All except young Islanders will remember The Walls, the few hundred yards of curving West Ferry Rd at its Limehouse end. On the east side of the road was a high wall separating it from the docks, and on the west side was a mixture of walls and fences separating it from riverside firms and dry docks.
If you could help it, you avoided walking along The Walls, but how many remember having to do that in the dark after missing the last bus? Or, if driving, having to stop the car suddenly as an approaching lorry swung out wide to get round a bend? I remember my own heavily-pregnant mother intentionally sitting on the top deck of a 277 bus in the hope that the shaking and rolling journey round The Walls would persuade my well overdue little sister to join us. And I have heard that The Walls were a perfect place to lie in wait for drunken sailors making their way back to their ships after a night in Island pubs, simply asking to be rolled.
- The Walls were built at the same time as West India Docks at the start of the 1800s
- If we agree that The Walls extended from Providence House to City Arms, then they were approximately 600 yards long.
- Average height of the walls was 15 ft.
- The road was named Bridge Rd until 1937.
To begin at the beginning….
In medieval times, the only path around the Island followed the top of a man-made river embankment. This kind of earthen embankment, perhaps with wooden buttressing, was known as a wall (which is where the name Millwall eventually came from – nothing to do with brick walls), and by definition it was close to the water’s edge.
In March 1660, the embankment was seriously breached just south of Limehouse and a large part of the north of the Island was flooded by the Thames. (It was later discovered that the embankment had been weakened by gravel diggers, the arrival of a gravel company on the site 300 years later is ironic.) Due to the width of the breach it was not practical to rebuild the embankment along its original path, so it was instead built further back from the original riverside, following the path of some of the breach. This resulted in a bulge or curve in the embankment path which could later be seen in the characteristic bends of The Walls.
When the new embankment was completed, most of the flood water was pumped off the Island. But not all – a large lake remained which became known as the Poplar Gut (I have a friend from Poplar, and I think of him every time I read this name. It’s wrong, I know……).
It was the Poplar Gut that in c1800 became the basis of the City Canal, which itself was the basis of one of the West India Docks. A pub built at the west end of The Poplar Gut was known as the Gut House, but it later had to be demolished to make room for the City Canal. The owner renamed the pub ‘The City Arms’. On the river side of the embankment, tidal docks were built which later became Union Wharf. The breach in March 1660 had a major effect on the development of the Island.
This is an 1895 map of The Walls, followed by a modern map of the area.
The path of the old road is vaguely recognizable on the new map, and the old West India Dock Impounding Station is still there (and still working, carrying out its necessary task of maintaining the water level in the docks), but other than that, nothing is the same.
An old and new aerial photo of the southern end of the walls shows how the area is now dominated by the amazingly ugly West Ferry Circus and its approach roads. The only building in both photographs is the impounding station on the right (next to the City Arms in the old, 1940s photograph)
A Journey Along The Walls
Much has changed, but fortunately, enough photos exist to provide a good record of how it was. Our photographic journey starts at north end of The Walls, imagining we are driving (or walking) on to the Island from Limehouse.
In the first photo, on the right, is Providence House (demolished). On the left, the former dock offices and workshops now known as Cannon Workshops.
The same view today.
Providence House was a striking building, as we can see from closer by:
A little further south (left) was George Baker’s.
And beyond that was a short section of side road where Emmett St met West Ferry Rd. The lower wall of the later Cannon Workshops is visible across the road in this 1980s photo.
Formerly, at this point, the road sloped gently upwards, gaining height in order to cross the iron swing bridge over the entrance lock to Limehouse Basin (see map above). The filling-in of Limehouse Basin in 1927 made the bridge redundant but it was not removed until 1949. This photo shows the bridge being dismantled, looking north with Providence House in the background.
This photo was taken from the same point as the previous photo, but close to 60 years later, in the 1980s. The brick pillar and wooden fence – as well as the rise in the road – provided evidence of the former bridge. But, Providence House has since been demolished.
The modern wall on the left of the previous photo was perfectly situated for graffiti (interesting that you can see the city between wall and fence).
And a little further to the south:
The previous photos, where the swing bridge was, and then the graffiti was, are where West Ferry Circus now is. Here’s the same location today. If you’re not going up the ramp towards the roundabout – that is, if you are passing through and not entering the new Canary Wharf district – this is what you get to see
The Walls were not pretty, but their scale and ambience were not as inhuman as this. I walked along The Walls a few times at night, necessarily, but you wouldn’t catch me down here. Let’s get back to our journey.
In the 1980s photos, it is apparent that the whole area of The Walls between road and river is dominated by the sand and gravel company that moved there in the 1960s. In addition to filling the remaining dry docks and slipways, the gravel company removed all workshops and industrial workings on the site, and replaced most of the remaining walls with chain link fencing.
The following image shows this section of the road in c1962. It’s a screenshot from the film “Portrait of Queenie”, from a scene showing Slim Watts driving along The Walls on to the Island (and, later, driving back again). Stick around….that section of film is included in this article.
Continuing south, showing photos taken in circa 1940, 1962 and 1980. The firm on the right in the 1940 photo is the steel company Cargo Fleet, who renamed this section of riverfront, Cargo Fleet Wharf. This was a Middlesbrough company, and my grandfather worked in one of their steel mills in that city.
On the left here was a bricked-up, former dock entrance.
The entrance and the massive Cargo Fleet shed and gantry are visible in the aerial photo.
Continuing our journey south, we encounter signs painted on the wall. The image is not clear enough to show what they represent. I do recall as a kid that there was graffiti in large painted letters on the walls here saying: Free the Trotskyite Prisoners in…., but I cannot remember where the said Trotskyites were imprisoned. Some far away place like South America…or was it Hackney?
A quick look back over our shoulders.
And we emerge into the final straight, with the the roofs of Seacon and Beecham’s depot visible on the horizon.
The houses on the right were quite grand by Millwall standards. Originally built for Union Wharf dock managers, they were mostly used over the years as offices or storage by the various companies on the site.
In the following two photos, we are standing on the bridge, looking back to where we just came from. The blue-highlighted area of the 1980s photo corresponds to the photo that follows it (year unknown to me, but it looks like the 1930s).
The large sailing ship is in Union Wharf lower dock (see map above). On the left is a hint of the mentioned houses.
An even older photo is that taken in this area in 1914, showing striking Morton’s women workers leaving on their march to Trafalgar Square (see https://islandhistory.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/canned-heat/). It was almost certainly taken as they walked past The Walls, but I’ve not been able to identify the location of the photo.
And so, we arrive on the bridge over the former entrance to the City Canal, later entrance to West India Docks, and – finally – entrance to Impounding Station. One of the few old buildings still present on the Island, and certainly the only industrial building still doing what it was built for.
Looking back northwards today. There is nothing resembling how it used to look. No wonder that migrated Islanders get lost when they visit the Island after a few years.
Right, were you paying attention? Here’s what The Walls looked like c1937. Can you name the objects labelled with numbers? Answers at the end of this article.
The Walls in the 1980s, viewed from Cascades, before the construction of West Ferry Circus, looking north.
The view from the other side of The Walls
Films and Videos
1963. Short clip from ‘Portrait of Queenie’, a documentary about Queenie Watts.
1989. Island Road Trip Part 4 (c) Peter Wright. From 1:00.
Answers to aerial photo numbers quiz
- Providence House
- (Cannon) Workshops
- Later George Baker’s
- Emmett St
- Bridge over entrance lock to Limehouse Basin
- Filled-in Limehouse Basin
- Cargo Fleet
- Bricked-up dock entrance
- West India Import Dock
- Union Wharf dock managers’ houses
- Impounding station