The earliest known map which names the Isle of Dogs – Robert Adams’ Thamesis Descriptio of 1588 – names a Saunders Nesse in the east of the Island.
1588. Adams’ map was ‘upside down’ with the south at the top, and I have reversed the map here. The letter in ‘Nesse’ that looks like an f is a so-called long s, an archaic form of the lower case letter s.
A ness is a headland or promontory, from the Old English naes, but there is no record of who Saunders (or Saunder) might have been.
Almost three hundred years later this 1870 map also shows a Builder’s Yard at Saunders Ness. The yard belonged to William Cubitt & Co. who had been responsible for the development of the area in the preceding two decades. Included in the development was the construction of Wharf Road, from the Ferry House in the south west to just north of Seyssel Street (it was planned to go further but the construction of large ship building yards to the north prevented that).
1870. South Cubitt Town. Click for full-sized version.
The reason for the naming of the road is obvious – intended as it was to serve the riverside wharves. The area was to follow the same pattern as Millwall, with industry along the river, and residential areas further inland. Only the area opposite Greenwich Seamen’s Hospital was not allowed to be built upon and was to remain a green space – this part of the Island was owned by the hospital which did not want its view blighted by industry (see this article for more information).
In the 1930s, there was quite some renaming of streets in Poplar carried out by Poplar Borough Council in order to remove duplicate street names in their administrative area (such as the two British Streets – one off Westferry Road and the other in Bow). As a consequence, the section of Wharf Road between the Ferry House and Johnson Street – and Johnson Street itself – was renamed Ferry Street, and the rest of the road was renamed Saunders Ness Road.
The two sections of road had been separated from each other for decades anyway as far as road traffic was concerned thanks to the construction of North Greenwich Railway Station in the late 1800s, with a short subway providing pedestrian access between them. The section now known as Ferry Street receives no more attention in this article.
The 1870 map above shows that a few wharves had not yet been occupied by firms, and it would take a couple of decades before they would be, thanks largely to the 1866 collapse of the bank, Overend, Gurney & Company. This led to an international financial crisis and had a particularly heavy impact on the Isle of Dogs, where the expansion boom of the previous years was based on over-extended credit. Also, many Island companies had borrowed directly from the failed bank.
Noticeable on the map above are large areas of ‘white space’ on the west side of the road. According to Cubitt’s vision, this area would be filled with houses, but virtually none were built, except those shown in the following map. In fact, a few small plots remained undeveloped until the 21st century!
c1890. The row of houses in Wharf Road (later Saunders Ness Road) to the west of Barque Street was named College View.
c1930. College View at its corner with Barque Road (right). North Greenwich Railway station, by this time closed and being used as a wharf, is visible in the background. Just behind the letter box is a glimpse of the pedestrian subway. The very tall chimney – the tallest on the Island – belonged to the lead works.
North Greenwich Railway Station
In the 1870s, the London and Blackwall Railway Company built its Millwall Extension Railway, terminating at North Greenwich Railway Station, which had a steamboat pier from which a ferry service to and from Greenwich Pier operated. The ferry departed every 20 minutes and the one-way fare was one penny; it was very popular with the many dockers who lived on the other side of the water.
c1904. North Greenwich Railway Station looking north. The houses in the background are in Manchester Road.
Early 1900s. The end of the line – looking south towards Greenwich
Early 1900s. The ferry from heading from Greenwich Pier towards North Greenwich Railway Station.
After the Millwall Extension Railway was closed in the 1920s, the station buildings and land were taken over by local wharfingers J. Calder & Company.
1926. Calder’s Wharf.
The two previous maps in this article (dated 1870 and 1890) both clearly show the land owned by Greenwich Seamen’s Hospital, largely empty apart from the grand looking Osborne House, built in the 1860s. There were plans to have landscaped gardens here, with imported trees and shrubs and a total of five large villas (built a little back from the river so they could not be seen from the hospital).
But, there was no interest from buyers; the wealthy businessmen that the development was expected to attract did not want to live on the Isle of Dogs. The gardens had become an open space, but it was far from landscaped and locally it was known as ‘scrap iron park’. In 1895, the LCC acquired the land in order to lay out a formal park, to be known as Island Gardens. They leased part of Osborne House to Poplar Borough Council who opened it as a public library, the remainder being occupied by the park caretaker.
Early 1900s. The Sapon company name can just be seen painted on the roof in the background (see below). Osborne House is to its left in this photo.
1930s (estimate). Lenanton’s lorries being shown off outside Island Gardens.
Greenwich Foot Tunnel
A couple of years later and the Island Gardens were confronted with the loss of part of their land. An 1897 act of parliament gave the go-ahead for the construction of a foot tunnel from the Island to Greenwich, and in 1899 a shaft was sunk in the south-west corner of Island Gardens, with the tunnel officially opening in 1902. The arrival of the tunnel, by the way, put the ferry between North Greenwich Railway Station and Greenwich out of business.
Construction of Greenwich Foot Tunnel entrance building
The following two maps from a Museum of London collection of fire insurance maps give a fantastically detailed and accurate view of the wharves in 1900 – I can spend ages looking at these and other maps in the collection:
1900 Charles E. Goad Fire Insurance Map. Museum of London. (click for full-sized version)
1900 Charles E. Goad Fire Insurance Map. Museum of London. (click for full-sized version)
Some of the names of wharves and firms are familiar to us today, but some are not. Wharf names were rarely official: they were frequently named after the company operating there at the time. The sizes of wharves also changed as companies expanded and acquired land from adjacent wharves.
This makes it difficult to provide a description of all wharves and firms in some sort of chronological order without going into a huge amount of boring detail, so I am not going to bother. Instead, just a few are highlighted, particular those that were still operating in living memory, or which have had a lasting influence in present day place or street names.
Heading north from Island Gardens……
The wharf was first a stonecutting yard before it was occupied by the Thames Steam Cooperage Company, when it became known as Barrel Wharf. In 1900 it was taken over by Sapon Ltd, manufacturers of soap who operated there until the early 1920s. In 1924, the wharf was taken over (and renamed) by Luralda Ltd, manufacturers of tea chests who later expanded their business to include the import of plywood.
Cumberland Oil Mills
I recently dedicated a whole article to this firm and won’t repeat any of the information here. However, any excuse to show one of the oldest photos of the Isle of Dogs, taken around 1860, and showing Cumberland Oil Mills and much of the area covered by this article, as well other parts of the Island.
click for full-sized version
Newcastle Draw Dock
Draw docks are used for the repair of boats which can either be floated into them at high tide and/or dragged (drawn) above the level of high tide. Newcastle Draw Dock was built by William Cubitt & Co.
Newcastle Draw Dock (at high tide) in c1935
The first occupant was engineering firm, William Simpson & Co. who established their works there in 1858. After a couple of changes of ownership, the wharf was taken over by Sternol Ltd (also known as the Stern Sonneborn Oil Company Ltd) who used it as an oil and grease refinery.
William Cubitt & Co. occupied a large wharf which extended from what was later named Grosvenor Works in the south to Seyssel Street in the north. The firm used the wharf to support their considerable building activities in the area. According to the Survey of London, the yard…
..was established c1843–4, and contained sawmills, timber-wharves, a cement factory, a pottery and several large brickfields, producing all manner of materials for the building trade.
After the downturn in building due to the late-1860s financial crisis (see above), Cubitt’s Wharf was split into smaller wharves as follows…
Click for full-sized version.
Poplar Dry Dock / Empire Wharf
Poplar Dry Dock opened in 1880 and remained in use by various companies until 1933, when the owners at the time, Sternol Ltd., filled it in and used it as an extension to their oil and grease refinery.
1930s. Looking up Saunder’s Ness Road from approximately the boundary between Empire Wharf and Storer’s Wharf.
One section of Cubitt’s Wharf was taken over by Glasgow oil and paint manufacturers, David Storer & Sons. After this firm became bankrupt in 1891, the paint factory was taken over by Wilkinson, Heywood & Clark who were in a similar business to Storer.
Wilkinson, Heywood & Clark’s paint factory in about 1924. Photo: Island History Trust.
Caledonian Wharf / Cubitt Town Dry Dock
The dry dock was built in the 1870s by a certain Thomas Rugg of East India Dock Road. His ship-repairs firm was not a success, lasting only for about 10 years. The wharf changed hands a few times until it was taken over by the neighbours, Wilkinson, Heywood & Clark who used the dry dock for storage.
Cubitt Town Wharf
Survey of London:
Unlet in 1859, this site was leased from October 1864 to the London Rice Mill Company. The lessees made the best of the awkwardly shaped site, erecting a large brick warehouse block facing the river, with a second range of smaller brick buildings running along the northern boundary, and an office to the south. The wharf was used for cleaning, crushing and grinding rice and other seeds and grains. In 1871 the company expanded southwards, leasing an adjacent plot of 71ft frontage from Cubitt & Company for storage purposes.
Cubitt Town Wharf (after closure)
The wharf survived the Second World War, but a number of buildings have since been removed. From the late 1950s Cubitt Town Wharf was occupied by Apex Rubber Company Ltd and Borovitch Ltd (also known as Boropex Holdings), and used for the storage of rubber and other goods.
Another wharf which went through many changes in occupation, most significantly used by constructional engineers Deane, Ransome & Company who later evolved into Power’s & Deane, Ransome’s Ltd. For a time they named Plymouth Wharf the Cubitt Town Steel Works.
Photo: Island History Trust
First occupied in 1861 by the Asphalte de Seyssel Company of Thames Embankment (one of the first natural asphalt deposits discovered in the world was in Seyssel, France). After a few changes of owner, Pyrimont Wharf became part of Plymouth Wharf (in the 1920s).
Employees of Cargo Fleet, who occupied Pyrimont Wharf for a period. Photo: Ada Price.
John and William Dudgeon (full article here) were engineers who later turned to shipbuilding, opening their yard at the north end of Seyssel Street in 1861. Their early success was thanks in large part to the supply of fast blockade runners to the Confederacy during the American Civil War, but that success was short-lived – the botched launch in 1874 of their 70th ship, the frigate Independencia which had been built for the Brazilian Government, led to their bankruptcy.
The launch of the Independencia in 1874. The Dudgeons attempted to launch her on 16 July but she stuck fast and did not budge. A second attempt was made on 30 July during which the ship got about one-third down the slipway and stuck, extensively damaging her hull plating. The contract for the vessel’s repair and refitting went to the rival firm of Samuda Brothers
After the departure of the brothers, the wharf – which retained its name – was occupied by a series of oil and petrol storage companies. Operations ended in 1951 and during its demolition on 1969 a tank explosion led to the deaths of five firefighters and one construction worker (see below for more information).
The Other Side of the Road
Cubitt Town School opened in 1891 on land which had formerly been part of the brick fields used for the manufacture of bricks for the Cubitt Town development.
1920s. Click for full-sized version.
1920s (estimate). Cubitt Town School playground
Various extensions to the school were constructed until in the early 1930s it was decided to demolish the school and replace it with modern, larger premises. The new school opened in 1938.
Invitation to the opening of the school sent to John Masefield, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 until 1967.
1938. Cubitt Town School. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives (City of London)
1938. Cubitt Town School
The new school was seriously damaged by WWII bombing – an incident which caused the loss of many lives (see below).
The first Cubitt Town School was originally built to provide more school spaces for the growing population of Cubitt Town. Before its construction, the only school places in the area were offered by the smaller Christ Church School (marked as a Sunday School on the map above). Survey of London:
The Christ Church National Schools buildings were erected at the northern end of the church lands in 1866. They served as a Sunday School and as parish rooms for games, society meetings and concerts until the construction of a new church hall between the parsonage and the old school buildings in 1914.
Former Christ Church School building viewed in the 1960s from the playground of Cubitt Town School. Photo: Malcolm Tremain
Nearly the whole block bordered by Manchester Road, Billson Street, Saunders Ness Road and Glengarnock Avenue (1938 street names) was owned by the church. The south east ‘corner’ of this land was occupied by a large church garden. I remember scrumping apples here 🙂
A little further south was the Newcastle Arms (later Watermans’ Arms, then the Great Eastern, and about to be renamed Watermans’ Arms again!). The subject of its own article (click here) – I don’t want to say any more about it here. Besides, its address is Glenaffric Avenue and not Saunders Ness Road.
Between the Newcastle Arms and the houses at the south end of Saunders Ness Road there was nothing – the land had never been built upon. Some sections were occasionally used by local wharves for temporary storage, but that was it – a situation that would not change until decades after WWII.
World War II
In fact there were about to be even fewer houses in Saunders Ness Road, because at 6pm on 7th September 1940 – the first day of the Blitz – a high explosive bomb fell at the south end of the road. A number of houses were destroyed (or were damaged beyond repair), shown in black on the following map…
One of the worst bombing incidents on the Island during WWII occurred in Saunders Ness Road when 26 were killed at Cubitt Town School. The recently rebuilt school had been commandeered for use by the emergency services and hosted the Auxiliary Fire Service, Air Raid Wardens, Stretcher Bearers, Ambulance Service and a Mobile First Aid Unit. Heavy Rescue Squad worker, Bill Regan, described the incident in his diary:
What a bloody mess, the whole guts blown away, only two end flanks standing. There were more than 40 people stationed here; I only saw one survivor, the gatekeeper, a man who lived in Pier Street, who had lost a leg in the 14-18 war.
He said he saw this parachute coming down, and thought it was a barrage balloon, it was a parachute mine, and he was lucky to be on the opposite side to where it landed, with building between him and it. He was blasted into the road, but miraculously none of the debris had hit him. Within minutes we had located the spot they were likely to be, and got two people out, but I don’t think they were alive as were working without lights and they were at best unconscious.
I don’t know how many we recovered, our relief came on at 8.00 a.m., but we carried on until nearly ten, when a squad from the other end of Poplar came to help.
The victims were fire-brigade personnel, ambulance men, and a complete mobile operating theatre, [which was] billeted next to our depot, in the swimming baths, and always left for Saunders Ness when the sirens sounded.”
The remains of Cubitt Town School the day after the bombing
The remains of Cubitt Town School the day after the bombing
The emergency service workers who were killed are commemorated in a memorial which is affixed to the wall of the present-day school.
Most buildings in Saunders Ness Road (including the foot tunnel entrance building) suffered at least minor damage during WWII. After the War, the LCC created colour-coded ‘Bomb Damage Maps’ which showed the Saunders Ness Road area as follows:
c1946. Click for full-sized version
The 1950s & 1960s
The previous photo shows how little of Cubitt Town School remained after the War. However, the still-standing section was incorporated in the new school, which opened in 1952.
1950s. Cubitt Town School playground, with Saunders Ness Road in the background. Photo: Colin Siggery.
Other than the rebuilding of the school – little changed in the fabric of Saunders Ness Road in the decades after WWII.
Workers outside Luralda’s in the 1960s. Photo: Christine Egglesfield
One of Snowdon & Son’s lorries opposite the corner of Saunders Ness Road and Schooner Street, where houses stood before WWII
Newcastle Dry Dock (I would love to see the film they made)
1960s. Not evidence of bomb damage, but the area between Schooner Street and Brig Street which had never been built upon. Photo: Peter Bevan
1962. Next to the former Cumberland Oil Mills
1968. College View from Island Gardens (section of a photo by Hugo Wilhare)
1968. A splash of colour outside Island Gardens. Buses didn’t normally lay up here – but their usual spot in Stebondale Street must have been unavailable for some reason.
1968, Calder’s Wharf
On 17th July 1969, disaster struck at Dudgeon’s Wharf, with tragic consequences. Workers were busy demolishing the long disused oil and petrol tanks with oxy-acetylene burners when a fire started in one of the tanks.
The fire brigade were called out, but the fire was out by the time they arrived. A number of firemen climbed on the rim of the tank to pour water inside, as an extra precaution, but at the time a demolition worker was still working below with his oxy-acetylene burner. The tank exploded, killing five firemen and one demolition worker.
The firemen are commemorated in a London Fire Brigade memorial by the river.
17th July 1969, after the explosion
July 1969, Dudgeon’s Wharf
The 1970s were a decade of much change for Saunders Ness Road. The big news for the Island in 1970 was the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), a local protest action which made international news (described in full in this article).
1970. An ITN reporter who was covering the UDI, filmed standing outside what was 19 Saunders Ness Road, the rightmost house in College View, on the corner with Barque Street.
The success of this protest was followed by a few others, and the ‘Island Council’ got down to the less dramatic, administrative side of council business, when a Mr Edward Ingrams applied to start a street market on the Island (permission was granted). I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that this decision led to the opening of the – short-lived – market on Calder’s Wharf.
A collection of images of the market at Calder’s Wharf in 1970
1970. One of the main figures behind the UDI, Ted Johns, walking with his daughter in Saunders Ness Road.
1970 was also the year that the Poplar and Blackwall District Rowing Club’s new clubhouse opened. For many years the club was based at the derelict North Greenwich Railway Station and had to put up with some very primitive facilities. After years of what we would these days call ‘lobbying’, they managed to get a 99 year lease on Calder’s Wharf and set about building a new, modern clubhouse which opened in September of that year.
1969. Rowing club construction.
Another new development was the construction of what we called ‘the posh houses’, new homes on the land that used to be the garden of Christ Church. Survey of London:
The land to the east of the church and parsonage was not built on until the 1970s, when it was sold for private housing. The development at Nos 71–91 (odd) Saunders Ness Road comprises two blocks of six and five houses, of two storeys, containing two and three bedrooms, with penthouses, flat roofs and roof gardens, of inky buff brick with projecting dark-blue brick piers between the houses, first-floor balconies, integral garages and tiled patio gardens.
Private housing! I didn’t even know what that meant – everybody lived in a council flat, or least paid rent to someone, didn’t they? Who the heck could afford to buy a house, and if they could, why would they choose to live on the Isle of Dogs? It was all too much for my young mind.
Ad for ‘posh houses’
Even more absurd, look at the price, around 20,000 quid! Surely they could only be affordable to bank robbers. (Meanwhile, back in the real world, I just checked the current price estimates for these houses: £850,000 to £950,000).
c1971. Construction of the posh houses on the right, and Grosvenor Wharf on the left. Photo: Pat Jarvis.
A couple of year’s later, industrial buildings on the former Alpha, Grosvenor and Empire Wharves were demolished – the land was earmarked for the construction of public housing by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
The ‘posh houses’. Click for full-sized version.
Newcastle Draw Dock. Wondering if a Ford Escort floats….. (Photo and car: Gary Langton).
Next to the Newcastle Draw Dock, the former Cumberland Oil Mills premises were occupied from the late 1960s by the Apex Rubber Company Ltd. In 1972, the main warehouse – one of the oldest buildings on the Island – was destroyed in a fire. The shell of the main warehouse was demolished a couple of years later.
1970s. Alpha, Grosvenor and Empire Wharves after demolition. The burned out warehouse of the former Cumberland Oil Mills in the background.
1970s. The view in the opposite direction, looking towards Storer’s Wharf.
Further north, and some industry was still hanging on in Saunders Ness Road.
1970s. Marela’s on the right, and beyond it – just past the chimney – the National Dock Labour Board training centre at Plymouth Wharf.
1970s. Another view in the opposite direction.
The Cubitt Town School building is visible in the previous two photos, except it wasn’t occupied by Cubitt Town School by this time. In an educational version of musical chairs, Glengall School closed in 1970 and Cubitt Town School moved into its premises in Glengall Grove. Meanwhile, Lenanton’s bought and demolished St Luke’s School building in Westferry Road, and St Luke’s School moved into the recently vacated school building in Saunders Ness Road. Got that?
Some St Luke’s schoolkids assembled in their new playground at the old Cubitt Town School in Saunders Ness Road.
In other school-related matters, the closure of Glengall School meant that there was no longer a secondary school on the Island, and kids would have to travel off the Island (using the unreliable bus service) in order to go to school. In 1972, after agitation from Islanders who wanted to see a secondary school on the Island (and undoubtedly full of post-UDI zest), the ILEA approved plans for a new mixed secondary school for 900 pupils on the Island, replacing the old George Green’s School in East India Dock Road. Although the school was seen as a positive development by almost everyone, it did mean the loss of many houses, shops and streets.
George Green’s school land on a late 1940s map. Even though the school did not extend to Glengarnock Avenue, the old buildings there were also demolished (apart from the pub of course).
There was not much to be demolished along Saunder’s Ness Road, just a few houses near the foot tunnel, and before long a corrugated iron fence was erected along the road. The road was now narrower along the length of Island Gardens. I thought this was temporary, due to the school’s construction, but when the fence was removed (which did not happen until the early 1980s) it was revealed to be permanent. George Green’s School formally opened in 1977, but the community and leisure centre that it housed had been open for a while already.
1982. The fence is still there. Photo: Mark Daydy
By 1980, when the docks closed, most industry along the river had already given up the ghost. The actions of the LDDC included the widespread clearance of the wharves to make room for residential developments, with only a few Island riverside firms hanging on for a few more years. By circa 1984, housing on the former Luralda, Alpha, Grosvenor and Empire Wharves was complete.
c1984. A) Calder’s Wharf Community Centre. B) Luralda Wharf. C) Former Cumberland Oil Mills. D) Alpha, Grosvenor and Empire Wharves. E) Storer’s and Caledonian Wharves. F) Cubitt Town Wharf. G) National Dock Labour Board Training Centre. H) Dudgeon’s Wharf. Click for full-sized version.
A scrap dealer operating out of the former Cumberland Oil Mills managed to keep going through much of the 1980s, and the site was popular with photographers, as well as the producers of the Prospects TV series.
c1985. Screenshot from Prospects TV series
c1985. Screenshot from Prospects TV series
Photo: Mike Seaborne
Eventually though, inevitably, the works were demolished and replaced with a new housing development, known as Cumberland Mills.
Construction of the Docklands Light Railway started in 1983, and the terminus at the time was Island Gardens Station, built on part of the site of the former North Greenwich Railway Station.
Construction of Island Gardens DLR Station.
On 10th March 1987, an unofficial train test led to a train crashing through the barrier and almost ending up in Saunders Ness Road.
DLR Crash, March 1987
London Daily News, 11th March 1987:
Three people on board escaped unhurt as the engine ploughed through a barrier at the station and overshot the line.
The accident could have been much worse. The station is yards from the playing fields at George Green Comprehensive, where a local football game was in progress, under floodlights, when the train crashed.
Last night a spokesman for the London Docklands Development Corporation promised there would be a full investigation.
Mr Les Curtis, a surveyor who lives opposite the station said: “We heard an enormous crash shortly after 8pm, we looked out and saw the train hanging there. This must raise a lot of questions because those trains are going to run automatically with no drivers.”
GEC Mowlem, which is constructing the railway, refused to comment on the crash last night.
Staff at the track said they were “still assessing the situation”.
The Queen arrives in Saunders Ness Road for the official opening of the DLR on 30th July 1987
1980s. Looking toward Island Gardens and Calder’s Wharf. Photo: Tim Brown.
At some time in the 1980s a small garden was created on the corner of Saunders Ness Road and Glenworth Avenue, complete with a mini-lighthouse.
Photo: Bill Regan
Funding for the garden must have stopped because it became increasingly overgrown and was eventually fenced off.
2011. Photo: Peter Wright
Some visitors to the area who spotted the by then dilapidated lighthouse were under the impression that it was a genuine historical leftover of the Island’s past.
Many years later, a Canary Wharf College building would be built on the site.
Also many years later, I had a wander down the street and took a few photos. As usual, I only wanted to take photos of the older stuff, but there just wasn’t much of it……
Photo: Mick Lemmerman
Photo: Mick Lemmerman
Photo: Mick Lemmerman
A couple of more old things: Mick and Con. Good evening from “the Management”. Photo: Mick Lemmerman