The Sad Deaths of Heinz Marchlowitz and Richard Bomba

Heinz Marchlowitz (23) and Richard Bomba (26) were two young German men who in 1938 were forced to make plans for a new life, choosing for the US. Marchlowitz is clearly a Jewish surname, and Bomba was also a not uncommon surname among Eastern European Jews, so it is highly likely they were trying to escape Nazi persection.

Richard was born in Berlin, and Heinz in Beuthen – once a German city with a significant Jewish population, and now the Polish city of Bytom. The Bytom Synagogue was burned down by Nazi SS and SA troopers during the Kristallnacht on 9–10 November 1938, and during World War II, the city’s Jewish community was liquidated via the first ever Holocaust transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It was just a few weeks before Kristallnacht – when it was certainly a terrifying time to be Jewish and German – that Heinz and Richard made their escape by stowing away aboard an American ship. Contemporary news articles are not clear about where they departed from, but they got as far as South America before being discovered in the hold of the ship. They were arrested and placed on the US freight ship ‘Liberty’ which was sailing for Hamburg where they could be repatriated.


On the way to Germany, by this time it was October 1938, the Liberty docked at West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs, where the men were locked in a cabin and placed formally in the custody of aliens officer, PC Charles Steadmen. Not long afterwards, Heinz and Richard disappeared. Newspapers later reported:

… they were locked in a cabin with a steel door and a padlock on the outside. Thomas Rutter, watchman on board the Liberty, said that the lock of the cabin in which the two men had been confined had been broken within twelve minutes, apparently with an iron bar. Somebody must have let them out.

The next morning, a number of ships in West India Docks were searched, but the men could not be found. This was not much of a surprise – there are countless places to hide in a large cargo ship, and perhaps they had already managed to climb over the dock wall and escape completely.

In fact, Heinz and Richard had found a place to hide in the hold of the British ship, ‘Jamaica Progress’, moored not far from the Liberty.

Jamaica Progress

It is here that the men’s story and young lives came to a sad end. The hold of the Jamaica Progress was due to be fumigated – a common practice still carried out in order to destroy rodents, insects and other pests which might otherwise carry diseases between the different ports of call.

Before World War II, this was usually achieved with hydrogen cyanide gas. Ventilators were plugged with canvas, and gasmasked men released clouds of poisonous gas into the tightly closed hold of the vessel. Workers operating in pairs, with no man ever out of sight of another, dropped gas-emitting discs or emptied canisters (containing liquid which evaporated into gas) into the hold.

Workers in gas masks on the deck of a ship. One is emptying an hydrogen cyanide canister into an opening in a tarpaulin-covered hatch while another, crouched nearby, opens another canister.

Harry Marner from Poplar, who was bo’sun on the Jamaica Progress, said that he had searched the hold before it was sealed, and fumigation procedures required also that warnings were shouted before the operation was commenced (later it was suggested that Heinz and Richard would not have understood the warnings anyway, as they did not speak any English). Satisfied that it was safe to do so, the fumigators went about their business of pouring the hydrogen cyanide fluid through the holes in the deck.

This is not the place to go into the effects of the inhalation of hydrogen cyanide gas on the human body, except to say that it is painful and lethal. If the men were ‘lucky’, they were dead within a few minutes.

Newspapers around the world reported the incident:

Later, an inquest was held at Poplar Coroner’s Court, and the coroner, Dr. R. B. Harvey Watt recorded a verdict of accidental death. The men were buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, and their burials are registered in the cemetery’s records.

I have no idea if their graves were marked and/or are still present, but if so, they deserve a visit. Heinz Marchlowitz and Richard Bomba were two young men, understandably trying to escape Nazi Germany, who died in a tragic accident in the dark hold of a ship miles from home.

A devastating irony of their deaths – which some readers would have spotted right away – is that they were killed by the type of gas which would later be used by the Nazis to murder approximately one million Jews and other prisoners in concentration camps – a cyanide-based pesticide for fumigation (Zyklon B in the case of the Nazis).

[ As for the ships Liberty and Jamaica Progress, both were torpedoed and sunk during World War II, with much loss of life. This story has no happy end. ]

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St. Mildred’s House, Westferry Road

In 1873, the Millwall Dock Company built the  Millwall Dock Club for its permanent employees (around 800 men at the time – most dock workers having to put up with the insecurity of the call-on system). The company built the club partially behind St. Paul’s Church – on dock land, but with its main entrance facing Westferry Road.


The club wasn’t a long-term success, and it closed in 1892. The building had two main sections, a three-storey building and a single-storey hall. Some time after the closure of the club, the hall was taken over by St. Paul’s church, and the three-storey building by an institute for poor women, known as St. Mildred’s House (Mildred, was an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon abbess of the Abbey at Minster-in-Thanet, Kent.).

Photo: Island History Trust

The institute – set up by Miss Hilda Barry and formally opened in October 1897 – was opened as:

…a centre in the Isle of Dogs at which ladies could reside for religious, social, and eductional work among women and girls in that isolated district. The Settlement would accommodate seven residents … The district was populated by over twenty thousand persons who were practically cut off from the rest of the world. (The Morning Post, Thursday March 15th, 1900)

The quote from ‘The Morning Post’ is part of an article about a so-called ‘drawing room meeting’, a meeting held by well-to-do Londoners in an attempt to raise interest in, and funds for, their philanthropic endeavours. For, as ‘The Guardian’ reported at the time:

…difficulty was experienced finding lades who would go there [to St. Mildred’s] not only casually and at intervals, but would reside there for a certain specified period and assist in much needed work on behalf of the very large number of women and girls employed in the various factories of the district.

And further:

Mrs. Creighton spoke of the progress which had been made in the matter of women’s settlements of late years and of the need which existed for more workers. They did not want to make their settlements hospitals for moral invalids, but wished to secure the best and the brightest workers.


“Off the track in London” by George R. Sims, published by Jarrold & Sons, 1911. Originally published in “The Strand” magazine, July 1905. Chapter XI – In Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs:

There is a Ladies’ Settlement, St. Mildred’s House, in Millwall, which suggests the refining influence of gentle womanhood. The conditions of life among the women workers of the place are affected by the nature of their employment. The dirt of their drudgery, the odour of their occupation, are brought into the home by the men and women alike. There is no escape from either.

Three boys in front of St. Mildred’s. Photo donated to Island History Trust by St. Mildred’s.

Children at play at St. Mildred’s. Photo donated to Island History Trust by St. Mildred’s

Residents at St.Mildred’s House, Millwall, in 1932. They are, at the back, Marjorie Hartley, Joan Duff, Barbara Blackwell. In front, Anne Tetley, Margaret Balfour, Ursula Robbins and Kay Knights-Smith (later Kay Leonard). Photo donated to Island History Trust by St. Mildred’s.

In the evening of 7th September 1940 – the first night of the Blitz – the nearby St. Cuthbert’s church (on the corner of Cahir Street and Westferry Road) was destroyed by bombing.

St. Cuthbert’s after the night of 7th September 1940, with Harbinger School in the background. Photo: George Hardy.

Subsequently, St. Cuthbert’s congregation began to meet in the chapel at St. Mildred’s. However, St. Mildred’s was itself also seriously damaged, as the Church Times would report:

When a bomb hit the warehouse opposite, the street became a hot stream of peanut butter and for weeks, boots and carpets were saturated with the strong-smelling substance. Finally, a flying bomb fell within the dock gates and St. Mildred’s walls were split from top to bottom.

St. Mildred’s stained-glass windows were rescued and stored for safe keeping in McDougall’s flour mill (considered a safe storage place, with its thick concrete silo walls), after which all memory and trace of them was lost.


The London County Council bomb damage maps do not indicate any damage to St. Mildred’s – while all the buildings around have some level of damage, as indicated by their colours. However, the lack of colour may have been because the building was on dock property; the considerable damage to dock buildings was not always marked on the LCC bomb damage maps, possibly due to the PLA not giving full access to their land.

LCC Bomb Damage Map

A 1950 map shows that the three-storey building was no longer present at that time.


This is borne out by a 1963 aerial photo which shows that the building had been demolished, and the land used for storage of timber (almost certainly belonging to Montague Meyer, whose sheds can also be seen in the photo).


In the 1960s, the remaining building was replaced by new premises in Castalia Square. Island House website (

The vicarage in Castalia Street had been destroyed by a direct hit in the war, and in 1955 was replaced by a new clergy house on the north side of Roserton Street overlooking the new Square, adjoining the St John’s mission hall and club house. This was called St Mildred’s House to continue the name of the former Anglican settlement in Millwall; St Mildred’s House was used temporarily by Island House as an overflow to provide offices for the Health Trainers project in 2010-11.

St. Mildred’s and Island House, Castalia Square.

As for those stained-glass windows which had been stored in McDougall’s, and then ‘lost’, they were found in 1990 in an organ loft at Christ Church during renovations. They were cleaned and installed in the church (an action that was in part funded by Rank Hovis McDougall), where they can be seen today.

St. Mildred’s stained glass windows, Anunciation 1 & 2. (Photo: John Salmon)

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Off the Track in London – On the Isle of Dogs in 1905

George Robert Sims, 1847-1922, was an author, playwright, journalist and philanthropist.

George R. Sims

He was among a new breed of journalistic writers at the time who made the effort to describe the lot of working class men and women. He wrote a series of articles about the East End for The Strand magazine (later collected in a book, ‘Off the Track in London’) and number eleven in the series was titled ‘In Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs’.

Unlike some of his contemporaries who ‘discovered’ the East End in Victorian times, Sims’ descriptions were unsentimental and not condescending towards the inhabitants (unlike  ‘Seven Years’ Hard’ by  Rev. Richard Free, a book and writer mentioned by Sims below –  Rev. Free seemed to despise his Island flock).  Instead, Sims presented a sympathetic and evocative vision of life in a place of industry, dirt, noise and smells.

The “Island part” of Sims’ article is presented here in its entirety, accompanied by images of the time.  The illustrations which are included appeared in the original article in The Strand and were drawn by Thomas Heath Robinson (brother of  William Heath Robinson, best known for drawings of ridiculously complicated machines for achieving simple objectives; so-called ‘Heath Robinson Machines’).

JUST outside the West India Dock Station there is a little one-horse ‘bus which takes you by a winding way of high, black walls, broken here and there by bridges and wharves and the towering masts of ships, to Millwall.

Coach at West India Dock station, circa 1910. The coach belonged to the firm of Joseph W. Squires of 62 West Ferry (two words, then) Road. The firm’s name will be familiar to many Islanders as it later operated as a pawnbrokers, doing business at the same location, opposite Maria Street, into the 1960s.

As you near the journey’s end the driver – there is no conductor – opens a little trap in the roof of the ‘bus and puts his hand through. In his open palm you deposit the penny for your fare, and a few moments later the ‘bus stops, and you alight and find yourself at the commencement of the West Ferry Road and in the famous Isle of Dogs.

In 1906, Westferry Road started – or ended, depending on your point of view – at a swing bridge over the entrance lock just north of the City Arms (which was rebuilt and much expanded a couple of decades later).

It is the island note that greets you at first. If the bridge is up you have to enter by the lock gates, and you may, by a stretch of the imagination, fancy yourself performing a Blondin feat, with the welcome addition of a row of protecting chains on each side of you.

Across the water you are in a land of one familiar sound and a score of unfamiliar scents. The sound is one ever dear to the Briton – the clang of the hammer as it descends on ringing iron. You listen to the sound that speaks of England’s might, and you remember the song that Charles Mackay sang of Tubal Cain. The memory that the scents bear in upon you is of another poet – Coleridge, who sang of Cologne.

The odours are overpowering. They do not mix, but with every breeze each salutes you with its separate entity. One odour is that of heated oil, another that of burning fat, others are of a character which only visitors with a certain amount of chemical experience could define.

The lead works and the area around them, viewed from Greenwich.

The odours saturate you, and cling to you, and follow you. They are with you in the highway and the by-way. You pass into the house of a friend who has offered you his hospitality at the luncheon hour, and the door that closes behind you does not shut them out. Nothing is sacred to them, not even the church. Even the flowers in the little gardens that the West Ferry Road can show here and there have lost their own perfume and taken that of the surrounding industries.

The area around Maconochie’s and Burrell’s

The island is no dreaming place. It is a land of labour. From morn till eve the streets are deserted; the inhabitants are behind the great walls and wooden gates – husbands, wives, sons and daughters, all are toiling. The only life in the long, dreary roads and desolate patches of black earth that are the distinguishing notes of the side streets is when the children come from school. Then the red and blue tam-o’-shanters of the little girls make splashes of colour here and there, and the laughter of romping children mingles with the clang of the hammer and the throb of the engine.

In Ingleheim Street [Ed: actually spelled Ingelheim], a turning off West Ferry Road, there is a quaint brick building that at once attracts your attention, for above it is a flagstaff, and in the wire-protected windows there are flowers.

Ingelheim Street from Westferry Road. The houses would later be demolished during slum clearances, and Arethusa House built on the site. (Photo: Island History Trust)

When you go down over the rough bit of roadway that ends in a wall of corrugated iron and a suggestion of black sheds beyond you read above the doorway of the quaint building the words, ‘St. Cuthbert’s Lodge,’ and you remember that this is the address of the Rev. Richard Free, the author of that intensely human document, ‘Seven Years’ Hard,’ the story of seven years’ patient, and often heart-breaking, work among the poorest population of a land of drudgery and desolation.

Drawing: Thomas Heath Robinson

The former St. Cuthbert’s Lodge later. “Amongst the children playing in the street are Fred Rea and Arthur Hedgecock This photograph was used as an example of poor housing conditions on the Island and published in the Isle of Dogs Housing Society brochure as part of an appeal for funds to provide better houses in the East End. The Society built St. Hubert’s House in Janet Street in the 1930s. Donated by IOD Housing Society” Photo and text: Island History Trust

When we came first upon St. Cuthbert’s Lodge, not knowing what it was, the oddness of the building struck both my colleague and myself. The suggestion it conveyed to my mind was that of a lifeboat station or ark of refuge on a lonely shore. Why it conveyed that impression I cannot say. I am inclined to imagine that somewhere on the Yarmouth shore I have, in years gone by, seen something like it.

A veritable ark of refuge has this quaint little building – with the ship masts stretching high above it – proved to many in Millwall.

Mr. Free and his wife, cut off from the world, with which their one link is the little, conductorless one-horse ‘bus, have brought the love of light and colour into houses of grimness and gloom, and, taking the human view of our poor humanity, have become popular characters in the island of mighty tasks and mean surroundings, of noxious trades and pleasureless lives, an island in which there are no places of amusement of any kind. When the day’s work is over the lads and lasses of Millwall get out of it as quickly as possible. The island gardens form a green oasis in the desert. They are not in Millwall, but Millwall has in them a beautiful breathing space and a glorious view on the other side of a ‘cleaner, greener land.’

Island Gardens, 1902

Island Gardens, 1906. James Dewar Junior and Senior of Faulkner Terrace, East Ferry Rd. Photo: Elliott Family

There is a Ladies’ Settlement, St. Mildred’s House, in Millwall, which suggests the refining influence of gentle womanhood. The conditions of life among the women workers of the place are affected by the nature of their employment. The dirt of their drudgery, the odour of their occupation, are brought into the home by the men and women alike. There is no escape from either.

St. Mildred’s House, with St. Paul’s Church on the left. (Photo: Island History Trust).

But the humanising influences brought to bear upon the situation have not been altogether in vain, and in the little back-yards and scanty patches of green still left here and there before some of the houses there are flowers struggling to be pretty under difficulties, and fowls and rabbits that look considerably plumper and healthier and happier than their owners.

“A Poor Man’s Flower Box at Millwall. Mrs. Free, of St. Cuthbert’s Lodge, Millwall, is doing an excellent work in encouraging a love of flowers among her poor. About four years ago, through her efforts, a Window-box Society was started. Members (there are now about seventy) pay twopence annually, and in return receive gifts in kind of bulbs and plants. Prizes are awarded for the best display of flowers. Few families, alas! possess the smallest bit of garden ground, and many have no space for a window-box, but must make the best of a few plants indoors, on a table as near the light as possible.” Text and photo from the 1903 book: ‘The Book Of Town & Window Gardening’, by F. A. Bardswell

In the centre of the island lies Desolation-Land, a vast expanse of dismal waste ground and grey rubbish heaps. All round the open space is a black fringe of grim wharves and of towering chimneys, belching volumes of smoke into a lowering sky that seems to have absorbed a good deal of the industrial atmosphere.

Across the waste, as we gaze wearily around it, borne down by our environment, comes a lonely little lad, who wheels his baby sister in a perambulator roughly constructed out of a sugar box. They are the only human beings in sight.

Drawing: Thomas Heath Robinson

This waste land is spanned by the soot-dripping arches of the railway, which is the one note of hope in the depressing picture, for occasionally a train dashes shrieking by towards a brighter bourne.

Steam train travelling over the arches. Photo probably taken looking towards the later site of the paddling pool.

Years ago this desolate spot was farm land. It might yet be secured and made into a green play ground for the children, who at present have only the roads and the miniature mountains of rubbish that have gradually risen at the end of side streets closed in by factory walls. If this central desert could be secured and ‘humanised’ and turned into a healthy playground, it would be a grand thing for the Millwall that is – a grander still for the Millwall that is to be.

[Ed: A prescient comment; two decades later, Millwall Recreation Ground – the precursor of Millwall Park – would be constructed on the site.]

Sir Walter Besant complained that in all Millwall there were no book-shops. That is still true, but the taste for reading has penetrated to the island, and in the shopping part of it there are several stationers’ shops where periodical literature may be obtained. It is principally for the younger generation. The windows are filled with ‘Tales of the Wild West’ for the young gentlemen and ‘How to be Beautiful’ for the young ladies, and of fashion journals there is quite a plentiful display. As I have not, in any of my visits to Millwall, observed the fashionable hats and blouses given in the plates exhibited, I can only surmise that they are reserved for the evening visits to Poplar and Greenwich, or for the Sunday trips to regions still farther away ‘on the mainland.’

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The Traffic Island Outside Christ Church

Somebody who has the entertaining moniker MastaMind Hussain just posted this photo in a Facebook group, along with the comment:

One thing I can’t understand about us Islanders.. why do we park on double yellows and cause a nuisance? Traffic started to pile up coz of these two vehicles. Buses can’t get past and other large vehicles.

I liked the expression “us Islanders”, but [warning, bad play on words coming up] the other island that caught my attention was the traffic island. I was struck with the thought that this has quite some history…..for me at least. Here’s a better photo of it:

Like all traffic islands, it’s in the middle of the road. Its job? To be a place of refuge when crossing, positioned here because of a perceived higher pedestrian traffic to and from the church or the pub.

A few decades ago there was no traffic island, but a zebra crossing.

As traffic became heavier and faster, however, a zebra crossing at the end of a bend was not such a good idea. So, the zebra crossing was removed and a traffic island installed. The problem with this one, though, was that it was (and still is) invisible to anybody driving round the bend in Manchester Road – from the direction of the Lord Nelson – until quite late. If you were unfamiliar with the bend and/or were driving too fast, there was a risk of straying a bit too far to the right and crashing into it.

This happened quite often, usually in the weekend – I know this because I lived in the flats on the left in the previous photo. I can still hear the horrible sound of screeching tyres, and remember holding my breath, waiting for the crash. I even mentioned it in my diary, more than once.

If you cannot read my handwriting, it says “A car crashed over the island downstairs in the morning.”

And, three months later…..

Actually, this one didn’t crash into the island, it swerved to the right to avoid it, and ended up hitting the church wall. It wasn’t the first time, either – take a good look at the wall and you can see a few signs of earlier repairs.

Later photos show how battered the traffic island was, including this screenshot from the TV series, Prospects:

Not long before this, one of the Subohon family took this photo of some blokes trying to cross the road after a Sunday lunchtime drink in the Waterman’s Arms, as it was then called. Looks to me that they’ve given up trying to cross, and are more interesting in serenading the photographer. I say “some blokes”, but, from left to right, it’s Norman Subohon, my dad, Ray Subohon, don’t know, and Barry Houlding.

Quite possibly, it was this photo that I thought of when I saw MastaMind Hussain’s post, and that inspired me to write this (I mean, who writes a blog article about a traffic island?). However, here it is, a small pictorial homage to the traffic island outside Christ Church. My apologies to the photographers for not crediting them – I’ve lost the information – but I imagine I should thank Pat Jarvis Reading and Peter Wright.



2018. Photo: Ralph Hardwick

2018. Photo: Ralph Hardwick

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West India Dock Pier: Festival of Britain, Murder and Nico

West India Dock Pier (sometimes named West India Docks Pier) has had its ups and downs; recently it has been closed or derelict as much as it has been open, and has disappeared completely on occasion. The name originally misled me as to its location. It is not in the West India Docks. Close by, admittedly, but on the Island everything is close by. It is at the river end of Cuba Street – a dead-end street when I lived on the Island, which you didn’t enter unless you had business there (or you’d had one too many in the Blacksmith’s Arms).

Circa 1890

According to the Survey of London, the original pier was built for the convenience of merchants who were visiting from their usual place of work in the City:

The original pier was constructed in 1874–5 to facilitate access for merchants to the East and West India Dock Company’s new wool warehouses at the South Dock of the West India Docks.

In 1905, the pier was taken over by the ‘Penny Steamer’ service, an initiative from the LCC which lasted just a few years, named as such due to the flat price of one penny for all journeys. From 1909, on the ending of the service, the pier was run by the newly-formed Port of London Authority (PLA).

1920s (Photo: Richard Milton)

West India Dock Pier, with Lenanton’s on the right. The warehouse on the left belonged to Morton’s. 1936

19th March 1941 (later known as ‘The Wednesday’) was a particularly bad night for those living and working in the East End, including on the Island. In clear weather, more than 500 Luftwaffe aircraft dropped thousands of incendiary and high explosive bombs along the banks of the Thames from London Bridge to Beckton.

A later German radio communiqué described the attack on London as “a heavy one carried out with shattering effect by very strong bomber formations over a period of hours.” Harbour and dock facilities and other military objectives were attacked with bombs of every calibre it stated. It was claimed that “widespread destruction was caused in the main docks as well as to harbour installations.” Other targets included factories north of the Isle of Dogs and merchant shipping in the Thames. It was during this action that West India Docks Pier was destroyed.

A pier-less Cuba Street in 1949

After the war the pier was rebuilt in time to serve visitors to the newly-opened Lansbury Estate (a ‘Live Architecture’ exhibition, part of the Festival of Britain in 1951).


Painting of Morton’s, with West India Dock Pier at the top. Date unkown, but probably the 1950s.

In 1965, the pier was the backdrop for a promo film by Nico for her song “I’m Not Sayin”, which can be found on YouTube. Or you can click here……

If that video doesn’t work for you, here are a couple of screenshots:

In the same year, the pier featured in the film, ‘Four in the Morning’, starring a very young Judi Dench.  The plot revolves around the lives of two couples living in London – who are unknown to each other – and how they are connected to the body of a young woman found drowned in the Thames.

Film Poster

The body was brought ashore at West India Dock Pier.

From 1987, the pier was used by the Docklands River Bus service.

River Bus

West India Dock Pier (left) during the construction at Canary Wharf. Circa 1989.

Another use of the pier that didn’t last too long – in 1991 the service was discontinued, which meant a period of decay and dereliction for the pier.


Today, the pier has been somewhat fixed-up, including the addition of a pontoon to which a residential vessel has been moored. At least the pier is being used for a change.

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The Blue Bridge

The ‘Blue Bridge’ (never its official name) opened on 1st June 1969, and is the fifth bridge since 1806 to cross the east entrance to West India South Dock. Its design is based on traditional Dutch drawbridges, and at the time of its opening it was the largest single-leaf bascule bridge in Britain.  Its hydraulic machinery is based on that used by the former ‘Glass Bridge’ (the high-level footbridge over the Millwall Inner Dock). Although built for economy and efficiency – it can raise or lower in one minute – it is an attractive bridge that was immediately liked by Islanders. 

The Early Bridges

The first bridge was made of timber. It spanned the 45 feet wide entrance of what was in 1806 the City Canal, a canal that crossed the Island and met the river in the west at the location of the later City Arms. It is represented in this section of an 1802 painting by William Daniell (see An Elevated View of the New Docks & Warehouses now constructing on the Isle of Dogs near Limehouse).

In subsequent years, the canal would be enlarged to become the West India South Dock. The timber bridge survived until 1842, when it was replaced by an iron swing bridge.

Due to the increasing sizes of ships it was decided to widen the dock entrance from 45 ft to 55 ft. Construction took place from 1866 to 1870, along with the construction of bridge no. 3, another iron swing bridge.

Manchester Rd looking north. Glen Terrace is on the left and the Canal Dockyard graving docks are on the right. The 3rd bridge over the West India South Dock entrance lock is visible in the distance.

Enlarged section of previous photo, more clearly showing the iron swing bridge.

The Noisy Bridge

Ever increasing ship sizes meant the lock had to be enlarged yet again in the 1920s. At the urging of Poplar Borough Council it was also decided to move the bridge a few yards to the east at the same time because, as can be seen in the following map, the bridge was crossing the middle of the lock. This meant that the bridge had to remain open until the entering or exiting ship had completely cleared the locks. ‘Bridgers’ (The Islanders’ term for the traffic delay due to a raised bridge) lasted a very long time in those days.



The following (much later) map shows the situation after the bridge was moved to the right and is outside of the lock. The arrow shows the original path of Manchester Rd, still followed by Glen Terrace to this day.



Bridge No. 4

Bridge no. 4, the Blue Bridge predecessor, was a so-called double-rolling bascule bridge, of a type invented by William Scherzer in Chicago. It was placed in 1929 and was known for being incredibly noisy, with a ‘groaning’ sound that could be heard many hundreds of yards away.

I remember this old bridge very well…we used to live in Rugless House, East Ferry Rd, and you could actually hear the bridge when it was raised up – John Tarff

1929 construction. Photo: Island History Trust / Mrs M. Bayer

1929 construction. Photo: Island History Trust / Mrs M. Bayer

1929. Photo: Island History Trust / Mrs M. Bayer

1930s, looking north toward’s Preston’s Road. The ship is in the graving (or dry) dock off Blackwall Basin.


Cutty Sark on her way to Millwall Dry Dock, c1950. She was to be repaired and renovated in preparation for the Festival of Britain.

The submarine Thermopylae entering the West India Docks in 1956.

Scene from an unknown 50s film showing a character using the emergency telephone in the police box south of the bridge.

Still from the early 1960s film ‘Portrait of Queenie’. Queenie Watts watches the bridge open from the river side.


A 277 turns round, just leaving Glen Terrace to head back down Manchester Rd.

The bridge was slow and unreliable, and was frequently breaking down. For the Port of London Authority (PLA), this was an incredibly important bridge as it crossed the south dock entrance, the only way for ships to get in and out of the West India and Millwall Docks – the iron swing bridges at Kingsbridge and in Preston’s Rd having ceased operations a few years before (the Preston’s Rd bridge did still open on occasion but the lock there was capable of handling barges only).

When the PLA was faced with its latest repair and maintenance bill of close to £200,000, they decided in 1967 that it would make more sense to build a new bridge. This would not only be more cost-effective, a new bridge would also be faster and more reliable, thus increasing the speed at which ships could clear the lock. This was also of benefit to Islanders as they would spend less time waiting for bridges to open and close (mind you, bridgers were one of the most effective excuses for being late for school).

Bridge No. 5 – The Blue Bridge

The bridge parts were manufactured in Glasgow (ironic, considering the number of steel and bridge construction firms of Scottish origin that were operating on the Island until a few years before) and the bridge was assembled in a yard next to the entrance lock.

The old bridge had to be removed in order for the new bridge to be put in place. This meant that, for many months, no road traffic was possible over the only exit/entrance in the east of the Island. Bus passengers would disembark on one side of the lock, and then walk over the lock gates before catching another bus on the other side.

I remember…forever having to cross the lock to get a bus to Poplar scary at 12 years old – Becky Hobson

I am sure I lost property as we walked over those locks – Jill Leftwich

I was terrified of walking over that bridge. You could see the water through the wooden slats. Urgh! – Joan Reading

I remember when I was young we had to walk across the lock to the other side to pick up the bus to Poplar always thought I was going to fall in the water – Shelia Doe

Photo: Marie Foote

Bridge Construction

My dad was lock foreman at the bridge, some times if I was there he would get me a lift on a tug through the docks and drop me off at the wooden bridge. I always wanted to work on the river, my dad said in the late 60’s don’t bother it’ll all be gone, how right he was. – Keith Charnley.



I can remember getting bridgers when I went to secondary school at poplar – Lorraine Waterson

I remember at Sir Humphrey Gilbert school the kids coming in late to school “Sorry Sir gotta bridger” – Ted Whiteman

Glen Terrace, following the original path of Manchester Rd

Leslie Stephens: my sat nav directs me up glen terrace turn right then left to go over the bridge, lol, should really get it up dated but I like this little quirk it has.

Peter Wright:  Ah so thats why my sat nav says it!

Leslie Stephens: Yours as well?

Peter Wright: Yeah

Not many years later and the Blue Bridge was one of the sites selected for protest during the 1970 Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of the Isle of Dogs (see It Was All a Bit of a Joke). Protesters picketed the bridge, preventing ships from entering and exiting the docks for a number of hours.



In 1976 I was fortunate enough to sail from the docks to the Netherlands (a trip organized by George Green’s Youth Club). The Blue Bridge had to be raised to allow our sailing boat to leave the dock. For the first time I was, in part, the cause of a bridger instead being held up by one. A rare experience. Also coincidental: a bridge based on Dutch design being raised to allow a ship to sail to the Netherlands, where I am as I write this, over 35 years later.

1976, Departing for the Netherlands (Photo: Mick Lemmerman)

1980s, A scene from the ‘ Prospects’ TV series.

Raised Bridge

Photo: Con Maloney

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Limehouse Basin. No, not that one.

Ask most people who know their way around East London where Limehouse Basin is, and they will say that it’s this. It’s marked as such on many maps, and was even referred to as such in newspapers and other documents published in the 19th century.

I’d hesitate to say that these people are wrong, but – formerly – this was not Limehouse Basin, this was the Regent’s Canal Dock. My hesitation is because I am a believer in the natural development of place names and language; formal rules certainly have their uses, but are not mandatory in deciding what something should be called.

However, as we’re being formal for a moment, the piece of water known as Limehouse Basin was not off Narrow Street; it was about half a mile to the east, and connected the West India Import and Export Docks with each other and the Thames.

The main business of the West India Docks was the loading and offloading of ships which were sailing to and from the sea, and which used the eastern entrances to the docks. Limehouse Basin was mostly used by lighters which were passing between the docks and the quays further upriver. These were smaller ships, and at two acres, the basin was much smaller than the Blackwall and South Dock Basins at the eastern end of the West India Docks.

The West India Docks opened in 1802, and Limehouse Basin and the entrance locks were supposed to open in the same year. However, on 13th October 1802:

…a high tide passed over and behind the uncoped south wall and, though 4ft 6in. thick, part of it collapsed. Jessop blamed Walker, claiming that the walls had been laid 22in. lower than he had specified. [Chief Dock Engineer] John Rennie was called in to report on the incident, and in doing so he made extensive criticisms of the work. He stated that the wall should have been thicker and more markedly curved, and that stone bonding-courses should have been used.
Survey of London

The basin was eventually opened in July 1803. At the end of the 19th century, at the other end of the docks, Blackwall Basin was significantly enlarged, and a new impounding system (the system which kept and still maintains the water level) introduced. The Limehouse entrance lock was considered detrimental to the effectiveness of the impounding system, and so it was closed (in 1894).

Survey of London:

…after the Limehouse entrance lock closed in 1894 the basin was little used. It survived as a lay-by for barges and repair of boats, and as a cut between the Import and Export Docks.

The closure of the entrance lock meant that Limehouse Basin lost its original purpose, and in the 1927-1928 the basin:

…was filled in … to save on maintenance and to increase storage ground, using material from the excavations for the Millwall Passage

Filling in of Limehouse Basin. Looking east from the entrance lock.

Filling in of Limehouse Basin. Looking west. In the background, in the centre, is the iron swing bridge over the former entrance lock.

Filling in of Limehouse Basin. Looking east.

The following is a later view of the centre of the previous photo, and shows the situation after the basin was filled in, with a truncated section of the entrance lock.

West India Import (North) Dock from the filled-in Limehouse Basin.

The Observer newspaper on 10th February 1929 saw the filling-in of Limehouse Basin as  marking the definitive passing of the age of sailing ships, and described it eloquently thus:

Referred to in the newspaper article is the closed entrance lock at the western end of the basin, with its capstan, and post grooved by decades of sailing ship ropes. Beyond them, a fence to separate the docks from the public road (a section originally known as Bridge Road, later part of Westferry Road).

Visible behind the fence is the distinct shape of the iron swing bridge which crossed the now-redundant entrance lock (the Island had a few bridges of this type). The bridge is highlighted in this photo, in which the form of the filled-in basin can be clearly seen:

Limehouse entrance lock bridge.

The following photo show the bridge’s demolition (looking north, with Providence House in the background).

Demolition of bridge over former Limehouse entrance lock, 1920s

After removal of the bridge, looking south.

In case you’re curious about where Limehouse Basin was in modern money, the following shows the development over the years. Today, Westferry Circus and other stuff belonging to the Canary Wharf Group is over its site.

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