Off the Track in London – On the Isle of Dogs in 1905

George Robert Sims, 1847-1922, was an author, playwright, journalist and philanthropist.

George R. Sims

He was among a new breed of journalistic writers at the time who made the effort to describe the lot of working class men and women. He wrote a series of articles about the East End for The Strand magazine (later collected in a book, ‘Off the Track in London’) and number eleven in the series was titled ‘In Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs’.

Unlike some of his contemporaries who ‘discovered’ the East End in Victorian times, Sims’ descriptions were unsentimental and not condescending towards the inhabitants (unlike  ‘Seven Years’ Hard’ by  Rev. Richard Free, a book and writer mentioned by Sims below –  Rev. Free seemed to despise his Island flock).  Instead, Sims presented a sympathetic and evocative vision of life in a place of industry, dirt, noise and smells.

The “Island part” of Sims’ article is presented here in its entirety, accompanied by images of the time.  The illustrations which are included appeared in the original article in The Strand and were drawn by Thomas Heath Robinson (brother of  William Heath Robinson, best known for drawings of ridiculously complicated machines for achieving simple objectives; so-called ‘Heath Robinson Machines’).

JUST outside the West India Dock Station there is a little one-horse ‘bus which takes you by a winding way of high, black walls, broken here and there by bridges and wharves and the towering masts of ships, to Millwall.

Coach at West India Dock station, circa 1910. The coach belonged to the firm of Joseph W. Squires of 62 West Ferry (two words, then) Road. The firm’s name will be familiar to many Islanders as it later operated as a pawnbrokers, doing business at the same location, opposite Maria Street, into the 1960s.

As you near the journey’s end the driver – there is no conductor – opens a little trap in the roof of the ‘bus and puts his hand through. In his open palm you deposit the penny for your fare, and a few moments later the ‘bus stops, and you alight and find yourself at the commencement of the West Ferry Road and in the famous Isle of Dogs.

In 1906, Westferry Road started – or ended, depending on your point of view – at a swing bridge over the entrance lock just north of the City Arms (which was rebuilt and much expanded a couple of decades later).

It is the island note that greets you at first. If the bridge is up you have to enter by the lock gates, and you may, by a stretch of the imagination, fancy yourself performing a Blondin feat, with the welcome addition of a row of protecting chains on each side of you.

Across the water you are in a land of one familiar sound and a score of unfamiliar scents. The sound is one ever dear to the Briton – the clang of the hammer as it descends on ringing iron. You listen to the sound that speaks of England’s might, and you remember the song that Charles Mackay sang of Tubal Cain. The memory that the scents bear in upon you is of another poet – Coleridge, who sang of Cologne.

The odours are overpowering. They do not mix, but with every breeze each salutes you with its separate entity. One odour is that of heated oil, another that of burning fat, others are of a character which only visitors with a certain amount of chemical experience could define.

The lead works and the area around them, viewed from Greenwich.

The odours saturate you, and cling to you, and follow you. They are with you in the highway and the by-way. You pass into the house of a friend who has offered you his hospitality at the luncheon hour, and the door that closes behind you does not shut them out. Nothing is sacred to them, not even the church. Even the flowers in the little gardens that the West Ferry Road can show here and there have lost their own perfume and taken that of the surrounding industries.

The area around Maconochie’s and Burrell’s

The island is no dreaming place. It is a land of labour. From morn till eve the streets are deserted; the inhabitants are behind the great walls and wooden gates – husbands, wives, sons and daughters, all are toiling. The only life in the long, dreary roads and desolate patches of black earth that are the distinguishing notes of the side streets is when the children come from school. Then the red and blue tam-o’-shanters of the little girls make splashes of colour here and there, and the laughter of romping children mingles with the clang of the hammer and the throb of the engine.

In Ingleheim Street [Ed: actually spelled Ingelheim], a turning off West Ferry Road, there is a quaint brick building that at once attracts your attention, for above it is a flagstaff, and in the wire-protected windows there are flowers.

Ingelheim Street from Westferry Road. The houses would later be demolished during slum clearances, and Arethusa House built on the site. (Photo: Island History Trust)

When you go down over the rough bit of roadway that ends in a wall of corrugated iron and a suggestion of black sheds beyond you read above the doorway of the quaint building the words, ‘St. Cuthbert’s Lodge,’ and you remember that this is the address of the Rev. Richard Free, the author of that intensely human document, ‘Seven Years’ Hard,’ the story of seven years’ patient, and often heart-breaking, work among the poorest population of a land of drudgery and desolation.

Drawing: Thomas Heath Robinson

The former St. Cuthbert’s Lodge later. “Amongst the children playing in the street are Fred Rea and Arthur Hedgecock This photograph was used as an example of poor housing conditions on the Island and published in the Isle of Dogs Housing Society brochure as part of an appeal for funds to provide better houses in the East End. The Society built St. Hubert’s House in Janet Street in the 1930s. Donated by IOD Housing Society” Photo and text: Island History Trust

When we came first upon St. Cuthbert’s Lodge, not knowing what it was, the oddness of the building struck both my colleague and myself. The suggestion it conveyed to my mind was that of a lifeboat station or ark of refuge on a lonely shore. Why it conveyed that impression I cannot say. I am inclined to imagine that somewhere on the Yarmouth shore I have, in years gone by, seen something like it.

A veritable ark of refuge has this quaint little building – with the ship masts stretching high above it – proved to many in Millwall.

Mr. Free and his wife, cut off from the world, with which their one link is the little, conductorless one-horse ‘bus, have brought the love of light and colour into houses of grimness and gloom, and, taking the human view of our poor humanity, have become popular characters in the island of mighty tasks and mean surroundings, of noxious trades and pleasureless lives, an island in which there are no places of amusement of any kind. When the day’s work is over the lads and lasses of Millwall get out of it as quickly as possible. The island gardens form a green oasis in the desert. They are not in Millwall, but Millwall has in them a beautiful breathing space and a glorious view on the other side of a ‘cleaner, greener land.’

Island Gardens, 1902

Island Gardens, 1906. James Dewar Junior and Senior of Faulkner Terrace, East Ferry Rd. Photo: Elliott Family

There is a Ladies’ Settlement, St. Mildred’s House, in Millwall, which suggests the refining influence of gentle womanhood. The conditions of life among the women workers of the place are affected by the nature of their employment. The dirt of their drudgery, the odour of their occupation, are brought into the home by the men and women alike. There is no escape from either.

St. Mildred’s House, with St. Paul’s Church on the left. (Photo: Island History Trust).

But the humanising influences brought to bear upon the situation have not been altogether in vain, and in the little back-yards and scanty patches of green still left here and there before some of the houses there are flowers struggling to be pretty under difficulties, and fowls and rabbits that look considerably plumper and healthier and happier than their owners.

“A Poor Man’s Flower Box at Millwall. Mrs. Free, of St. Cuthbert’s Lodge, Millwall, is doing an excellent work in encouraging a love of flowers among her poor. About four years ago, through her efforts, a Window-box Society was started. Members (there are now about seventy) pay twopence annually, and in return receive gifts in kind of bulbs and plants. Prizes are awarded for the best display of flowers. Few families, alas! possess the smallest bit of garden ground, and many have no space for a window-box, but must make the best of a few plants indoors, on a table as near the light as possible.” Text and photo from the 1903 book: ‘The Book Of Town & Window Gardening’, by F. A. Bardswell

In the centre of the island lies Desolation-Land, a vast expanse of dismal waste ground and grey rubbish heaps. All round the open space is a black fringe of grim wharves and of towering chimneys, belching volumes of smoke into a lowering sky that seems to have absorbed a good deal of the industrial atmosphere.

Across the waste, as we gaze wearily around it, borne down by our environment, comes a lonely little lad, who wheels his baby sister in a perambulator roughly constructed out of a sugar box. They are the only human beings in sight.

Drawing: Thomas Heath Robinson

This waste land is spanned by the soot-dripping arches of the railway, which is the one note of hope in the depressing picture, for occasionally a train dashes shrieking by towards a brighter bourne.

Steam train travelling over the arches. Photo probably taken looking towards the later site of the paddling pool.

Years ago this desolate spot was farm land. It might yet be secured and made into a green play ground for the children, who at present have only the roads and the miniature mountains of rubbish that have gradually risen at the end of side streets closed in by factory walls. If this central desert could be secured and ‘humanised’ and turned into a healthy playground, it would be a grand thing for the Millwall that is – a grander still for the Millwall that is to be.

[Ed: A prescient comment; two decades later, Millwall Recreation Ground – the precursor of Millwall Park – would be constructed on the site.]

Sir Walter Besant complained that in all Millwall there were no book-shops. That is still true, but the taste for reading has penetrated to the island, and in the shopping part of it there are several stationers’ shops where periodical literature may be obtained. It is principally for the younger generation. The windows are filled with ‘Tales of the Wild West’ for the young gentlemen and ‘How to be Beautiful’ for the young ladies, and of fashion journals there is quite a plentiful display. As I have not, in any of my visits to Millwall, observed the fashionable hats and blouses given in the plates exhibited, I can only surmise that they are reserved for the evening visits to Poplar and Greenwich, or for the Sunday trips to regions still farther away ‘on the mainland.’

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3 Responses to Off the Track in London – On the Isle of Dogs in 1905

  1. Richard Debenham says:

    Fabulous piece of History yet again Mick

    The story evokes that time in history just beautifully 👍👍😁😁

  2. Nicholas Sack says:

    Thanks for another evocative post; I much enjoyed Sims’ pungent account. The isolation of the Island is emphasised by the little horse bus from Limehouse terminating at a dock entrance, and by the ladies’ fashionable hats and blouses “reserved for evening visits to Poplar”.

  3. Pingback: The Arches in Millwall Park | Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives

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