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.
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.
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.
In 1887, a Methodist (Wesleyan) Mission was built south of St. Luke’s Church, later known as Alpha Hall.
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)…..
…and did not quite reach Glengall Road (later Tiller Road) in the south, its path being obstructed by the (wire) ropeworks.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The photo was probably taken in 1939 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.
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:
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
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.
Possibly there were plans to repair the church, but this proved too costly in post-war Britain. The church was demolished in 1960.
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.
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.
The days of the last-remaining old houses in Alpha Grove were numbered.
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:
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:
Development of the estate meant that Alpha Grove became even shorter, terminating at Strafford Street.
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.
In 1997, Tate & Lyle were still going strong…
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.
The so-called ‘temporary’ St. Luke’s Church was eventually demolished in 2014.
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.