Cuba, Tobago and Manilla – Three Old Island Streets

This is Cuba Street:

This is Tobago Street:

And this is Manilla Street:

Just two buildings, both former pubs, give any indication of the age of these streets. In London terms, they are whippersnappers, but they are among the oldest streets on the Island (the oldest, if you exclude Cold Harbour).

Until the arrival of the West India Docks in 1802, there were a few lanes or paths which crossed the Island or followed its river embankment (known as Marsh Wall or Mill Wall), but these were unpaved, narrow paths which had developed naturally over the centuries – not streets in the strictest sense of the word.

Millwall, c1810

Mill Wall in 1843

The 1810 map indicates a ‘Turpentine Work’ and ‘Rope Walk’ at the north end of the path (actually, I believe they were a little further south, south of The Breach – inaccuracies can be found in many early maps of the Island). These were built on land belonging to Limehouse shipbuilder, Robert Batson Senior, who purchased the land in 1793 and rented parcels of it out to others. Part was used by Charles Price for his oil and turpentine works, and part was a rope walk belonging to John Lyney of Limehouse (taken over by George Joad and Edward Spencer Curling in 1810).

A rope walk was – and still is – a long straight narrow lane, or a covered pathway, where long strands of material are laid before being twisted into rope (also known as cables, hence the name Cable Street). Many were to be found close to the Thames and the docks, taking advantage of the large numbers of sailing ships that were built and repaired in the area. To give an idea of how much rope was needed, HMS Victory required 31 miles (50 km) of rope.

A rope walk, c1900

Robert Batson Senior died in 1806, and his son, Robert Batson Junior, set about laying out the first formal streets on the Island. One street ran along the southern boundary of the rope walk, and he named this Robert Street. A little further south, he created Alfred Street, named after his younger brother. They were connected by a short street, named Cross Street (referred to as Marsh Street in at least one old map).

1818.

By 1818 a new road had been built down the west of the Island, connecting Limehouse with the ferry to Greenwich (and also cutting off the river end of the rope walk from the main works). The map also shows that development along Alfred Street is taking place piecemeal, while no houses have yet been built in Robert Street. It would be the 1860s before both streets were fully developed, along with other new streets in the area.

1862

Cross Street now extends across Alfred Street to meet George Street (named after another member of the Batson family, presumably). The east end of Alfred Street shares a corner with the fledgling Alpha Road. Millwall Gate is the toll gate – West Ferry Road, and East Ferry Road, would stop being toll roads a few years after this map was made.

Survey of London (written in the 1980s):

Because of the long-drawn-out building process, Cuba Street, Manilla Street and Tobago Street evolved only a ragged uniformity. The houses were plain and mean: two-up, two-down, terraced cottages with narrow roundarched doorways, mostly built to the edge of the pavement. Rear extensions were built on to some houses only after many years, and as late as the First World War several houses still had no kitchen, scullery or wash-house. There were two developments of tiny dwellings at right angles to the street: Escott Cottages of about 1840, built by William Escott, a local waterman, later publican, and Wildman’s Cottages. Other lots were occupied by sheds or stables.

Escott Cottages, Cuba Street

1870

In the 1870s, streets on the former Batson estate were renamed; the new names reflecting the sources of sugar imports to the West India Docks. Robert Street and Alfred Street were renamed Cuba Street and Manilla Street, respectively. Cross Street merged with George Street to become Tobago Street. By the time of this 1890s map, the rope works had been replaced by engineering and iron works:

1890s

The map also shows a public house at the corner of Tobago Street and Manilla Street. This was the Prince Alfred, aka The Ash Bucket.

Manilla Street, Prince Alfred on the right. (Photo: Island History Trust)

Outside Prince Alfred c 1930 (Photo: Island History Trust / Mr Lapwood)

Manilla Street. (Photo: Marion Burton/Hesselden)

Survey of London:

By the 1890s Tobago Street north of Manilla Street had lost most of its residential character of 30 years earlier. The west side of the street was occupied by nondescript industrial and commercial buildings, some of which remain. In the twentieth century industry continued to make inroads into the housing throughout the former estate, but only in the most half-hearted manner. By the 1900s, and probably long before, most of the houses, which were let entire to weekly tenants, were in poor condition.

Tobago Street

Outing, Tobago Street, 1920s. (Photo: Island History Trust)

Catholic Shrine, Tobago Street c1930. (Photo: Island History Trust)

Tobago Street, 1930s (Photo: Island History Trust / E. Ogles)

Cuba Street had an industrial character from the beginning, with firms along the entire north side (on the site of the original rope works) and at the western half of the south side.

Cuba Street

Cuba Street (L), Tobago Street (R)

Cuba Street

In the late 1930s, the PLA annexed a piece of land at the eastern end of Cuba Street and Manilla Street in order to make room for improvements to the West India South Dock. A new road connected Manilla Street to Cuba Street.

This meant the demolition of not only Escott’s Cottages, but also the Dock House – a beer house (or off license, the records are not clear) at the east end of Cuba Street.

The Dock House (Photo: Island History Trust)

Also as a consequence, Alpha Road was shortened by a few yards, and the North Pole became more exposed.

Corner of Manilla Street and Alpha Road

The North Pole (Photo: Island History Trust)

The area fared no better than other Island areas during World War II.

c1950

Many of the houses in Manilla Street remained empty until the 1960s, or were gradually replaced with light industrial units. The southern half of Tobago Street was also closed, to be replaced by an extension of an adjacent firm.

Prince Alfred, post WWII. Tobago Street (L) and Manilla Street (R)

Manilla Street. The Prince Alfred on the left.

By 1970, the only houses left in the area were those in Cuba Street.

Cuba Street

Cuba Street (Photo: Steve White)

During the 1980s, after the closure of the docks and the arrival of the London Docklands Development Corporation, construction sites could be seen on the horizon.

Cuba Street

However, despite this, there was still some industry in the area. Initially, one of the aims of the LDDC was to create jobs by encouraging firms to operate in the area – this was before the time that the ventures of the LDDC and its predecessors were dominated by property development.

Tobago Street (L) with Cuba Street in the background. The remains of the Prince Alfred on the right. (Photo: Peter Wright).

Manilla Street (Photo: Steve White)

Manilla Street (a scene from the Prospects TV series)

Cuba Street

Gradually, though, the old buildings were cleared, new buildings began to rise in the streets.

Tobago Street

Cuba Street

In at least one case, a new building was demolished after just a few years, in order to be replaced by a larger building – as was the case opposite The North Pole. The drive to build and build higher is still very strong on the Isle of Dogs.

The North Pole

 

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