I must admit to a childish, inner smirk whenever I see mention of the Poplar Gut, inspiring – as it does – images of beer bellies in the Watermans on the Island. Or is it just me who thinks that?
In medieval times, the marshland that was the Isle of Dogs (Stebunheath, aka Stepney Marshes) was reclaimed by means of a wall, or bank, along the riverfront and drainage of the interior land (see The Mill Wall). There are records of the wall being breached by the Thames on occasion, most seriously at Limehouse Hole in the north west of the Island on 20th March 1660, which led to an area of the Island remaining flooded for many years after. This lake was known as the Poplar Gut (‘gut’ is an Anglo-Saxon word, meaning a narrow waterway or small creek, applied also to intestinal channels).
In this early 1700s map, Poplar Gut is visible, as well as an area of marsh to its west. It was here that the wall was breached.
The extent of the breach made it impractical to restore the wall at its original location – after all, the area was now underwater most of the time. Instead, a wall was built around the breach, slightly inland and – crucially – above the high tide level. This meant that the wall had a distinct bulge to the east, as is clear in the following map.
Survey of London:
The Poplar Commissioners of Sewers repaired the damage and rebuilt other sections of defective wall, at a cost of more than £16,000, raised by the imposition on landowners of very high rates of about £24 per acre. The work was done by William Ham, Orton Brooker and George Salmon, and presumably consisted of timber piling and planking, with chalk and clay fill and buttressing. The new section of wall was set well back from the river behind unprotected foreland that came to be known simply as the Breach. Most of the floodwater was drained, but approximately five acres of water remained, stretching eastwards from the Breach. This came to be called the Great Gut, or Poplar Gut.
This deviation of the wall and the marshland to its west became very significant to the further development of this area of the Island, with evidence visible even to this day, as we will see later.
This 1700s drawing shows the expanse of the breach on the right. The three ships in the centre are moored at what was known as the Breach Dockyard.
Survey of London:
In the early 1730s William Atterbury, a butcher, built a house at the south-west corner of the Gut; this became a public house which by 1750 was known as the Gut House, although it may originally have been the Shipwright’s Arms. In the 1790s a row of eight houses and William and John Godsell’s ropeyard were built south of the Gut House.
The houses didn’t stand for long, because in 1800 they were demolished to make way for the City Canal, built across the Island by the Corporation of London. The canal also took advantage of, and absorbed all of, Poplar Gut.
Survey of London:
Preliminary excavation of the canal started in 1800, by John Clark and Thomas Thatcher, from Wiltshire, and some direct labour. The main excavation and embankment work was contracted to John Dyson, of Bawtry, Yorkshire. He was not able to begin until 1801, because of delays with the installation, supervised by John Rennie, of a Boulton & Watt steam pumping-engine on the site that later became the Canal Dockyard.
The main excavation was completed in 1804, and the locks were approaching completion in July 1805 when the coffer-dam and preventer dam at the east end failed, causing a great wave to rush through the canal. Extensive repairs were needed and the opening had to be postponed until 9 December 1805. The canal was 3,711ft long between the lock gates, 176ft wide at the surface of the water and 23ft deep at its centre, dug only 17ft down, with the spoil used to build up the banks.
The City Canal was not a success, for it was not adopted as a worthwhile short cut. Its potential had probably been overestimated, and London’s growing number of wet docks and the arrival of steamers in the river further reduced its usefulness. From 1811 it became primarily a ‘receptacle for dismantled ships’.
Work started on the West India Docks well before the City Canal opened. One consequence of their construction was that the Gut House also had to be demolished. The owner at the time, James Oughton, then moved slightly further south to build the City Arms public house.
The West India Docks expanded further south, and eventually the City Canal became the South Dock.
By 1875 the transformation was almost complete.
I have to go back to the eastwards bulge in the mill wall. The curving road eventually became known as The Walls.
Drove round that road a million times in my Ford Escort, or on the top floor of a 277. I never imagined the curve of the road was defined by a 17th century flood.
And today, it’s still a bit of an odd place, south of Westferry Circus and still not built up. Only a matter of time, though.