The Bridges of the Isle of Dogs

Ask most people to name the old road bridges on the Island, and they will probably mention Kingsbridge, the Blue Bridge (or its predecessor), the Glass Bridge (or its predecessor) and the swing-bridge in Preston’s Rd. There were however, two more: both between Limehouse and the City Arms, along the Walls. You’d be forgiven for not knowing about them, though, as they were removed a very long time ago.

North Limehouse Entrance Lock Bridge

If you were travelling around the Island from Limehouse in the late 1800s, the first bridge you would encounter was a swing-bridge which spanned the Limehouse Entrance Lock (the entrance to Limehouse Basin). Not to be confused with the Regent’s Canal Dock north of Narrow Street, which is often incorrectly-named Limehouse Basin, the actual Limehouse Basin was formerly at the west end of the West India Docks.

Originally constructed from timber, the first bridge was not reliable, and it was replaced by an iron bridge in 1810.


Limehouse Lock was closed in 1894 on completion of the Blackwall Entrance Lock in Preston’s Rd. The lock and basin were filled in at the end of the 1920s, but the bridge was not dismantled and removed until 1949.

Almost complete filling of Limehouse Basin – looking west towards the Walls – bridge centre background.


Dismantling of bridge, Providence House visible in the background.

Site of the bridge in the 1980s.

Difficult to show a contemporary view as Westferry Circus is on the spot, but it is possible to mix up the maps.

South Limehouse Entrance Lock Bridge (aka City Arms Bridge)

Continuing south along the Walls, the next bridge spanned the South Limehouse Entrance Lock, providing ship access to the West India South Dock immediately north of the City Arms. Its vicinity to the pub led to it becoming known locally as the City Arms Bridge.

As with the bridge a little further north along the Walls (and built at the same time), this was originally a timber swing-bridge which was later replaced by an iron bridge; a bridge which was itself replaced in 1896.

In 1929, the PLA erected an impounding station – which is still functional – across the entrance lock, making the swing-bridge redundant. It was replaced by a fixed bridge in 1939.

Millwall Dock Entrance Lock Bridge (aka Kingsbridge)

Everybody I knew referred to it as Kingsbridge but that was never its formal name. Formally, it never even had a name. It was just the iron swing bridge over the Millwall Dock entrance lock. People like to have a name for everything, though, and it and the area around it became known as Kingsbridge, named after the Kingsbridge Arms public house

When it was opened, this was the largest dock entrance lock in London, being 80 ft wide and nearly 200 ft long. This photo shows the construction of the inner lock gates (the outer gates were far more substantial, designed to better deal with collisions by ships).


The dock entrance was originally designed to be shorter, but during construction it became apparent that rapidly-increasing ship sizes required the building of a larger entrance. This meant building a lock that extended further east, which in turn led to a slight rerouting of Westferry Rd. I have added the original route of West Ferry Rd in this 1895 map; it was clearly a much gentler curve.

The map also shows a footbridge (“F.B.”) passing over the middle lock gates. This was to allow pedestrians to cross the dock entrance even if there was a ship in the lock. It was a double swing bridge which appears in a couple of old post cards.



A bridger in 1926. This photo was taken looking south. On the left is a glimpse of the Sailor’s Home that used to be next to the dock road entrance.



Ships continued to grow in size and by the 1930s the middle lock gates (and, thus, the foot bridge) were becoming obsolete. The PLA had plans to alter the lock, but these plans were deferred due to the outbreak of WWII. During the war, in September 1940, bombing destroyed the middle gates and much of the surrounding machnery and lock structure. Directly after the war, financial restrictions prevented any reconstruction and the lock remained unused. By 1955, the cost of reconstruction could no longer be justified and the dock was dammed at its inner gate (on the dockside).

The building of a dam at the inner gate meant that the road bridge (aka “Kingsbridge”) had to remain in place, never opening, and crossing a lock that would never be used. The structural solution would have been to completely fill in the locks, but this would have been much costlier , something unthinkable in the austere 1950s. Instead, the lock was allowed to silt up on the river side until the bridge wasn’t even crossing water.


This 1981 photo taken by Dave Chapman from the roof of McDougall’s shows the situation perfectly.


It would be 1990 before the lock was properly filled-in and the bridge removed; work carried out by Mowlem for the LDDC. The following photo was taken by Kathy Duggan not long afterwards, with Michigan House on the right, and the Kingsbridge Arms in the distance.


Today there is a slipway on the river side of the bridge and a watersports club on the dock side (which is now under threat by people who want to build more towers). You don’t have to look too hard, though, to see where the outer and middle lock gates were mounted, and the remains of lock machinery.

South West India Dock East Entrance (aka 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 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. 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.

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

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


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 (known as ‘bridgers’, one of the most effective excuses for being late for school or work).

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

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

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, 40 years later.

Departing for the Netherlands (Photo: Mick Lemmerman)

Blackwall Entrance Lock (Preston’s Road) Bridge

British History Online:

In 1800 Ralph Walker designed a horizontal swing-bridge, double-turning and arched, the plans for which William Jessop used in 1801, in preference to his own designs, for a bridge over the Blackwall entrance lock.

The Blackwall entrance was very busy, and so Rennie had a cast-iron footbridge, supplied by Aydon & Elwell, erected over the east side of the lock in 1813, to allow the road bridge to stay open, unless carriage passage was needed, without inconveniencing pedestrians. Based on a bridge at Ramsgate designed by Rennie, it was 54ft long and only 4ft 6in. wide at the centre. The increasing numbers of workmen passing to and from the Isle of Dogs over this bridge necessitated a second footbridge in 1865, supplied by Westwood & Baillie. This improvement was negated in 1871 when one of the footbridges was moved to a City warehouse. The other was removed when the lock was rebuilt in 1893–4.


1950. Preston’s Rd bridge on the right.


1962. Screenshot from ‘Portrait of Queenie’, with Queenie Watts

Like other bridges, the Preston’s Rd swing-bridge served no purpose eventually, Preston’s Rd was also straightened and widened to such an extent that it is difficult to recognise it as the same road.

Glengall (Road) Bridge, later Glass Bridge

The construction of the Millwall Docks in the early 1860s, made it impossible to get from one side of the other without travelling a long way south. The dock company reluctantly agreed to a public road across their land, and the first bridge was mounted over the Millwall Inner Dock in 1868.

1870, The bridge is in place, but the western end of Glengall Rd has not been constructed yet.


Glengall Bridge from the east.

British History Online:

The Glengall Road bridge became a nuisance both to local people and to the dock company. Its opening was a slow manoeuvre, and it often malfunctioned. Use of the Inner Dock by commercial shipping meant heavy wear and tear for a bridge that had not been designed for frequent opening. Repairs were made on nine separate occasions before 1930, causing much public inconvenience.

Reconstruction was approved in 1938:

Poplar Borough Council meeting minutes 1938

The start of World War II meant the reconstruction was not carried out. When the bridge broke down again in 1945, it was removed, and a wooden pedestrian bridge was buit on a moored barge. If a ship needed to pass, one end of the barge would be released and the barge pulled to one side.

Photo: Sandra Brentnall

Photo: George Charnley

After the war, the PLA stated its intention to close the public right of way across the Millwall Inner Dock, but this led to strong local opposition. The Council, the LCC and Charles Key, the local MP, forced the PLA to reconsider and prepare schemes for adapting the pedestrian crossing. In 1960 the PLA suggested either high-level footways with a double bascule bridge which would cost over £100,000, a tunnel under the dock for about £400,000, or a 180ft-high aerial cable car for about £50,000. The bridge option emerged as favourite, the tunnel being too expensive for the PLA and the cable car unpopular with the Council. A high-level bridge would keep the public out of the docks and allow barges to pass, opening only for ships.





The Glengall Grove high-level bridge gave the public the dubious privilege of a walk high over the Millwall Docks in an enclosed glazed tube. It was immediately renamed by Islanders, ‘The Glass Bridge’.


The ‘glass bridge’ immediately became a prime target for vandals and pedestrians were so intimidated that few used it. The PLA had to spend about £20,000 on repairs. Severe damage to the glass and the lifts in 1975–6 caused the bridge to be closed.


The bridge was closed and demolished by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in 1983.


A temporary bridge was built across Millwall Inner Dock, allowing for road access across the dock for the first time since 1945.

The road access was short-lived, though: a new street – Pepper Street – was constructed through the former dockland, and this is closed to traffic. The eastern and western sections of Pepper Street are connected by the latest incarnation of Glengall Bridge.


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The Anti-Aircraft Gun Emplacement over the Muddy

In 1938, with war imminent, the War Office took over an area of land in the Mudchute west of Stebondale Street, paying compensation to the 37 allotment
holders whose plots were appropriated.


Mudchute Allotments in the 1920s. Photo: Island History Trust Collection

Four concrete ack-ack gun installations were built around a central control bunker, and accommodation and storage huts were built to the east.


Click for full-size version.

The installation was initially manned by the 154 Battery of the 52nd (London) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment – a volunteer air defence unit of Britain’s Territorial Army. While the accommodation and supply huts were still being built, the troops were billeted in Dockland Settlement. George Hames wrote in August 1939:

There was a heavy bang on the front door. A quick glance through the window showed a lorry pulling up outside. It was a battery of the Heavy Artillery (HA) just back from annual camp and as their battery site on the Mudchute was not ready, they just commandeered the club! The take-over was almost entire. The George Hall became the officers’ room, the library went to the sergeants; they took the gym, the main hall and the carpenters’ shop in the arches. The troops were with us until the following May, the HA being relieved by another battery who eventually took to their now finished quarters on the Mudchute.


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection

The Blitz started in the late afternoon of 7th September 1940, when Bill Regan reported in his diary (see Heavy Rescue Squad Work on the Isle of Dogs: Bill Regan’s Diary from the Second World War ):

The Mudshoot [former popular spelling] gun site did its stuff, but was pretty futile. As we understood it, they were popping off with four 3.7’s, which sounded rather feeble to us. They were enthusiastic, and I suppose that was something to be thankful for.

That night, a parachute mine fell  on the site, and the explosion seriously damaged the command post and destroyed the canteen and stores. The guns could no longer be aimed with radar and fired by remote control; the access road to the gun sites was also badly damaged making it difficult to get in fresh supplies, and gunners were bringing in replacement ammunition by hand.


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection

I came across a film of the mudchute anti-aircraft gun in action quite by accident while browsing through wartime information films on YouTube. In a 1940 film produced by the Shell Film Unit, “Transfer of Skill”, I spotted what was very obviously McDougall’s flour silo building in the background. Here is an extract:

Bill Regan in his diaries on 11th September 1940:

Met some of the gunners from the Mudshoot today. All very young, none of them regulars, gave them tea, and chatted away until dusk, when the sound of distant gun-fire from down river, then the sirens.

The lads were a bit edgy when the noise came closer and Vi’s mum asked them if they were on duty, and they said no. When their guns started firing, of course the house began vibrating, and each time this happened, they looked very uneasy, and Vi’s dad said he thought they should go back to camp. They went, quick.

They had been very nervous, and they did the sensible thing. Me and Vi said goodnight, and went to our own shelter in the back garden, and surprisingly, had a good night’s sleep, several near misses woke us, but were asleep again almost at once. I suppose the noise is becoming familiar, like the ships on the river, on a foggy night, blowing away on their whistles which we became used to, and regarded as normal background noise.


Screenshot from Shell Film Unit film

And on 24th December:

At this stage of the Blitz, the anti-aircraft defences of London
were not up to the task of protecting the capital, but they did
what they could to put up a fight and had some occasional

Alert about mid-day, we saw a fighter plane going across
towards Essex, rather high and fast, but the Mudchute got off
one shot at it, and we watched the plane suddenly explode and
we were left with a clear sky.

We heard the gunners shouting their heads off. I went round
to the site entrance by the Wesleyan Chapel, and the two men
on guard were grinning like gargoyles, and all I could get off
them was ‘One shot, one bull’.

As I came away, one of them said to me ‘Wait till we get the
four—fives, we’ll show them’. I hope my guess is right, and
that it meant 4.5 AA guns. We could do with something a bit
bigger, if only to give our morale a lift. The last four nights
we have had a mobile gun on an army lorry, going round the
Island, and firing a few rounds in one place, then tearing up
the road, a few more rounds, then back again, ‘ditto repeato’,
to cheer us up, or confuse the enemy. Anyhow, it’s one of
Churchill’s better ideas.”

Just a few days after Bill’s diary entry, a 50 Kg bomb fell on the anti-aircraft battery. It fell outside one of the concrete gun emplacements, but managed to penetrate underneath the emplacement, wrecking its foundations and demolishing some of the 12-inch thick concrete wall. The gun, which was undergoing repairs and was not in use, was damaged.


Photo: Island History Trust Collection

Later, the site was fitted with more sophisticated, radar-controlled guns. Bill Regan wrote in March 1941:

Had a big share of the goodies last night. The Mudshoot has a new man in charge now. They have four big A.A, guns installed, and they used them last night, and what a lovely sound. They go off as one, we can hear the scream as they go up, and follow the sound, and they explode together, forming a square, and if the aim is right, it’s got to be curtains for the plane on the end of it.

Later in the war, in September 1944, Regan described a new type of enemy aircraft:

One machine passed over from S.E, to S.W, as I got out. Searchlight held it, flying very low and fast. Every type of gun, opened up, but it seemed unaffected. One pack of rockets from Rotherhithe surrounded it, but it just veered right as if from blast, and continued toward the city. Seconds later, the engine ceased, it dived, and immediately a terrific white flash was seen. After a lapse of about 6 seconds a big red flash, and a terrific explosion. We congratulated the Ack-Ack to each other, and counted one plane down.

Immediately, another came over, held by searchlights, and surrounded by shell-bursts; as before, right through it, over-head, and going towards Poplar, as I thought. Burdett Rd; as before, the engine cut out, it dived steeply, big white flash, pause, huge red flash, bang. We felt the blast distinctly. That’s two planes, we said. They seemed to be small fast fighters, with an apparently outsize bombload. Just about here, Martin who had varnished his tonsils with his usual double Scotches, got very talkative, and tried to bolster himself with loud talk. “I’m with you lads, first to go out. I’ll be there.” etc, etc. Before he could impress us, another one came over, passed, went silent, dropped, same white flash, pause – red flash, bang. I said to Alf Crawley, that the gunners were on form, three over, three down. Hardly credible.

We began to discuss the possibility of them being planes, as we could see flames coming from the tails of them, also a light in the nose. Some said rockets, as the flames did not seem to impede their progress.

It was Bill’s first sight of a V-1 rocket. Frequently referred to as the Doodlebug or Flying Bomb, the V-1 was an abbreviation of Vergeltungswaffe-1 (the German for Weapon of Revenge or Retribution), notable for the sound of its pulse jet engine and the eerie silence when that engine stopped and the rocket made its descent. Flying at 640 km/h (400 mph), it carried its 850 Kg explosive warhead from Dutch, Belgian and French launch sites to London and the South East. The first V-1 to fall on England was at 4.25 a.m. on 13th June 1944, hitting a railway bridge in Grove Road near Mile End Road. The bridge and railway track were badly damaged and a number of houses were destroyed. Six were killed, 30 injured, and more than 200 people made homeless. The few that fell on the Island are marked on this map (from The Isle of Dogs During World War II, by yours truly):


For perhaps as long as 5 years after the end of WWII, the guns remained in place, after which the land reverted to the PLA. They, obviously, were not so interested in the effort and expense of removing a concrete control centre and four gun emplacements with foot-thick concrete walls, on land they didn’t have any use for. And so they remained in place, a great place for kids to play (as long as the PLA police didn’t kick them out of the muddy, but they didn’t even bother with that after a while).


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


I still have a scar on my knee from falling off this one as a kid and landing on some broken concrete. Photo: Pat Jarvis

Gary’s photos show signs of the fledgling mudchute farm, as do my own, taken a few months later.


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman

The control bunker has since been demolished, which I think is a shame – it might not have been practical, but it did have some historical value. On a positive note, there is now a renovated anti-aircraft gun on the site. Not an original Island gun, but a good addition all the same.



Photo: Mick Lemmerman

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Dolly Fisher – ‘Tugboat Annie of the Thames’

[Thanks and apologies to for the inspiration and blatant ‘borrowing’ of some text and images. You know I’m always happy to return the compliment.]

Recently, a friend, Con Maloney shared with me a link to an online version the 1962 documentary, ‘Postscript to Empire, Britain in Transition’. Controversial and patronising in places, it compared the life and attitudes of inhabitants of Dockland with those who had recently moved to a New Town. The Dockland area in question was the Isle of Dogs; and the documentary contains some unique and magical images and sounds of a lost world and people (OK, I admit that sounds a bit dramatic – we’re talking about 1960s London, not the lost city of the Incas). You can find the link at the end of this article.

A couple who feature larger-than-lifely (I might have made up that expression) in the documentary are the husband and wife owners of a well known barge-building firm of the time, Dorathea (Dolly) and William (Bill) Woodward Fisher of 94 Narrow St, Limehouse.

Not Islanders, not even East Londoners, but still with close links to the Island; due not only to business dealings along the river, but also to their active support for a number of good causes, including that of the Poplar and Blackwall District Rowing Club, which at the time kept its boats (or sculls, or whatever their proper name is) in a wooden shed in Ferry St and used the Princess of Wales pub (‘Macs’) round the corner in Manchester Rd as club house.

1960s broadcaster, Dan Farson, knew Dolly and Bill well, for he rented a flat above their barge-building works for many years around 1960. Farson wrote in his autobiography, Limehouse Days:

Sometimes referred to as ‘the Tugboat Annie of the Thames’, she commanded a fleet of 200 barges from her control room in her handsome house in Blackheath [actually, Lewisham], cultivating a startling resemblance to George Arliss by wearing well-tailored suits, a stock, and sometimed a monocle. Everybody obeyed her, including her husband William, a born riverman.

I grew to know the Woodward Fishers over the next few years and though Mrs. Fisher….proved a splendidly vigorous octogenarian, one of the true characters of the river, I never lost my fear of her.

Tugboat Annie is a 1933 American comedy film starring Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery as a boisterous and argumentative middle-aged couple who operate a tugboat.

I’ve never seen the film myself, and have no idea if the comparison is fair or complimentary. There certainly seems to have been no physical similarity,


Dolly and Bill on the balcony of their firm. A screenshot from the 1962 documentary ‘Postscript to Empire, Britain in Transition’.

Farson again:

My first meeting was with her son Ken, a courteous young man, smooth and citified in contrast to the rough background of his parents, who started their fleet with £20 and a single barge, subsequently absorbing the wharf owned by W.N. Sparks and sons, builders of wooden sailing barges.

…he did his utmost to dissuade me, stressing that the place was unsuitable except for a hardened East Ender or impoverished students. This was followed by my first meeting with Dolly Fisher in Narrow St, where she led me to the balcony and pointed out the disadvantages  with scrupulous honesty: the excruciating scream of the electric scrapers as they removed the rust from the worn-out barges; the grime from the coal-loading wharf near by, settling a layer of black dust where we stood; the smell, or rather the stink, of the river at low tide.


Dolly in front of the coal wharf.

Beneath her gruff exterior, with that bark of a voice frequently mistaken for a man’s as she roused her workmen from their tea-breaks on the radio, Dolly Fisher was a kind if abrasive woman, and she sensed my passion – and indeed she shared my romance with the river.

Incidentally, it was while living in the flat above the barge building firm that Farson discovered it once served as a beerhouse, named Waterman’s Arms, a name he later re-used when he purchased the Newcastle Arms on the Island.


William wearing his Doggett’s coat and badge.

William was the winner of the coveted Doggett’s Coat and Badge, the annual rowing race of six young watermen on 1 August, started in 1716 by an actor called Doggett to commemorate the accession of George I. As a prize he offered an orange coat of antique cut with a silver badge on the right sleeve denoting the White Horse of Hannover, hence the name, though this had been replaced by a gift of money.


Narrow St in the late 1950s, with a Woodward Fisher van parked on the left. Photo: Dan Farson.


Woodward Fisher’s from the river.


The tug, Billdora, which Bill and Dolly named after themselves.

As well as her three London wharves. Mrs Fisher owned a wharf and a refreshment bar on the Isle of Wight. Her large Victorian mansion in was home to a menagerie of five tortoises, nine cats, two dogs, a parrot and a budgerigar. When her husband died in the 1960s,  Mrs Woodward Fisher took over the business.

She also raised 66 thousand pounds to buy land and build a club house for the Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club, of which her husband was a member. She was “inordinately proud of the spanking new clubhouse” – round which she was carried shoulder high at the opening. And of her “‘boys” at the club, aged between eight and 80. And of the club’s star sculler, Ken Dwan, who represented Great Britain at the Munich Olympics.


1960 launch of the new boat, Kenneth, in Ferry St. Dolly is peering into the boat, while Bill is standing to her left. North Greenwich railway station, on the right, made way for the new rowing club later; Manchester Rd is in the background. Photo: Island History Trust / Bill Smith.


1960. Dolly helping the new tenant in the Princess of Wales, Mrs Pat Pearce, to celebrate her arrival. Photo: Island History Trust / Bill Smith

In 1961, Dolly was awarded an OBE.


She had become quite a celebrity in the conventional sense.


Life Magazine. 1966

In 1972, the BBC made a programme about Dolly, naming it ‘Mother Thames OBE’. Nancy Banks-Smith, reviewing the programme in the Guardian, wrote:

At 77, Mrs Dorathea Woodward Fisher has gladdened many a heart; and to everyone on the river she is known affectionately as ‘ Mother Thames.’ Meeting Mother Thames … is an illuminating experience. Inebriating even … She is a great swell, a rip, a nut. Her clothes, her caps, her cigarette, her silver, her style, her soul are dashingly individual …


She was often in demand for interviews; the following is an extract from one in Woman’s Weekly in 1973:

A voice, harsh and vibrant, crackled through the radio receiver: “Calling Duke shore, position please …”

“Barge Dog Fisher, loaded with molasses, moor up the Wash and stow ready for ten o’clock in the morning.”

Was it a man talking, newcomers to the Thames dockside invariably thought so. lt was, in fact. Mrs Dorathea Woodward Fisher, otherwise known as the Grand Old Lady of the Thames, or Lady Dorathea of the River, the only woman barge-owner actively in the business and its personality queen as well.
“People think I’ve got a gruff voice.” she said. “Well, so I have and I wouldn’t be without it. If I’d had a sweet girlish voice I wouldn’t have got anywhere.

“I’ve been called all kinds of things and done all sorts of business on the phone, when if they’d known I was a woman, they wouldn’t have talked to me.”

(One tug skipper always refers to her as “old cock.” He sends her the occasional box of cigars as well.)

Reluctantly, on her 79th birthday in 1973 (and by now long a widow), Dolly wound up her lighterage business. She should have done so four years previously, according to her businessman son Ken. But she didn’t have the heart. She paid off the lightermen who ran her barges – “Grand chaps all. though they do ask for too much money these days.” She took the remaining 88 barges out of commission. She kept, though, her last nine tugs and she surrendered none of her extensive property interests, which included three wharves on the Thames.

Women’s Weekly:

Mrs Fisher’s could easily be just another “tings ain’t what they used to be” sob-story. But it is lifted out of the ordinary by the amazing personality of the woman at its heart and by the accelerating decline of the Thames as an artery of commerce, which is a tragedy for London and Londoners.

Mrs Fisher is appalled and saddened by this. “I still like going out on the river, but each time now it breaks my heart a little bit. I come away with a lump in my throat.”

Still she acknowledges that progress must go on. ” I don’t blame containerisation. It is an efficient way of moving goods. But those huge lorries! They’ve really plumped for the beast and not the beauty, using those.”

She was closing, she said, because she could not stand the financial strain. For some time she had paid out three thousand pounds a week in salaries, while the business brought in just half that.

She had a fercious sense of humour too. “Did you hear the one about the bishop and the lady learner driver who arrived simultaneously at the Pearly Gates?” she asks. “St. Peter came out and invited the lady driver in, in front of the bishop. ‘Oh no,’ said the bishop, you can’t let her in before me.’ ‘My good man.’ St. Peter replied, ‘she’s put the fear of God into many more people than you ever did’.”

She might have been talking about herself.

Link to film, which is well worth seeing:

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McDougall’s, Millwall Docks

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History:

1845 Alexander McDougall, previously a struggling Scottish shoe merchant from Dumfries and then a Manchester schoolmaster, finally achieved his ambition of setting up as a manufacturing chemist.

1864 He recruited his sons into the business and, in 1864, the McDougall Brothers developed and produced a patent substitute for yeast. This was the starting point which was not only to revolutionise home baking, but firmly position McDougall’s as a household name, as pioneers of self-raising flour.

1869 The first large mill to be built alongside any of the London docks was the Wheatsheaf Mill, at Millwall Docks, which stood on the southern quay of the Millwall Outer Dock. Its construction was started in 1869 by the Manchester-based McDougall Brothers.

The firm of McDougall Brothers evolved into the first of Britain’s giant flour milling concerns, more often known by the name of their product McDougall’s. They owned several large mills elsewhere in the country. The Wheatsheaf Mill, rebuilt several times over the following century, became one of the major landmarks of the Isle of Dogs.

This 1890 map shows the location of the flour mill:


The same location today:


British Survey Online:

A fire in 1898 destroyed the mill, despite the efforts of 25 engines from all over London. A new McDougall & Company flour mill was built in 1899–1900. H. Jameson Davis was the milling engineer and Robert E. Crosland the architect. The lowest tender for the building work was from Holliday & Greenwood. The mill, again on the north-west quarter of the site, was of brick, built around three sides of a yard. The north range housed timber and cast-iron storage bins over wheat mixers. Its north elevation to the dock was a symmetrical façade with decorative gables. The south range had offices under the mill proper, which had 12 grain elevators, top-floor sifters for grading the flour, and second-floor purifiers with mahogany hoppers feeding 13 first-floor double-roller mills. An 82ft-tall tower linked the main ranges and housed wheat-cleaning machinery and a water tank. South of the mill there were offices, stores, a 142hp steam engine, and a chimney, 120ft tall.

As Wheatsheaf Mills, this building became the centre of McDougall & Company business. The east or fertilizer premises were sublet to J. Taylor & Sons in 1914 for the production of cattle food. Two long ranges of 51ft-tall timber bin silos were erected on the northeast quarter of the site. Around 1926 two-storey office, canteen and laboratory buildings were built to the southwest.


After the fire (Photo: Island History Trust)

The rebuilt Wheatsheaf Mill:



McDougall’s works dinner, 1920s



In 1934, a new silo building was built. It had ten 20ft-diameter cylindrical bins, was 100ft tall and had a capacity of 8,000 tons.


The almost-complete new silo building in 1935.







King George VI hoping to get some free flour.


Photo: Island History Trust


In 1960, two steel-bin silo cylinders, each 30ft in diameter and 50ft high, were erected west of the main silo.

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The company, by then named Rank Hovis McDougall Branded Foods closed the mill in 1982.

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1982 demolition of the Glass Bridge.

The buildings were demolished in 1984–5.



1986, The pile of rubble on the opposite quay is all that remains of McDougalls silo building. Photo: Chris Hirst

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The Timber Transporter

By the end of the 19th century, so much wood was being imported via the Millwall Docks that the dock company was running out of room to store it all. The company owned a lot of land beyond the dock fences – including the whole of the mudchute – so they booted Millwall Athletic off their land just south of Glengall Road in order to construct new warehousing there (see this post for more the story of Millwall Athletic on the Island).



The challenge for the dock company was: how to transport the timber from the docks, over East Ferry Rd, and into the newly-formed ‘Transporter Yard’? In 1900, Chief Millwall Dock Engineer, Duckham, travelled to Sweden for inspiration, where he inspected a timber transport system not yet known in England. On his return, he:

…proposed the adoption of an electrically motivated elevated timber transporter invented by the Stockholm engineers Adolf Julius Tenow and Johan Edward Flodstrom. The transporter was fixed to run …. from the south-east corner of the Inner Dock. Bolinders supplied a further 200 yards of transporter and Joseph Westwood & Company, of Millwall, supplied and erected steel bridges to carry the structure across the railway and road. The transporter was quickly assembled and a trial on 17 June 1901 was a success….  It was inaugurated with a Coronation Dinner for the poor of Cubitt Town…. In late 1901 it was extended 200 yards eastwards and a spur was added to serve C Yard. The whole cost was £7,798.


Post-booting-out of Millwall Athletic. Bolander’s conveyor in 1906.

The timber transporter consisted of a system of rollers, about 15ft above the ground, supported by a steel and wood trestle system. Above the rollers was a pitched roof to keep the timber and roller mechanism dry. This recently-uncovered, fascinating photo shows the transporter crossing East Ferry Rd from the docks (right) and into the Transport Yard in the mudchute (left).


Transporter crossing East Ferry Rd into the mudchute, 1906 (click on image for full version)

There was a remnant of the transporter still in place as late as 1970:



The same view today (East Ferry Rd has been redirected at this point in recent times, and the bend in the road is no longer present):


An important feature of the transporter was its wood-housed system of claw lifts which carried deals up from the quay:


The previous photo shows the start of the transporter where it met Millwall Inner Dock, close to Glengall Bridge and parallel with Glengall Rd. The following photo shows the start from another angle, across Millwall Inner Dock. Glengall Bridge, a swingbridge, is open – the pedestrians are waiting for it to close.  Note the fence on both sides of Glengall Road to keep people out of the docks. The dock company, and later the PLA, were never happy with a public right of way going through their land; after the post-war closure of the last ‘bridge’ – which was actually a barge – the PLA tried to close off the cross-dock route altogether – the eventual construction of the raised glass bridge was a compromise.


Photo: Island History Trust / George Pye

The same view today:


The transporter also had an interesting system for offloading and stacking timber (the ‘lowering system’). This was a mobile construction which ran on tracks under the raised rollers, allowing dockers to offload at any point along the route of the transporter. In this photo, the steep mudchute embankments are visible in the background:


Although an innovative and impressive piece of engineering, the transporter did not save on costs – it proved cheaper to transport timber at street level on conventional (rail) trollies. Survey of London:

It did not save on labour, as porters had to sort the deals at the delivery end. The PLA stopped the use of the transporter in 1909 and, after a fire, it was dismantled in 1911.

Postscript: Some of the photos and information in this article were found in a 1905 publication, The Mechanical Handling of Materials. The relevant pages, with extra information for the mechanically minded, are reproduced here:


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The Mill Wall

As mentioned in an earlier blog article (Wet, Wet, Wet), the Island was in pre-Roman times uninhabited marshland which flooded at high tide, as was the case with much of the land along the Thames. In the medieval period, an earth, chalk and timber bank (or wall, from the Old English weall, meaning ‘rampart, dyke, earthwork’) was constructed along the riverfront to protect the land from flooding. On the land side of the wall was a large ditch into which the water drained. At low tide, sluice gates were opened to empty the ditch into the river. By this method, the interior of the Island was drained, and pastureland was created from marshland.


The wall was a large construction: 15 ft high, with a flat top of about 18 ft across and a total width (including slope and ditches) of up to 150 ft. Such constructions are still commonly applied as sea or river defences.

The above photo shows a modern Dutch wall (trivia: Amsterdam’s red light district is more widely known amongst the Dutch as De Wallen (The Walls), built as the area is on the site of a former defensive earthern bank).

Jumping ahead a lot, no photo better shows the role of the embankment in keeping the Thames at bay. St. Paul’s Church, now known as The Space, in a photo taken from the other side of the water. The Island lies low in the Thames flood plain.


Old paintings and sketches, primarily of Greenwich but painted/drawn from the Island, give an impression of the appearance of the wall then.


Greenwich from the Isle of Dogs by Dodd BHC3867

Back to the Dutch again; many English words related to rivers and sailing are derived from the Dutch language: Deck, Sail, Dyke, Mast, Boat, Ship, Keel, Canal, Sailor, Skipper … I can go on and on.

Another such word is Dock, from the Dutch Dok, the earliest incarnations of which were places to lay ships dry for repair.  The wall around the Island was perfect for this – a stable, gentle slope where ships and boats could be tethered at high tide to be left exposed when the tide went out. Even better were places with a small inlet, where the ships could be dragged (or drawn) even higher, places later known as drawdocks, such as Newcastle Drawdock opposite the Waterman’s Arms and Johnson’s Drawdock next to the rowing club.

Meanwhile, back to a long time ago, in 1700:


Observant readers will immediately spot the windmills down the west side of the Island, all seven of them. There were at other times more (up to 12) or less than seven mills, but the idea of seven mills has stuck, and is reflected in the name of the primary school of the Barkantine Estate. The west side of the Island was perfect for windmills, it being a very windy place, due to the westerly prevailing winds and the wide open space of the Thames.

Survey of London:

It was said in the 1850s that ‘when in other parts of London the wind is scarcely felt, it sweeps over this place with great strength’.

Initially, most of the mills were engaged in corn grinding, but, later, oilseed crushing became the norm. Usually, the owners lived over the water (there were few residents on the Island in the 1700s). The path along the wall was more usually referred to as Marsh Wall, but Mill Wall made its introduction. Survey of London:

The name Mill Wall came into use in the late eighteenth century (it is first used in the rate books in 1784), initially referring to the western marsh wall, where windmills stood. Later, the name was used for both the path on the wall and the district generally. By the 1840s, the one-word form was usual. As late as 1875, this part of the Isle of Dogs was listed in the streets section of the Post Office Directory under Millwall alone – although Westferry Road had existed for 60 years, and had long ago superseded the marsh wall path, parts of which had already been stopped up as development proceeded. The anachronism was no doubt perpetuated in deference to the occupiers of riverside wharves.

As can be seen in the previous map, the path along the top of the wall – the Mill Wall – was the only way to get around the Island, apart from the north-south track from Poplar (the future East Ferry Rd, whose main use was to get to and from the Greenwich Ferry). The arrival of industry in the late 1700s, and especially the opening of the West India Docks in 1806, meant a proper road was required, and the West Ferry Road was opened in 1815.

In this 1818 map, the new road is shown in the west of the Island (but not the mill or marsh wall), while in the east of the Island the marsh wall is shown. It would be more than 20 years before the Manchester Rd was constructed.


Around this time the mill wall came under pressure as a right of way. Industry began to spread down the west side of the Island, and factory owners preferred to control their land between the new Westferry Rd (then also known as, amongst other names, the New Rd, Deptford & Greenwich Rd or Greenwich Ferry Rd) and the river without the pesky business of providing for a right of way. In this 1827 map the mill wall path is becoming patchy in the north of Millwall, close to Limehouse:


The path is obstructed by the western entrances to the West India Docks, but makes its way south before swinging inland a little at the mast pond, the site of the present Mast House Terrace (this was once the outlet of a brook which gave rise to a river bay – the origins of the mast pond). Further east, the wall winds its way past Saunders Ness, Folly Wall and Blackwall. The map says also Drunken Dock, but that’s a mistake. Drunken Dock was another name for the mast house pond. Strictly, by this stage, we’re not talking about the mill wall any more – there were no mills in the east of the Island.

This unique image is a painting of the windmill and surrounding buildings on the wall at the west end of Claude St, close to St. Paul’s Church. A rural scene, but with the masts of the docks in the background. The ramschackle collection of buildings included a beerhouse at the bottom left corner (The Windmill). The whole lot burned down in the 1880s.


The encroachment of industry upon the wall was not without protest from the few locals. Westferry Rd was a toll road, and many were not happy that the ancient – and free – wall path was being obliterated. By 1890 you’d be hard pushed to find traces of the wall.








Twenty years later, there was just a little bit south of Kingsbridge hanging on.



From the south of the Island, traces of the wall are still visible: Ferry St, Saunders Ness Rd and Folly Wall – they all follow the path. But they’re not in Millwall so it doesn’t count.




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Gizza Job, I Can Do That.

If you look at a trade directory dated around 1900, you will not be surprised to see many firms on the Island engaged in activities to do with the docks, shipping, engineering and metal works. But, there is also mention of other trades and industries which are not familiar to me, and/or which have interesting- or amusing-sounding names (to my 21st century ears in any event).

Talking Machines

A profession in the latter category belonged to Henry Lunn of 85 Westferry Rd, who described himself in a 1914 trade directory as a Talking Machine Repairer. What was a talking machine? I had to Google that to find out, and according to Wikipedia:

 In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “Phonograph”, “Gramophone”, “Graphophone”, “Zonophone” and the like were still brand names specific to various makers of sometimes very different (i.e. cylinder and disc) machines; so considerable use was made of the generic term “talking machine”.


Lunn’s (right)

Lunn’s shop would later be a bicycle shop, occupied in the 1950s by bicycle dealer Patrick Coleman. What is it that links audio systems with bicycles? It wasn’t the only example; at 161 Manchester Rd in the 1920s was Horace Clary’s Bicycle & Radio Repairs shop.


Photo: Tony Clary


Anybody living in Millennium Drive (behind the former Cubitt Arms) might be interested to hear that they are living on the site of a large 19th century manure works. I am not certain of its name, but it was either the Guaranteed Manure Company or the London Manure Company, both of whom were listed as Manure Merchants & Manufacturers operating on the Island in 1884.


I thought I knew what manure was, but the internet corrected me. In Victorian times, manure was a generic term for fertilizer (including that made from animal bones), and what they were producing by the Thames were nitro-phosphates, whose manufacturing process was based on sulphuric acid and which released hydrochloric acid particles into the atmosphere. Not only did the works stink, their emissions were highly toxic. This led in 1863 to the Alkali Act – the first incarnation of a ‘clean air act’ – but only after landowners and farmers downwind of such factories complained of dying plantlife in parks and pastures. Meanwhile, other Victorians claimed it was healthy to live in such an environment because the chemicals killed airborne diseases.


In Victorian times, it was permitted to sell beer – but not strong drinks – without requiring a license. If you had licensed premises, then you were known as a publican, but if you had no license then you were a beer retailer. One such beer retailer was Thomas Brunton who ran a beer house known as The Windmill on the river wall at the end of Claude Street in the 1880s.

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The beer house was in a jumble of wooden structures built around the windmill (which was built in 1701). The windmill and all the buildings were burnt down in January 1884.

1843-millwall 15062456661

The Windmill beer house (left) on the river wall, looking north. 1843

Unfortunately for the authorities, because they had no license requirements, beer houses were never inspected, and thus became renowned as dens of vice and crime. The law was quickly changed to make sure that all premises were licensed, but most Island pubs were beer houses at one time. The exceptions were the grander establishments such as the Queen, Cubitt Arms or Lord Nelson. From the start, these were large, licensed premises aimed at the well-to-do (who were not actually to be found in any appreciable numbers on the Island); they were all to be found around Cubitt Town.


In 1890 there was a Cocoa Nut Fibre Manufactory off Westferry Rd near Cahir Street (Brownfield Place is now on the site).



Coconut fibre, or coir, is a natural fibre extracted from the husk of coconut and used in products such as floor mats, doormats, brushes, and mattresses. Other uses are in upholstery padding, sacking, and the manufacture of string and rope.


Coconut fibre works, Millwall, 1885.

DDKPTF Coconut fibre works, Millwall, London, 1885.

Coconut fibre works, Millwall, 1885.


Burning limestone produces a powder which is of use in building mortar and agriculture (it increases the pH of acidic soil). It is well known that Limehouse is so named because of the many lime kilns that were in the area in medieval times, but lime burners could be found all along the Thames – reliant as the business was on bulk transportation – as late as the 1880s, including Michael Pass who operated out of Plymouth Wharf (north of Cubitt Town Wharf at the top end of Seyssel Street).

The burner’s job also included removing the newly burnt ‘quick lime’ and general attention to kiln operation. Work on the lime kilns was arduous, hot and dusty. The gases leaving the top of a continuously operating kiln must have made manual charging an exhausting and unpleasant operation, although the top layer was cool. Gas leaving a coal fired kiln was not toxic but could induce nausea …

Removing the newly burnt lime from the base of the kiln had an element of danger, because it was both hot and caustic and in those days protective clothing was very primitive.

Oil Cakes


Nope, didn’t know that either, but that’s what the McDougall Brothers were also making in Millwall. In 1845, Alexander McDougall, previously a struggling Scottish shoe merchant from Dumfries and then a Manchester schoolmaster, finally achieved his ambition of setting up as a manufacturing chemist.

He recruited his sons into the business and, in 1864, the McDougall Brothers developed and produced a patent substitute for yeast. This was the starting point which was not only to revolutionise home baking, but firmly position McDougall’s as a household name, as pioneers of self-raising flour.

The first large mill to be built alongside any of the London docks was the Wheatsheaf Mill, at Millwall Docks, which stood on the southern quay of the Millwall Outer Dock. Its construction was started in 1869 by the Manchester-based brothers.


Millwall Inner Dock. McDougall’s Wheatsheaf Mill (right) and their newly-built silo (left). 1934.

Fancy Repository

A Fancy Repository, such as that owned by James Bulbick at 81 Westferry Rd in 1882 has an unclear meaning. Repository usually means a warehouse or storage place, but 81 Westferry Rd was a run-of-the-mill shop.


81 Westferry Rd (right) in the 1950s.

A fancy was more or less any article that you didn’t need, but which you wanted (or fancied). So, no foodstuffs, no clothing, but other items such as bird cages, croquet sets, toilet bottles, vases, etc. I’m not making this up, I’m quoting from a newspaper advert for a Fancy Repository. Basically… was……tat.


There were LOADS of chandlers on the Island. In 1882:

Alexander Noall, 120 Stebondale St
Alfred Gibbs, 63 Glengall Rd (E)
Alfred Baldwin, 2 Manilla St
Augustus Mitchell, 363 Westferry Rd
Edgar Ellis, 82 Westferry Rd
Edward Brindley, 5 East Ferry Rd
Elizabeth Middleton, 33 Charles St
George Dixey, 73 Manchester Rd
George Meason, 97 Westferry Rd
Henry Suffolk, 29 Stebondale St
Henry Adcock, 62 Glengall Rd (E)
Herbert Davey, 237 Westferry Rd
James Marner, 153 Manchester Rd
James Hembrough, 32 Manilla St
James Collins, 9 Strattondale St
James Godden, 288 Westferry Rd
Jesse Burgoine, 212 Westferry Rd
John McCartney, 43 Glengall Rd (E)
John Blakebrough, 469 Manchester Rd
John Johnstone, 313 Manchester Rd
Mary Koch, 47 Stebondale St
Richard Freeman, 248 Manchester Rd
Sarah Dines, 519 Manchester Rd
Sarah Moull, 7 Manilla St
Sarah Terry, 7 Strafford St
Thomas Weaver, 294 Westferry Rd
Thomas Mulliner, 124 Manchester Rd
Thomas Miskin, 25 Glengall Rd (E)
William McCully, 12 Manilla St
William Bishop, 21 Samuda St

So, what’s a chandler? Wikipedia says:

Not to be confused with Chandelier.

They’re only right.

A chandler was the head of the chandlery in medieval households, responsible for wax, candles, and soap. More recently, a couple of hundred years ago, ship chandlers were dealers in special supplies or equipment for ships. Eventually, chandler became the name for the person who sold general provisions, later known as a grocer (does anybody use that word any more?). The term chandelier, at one time a ceiling fitting that held several candles together, is still used. Ah – the association is not that daft after all.

Globe Maker

John Calver, 80 Westferry Rd, Globe Maker


Encaustic Tile

Encaustic tiles are ceramic tiles in which the pattern or figure on the surface is not a product of the glaze but of different colours of clay. They are usually of two colors but a tile may be composed of as many as six. The pattern appears inlaid into the body of the tile, so that the design remains as the tile is worn down. Encaustic tiles may be glazed or unglazed and the inlay may be as shallow as an eighth of an inch, as is often the case with “printed” encaustic tile from the later medieval period, or as deep as a quarter inch. They are very pretty:


John Lewis James of Wharf Rd used to make them in the 1890s. Wharf Road used to run from the Ferry House to Seyssel St. In the 1930s, the west end of the street (from Johnson Dry Dock aka the slipway next to the rowing club) was renamed Ferry Street and the east end Saunders Ness Road.


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