A View from a Balloon

Louis-Jules Arnout (1814-1868) was a French painter who travelled around Europe (mainly in Switzerland, Italy, England and France itself) painting city views. In about 1845, he flew above Greenwich Park in a balloon and painted his Greenwich En Ballon.

greenwich by balloon

(click image for full size)

South of the river on the right is the Greenwich Hospital, a home for disabled sailors which was designed by Christopher Wren in the late 1600s. The hospital would close and the buildings become a naval college just a handful of years after this painting was made. If you look a little further south, you can see a land-based training ship close to the Queen’s House.

To the west is St. Alfege’s Church. There has been a church on this site since medieval times, but this church was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a great architect in his own right and former clerk to Wren.

Heading south into Greenwich Park and up the hill, we come to One-Tree Hill. It still has this name, and has for centuries has been a popular place to take in the views of London, to paint or take photographs. In this painting, the tree looks quite dead. It appears also to be fenced off. Perhaps Arnout was applying some artistic license and was instead representing the ancient Queen’s Oak which was elsewhere in the park? Next to the dead tree are five younger trees; so young that they have fencing around them, undoubtedly to protect them against deer. For a while, the hill was also called Five-Tree Hill. However did they come up with these names?

To the left, or west, is the Royal Observatory. About fifteen years prior to the making of the painting, the observatory had started its daily time signals, marked by dropping a time ball everyday at 1 p.m. so that observers could adjust their watches.

Above (west of) the observatory, two railway lines can be seen which converge further west: The London & Croydon and London & Greenwich railway lines, which had opened around 1840.

Another grand church is visible just before the railway lines converge: St. Paul’s Church in Deptford.

To the north and on the riverfront, the great buildings of the Deptford Dockyard; founded by Henry VIII in 1513 and only just closed when this painting was made.

Above Deptford, a balloon. I don’t know if there actually was a second balloon while Arnout made his sketches, or if he just decided he wanted to be in the painting too – a Victorian selfie.

Remarkable about this painting of Greenwich is just how much still exists and is familiar to us today. Or, perhaps, this applies to many parts of Central London, but not to the Isle of Dogs.

The following drawing was possibly made by Arnout as a basis for his painting – or it was created later, working from the painting. It shows a lot more detail.


(click to enlarge)

In 1845, the Island was mostly pasture land. The West India Docks had opened in 1802, a huge and impressive construction, but the docks are to the north, mostly out of view of the painting. However, part of the docks and the tall masts of visiting sailing ships are visible.

West India Docks

West India Docks

(A) is the site of the future City Arms which was named after the City Canal (B), which would later form the basis of the West India South Dock. (C) is the northernmost West India Dock, the import dock. A little further down river is Millwall.

1845 millwall

North Millwall

Most of Millwall’s buildings are along the riverfront – factories, shipbuilders, wood yards and similar; and some houses – on land belonging to landowners such as Batson, Byng, Mellish and Tooke.

Slightly further ‘inland’, a path is visible running approximately parallel with the river. This was Dolphin Lane, which once ran from Poplar High St to the south of the Island. A small section still exists (in name at least) above West India Docks, but it was the arrival of the docks which led to its truncation. Alpha Grove follows some of the path of this ancient road.

It is evident that there are few buildings -for the most part the scene is one of fields and hedges. This would change very quickly during the following years, as industry grew and attracted many more people to live on the Island. Millwall extended land inwards, as these maps show.

1850 millwall map

Millwall also spread to the South.

1845 millwall south

South Millwall

Arnout’s painting of the Island is not entirely accurate, for which he of course can be forgiven seeing as it was not the main subject of his painting, and taking into account the dangerous conditions in which it was made. It has taken me much time to identify objects in this section of the painting, and even now I am not 100% certain. The apparent windmill left of (C) bothers me the most, because I’ve never seen mention of a windmill quite this far south.

Given my doubts, however:

(A) is the site of the later entrance to Millwall Docks (known to Islanders as Kingsbridge), which was built in the 1860s.

(B) is the Drunken Dock, next to the site of the present-day Mast House Terrace. I described the Drunken Dock in this article: https://islandhistory.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/the-drunken-dock/.

(C) Napier’s Yard, opposite the later Harbinger School

(D) Fairbairn’s Iron Works, where Matthew T. Shaw’s Engineering Works would later stand.

(E) Pontifex & Wood’s lead and chemical works. Eventually this would be the site of Locke Lancaster (the later Associated Lead).

(F) The path that led to the Drunken Dock from Chapel House Farm (featured later in this article).

A little bit about Napier and Fairbairn, both Scottish engineers (the Island was at the time popular with Scottish engineers, craftsmen and manual labourers), from A Survey of London (Athlone Press):

David Napier, marine engineer, bought the site of Napier Yard, undeveloped except for a row of old cottages, in 1837, laying it out as a shipyard for his sons John and Francis. By 1843 it contained a workshop, a substantial Classical-style villa (called Millwall House, see photos below), and some dwellings along Westferry Road. The works remained in operation until destroyed by fire in 1853; most of the yard was then leased to John Scott Russell as the building site of the Great Eastern, and was later bought by the Millwall Iron Works, Ship Building & Graving Docks Company Ltd.

The greater part of Napier Yard, which retained the old name, was occupied for many years from the mid-1880s by Joseph Westwood & Company, engineers, contractors, stockholders and manufacturers of constructional iron- and steelwork.

William Fairbairn’s Millwall Iron Works. In 1836–7 the engineer (Sir) William Fairbairn (1789–1874, baronet 1869) laid out an ironworks on a three-acre site, purchased from Charles Augustus Ferguson. Fairbairn, together with his sons, carried out some innovative work at Millwall, not only in the construction of iron ships, but also including such projects as model tests for Robert Stephenson’s Menai Bridge.

More than 100 ships, mostly under 2,000 tons, were built by Fairbairn at Millwall, including vessels for the Admiralty, the merchant marine, the Tsar of Russia and the King of Denmark. The works were not a financial success, however, for which Fairbairn blamed ‘opposition from every quarter’.

The central chimney, designed to draw smoke through underground ducts from furnaces throughout the premises, was octagonal in section, rising from an arcaded base to a height of about 150ft, terminating in a flared funnel.  The stump of the chimney has been preserved as a feature of the Burrell’s Wharf redevelopment.

Napier’s ‘Millwall House’ in photographs taken in 1905 and 1972. The house was standing at the time of Arnout’s painting:

9 Napiers Villa 1 14878321957

9 Napiers Villa 3 15064878735

Just east of the lead works was Ferry St, the boundary between Millwall and Cubitt Town.

1845 ferry st

(A) is the path between Drunken Dock and Chapel House Farm. It is visible in this map (paths have dotted lines, drainage ditches are marked by continuous lines).

1845 path

(B) is Chapel House Farm, which was built using as a base the derelict walls of the the 12th century Chapel of St. Mary. Remains of the chapel were still visible until shortly after the opening of Millwall Docks, when they were removed to make way for the Millwall Dry (or Graving) Dock. The only known medieval building on the Isle of Dogs, demolished and cleared, without any archaeological investigation.

1857-old-chapel 14879723198



2014 dry

(C) is East Ferry Rd, and (D) is Ferry St. The buildings and boats associated with Potter’s Ferry – which had been present here in one form or another since the 1400s – are also depicted.

Moving eastwards along the river, there is nothing to see except pasture land and trees. By 1845, Cubitt had already started building his Cubitt Town in the east of the Island in the 1840s, but this development is not in view in Arnout’s painting (which makes me suspect the painting might be earlier than thought).

1845 last

If we’re being fanciful, though, we can see the outlines of a future Island Gardens.


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4 Responses to A View from a Balloon

  1. nmph says:

    G’day, I just wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed your new book. It bought back a lot of memories. (Ironically it only took 3 days to get to Australia, local mail takes that long!) I only found your site last year and have been trying to go back through any archives. What I am looking for is anything to do with Mountague Place, Poplar and/or S. Marys’ and S. Josephs’ Primary School in Poplar High Street/Wade Street, would you have anything? I was born in Mountague Place and went to school at S.Mary/S.Joseph. Both my Mother and Father and their families came from Poplar/Limehouse we still have a cousin who owns the Globe Pub. Thankyou,Nicholas Harvey. From: “Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives” To: nmph@yahoo.com Sent: Sunday, September 27, 2015 12:32 AM Subject: [New post] A View from a Balloon #yiv2134711272 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv2134711272 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv2134711272 a.yiv2134711272primaryactionlink:link, #yiv2134711272 a.yiv2134711272primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv2134711272 a.yiv2134711272primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv2134711272 a.yiv2134711272primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv2134711272 WordPress.com | Mick Lemmerman posted: “Louis-Jules Arnout (1814-1868) was a French painter who travelled around Europe (mainly in Switzerland, Italy, England and France itself) painting city views. In about 1845, he flew above Greenwich Park in a balloon and painted his Greenwich En Ballon.” | |

  2. Bubbles says:

    Hi Mick, really interesting stuff as always. My house is on what is now Westferry Road close to the Ship Inn. This area is covered by your South Millwall cutting and like you I am very curious about the windmill-like structure that appears roughly where Burrells Wharf stands today. I wonder if there is a bit of artistic licence going on there? A couple of other thoughts: I’m not sure if the old Chapel House would have been demolished to make way for the Graving Dock, as this is a little bit further North (still there today, in the Clippers Quay estate), whereas the Chapel House appears to be very close to the intersection of Spindrift Avenue/East Ferry Road and Chapel House Street. Also, the shrubs/trees to the bottom right corner of the Isle looks very much like the location of Island Gardens, with Millwall Park to the north – so Cubitt Town would have been off the frame of the painting to the North East, possibly explaining why it’s not visible here? Fascinating painting.

    • Hello, I couldn’t really place the windmill (if it was windmill), but did think it was meant to be further north than Burrell’s. After spending way too much time researching and thinking about, I decided to give something else my attention 🙂

      I am 100% certain of the location of the Chapel House. One thing you should bear in mind is that the current East Ferry Rd (from Thermopylae Gate northwards) is further east than it used to be. On construction of the Millwall Docks, the dock company straightened and moved it.

      I agree with you that Cubitt Town might have been to the east, out of picture.

      Thanks for your interest.



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