Where the Other Half Lived: the Isle of Dogs – Blackheath Connection

I went to school over the water: Roan School in Blackheath. The best way to get to school was to walk past Island Gardens, through the foot tunnel, past Cutty Sark and the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital, through Greenwich Park – with on the left the Maritime Museum and Royal Naval College, and on the right the Royal Observatory – and up the hill to Maze Hill.

My school route. The route is imposed on a map made in about 1950, just before a dry dock for the Cutty Sark was built next to the Foot Tunnel entrance in Greenwich. I first went to the school a couple of decades later. [Click for full-sized version of map]

I never appreciated at the time what a wonderful route it was, surrounded by history and architectural beauty. Mostly, I’d have my head down, in a rush to make sure I got to school before assembly started; it wasn’t uncommon for me to run the whole way, which didn’t seem to be any effort at all at that age. Other times, I might be pre-occupied with arguing with Mark Fairweather about something :). Mark lived in Galleon House and also went to Roan School, so we’d sometimes walk together.

Sights along the school route.

I exited the park at the gate opposite the corner of Maze Hill and Westcombe Park Road, a corner notable as the location of Vanbrugh Castle, a house designed and built in 1719 by architect and dramatist, John Vanbrugh. Vanbrugh is best known as the designer of the baroque houses Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, but the house he built on Maze Hill, intended for his own use, was a gothic-style castle.

Vanbrugh Castle

In the centuries after Vanbrugh’s death in 1727, the castle had various owners. By the time of my twice-daily walks past it, it was a boarding school for children of RAF personnel. I don’t recall ever seeing any of the pupils, but was thankful that I didn’t have to go to a boarding school, especially one that looked so grim. It must have (had) fantastic views of the Isle of Dogs, though; views as wonderful as this one…..

Circa 1900. The Newcastle Arms (later renamed The Waterman’s Arms) is the white building on the left on the other side of the river.

In 1907, Vanbrugh Castle was purchased by wealthy oil merchant, Alexander Duckham for use as his family home. In 1920 he donated it to the RAF Benevolent Fund to be used as a school for the children of RAF personnel killed in service. As large as the building was, it was not designed to be used as a school, and only had one school room at first. This proved impractical and, eventually, lessons were held in the nearby Roan School, until a dedicated school wing was added to the castle in 1938 (just before all the pupils were evacuated due to the outbreak of WWII).

The school moved to Duke of Kent School in Ewhurst, Surrey in 1976. The house was then acquired by a group of four people for £100,000 and converted to four private flats. Yes,  you read that correctly, £100,000, or £25,000 per flat! I saw one of the flats for sale on the Internet recently, with an asking price of £2,500,000.

Judging from the state of the wall and garden, and the guard dog sign. Vanbrugh Castle was not occupied when this photo was taken.

Alexander Duckham was a local boy, born in Blackheath in 1877, to Millwall Dock Head Engineer, Frederic Eliot Duckham and Maud Mary McDougall of the well-known flour-making family. Already not short of a bob or two due to the wealth of his parents, Alexander Duckham, made a fortune in his own right after founding an oil company in circa 1899. Wikipedia:

Upon leaving university in 1899, Alexander Duckham, who had worked briefly for Fleming’s Oil Company, was encouraged by engineer Sir Alfred Yarrow, who lived nearby (Yarrow occupied Woodlands House in Mycenae Road, Westcombe Park for some years from 1896, close to the Duckham family home in Dartmouth Grove, Blackheath) to specialise in the study of lubrication, and was introduced to engineering firms with lubrication problems. Duckham established Alexander Duckham & Co in Millwall in 1899 … Early customers included car dealer and racing driver Selwyn Edge who called weekly at Duckham’s Millwall works for an oil change.

The company’s Millwall works were at Phoenix Wharf, just south of the Millwall Dock Entrance Lock and just north of Fleming’s Oil Company where Duckham had worked.

Millwall Dock Entrance Lock, c1900

This site would later be occupied by Montcalm House and Montrose House, built by the LCC in 1937/8.

Construction work at the former site of Duckham’s works at Phoenix Wharf, with the Millwall Dock Entrance Lock in the background. On the right, a footbridge, intended for use by pedestrians if the swing bridge was open.

North of the dock entrance, and shown on the map above, is Fenner’s Wharf, named for oil merchant and wharfinger, Nathaniel John Fenner. Fenner and civil engineer, Robert Fairlie, were the first to propose the construction of what would later be named the Millwall Docks. Survey of London:

The difficulties which Fenner had encountered in landing goods at his wharf at low water had made him aware of the advantage of enclosed non-tidal docks for wharfingers. Recognizing the potential of the empty land behind his wharf, in 1859 he asked Fairlie to draw up plans for its development. These evidently differed little from those later submitted to Parliament. They proposed a ‘canal’ across the Isle of Dogs, with an entrance basin at each end, and a central arm extending north towards the South Dock of the West India Docks … The intention was not to build on the wharves, but simply to let plots on building leases.

The intention to not build on the wharves, but instead to lease plots, remained the business model for the duration of Millwall Dock’s history, with various flour, timber and other shipping companies occupying sections of the docks at various times. Unfortunately for Fenner and Fairlie, they had little to do with the eventual realisation of the docks; other, more powerful and wealthier interests more or less ambushed their ideas and developed them further for their own benefit.

Fenner did alright for himself, though, his Island business interests continued to expand (paint manufacturing firm, Fenner & Alder was still operating on the Island as late as the 1950s.). Electoral registers of the 1880s reveal that Fenner was not only a business neighbour of Duckham in Millwall, the Fenners lived close-by too, at ‘The Cedars’ in Westcombe Park Road.

In fact, wherever you look in late 19th century electoral registers for the Isle of Dogs, you come across the names of factory or wharf owners whose home addresses are given as somewhere in Blackheath.

If you are wondering what Blackheath residents were doing in an Island electoral register, property owners formerly enjoyed ‘plural voting’, being eligible to vote not only at their place of residence, but also at the locations where they had business property. It was 1948 before this possibility – one that clearly benefited the wealthier – was abolished!

Extract from 1895 electoral register for the Millwall Polling District

The following two maps give an idea of just how many Island business owners lived in Blackheath around the end of the 19th century. The precise locations of the houses are not given (apart from Vanbrugh Castle); the reason for this is that the house name instead of number was sometimes provided, and many streets have since been renumbered. In too many cases it’s hard to figure out the location in today’s money, so I decided to indicate only the street involved.

Residences of Isle of Dogs business owners in Blackheath [click for full-sized version]

Residences of Isle of Dogs business owners in Blackheath [click for full-sized version]

Some of the names of the residents are immediately recognisable; many of the firms they founded were still doing business on the Isle of Dogs late into the 20th century, or were famous enough to be remembered in the names of buildings – names such as Lenanton, McDougall, Burrell and Yarrow….

John Lenanton & Son, Westferry Road from the river in the 1930s

McDougall’s, Millwall Docks in 1934

Burrell’s, Westferry Road in the 1920s

Samuel Cutler & Sons, Westferry Road in the 1930s

Yarrow’s Yard, Folly Wall in 1893

Other names are perhaps less well known:

  • David Tyson, owner of Tyson’s Cooperage at the end of British Street (renamed Harbinger Road), later the site of Mancell’s.
  • George Kelson, who worked at Samuda’s Wharf. It is doubtful that Kelson House is named after him. A kelson or keelson is the member which, particularly in a wooden boat, lies parallel with its keel but above the transverse members such as timbers, in order to provide the keel more stiffness. More likely this name was chosen to reflect the ‘scissor’ design of flats in Kelson House.
  • Charles Chittick, partner in, and later chairman of, Matthew T. Shaw & Co. of Westferry Road.
  • James Livingstone, owner of Livingstone Wharf in Ferry Street (in a section that was named Wharf Road at the time). The modern-day Livingstone Place is a reminder of the name.
  • George Davis, owner of the coconut works in Elizabeth Place off Westferry Road, now the site of Arethusa House.

Coconut Works, Elizabeth Place, Westferry Road, 1885

So…what was the attraction of Blackheath? In the 1800s, it was almost a new town, a bit like Milton Keynes, except with huge houses for rich people.  A beautiful place, actually…..

Woodlands House, Mycenae Road, former home of Sir Alfred Yarrow. The building was for many years a library, and is now a school.

Vanbrugh Park

St. German’s Place

St. John’s Park

I never noticed any of this when I went to the school in the area. I had no sense of the beauty of the place, no sense of the privilege to be able to live there, and no sense of the inequality between those who lived on the Island and those just a mile away over the water. They had no Sinfield’s, no Tremains, no Muddy and no Waterman’s – who’d want to live there anyway in such circumstances?

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10 Responses to Where the Other Half Lived: the Isle of Dogs – Blackheath Connection

  1. Nicholas Sack says:

    Very interesting. It does seem odd that you took Greenwich, Maze Hill and Blackheath so easily in your stride – literally, running to school – at such an impressionable age. I grew up and attended primary school in West Greenwich in the mid-1960s, and my occasional expeditions through the foot tunnel took me to another world: a forbidding and frightening territory of high dock walls and imposing factories. I still live south of the river – and still enjoy a slight frisson when I cross to the Isle of Dogs.

  2. Jan Hill says:

    Mick, thanks for posting this. I was at Roan Girls (1958-63) so after my walk through the tunnel, i waited for the bus outside the Maritime museum. Sometimes I walked instead of getting the bus and spent my bus fare on a cream horn at a bakers near Saint Alphege church. The only fraternisation between the girls school and the boys school was at Founders Day in St Alphege’s. Even then the boys were one side of the aisle, girls the other side. Regarding Vanburgh castle, I was in Vanburgh House at school. (Still got my House badge!). Didn’t know at the time what it meant. Now I have a nice print of Vanburgh castle by Thomas Lindsay (1793_1861). Shows the tower which you show in your pic.

  3. Jan Hill says:

    Apologies for my previous misspelling of Vanbrugh Castle. As I mentioned, although I was in Vanbrugh House at school for five years, we learnt nothing about it. At Roan Girls, the other Houses were Chesterfield, Dartmouth and Queens. All presumably places in Greenwich but I know nothing about them either!

    • I had no idea of the Vanbrugh Castle Roan Girls’ connection, or I had surely mentioned it. I know what you mean about the founder’s day thing at St. Alfege’s – it’s a big church, and there was a big distance between the boys and girls. My main memory was of creeping outside to the graveyard, and being accosted by a teacher, who didn’t tell me off, but asked if I might be able to spare him a fag.

  4. Paul R Evans says:

    Just a little correction. In the picture showing Greenwich park looking down across the river, the wording says maze hill is mostly obscured by the trees on the right. This is not correct. Maze hill is a good 300 or 400 meters to the right of this picture. What you see here is just a tree lined path through the middle of the park leading to the gates on park row

  5. Richard Debenham says:

    Brilliant story Mick and how lucky were you to had had the experience of doing this.

    I can’t understand why you were sent to school in South London when you had the likes of George Greens school relatively closer ?

    Anyway you obviously managed to get a very good education from your schooling

  6. Pingback: Lenanton’s | Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives

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