Don’t Feed the Squirrels!
When the Millwall Docks formally opened in 1868, the dock company did not plan to stop there. It was their intention to one day extend the docks to the east, when there was enough business to justify it. This 1875 map shows their idea for the eastern extension.
It is amusing to imagine what the Google satellite view might look like if the dock company had gone through with their plans.
The Millwall Dock company had purchased in advance all the land it required for immediate and future use, including the significant amount of space that would be required for the storing and handling of cargo. In the east of the Island, this encompassed all the land that is now occupied by ASDA, the mudchute (or ‘muddy’ as many Islanders call it) and Millwall Park.
During the construction of the Millwall Docks, the later mudchute was used a brickfield – with an oven and chimney set up to make bricks from the clay. The clay was not good enough quality to create bricks for buildings or load-bearing structures, but the bricks were suitable for building dock walls.
When the Millwall Docks were opened in 1868, and there was no longer a need for the brickfield, the land was let for grazing. A few years later though, and the land was required again by the docks company. All docks have to regularly dredge to remove mud that has made its way in from the river via the locks. This was a particular problem for the Millwall Dock as it had a very large lock (the largest in London at the time).
Fortunately for the Millwall Dock Company, their Clerk of Works (and later General Manager) was the very talented Frederic Eliot Duckham (father of the founder of the Duckham’s Oil company). He designed an innovative dredging boat and hydraulic pumping system.
Filling usually took three hours. Once full, the dredger steamed to her berth on the east side of the dock. A 20 in. diameter discharge from the bottom of the tanks was connected by a leather hose to a 15 in. pipeline 150 yd. long that ran under the East Ferry Rd to the dumping ground, where there were large settling pools surrounded by ash banks
– E. Sargent. Frederic Eliot Duckham M.I.C.E. and the Millwall Docks
In 1879, after years of dumping of dredged mud, the Poplar District Board of Works (predecessor of the borough council) complained that the deposits were bad for health, but it was 1898 before the dock company:
Was advised of what was believed to be the relationship between the mud deposits and diphtheria on the Isle of Dogs. Duckham experimented with other methods of disposing of the mud, including brickmaking, and in 1900 a reward of £100 was advertised for the most practical way of dealing with the problem, but no satisfactory solution emerged.
In 1902 Poplar Borough Council insisted on the removal of the mud-pipe. The dock company argued that the mud had no bad effect and that the objections were merely sentimental, based on the unsightliness of the mud-field. The Council removed the pipe in August 1903, but lost a court action to prevent its reinstatement. (ref. 278) The PLA, having taken control of the docks in 1909, discontinued the mud pumping in 1910, hoping to use the land for a dock extension. (ref. 279)
– Survey of London, Vol XIV, The Athlone Press
Not all areas of the dock company’s ‘outside land’ were covered with mud. A significant area in the north, close to Glengall Rd remained untouched, and thus flat. In 1890, the landlord of the George rented a plot there close to his pub for the creation of an athletic club, including a football pitch for Millwall Rovers who moved from their ground behind the Lord Nelson.
In 1901, however, the dock company required the mud-free ground for the construction of timber sheds – with a timber-transporter to carry timber to/from the docks. This area became known as the ‘Transporter Yard’. As a consequence, the football team had to move again, this time to an area behind the Globe Rope Works. In 1910 the team moved over the water.
Talking of water, in 1906, during a period of heavy rain, the Mudchute became unstable and subsided onto Hawkins & Tipson’s land, wrecking buildings close to the boundary. The dock company accepted the responsibility for the cost of replacing the buildings destroyed.
In 1938, in anticipation of war, the War Department took over an area behind Stebondale St. They constructed four octagonal Ack-Ack gun-emplacements with concrete storerooms, a central concrete command post, and assorted accommodation and supply huts close to the Millwall Park Recreation Ground on Stebondale St. At the same time, more huts were built behind Glengall Grove for an RAF Embarkation Centre (some residents remember it also being used for US military personnel).
After WWII, when business boomed for a while, the dock company gave consideration to creating a branch of Millwall Dock at the location of the Transporter Yard. But in the end, the economic tide turned for good, and the business of the docks was wound down before official closure in 1982.
Before the formal closure of the docks, some land was turned into allotments, some land behind Jubilee Crescent was allocated for housing, and the GLC and PLA negotiated about what to do with the rest of the land.
The Association of Island Communities, however, campaigned for the land to be a public open space, including an urban farm. Remarkably – and I cannot imagine this happening in 2014 – the newly-formed Mudchute Association managed in 1977 to lease most of the land. The north-west section, where Millwall Rovers had their ground at the end of the 19th century, was leased to Asda.
This short history has so far made no mention of the main reason that the muddy is so dear to the hearts of Islanders. Despite it being dock property, enclosed by high fences and patrolled by PLA policemen, the muddy was the biggest and wildest playground that any East End kid could ask for. No adults, no rules, dock plants that grew higher than your head, hills to roll and slide down, WWII bunkers and sheds to explore, and of course the smelly drainage ditch known as the ‘newtie’.
It was not all (dog) roses however. Sharp concrete and rusty iron caused plenty of injuries (I still have a scar on my knee), grass fires were common, the rope-walk roof was always weaker than it looked, ripped clothes and ‘booties’ had to be explained to angry parents, and the muddy was a popular dumping ground for stolen cars and motorbikes. All part of the excitement for kids though, and a lasting memory into adulthood for all of us.
I went over the muddy at Christmas. I was looking for the old control bunker for the gun emplacements, but it’s gone, just a compost or dung heap in its place (what do I know about these things?). Suddenly there was an excited shouting – I looked up to see a herd of sheep hurtling down the path towards us. What with the sheep and the fat squirrels running around, and the great work and commitment of the people at the farm, the muddy is one of the few places on the Island that has not only survived, it has retained its special meaning for the community.
Oh, if you’re wondering about the subtitle of this article. Those fat squirrels are just a little too fat, and there are signs everywhere telling you not to feed them. Wonder how they ended up on the Island? Perhaps through the foot tunnel from Greenwich?