Everything you wanted to know about Alpha Grove but were afraid to ask

Dedicated to Peter Wright, tireless Island photographer and amateur historian. And, yet again, I am in debt to the (Friends of) Island History Trust (http://www.islandhistory.co.uk), without whom this and other blog articles would be bereft of interesting photographs.

Construction of houses on Alpha Grove (Alpha Road until 1939) started in the middle of the 19th century on a short stretch of road on the path of the medieval Dolphin Lane (described here).


Survey of London:

Alpha Grove before the Second World War was that rare thing in dockland: a tree-lined street of mainly well-built, respectable houses. The longest stretch of road in Millwall in the hands of a single landowner, it possessed a high degree of uniformity. Even so, its development was rather sporadic, in the familiar Isle of Dogs pattern. Most of the houses in the Grove (Alpha Road until 1939) were built in two phases: the mid- to late-1870s, and the early to mid-1880s. At the north end, however, were some much older and less desirable dwellings, while at the south end the last block on the west side was not built up until the 1890s; south of that the street gave way to industrial premises.

2 Alpha Road, early 1900s. Sarah Lowry (nee Cargill) with children Sarah, and Jack. Photo: Island History Collection

16-36 (approx) Alpha Road (left), circa 1911. The side street on the left is Tooke Street.

67-83 (approx) Alpha Road, circa 1910

Off Alpha Road, at the eastern end of Janet Street was an area of land belonging to the Millwall Dock Company, who let it to companies for industrial usage. Known as Broadway Works, the first tenant was the sugar manufacturing company, George Clark & Son. Later, the site would be occupied by Tate & Lyle.

Sugar manufacturer George Clark’s Broadway Works, 1900. Photo: Island History Trust / Tate & Lyle

Island History Trust: “Loading up a horse-dray in the yard of George Clark & Son Ltd.”

The first St. Luke’s Church was a so-called ‘Iron Church’ (a usually temporary structure built from corrugated iron) located on the other side of Westferry Road, where St. Luke’s School would later be constructed. The first permanent church was built on the corner of Strafford Street and Alpha Road between 1868 and 1870.

Architectural drawing of St. Luke’s Church

St. Luke’s Church, early 1900s

St. Luke’s from the river (Lenanton’s on the left). Photo: PLA Archive / Museum of London

In 1887, a Methodist (Wesleyan) Mission was built south of St. Luke’s Church, later known as Alpha Hall.

38-54 (approx) Alpha Road, circa 1920. Methodist Mission centre, left. Photo: Island History Trust

A procession from St. Edmund’s Church in Alpha Road in the 1920s. Methodist Mission on the left. Photo: Mrs S. Stone / Island History Trust

c1909. Photo and text, Island History Trust / Mrs L. Allen: “This is 77 Alpha Road, I think about 1909 with my sister, Eliza Lilley and my mother Mrs Pearson. In front is myself, Sister Mabel (who married Arthur Seatcliiffe), Jack Lilley and my brother George, next to Sabel Lilley. We lived opposite the Wesleyan Chapel and witnessed lots of events from our front room window. I remember the Rev. W. Lax paying a visit. We attended St. Luke’s Church and I faintly remember the Rev. Jesse Hewlett and then Mr Schofield; who left hurriedly when war was declared in 1914. I was the youngest of 10. Ethel & Grace Calver lived in the next terrace to ours.”

Originally, Alpha Grove extended from Cuba Street in the north (on the corner with Cuba Street was an off-license/beer-house known as The Dock House)…..

c1890. I’ve added the original house numbering

…and did not quite reach Glengall Road (later Tiller Road) in the south, its path being obstructed by the (wire) ropeworks.


Outside 67 Alpha Road, c1929. Car belonging to Eliza Lilley. Photo: Island History Trust

36 Alpha Road. Photo: Peter Wright

Millwall in the 1920s. Alpha Road runs diagonally from bottom right to top left-of-centre. Photo: britainfromabove.org.uk

The previous photo shows, to the right of Alpha Hall, an empty area of land that would later be occupied by Millwall Central School (opened in 1928), with its entrance in Janet Street.

c1929, Millwall Central School. Alpha Road on the right

To the right of the school is a triangular area of land – this was a metal scrapyard known to locals as ‘The Ironie’. I am not sure if the name is a reference to iron or irony (or perhaps both, which would be ironic).

At the bottom of the previous photo is an area of houses and firms which would be demolished a few years later to make room for St. Hubert’s House (all this demolition and building in recent decades is nothing new for the Island).

c1933. Construction of St. Hubert’s House. Alpha Grove on the left, Janet Street on the right. Photo: Isle of Dogs Housing Society

Improvements were made to the South West India Dock in the 1930s, including the construction of a wider dock road (the present-day Marsh Wall follows much of its path). This necessitated the appropriation of the eastern end of Cuba Street, and the demolition of houses there, including The Dock House. Manilla Street became the northern limit of Alpha Road.

Before and after the appropriation of the eastern end of Cuba Street, 1938.

The Dock House. Alpha Road left and Cuba Street right. Demolished during dock expansion. Photo: Island History Trust

4 Alpha Road, two houses left of the Dock House. Demolished during dock expansion. Mrs. Hillier (nee Brown) and daughter Betty. 1933. Photo: Island History Trust.

It was shortly after this that one of the best-known photos of Alpha Road was taken – showing kids playing cricket in the street at the northern end of Alpha Road, close to its corner with Manilla Street. In the background, behind the dock fence, the West India Docks.

Embed from Getty Images


The photo was probably taken in 1938 because any later and the kids would have been evacuated, but perhaps more telling (there was an evacuation immediately at the start of the war, but kids started to come back during the so-called ‘phoney war’ – it was only during the Blitz that most children left the Island), there are no barrage balloons or any other signs of defensive measures in the docks.  As almost the entire terrace on the right was destroyed during the Blitz, with only one house left standing, the photo was certainly taken no later than 1941.

c1950. North end of Alpha Road with its one remaining house. North Pole pub in foreground.

In his moving wartime diaries (highly recommended, with profits going to the Friends of Island History Trust – available here), Bill Regan describes the events in and around Alpha Road:

Christmas 1940
We sat and talked among ourselves, until Sid Masefield came over from Major Brown’s office, which is now set up in the metalwork-cum-woodwork centre. “Would we like to go back to Alpha Rd, to check an Anderson shelter?” Would we like? We went off in pairs. Eddie Sullivan came with me. We roamed through the back gardens between Cheval St and Alpha Rd, from Janet St on­wards. It is still lively, but not concentrated on our little area; we found a few Andersons still occupied, and all the residents uninjured, and seemingly happy. Of course, all the garden walls were now low enough for us to walk over. We get to Malabar St, and the end house, has a higher wall than the others, and there is a chunk of it left, with a door still standing. Eddie says, “Oy, don’t tread on the flowers, use the gate.” Before he can open the door, we hear a high pitched whis­tling, rushing noise, and we know it’s close. There’s an explosion and one hell of a draught, as if someone has left all the doors open. We are both still standing, and Eddie has the door handle in his fist, but the door has gone away. “It blew out of me hand.” He sounded of­fended.
– Bill Regan

AFS dispatch rider Alexander George Jacobs, who was stationed at Millwall Central School. Damage to houses is visible in the background of this photo, as well as dock cranes in the far distance. Photo almost certainly is looking north on Alpha Grove. Photo: Steve Jacobs

Alf had stopped the lorry at Maria St, the men got in the back. I got in the cab with Alf, and as he let in the clutch, there was an almighty explosion from behind, and a rain of bricks, tiles, and any­thing else that had been elevated, was now coming back to earth. Everyone in back of us got out smartly, but definitely, not with ele­gance, and tried to scramble under the lorry for protection. The rain only lasted for half a minute, or less, and except for Eddie Sullivan and Bert Forbes, who both had slightly dented hel­mets no harm had been done, so they mounted up again. Alf looked across at me, and raised his left hand and pulled an imaginary fore­lock, and said, “Where to, sir?” And of course, I did the proper thing and said, “Home James, and don’t spare the horses,” and at that, there was another explosion right in front of us, at the junction with Janet St. It was as bad as I expected, we felt no blast, but a big column of earth and clay, back on us, doing no harm at all.
– Bill Regan

The raid in the night of 19th/20th March 1941 was the largest on London since the raids after Christmas 1940 described by Bill Regan. Many residents of north Millwall sought safety in the shelter at Bullivant’s Wharf, located at 38 Westferry Road, close to Havannah Street (next to the zebra crossing where Topmast Point is now). William Bullivant opened his wire-rope company there in 1883. In 1926, Bullivant’s firm was taken over by British Ropes Ltd who in 1934 built a new building on the riverfront with reinforced-concrete floors designed to be take the weight of heavy machinery. It was appropriately named the ‘Stronghold Works’. The later shelter in the works had room for 400 people seated and 200 in bunks.

Unfortunately, it was the strength and weight of the floors which would prove fatal to many of the people in the shelter that night. A direct hit on one corner of the building in the night of March 19th/20th 1941 caused the roof and floors to collapse on to the people below. There were approximately 120 people in the shelter, and at least 40 were killed, and a further 60 injured. This was to be the worst bombing incident on the Isle of Dogs during WWII. A number of Alpha Grove residents were among the victims:

  • Barbara Edna Brown, aged 14, of 27 Alpha Grove
  • May Annie Morgan, aged 19, of 101 Alpha Grove
  • Annie Florence Sturgess, aged 56, of 129 Alpha Grove
  • Doris Wood, aged 19, of 23 Alpha Grove
  • Minnie Ethel Wood, aged 48, of 23 Alpha Grove
  • Alfred Thomas Wright, aged 56, of 5 Alpha Grove
  • Mary Sarah Wright, aged 24, of 12 Alpha Grove

Fred Harrison, my squad leader, was on depot duty answering calls and had sent the rest of my squad to Bullivant’s to assist Ringshaw’s squad. I went outside again, and met Warden Ernie Lowther limping along from Alpha Road. He looked as if he had been close to a bomb. He had an injured leg, and had been searching for survivors in Alpha Rd when one landed close and knocked him over.
– Bill Regan

The raids in the night of 10th/11th May 1941 are generally accepted to mark the end of the Blitz in London. However, they were also some of the most devastating that the capital had seen. Arthur Sharpe’s diary describes the great raid:

“The raid started about 11.30pm. I was on fire watch at the time; fires were raging all along Westferry Road and in the back streets. Suddenly one of the fellows in our squad said, Look, a land mine! It was in fact drifting our way, we rushed in, shut the door and waited. Three minutes went by, we were just going to get up when under the door a red flash was seen and then a terrific suction of air that seemed to pull your ears off, followed by a high explosion…

It was not until 2am that the raid grew into one of the worst raids of the war for Millwall. Bombs, gunfire and the drone of planes was all that could be heard. We stood at the door shivering with excitement and awe at the sight, we saw a huge orange column of smoke, dust, bricks, glass and pieces of burning sparks going hundreds of feet into the air.

Land mines landed in Alpha Road and Glengall Road…We thought our last moment had come…Morton and Bullivant’s, Watsons, and the side streets were well alight when through the roof came what we had hoped – and hoped would not come. Incendiary bombs, the works was alight from end to end. We did not know where to start. I picked up a stirrup pump and nozzle and the gutter, water shot out and I played on the incendiary bomb which spat and sent burning pieces in all directions. I was then joined by another of the crew and put out one on the drawing office roof but had no success with the Incendex fluid and so threw a sandbag on to it. It broke the windows but the incendiary bomb was out.

On the Island, many lost their lives in the course of the night, including Florence Johnson, aged 64, of 61 Masterman Road, East Ham, injured at 28 Alpha Grove and died 27th May in St. Andrews Hospital.

St Luke’s was seriously damaged during the Second World War. The damage is not visible in this 1950 photograph (contrast that to the damage to the dock buildings in the background), but structural damage had made the church unsafe to use, and so a ‘temporary’ church was built in its grounds, demolished only a few years ago.

St. Luke’s from the air, c1950

Possibly there were plans to repair the church, but this proved too costly in post-war Britain. The church was demolished in 1960.

Demolition of St. Luke’s Church in 1960. Photo: John Salmon

Demolition of St. Luke’s Church in 1960. Photo: John Salmon

Demolition of St. Luke’s Church in 1960. Photo: John Salmon

Most seriously damaged during World War II was the southern end of Alpha Grove, which was almost completely destroyed. The most serious bombing during the first night of the Blitz (7th September 1940) was described thus by the London Fire Brigade:

Explosive Bombs, on or close to Maria Street
– 24 Maria Street, 8 Houses, 6 rooms each, severely damaged
– 52 Malabar Street, Remaining houses are also damaged.

These bombs caused great destruction in the area loosely marked by Maria Street, Alpha Grove, Janet Street and Cheval Street, most of which was taken up by Millwall Central School and a smaller, special school with the name Janet Street (Mentally Defective) Council School.

Emergency housing in the form of Nissen huts was provided, and – more durable, but still intended as temporary homes – Orlit houses were built at the end of the street (which now extended to Glengall Grove aka Tiller Road). Millwall Central School, not more than 15 years after its opening, was gone. St. Hubert’s House seemed to have had a charmed life – almost everything around it destroyed, and yet it was remarkably unscathed.

1947. Photo: britainfromabove.org.uk

After the war, the LCC embarked on a ‘permanent housing programme’ which meant the sweeping away of whole neighbourhoods. Even if the war damage was not too bad, the strategy was one of modernisation and renewal, not of repair.  The aim was to redevelop districts and not just houses. Consequently, from the 1950s and well into the 1970s, large housing estates were built throughout the Isle of Dogs, and one of the largest was the Barkantine Estate, which would take in the whole of Alpha Grove.

Extent of planned Barkantine Estate (grey-shaded) on bomb damage map of Millwall. Blue-shaded areas show premises which where destroyed/damaged-beyond-repair.

The days of the last-remaining old houses in Alpha Grove were numbered.

St. Luke’s Churchyard looking south along Alpha Grove. Photo: Roy Roberts

The north end of Alpha Grove,c1964, with Queenie Watts

36 Alpha Grove, 1956. Photo: Peter Wright

55 Alpha Grove. Photo: Peter Wright.

North end of Alpha Grove, 1962, screenshot from the documentary film, ‘Postscript to Empire’.

The few remaining old houses were thus demolished, and new flats built. The first were built in the 1950s, at the southern end of Alpha Grove:

1951. Photo: Island History Collection / Joe Wright (in photo)

85-109 Alpha Grove [c1958]

Island History Trust: “‘Henry ‘Harry’ Marshall, who lived in Alpha Grove, arriving home after a day’s work repairing ships. Picture taken circa 1950. Harry’s wife was Beatrice nee Andrews, they had three children. One son, called William. Two daughters, Doreen and Jean. Doreen married Brian Wells, whose father Jim ran the fish shop in West Ferry Road at the top of Tooke Street. Jean married Bob Strudwick, who lived in Tooke St before marrying’. It was Bob who contributed the photo.”

Filming of The Sandwich Man in 1966. Val Foster & Michael Bentine. Photo: Verlander/Lloyd Family

The Sandwich Man, 1966, with a young Con Maloney messing around, up to something (left),

Stan Salmon outside his shop (side entrance). Photo: Sandra Brentnall

The rest of the Barkantine Estate planned for construction at the end of the 1960s showed just the slightest nod to the street patterns that had existed in the decades before:

Architectural model of the Barkantine Estate, with Alpha Grove going diagonally centre-left to bottom-centre (-ish). Photo: London Metropolitan Archives (City of London)

Development of the estate meant that Alpha Grove became even shorter, terminating at Strafford Street.

Screen Shot 11-10-18 at 09.49 PM

In the 1980s, the southern end of Alpha Grove featured in the TV series, Prospects…..





On 9th February 1996, the IRA detonated a huge truck bomb beside South Quay DLR station. In addition to the loss of life and destruction directly next to the bomb, flats along the north east side of Alpha Grove were also seriously damaged.

The flats were eventually demolished, and lower density homes built in their place.

Photo: Peter Wright

In 1997, Tate & Lyle were still going strong…

Tate & Lyle, looking over Alpha Grove from Malabar Street. Photo: Peter Wright

Tate & Lyle. Photo: Peter Wright

Well, the firm was still going strong, but for the Millwall works it was a different story. Not long after 1997 the works closed and were demolished.

Demolition of Tate & Lyle

The so-called ‘temporary’ St. Luke’s Church was eventually demolished in 2014.

Demolition of St. Luke’s Church, 2014. Photo: Peter Wright

Demolition of St. Luke’s Church, 2014. Photo: Peter Wright

The good news is – a new St. Luke’s Church has just been opened on the spot. It is unusual – and comforting – for a new building to be built on the Island which has cultural and social connections with the past. We’re still in touch, just, with those who walked over Alpha Grove before us.


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5 Responses to Everything you wanted to know about Alpha Grove but were afraid to ask

  1. pydar61@aol.co.uk says:

    Another great peace Mick & Peter

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. sue willis says:

    Hi as the children of an Islander my brother & I are regular readers of Isle of Dogs Lives & we were especially pleased to see this article on Alpha Grove. Does anyone remember the Bircham family firstly of Mellish Street & then no 67 Alpha Grove? They were George & Ruth, our grandparents & their two daughters, Ruth (our mum) born in 1918 & her sister Regina Maud (Jean) born in 1922. Nan & grandpop managed a general store, Carters, on the Westferry Road which was popular with the workers from Mortons in their lunch breaks. Mum & our dad, Ernest William Willis also known as Bill & who was from Lewisham, were married at St Lukes on 31 August 1940. Our family remained on the Island throughout the Blitz & then moved to Biggin Hill in I think 1941. We have always been interested in the history of the Island & the east end that our parents would have known & would like to hear from anyone who would like to share.

  3. Ian says:

    Hi, thanks for this informative post. Regarding the photo of the kids playing cricket in the street, I was wondering if you had any further details about when that terrace was destroyed?

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