Yarrow, Stewart, Samuda – some of the greatest names in the history of iron and ship building on the Isle of Dogs – all at some time had their yards off Folly Wall, a narrow path along the river embankment (or ‘wall’) in the east of the Island.
In 1753, Thomas Davers – son of a rear admiral in the Royal Navy (also named Thomas) – built a mock fortress on the river wall. Survey of London:
Thomas Davers, esquire, of the Middle Temple, acquired the copyhold of 1½ acres of the Osier Hope, a parcel of riverside land south of Blackwall, where he built, ‘at vast expense, a little fort . . . known by the name of Daver’s folly’.
It’s not clear why Davers built here; this was an isolated and marshy part of London, and a peculiar choice of location for what was to be his home. It also cost him a small fortune to construct the building, and – this cost having reduced him to poverty – he was forced to sell it not long after its completion. In 1767, Davers, who was generally considered to be not of sound mind, committed suicide, with some reports claiming that he did so by throwing himself into the Thames.
After completion of the folly, Davers had sold it to a Henry Annis, who obtained a license to serve alcohol, and who – after considerable reconstruction and extension – opened a tavern on the premises. It looked nothing like the mock fortress that Davers built; in fact there are no known images of Davers’ original creation.
Although an unsuitable location for a home which looked like a fort, it proved a succesful location for a tavern, perhaps because of its convenient location between Greenwich and Blackwall (Survey of London).
Survey of London:
Additional buildings for the accommodation of ‘Friends and Customers’ were erected in the mid-1760s by William Mole, who also made use of the surrounding foreland as a garden. When the property was auctioned by Mole’s widow around 1788 it contained a variety of rooms ‘for the accommodation of genteel company’, an extensive pleasure- and kitchen-garden, a paved causeway, and a landing-place leading to a terrace of 186ft in front of the river.
During the first half of the 1800s, ship and iron building industries developed in this part of the Island, and in the 1850s new streets were constructed, including two streets named after major local firms: John Stewart’s iron works and Samuda’s shipbuilding yard. A new pub, the Prince of Wales was built on the riverfront in about 1859.
The Folly House Tavern profited from the extra business offered by the new firms in the area, but the success of one these firms led also to the demise of the tavern. Alfred Fernandez Yarrow opened his shipbuilding yard just south of the Folly House in 1866, and:
..took a lease of a barge-builder’s yard between the river and the Folly Wall which had been briefly occupied by Joseph Temple. Known as Hope Yard, this plot had a river frontage of only a little over 90ft and the further drawback that a right of way ran across it to the Folly House. The freehold of both the yard and the adjoining area on which the Folly House stood was purchased in 1875, however, and the residue of the lease of the public house was acquired soon after.
– Survey of London
The former tavern then served as offices for Yarrow’s business, with its front rooms used as drawing offices. The building was demolished in the 1880s.
Yarrow’s firm, which specialised in the manufacture of steam launches (fast torpedo boats in particular, later), was hugely successful and it acquired more and more land north and south of the original yard. After Joseph Samuda died in 1885, Yarrow bought part of his yard and absorbed it into his own, but even the much-expanded yard was not large enough, and in 1898 Yarrow’s moved to London Yard, a little further south.
Further north along Folly Wall, just above the site of the Folly House, was John Stewart’s iron works (aka Blackwall Iron Works). The Folly Wall, still a public right of way, separated the firm’s main shed from the river.
Later, when firms such as Stewarts made more use of their land to the east of Folly Wall, footbridges were built in order for workers to be able to move from one part of the yard to the other.
In the following couple of decades, this inconvenience was eliminated when Folly Wall was largely subsumed by its bordering firms. By 1910, only a short section was still visible on maps, and most of this – the north-south section to the east of the storm pumping station – was no longer accessible to the public:
The Island’s inadequate drainage facilities meant that sewers were prone to flooding during heavy rain, backing up their contents into the cellars of buildings. To deal with this, the Metropolitan Board of Works – who amongst other things were responsible for London’s sewers and drains – built the storm pumping station in 1886.
At the time of the previous photo, the Prince of Wales was reported to be in poor condition. Despite this, it still featured in photos taken as late as the 1930s.
In 1940 the pub was damaged beyond repair by German bombing. At this time, the road leading up from Stewart Street to the pub was also named Folly Wall, although it didn’t follow the original path.
The following photo and map reveal the extent of bombing damage to the area, with many empty areas and the tell-tale ‘footprints’ of prefabs (26-38 Stewart Street, for example). The Prince of Wales is missing its top floor. The area east of Stewart Street was badly damaged during The Blitz, but on 22nd July 1944 a V-1 flying bomb destroyed the few remaining buildings that were still in use.
Until the early 1970s, the land south of the former Prince of Wales was not been built upon. In 1974, new housing was built, Capstan Square, the first large private housing project on the Island. One or two contemporary newspaper reports tell of local hostility towards this development, with numerious incidents of vandalism aimed at the construction site. I’ve no idea if there was any truth in the reports.
By 1975, Rye Arc had closed down and their site demolished. Since then, housing has been built in developments with names such as River Barge Close, Ovex Close and New Union Wharf – all reflecting former local wharves and industry.
In 2019 there is no evidence of the original Folly Wall; only a road with that name which joins part of the original Folly Wall (at the site of the Prince of Wales pub) with Stewart Street.
If you superimpose an old map of Folly Wall on a satellite photo, it does appear that part of the road in Capstan Square almost follows its old path, but that is just a coincidence – the old path is no more.