Moorish style, when built it had two domes on each end of the facade, with a central dome over the entrance. This central dome had a decorative minaret located on each side. The 1,000 seat Fienman’s Yiddish Theatre, opened in March 1912 with productions of “King Ahab” and “Rigoletto”. It was soon also screening films, and in 1913, it was re-named Palaseum Cinema.

The Palaseum Cinema was closed on 19th June 1960 with Dorothy Dandridge in “Tamingo” and Randolph Scott in “Commanche Station”.

It was re-opened by Essoldo and re-named Essoldo on 18th October 1961 with Orson Welles in “David and Goliath” and the documentary “Blitz on Britain”. The Essoldo closed on 1st September 1966 with Elvis Presley in “Girls, Girls, Girls” and Jerry Lewis in “The Bellboy”.

It then re-opened as the Palaseum Cinema, screening Indian ‘Bollywood’ films. The Palaseum Cinema finally closed in October 1985, and was later demolished. In 2008, a recently erected building on the site contains a Tesco Express supermarket, with flats above.

The previous photo was taken from the corner with Philpot Street. The following was taken from the same place, but looking in the opposite direction. At No. 240a was the former Baptist Chapel with its grand, columned facade.

1966. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=122979)

Slightly further, before Watney Street and just visible in the previous photo, was the Great Synagogue, founded in 1920 and closed in 1968.

1970

To the rear of the synagogue, and running parallel with Watney Street between Watney Passage and Chapman Road is Morris Street, where my dad grew up. The Lemmermans moved here from Tarling Street, just the other side of Watney Street.

c1959. Grandmother Mary (nee Coakley), neighbour, neighbour, Dad John, Uncle Connie (Conrad).

My Grandfather Thomas getting ready to go to work. I never met him or my Grandmother, I am sorry to say, they both died just before my birth.

Watney Street hosted a smallish market which was a bit run-down and was missing many buildings after WWII. Still, it was much missed when it and the area around it was demolished and redeveloped in c1970.

1960s. Watney Street

1970. Architect’s model. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=276513)

Just past Deancross Street is one of the few residential terraces to be built in Commercial Road, 300-334 Commercial Road.

1974. 300-334 Commercial Road (left to right). Photo: London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=123041)

2019

To the left of this terrace – across Sutton Street – is St. Michael and Mary church and school, which was attended by my dad and some of his brothers. Across Commercial Road at this location is The George Tavern, built in 1820 on the site of the ‘Halfway House’ tavern which is shown on the old maps above and which had been there since at least 1654.

1600s. The Halfway House.

The George Tavern in 2010. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

A few yards further east was where I entered the world, in the early 1960s, The East End Maternity Hospital.

1973. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=224712)

The hospital became some sort of benefits office in the late 1970s, but is these days known as the Steel’s Lane Health Centre. I’d never heard of Steel’s Lane, and had to look it up – it is the narrow road behind the former hospital.

Travelling east again, past Arbour Square, the following is a photo taken in about 1890 from close to Stepney Causeway. London Metropolitan Archive:

On the right the protruding building was the Commercial Brewery Co., now the Grade II listed Troxy Theatre, with Dorset Street, now Pitsea Street to the right. On the left the Greco-Roman style building is Stepney Temple, Wesleyan East End Mission.

c1890. Commercial Road

A century later and my sister Angie, along with boyfriend Gary and son John, lived here on the right. A noisy place with the constant sound and smell of traffic.

The same view as the previous photo in 2015

Angie and John on the top floor balcony

Wikipedia:

Opened in 1933 on the site of an old brewery, Troxy cost £250,000 to build and when it first showed films had a capacity of 3,520, making it the largest cinema in England at that time. Inside the building the cinema had luxurious seating, a revolving stage, mirror-lined restaurants and customers were served by staff wearing evening dress. To add to the sense of luxury, Troxy staff sprayed perfume during film showings. The cinema showed all the latest major releases and had a floodlit organ which rose from the orchestra pit during the interval, playing popular tunes.

c1948

Between 1960 and 1963 Troxy stood empty until the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, took over and created the London Opera Centre School for the training of opera singers and professionals, which was based there from 1963 to 1977.

In the 1980s Top Rank (later named Mecca) Bingo took over the venue and bingo sessions were held twice a day, seven days a week until 2005 when the rise of online gambling led to Mecca taking the decision to stop using the building.

The venue was reborn as a live events space in 2006, and has continued to be used for concerts and other events ever since, hosting prestigious awards ceremonies, gigs, film screenings including Secret Cinema screenings and sporting events.

Diagonally opposite the Troxy was one of the best looking shops around as far as I was concerned – the Zenith dealership. There was something very un-English about it, almost American.

1957. To the right of Zenith’s. Photo: London Metropolitan Archive. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=122948)

2017

We’re close to the junction of Commercial Road, White Horse Road and Butcher Row (the present-day names), once the corner of White Horse Lane and White Horse Street, the northernmost extent of the 1794 Ratcliff Fire.

I spent many Saturday afternoons in this area; my dad and his brothers (and mate Sid) would religiously meet at Uncle Reg’s flat in John Scurr House to play cards, while my cousin Paul and I would hang around the streets or watch the telly. There was a baker’s at the start of White Horse Road which sold the best bread and rolls in the world – we’d always buy some of the still-warm bread before heading home. This photo shows the baker’s shortly before demolition – I don’t know it was called Wall’s when I visited the shop around 1970.

2012

1851. Looking east. St. Anne’s is in the distance, and Regent’s Canal Dock and the Thames are on the right.

2019. Similar view to previous image.

The other side of the railway bridge was dominated on one side by George Cohen’s scrap firm whose head office address was 600 Commercial Road, a number used as a logo.

1970s. Dad, Sid, Uncle Harry

The other side of the road had various shops and houses that were looking forlorn in the 1970s.

1977. 683-691 Commercial Road. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=123079)

They’re looking better these days (but…..Tequila Wharf?).

We already entered E14 when we crossed the junction with White Horse Road and Butcher Row, but I never had the feeling that that area was Limehouse – it felt more like Stepney to me (if something can feel like Stepney). After the following rail bridge, though, we are clearly in Limehouse, with the Public Library visible in the near distance. Wikipedia:

The library was first proposed for construction in 1888, but the required finances could not be raised until 1900 when John Passmore Edwards was approached for assistance. He subscribed a sum of £5,000 and he subsequently laid the foundation stone on October 19 of that year. The library was opened to the public in November 1901 by the mayor of Stepney. More recently usage of the Grade II listed building fell, and it eventually closed in 2003.

That we are getting closer to the docks is apparent from the large building diagonally opposite the library: the Seamen’s Mission on the corner of Salmon Lane (whose name is a corruption of Sermon Lane due to its connection with St Dunstan’s Church in Stepney). This Grade II Listed building was originally known as the Empire Memorial Sailors’ Hostel.  Its foundation stone was laid on the 13th of March 1923.

1920s (estimate)

2017

The mission (or hostel) is close to Britannia Bridge, which crosses Limehouse Cut. Diagonally opposite, on the other side of the canal, is Limehouse Town Hall, which opened in 1881.

Circa 1910. Limehouse Town Hall, with St Anne’s in the background.

Wikipedia:

After the civil parish became a part of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney in 1900, the town hall ceased to be the seat of local government and was used as an events venue and administrative centre.

On 30 July 1909 the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George made a polemical speech in the assembly room, attacking the House of Lords for its opposition to his “People’s Budget”. This speech was the origin of the phrase “To Limehouse”, or “Limehousing”, which meant an incendiary political speech. The building was badly damaged in the Blitz during the Second World War but was subsequently restored and re-opened by the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, in November 1950.

About a decade after the re-opening, my parents married in the Town Hall. My dad was 18 and my mum 17.

My parent’s wedding. On the steps of Limehouse Town Hall.

Next to the town hall, and dominating the area is St. Anne’s Church, designed by Hawksmoor and consecrated in 1730.The following image is believed to show Limehouse Cut being widened a couple of years after the opening of Commercial Road (which goes from left to right, lined by a fence, in this image). On the left is the Britannia Tavern, which gave its name to the bridge. It is a very rural scene.

1809

The view from St. Anne’s churchyard across Commercial Road, with outfitters Grant’s on the other side.

1977. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=222396)

1977. Looking back towards St. Anne’s

Just out of view of the previous photos is The Star of the East pub, opened in the 1840s and still going strong.

The Star of the East pub.

Looking east from the pub, and the view was dominated by the Eastern Hotel, later renamed the Londoner (now closed and demolished)

The pub’s address was 2 East India Dock Road, and right of the pub from this angle is West India Dock Road – two more roads built by the docks company at the start of the 1800s. The Commercial Road ends here, 1.9 miles from Gardiner’s Corner.

Also here is a firm that had much business from the Lemmermans and other East End families over the decades, including when my grandparents, dad and sister died. The firm’s gone now.

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Seacon

In 1946, the former Bullivant’s Wharf at 38 Westferry Road (scene of the Island’s worst bombing tragedy during World War II) was taken over by wharfingers Freight Express Ltd. who renamed it Express Wharf.

1968. Express Wharf, with St Luke’s school in the background (and Lenanton’s beyond that). Photo: Hugo Wilhare

Survey of London:

In 1973 Freight Express merged with the shipping and freight-forwarding agency Seacon* to form Freight Express-Seacon Ltd. Express Wharf was redeveloped as the London Steel Terminal to handle steel cargoes from the EEC.

* Founded in 1955 as Sea & Continental Waterways Transport Ltd

Freight Express – Seacon ship

The terminal consisted of two sheds, the first of which was completed in 1976.

Circa 1980. Photo: Gary O’Keefe

Survey of London:

[The shed was…] equipped with high-speed gantry cranes for unloading from ships and loading on to lorries. Canopies project beyond the quay to give cover to vessels at berth.

Late 1970s.

Seacon shed interior in 1981

A few years later, work started on the construction of a second shed which – according to Survey of London – was four metres lower than the other, taking account of the introduction of hydraulically lowered wheelhouses on ships. I get to learn the most obscure facts researching these articles, but never quite what I need to improve my chances in a pub quiz.

1985. Demolition in preparation for construction of second shed. Stuck-together screenshots from the Prospects TV series.

1986. Construction of second shed. Photo: Peter Wright

Completed second shed. The crane in the far background is involved in the construction of the Cascades apartment block.

1990s. Photo: Peter Wright

Photos taken from the river in the following years show what had become one of the last working industrial wharves left on the Island (along with neighbours Lenanton’s) being steadily dwarfed by the surrounding construction of apartment and office blocks.

Lenanton’s and Seacon

1988. Photo: Ken Lynn

1989

Early 1990s

Inevitably, Seacon closed their Isle of Dogs terminal (the company is still going strong, operating at other places in the UK and around the World), and demolition started.

Photo: Paul Albon

Photo: Paul Albon

Photo: Paul Albon  

Photo: David Jones

Ken Lynn captured an image of one local opinion about the demise of Seacon…..

Photo: Ken Lynn

In 2002, Tower Hamlets Borough Council received an application to build a 16-storey apartment block on the site which would go by the name of Seacon Tower. Approval was given, but the developers revised their application and requested that the building be increased to 23 storeys (this kind of thing seems to happen a lot on the Island). Final approval for a 21-storey version was granted in April 2003, and the building was completed in 2004.

2019. Seacon Wharf development from Hutchings Street.

Seacon Tower from the river

At the base of the tower, on the river side, is a low wall with a plaque dedicated to those who died in the WWII Bullivant’s tragedy.

See this article for more about the unveiling of the plaque and the story of the incident.

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Jack Summers at the end of the Walls

A familiar sight at the end of the Walls (or their start, depending on the direction you were travelling) was the firm, Jack Summers, on the corner of West Ferry Road and Emmett Street.

1970s. From left to right: Jack Summers, Emmett Street, former newsagents and tobacconists, George Baker & Sons, Providence House. All these buildings have been demolished (even this section of Emmett Street has disappeared) and West Ferry Circus is now on the site.

Recently, Harold Summers, whose father owned the firm, got in touch with me. He wrote:

My family used to have a Timber Yard and Kiln Drying business in the 1960s until the redevelopment, called Jack Summers (Kilning) Ltd. …  I have some pictures taken at the Wharf when I worked there from 1967 through 1973. Would be happy to share if you ever need pictures from that era.

Of course I wanted to see the photos! There are probably thousands of photos out there, sitting in boxes, which haven’t seen the light of day for years and it’s fantastic when somebody makes them available for everyone to see. My thanks to Harold – the following photos and text are all his.

I went back for a visit in 1978 and drove down to the Wharf for a visit, taking my camera. It was late in the day so there were long shadows. There are a few pictures amongst them from an earlier day pre ’73 which were taken on a misty day when we were unloading a barge. Round about ’71 or 2 I remember we took over the Wharf next door (East side) to give us more outdoor storage space. There was a disused house on that site by West Ferry Road which we never utilized.

The older guy in the trilby hat is my dad, the guv, Jack Summers.

We ended up with two gantry cranes running up and down the shed.

… it was Bridge Wharf that was incorporated into Emmett St Wharf, and my pictures of the Coles mobile crane unloading the barges were on Bridge Wharf. Before that, we had to use the Gantry Crane in the shed on ESW that extended over the river. But it had other duties, Loading, and unloading lorries, as well as feeding the “Stickers”: who were constructing the stacks to be winched into the kilns.

Heavy work, lifting (by hand) to make the stacks of “sticked” timber, that was then winched on wheeled boggies into the Kilns. I’m sure today they have come up with a less back-breaking method.

The office we had on the corner of Emmett Street was pretty basic. Too often at weekends, the local kids would smash the windows and then jump inside and trash the place. The picture of the guy in the office in the sports-jacket is my late brother Simon.

When my father decided to close the business, we sold off Bridge Wharf to a bus or trucking company. Otherwise, I think the bank took the rest and owned it until the redevelopment.

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