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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Consequently, outside of the docks, many major buildings like Millwall Central School and St Luke’s Church were severely damaged or lost altogether. The swimming pool in Glengall Grove baths was wrecked (the building was used as a first aid post during the war).
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 shows:
A little further south, close to the Kingsbridge entrance to the Millwall Outer Dock, and the damage was more extensive:
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.
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.
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:
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?
The first section of the Barkantine Estate was opened in 1968, and the main part of it had been completed by 1970.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: The area between Strafford St and Byng St would come later:
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:And I couldn’t resist this one, even though I still haven’t figured out where it was:
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.
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