A late 18th century map which depicted plans for the new West India Docks also showed the boundaries of the fields on the Island at the time, including the three Barn Fields.
The fields are also clearly shown in this map, an early 19th century copy of a 1745 land ownership map showing (or ‘shewing’) the land owned by the Ironmongers Company on the ‘Ilsle’ of Dogs.
The map is more more than 250 years old, before even the the Westferry Road was constructed, and it contains some familiar names: Byng, Mellish, Cotton, Ferguson, Barn Field. Here’s the same map with modern roads superimposed:
The Ironmongers Company, formally known as The Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, was one of the livery companies of the City of London. Originally known as the Ferroners, they were incorporated under a Royal Charter in 1463.
Survey of London:
The Barnfield Estate was one of several marshland properties, most of them in Essex, bought by the Ironmongers’ Company in 1730 from Sir Gregory Page, bart, of Wricklemarsh near Blackheath. Barnfield, Great Barnfield and Little Barnfield together formed an irregularly shaped strip of about 33 acres, running south-west from near the Chapel House to the inlet called Drunken Dock or the Great Barnfield Basin.
The company built houses on its estate, the first in the mid-19th century.
They also built three pubs, each with a name related to ironmongery or fire: Vulcan, Ironmonger’s Arms and Magnet & Dewdrop (I must admit, I have never managed to figure out the meaning of magnet and dewdrop).
The Ironmongers planned to fully build on their estate, with new streets, housing and factories extending to East Ferry Road in the north east. The long north-south street was going to be named Ironmongers’ Street, but in the end only a short terrace was constructed, named Ingelheim Place.
Unfortunately for them, the northern part of their land was subject to compulsory purchase, and absorbed into the to-be-built Millwall Docks. Additionally, a section in the west was similarly acquired by the London and Blackwall Railway Company for a future southern section of the Millwall Extension Railway; a section that never materialised – part of the land became St. Edmund’s school playground, while the rest remained pasture until almost 1900.
Survey of London:
The completion of Ingelheim Terrace by Weitzel and Knight in 1862 marked the end of the main development of the estate. These last (Nos 337–365, odd, Westferry Road) were inferior houses to the rest of the terrace, having only two floors and smaller back additions than the other houses in Westferry Road, but were otherwise similar — plain, old-fashioned houses of stock brick with slate roofs.
So far the development had turned out well. As French boasted, the leases were shorter, the rents higher and the houses bigger than on neighbouring estates, and a site had been let for industrial purposes.
When the Rev. Richard Free came to take charge of St Cuthbert’s, Westferry Road, in 1897, he and his wife had to live south of the river because of the housing shortage, and he commuted by ferry, but after a few months they obtained rooms at No. 1 Ingelheim Cottages (St Cuthbert’s Lodge). It was ‘a terrible old shanty, lacking every convenience’, and crawling with lice. Built as a corner-house on the intended Ironmongers’ Street, it had eight rooms on two floors, with an attic and box-room, and was distinguished by a clumsy bellshaped gable on the street front which gave it a quaint look, reminiscent of ‘a lifeboat station or ark of refuge’. Free had the use of five rooms, two of which he opened as reading-rooms.
He was told that the house had been a school and a beershop, and that 40 years before it had housed eight families, one in each room, while in recent years it had accommodated seven adults and 27 children. At the time of the 1861 census it held three families, a total of ten people, which was no higher than the average level of occupancy on the estate at that time, considering the larger than usual size of the house. The families, typical of others in Millwall, were headed by a gas fitter, labourer and ship-joiner, and included one working wife (a glover) and one single adult lodger (a cordwainer). By 1871 the house was uninhabited, and in 1876 the Ironmongers found it ‘ruinous’, worse than any other property on the estate. It was demolished after c1926.
Someone else concerned with the welfare of locals was a philanthropist called Miss Price, who moved into 333 Westferry Road (diagonally opposite the Magnet & Dewdrop) and opened it as The Welcome Institute – Coffee, Tavern & Club Rooms for Factory Girls. Staffed by well-to-do women volunteers, the institute provided hot meals at affordable prices to factory girls, evening classes in dressmaking and needlework, Bible classes for boys and club-rooms for local football teams.
Like the Isle of Dogs generally, Barnfield suffered badly from the slump of the late 1860s, and it was probably this phase which was most responsible for reducing the houses to slums. By 1868 many of the inhabitants were destitute, their last possessions pawned. In Laura Cottages, for instance, an investigator found a pregnant woman and her five children, all of them suffering from malnutrition. Her husband was away stone-breaking at the workhouse, and to supplement the money he got for this the family spent all week picking a quarter of a hundredweight of oakum from a local ropeworks, for which they received only a shilling, yet the rent of their cottage was five shillings a week. Upstairs was their lodger, his wife and their five children. The man had had only six weeks continuous work in two years and was now too ill to do casual dock labour Unable even to pay their 1s 9d a week rent, they were kept alive by hand-outs from the family downstairs.
In addition to the problem of poverty, the aborted development of the estate left it with inadequate drainage and unmade roads and paths. The ground floors of many of the houses were well below street level, making the buildings permanently damp and prone to flooding. The road to the fibre factory was only a cinder track, often waterlogged. Standing water saturated the front walls of Elizabeth Cottages where, in 1900, there was an outbreak of typhoid fever. The road was finally paved by Poplar Borough Council in 1905.
By the riverside, the proximity of industry caused inconvenience and danger. At Totnes Cottages the bowsprits of ships berthed at Britannia Dry Dock overhung the gardens, while the roadway leading past the cottages to St Andrew’s Wharf was ‘constantly full of vans loading oil’. There was severe vibration from the pounding of machinery at Napier Yard.
In 1905, the institute moved to much larger, purpose built premises in East Ferry Road – premises that it would later sell to the Dockland Settlement Movement. 333 Westferry Road was demolished in 1919.
In 1855 Messrs Tindall of Tindall’s Dock took a 63-year lease of a site at the back of Elizabeth Cottages for a cooperage, at an annual rent of £50. They built a range of sheds and workshops, together with a house for the foreman joiner and his family (No. 5 Elizabeth Cottages).
The cooperage was occupied for a few years from the mid-1860s by the Millwall Iron Works, Ship Building & Graving Docks Company Ltd. In the 1870s and 1880s it was a coconut fibre factory, later becoming a waterproofer’s works and then a soap factory. Its last industrial occupier was the Murex Magnetic Company Ltd, set up to exploit patents relating to ore and oil refining, taken out by two of the soap manufacturers. In 1915–16 the premises were also used for storing copra and coconut oil by George Davis & Son, whose desiccating works were nearby.
Disrepair on the estate was widespread from the mid 1870s, if not earlier, and dilapidations notices were frequently ignored. The good ground rents and comparatively short building leases, which had seemed so attractive, combined with chronic local poverty to offer little incentive to the lessees to make repairs or improvements.
In 1889 John Hollway, the new proprietor of St Andrew’s Wharf, who wanted to build on the remaining open ground, offered to buy the whole estate. But although the £15,000 deal was approved by the Charity Commissioners, it fell through. In 1895 the vacant ground, which now hardly justified the description ‘pasture’, was let on a 21-year lease to Messrs Cutler of Providence Iron Works.
The houses were now squeezed between industrial sites and were at the end of their useful life. They were shabby, insanitary and structurally unsound. Totnes Cottages had already been subject to a Closure Order from the Borough Council. It was becoming obvious that the estate would have to be redeveloped on reversion. Only the public house and the beerhouses seemed of much value. A new lease of the Magnet and Dewdrop was granted in 1899 and new leases of the Vulcan and the Ironmongers’ Arms were sold to brewers in 1916.
Plans for redevelopment drawn up in 1916 by George Hubbard, the Ironmongers’ surveyor, were set aside because of the war, and as the leases fell in the company took over direct management of the houses, which were now falling to bits. Several were subject to closing and demolition orders. Despite the wartime shortage of labour and materials, a gang of builders worked continually on urgent repairs, but the estate remained in ‘deplorable’ condition.
The former Welcome Institute and the house next door had already been pulled down when, in May 1919, the freeholds of the estate were put up for auction. Of eight lots, only two, the Ironmongers’ Arms and the Magnet and Dewdrop, made more than the reserve. Most of the houses failed to sell, and the old pasture failed even to draw a bid.
Nos 311–331 Westferry Road and Ingelheim Cottages were leased to Messrs Cutler soon afterwards for an extension to their works, but because of the housing shortage the Borough Council refused to allow Ingelheim Cottages to be pulled down, even though they had long been unfit to live in. They remained inhabited until c1934, when they were finally demolished. Cutlers’ works remained until the mid-1970s.
The rest of the ground north of Westferry Road was sold in 1920 to Burrell & Company Ltd, who built the Barnfield Works there for the production of organic reds. The factory closed in 1979.
Elizabeth Cottages, Laura Cottages and Ingelheim Place were occupied until c1933. The remaining houses north of Westferry Road (Nos 337–365) were demolished c1936. The sites of Elizabeth Cottages and Nos 357–365 Westferry Road are now covered by part of the West Ferry Estate.
South of Westferry Road, the Vulcan and the former Magnet and Dewdrop were the only reminders of the original development. Both have been rebuilt, the Vulcan in 1937 and the Magnet and Dewdrop in 1939. Totnes Cottages were demolished c1936. Totnes Terrace (by then renamed Mast House Terrace) was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. Several of the remaining houses in Westferry Road were badly damaged by bombing and subsequently demolished or left derelict. Nos 212–224 (even) remained in use until the early 1950s, when they were pulled down.
The sites of Cutlers’ works and the Barnfield Works were developed in 1988–9 by Wimpey Homes as Quay West, an estate of houses and mews built around courts, squares and a ‘pedestrian boulevard’.