The City Arms (later in life named City Pride) is no more, demolished just a few years ago, to be replaced by yet another tower.
To the left, a glimpse of the West India Dock Impounding Station, a pump house whose job is to maintain the level of the water in the docks – one of the few ‘original’ industrial buildings still standing on the Island.
The small area around the City Arms, as shown in the following satellite image, saw some of the earliest development of industry on the Island, and has a rich history. So much so that this article took days to produce, instead of the few hours I imagined.
For much of the 18th century there wasn’t much of note down the west side of the Island, just a few windmills connected by a riverside path.
The west side of the Island was exposed to prevailing westerly winds blowing across the river and was particularly suitable for windmills. Joel Gascoyne’s 1703 map, “Survey of the Parish of St Dunstan’s, Stepney” shows seven mills – inspiration for the naming of Seven Mills Primary School on the Barkantine Estate.
There were more mills at other times – this 1750 map (created for ship’s navigation, so short on land features) has nine. I’ve counted a total of thirteen on various maps.
Sir Charles Price’s Oil Mill
I have highlighted in the map above the area covered by this article, which includes a windmill named the ‘Oil House’ (it was also known as the ‘First Mill’). The mill changed ownership many times during the 18th century, and was extended during this period to include – apart from an oil mill – a two-storey dwelling house with cellars, and a two-oven bakehouse and a granary. Eventually, the premises were known as Sir Charles Price’s Oil Mills, and one part of the site was made into an oil refinery. The owner, Charles Price (1747-1818) was a wealthy oil-man and banker, who became first an alderman of the City, then an MP, before eventually becoming Lord Mayor of London (in 1803).
West India Docks & City Canal
The peninsula that was the Isle of Dogs changed fundamentally on the construction of the West India Docks (opened in 1802) and the City Canal (opened in 1805), both of which are described in a previous article, An Elevated View of the New Docks & Warehouses now constructing on the Isle of Dogs near Limehouse.
The Gut House
A number of buildings in the north west of the Island, including the Gut House tavern (see The Poplar Gut for more information) had to make way for the construction of the canal and docks. The landlord of the Gut House rebuilt his pub just north of the new canal (map above shows the original site of the tavern).
Survey of London:
The building of the City Canal left a large area of surplus land between the west entrance lock and the marsh wall. The City was quick to exploit this valuable though as yet unembanked property, letting it in 1807 in three plots, each with river frontages of 95ft …. [one of the plots going in 1809 to Coulson & Co. who] built an iron foundry, reputedly London’s largest, called the Canal Iron Works.
The opening of the West India Docks also led to the revival of the fortunes of the Greenwich Ferry. Survey of London:
During the late eighteenth century the ferrying of horses and cattle appears to have been discontinued, footpassengers only being conveyed, but with the opening of the West India Docks the need for a regular horse-ferry revived. In the early nineteenth century a rival ferry service was set up by the Poplar and Greenwich Ferry Roads Company, both operators sharing the old landingplace, though not harmoniously. The Potter’s Ferry Society twice destroyed the company’s toll-gates-claiming that prospective passengers were using the Deptford Ferry in preference to Potter’s Ferry, to avoid having to pay the road toll — and the two bodies were involved in much litigation. During the 1840s the horse-ferry was discontinued, and in 1868 the company assigned its rights in the ferry to the society. In 1878 the society sold out to private operators and was itself subsequently dissolved.
The section of road from the canal to the Rope Walk (location of the present-day Cuba Street) was named Ord Street, a name it retained until the 1890s. The much longer section from there to the ferry was known as the ‘Deptford and Greenwich Road’ until it was renamed ‘West Ferry Road’ in the 1860s.
In 1811, the road from Limehouse to the City Canal (then known as Bridge Road, later part of West Ferry Road) was realigned. The Gut House was displaced yet again, for the second time in just over a decade. The landlord built his new pub just south of the City Canal and named it City Arms.
Seaward and Capel
In 1824 John Seaward (1786-1858) took over the Canal Iron Works, later joined by his brother Samuel and engineer James Capel.
John Seaward was a Jack of all trades, and master of a few of them. He was born the son of a builder in Lambeth, and initially worked with his father as a surveyor and architect. Later he managed lead mines in Wales, where he acquired a knowledge of chemistry, and became friendly with a few well known mechanical engineers of the period. Upon his return to London he oversaw the construction of a number of docks on the Thames, and became an agent for the Gospel Oak Ironworks in Staffordshire. Seaward was at the same time connected with the Imperial Continental Gas Association and introduced gas lighting to several towns in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. (I’m getting worn out just listing his different employments.)
Survey of London:
They also designed large swing bridges, dredging machines, cranes, and other dock apparatus, plus machinery for lead, saw, and sugar mills. Among the improvements and inventions for which John Seaward was personally responsible were tubular boilers, which were used by the Royal Navy, disconnecting cranks for paddle-wheel engines, the telescopic funnel, self-acting nozzles for feed and for regulating the saturation of the water in marine boilers, double passages in cylinders both for steam and education, cheese-couplings used to connect and disconnect screw propellers to and from engines, and other minor improvements.
In 1850 the company built what is considered to be one if its finest works, engines for the RMS Amazon, a ship constructed for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. at Blackwall Yard by R. & H. Green (an early incarnation of R. and H. Green and Silley Weir). Unfortunately, the vessel was destroyed by fire off the Isle of Scilly on her first passage to the West Indies in 1852. The cause of the fire was never established.
Samuel Seaward died in 1842 and James Capel left the firm in 1856, so – when John Seaward died in 1858 – the yard was auctioned. Canal Iron Works were taken over by William Jackson and Richard Watkins.
Marine engines continued to be built at the yard until 1882, when the site was sold to preserved-provisions manufacturer, J. T. Morton, who was expanding his Millwall factory.
Millwall Gate is a reference to the toll gate just north of Robert Street (later renamed Cuba Street). In 1885, the tolls were abolished and the toll gates in West Ferry Road and at the north end of East Ferry Road were ceremoniously closed.
John Thomas Morton was a provision merchant from Aberdeen who built up a large and successful business exporting canned and other preserved food. He opened his Millwall factory in 1872, and after his death in the 1897 the company was run by his sons Charles and Edward.
The firm was one of the biggest employers on the Island, and is renowned for being the birthplace of Millwall FC (described in full in: Millwall FC – The Millwall Year(s)). Their first factory was constructed on the site of Sir Charles Price’s Oil Mills:
By 1895, their factory had expanded to take over the site of Canal Iron Works in the north, and the Oil Works on the east side of West Ferry Road (which probably were also part of Sir Charles Price’s oil mills).
Morton named his wharf, “Sufferance Wharf”. Formally and legally, a place of “sufferance” was:
A place appointed by order under the hands of the Commissioners of Customs and Excise for the lading and unlading of goods liable to Customs duties (Section 14, Customs Consolidation Act, 1876)
A sufferance wharf was thus a licensed private wharf where dutiable goods could be kept until the duty is paid.
It was during the expansion of his Millwall factory that Morton constructed a number of buildings which were still standing a century later.
In the previous photo, Beecham’s can be seen on the left. The Beecham’s company took over Morton’s in 1945 and gradually ran down the Millwall works (concentrating their Morton’s activities in Lowestoft instead). The distinctive Beecham’s building was built around 1950, on the corner of Westferry Road and Cuba Street, on the site of part of Morton’s factory that had been destroyed during World War II.
As mentioned, Morton’s also had premises on the other side of Westferry Road.
These buildings lasted longer than those on the west side of Westferry Road, and still had an industrial use until their demolition in 2007.
Cuba Street (East)
Cuba Street was originally named Robert Street, after Robert Batson on whose land it was constructed, along the south edge of a “Rope Ground”. This was a ropewalk, built shortly after the arrival of West India Docks, obviously intending to capitalise on business offered by the many sailing ships in the proximity. Wikipedia:
A ropewalk is a long straight narrow lane, or a covered pathway, where long strands of material are laid before being twisted into rope. Ropewalks historically were harsh sweatshops, and frequently caught fire, as hemp dust ignites easily and burns fiercely. Rope was essential in sailing ships and the standard length for a British Naval Rope was 1000 ft. A sailing ship such as HMS Victory required 31 miles (50 km) of rope.
The original owners of the ropeworks were Joad & Curling. George Joad (1764-1837) also made money selling mortgages to Jamaican slave-owners, even managing to acquire some estates in Jamaica as compensation from mortgage defaulters.
Survey of London:
About 1860 the ropeworks was occupied by the newly incorporated Telegraph Cable Company Ltd. Wire-rope and cables were manufactured at the works by a succession of companies until the mid-1880s. The western part of the site, fronting Westferry Road, then became the Royal Iron Works of Messrs Whitford & Company… Whitfords’ products included iron churches, bridges, staircases, tomb railings, verandas, fireproof floors and lightning conductors. In 1910 the works were sold to C. & E. Morton Ltd.
Next to the Royal Iron Works, in 1887 Stephens, Smith & Company took a 63-year lease of No. 40 Cuba Street, which then comprised several old sheds, part of the ropeworks. These were soon replaced by a brick-built factory with a lofty skylighted roof.
Stephens, Smith & Company ceased to trade in 1969, by which time the Cuba Street works were in the occupation of another engineering company. For many years part of the building was sublet to a succession of firms, including F. F. Scott & Sons, shipping butchers and meat packers, who installed refrigeration plant in the early 1920s. The building, disused by the late 1980s, was demolished in 1990.
West India Dock Pier
At the other end of Cuba Street, on the riverfront, was West India Dock Pier (now known as West India Pier). The original pier was built in 1875 by the East and West India Dock Company (as it was named at that time), as a place for City wool merchants to board or alight boats when visiting the new wool warehouses in the West India South Dock.
The pier was destroyed by bombing in 1941, and was not rebuilt until 1950. Possibly it would never have been rebuilt had it not been designated to serve visitors to the Festival of Britain Live Architecture Exhibition at the newly-built Lansbury Estate in 1951.
The pier has also appeared on screen.
Including being featured in a promo film made by Nico for her 1965 song, “I’m Not Sayin”.
Further Up Westferry Road
Between the old Morton’s buildings and the City Arms was, in the Seventies, as far as I remember, a rather plain box-shaped building, just in view on the right in this photo.
There also used to be houses here:
The remains of which can be seen in this photo:
But not in this one, which was taken a little further south:
Survey of London:
[City Arms] stands on ground purchased by the Corporation of London for the City Canal and developed in 1811–17 with two short rows of houses, Ord Street and Montague Place. Six 61-year building leases for 30ft-wide plots on the east side of the street were granted in 1811. James Oughton, proprietor of the Gut House, took the northernmost plot, on which he built the City Arms and Canal Tavern, a simple block with a three-bay north entrance front. The houses in Montague Place (renamed Osborn Close in 1937) were pulled down in the 1940s, following bomb damage.
Not long after this photo was taken, the brewers Mann, Crossman & Paulin acquired the vacant sites of Nos 5–9 Westferry Road, and in 1936 built a much larger, detached building.
Later, the pub would be renamed City Pride.
The impounding station is a pump house that maintains the water level in the West India and Millwall Docks. It is built over what was originally an entrance lock to the West India Docks. Survey of London:
In 1856, when the outer gates of the lock had been removed for repair, the inner gates gave way at low tide and the South Dock suddenly emptied, scattering shipping. New inner gates were supplied by Hack & Son. The outer gates were replaced in 1863, by Westwood, Baillie & Company, presumably in iron. The dock company considered rebuilding the lock in 1877-82, but did not do so, perhaps because this was the least important entrance at the West India Docks. Its closure was determined in 1887, but it remained open until 1891.
The PLA built an impounding station over the lock in the 1920s, with pump-discharge pipes and sluicing-culverts, after first damming it with mass-concrete. The impounding station is still operating to this day.
What Happened Next?
Simply, everything was demolished (apart from the impounding station), that’s what happened next. The riverside Morton’s factories and warehouses were demolished in the 1980s.
To be replaced by Cascades, amongst other buildings.
Beechams was demolished, to be replaced by a block of something.
The former Morton’s buildings east of Westferry Road kept going for a while, until their demolition in 2007.
The West India Docks Pier’s been looking a bit sad, but I think these photos are a few years old.
The City Pride stuck it out for a while – even seemed to be doing quite well in the shadow of the new buildings,
But the value of the land on which is stood was much and much more than could be earned from pulling pints or putting on drag queen acts (might be going back a bit, there).
I’ve long given up caring about how the Island’s industrial heritage has been totally neglected and destroyed, but preparing this article has been saddening. I don’t expect us to preserve the past in pickle (do you see what I did there – a Morton’s reference), but Millwall was for many decades the centre of innovative engineering of global influence. This article covers just a small part of it – and I left out a lot in order to keep things brief – every street corner, every street, is drenched in history – and most of us don’t know it.