David Lloyd’s house when he was a kid in Tooke St had a very strange yard. Here he is with his sister in said yard, which is not much wider than a path.
It also had a very strange shape, as did the house, as this 1895 map reveals (the small ‘X’ marks the spot of the photograph).
If the map is zoomed out, you can see that there were more of these strange-shaped houses in Millwall. The edges of the houses and works form a very distinct line.
Older maps show that this line once formed the eastmost extent of Millwall buildings. This map was created in circa 1870.
Again, a bit of zooming out, and things become clearer:
The original pasture land was still present here and in many other parts of the “inland” of the Island in 1870. These formed a temporary boundary to further building expansion, not so much because of issues of land ownership (although this did sometimes play a role), but because each piece of land was surrounded by drainage ditches and streams.
These water courses were vital to the drainage of the Island, most of which was (and still is) many feet under the level of the Thames at high tide. Without them, the Island would have reverted to its sodden marsh condition of the past (street names like Marsh St, Marshfield St, Marsh Wall reveal their history). In c1835:
The “Common Sewer” was the main water drainage course on the Island. Before the construction of the West India Docks it started at the higher land in Poplar, flowing south to meet the Thames at Drunken Dock (which I previously wrote about here).
Before there could be any more serious building on the Island, the problem of water drainage and sewerage needed to be resolved. This was not something that an individual builder could resolve; it took the resources of bodies like the Metropolitan Board of Works (predecessor of the London County Council) and the ingenuity of people like Joseph Bazalgette before a London-wide drainage and sewerage system could be created. Construction of London’s main sewer network began in 1844, and in the following years an outfall sewer was created on the Island.
Even then, the Island was prone to flooding at times of heavy rain and high tide, with reports of flooded basements and almost permanently-damp houses in Cubitt Town. The arrival of the pumping station on Stewart St. in 1889 did much to alleviate these problems.
Water drainage remained a point of concern for the Island though. On 7th January 1928 flooding occurred when the Thames overflowed at Johnson’s drawdock, site of present-day rowing club. Even as late as the 1980s, drainage in Millwall Park was so poor that it was frequently waterlogged (a problem solved only when the level of the park was raised slightly using earth excavated during the construction of the Docklands Light Railway Thames tunnel). In the 21st century, construction of a “super” storm drainage system was commenced, part of the Thames Tideway Scheme.
But, back in Victorian times, the construction of a modern drainage infrastructure meant that building could continue. Starting where it had once stopped, at the edge of streams and drainage ditches, leading to the strange-shaped buildings mentioned at the start of this article.
I have marked with little flags the path of a former drainage ditch and field boundary (the one responsible for David Lloyd’s funny-shaped house and yard) on this 1950s aerial photo of Millwall.
I bet that nobody who played in the “Ironie” scrapyard on Alpha Grove in the 1950s, or before the war in the playground of Millwall Central School, had any idea why these places had such odd shapes. All traces of the old streams and ditches in Millwall disappeared with the construction of the Barkantine Estate.