The boundaries of the Isle of Dogs were not terribly well defined in the past. In fact, the ‘Isle of Dogs’ had no official standing as a place name at all until the London Borough of Tower Hamlets defined a variety of administrative areas known as ‘Neighbourhoods’ in the 1970s.
As a consequence, many Islanders have different definitions of where it starts and ends, especially in the east of the Island. My own definition is that the Island’s north eastern boundary was at the Preston’s Road swing bridge (which no longer exists).
However, this definition was possibly just a matter of convenience: what better than a piece of water – the West India Docks Blackwall Entrance – to mark the edge of the Island? Mind you, the same logic says that the Blue Bridge could also have marked the boundary. But, that just didn’t feel right: the other side of the Blue Bridge feels like the Island – it doesn’t feel like Poplar starts there.
Wherever you draw the line, it’s going to be somewhere along Preston’s Road, the subject of this article. And for the sake of this article, I say a little about the history of its whole length.
Until the arrival of the West India Docks, there was no Commercial Road or East India Dock Road. One of the main roads to and from the east was Poplar High Street (here given as Poplar Street), quite literally a road on higher ground, unlike the marshland to the south. Travelling east, just after Robin Hood Lane, there was a lane heading south to the hamlet of Blackwall, a place of thriving shipbuilding and ship repairing firms at the time. The lane ended at The Gun – there was not much of note further south.
Three years after this map was produced, the West India Docks opened, and the lane to Blackwall was split in two. The section south of the entrance lock was renamed Cold Harbour, and the northern section Brunswick Street (later Blackwall Way).
Visible on this map are ‘Lands belonging to the West India Dock Co.’ This land had, until the early 1800s, belonged to Sir Robert Preston (1740-1834) of Woodford, who had made his fortune as a captain in the East India Company.
Sir Robert Preston, or ‘Floating Bob’ as he was known, was born in 1740 and became a merchant and philanthropist. He was quite a character. Well connected socially both in London and Edinburgh, his circle included William Pitt the Younger, Sir Walter Scott and James Boswell. He also knew the famous painters of the day such as Alexander Nasmyth and JMW Turner. He was known for his big appetite with Walter Scott commenting, ‘he is as big as two men and eats like three’. Yet he also donated food to the poor and provided financial help to those in need locally.
The map also shows a road heading north-south over Preston’s former land. Survey of London:
This former road was built for the West India Dock Company in 1808 and was an extension of an old trackway leading south out of Poplar High Street called Clifton Lane. In 1809–10 the dock company widened and improved the road, but a plan to replace it with a new, straighter, one, first mentioned in 1811, remained in abeyance until 1827, when the company decided to construct the reservoirs that later became Poplar Dock, to the north-east of the dock basin, obliging it to find a new route for Preston’s Road further to the east.
The following map shows two bridges over the Blackwall entrance lock (the northernmost). This used to be the main entrance to West India Docks, and it was so busy that the swing bridge was frequently open. To alleviate the problems this caused – and mostly, it was the dock company that suffered from this, due to dockers not being able to get to and from work – the dock company constructed a footbridge a little to the east, so that pedestrians could still cross the lock even if it was occupied by a ship. (A similar footbridge existed at Kingsbridge.). Later, as ships grew larger, and the entrance lock had to be extended to the east, the footbridge could no longer be used and was dismantled.
The map also shows, north of Blackwall entrance lock, Bridge House – a grand old building which is rare by Island standards (well, almost the Island) in that it still exists. It was occupied by the Fire Service during World War II, and became a PLA Police training centre after the War. In the 1980s it was converted into six luxury flats.
At the end of the 19th century, heading north towards the Preston’s Road swing bridge from the site of the later Blue Bridge, the left side of the road was marked by a high fence separating the docks from the road, which was replaced by industry as you got closer to the swing bridge. Along the right side of the road was a variety of industry.
After the swing bridge, still heading north, and past Bridge House, there was a high dock wall on the left, while the industry on the right gave way to housing. This, more or less, was the pattern of Preston’s Road for the next 100 years.
It was around the time of this photo that the LCC (London County Council), built some housing blocks off the north east end of Preston’s Road. Survey of London:
The six blocks were named Ottawa, Baffin, Ontario, Hudson, Quebec and Winnipeg Buildings (often referred to as the ‘Canadian Estate’) and were built by F. & T. Thorne of Manchester Road between 1902 and 1904. In plan they were very similar to the Raleana Road and Cotton Street housing, with a combination of two- and three-room tenements, each with its own w.c., scullery and ventilated lobby, but in this instance access to the buildings was via a staircase entered from the yard on the ground floor, with balconies running along the top four storeys facing the yard.
Just north of the Canadian Estate was the Marshall Keate pub.
In the 1920s, Poplar photographer William Whiffin (at least, I think it was him) took some photos of the street on each side of the swing bridge. Many of the people (nearly all men) are walking, while those with a few more bob are travelling in buses, or even in a car.
In 1929, the West India South Dock entrance lock was extended east, which meant the rerouting of the southern end of Preston’s Road. In this 1930s photo, looking south, the new bend in the road is obscured behind the small lorry on the left. The fence on the right follows the original, straight path of the road – leading to an open dock gate and the sight of a large ship in the lock. One of the buildings on the left of the lorry would later become Leslie’s Café
The following photo, taken in the opposite direction of the previous one in the 1950s, shows the bow of a large ship in the West India Dry (or Graving) Dock.
This redevelopment of the entrance lock meant that the Blackwall entrance began to lose its usefulness. Eventually, the bridge was only opened to allow tug and barge traffic through. The following image is a screenshot from the 1960s documentary about Queenie Watts, ‘Portrait of Queenie’
The Blackwall entrance lock also featured in The Walking Stick, a peculiar 1970 film featuring David Hemmings. In this scene, Preston’s Road and Bridge House are in the background.
In the 1980s, things began to change, for Preston’s Road, for the Island, for the whole of Dockland. The docks had closed, the Canadian Estate demolished, and eventually Preston’s Road was widened and straightened, along with the removal of the swing bridge and the demolition of the Marshall Keate Pub.
Close to the corner with Poplar High Street, as shown in the old photo earlier in this article.
A video concerned with the end of Leslie’s Cafe….
The Marshall Keate in the 1980s…..
I moved from the Island a long time ago, and the changes to Preston’s Road were a bit of a shock when I drove on to the Island from Poplar in the 80s. I couldn’t even recognize where I was, how dare they rip everything up? A disconcerting feeling, not recognizing where you grew up