The Isle of Dogs in 1980

1980 was in many ways one of the lowest points in the history of the Isle of Dogs – the end of a long economic decline which arguably started before World War II, and which picked up speed in the early 1970s. The primary reasons for this were:

  1. The decline in cargo handled by the West India and Millwall Docks (and its knock-on effect on firms which depended on the docks).
  2. The high percentage of manufacturing firms which needed to modernize in order to remain competitive, but which had neither the funds nor space to do so, resulting in them relocating or closing for good.

The 1970s was a decade of economic problems and industrial strife – remember the three-day week, power cuts and strikes? During this period, unemployment in Poplar (including the Isle of Dogs) rose from 5% to 16%, while the average for London was 7% and the average for Britain as a whole was 8%. On the Island in 1980, approximately one in every six adults who was able to work did not have a job!

Meanwhile, many of those who were fortunate to have a job had to travel off the Island to go to work, whereas before WWII most Islanders lived within walking distance of their job. Ironically, car ownership on the Island in the 1970s was higher than the average for London – presumably because of the poor public transport and geographical isolation of the place.

By way of demonstration, in this 1980 aerial photo of Cubitt Town, I’ve highlighted the area which until a year or two previously had been occupied by firms. By 1980, most of the firms had since ceased operating, or were about to do so, and most of the factories and warehouses had already been demolished. Apex, Marela, Boropex, Sternol, Luralda – names which will be familiar to many Islanders – all disappeared in quick succession.

1980. Aerial photo of south Cubitt Town. Click for full-sized version.

Apart from the large area of dereliction and demolition, this ‘corner’ of the Island didn’t look too pretty anyway for much of the second half of the 1970s……

The prefabs along Manchester Road were demolished in the early 1970s, leaving a derelict area for many years, separated from the road by corrugated iron fences.

1978, Manchester Road

Shops and houses on the corner of Glengarnock Avenue and Manchester Road were demolished in the mid-70s, ostensibly to make room for the construction of George Green’s School, but this small area also remained derelict for years.


Opposite Christ Church, my estate:

Glengarnock Avenue

At the end of Glengall Grove you can see Millwall Park. It was bereft of trees and shrubs, and was a fairly bare expanse which readily waterlogged when it rained (it still has the tendency to do that, but a lot less so since its level was raised with earth excavated during the construction of the DLR tunnel to Greenwich)….

c1980, Millwall Park. Not entirely bereft of trees – there is a lone, young tree doing its best. Photo: Peter Wright (I think)

On the other side of the park, what was once the Hawkins & Tipson’s rope shed (aka the ‘rope walk’ or ‘ropey’).

c1977. Former rope walk. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

c1977. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

The situation was similar on other parts of the Island….

The Glass Bridge – vandalized. Photo: Mark Daydy

Roffey House

East Ferry Road. Photo: Gary O’Keefe

Manchester Road (Photo: Bill Regan)

Manchester Road (Photo: Bill Regan)

Pier Head Cottages, Westferry Road

Westferry Road

Westferry Road (Photo: Jim O’Donnell)

Westferry Road. Would like to credit this photo, if anyone knows whose it is.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved growing up on the Island in the 1970s, and was too young to pay much attention to the big world around me. Besides, I had a fantastic time as a kid playing in derelict factories, along the river and over the Muddy. The best playground ever!

I certainly had no idea that the closure of the docks and most firms was changing the nature of the Island for good. Thomas J. Cole (Life and Labor in the Isle of Dogs):

As one Island native declared, “people used to come to Millwall to work . . . but now Millwallers have to go off to find work.” Available statistics support this observation. Up through 1970 the Island was a net importer of labor. This is no longer the case. In the inter-war period, seventy-five percent of the Island’s resident work force was employed locally. By the late 1970s, seventy percent of the district’s economically active adults commuted out of the district to work. The potential threat this situation posed to the community was aptly summed up by one Island leader. He remarked that the district “must have [jobs]… Otherwise this is just going to become somewhere to sleep. It’s not going to be a living community [without] industry.”

And also, because I went to university at the end of 1979, I missed most of what happened to the Island from 1980 onwards. I did come home regularly at weekends, in the first year at least, and did notice that more and more had been demolished, but I had no idea of the extent….

The Isle of Dogs appears to also include some of Poplar in this map (from an early LDDC document).

Click for full-sized version

I also had little notion of what the London Docklands Development Corporation was. I knew they had something to do with the Urban Development Corporations that were popping up over Britain, and was immediately bitter that they appeared to be demolishing everything along the river in order to make room for ‘flats for yuppies’, but it’s only recently that I’ve taken the time to properly study the corporation’s influence and impact. (Saving that for another blog, or even a book).

Barkantine Estate

Another change for the Island (and for the rest of the country) was The Housing Act 1980. Survey of London:

The election in 1979 of a Conservative Government committed to privatization and to the encouragement of home ownership brought a new impetus to sales of council houses. The Housing Act of 1980 gave all council tenants of more than three years’ residence a statutory right to buy their dwelling and it permitted councils to give discounts of up to 50 per cent on the assessed value of the property.

This right to buy (which my Mum took advantage of, and was very happy about it) was accompanied by a transfer of much housing stock to housing associations, and a massive cut in council housing budgets – the idea being that housing associations and the free market would provide for sufficient housing. London Borough of Tower Hamlets built no more new homes, and had insufficient funds to maintain the houses that it was still responsible for. Thomas J. Cole:

In general the condition of local authority housing in Tower Hamlets worsened dramatically between 1980 and 1986, the proportion categorized as unsatisfactory rising from 15 per cent to 49 per cent.

Meanwhile, many of those who had benefited from the purchase of their council homes, sold up and moved off the Island – often to Essex or Kent – joining those who had left earlier in order to find work elsewhere. A decade later, this ‘churning’ of the Island population was even more dramatic, with the arrival of thousands from Limehouse who had been displaced by the construction of the Limehouse Link – and even more newcomers who were working in the newly-opened Canary Wharf development. The population of the Island grew from approximately 17,000 to 30,000 between 1980 and 2000!

The jury is out – as far as I can tell. Many current Island residents complain about how it is now: it’s too busy, too overdeveloped, too much this and too much that. One thing is for sure – after the demolitions of the 1980s, construction on the Island has not stopped – after more than three decades they are still managing to find space (or demolish recently-built offices) to squeeze in another tower.

On the other hand, others love living there. Less people say this though, or maybe they’re not so noisy about it.

Some of these opinions I have gathered from friends, but most I have gleaned from social networking groups. I am very curious what kind of posts and comment there would have been if we had Twatter and Facebag in 1980?

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Iron Shipbuilding on the Isle of Dogs

Shipbuilding and repairing had been carried out at Limehouse and Blackwall since before 1500, and for centuries the Thames was the centre of Britain’s shipbuilding industry thanks to its proximity to City merchants and the Admiralty.

Blackwall Yard from the Thames by Francis Holman, 1784 (in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

However, in 1831, twenty five years after the opening of the West India Docks, there were still no shipbuilders of note on the Isle of Dogs. In fact, at the time, there was not much of anything on the Island, apart from along the riverside in the west.

1830. Click for full version.

The enormous increase in international maritime trade in the 1700s meant that ever larger ships were being built. However, limitations in the structural strength of wood meant a limit on the size that ships could become (and also, as ship sizes grew, the amount of space lost to timber frames grew exponentially). On top of this, around 1800, shipbuilding timber was becoming scarcer and more expensive, and most had to be imported.

Iron had been readily available for centuries in Britain, and the first iron-hulled ships were built in the 1760s. However, they were expensive to build and to operate – not only because they relied on marine steam engines and other technologies which were in their infancy –  but also because iron plates of sufficient size and strength where not yet available at a low enough price. By the 1820s, however, large wrought iron plates could be manufactured on a large enough scale and at low enough prices to make them economically viable for use in the construction of ships.

Virtually none of the traditional shipyards along the Thames switched over to iron shipbuilding. The iron shipbuilders were all ‘newcomers’ who built new yards, and the Isle of Dogs, with its undeveloped river frontage very close to the City, was the perfect place to set up business.

William Fairbairn

The first iron shipbuilding yard on the Island – and also on the Thames – was built by general engineer William Fairbairn in 1836. Fairbairn was a Scot; many owners of major Island engineering firms where from Scotland or the North of England who had moved their businesses south to take advantage of the opportunities offered by iron shipbuilding. Fellow Scot, marine engineer David Napier, built his engineering works adjacent to Fairbairn’s “Millwall Iron Works”.


Speaking in 1859 he said … that he 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’

PS Thistle was commissioned by the Hunter River Steam Navigation Co. the first fully Australian-owned steamship company established in 1839. Thistle was wrecked on Port Albert Bar on 23 December 1859 and quickly disappeared. Her wreck was rediscovered in 1997.

“Emperor Nicholas I on the Nevka Steamship” painted by Alexey Petrovich Bogolyubov

By 1860, virtually the whole of the east side of the Island was occupied by shipyards of varying sizes.

1860. Click for full-sized version.

John Stewart

After serving an apprenticeship in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Gateshead-born John Stewart came to London, and was soon appointed managing engineer to the Shipowners’ Towing Co. After some years’ service in this capacity, he commenced business on his own account, and purchased small premises in Russell Street, Blackwall. The business increased so rapidly that in 1854 he moved his ‘Blackwall Iron Works’ to a larger site to the south, off Folly Wall on the Isle of Dogs. Here he built a large number of tug boats, but he specialized in the construction and fitting of marine steam engines.

Alfred Fernandez Yarrow

Yarrow was one of the few Island shipbuilders who was a ‘local boy’, having been born and raised in Stepney. In 1866 he established a small engineering firm in partnership with Robert Hedley on a former barge-builder’s yard known as Hope Yard. The partnership did not last long, and from 1875 Yarrow ran the business alone.

Survey of London:

This plot had a river frontage of only a little over 90ft and the further drawback that a right of way ran across it to the Folly House. The freehold of both the yard and the adjoining area on which the Folly House stood was purchased in 1875, however, and the residue of the lease of the public house was acquired soon after. The yard then became known as Folly Shipyard.

Folly Shipyard. The building on the right is the former Folly House Tavern.

A boat under construction at Yarrow’s. In the foreground is the path, Folly Wall, which was a public right of way. Behind the boat, the houses of Stewart Street, and in the background St John’s Church


Yarrow’s Yard was extended, small section by small section, followed by a large extension southwards into the former Samuda Yard (the firm had been dissolved on Joseph D’Aguilar Samuda’s death). Even this was not enough space, and Yarrow transferred his business to London Yard in 1898.

Marine engine construction at Yarrow’s London Yard

Yarrow’s London Yard

Joseph D’Aguilar Samuda

In 1852, Samuda built a large shipyard between the newly-built Manchester Road (just north of the corner with Glengall Road) and the river. Working originally with his brother, and specializing in marine engine building, ship building was added to the business in 1843. According to his 1885 obituary:

From 1851 he occupied himself almost exclusively in iron and steel shipbuilding, and constructed a large number of vessels for most of the principal navies and leading mercantile companies. Amongst them may be mentioned the “Thunderbolt,” the first armour-cased iron vessel built; the “Prince Albert,” the first iron-clad cupola ship built; and the “Mortar Float No. 1,” the first iron mortar vessel built.

Samuda’s Yard (which was not in Millwall)

More recently he built two very fast steel vessels, the “Albert Victor” and the “Louise Dagmar,” each 1040 tons burden and 2800 H.P. with a speed of 18.5 knots per hour, for the Channel service between Folkestone and Boulogne; and subsequently the “Mary Beatrice” with a speed of 19 knots per hour.

Of late years the principal part of his work was the construction of armour-clad vessels, the most recent being the Brazilian turret ships “Riachuelo” and “Aquidaban.”

The firm did not build only iron ships, they also built iron-clad wooden ships. The following image of Samuda’s Yard appears to show the construction of a wooden ship.

Embed from Getty Images

The Brazilian iron-clad frigate, Aquidabã , built by Samuda’s.

Westwood, Baillie, Campbell & Co.

In 1856 Westwood, Baillie, Campbell & Co. established a shipbuilding yard – known as London Yard – south of Samuda’s shipyard.

London Yard in the 1860s.

The firm built a number of ships at the yard including HMS Resistance.

1861 launch of HMS Resistance (which did not take place at Millwall)

James Ash

James Ash, who had been naval architect to both C. J. Mare and the Thames Iron Works Company, established a shipyard directly north of Pier Street, which at that time extended across Manchester Road to Cubitt Town Pier. Survey of London:

Ash, who had been naval architect to both C. J. Mare and the Thames Iron Works Company, established an impressive yard here, with an extensive two-storey brick office and works building.

James Ash & Co’s shipyard, 1863


Dudgeon Brothers

John Dudgeon (1816-1881) and William Dudgeon (1818-1875), after starting their career in Scotland, moved south, and in 1856 to set up The Sun Iron Works on Lollar Wharf (off Westferry Rd opposite the Tooke Arms). One of their first contracts was to build an engine for the Thunder, a ship designed by John Dudgeon and being built by Messrs Lungley in Deptford.

The Thunder was launched in December 1859, and soon demonstrated that she was the fastest steamer yet provided with a screw propeller. She was a handsome vessel, ship-rigged, with clipper bows, and her masts and funnels had a slight rake which gave her a very attractive appearance.
R. A. Fletcher – Steamships, the Story of their Development to the Present Day (1910)

In 1861 the brothers went into shipbuilding themselves, at a yard directly south of Pier Street (which at the time crossed Manchester Rd). The first ship they built was the 150-foot Flora, the first twin-screw steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Flora, 1862

The innovative twin-screw design allowed much faster and fuel-efficient steamships to be built. The result was fast and highly manoeuvrable ships with low draughts that were ideally suited for events taking place on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean – the American Civil War.

A few days after the American Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, President Lincoln announced a land and sea blockade of the rebellious, southern states. The newly formed Confederate States of America had only 35 ships in its navy, and turned to privateers to penetrate the blockade, using fast steamships that could outrun the Union ships. The Dudgeon brothers exploited this situation and specialized in the manufacture of fast twin-screw blockade runners for the Confederacy, at times employing up to 1500 men at their yard. They also sold similar ships to the Union on the other side of the war.

One of the most famous Dudgeon-built blockade runners was the CSS Tallahassee. Originally developed for the opium trade in China, the Tallahassee was converted into a second class gunboat, retrofitted with a 100-pounder rifle, 32-pounder rifle, 30-pounder Parrot rifle and a brass howitzer.

John Scott-Russell

In 1848, John Scott-Russell and partners Albert and Richard Robinson took over Fairbairn’s Millwall Iron Works. Survey of London:

Their products included sugarcane crushing machinery, but the best-known part of the business was shipbuilding, in both wood and iron. Unusually, vessels were launched from the yard fully fitted out. Ships built by the Robinsons and Russell included the iron steamer Taman, completed in 1848 for the Russian government to operate from the Black Sea ports.

In 1853, the adjacent Napier’s works were destroyed by fire and Scott-Russell leased that land too.


His by now much larger yard would be dominated in the coming years by the construction of the Great Eastern – launched in 1859 – which would eventually bankrupt him (see this article for more details).

Looking across Westferry Road towards the construction of the Great Eastern (click for full sized version)

Left to right in foreground: John Scott-Russell, Henry Wakefield, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Lord Derby

The Millwall Iron Works

After the launch of the Great Eastern and Scott-Russell’s bankruptcy, the Millwall Iron Works wer taken over by C.J. Mare & Company and then – in 1862 – by The Millwall Iron Works & Ship Building Company. 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, who enjoyed conditions remarkable for the period, with half-day Saturday working, a canteen, sports clubs and works band.

Workers at the Millwall Iron Works

Like the Thames Iron and Shipbuilding Works, the Millwall Iron Works not only built ships but also manufactured the iron from which they were built. The two establishments were, according to a contemporary view, ‘of infinitely greater national importance’ than the royal dockyards, with a production capacity for iron ships and armour greater than that of the whole of France.

Twin-screw steamers Honfleur and Renne. Built at the Millwall Iron Works

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. 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 36ft in diameter, weighing more than 100 tons.

The opening of the West India Docks in 1806 was accompanied by a small increase in the population of the Isle of Dogs in absolute terms (it rose from approximately 150 to 380 in the years 1801-1811). Virtually all those who worked in the West India Docks in the first couple of decades lived to the north, or a ferry journey away in South London; the small increase was mainly due to the opening of firms capitalizing on their proximity to the docks.

The population of the Island only grew dramatically on the arrival of iron shipbuilding firms and related industries (marine engineering, chain and anchor manufacturing, rope works, etc). In 1831, five years before William Fairbairn opened the first iron shipyard on the Island, the population stood at just over 1300 people – in 1861 it was close to 9000. Thomas Cole, in his superb 1984 thesis Life and Labor in the Isle of Dogs: The Origins and Evolution of an East London Working-Class Community. 1800-1980 describes it thus:

The Island’s economy was fundamentally different from that which existed throughout most of the rest of East London. The small workshops and domestic sweated Industries which characterized Stepney and Bethnal Green did not exist in large numbers in the Isle.

Instead, its large Industrial sites and fine water communications attracted great shipbuilding yards, engineering firms. Iron works, and the like. By the 1860s the
peninsula’s Industrial structure was more akin to the great manufacturing centers of the Midlands and the North than to that of London as a whole. Indeed contemporaries sometimes described the Island as the “Birmingham” or “Manchester of London” because the “articles manufactured [there] are large.

The Island’s greatest growth Industry from the mid-1830s until the mid-1860s was Iron shipbuilding. At various times in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, fifteen major shipbuilding firms were located in the peninsula. Some of them were among the largest industrial enterprises in the world.

A large number of houses were built during this period – and historical records indicate that many of these were built in haste, and of poor quality. Also, for decades, the Island’s infrastructure, particularly the sewers, could not cope with such an increase in land usage and population. Nevertheless, it must have been quite an experience to live on the Island at the time.

The boom in business and housing was not to last for long, however. On 11th May 1866 (a day that became known as Black Friday), the London bank and discount house Overend, Gurney & Company collapsed owing about 11 million pounds (equivalent to £1 billion today). The bank’s collapse contributed to panic and loss of confidence in financial institutions on an international level.

In Britain, the bank interest rate rose to 10 per cent for three months and more than 200 companies, including other banks, failed as a result. Unemployment rose sharply to 8% and there was a subsequent fall in wages. The consequences for businesses and residents on the Isle of Dogs were particularly bad due to an unfortunate combination of factors:

  • The Island’s expansion boom of the previous years was based on over-extended credit, and the rise in interest rates crippled many companies and ventures.
  • Many shipbuilding and other riverside companies had borrowed heavily from Overend, Gurney & Co, itself, and some of shipbuilders’ shareholders were even partners in the bank (for example, when the Millwall Iron Works & Ship Building Company Ltd was incorporated in 1862, all the shares were allocated among ten subscribers, who included David and Arthur Chapman and Robert Birkbeck — partners in Overend, Gurney & Company).
  • Despite their reputation for high-quality work, Thames shipbuilders were more expensive than their northern and Scottish counterparts, and their business success was based on the availability of customers prepared to pay more for this quality, such as the Admiralty and foreign governments. Business had also been buoyed by the Crimean War and American Civil War. In 1865, this source of orders dried up just as the financial crisis started.

By the end of December of 1866, 27,000 shipbuilders on the Thames were unemployed. Following January, 30,000 on relief in Poplar alone. Whitaker’s Almanack in 1869 puts the number of unemployed as high as 40,000.

– S. Pollard – The Decline of Shipbuilding on the Thames

… a mournful scene of desolation greets a visitor to the once famous yards of Green, Wigram, Somes, Young … the great works and factories at Millwall, once occupied by Scott Russell, are dismantled and closed, the machinery sold, the factory tenantless, and the shipbuilding yard – the birthplace of the Great Eastern – a grass-grown waste. The adjoining yards of Mare & Co. and the London Engineering Co, are in the same conditions as Scott Russell’s yard. Samuda Bros… are idle, and on the Isle of Dogs, where a few years ago one could count 16-20 large steamers, there are now four vessels only. One of these is… for the British Government. The other three are fast steamers for the opium trade on the coast of China. The prosperity of London as a shipbuilding port is at an end, and no one here looks for revival of the business.
New York Times. 3 September 1869

East London had always been a poor place, but the levels of poverty – and on such a scale – had never been witnessed before the collapse of Overend, Gurney & Co. Unemployment and poverty on the Isle of Dogs were worst. It is estimated that half the Island’s houses became empty as residents left to find work elsewhere, and there were even reports of deaths due to starvation. The Isle of Dogs was a desolate place. Relief funds were set up to help East Londoners in general, and Islanders in particular, including schemes to pay the passage of those who wished to migrate overseas. (Queen Victoria, by the way, refused to assist the fund).

For more information about what was at the time named ‘The Distress’, refer to this article.

Some firms managed to carry on, precariously, sometimes in a different form, but the bank collapse all but marked the end of large iron ship building on the Isle of Dogs:

  • James Ash, who had borrowed heavily from Overend, Gurney & Co. to set up his business, was forced to close his shipyard after the bank collapse.
  • The Millwall Iron Works closed in 1868, its works broken up and sold to different companies.
  • On the strength of a large order book, Samuda’s survived until 1885 but closed on the death of the owner.
  • Westwood-Baillie diversified into the manufacture of bridges and other large iron constructions and would continue on this basis (later evolving into John Westwood & Co).
  • Dudgeon’s survived the crash, also due to a large order book, and even expanded their yard in 1869. However, they were not financially robust enough to survive the mislaunch of their 70th ship – the 300 ft long frigate Independencia for the Brazilian Government.
  • Yarrow’s was one of the few companies that was not too troubled by the bank collapse  due to their being the successful manufacturer of small, fast vessels (they specialised in torpedo boats) which could not be matched by other builders.

The Times, 1874.

“Launch” of the Independencia. Scientific American, 1874.

Survey of London:

In due course, the local economy revived, although the Thames shipbuilding industry was much reduced in size. The numbers employed in shipbuilding and marine engineering on the Thames had increased from an estimated 6,000 men in 1851 to 27,000 in 1865, but fell to 9,000 by 1871, and to 6,000 by 1891. Some yards were able to continue in business until the early twentieth century by taking specialized work, and the industry experienced a brief revival during the First World War, but most of the shipbuilding capacity on the Thames was lost to the Clyde, where costs were lower.

Yarrow’s did not remain long at London Yard… Alfred Yarrow’s business had suffered badly during the engineers’ strike of 1897–8, and the high rates in London, coupled with the increasing costs of materials and labour, eventually made it impossible for him to compete with the firms on Clydeside and Tyneside. Between 1906 and 1908 the Poplar yard was gradually shut down and the firm moved to new premises at Scotstoun in Glasgow, accompanied by most of its machinery and 300 of the work-force.

The departure of Yarrow’s marked the end of significant shipbuilding on the Isle of Dogs, but really the industry lost its importance to the Island on the collapse of Overend, Gurney & Co. in 1866. For thirty years before that, the Isle of Dogs was the centre of iron ship construction and innovation on the Thames, which itself was the most important site for iron ship building in Britain and the World. A short period, really, but one which changed the Isle of Dogs from a mixture of docks, mills, pasture and marsh into an industrial centre the like of which London has not seen before or since.

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East Ferry Road – The Oldest Road on the Isle of Dogs

Until the arrival of the West India Docks at the start of the 1800s, the Isle of Dogs had few buildings or residents. There were of course the windmills which gave Millwall its name, and a little related industry, but these were along the river’s edge, primarily in the west. The ‘inland’ area was occupied largely by marsh and pasture land.

Extract of a 1700s painting of the view from Greenwich, showing ships sailing around the Isle of Dogs.

There were at the time a couple of paths heading south on to the Island from Poplar High Street; these paths are shown as Angel Lane and Arrow Lane on the following map.

Arrow Lane appears on maps in the following centuries variously named as King’s Road, King’s Lane, Blackwall Road and Harrow Lane. Its main purpose was to provide a route from Poplar High Street to the Greenwich Ferry (via St Mary Chapel).


Incidentally, a short section of Harrow Lane still exists off Poplar High Street. I am amused that the mapmaker dropped the aitch on the map, but it was not unusual at the time for mapmakers to spell names as they heard them pronounced by locals.

Harrow Lane (right). The start of the medieval path from Poplar High Street to the Greenwich Ferry.

On the construction of the West India Docks, the northern half of (H)arrow Lane was obliterated by the construction of the West India Docks, apart from a short section in the north which is named King’s Road on the following map (1830).


South of the docks, the old path was replaced by a fully-fledged road which had been somewhat straightened, and rerouted to the east (it was also renamed Blackwall Road). It was lined on both sides along its entire length by drainage ditches.

This road was built from 1812-1815 by the Poplar and Greenwich Ferry Roads Company, who constructed what would later be named Westferry Road at the same time. Both were toll roads, and there were toll gates in Westferry Road (just south of the later City Arms) and in East Ferry Road (next to the later Queen public house). The toll road is the ‘turnpike’ referred to in the following newspaper article:


The article hints at the rural nature of East Ferry Road at the time, as does the following map. Many old Islanders still call the road Farm Road.

Chapel House Farm in 1830

1865. Newspaper report of a ‘150 Yards Handicap’ race (people, not horses) in East Ferry Road.

By the time of this race, building had started in earnest at the north end of East Ferry Road. Note that the road leading up to the dock entrance lock bridge was then also named East Ferry Road; Manchester Road had been constructed a couple of decades before, but its name originally extended only as far as the Queen public house (opened in 1855).

1870. Click for full-sized version.

In 1883, after years of public pressure, the Metropolitan Board of Works moved to have the tolls in East Ferry Road and West Ferry Road (as it was then spelled) abolished.

Minutes of the Metropolitan Board of Works

The Board got its way and the tolls were lifted in 1885. Survey of London:

The [Greenwich Ferry] company scrapped its horse-ferry service in 1844, but tolls continued to be collected. Pressure for abolition of the tolls grew from the 1870s, and eventually the Metropolitan Board of Works obtained powers to buy out the company. On 9 May 1885 there were celebrations as the toll-gates were removed.

9th May 1885. Celebrations around the removal of the toll gate, looking north. The Queen is just out of sight right of the photo. Click for full-sized version.

A map from around the same time shows the north end of East Ferry Road to be completely developed by then, with houses and streets which would change little until the start of WWII.

1892. Click for full version

This section of street was largely residential, with the East Ferry Road Engineering Works being the only industry. A small section of the firm’s East Ferry Road frontage can be seen on the left in this 1900s photo (Launch Street is on the right).

1900s. Island History Trust

The firm, which specialised in pneumatic machinery, started in 1874 on land leased from the Millwall Dock Company.

East Ferry Road Engineering Company

Advertisement for East Ferry Road Engineering Works

Survey of London:

[The firm had] Charles Henry Parkes, the Millwall Dock Company’s chairman, as its chairman, and his son, Charles Reginald Parkes, as its managing director. The engineering company, which was indeed virtually a subsidiary of the dock company, had its origins in Duckham’s Weighing Machine Company, which had been set up in 1872 by Frederic Eliot Duckham, engineer to the dock company, to manufacture a weighing machine that he had invented three years earlier for use at the Millwall Docks sheer-legs. The founding shareholders were virtually all Millwall Dock Company directors and staff.

“A suggestion of nepotism?” I hear you ask.

Just south of the works was a short row of commercial properties, including a large bank at No. 112, more or less opposite the George public house.

112 East Ferry Road

To its left, dining rooms and a boot and short store (which also served as a post office). These and other businesses in the area – including the George – were all built to take advantage of the trade offered by the adjacent Millwall Docks.

1900s. East Ferry Road (left to right) at its corner with Glengall Road, which at that time extended through Millwall Docks all the way to West Ferry Road.

Looking down Glengall Road in the opposite direction, the George can be seen on the left, and more commercial properties on the corner on the right.

1900s. Glengall Road, with East Ferry Road going from left to right in the foreground. Click for full-sized version.

Turning 90 degrees to the left and looking up East Ferry Road. Island History Trust

Diagonally opposite East Ferry Road from the George in 1892 was Millwall Dock Station, opened in 1871 (Crossharbour DLR is today on the site).

Millwall Dock Station in the 1920s, looking diagonally from the opposite corner (from outside the George). East Ferry Road is heading south on the left.

Millwall Dock Station in the 1920s, looking north up East Ferry Road.

The Mudchute got its name because it was the dumping ground for mud dredged from the docks, which had to be regularly dredged or they would silt up. A novel pneumatic device (designed by Frederic Eliot Duckham) was employed which pumped the liquefied mud through a pipe over East Ferry Road close to the George, dumping it on the other side.

The dock company had not yet dumped mud on the northern edge of its land, just south of the George, which meant that the ground was flat and solid. Landlord of the George, William Clark, leased a 400ft by 420ft plot on the flat land, planning to develop an athletics stadium for football, cricket and tennis, with running and cycling tracks. The stadium opened in June 1890 and was occupied by Millwall Athletic FC until 1901.


By the start of the 20th century, so much wood was being imported via the Millwall Docks that the dock company was running out of room to store it all. They reclaimed the Mudchute land being leased by Millwall Athletic, and built new warehousing there (Millwall Athletic moved to a ground at the other end of East Ferry Road, behind the Nelson).

The challenge for the dock company was: how to transport the timber from the docks, over East Ferry Road, and into the newly-formed timber yard? The required timber conveyor needed to extend from the Glengall Road bridge over Millwall Inner Dock to almost Manchester Road in the east (the timber needed to transported in only one direction, of course, from ship to yard).

The solution was a so-called Timber Transporter, a demonstration of which Chief Millwall Dock Engineer, Duckham, had seen on a trip to Sweden.

The Timber Transporter crossing East Ferry Road into the Mudchute (ASDA is on its site today).

For approximately 650 yards along East Ferry Road south of the Timber Transporter, nothing was ever built. The west side of the road here was occupied by a railway line and the Millwall Docks, and the east side by the Mudchute. You had to travel south as far as Hawkins & Tipson’s Globe Rope Works before there was any sign of other buildings.

1930s. Click for full version

Meanwhile, back in 1892, there also wasn’t much to speak of at the southern end of East Ferry Road either.


Other than the rope works, there were just a couple of buildings next to the Lord Nelson, and the fire station on the other corner.

The fire station, circa 1900. East Ferry Road is just visible on the left behind the fire station.

The Lord Nelson in the early 1900s, with East Ferry Road on the left.

Early 1900s. Left of the Nelson

Early 1900s. Further to the left (north)

The Welcome Institute, an organization established by a philanthropist called Jean Price, provided hot meals at affordable prices to factory girls (serving anything between 70 and 170 girls a day), evening classes in dressmaking and needlework, Bible classes for boys and club-rooms for local football teams. In 1905, the institute moved from its damp, cramped premises at 333 Westferry Road to a new building at 197 East Ferry Road.

1905. Welcome Institute

Many readers will immediately recognise this as the later Dockland Settlement building, but it would be 1923 before the Dockland Settlement organisation took it over on the retirement of Jean Price. The photo was evidently taken from a side road of East Ferry Road. This was the newly extended Chapel House Street, which went just past Chapel House Street before 1904.


This map also shows a row of twelve houses at the south, east side of East Ferry Road – Charteris Terrace, built in 1907. The row of houses still exists and you can find a sign with the name of the terrace on it without looking too hard.

It would be many years before houses were built along the full length of Chapel House Street, on the construction of the Chapel House Estate, opened in 1921. The houses along the south side of Chapel House Street and the west side of East Ferry Road look much like the houses west of Chapel House Street, but they have a slightly different origin. When the lead firm, Locke, Lancaster failed to reach an agreement with the Borough Council in 1920 to house the workers from its lead works in Millwall, it formed a public utility society called Locke’s Housing Society Ltd. The Society built 36 houses similar in appearance to those built by the council.

1924. Locke’s houses in East Ferry Road from Millwall Park. Island History Trust

1935. Dockland Settlement

1920s. Hawkins & Tipson from Thermopylae Gate.

Meanwhile, further north, the George underwent a complete rebuild. Its Victorian design was replaced by something more attuned with the 1930s.

1930s. The George. Photo: Mr P. Holmes

1930s. Photo: Cathy Holmes

Then, World War II happened, and virtually every building in the northern half of East Ferry Road was destroyed by bombing. Rescue worker, Bill Regan reported the aftermath of the bombing during the night 28th June 1944 in his diary:

Awakened after dozing for about 15 minutes or so, at about 5.30 a.m. To Glengall Grove and East Ferry Road; Post Office, wrecked, the George, six shops also. Westminster Bank and Thorne’s joinery works completely demolished. Glengall Grove, Launch Street, Galbraith Street, proportionally damaged by blast. About a dozen Light Rescue men there, a light job, and they send for heavy, after almost completing the job. Got two bodies out, man and wife. The woman supposed to be eight months pregnant. They had just previously been bombed out of their home at Catford. Incident closed at 7.00 a.m.

The following map highlights the only buildings still standing at the north end of East Ferry Road in 1948. The remainder were either destroyed during World War II or were not economically recoverable and had to be demolished immediately afterwards. The southern end of East Ferry Road, on the other hand, got off pretty lightly, although the Globe Rope Works Nos. 201-203 (odd) East Ferry Road suffered some significant bomb damage.


1947, Click for full-sized version.

c1950. Dockers in East Ferry Road (with the George in the background) waiting for the call-on.

c1950. East Ferry Road. Island History Trust

In 1950, Poplar Borough Council began clearance of the area and the development of a new estate – St. John’s Estate – named after the church in Roserton Street. The council built the estate in phases, and it was 1981 before the last building was complete (St John’s Community Centre in Glengall Grove). The length of time of the development, and the fact that some sections were built by the LCC, explains the wide variety of architectural styles in the area. Houses and flats in East Ferry Road, however, were among the first to be built.

c1950. Preparation for construction in East Ferry Road with St John’s Mission Hall, Roserton St, on the right and Manchester Road in the far background.

1950s. St John’s Estate

1960s. Looking past Rugless House over East Ferry Road towards Cardale Street.

1960s. The view down East Ferry Road from Oliver’s Wood Yard. Island History Trust.

As already mentioned, the southern end of East Ferry Road suffered very little serious damage during WWII (this applied also to the Chapel House and Hesperus Crescent Estates).

1947. East Ferry Road from Globe Rope Works (left) to Manchester Grove (right).

1950s. The Island Road race, annually organised by Dockland Settlement. The runners raced up East Ferry to the Queen and ran back down Manchester Road, turning right at the Nelson, a distance of 2 miles.

1958. Photo: George Warren

The centre section of the road in the 1970s. The gantry over the road was a leftover of the former Timber Transporter. It is very clear from this photo that the road went uphill to its highest point approximately in the middle (and still does). The apex is very close to what was originally the highest point in the Island – the location of St. Mary’s Chapel and Chapel House Farm (right of the road from this viewpoint).

1970s. Island History Trust



1970s. And….. downhill again. Photo: Pat Jarvis.

Circa 1980

Circa 1980. Not sure who I should credit this photo to. If anyone knows?

Circa 1980.

Circa 1980. This brick construction once supported the rail bridge which crossed East Ferry Road here. It is being renovated and strengthened to support the new DLR bridge. Photo Pat Jarvis.

This section of the road was less than welcoming, as can be seen from the photos. Around 1980, attempts were made to brighten things up a little, mostly facilitated by community or youth organisations, and executed by young Islanders.

Mudchute fence murals. Photo: Gary O’Keefe

Mudchute fence murals. Photo: Gary O’Keefe

Decorating a remaining wall of Hawkins & Tipson’s Rope Works.

The finished result. Photo: Gary O’Keefe

1980 was a low point in the history of the Island. The docks closed formally in that year, and many firms along the river were closed and their buildings demolished. The London Docklands Development Corporation started the next year, and plans were made for the redevelopment and regeneration of a large swathe along the Thames where the docks had once formed the basis of the local economy.

An early success for the LDDC was when ASDA agreed to build a new supermarket on the Island – leasing part of the Mudchute which was occupied earlier by Millwall Athletic and after that by the Timber Yard (complete with Timber Transporter).

1981. Construction of ASDA.

1983. ASDA shortly after opening.

The year that ASDA opened saw the commencement of the construction of the DLR. The new line followed the path of the former London & Blackwall Railway Millwall Extension. Crossharbour Station was built on the site of the earlier Millwall Dock Station, and a new station – Mudchute Station- was built further south in East Ferry Road.

It is said that the station was originally going to be called Millwall Park Station, but this was rejected because of (a) the negative association with football hooligans from a certain team over the water (a team which, ironically, played at three different grounds on the Island which were adjacent to the railway line), and (b) the possibility of visiting fans travelling to the station in error. I’ve not seen anything myself to back these assertions up.

Circa 1985. Construction of DLR viaduct over East Ferry Road, just north of the future Mudchute Station

Circa 1985. Construction of the first Mudchute Station. The remains of Hawkins & Tipson’s wall is on the right – beyond that, East Ferry Road.

Mudchute Station formally opened in 1987, but had to be relocated northwards, to the other side of East Ferry Road, ten years later when the DLR was extended under the river to Lewisham (because the line needed to start descending at an earlier point – if seen from the perspective of travelling south).

Demolition of the first Mudchute Station

All this jiggery-pokery with stations, viaducts, railway lines and tunnels means the path of this section of East Ferry Road is quite different to how it originally was. Until the early 1980s, if you travelled up East Ferry Road from the Nelson, there was a relatively sharp and angular ‘curve’ to the right at the rope works.

These days, again travelling in the same direction, East Ferry Road parts company with Locke’s houses almost as far south as Thermopylae Gate, and from there it follows a gentle meander northwards. Millwall Park was also extended at this point all the way to East Ferry Road. (Confused the heck out of me the first time I drove up East Ferry Road after these changes had been made, having not been on the Island for yonks. I wasn’t sure where I was anymore.)

Original path of East Ferry Road superimposed on recent satellite photo.

Another rerouting of East Ferry Road which caused me some confusion, was that at the corner of Glengall Grove and East Ferry Road (a place I tend to migrate to when on the Island, enjoying as I do a pint in the George). However, this junction has changed a few times over the decades.

Until the 1960s, this was a regular crossroads – Glengall Grove crossed East Ferry Road at this point – as is clear in many of the old photos at the start of this article. Glengall Grove was no longer a continuous road from Manchester Road to Westferry Road however – the road bridge over Millwall Docks had been out of action since before WWII, and the only way to cross was via a pedestrian ‘barge bridge’.

The barge bridge in the 1950s, looking towards East Ferry Road (Skeggs House is visible in the background). Photo: Sandra Brentnall

The PLA, who had never been fond of the public crossing the Millwall Docks (but who historically were required to permit public travel between the two halves of Glengall Grove), announced that they no had no plans to restore the road bridge. After arguments and discussions between the PLA and Poplar Borough Council, when even the idea of a tunnel was considered, it was agreed that a high-level pedestrian bridge would be built – a bridge that would soon informally be named the ‘Glass Bridge’. A bridge entrance building was built, and a garage was opened ‘next door’. The area in front of the dock gate – which never opened – was a small undeveloped plot that was used by locals to park cars and lorries.

1970. East Ferry Road from Glengall Grove

1970s. East Ferry Road from Glengall Grove. Photo: Jackie Jordan Wade

1980s. East Ferry Road (left) and Glengall Grove (right). A merge of screenshots from the Prospects TV series. Click for full-sized version.

The Glass Bridge was demolished in the mid-1980s, and replaced by a temporary Bailey Bridge. It was again possible to drive across Millwall Docks to Westferry Road.


The previous photo shows that the crossroads between Glengall Grove and East Ferry Road had been restored. The junction has been modified in such way that through traffic from the direction of ASDA is led along a newly-built road, Limeharbour. You have to go round the block if you want to follow East Ferry Road all the way to the Blue Bridge (I went straight up Limeharbour by accident….lost again!).

Much has also changed along East Ferry Road since 1990.

Starting at the Blue Bridge end, the Queen was demolished in 2004, and the few remaining older buildings across the road were illegally demolished in 2016.

2016. Preparing for demolition. Photo: Peter Wright

2016. Demolition. Photo: Peter Wright

That row of buildings looked quite different in the past, by the way. Here it is in the 1980s, before the middle one was given another floor, and before the shop on the right was given a mock-Georgian appearance.


The previous photo shows the little newspaper kiosk that used to be there which at one stage was housed in a container.

Early 1990s. Photo:

From here to Hickin Street not much has changed (I am referring only to buildings directly on East Ferry Road). Many blocks of flats have been renovated, and most have pointy roofs these days, but it is familiar territory.

1986. Screenshot from the Prospects TV series


After Hickin Street, the dock side of the road – formerly the site of the East Ferry Road Engineering Works – is covered in new office and apartment developments.

1980s. Looking north. Island History Trust


Between Glengall Grove and Thermopylae Gate, East Ferry Road is not the isolated place it once was. ASDA takes up a large section on the left, the dock fences and walls are gone – replaced by trees, bushes and neat walls – residential buildings and offices overlook the road on one side.



South of the shenanigans around the Mudchute DLR station bend, the other significant change is the closure of the Dockland Settlement, and the demolition of almost the whole building, to make room for Canary Wharf College.


2013. Preparing for demolition. Photo: Peter Wright

2013. Demolition. Photo: Peter Wright

2018. Canary Wharf College

From here to the Nelson, East Ferry Road hasn’t changed that much. The background scenery has changed a lot, though – and keeps changing.

1980s. East Ferry Road from Ferry Street (sorry about the poor quality)

Circa 2000. Photo: Peter Wright

2010s. Photo: Peter Wright

People have travelled over this path since the Middle Ages. It has changed frequently over the centuries, and keeps doing so.

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The Isle of Dogs Police Station

By the early 1860s, many streets had been laid out in Cubitt Town, but very little had yet been built. Christ Church, Lord Nelson and Newcastle Arms had opened less than five years earlier, and there were a few houses in or off Manchester Road, but that was it.

South Cubitt Town, 1862

The church and two pubs were built in anticipation of the large population that would shortly be moving to the newly-developed Cubitt Town – a population that would also need a police station.

It was proposed to build the police station on land in the hands of the Greenwich Hospital Estate, who had leased the area directly opposite the hospital in order to…

..prevent the total closure of its vista, and to shut out the annoyances of gloomy unsightly and offensive buildings, that are sure to be erected.

The police station was built in 1865 at 126 Manchester Road, and is shown on this 1872 map. The map also shows that much had been built in the few years since 1862. The area would hardly change at all in the following decades, until the outbreak of WWII.

South Cubitt Town, 1870

The following is the earliest known photo of the police station, estimated to have been taken around 1910. There is a policeman standing guard outside the front door, but I suspect he was only there for the photo.

Circa 191-0

The following photo, also with a policeman on guard, shows a Manchester Road covered in horse dung. It appears that there are few people around, but the exposure times of old cameras were often so long that if you didn’t stand perfectly still, your image would be too vague to be perceptible.


I’m jumping around a bit in time, but this c1970 photo shows just how much remained unchanged. The shop immediately to the left of the police station has gone, however, destroyed during WWII.

c1970 (Photo: Island History Trust)

Survey of London:

The station provided accommodation for a married sergeant (or inspector) and married constable, their families and six single constables, with up to three prisoners. It had several characteristic defects:

Inside, the men’s recreation or day room adjoined the noisy charge room, and was therefore generally abandoned in favour of the more peaceful mess. Other adverse criticisms … included the absence of a bath, brush lockers and a parade room in the yard for the men to line up for duty or receive pay.

Upstairs, the absence of a water supply and of gas lighting in the smaller bedrooms was noted, while bed space per man was felt to be over-generous. But it was the arrangement of the quarters that really gave cause for concern.

As in a number of stations and section-houses, single and married quarters shared a staircase and landing, the door to the married quarters opening opposite that to the men’s room: ‘grave improprieties have naturally arisen from this mingling of occupation; and … women often refuse to live in a police station on this very account.’ The common landing was later partitioned, the door to the men’s room blocked up and a new entrance provided.

In 2019, it is hard to imagine policemen and their families living in a police station, but this was the case in many police stations until as late as the 1960s. It’s not surprising that this led to ‘grave improprieties’ in Victorian times. In the 1860s, London’s police had only just started becoming the police force that we would recognize today, thanks to the 1856 Police Act which saw a system for government inspection, audit and regulation for the first time. Until then, the police force had a poor reputation, and even in the 1860s more than 200 policemen in London were charged with being drunk while on duty. That there was little respect for the police is demonstrated by this 1800s newspaper article:

In response to the criticism of the Isle of Dogs Police Station, plans were drawn up for a restructuring, which included the addition of bath, and a WC and kitchen on the first floor:

Proposed alterations to Isle of Dogs Police Station (click for larger version)

We are very fortunate that a number of historic Isle of Dogs Police Station ‘Refused Charge Registers’ and ‘Occurrence Books’ have survived and are available online on the Open University website. No, I didn’t know what these documents were either until I came across them. According to the website:

Refused Charge Registers* are used for specific charges made by the police or private persons and where the charge is subsequently dropped.

Occurrence Books*, contain reports of enquiries/observations made by the police whilst on patrol; incidents, in which a crime may, or may not, have been committed, attended by the police; attendance of person at a police station; or a person, who previously has been bailed, is notified not to attend a police station to answer his recognizance.

* The Refused Charge Registers cover the period from approximately 1900 to 1960, and the Occurence Books cover the late 1960s.

The documents provide a fascinating insight into police business on the Island during the 20th Century, and are very telling about the life of Islanders. Some reports are sad, others amusing, while in at least the later ones there are some familiar surnames to me. There are too many documents to show them all here – I recommend you visit the site via the link above – but here are few:

Refused charge, 4th Nov 1909. George McCarthy (age 13) of 12 East Ferry Road, accused of being ‘beyond control of parents’

In this one, John Smith of Canning Town demonstrates the age-old Island profession of nicking stuff out of the docks. The PLA declined to press charges because the stolen corn mixture was practically valueless:

1st February 1910

One of the sadly-frequent entries, a wife accusing her husband of having assaulted her. Other entries which also saddened me were the reports of children being killed by lorries – quite a few of them too.

14th April 1910.

1920s. Rear of Isle of Dogs Police Station (Photo: Island History Trust)

The police station and its neighbours in Manchester Road (apart from No. 128) came through World War II with little damage.


Life returned to normal, and the police carried on registering familiar events (mind you, I noticed that there was far more vandalism reported in the 1960s):

1968. Isle of Dogs Police Station Occurrence Book

I couldn’t help but smirk at the comment by PC Gibson in the following one, “The vehicle was alright when I left it there at 2 am”. Something I can imagine Bernard Breslaw uttering.

Isle of Dogs Police Station Occurrence Book, 5th May 1968

A couple of years after this I paid my one and only visit to the police station. We were messing around on the Thames foreshore (don’t tell my mum) when we found an unexploded anti-aircraft shell, probably something that had been fired from the mudchute during WWII. We did the sensible thing, picked it up, and took it to the police station. The police officer behind the front desk was not amused when we plonked it on his desk. I wonder if this ever made it into an Occurrence Book?

1968. Composite of a couple of photos by Hugo Wilhare.

In the early 1970s, it was decided to build a new George Green’s School on the Island – precisely on the site of the former Greenwich Hospital Estate (I wonder if that was a coincidence or not?). This meant the demolition of buildings in Brig Street, Ship Street, Barque Street and along a long stretch of Manchester Road which included the police station.

1972. Click for full-sized image


c1972. Photo: Pat Jarvis

c1972. The police station is just visible on the right. Photo: Pat Jarvis

The police station was one of the last buildings to go, in 1973, just over a century after its construction. George Green’s School and Community Centre began to rise on it site.


The site of the Isle of Dogs Police Station today.

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The Unexploded Bomb Next to Canary Wharf

The Luftwaffe flew reconnaissance flights over London and the rest of Britain for years before the outbreak of World War II, and had marked targets – such as power stations, docks and gas works – in a set of aerial photos. London was divided into different target areas, and the easiest for bomber pilots to recognize from the air was the one enclosed by a distinctive U-shaped loop in the Thames: the Isle of Dogs.

Extract from a pre-War Luftwaffe aerial reconnaisance book.

The following Luftwaffe reconnaissance photo was taken during daylight in the evening of 7th September 1940, the first day of The Blitz. The arrows indicate identified bomb explosions.

The West India Docks are clearly taking a battering in this photo, but more than half the bombs have fallen on residential areas. In Millwall, explosions can be seen at the corner of Havannah Street and Commons Street (A), and especially in the area around Millwall Central School (B). South of Millwall Outer Dock is an explosion just west of St. Edmund’s Church (C). Further east, in Cubitt Town, there are explosions on Manchester Road opposite Manchester Grove (D), Saunders Ness Road near Island Gardens (E), London Yard (F), and Samuda Street (G).

Fire in West India Docks during WWII

By the end of WWII, the majority of the West India Docks’ sheds and warehouses had been destroyed, shown in black on the following map:

West India Docks sheds and warehouses destroyed during WWII (from ‘The Isle of Dogs During WWII’ by Mick Lemmerman)

Remains of import dock north quay warehouse after bombing in 1941. (This warehouse was just to the east of the warehouse which now houses the Museum of London Dockland.)

Many hundreds of high-explosive bombs fell on the Island during WWII, as well as thousands of incendiary devices and a few V-1s. Some of these, and anti-aircraft shells fired from the Mudchute, did not explode and embedded themselves deep in the soft Island earth.

The risk of encountering unexploded ordnance during construction on the Island is thus high, and all building firms are to this day required to carry out a risk assessment before building can even begin. Risk assessments offer no certainties, though, and explosive WWII leftovers are still uncovered during construction. Major finds on the Island – serious enough to require evacuation from a large area around the site – include a 1000 kg bomb found in 1988 and even a V-1 which was found off Marsh Wall in 2007.

Fifty years before that, in 1957, a 1,570 lb parachute mine was discovered by a PLA diver embedded in the mud at the bottom of the southwest corner of the West India Import Dock.

Location of parachute bomb

1950s Canary Wharf West India Docks (14)

In 1952, these gentlemen were walking past the parachute mine, just a few yards away. Untold ships moored there between the time that the parachute mine ‘landed’ and its discovery.

Here is the location in modern money (close to camera, in foreground)…..

Site of 1957 parachute mine find

Parachute mines were essentially heavy naval mines dropped by parachute on land targets. They were designed to detonate just above roof level, where the shock waves from the explosion would not be absorbed by surrounding buildings. Their explosive force was thus felt over a wider area; it was not uncommon for all buildings within a 100 yard radius to be destroyed, and windows blown in up to a mile away.

Unexploded parachute mine close to the Royal Docks in Canning Town.

On discovery of the parachute mine in West India Docks, the Royal Navy were called in to assist. In the following photo, the experts are conferring over their approach to its disposal, standing behind a ramshackle construction with flags and a light, warning ships to keep away – the type of construction that makes me proud to be British :).

Conference by warning flags and light. Ships in the dock were told not to use their propellers, and were only allowed to sail during the night because of the higher risk of detonation if the parachute mine was exposed to light.

Lieut. Commander Gordon Gutteridge, of HMS Vernon, the Mining and Torpedo Establishment at Portsmouth donned a frogman’s outfit and went down into the West India Dock to examine the parachute mine.

It was decided that the parachute mine would have to be defused while underwater as it would probably explode due to the change in pressure if it was first moved. The defusal would also have to take place in darkness.

Six naval frogmen took part in the work, and it took close to seven hours before the rusty fuse cover and the fuse itself could be removed, the final work carried out by Lieut. Commander M. Terrell.

Terrell (L) and Gutteridge (R) inspect the mine.

Gutteridge (L) and Terrell (R)

The mine is loaded into the back of a lorry.

‘Cor, I fancy a fag after that.

The parachute mine was transported to Shoeburyness where it was detonated in the Thames Estuary.

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Thames Portrait – From Westminster to Southend

Eileen Arbuthnot (aka Arnot) Robertson (1903-1961) was an English novelist, critic and broadcaster.


Among her books was the 1937, “Thames Portrait”, based on a motor-boat trip from Lechdale in Gloucestershire to Southend, in which she tells stories of the places and people along the Thames. Liberally distributed throughout the book are photographs taken by a ‘H. E. Turner’, her husband about whom I can find little information.

The photos from Westminster to Southend are included here. I am thus drifting off my usual subject, the history of the Isle of Dogs, and I don’t usually post an article with only photographs (unless I do so by accident by pressing the ‘Publish’ button instead of ‘Save’ 🙂 ). However, the photos represent so well the hive of marine activity that was the Thames – and just two years before the outbreak of World War II – I could hardly not share them. Hope you enjoy them too….




From Southwark Bridge




‘St. Paul’s broods over the river’


On London Bridge


Dutch eel-boats (on Saturday), at Billingsgate


Tower Bridge


‘Loading in the Pool’


‘Almost dead at low-water’


Two hours before high-water, the Pool wakes up’




‘The past looks at the present’ (is that Deptford Power Station?)


Probably Millwall Docks, complete with Lascars.


‘…an arduous business…’


Woolwich Reach


‘Woolwich Free Ferry Types’


‘Dockland’s Children (“Skinny Liz”)’


‘Brailing the mainsail’


‘Barge menders’


‘First of the ebb’


‘The saddest sight on the Thames: the old men watching the young men work’


‘Southend on Bank Holiday’


‘The loveliest craft in our waters’


‘Salt water’



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Lenanton’s timber firm was one of the longest-existing businesses on the Isle of Dogs. It was founded in 1864 and was still doing business in the 1990s, well after the docks had closed and when most everything else along the river had been demolished to make room for new apartments.

The founder of the firm, John Lenanton, was born in Portsmouth in 1834 to shipwright, Thomas Lenanton.

By 1864 he was a timber merchant and took over Batson’s Wharf, which was immediately south of the river end of Robert Street (named after Robert Batson, and later renamed Cuba Street). The business was a great success, and within 10 years the firm expanded southwards, absorbing Regent Wharf, just north of Regent (Dry) Dock.


John Lenanton was awarded the freedom of the City of London in 1877, “admitted into the freedom of this City by Redemption in the Company of Shipwrights” (whatever that means).

The 1881 census reveals John to be the owner of a large house at 56 East India Dock Road where he lived with his wife Ellen and their children, his sister and her family, and two domestic servants. Ellen died in 1889, and John remarried. In 1901, John and his new wife Alice were living with one servant – the children had flown the coop – in the very well-to-do 1 Westcombe Park Road in Blackheath. (See also the article, Where the Other Half Lived: the Isle of Dogs & Blackheath Connection).

Modern London, 1888. Click on image for full-sized version.

Extent of Lenanton’s in 1895.  The pub on the corner of Cuba Street and Westferry Road was named Waterman’s Arms.

Most of the sheds shown in the previous map were destroyed by a large fire in 1900. An insurance map made shortly after the event shows what remained.

1900. Goad Insurance Map. “…originally produced to aid insurance companies in assessing fire risks. The building footprints, their use (commercial, residential, educational, etc.), the number of floors and the height of the building, as well as construction materials (and thus risk of burning) and special fire hazards (chemicals, kilns, ovens) were documented in order to estimate premiums. Names of individual businesses, property lines, and addresses were also often recorded.” British Library

John Lenanton died in 1917, leaving the business to be run by his sons.

In the late 1930s, Lenanton’s expanded again, taking over Regent’s Dry Dock, which they filled in.

Extent of Lenanton’s in the 1940s

Survey of London:

Extensive modernization was carried out. Plant and machinery for timber-handling and milling was electrified, using a DC supply from steam-powered generating plant. The principal buildings were now open sheds of steel and reinforced-concrete construction. A new neo-Georgian-style office block was built in 1937.

Because of the decline in Thames shipbuilding, less teak — used particularly for decking — was now held, and the firm specialized increasingly in softwoods.

1930s (Island History Trust)

1937. It appears from the photo that there are two church spires. Actually, they are both St. Luke’s – the photo is a montage of different originals. Click on image for full-size version.

1930s. A Lenanton’s lorry in Westferry Road, opposite the firm (Island History Trust)

1930s. Lenanton’s from the river. Morton’s is on the left, West India Dock Pier is in the foreground.

1937 (Island History Trust)

During WWII, Gerald Foy Ray Lenanton – grandson of John, and husband of writer Carola Oman – was appointed as Government ‘Timber Controller’, tasked with coordinating and ensuring the best use of timber in what was a time of reduced imports. In 1946 he was knighted for his efforts.

Gerald Foy Ray Lenanton

Lenanton’s, like many other buildings on the Island, suffered bomb damage during WWII. Arthur Sharpe, Auxiliary Fire Service (on BBC WW2 People’s War website):

The fire at Lenanton’s Wharf was some job. We climbed the crane with our hose to play down on the fire. There were three of us hanging onto the hose with a lot of water coming through. Finally we lashed the hose to the crane and got a breather. Suddenly a bomb dropped and the blast caught us. Down we came, unhurt but bloody frightened.


Survey of London:

In the 1950s new concrete sheds were built, and extensive new plant, including vertical and horizontal log-sawing machines and an under-floor wood-refuse collecting system, was installed. The building construction was carried out by the firm’s own employees. Further improvements included redecoration of the entire premises to a uniform colour-scheme with blue for machinery, terracotta for ancillary equipment and stone colour for walls. In 1954–6 the office block was enlarged and remodelled and a works canteen was built above the entrance from Westferry Road.

1950s (Island History Trust)

1950s (Island History Trust)


1950s. Lenanton’s Wharf. Children from St. Luke’s School Millwall, waiting for the royal yacht Britannia to pass with Queen Elizabeth II on board. Text and photo: Island History Trust

In 1958, Lenanton’s continued their expansion and acquired London and Oak Wharves, all but surrounding St. Luke’s School.

1968, St. Luke’s School was separated from the river by Lenanton’s yard. Photo: Hugo Wilhare

They also took over land on the other side of Westferry Road, between Manilla Street and Byng Street, on which they built new sheds.

Lenanton’s acquired and demolished St Luke’s school building in 1971 – the school moved to Saunders Ness Road in the same year. Lenanton’s replaced the school with a sheet-materials shed in 1973 – and renamed this section of their yard St. Luke’s Wharf.


1970s or 1980s?

1970s or 1980s?

The firm featured in a 1974 issue of Commercial Motor:

Economic activity in the Isle of Dogs has declined in parallel with the decline in waterborne freight transport. One of the firms I visited, John Lenanton and Son Ltd. timber merchants, has extensive premises backing onto the Thames. Small ship loads of timber are sometimes discharged from ship to the company’s own wharf but much packaged timber comes by road from Tilbury; it is consigned in such vast quantities from many producing areas as to make the use of small vessels impracticable.

Many of the drivers working from Isle of Dogs depots come considerable distances to work. Only two of about 20 drivers employed by John Lenanton live on the “Island”.


Mr A. A. Aston, transport manager at John Lenanton, complained that lorry drivers were as hard to get as vehicle spares! He has been two drivers short for a year and he sees no special urgency in hunting up spares for two 12 ton Scammell artics which are off the road, because of the known difficulty of recruiting drivers for them.

Lenanton has lost drivers to better paid employment and is constrained by membership of the Timber Trades Federation from bidding-up the wages of lorry drivers. The firm pays drivers a basic of £38.50 and drivers’ gross earnings are in the £40-£44 bracket, thanks to mileage and drop bonuses.

Although timber lorry drivers do not have the chances of pilferage that some road transport staffs do in other trades, the increased cost of timber, and its easy disposal, could tempt some drivers to supplement income in this way. Mr Aston said it was quite difficult to get other employers to furnish references for drivers but the company had had very little trouble over pilferage and in any case long service, trusted employees loaded the vehicles.

1980s. Photo: Tim Brown

1980. Lenanton’s from Strafford Street. The sheds are on the site of the former Regent Dry Dock. Photo: Connie Batten.

1980s. Photo: Peter Wright



1980s. Photo shows the expansion of Lenanton’s riverside premises over the years.


From 1988, Lenanton’s and Seacon were beginning to be hemmed in by massive new residential and commercial developments on the Island.


1989. Photo: Ken Lynn


The writing was on the wall, and in the 1990s Lenanton’s closed, to be followed by the inevitable demolition and replacement with an apartment complex.

Photo: Jim O’Donnell

Photo: Peter Wright

What was built on the site of Lenanton’s. Photo: Peter Wright

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