Millwall House – An Island Secret for 150 Years

The whole block (including the Great Eastern Pub and St. Cuthbert’s Church) between Harbinger School and Westferry Road was destroyed during the Blitz, and an emergency water tank built on the wasteground.

c1950

Later, this land would become part of Harbinger’s playground, and the soot-stained walls across Westferry Road – surrounding Westwood’s main works – would become a part of my daily view when I attended the school in the late 1960s. The walls are better viewed in this photo taken around the same time outside the shops under Arethusa House.

Photo: Susan Coy / Hook Family

What I of course didn’t know then, and only discovered recently, is that the walls concealed a grand old villa, built some time in the late 1830s and – even more incredible – it was still there when I went to primary school a century and a half later!

I first saw it represented on an 1870 map which shows a large house at the end of a curving drive over a sizeable garden with trees or shrubs. Separate from the main house is a smaller building, probably a coach house. Deptford Ferry Road ran up to the river north of the grounds. The Vulcan pub was at the corner of this road and Westferry Road, but is for some reason not marked on this map. Across the road was another pub, the Glengall Arms, surrounded by houses which would be demolished during slum clearances in the 1920s (as was the pub).

1870

The house was built by Scottish marine engineer David Napier (1790–1869), one of many Scots who established shipbuilding works on the Isle of Dogs during the 1800s. In 1837 Napier acquired and redeveloped an existing shipyard on the site for his sons John and Francis. In addition to the workshops and other buildings and constructions that you would expect, he also built a Classical-style villa, which he named Millwall House.

It is not clear (to me at least) if Napier lived in the villa himself, or if it was used by one or both of his sons, but it is obvious that it was intended to be inhabited by a well-to-do somebody. This was unusual for the time; virtually all of the iron and shipbuilding firms on the Island were owned by men who would never have dreamed of living there – it was noisy, damp, disease-ridden and dirty and there was nothing in the way of ‘culture’ or other attractions for a Victorian with money. If you wanted to bump into an Island firm owner in the 1800s, you had more chance if you headed over the water and up the hill to Blackheath.

The Napiers didn’t keep the yard for too long, however. Survey of London:

The works remained in operation until destroyed by fire in 1853; most of the yard was then leased to John Scott Russell as the building site of the Great Eastern, and was later bought by the Millwall Iron Works, Ship Building & Graving Docks Company Ltd. It seems to have been wholly or partly unoccupied for some years after the collapse of that company.

The house was apparently not damaged by the fire, and is shown in photographs in a 1912 biography of Napier.

The book describes the acquisition of the site and construction of the house:

Much additional expense, however, was incurred, and a great amount of difficult work was found necessary to fit the ground for the purpose in view. In the following year building-slips were formed, workshops built, and the requisite machinery erected in place.

The upper part of the ground was reserved for a dwelling-house, garden, and offices, in much the same way as had been done at Lancefield. Fairbairn’s shipyard immediately adjoined Napier’s, and both yards, as afterwards referred to, were used together for the building of the Great Eastern.

The new premises came to be known as the ” Napier Yard,” and the dwelling-house as “Napier House.” It is curious to find that after a lapse of seventy-five years, these names remain in current use, — “Napier Yard” being the present address of Messrs. Joseph Westwood Co., Ltd., and their offices still designated ” Napier House.”

The house is clearly recognisable in aerial photos taken shortly after World War II.

In the 1970s, after more than a century of manufacturing on the Island in one company form or another, Joseph Westwood and Son went into voluntary liquidation.

Millwall House was still standing, and the archives of London Borough of Tower Hamlets have a nice colour photo taken at the time.

Not long afterwards, the LDDC did what they did with virtually all industrial premises on the Island – especially those along the river- they demolished it. Napier’s firm is remembered by the present-day Napier Avenue.

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7 Responses to Millwall House – An Island Secret for 150 Years

  1. Interesting article Mick
    And oh so typical of the great British manufacturing firms that have now sadly disappeared from this once great manufacturing nation.

    I worked in John Lenantons around 1968 and the whole island was a hub of industrial activity ☺️☺️

  2. Janet Hill says:

    Interesting! Do you do your research online, Mick, or do you go to the Council archive etc?

  3. Peter hicks says:

    Another great article Mick, I can remember this building. It amazes me how they got away with knocking down such beautiful buildings, surely they would’ve had some sort of preservation order on them !
    Keep up the great work you do squire, very much appreciated.
    Regards,
    Peter
    .

  4. Peter hicks says:

    You are most welcome Mick !
    Mick I have some really old photo’s of ( it’s either my grandfather or my great grandfather and his brothers sitting in the Watermans way back ! Would you like me to send them to you ?

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