The Isle of Dogs in Maps

Regular readers of this blog will know that maps are frequently used to demonstrate how the Island has changed over the years, and in particular the wonderful Ordnance Survey maps which are available online on the National Library of Scotland’s website.

The origins of the Ordnance Survey lie in the aftermath of the 1746 Battle of Culloden, when, although forces loyal to the government had won the battle, Prince William, Duke of Cumberland realised that the British Army did not have a good map of the Scottish Highlands to locate Jacobite dissenters and to help subjugate the clans. William Roy, one of those involved in producing the map of the Highlands, later went on to become a general in the Royal Engineers, and in 1790, under Roy’s supervision, the Board of Ordnance (a predecessor of part of the modern Ministry of Defence) began a national military survey starting with the south coast of England. The first map, at a scale of one-inch-to-the-mile, was published in 1801, and it set a standard of quality and accuracy that the O.S. maintains to this day.

Other maps, especially earlier ones, could not make this claim. In 1801 the Island was largely empty (apart from the huge construction in the north known as the West India Docks, which would open the following year), but houses, streets and factories were rapidly spreading down the west side. Maps published in the following decades often did not accurately represent this development; over the years, streets and other features would appear and disappear and names would change.

Other maps showed streets which were planned to be built, but never were, while others proposed new schemes for docks or roads in the hope of winning support for one proposal or another. Accurate or not, they all contribute to our understanding of the Island’s history and its development.

In 1800 Thomas Milne published his “Land Use Map of London and England”, six sheets forming a map covering 20 miles around London, with colour-coding to indicate land usage. In the case of the Isle of Dogs, as can be seen, the land usage is almost entirely agricultural.

Extract from “Land Use Map of London and England”, Thomas Milne, 1800

Milne also worked on the first ever O.S. map (of Kent), and used the same trigonometric surveying method for his own maps, so one would expect them to be very accurate. It is surprising, then, that he shows a very wide canal going across the Island. At the time of his survey, there were proposals to create a canal and docks, but they were just ideas at that stage (and the eventual canal, The City Canal, was not of the scale imagined by Milne). In 1810, the newly-opened City Canal and West India Docks looked as follows:


The City Canal was not a success, and it was eventually acquired by the West India Dock Company, who made it a part of their dock infrastructure. By 1836, a large Timber Dock had been constructed south of the former canal.


At that time, there was no connection between the main docks and the South Dock and Timber Dock. Later, the South Dock and Timber Dock were merged, and connected with the main docks via a cutting to Blackwall Basin.


Within a decade, the South Dock had been enlarged, and the West India Docks had attained the form they more or less kept for the next century.


By 1885, Millwall Docks had also opened. Originally, the intention was for the Outer Dock (the southernmost of the two docks) to extend right across the Island, to be also connected to the Thames by an entrance in the east.

The Millwall Dock Company never had enough trade to justify constructing the full-sized version, but when they purchased land on the Island to build their docks in the 1860s, they bought all the land they would need should the expansion ever take place. The dock system imagined in the previous map was not constructed, but land boundaries were very much the same a century later, as shown in this 1960s map of the PLA’s land:

PLA-Owned Land in the 1960s

In the 1880s, another map proposed a wide canal from Limehouse to Blackwall, and two forts on the Island, part of a proposal:

  1. To alter the course of the River in the manner indicated in the Plan.
  2. To convert the bend of the River round the “Isle of Dogs” into an immense “Wet Dock.”
  3. [To request] The Government to acquire possession of the “Isle of Dogs” and to erect thereon Forts and an Arsenal … an “Impregnable Fortress”, and in time of War to be surrounded by a Fleet of Gun Boats and Torpedo Boats for the immediate defence of the River.

Which would have the advantages:

  1. A saving of three miles of difficult navigation in the approach to London.
  2. An increase in the scour of the River, just where needed, carrying the sewage from Barking at least two miles further out to sea….
  3. Providing London with the finest Dock in the world, convenient to the City, with ample space for a large fleet in a time of War.
  4. The establishment of a “Place d’armes”near the centre of London and in the heart of that quarter of the Metropolis to which the “dangerous classes” from all parts of “Europe” … are and have been for many years congregating.
  5. Work for the unemployed.

The plan never had a chance of succeeding – it is hard to imagine that those behind it seriously thought that it did – for it would have meant disrupting the businesses of the West India and Millwall Dock Companies, two powerful companies who would not be moved that easily, not to mention the vested interests along the river which would find themselves cut off from its main flow.

At the same time as proposals  talked of “congregating dangerous classes”, philanthropist and social reformer, Charles Booth, was investigating poverty in London. His work, published in 1889, and titled Life and Labour of the People – along with the work of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree – influenced government intervention against poverty in the early 20th century and led to the founding of – among other things – old age pensions, and free school meals for the poorest children.

Distinctive among the book’s contents are the so-called  Maps Descriptive of London Poverty, which van be viewed online on a London School of Economic’s website. These maps were colour-coded to indicate the income and social status of inhabitants, detailed to street level. Booth defined seven social classes:

According to Booth, compared to other areas of East London, the Isle of Dogs was not that bad (see “The General Tone of the Isle of Dogs is Purple” for more information):

Booth Poverty Map of the Isle of Dogs

And, zoomed in on one area, North Millwall:

Another set of maps from around the same time, which can be found online (on the website of the British Library) is the 1900 Goad series of fire insurance maps, produced to aid insurance companies in assessing fire risks. The maps are incredibly detailed and describe construction materials and fire hazards, as well as the names of the owners of many of the businesses shown.

Goad Insurance Map of North Millwall (click for full version)

Goad Insurance Map of North Millwall (detail)

The following is a 1900 map incorrectly showing Church Street (which had been renamed to Newcastle Street decades earlier, and later would be named Glengarnock Avenue) extending across the later Millwall Park to East Ferry Road. Douglas Place (a short road now under Island Gardens DLR Station) is mistakenly named Railway Road in this map and is much longer than it really was, meeting Church Street in the north. The longer Pier Street really did once go as far as the river.

1900 Streetmap

After WWII, London County Council mapped all the bomb damage to buildings in London, using colour-coding to represent the extent of the damage, giving the maps a resemblance to Booth’s poverty maps.

The LCC Bomb Damage Maps have recently been published in book form (available on Amazon). A great book if you like that kind of thing. The impact of WWII bombing is still felt to this day; all major construction work on the heavily-bombed Isle of Dogs must be preceded by an unexploded ordnance risk assessment. The results of these assessments are frequently to be found online, as a part of building applications to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which are publicly viewable documents, and often contain a detailed analysis of the extent to which an area was bombed – fascinating for history buffs.

One of the maps featured in the unexploded ordnance risk assessment before construction of the Canary Wharf College building in Saunders Ness Road

One of the maps featured in the unexploded ordnance risk assessment before construction at 22 Marsh Wall (aka The Landmark)

In the 1960s and 1970s, serious consideration was given to a major road across the Island, the Docklands Southern Relief Road (more about this in the IanVisits blog).

A few decades after the end of World War II and the docks were closed. The London Docklands Development Corporation were gifted with all the dockland area, and provided with special dispensation for compulsory purchase of land along the riverfront. They promptly demolished virtually everything. The following map shows the developments from 1981 to 1992.   It’s difficult for Islanders to keep up with the recent changes, especially the construction in and around Canary Wharf. But, judging from the maps, this is nothing new – the Island has been changing frequently and significantly since it was first seriously populated just over two centuries ago.

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4 Responses to The Isle of Dogs in Maps

  1. Harold Batten says:

    Thanks Mick, another very interesting post. Great work.

  2. Richard Debenham says:

    Very interesting Mick
    Can you imagine the affect that canal would have had on that area of the East End
    It might have made sense but I’m glad the docks scheme won the day.


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