You say Coldharbour, I say Cold Harbour

We better get this out of the way immediately; I am sure some of you may be asking yourself, “Is Cold Harbour actually a part of the Isle of Dogs?” It’s a valid question – the area has always been isolated from the rest of the Island, and it does have a different feel to it in some respects, heightened by the number of old and sometimes very large houses it contains and the distinct lack of post-war council housing. Not just a different place, but from a different time perhaps (after all, it is the oldest surviving street on the Island).

Deciding on what constitutes the boundaries of the Isle of Dogs has been keeping hundreds (well, a handful) occupied since time began (er…..since Facebook was invented). Being an avid collector of all things to do with Island history, I decided a long time ago that I needed to draw the line somewhere, if only for my own peace of mind. West, south, and east are easy – no arguing with the route of the Thames – and I also decided it should be water that defines the northern boundary; an Island has got to be surrounded by water, right? That made it easier – my Isle of Dogs is bounded in the north by the north side of the Limehouse Entrance Lock, the West India Import Dock, Blackwall Basin and the Blackwall Entrance Lock. (Don’t look for the Limehouse Entrance Lock on a map, by the way, it was filled in decades ago. Westferry Circus is now on its site.) By this definition, Cold Harbour is a part of the Isle of Dogs.

This 1890 map also supports why I spell the streetname Cold Harbour and not Coldharbour. It was always spelled with two words, until the 1950s, when the council replaced the two or three street signs, and misspelled the name. There was no decision to rename the street, it was simply a spelling mistake. This still happens – recently, a street elsewhere on the Island was suddenly spelled “Saundersness Road” – but, with social networking and email and other electrickery, it was not too difficult to bring it to the attention of those who could correct it.

So what, actually, is a Cold Harbour (a common placename throughout the British Isles, sometimes corrupted into Coal or Cole Harbour)? Harbour has nothing to do with shipping – it means harbour in the sense of a refuge, from the Middle English herbergeCold is from a Saxon word, cealt, which means not only cold as in temperature, but also as in bare or uninhabited. According to one definition by G. Basil Barham of the East Herts Archæological Society:

The Cold Harbours are all in the vicinity of one or other of the great Neolithic or Roman roads, and were originally the remains of partially destroyed Roman or Romano-British dwellings, or settlements [sometimes protected by earth walls, timber, or ruined stonework]. Travellers used them as being more or less secure places in which to spend a night. As the places became known, traders gathered there to distribute goods and do business, and eventually the places once more became villages, but retained the old generic name.

Cold Harbour is clearly a very old thoroughfare (or place) – older than the Mill Wall path which went down the west of the Island; older even than Dolphin Lane, (H)Arrow Lane or any of the other medieval lanes which crossed the Island marshes from Poplar in the north. That said, it is difficult to imagine Cold Harbour as being on the route to anywhere. As this 1745 map shows, Cold Harbour was a bit of a dead end – the southern end of Blackwall, a major shipbuilding area of the time.

Survey of London:

Coldharbour is virtually the sole remaining fragment of Old Blackwall. Until relatively recently it was little known and little seen, being obscured by the nondescript industrial premises on the east side of Preston’s Road. These have now been mostly cleared away, exposing what is left of Coldharbour to passers-by in the newly widened Preston’s Road.

The roadway here is the only surviving section of an old riverside road leading southwards from Blackwall Stairs before petering out somewhere near the present entrance to the South Dock of the West India Docks. This old road almost certainly originated as a pathway along the top of the medieval river embankment called the Blackwall. A deed for a house on the east side, leased in 1626, describes the house as having been built on ‘part of the wall commonly called Blackwall’, and the street as ‘the way which lieth on the same wall called Blackwall’. The name Coldharbour …  formerly applied to the whole stretch of roadway, and was only restricted to the southern section after the road had been cut by the construction of the Blackwall entrance to the West India Docks.

Buildings had begun to appear in Coldharbour by the second decade of the seventeenth century, as the wave of development encouraged by the opening of the East India Company’s shipbuilding yard at Blackwall in 1614 gradually spread southwards along the riverfront, and the opening of Browne’s (later Rolt’s) shipyard in the late 1660s probably gave a further boost to the process.

Detail from the 1750 engraving ‘A View of Blackwall looking towards Greenwich’. by Boydell. Cold Harbour is in the centre of this detail.

The construction of the West India Docks disected the riverside road and isolated Cold Harbour from the rest of Blackwall.


William Daniell’s 1802 painting, “An Elevated View of the New Docks & Warehouses now constructing on the Isle of Dogs near Limehouse for the reception & accommodation of Shipping in the West India Trade” provides a very detailed view of Cold Harbour at that time.

I’m jumping around a bit, now, but I find it interesting to compare this with recent aerial photos and maps.

c1950. Photo: Click for large version.



Anyway, back in the 1800s, some larger houses and businesses were built along the riverfront:

1 Cold Harbour, Isle House

Dockmaster’s residence, built for the West India Dock Company in 1825–6, to the designs of their Principal Engineer, (Sir) John Rennie.

3 Cold Harbour, Nelson House

There are stories of Lord Nelson meeting Lady Hamilton in this area – but there is no evidence to suggest a link between him and this house (first purported in 1881). The original Doric columns on either side of the front door were stolen in the 1980s – who steals Doric columns, is there a market for Doric columns? Survey of London:

In 1924–5 the house was converted into two dwellings, for occupation by PLA police families, by the introduction of a glazed screen (burnt in the fire in 1990) across the first-floor landing, and the conversion of the north-west room on the first floor to a bathroom and the south-west room on the top floor to a kitchen. In 1935 the PLA granted a 21-year lease of Nos 1 and 3 to the Bethnal Green and East London Housing Association, which divided the properties for letting to weekly tenants.

5 & 7 Cold Harbour

Survey of London:

Probably the two houses built here in 1809 by Richard Gibbs, a local shipwright, but a rebuilding in the early 1820s cannot be ruled out. The houses erected about 1809 replaced the two shown in Daniell’s view. By 1799 the northern house, whose site had been leased to Ralph Mayne in 1637, was ’empty and ruinous’, and it was pulled down before 1807, when Gibbs bought the freehold of the empty site, together with the standing house to the south.

In 1834 No. 5 was let to the West India Dock Company for an Assistant Dockmaster’s house, and No. 7 was similarly occupied from 1851. The dockmasters left when the leases expired in 1871. Between 1877 and 1890 one, or possibly both, of the properties were partly occupied as a coffee house. According to the directories, the proprietor in 1881 was William Keld, but the census shows that there were two William Kelds, one at each house. At No. 5 was a 32-year-old lighterman with a family of seven, a nurse and female servant, and at No. 7 a 55-year-old boat proprietor, presumably the former’s father.

9 Cold Harbour

Site of the Fishing Smack pub, which had been around since at least 1750. It was demolished in 1948, but a single glazed-tile column remains (see previous photo).

Site of the Fishing Smack


15 Cold Harbour

The current building was constructed in 1843–4 by Benjamin Granger Bluett, a joiner, mast- and blockmaker on the site of an older house. Survey of London:

In 1894 the Metropolitan Asylums Board (MAB), which occupied the adjoining wharf to the south as an ambulance station, bought the freehold of No. 15, and in 1895 it enclosed the former mastmaking shop, subdividing the area to make dressing-rooms, bathrooms, waiting-rooms and stores. It also built a range of waterclosets and an observation ward against the south wall of the house. Edwin T. Hall (1851–1923) designed and supervised these alterations. Ownership of No. 15 passed to the LCC in 1929, when it took over the MAB’s responsibilities. In 1969 the GLC transferred the property to the borough council.

1939. 15 Cold Harbour on the right. Managers Street on the left.

North Wharf

I described the Metropolitan Asylums Board’s Ambulance Station in another article (click here).

It was around the time that the asylum board took over the wharf (in the 1880s) that Managers Street was constructed, named after the managers of the Metropolitan Asylums Board.

19 Cold Harbour (Blackwall River Police Station)

Opened in 1894 on the former Brown’s Wharf and closed in the 1970s. Survey of London:

The Blackwall Station, one of only two permanent river-police stations ever built on the Thames (the other was at Wapping), was designed to accommodate a division of the Thames police formerly based on board The Royalist, a hulk moored off Folly Wall. The inconvenience of this floating headquarters had long been felt, and in 1875 it was suggested that the station should be relocated on shore in the former Railway Tavern at Brunswick Wharf. This proposal was rejected, and it was not until 1889 that other land sites were seriously considered, the choice of Brown’s Wharf being approved in 1890.

Concordia Wharf (L) and the River Police Station (R)


27 Cold Harbour (Gun Public House)

Doing business since the 1700s, the pub has been variously named the King and Queen (1722), Rose and Crown (1725), and Ramsgate Pink (1750). It was renamed the Gun (and sometimes referred to as the Gun Tavern) in 1771. For more photos, click here.

Nos 29–51 (odd) Cold Harbour

Built in 1890. No. 51 was demolished due to the widening and realignment of Preston’s Road.

That same widening of the road meant also the loss of Leslie’s Café 😦

West India Dock Tavern

The terraced housing in the previous section was built on the site of a grand tavern known as the West India Dock Tavern. Opened in 1830, with the owner, Samuel Lovegrove, expecting to profit from the proximity of the docks, it was not a success and remained open for not much more than a decade. For its full story, read my earlier blog article, The West India Dock Tavern.

1835 map showing “Lovegrove’s W. India Dock Tavern & Stairs”

Little is known or reported about the early history of the other side of the street. It was always predominantly industrial, but this 1870 map reveals that there was some housing in the northern section at the time. New Road was the new road between the West India Dock entrance lock and Preston(‘s) Road in the north (so-called due to it passing through the former Hall-Preston Estate):

By 1910 it was getting fuller:

Cold Harbour survived WWII remarkably unscathed, as this (sorry, poor quality) London County Council Bomb Map reveals, in spite of the V1 (flying bomb or Doodlebug) strike marked by the circle on the left. My theory is that the Luftwaffe – primarily targetting the docks – did not release their bombs until spotting the Thames, which generally saved those premises along the river in the east of the Island as the bombs passed overhead. A study of the wider LCC Bomb Damage Map for the Island does bear this out.

Uniquely, Cold Harbour retains a feel of the past, a piece of the Island (yes, it’s the Island 🙂 ) that shows its age, like these two Herberts in the Gun a couple of years ago.

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11 Responses to You say Coldharbour, I say Cold Harbour

  1. Dave Strong says:

    Mick, I always find your articles very informative, presented and well written. Thanks.

  2. Silvia Colloseus says:

    An excellent, thoroughly researched write-up. Superbly illustrated. Thank you for this labour of love.

  3. Don Liddell says:

    Great effort as usual, coincidentally, no. 7 has just come on the market @ £1.7 million !!!
    Who’d of thought it eh?

  4. Michael John Halpin says:

    Not the island it’s poplar could be called Blackwall island !

  5. Nicci Talbot-Morris says:

    Thanks for another fascinating article. My great grandparents and my great aunt Eva Talbot lived at number 49 from around 1928 to 1974. I remember being excited seeing ships go through the swing bridge when I visited.

  6. Pingback: An Elevated View of the New Docks & Warehouses now constructing on the Isle of Dogs near Limehouse | Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives

  7. Sheila Hoare says:

    My great great garandparents were the William Keld’s mentioned in your article. The information is most impressive. You might like to look at our family history page on the same subject – I loved the old photos in the road, we visited a few years ago and took lots of photos. Thanks Sheila Hoare

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