The Fall and Rise of the Isle of Dogs

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It’s…er…?

In the 1960s, the London County Council (LCC) finished off the work started by the Luftwaffe twenty years earlier when it wiped away most of the old Island communities, completely changing the fabric and character of the place at the same time. That’s an enormously cliched statement, but in this case it is entirely accurate and most appropriate. While researching the history of the Isle of Dogs during the last couple of years along with friends, I have begun to appreciate what the old Islanders miss….the very different place that was the Island before WWII.

To demonstrate the dramatic change, I have selected just one of the Island neighbourhoods, ‘North Millwall’, the earliest established residential area on the Island. But the same story could be told for most other Island neighbourhoods. Only Cold Harbour and the area around Chapel House St and Hesperus Crescent escaped the widespread destruction during and after the war.

North Millwall

For most of its history, the Isle of Dogs was largely uninhabited. In the 18th century,  in the north-east of the Island, Cold Harbour had some industry based on sail ship building and repairs. The rest of the Island was used mainly for arable and pastoral farming, but with some activity derived from the windmills along the riverside, whence the name ‘Millwall’.

1745

1745

By the time of commencement of dock construction in 1802, most land was in the hands of a few large landowners such as Robert Batson and George Byng. It was Batson who built the first couple of houses in c1810 on his land just south of the Limehouse entrance to the West India Docks (the later location of the City Arms, at the south end of ‘The Walls’). This street that would later develop into Cuba St. A few years later and Byng was offering building plots on his estate further south. 

1827a

1827

And so Millwall developed, southwards street by street. The industry and housing were close to the only main road (not yet named West Ferry Rd) and the river on which most industry depended.

1853

1853

With the arrival of Millwall Docks in the 1860s, development to the south and east was physically interrupted by the Millwall Outer and Inner Docks respectively. The result was an area that was distinctly separated from other parts of the Island. There were only three road entrances: the West Ferry Rd in the north and in the south, and the Glengall Rd in the east. This is ‘North Millwall’. (South Millwall extends further south, while the east side of the Island is Cubitt Town.)

1868

1868

The Community

In the first decades of the 20th century, the area was made up of a mixture of industry and approximately 800 homes, mostly in the form of Victorian terraced housing. Also:

  • Twelve public houses: City Arms, Dock House, Prince Alfred, Blacksmith’s Arms, Waterman’s Arms (not to be confused with the later pub of the same name), Anchor & Hope, Torrington Arms, Mechanic’s Arms, Pride of the Isle, The Islanders, Tooke Arms, Union Arms (aka Pin & Cotter), Millwall Docks Tavern
  • Three schools: St. Luke’s Primary School, Millwall Central School, Millwall Isle of Dogs Council School
  • Three churches/chapels: Millwall Independent, St Luke’s and Alpha Rd Wesleyan
  • One swimming bath, including wash house
  • Scores of shops, mostly along West Ferry Rd but also distributed over residential side streets.

One pub per 60 households gives a good impression of how pubs served as an extension to most people’s living rooms, while also being the main source of entertainment. The pubs and churches could also be relied upon to provide support and venues for scout troops, bible lessons, dancing, dressmaking lessons, pigeon fancying, darts, football teams and other sports clubs, etc. North Millwall was clearly a self-contained and well served place.

nmill

Scenes of North Millwall

World War II

War broke out in 1939, and the West India and Millwall Docks were very obvious targets. Millwall, surrounded by the river and the docks, suffered significant loss of life and damage to buildings, particularly during the intensive raids of 1940 and 1941. As described in ‘The Blitz – Then & Now’ (Battle of Britain Prints International Ltd, 1988):

German crews knew full well that their chances of hitting the specific targets by visual bomb aiming at night were extremely slight. Their chances on nights of little moonlight were even less, and on cloudy nights, nil. In practice, therefore, on occasions when crews were unable to make out their assigned objectives – and with no desire to return to base with their bombs still on board – they invariably aimed their bombs in the general direction of their target area.

In this remarkable photo – taken by Luftwaffe aircraft during a daylight bombing run – explosions can be seen in a line starting south of Glengall Grove (now Tiller Rd), over Lollar Wharf (now John McDougall Gardens) and into the river. Damage to West India Docks is shown further north. 80% of West India Dock storage space was lost (but quickly replaced with sheds) during the war, and the north quay warehouses, except Nos 1 and 2, were destroyed by bombing in September 1940. One third of the berths were immobilized at any one time during the war.

Luftwaffe WW2 Aerial Reconnaissance Photo (Courtesy of Nigel J Clarke at http://www.nigelclarkepublications.co.uk/index.php?page=luftwaffe-photos)

Luftwaffe WW2 Aerial Reconnaissance Photo (Courtesy of Nigel J Clarke at http://www.nigelclarkepublications.co.uk)

Consequently, outside of the docks, many major buildings like Millwall Central School and St Luke’s Church were lost. The swimming pool in Glengall Grove baths was wrecked (the building was used as a first aid post during the war).

Glengall Grove Baths

Glengall Grove Baths

The Islanders, Millwall Docks Tavern and Prince Alfred public houses were all destroyed. Around 300 of 800 homes in North Millwall destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Not to mention the human cost in many hundreds of lost lives, including in one particularly tragic event when more than 40 perished when a public air raid shelter in a warehouse on Bullivant’s Wharf was hit.

The southern end of Alpha Grove was particularly badly damaged, as this photo of temporary Nissen hut homes show:

Alpha Rd running bottom right to top left.

Alpha Grove running bottom left to top right.

A little further south, close to the Kingsbridge entrance to the Millwall Outer Dock, and the damage was more extensive:

mill2

South of Glengall Grove (now Tiller Rd).

St Luke's Church (Photos courtesy of John Salmon).

St Luke’s Church (Photos courtesy of John Salmon).

Post-War

In 1943, with victory in sight, the government made preparations for the inevitable housing shortage that would follow the war. People were already staying with neighbours and family, and within a couple of years their numbers would be swelled by returning evacuees and service personnel. The first measures focused on creating temporary accommodation, by converting schools and warehouses for example, and by building huts and prefabs (officially “temporary”, some prefabs were still in use in the 1970s). This Tooke St prefab was occupied by the Wright family into the 1960s.

Tooke St (Photo: Peter Wright)

Tooke St (Photo: Peter Wright)

The following 1950 map reveals the extent of bomb damage in Millwall. The highlighted areas show completely derelict land or destroyed buildings. Close to one third of the housing stock was lost to the bombing during WWII – a high proportion by even East End levels. 

ww2 damage

Completely ruined or derelict areas after WWII

Council Plans

After the war, the LCC embarked on a permanent housing programme as prescribed in the 1943 Administrative County of London Development Plan, which included the statement:

The decentralisation area [which included Poplar] comprises those parts of London which, because of obsolescence, congestion, bomb damage and lack of repairs, are considered to be ready for comprehensive redevelopment. Even though there may be in these areas a number of dwellings which are not yet sufficiently decayed as to appear to warrant immediate demolition, we consider it would be wrong from social, practical, and economic points of view, to redevelop obsolete areas in any way other than comprehensively. The retention of a relatively small number of dwellings – excepting perhaps as temporary quarters during the transitional stage while rebuilding takes place – because they have not reached acute slum condition, would obstruct proper and economic redevelopment of the whole district, and would tend to lessen the advantages and amenities of the new dwellings.

This effectively meant the sweeping away of whole neighbourhoods. Even if the war damage was not too bad, the strategy was one of modernisation and renewal, not of repair. The aim was to redevelop districts and not just houses. Consequently, from the 1950s and well into the 1970s, large housing estates were built throughout the Isle of Dogs, all consisting of blocks of flats and all involving the loss of traditional shops and street patterns.

Poplar Borough Council – certainly one of the most socially-minded councils in London – intended to provide high-quality, spacious council homes in low-rise housing estates. Following the ideals of David Lloyd George at the end of the First World War, the council wanted to create “a country fit for heroes to live in.” The Lansbury Estate in Poplar is a good example of what the council had in mind. The architecture critic Lewis Mumford wrote of the Lansbury Estate:

Its design has been based not solely on abstract aesthetic principles, or on the economics of commercial construction, or on the techniques of mass production, but on the social constitution of the community itself, with its diversity of human interests and human needs. Thus the architects and planners have avoided not only the clichés of ´high rise´ building but the dreary prison-like order that results from forgetting the very purpose of housing and the necessities of neighbourhood living.

Unfortunately, the LCC (which was, after all, dealing with a London-wide challenge) had other ideas, and post-war national governments were confronted with an increasing need to make cuts. This led to ever smaller sizes of homes, made with cheaper or pre-fabricated materials. To make best room of limited space (in part due to new regulations which required a certain amount of open space per resident), taller and taller blocks of flats were created.

If the estates had been built by Poplar Borough Council, then they would have been built for the people of Poplar. With the LCC in the driving seat, the estates were intended not only for locals, but also for families from other parts of East London. The post-war housing shortage had meant severe overcrowding in some areas, such as Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, and the housing programme brought with it some redistribution of the population, to areas where there was more room, on the Isle of Dogs for example.

This meant that the vast majority of estates would be occupied by newcomers from other parts of East London (few former residents were rehoused in flats in the new housing estates, most preferred to move away, with many moving to towns in Essex, Kent or new towns in other home counties.) When our family moved into new flats in Cubitt Town in 1969, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that we already knew many of our new neighbours from Stepney.

One of these new housing estates was the Barkantine Estate in North Millwall. In the first few years of the 1960s, the LCC cleared a site for the development by means of the – sometimes compulsory – purchase of close to 200  houses and vacant plots. Of the 800 homes in pre-war North Millwall, only 300 were now left after the LCC demolition (and many of these were in the surviving pre-war blocks like Dunbar and Hammond Houses). The following map shows the area designated for the estate, although some adjoining areas would also be redeveloped around the same time:

ww2 damage 2

Site designated for clearance for development of Barkantine Estate.

Construction

In March 1965 the LCC approved proposals for the development of the site. In keeping with similar estates of the era, the aims of the designers were to create a modern and spacious environment in which people could live and play.

There would be no industry, there would be plenty of green space, and the estate would – figuratively – turn its back on the car (so, for example, no busy through roads, cars would be parked in car parks, plenty of pedestrian space, homes would not open onto a road, and so on).

Designers strived also to create a a kind of village, with shops and other facilities in a central place, around the village green so-to-speak.

These all sound like grand concepts. I know I felt very happy to be moving into a new and freshly-painted flat on our estate opposite Christ Church; we even had a bathroom and two toilets AND central heating. I finally had my own bedroom. We could play football and hide and seek downstairs without getting run over. There was a park and a youth club nearby. The street wasn’t full of meths drinkers hanging around, waiting for the Salvation Army hostel to open. What’s not to like?

Architectural Model

Architectural Model

Extract of original architectural drawings.

Extract of original architectural drawings.

The first section of the Barkantine Estate was opened in 1968, and the main part of it had been completed by 1970.

092_06copy[1]

Construction of (probably) Knighthead Point.

The final part of the Barkantine Estate to be developed lay between the western parts of Byng and Strafford Streets. Plans were made in 1964 but construction did not take place until the mid- to late 1970s. The squeaky clean new estate looked like this in 1970:

barkantine-03[1]

Winkle man outside the Tooke.

The area between Strafford St and Byng St would come later:

1973. Photo: Steve White

1973. Photo: Steve White

End of the Millennium

As mentioned, the majority of housing estate residents were – like my own family – from other parts of the East End. For my young mind, it felt like the start of something new, an opportunity for a better life. Obviously I was too young to understand the political and economic world around me. Just a decade after the opening of the Barkantine Estate and the docks were closed, along with most other industry on the Island.

The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was created in 1981 by the Thatcher government, supposedly as a body to create new industry and job opportunities for Londoners living in former dockland areas along the Thames. (By the way, the word ‘docklands’ was coined by the LDDC. Before their time, it was known simply as ‘dockland’.) The LDDC was given extraordinary powers to cut through (=ignore) local council planning regulations, and to make compulsory purchases from the private and public sectors. And they were well funded: in the 17 years of their existence, the LDDC had a total budget of £20 billion at its disposal.

The LDDC’s first efforts on the Island involved some low-scale industrial units in the so-called ‘Enterprise Zone’, and the tearing down of virtually all old warehouses and factories – especially along the river – to make them ready for private housing investment. This bred understandable resentment on the Island, as well-to-do incomers took over the riverside, turning their backs on those still unemployed and living in the in the poorly maintained council estates. There was little sense that the LDDC was doing anything for Islanders. One piece of graffiti on Knighthead Point summed it up nicely, with a dig at the LDDC at the same time:

429623_10200547240913101_2041257144_n[1]

Graffiti

And I couldn’t resist this one, even though I still haven’t figured out where it was:

Sign of the Times

Sign of the Times

The Barkantine Estate has been refurbished in previous years, including the addition of peculiar-looking sloping roofs on top of the tower blocks, and there is now a new health centre and chemists, and some new shops and restaurants. Much of this was carried out with LDDC funding.

west%20ferry%20rd%20tooke[1]

The Barkantine Estate gives the impression of being well polished. If I was cynical, I would say this is to improve the view and ambiance for those working and living in the surrounding towers (me? cynical?). It still has the same kind of people who lived there 20 years ago, the estate still has the same challenges it had decades ago. It’s just not so obvious to the passerby or newcomer. LDDC. Mission accomplished.

…but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

This article was never intended to be a criticism of the LDDC, LCC, Government, Barkantine Estate or whatever. Nor was it meant to say “old is good, new is bad” (I hope it doesn’t come over like that). What I have tried to do is show what the old Islanders have lost, and how quickly.

I started to write this after months of looking at old photos of Mellish St, Havannah St, Samuda St, Galbraith St, Stebondale St, you name them – and listening to the stories of old Islanders. The Island they were talking about was not my Island, it was a lost world. It had been taken from them by events beyond their control, and I could sense their loss. What gives it a sour taste, though, is that the wishes of the Islanders themselves were never taken sufficiently into account. Right from the start it was about wider interests:

  • After the war, the LCC was dealing with a London-wide problem. Their policies led to a large-scale immigration of non-Islanders, and a large-scale emigration of Islanders (of course, the war also played a role in the latter)
  • No attempt was made to repair or restore old communities or their houses. Whilst it is true that the rest of London was dealing with genuine slums that needed clearing, this was never the case on the Island. “Only” 300 of the 800 homes in North Millwall were destroyed or beyond repair. There was never a question of replacing like with like.
  • The primary achievement of the LDDC was to open up land to private property and investment. Only lip-service was paid to jobs and the public housing sector.
  • Canary Wharf development has not finished. They are still building and there is still land available for building within the old docks.
  • The Isle of Dogs population has gone through another “churning” effect in recent years, with the arrival of many immigrants (either from other parts of London or the world).

People who were called newcomers in 1970 have become the old Islanders of 2014 who are wondering “what happened to our Island?”. In a decade or two, probably someone will be writing a blog complaining about the demolition of the Barkantine Estate to make room for new office blocks.

And so it goes.

Dedicated to all Islanders

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20 Responses to The Fall and Rise of the Isle of Dogs

  1. Sameer says:

    Fascinating read. Really enjoyed it

  2. Pingback: Extra, Extra | Londonist

  3. olracuk says:

    A good read, but life is all change. Mind you – councils/governments putting private investors before their tax paying locals is not ever a good thing.

  4. Pete Wright says:

    Excellent i must say….. being born in the 40’s on the old Island, and as with most of us, our first home and impressions bring about a warm feeling which stays in your heart, so old Millwall will always stay with me. I remember the close knit community of old Millwall, the local shops where you usually knew the person standing next to you waiting to be served, the compete absence of row upon row of parked cars, using your local shop for most of your needs, be it the Sunday roast from a choice of butchers such as Snells, Falconbridges, Betts etc, or fuel for your paraffin heater from the local oil shop, all the groceries you needed from little shops like United Dairies, Noaksies, Rowells, Sinfields and Wetheys, two lovely Bakers i.e. Powells and Hemmings and the pubs, oh the pubs!….and jobs waiting for you all around the waters edge or the docks. With the old terraced streets people took pride in their little plot, regularly sweeping and scrubbing their front doorstep, cleaning stairwells in their flats…many turning their back yards into vegetable plots and chicken runs.
    But with the march of time naturally nothing will ever stay the same. With the area now, I feel that nothing would have stopped this development, it was always going to happen whether it suited the inhabitants or not, but empty space below those four tower blocks seems to belong to no one, they could have laid those four tower blocks on their side and still fitted them in without sending people up among the clouds.I hope that the people that live there now are happy with their environment and enjoy the neighbourly attitude that eastenders are famous for.
    London will always continue to swell and rise, there’s no stopping it. In hundreds of years i envisage another London, a 1st Floor London on another level…yikes to that !

    • Jess Hyland says:

      Thank you, enjoyed reading your comment which is so true.

    • mandospags says:

      Pete, as one of the people who has just moved into one of the four tower blocks in the clouds I can tell you that I love it. Never thought I would say it but being so high up is amazing – most mornings I get to see a spectacular sunrise, and even through the middle of winter there were many bright and sunny days. Standing on the balcony I see all the houses down below on the estate and feel so sorry for them because even on bright days they hardly get any sun.

      As for the freindliness of the eastenders its been a mixed bag with some being friendly and talkative, others being plain rude. After coming to England I lived in shropshire for a few years and absolutly loved the friendliness of the locals and met most of the village over time. Over here I have learned to ignore some of the people – if they are wearing a headscarf I dont bother greeting anymore because they dont respond back (and will even get out of the lift if I get in – gues because as a man i must not speak to them?) I also am unfomfortable with so many full face veils – I find it intimidating and am uncomfortable that the men think my wife is ‘immodest’ just because she is wearing jeans.

      Your description sounds lovely with the bakeries and butcheries – none of that anymore – although there are lots of convenience stores, a tesco close by and the ASDA on the other side – means we never run out of anything! The pubs are also nice , the Tooke arms, Pepper street and Hubub Cafe are compeltely different from each other! I just wish they would server
      some real ale!

  5. Gregor says:

    Great read and stunning photos. Thank you!

  6. mikepye says:

    great article thanks it brought back many memories born 1937 and lived on the Island until I got married in 1973 and moved away. still visit my brother who lives on the Island.

    • Hi my name is Tracey and most my past family lived in popular street about the same time you were there I’m hoping to visit it very soon my mans married name was Margaret parmenter and her maiden name was lakey.

      • mike pye says:

        Hi Tracey sorry don’t remember your Nan although the name Parmenter is ringing bells! You will see a very different Island from that that your Nan would have seen but hope you have a good trip!!
        Regards Mike
        PS: now in Sheffield where I have lived since 1980 but do get to see my brother George every so often

  7. Spurred says:

    Good read

  8. Joe Blogs says:

    Another excellent post. I’ve lived on the island for nearly 15 years now, the second longest time I’ve lived anywhere my whole life. I love living by the river and now consider the island my home. My partner and I have witnessed huge change even in that relatively short time. I too wonder what we will all be writing about in 20 years time.. Let’s hope there are still enough locals and long term residents to do the noticing and reporting…

  9. Pingback: The Fall and Rise of the Isle of Dogs | knightheadpoint

  10. mandospags says:

    Reblogged this on knightheadpoint and commented:
    Haha – you might be out buy a couple of decades in your last paragraph “People who were called newcomers in 1970 have become the old Islanders of 2014 who are wondering “what happened to our Island?”. In a decade or two, probably someone will be writing a blog complaining about the demolition of the Barkantine Estate to make room for new office blocks.”

    I was at a residents meeting a couple of days ago where the main point of discussion was the redevelopment of the estate! One of the options on the table is knocking it down and redeveloping. (although to be fair the Barkintine is still in a good state and might not be touched, unlike some on the other side of the island).

  11. nicci.talbot@btinted net.com says:

    Fascinating article. The two men outide the Millwall Cash Stores look like my great uncles whose surname was Hoad. My great aunt Amy Hoad was the last inhabitant of Alpha Road/Grove and moved to new flats on Stebondale Street in the 1970s.

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