As mentioned in an earlier blog article (Wet, Wet, Wet), the Island was in pre-Roman times uninhabited marshland which flooded at high tide, as was the case with much of the land along the Thames. In the medieval period, an earth, chalk and timber bank (or wall, from the Old English weall, meaning ‘rampart, dyke, earthwork’) was constructed along the riverfront to protect the land from flooding.
Survey of London:
The earliest reference to the repair of the wall and ditches of the Isle of Dogs dates from the end of the thirteenth century, but a settlement existed well before this, so there must already have been a wall. Repeated drownings and reclamations probably involved its partial reconstruction or enlargement.
Made of earth, or earth and chalk, possibly with a timber core in places (faggots were used in the seventeenth century to stop up large gaps).
On the land side of the wall was a large ditch into which the water drained. At low tide, sluice gates were opened to empty the ditch into the river. By this method, the interior of the Island was drained, and pastureland was created from marshland.
The wall was a large construction: 15 ft high, with a flat top of about 18 ft across and a total width (including slope and ditches) of up to 150 ft. Such constructions are still commonly applied as sea or river defences.
The above photo shows a modern Dutch wall (trivia: Amsterdam’s red light district is more widely known amongst the Dutch as De Wallen (The Walls), built as the area is on the site of a former defensive earthern bank).
Jumping ahead a lot, no photo better shows the role of the embankment in keeping the Thames at bay. St. Paul’s Church, now known as The Space, in a photo taken from the other side of the water. The Island lies low in the Thames flood plain.
Old paintings and sketches, primarily of Greenwich but painted/drawn from the Island, give an impression of the appearance of the wall then.
Back to the Dutch again; many English words related to rivers and sailing are derived from the Dutch language: Deck, Sail, Dyke, Mast, Boat, Ship, Keel, Canal, Sailor, Skipper … I can go on and on.
Another such word is Dock, from the Dutch Dok, the earliest incarnations of which were places to lay ships dry for repair. The wall around the Island was perfect for this – a stable, gentle slope where ships and boats could be tethered at high tide to be left exposed when the tide went out. Even better were places with a small inlet, where the ships could be dragged (or drawn) even higher, places later known as drawdocks, such as Newcastle Drawdock opposite the Waterman’s Arms and Johnson’s Drawdock next to the rowing club.
Meanwhile, back to a long time ago, in 1700:
Observant readers will immediately spot the windmills down the west side of the Island, all seven of them. There were at other times more (up to 12) or less than seven mills, but the idea of seven mills has stuck, and is reflected in the name of the primary school of the Barkantine Estate. The west side of the Island was perfect for windmills, it being a very windy place, due to the westerly prevailing winds and the wide open space of the Thames.
Survey of London:
It was said in the 1850s that ‘when in other parts of London the wind is scarcely felt, it sweeps over this place with great strength’.
Initially, most of the mills were engaged in corn grinding, but, later, oilseed crushing became the norm. Usually, the owners lived over the water (there were few residents on the Island in the 1700s). The path along the wall was more usually referred to as Marsh Wall, but Mill Wall made its introduction. Survey of London:
The name Mill Wall came into use in the late eighteenth century (it is first used in the rate books in 1784), initially referring to the western marsh wall, where windmills stood. Later, the name was used for both the path on the wall and the district generally. By the 1840s, the one-word form was usual. As late as 1875, this part of the Isle of Dogs was listed in the streets section of the Post Office Directory under Millwall alone – although Westferry Road had existed for 60 years, and had long ago superseded the marsh wall path, parts of which had already been stopped up as development proceeded. The anachronism was no doubt perpetuated in deference to the occupiers of riverside wharves.
As can be seen in the previous map, the path along the top of the wall – the Mill Wall – was the only way to get around the Island, apart from the north-south track from Poplar (the future East Ferry Rd, whose main use was to get to and from the Greenwich Ferry). The arrival of industry in the late 1700s, and especially the opening of the West India Docks in 1806, meant a proper road was required, and the West Ferry Road was opened in 1815.
In this 1818 map, the new road is shown in the west of the Island (but not the mill or marsh wall), while in the east of the Island the marsh wall is shown. It would be more than 20 years before the Manchester Rd was constructed.
Around this time the mill wall came under pressure as a right of way. Industry began to spread down the west side of the Island, and factory owners preferred to control their land between the new Westferry Rd (then also known as, amongst other names, the New Rd, Deptford & Greenwich Rd or Greenwich Ferry Rd) and the river without the pesky business of providing for a right of way. In this 1827 map the mill wall path is becoming patchy in the north of Millwall, close to Limehouse:
The path is obstructed by the western entrances to the West India Docks, but makes its way south before swinging inland a little at the mast pond, the site of the present Mast House Terrace (this was once the outlet of a brook which gave rise to a river bay – the origins of the mast pond). Further east, the wall winds its way past Saunders Ness, Folly Wall and Blackwall. The map says also Drunken Dock, but that’s a mistake. Drunken Dock was another name for the mast house pond. Strictly, by this stage, we’re not talking about the mill wall any more – there were no mills in the east of the Island.
This unique image is a painting of the windmill and surrounding buildings on the wall at the west end of Claude St, close to St. Paul’s Church. A rural scene, but with the masts of the docks in the background. The ramschackle collection of buildings included a beerhouse at the bottom left corner (The Windmill). The whole lot burned down in the 1880s.
The encroachment of industry upon the wall was not without protest from the few locals. Westferry Rd was a toll road, and many were not happy that the ancient – and free – wall path was being obliterated. By 1890 you’d be hard pushed to find traces of the wall.
Twenty years later, there was just a little bit south of Kingsbridge hanging on.
From the south of the Island, traces of the wall are still visible: Ferry St, Saunders Ness Rd and Folly Wall – they all follow the path. But they’re not in Millwall so it doesn’t count.