Where are you from?
The Isle of Dogs
Never heard of it, where’s that?
That used to be the reaction, as late as the 1980s, but not any more. Everyone’s heard of the Isle of Dogs now … it’s a suburb of Canary Wharf … a place to look at Greenwich … a marathon course … But now that the Isle of Dogs is world famous, what about the answer to the following question?
Why’s it named the Isle of Dogs?
Most people will answer that question with:
Because the king kept his hunting dogs there, when he was in Greenwich
This most popular and persistent explanation of the origin of the name Isle of Dogs states that it is where the king kept his hunting dogs while he was residing at Greenwich Palace. Various kings are named in the different flavours of this theory, from Edward III through Henry VIII to Charles II. I think the occasional Queen gets a look-in too.
However, there is not a shred of evidence to support this theory, it is pure supposition. The origin of the name is not known. I do find that frustrating and surprising. London was at one time the largest city in the world, and has a long and well documented history. The Isle of Dogs is less than 2 miles from the Tower of London yet we know very little about its pre-docks history. Until the late 1700s, it was a piece of scarcely-populated marshland with the annoying habit of flooding now and again. Not interesting, not worth recording, and we don’t know why it is so named.
I have my own theories, which I am still researching (and hope to blog about later), but I do first want to get this hunting dog theory out of the way (I mean…discount it).
Earliest Mention of the Hunting Dog Theory
The first written mention of the hunting dog theory was in the 1720 book, Strype’s Stow’s Survey. Published by the ecclesiastical historian and biographer, John Strype (1643-1737), it is an updated version of a survey that was first produced by John Stow in 1598. The source of the hunting dog theory can be traced to Strype’s words in this book. This is the first written mention of the theory!
The fertile story of the Marsh here is much admired, usually known by the name of the Isle of Dogs; so called, because when our former Princes made Greenwich their country seat, and used it for hunting, (they say) the kennels for their dogs were kept on this marsh, which usually making a great noise, the seamen and others thereupon called the place the Isle of Dogs.
Strype is cautious about the veracity of the theory, using the expressions so called and they say. He certainly wasn’t convinced about it. And curiously, much earlier in the same book, Strype offers an entirely different explanation:
Next is the ISLE of DOGS; being a low Marshy Ground, so called, as is reported, for that a Waterman carried a Man into this Marsh, and there murthered him. The Man having a Dog with him, he would not leave his Master; but Hunger forced him many times to swim over the Thames to Greenwich; which the Watermen who plied at the Bridge observing, followed the Dog over; and by that means the murthered Man was discovered. Soon after the Dog swimming over to Greenwich Bridge, where there was a Waterman seated, at him the Dog snarled, and would not be beat off; which the other Watermen perceiving, (and knowing of the Murther) apprehended this strange Waterman; who confessed the Fact, and was condemned and executed.
This highly unlikely story – like the hunting dog theory – is not present in any earlier versions of Stow’s Survey of London.
In 1805, English topographer and novelist James Norris Brewer in the generously titled The Beauties of England and Wales, or, Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of Each County wrote of the name:
The origin of this term is not known. A futile tradition says “that the place derives its name from the King’s hounds having been kept there when the royal family resided formerly at Greenwich Palace, to which lies opposite.”
But Brewer directly follows this futile tradition with:
In some ancient writings possessed by the corporation of the city of London, this marsh is termed the Isle of Ducks, a mode of denomination that has not been noticed by any topographer, but which may readily be supposed to allude to the number of wild fowl which formerly frequented on this spot.
Like Strype, Brewer is sensible enough to state that the origin is not actually known, and then goes on to give two possibilities. The idea that the City of London has some ancient writings that might set the record straight is an interesting one, and new to me.
At the end of the century, in 1898, another (unrelated) Brewer – Reverend Ebenezer Cobham Brewer – wrote in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable that the Isle of Dogs was:
So called from being the receptacle of the greyhounds of Edward III
Similar traditions have also named the hunting dogs as belonging to Charles II. We can discount them immediately, Charles II was born 1630, more than a century after the first written mention of the name Isle of Dogs!
In the late 20th century, the London Docklands Development Corporation continued to give credence to the theory, but then naming Henry VIII instead (see http://www.lddc-history.org.uk/iod/index.html):
This makes it possible that one of the attributions for the origin of its name, as the place where Henry VIII kept his hunting dogs.
To sum things up:
- The first (still existing) written theory of the origin of the name Isle of Dogs was in Strype’s 1720 book
- Strype was cautious about the theory (and offered another, elsewhere in the same book)
- The hunting dog theory is just one of different theories offered over the centuries by different authors
- A variety of different kings have been named in the hunting dog theory
- There is no physical evidence at all for any of the theories
First Written Mention of the Name, Isle of Dogs
The first written mention of the Isle of Dogs is in the ‘Letters & Papers of Henry VIII’. In Volume 3: 1519-1523. 2 October 1520. No. 1009 – ‘Shipping’, there is a list of purchases, which includes:
A hose for the Mary George, in dock at the Isle of Dogs, 10d
The original document was written in Latin, which was translated into English and published in 1867 under the editorship of J.S. Brewer.
Usually at that time, the King’s ships would have been repaired or refitted at Deptford Royal Dockyards, founded by Henry VIII in 1513. If the Deptford dockyards were full, however, use would also be made of the docks on the Island, directly opposite Deptford.
Archeologists have shown that the river was embanked during the 1100s, and possibly earlier. At that time, and for many centuries later, this loop in the river was not referred to as an island, it was simply the southern extent of Stepney Marsh. According to The Survey of London (Athlone Press):
The first clear evidence of settlement dates from the second half of the twelfth century, when William of Pontefract built a chapel on his estate, later known as the manor of Pomfret (otherwise Pountfret, or variants). Pomfret was a hamlet with about 80 acres of arable land and a windmill. In 1322 it had cornfields worked by 12 villeins, but by 1362 the manor house was in ruins, perhaps part of a general process of decay.
The earliest reference to a chapel in the marsh dedicated to St Mary dates from 1380. This chapel may have been the old one, or perhaps a new chapel of ease had been erected for the marsh-dwellers: such a chapelry was founded in Stratford-at-Bow, Stepney, in 1311. The theory that it was an outpost of the Abbey of St Mary of Graces is founded on nothing more than the fact that the abbey owned land locally. Suggestions that it was a hermitage or penitent’s chapel are romantic guesswork. Repairs were carried out in 1415, and bequests were made to it until the mid-fifteenth century. On Lady Day 1449 the river burst through the wall opposite Deptford, and it was almost certainly this flood which led to the hamlet’s abandonment.
It took many decades to recover the flooded land, but another inundation in 1529 meant the area was once more under water. It was during this period that the the word “Isle” was first used, applied to a small area in the south west as shown on Robert Adam’s 1588 Thamesis Descriptio. Adam’s map is the earliest known which makes mention of the Isle of Dogs (Ile of Dogges), directly opposite the shipyards at Deptford. This is the Isle of Dogs referred to in the Letters & Papers of Henry VIII.
A 1662 map refers to the Isle of Dogs also as being a small area in the south west of the Island, opposite Deptford.
It would be the 1700s before the definition of the Isle of Dogs extended far enough north to match our idea today. This growth in the geographical definition is well documented and is generally-accepted by historians: the Isle of Dogs was originally a small area in the south west, and it grew over the course of 200 years to describe a much wider area.
The hunting dog stories are not consistent about the identity of the king (or prince), but they are consistent about (and reliant upon) the proximity of Greenwich Palace.
In the 15th century, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and half-brother of Henry V, built a large home (named Bella Court) by the Thames in Greenwich, and enclosed the land we now know as Greenwich Park.
Unfortunately for Humphrey, in 1447 he fell out of favour with the new queen, Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, and was arrested for high treason. He died in prison – Shakespeare said he was murdered – and Margaret took over Bella Court, renaming it the Palace of Placentia, sometimes written as the Palace of Pleasaunce.
The Palace remained the principal royal palace for the next two centuries (until Westminster became the royal seat). It was the birthplace of King Henry VIII in 1491, of Mary I in February 1516 and of the later Queen Elizabeth I in 1533.
Wyngaerde’s “Panorama of London in 1543” provides an image of the Island (in its broader sense) at the time (B); some buildings in the middle, probably St Mary’s Chapel, but not much else. Greenwich Palace is visible (C), as is Deptford further upstream (A).
The importance of the palace began to decrease during the reign of James I (King of England from 1603 –1625) when his wife Anne of Denmark constructed Queen’s House to its south. It was last used as a royal residence by Charles I (King of England from to 1625-1649), and fell into total disrepair during the English Civil War (1642–1651).
After the restoration, in 1660, Charles II decided to rebuild the palace, but he completed only a small section and never occupied it as a a royal residence. Most of the rest of the palace was demolished, and the site remained empty until construction of the Greenwich Hospital began in 1694.
This 1670 extract of a painting by Hendrick Danckerts ((c) National Maritime Museum) shows Queen’s House on the left, and a very empty Isle of Dogs in the centre.
What Have We Learned So Far?
The name, Isle of Dogs predates its reference in the ‘Letters & Papers of Henry VIII’, dated 2nd October 1520.
It applies to a small area of land, perhaps as large as 3 or 4 football pitches, in the south west, opposite Deptford. Land which remained dry when the rest of the area was inundated.
Greenwich Palace (strictly, Humphrey’s home, Bella Court) became a royal residence in 1447.
The major inundation, which led to the small island, occurred in 1449.
If you believe the royal hunting dog theory, then the name must date between 1449 and 1520.
Talking of Dogs, What is a Dog?
That sounds like a daft question, but a little bit of etymology – the science of word origin – might be helpful at this point. In particular we need to look at the difference between dogs and hounds.
In the 1300s, hound (Old English hund) was the general name for the canine breed, and dog (Old English dogge) was a specific category; usually working dogs bred for hunting or guarding.
For unknown reasons, the definition reversed during the 1400s. By the 1500s, as in Modern English, dog had become the general name for the canine breed, and hound a specific category of dog – such as greyhound, bloodhound, wolfhound, foxhound, etc.
The old definition can also be seen in other place names. The first mention of Houndsditch, for example, was in 1399, and was named after the dead dogs (i.e. of the general variety) that were thrown in the ditch outside the city wall. If it was named a century later, it would probably have been called Dogsditch. Pre-1500 London names such as Black Dog Alley and Dog House Fields were references to guard or hunting dogs.
In 15th century England, it was almost unheard of to keep a dog as a pet. Dogs had no other purpose (to people) than as working animals. According to an Oxford English Dictionary article:
Before the eighteenth century, dogs other than the disdained lap-dog were usually kept not as household pets but for hunting, working, or guarding, and the language used to describe them often reflects this. In the oldest proverbs and phrases dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful……In early modern Britain dogs were often regarded as vermin or as the carriers of rabies and other diseases. The fear of rabies-infested dogs is manifested in the phrase a hair of the dog that bit you, recorded from 1546 as an alcoholic drink taken to cure a hangover, and originating in the remedy recommended as a cure for the bite of a rabid dog (now usually shortened to hair of the dog). Given the risks associated with dogs, they were constantly seen as in need of control.
If the hunting dog theory is correct, whoever first named the place Isle of Dogs (or Dogges) – on or after 1449 – was referring to dogs in general, and not specifically to hunting dogs. Considering such social attitudes towards dogs in general, and deference to the monarchy (or fear of offending) would anybody refer in this way to the king’s hunting dogs? Wouldn’t they have called it the Isle of Hounds?
The hunting dog theory would have us believe that the king kept his hunting dogs on a small island which was opposite Deptford, and not opposite Greenwich, the location of his palace. This at a time when the island (as we know it now) was largely marshland, prone to flooding and wild fowl were the only game.
Some varieties of the theory suggest that the king hunted further north, off the Island, past the River Lea, and that the hunting dogs were more conveniently kept over the river from the palace, to be picked up on the way. What is convenient about keeping the dogs not opposite the palace, and removed from the only road northwards towards the River Lea (a road which started at the location of the later Ferry House)? Why was it convenient to keep dogs there, but not the hunting horses?
Who would have the nerve to call this small island the Isle of Dogs, and not show more deference to the reigning monarch by calling it Isle of Hounds instead?
None of this is proof, but I consider them strong arguments. Coupled with the complete lack of evidence or any indication that royal hunting dogs were kept on the Island, I say the hunting dog theory is not the dog’s bollocks.