In the late 1960s, when our family moved onto the Island, Stebondale Street consisted of 1960s flats and early 20th century houses on one side, and prefabs on the other, separating the street from Millwall Park. That was it, no shops, nothing much of note, a dead straight street from Manchester Rd as far as the sharp right turn into Seyssel St.
A bit bare, concrete poles topped with sodium lights every 50 yards or so, and equally spaced plane trees. The prefab residents were moving out, and their homes would be demolished within a year or two, a demolition assisted by local kids who had never heard of asbestos, let alone its dangers.
When the prefabs were gone, a fence was constructed along the street, protecting the works to absorb the prefab sites into Millwall Park.
Trees were planted, a new fence was built, and Millwall Park became a little bit larger than it was.
Me and my mates used to ‘hang around’ there a lot, outside the flats at the end of Kingfield St, before the time of George Green’s Youth Club. Nothing special to say about the location, no particular reason to have chosen it, a random place. A few decades later, I do feel for the poor sods who lived in the flats. What a racket we made. Or perhaps that was considered more normal and acceptable then?
Fast-forward 40 years and imagine my surprise when I learned that Stebondale Street was once one of the grander streets on the Island, a street intended by William Cubitt to be the home of the middle classes, a street full of large houses and a variey of shops. It was even longer once, extending as far as Manchester Rd just north of the present-day Betty May Gray House.
So, what was it like then? Thanks to the Island History Trust and other sources there are plenty of photos….
And then came WWII, and the Blitz. Stebondale St suffered more than many other streets on the Island. It was not a deliberate bombing target; the Luftwaffe, at the start of the war at least, had instructions to bomb only military and industrial targets. However, dropping bombs from aircrafts was incredibly inaccurate in 1940 and it is likely that Stebondale Street paid for its proximity to the anti-aircraft battery in the Mudchute.
Robert Lowther recalled:
Uncle Ern was blown up by a bomb during the war, and found days later. A lot of the family had been evacuated to Swindon but my dad Bob Lowther stayed at home with Grandad, the older Ernie Lowther. During one of the raids when the Bricklayers pub and most of the Airy houses in Stebondale and some in Manchester Road were hit, the roof of 44 Stebondale Street was dislodged and the end house on the terrace was demolished. When this happened Bob and Ernie were over the Mudchute allotments and returned home to see the damage and found their house had been looted. Ernie realised who had taken their chairs and went and got them back!
Pat Ussher, Canadian Press Staff Writer:
One of the hardest-hit spots is the Isle of Dogs – a narrow neck of land in the middle of the Thames dock zone, surrounded on three sides by the river. Here wharves, docks, warehouses, factories and small houses are jumbled together. A bus ride around the Isle of Dogs shows plenty of bomb damage. Let’s take Stebondale Street as an illustration of what can be done with lavish use of high explosives. The street isn’t typical of all London but it shows that the bad spots are really bad. On one side of the street I counted 49 houses or stores and a church wrecked or damaged so badly they were unoccupied.
There was a big open space where a dozen or more houses once stood. Only a few bricks remain now. The debris has been removed. The other side wasn’t quite so bad. Only 34 houses and stores were empty due to enemy action. A mission hall with its roof punctured, its windows agape, also testified to the fury of the assault. Few of the remaining houses were intact. Some had top storeys gutted, others had windows out. But people were living in them. Children roller-skated by in the street, joked with the passersby. Cats and dogs roamed around. At the end of the street a pub was still open, undamaged except for a few boarded-up windows . Most forlorn spectacle was a row of damaged houses. Roofs had fallen in, upper floors sagged at crazy angles. A couple of bedsteads leaned perilously atop the debris. Wallpaper flapped in the breeze. An empty house near the church bore a reminder of the first Great War. Its scarred wall bore a plaque with the names of the soldiers lost in the 1914-18 struggle and the inscription ‘A sweet and glorious thing it is to die for one’s country.’
It’s amazing when you saw all those empty houses and nothing was taken, pillaged or stolen, you know. We used to go and feed the cat and this particular day, my mum and I went down Stebondale Street, my mum went down the airy, out the back, where we usually found the cat. And I stood outside, and the whole length of Stebondale Street, there wasn’t a person in the whole street and everything smelt dusty and derelict and damp.
This says enough: the 1950 electoral register listed 160 registered voters on Stebondale Street, compared to 650 in 1939.
After the prefabs were demolished…..
And today…..a very green street, the plane trees are all grown up.