This 1947 photo (click for large version) shows a small area of the Island, a neighbourhood commonly known as Kingsbridge.
I like the photo a lot. It is quite familiar to me, appearing not fundamentally different to how it was when we moved to the Island 20 years later. Probably the most significant difference was that Michigan House had been built in the mean time (1958-60) on the open space in front of Montrose House. Also, the houses in Gaverick St and Crews St were cleared by the mid-60s. But that was it; the rest was pretty much the same.
But, I particularly like this photo because of how much history it represents; how much history is squeezed into such a small area (if it is possible to squeeze history into small areas). It gives not only the 1947 story, it is evidence of the ever-changing Island. I hope with this article to tell a little of that history – but I am conscious I am only scratching the surface really.
Millwall Dock Entrance Lock Bridge
First of all, the bridge. Everybody I knew referred to it as Kingsbridge but that was never its formal name. Formally, it never even had a name. It was just the iron swing bridge over the Millwall Dock entrance lock. People like to have a name for everything, though, and it and the area around it became known as Kingsbridge, named after the Kingsbridge Arms public house (bottom left in the photo).
When it was opened, this was the largest dock entrance lock in London, being 80 ft wide and nearly 200 ft long. This photo shows the construction of the inner lock gates (the outer gates were far more substantial, designed to better deal with collisions by ships).
This illustration shows the lock in use during the formal opening of Millwall Docks in March 1868.
The dock entrance was originally designed to be shorter, but during construction it became apparent that rapidly-increasing ship sizes required the building of a larger entrance. This meant building a lock that extended further east, which in turn led to a slight rerouting of Westferry Rd. I have added the original route of West Ferry Rd in this 1895 map; it was clearly a much gentler curve.
Signs of the original route are still visible.
The previous map shows also that the entrance consisted of two locks of unequal lengths, using three sets of gates. This allowed the lockmaster to fill/empty locks and open/close gates depending on the length of the ship: short ships could use the short lock, medium length ships the longer lock, and long ships the two locks combined. This was much more economical (in terms of time and money) than always opening a very long lock even for small ships.
The map also shows a footbridge (“F.B.”) passing over the middle lock gates. This was to allow pedestrians to cross the dock entrance even if there was a ship in the lock. It was a double swing bridge which appears in a couple of old post cards.
A bridger in 1926. This photo was taken looking south. On the left is a glimpse of the Sailor’s Home that used to be next to the dock road entrance.
A 1930s bridger, also looking south.
Ships continued to grow in size and by the 1930s the middle lock gates (and, thus, the foot bridge) were becoming obsolete. The PLA had plans to alter the lock, but these plans were deferred due to the outbreak of WWII. During the war, in September 1940, bombing destroyed the middle gates and much of the surrounding machnery and lock structure. Directly after the war, financial restrictions prevented any reconstruction and the lock remained unused. By 1955, the cost of reconstruction could no longer be justified and the dock was dammed at its inner gate (on the dockside).
The building of a dam at the inner gate meant that the road bridge (aka “Kingsbridge”) had to remain in place, never opening, and crossing a lock that would never be used. The structural solution would have been to completely fill in the locks, but this would have been much costlier , something unthinkable in the austere 1950s. Instead, the lock was allowed to silt up on the river side until the bridge wasn’t even crossing water.
This 1981 photo taken by Dave Chapman from the roof of McDougall’s shows the situation perfectly.
It would be 1990 before the lock was properly filled-in and the bridge removed; work carried out by Mowlem for the LDDC. The following photo was taken by Kathy Duggan not long afterwards, with Michigan House on the right, and the Kingsbridge Arms in the distance.
Today there is a slipway on the river side of the bridge and a watersports club on the dock side (which is now under threat by people who want to build more towers). You don’t have to look too hard, though, to see where the outer and middle lock gates were mounted, and the remains of lock machinery.
Present in all the old photos is a row of terraced housing on the north side of the entrance lock. These were the Pierhead Cottages, described by Survey of London (Athlone Press) as follows:
Pierhead Cottages were built in 1875, as much to provide a security presence at the Millwall Dock entrance as to accommodate dock company employees. The easternmost cottage had a top room overlooking the docks and was probably occupied by the dockmaster, while the others went to the lock foreman and dock policemen. They were built by C. Lewis and J. Bostock to plans prepared by the dock company’s engineer, F. E. Duckham. The elevations, with ground-floor bay windows with ornamental cast-iron columns, were similar to much terrace housing of the period, but the houses varied in arrangement and accommodation. Nos 3–10 were demolished in 1954–5; the remaining four became derelict and were pulled down by the LDDC in 1986, after an abortive Housing Association refurbishment scheme.
The mentioned dock company’s engineer Frederic Eliot Duckham (1841–1919) was the father of Alexander Duckham, the founder of Duckham’s Oil Company who selected the Island for his first ever works (at Phoenix Wharf) in the early 1900s.
The “Housing Association refurbishment scheme” at Pierhead Cottages had no chance of working; the land was too valuable to the LDDC for new apartment development, like virtually all land along the Island riverfront. These old houses would just have to go….
Directly north of Pierhead Cottages was (before the time of the construction of Millwall Docks) a wharf belonging to oil merchant and wharfinger, Nathaniel John Fenner.
It was Fenner and civil engineer, Robert Fairlie who proposed the first design which would be the basis of the later Millwall Docks; a broad waterway across the Island from just south of Fenner’s Wharf to the river in the east, and also a connection from the half way point to the West India Docks in the north. Fenner and Fairlie did not have the connections, skills or funds for such a great undertaking and quickly they lost control to bigger, richer interests. Fairlie was bought out completely, and Fenner ended up with an uninfluential seat on the board of the Millwall Dock Company.
Fenner also built two substantial houses at the Westferry Rd end of his wharf. The following aerial photo, with the houses highlighted, was taken in 1921.
The office building of E. Klein & Company (still doing business!) would a few years later be built on the site of these two houses.
Jolliffe & Banks
South of Fenner’s Wharf, before the construction of Millwall Docks, was the site of the Jolliffe & Banks stone yard. It was at this purpose-built yard that Jolliffe & Banks shaped stones for the construction of London Bridge.
I’ll say no more, except to refer you to an article about this that I wrote earlier: https://islandhistory.wordpress.com/2014/12/15/london-bridge-made-on-the-isle-of-dogs/
Phoenix Wharf (Later Millwall Estate)
A bit further south, Phoenix Wharf was named after Phoenix Iron Works (in 1861), a company specializing in:
Scrapiron bars, T-iron, angle-iron, and patent rivets for boilermaking and shipbuilding.
– Survey of London
Later, from the 1880s, the wharf was used by a succession of paint and chemical manufacturers (including, in the north section of the wharf, the previously mentoned Duckham’s Oil Company). In the 1920s:
A strip at the south end of the site occupied by H. E. Hope & Company, chemical manufacturers, from about 1905 to 1922, was known as Hope Wharf. An ill-timed venture was that of the German-owned Sugar Fodder Company Ltd, which set up an animal feed factory on part of Hope Wharf in 1913. The company was wound up under the Trading with the Enemy Act (1916).
In 1924 Hope Wharf was occupied by the local oil wharfingers Mark H. Winkley & Company, who in 1927 took over the disused former Phoenix Wharf, together with Duckham’s old premises. They used Hope and Phoenix Wharf, as it was now called, for storing oils, petroleum jelly, grease, metals and rosin until 1930.
The premises then comprised a yard, about a third of which was covered by dilapidated sheds built variously of brick, timber, corrugated iron and glass. Adding to the general air of malaise were a tall chimney standing out of plumb, a derelict water-tower and disused offices. After a few years in the occupation of Snowdon & Sons of Lowe’s Wharf, the site was cleared and the Millwall Estate flats were built there.
– Survey of London
A huge amount of excavation was necessary in order to dig up the polluted land before construction of the Millwall Estate. These photos show also the building of concrete foundations for the new flats.
Opened in 1937, the buildings of the Millwall Estate were named after ships of the Canadian-Pacific line which formerly frequented Millwall Docks. SS Montcalm and SS Montrose.
I’ve included an image of the later SS Montrose (1922-1939), but it was an earlier SS Montrose (1897-1914) on which Crippen was sailing when he attempted to escape from the law in 1910 after murdering his wife. A murderer who was famously foiled due to the early use of wireless.
Montcalm House from the river, shortly before opening.
Montcalm and Montrose Houses were built in the typical LCC style that was seen in many parts of London. Solid buildings with small, functional flats; but very basic by today’s standards.
It was originally intended that Michigan House was of the same style, but it would be 1960 before Michigan House was built, and in a completely different style (and with a lift!).
Lowe’s Wharf / Snowdrift
South of the Millwall Estate was a wharf originally known as Lowe’s Wharf, occupied from 1883 by Snowdon, Sons & Co., manufacturers of:
“Snowdrift” lubricant, “Sinol” lubricant for cylinders, “Snowdene” and “Snozone” lubricants, patent mechanical and other lubricants, cylinder oils for superheated steam, motor car oils and greases, disinfectants, sizing materials for textile manufacturers, machine tools, agents for Huhn metallic packing.
– Grace’s Guide
The company survived for 100 years on the site, in one form or another. Part of the site was occupied by scrap dealers for a short period in the 1980s, and featured in the “Prospects” television series.
Winkley’s Wharf, like all the wharves down the west of the Island, was built on the original Thames embankment known as Mill Wall due to the number of windmills built upon it. In this case, the windmill was known as Theobald’s Mill, which is shown in this 1843 painting. It was surrounded by a number of small buildings, including one that housed a pub called The Windmill (the word Truman’s is just visible on the sign).
Incidentally, before the construction of Westferry Rd and, later, Manchester Rd this embankment path was the only way to journey round the Island. Parts of the path remained as a public right of way until as late as 1890, but it was gradually subsumed by the larger wharves and factory works. Only Ferry St and Saunders Ness Rd follow the follow the route of the original embankment path.
This map was created in 1883, the year before the windmill remains and the surrounding buildings were destroyed by fire.
Oil wharfinger Mark Winkley too over the riverfront land here in 1893, and called the site Winkley’s Wharf.
According to The Survey of London
Various tanks and sheds were erected over the years. Typical of the buildings was a shed built in 1908, measuring about 94ft by 27ft, for storing mineral and lubricating oils It was built of brick piers, partly filled in with corrugated iron. The roof was of corrugated iron with skylights on timber trusses, and the floor was beaten earth.
As at other oil wharves, special safety measures had to be taken during the First World War under the Defence of the Realm Act. Low concrete retaining-walls and corrugated-iron shields were erected to retain spillage from burst tanks in the event of an air attack. The wharf narrowly escaped such a catastrophe when a bomb hit the foreshore during a Zeppelin raid.
In 1930 the buildings were described as ‘mainly of inferior construction, somewhat old, and not in very good condition . . . Nearly everything on the premises is as much covered and impregnated with oil as its nature permits’. It was thought that there was every chance of a complete burn-out if a fire started. Part of the general messiness was due to the importation of mineral oils in barrels, which sometimes leaked. By 1933 barrels had largely been replaced by bulk delivery and storage.
The wharf and the streets around it were badly bombed during WWII. Bombing on 22nd March 1944 caused a huge oil tank fire.
This 1950 map shows just how much of the area was destroyed during the war.
Gaverick St and Crews St
The houses in Gaverick St and Crews St were built in about 1857, developed by Robert Webb, a surgeon, of East India Dock Road, who financed the scheme partly through the Temperance Permanent Benefit Building Society (Survey of London). Also in the development were houses in Claude St, shops and houses on Westferry Rd, and the Kingsbridge Arms.
These houses were built to house workers from the shipbuilding industry, which all but collapsed on the Island in the late 1860s due to the economic crisis (see my earlier post, The Distress).
In December 1868, 14 of the 26 houses in Gaverick Street were uninhabited, and almost all of the others were only partly occupied. Subsequently, the neighbourhood became one of the poorest in Millwall. The fact that it was ‘infested by a rough class of boys’ caused some concern to the insurers of Winkley’s Wharf, where flammable goods were stored. But Winkley’s foreman, who lived on site, kept a couple of guard dogs and always arranged for extra protection on Guy Fawkes’ Night”.
– Survey of London
Charles Booth carried out a survey into life and labour in London between 1886 and 1903, which led to his famous poverty maps (see The General Tone of the Isle of Dogs is Purple). These maps colour-coded the two streets as follows:
According to Booth’s classification, the residents of Gaverick St and Crews St (mis-spelled on the map) were Lowest class. Vicious semi-criminals. Residents on Westferry Rd, on the other hand, were Mixed. Some comfortable, others poor. This latter classification was more common for the Island.
On 28th May 1897, Booth revisited the Island, accompanied by a large police officer. In his notes about the walk, Booth wrote:
Then down over the ‘Second Bridge’ over the entrance into the Millwall Dock
Poor Waterside Streets
On the west side of West Ferry Rd, short streets ending in factory walls
Gaverick St, Crewe St and Claude St – low class of labourers, low aspect, bearing out dictum that the poorest will always be found closed to the water
That last statement is ironic, seeing as the rich now live on the water here.
I know of no old photos of the streets, just aerial shots (from http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk).
Both streets (and Claude St and the houses and shops on West Ferry Rd) were cleared by 1960. Only the Kingsbridge Arms was left standing, eventually surrounded by light industry.
Later, the firms all disappeared.
The pub was built in the 1860s, and survived the late 1860s financial crisis, WWII bombing, the demolition of the houses and firms behind it, and the closure of the docks and other industry in 1980. But, in 2004, it went the way of most Island pubs: closed, demolished and replaced by flats. A mini-market is now on the spot. Fortunately, there are plenty of surviving photos, many of which were donated by Kathy Duggan, daughter of the landlord and landlady of the Kingsbridge Arms. In no particular order…..
Old Houses Still Standing
Across the road from (and built around the same time as) the Kingsbridge Arms were four rows of terraced houses, running from the bottom of the Kingsbridge incline, past St. Paul’s church and almost as far as St. Edmund’s. The two rows to the right of St. Paul’s were completely destroyed (or damaged beyond repair) during WWII, as was the first house of the left row (No. 235)
The remaining rows had a few shops. The ones that I have information for were (post-war):
1950s and 1960s: John & Maud Lewis, Tobacconists
1976: M & S Car Spares
1950s: David & Margaret Jones, Grocers
1958 to 1980s: Abel Vaughan, Grocers
Early 50s: Lucy Prior, Tobacconists
Late 50s to 70s: Frederick & Lilian Nixon, Tobacconists
1980s: Sandra Perkins, Cafe.
Some time around 1990, the row closest to St. Paul’s church was demolished.
Montague L. Meyer
The dock area behind the Westferry Rd houses, south of the Millwall Inner Dock, was known as B Yard. Right from the opening of the docks, this area was used for stacking timber. In 1937, much of the yard was leased to timber merchant Montague L. Meyer, whose firm remained operating on the site until shortly after the closure of Millwall Docks in 1980.
Much that has been described in this article has gone. The whole area now looks like this:
Quite a change. I grumble as much as the next person about how much the Island has changed since the 1980s, but writing this post has made me realize that the Island has been continuously changing for the last 200 years.