The 1970s were difficult years for the Isle of Dogs; a decade that saw the winding down and eventual closure of the docks and many manufacturing firms, coupled with rising unemployment, poverty and – on a national and international level – political unrest.
Me? I loved the 1970s. It was the decade of my youth and I was, in the early years at least, oblivious to the problems of the grown-up world around me. In 1970, our family had just moved into a brand new flat (with a bath!) opposite Christ Church, I was about to leave Harbinger primary school and go to a ‘big school’, popular fashion had thrown off the straightness of 60s fashion and was more than a little bit nuts, and then we had the music – kicking off the decade with T-Rex, Sweet and Bowie.
We also had the Osmonds, Showaddywaddy, Gilbert O’Sullivan and the Wombles, but I’m not talking about them. As you can probably tell, I’m being very selective here. To provide some balance, each year section in this article concludes with the song that was number one in the charts in June of that year, no matter how bad (and I am quietly hoping it doesn’t turn out to be Gary Glitter or Rolf Harris).
The Isle of Dogs made national and international news in 1970, thanks to its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). In protest at the lack of facilities on the Island, a group of residents got together and declared the Island to be independent of the UK, an action which included blocking the Blue Bridge and blocking Westferry Road near the Blacksmith’s Arms in the west of the Island. One of my first blog articles was all about the UDI, and you can find it here.
In the same year, the Central Granary in Millwall Docks was demolished. Opened in the early 1900s, it was the principal granary in the Port of London and a vital part of London’s grain trade. However, it became redundant after the Tilbury Grain Terminal opened in 1969. On a more positive note for Millwall Docks, Fred Olsen moved their fruit import and cruise liner operations into newly-built sheds on the east side of the Millwall Inner Dock.
The Barkantine Estate was largely complete by 1970, but there were still a few remnants of the original houses, particularly along Westferry Road.
In 1969, construction had started on a new club house for the Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing club (the construction of which led also to a road connection between Ferry Street and Saunder’s Ness Road – from 1903 to 1970 the streets were connected by a subway under the railway viaduct).
After the club opened in September 1970, there was also a short-lived market in the recently-vacated Calder’s Wharf.
No. 1 in June 1970……
Hawkins & Tipson closed its Globe Rope Works, which were demolished a couple of years later.
Well… the ‘unofficial’ demolition started right away. I have a memory of there being a major fire in the works when it was empty, with huge clouds of smoke drifting across the Mudchute (I always called it the Muddy). And this is what the rope-shed look like after a while.
Pfizer also closed their Island works in 1971.
It was all change as far as a couple of schools were concerned…
- Glengall School – the Island’s only secondary school was closed.
- Its premises were taken over by Cubitt Town School, which moved from Saunder’s Ness Road.
- The school buildings in Saunder’s Ness Road were occupied by St. Luke’s School, which moved from Westferry Road.
- The old St. Luke’s school building in Westferry Road was demolished, its land taken over by an expanding Lenanton’s, who named it St. Luke’s Wharf.
Did you get all that?
The conversion of Glengall School to a primary school was actually one of the subjects of the UDI protest the year before. One of the successes of that protest was to get the council, the ILEA and the LCC to get a move on with some long-standing demands.
No. 1 in June 1971…
The Millwall Dock Company (later part of the PLA) hung on to the land covered by the Mudchute due to plans to one day extend the docks eastwards, connecting them to the Thames by an entrance lock in the east. The idea was even resurrected by the PLA after WWII, but by 1972 it was clear that the lion’s share of Port of London traffic would be moving downriver, and so the PLA opened negotiations for the sale of the Mudchute.
The Association of Island Communities campaigned for the land to be a public open space and – amazingly – their proposal was accepted. I say ‘amazingly’ because its hard to imagine anything like that succeeding on the 2019 Isle of Dogs. Part of the Mudchute, however, was earmarked for housing, while the northwest part would later be occupied by ASDA.
Oddly, even as late as 1970, much of the land on the north/west side of Saunder’s Ness Road had never been built upon. On the creation of the Island Gardens in 1895, it was hoped that better off residents would be inspired to build homes along the street – and a row of houses named ‘College View’ was indeed built opposite the foot tunnel – but the smelly and smoky Isle of Dogs was not attractive and the area remained undeveloped. This c1950 map shows the area concerned:
The land to the east of Christ Church belonged to the church, and I recall it being mostly a large garden with a number of apple trees in about 1970. In 1971 the church sold this piece of land for private housing, and in 1972 what we called ‘The Posh Houses’ were completed. I’d never heard of anybody owning a house before then, I thought everyone rented. They were put up for sale the year before….
Who on earth could afford to pay £20,000 for a home? And if they could, what possessed them to buy one on the Isle of Dogs? (They’re valued at up to £700,000 at the moment, by the way.)
The previous photo was taken from just outside the Waterman’s Arms. Between the pub and the river were the buildings and warehouses formerly belonging to the Cumberland Oil Mills, one of the first factories in Cubitt Town (opened in 1857). In 1972, when it was occupied by the Apex Rubber Company, the main warehouse was destroyed in a fire and had to be demolished.
Much happened as a consequence of the 1970 UDI protests; suddenly, organisations such as the GLC, ILEA and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets were paying a lot of attention to the Isle of Dogs. They denied that the protests had anything to do with this – they claimed to be carrying out long-standing plans – yet there were no known plans before 1970 to build a secondary school on the Island (this was also one of the protesters’ main complaints, that Island kids aged 11 or over would all have to travel off the Island in order to go to school).
Then, in 1972, the ILEA announced plans to build a new secondary school on the Isle of Dogs, to replace the George Green’s School in Poplar. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets co-funded the development in order that the school also could serve as a community centre and adult education institute.
In Pier Street, the Isle of Dogs Housing Society commenced construction of the pensioner’s home and centre, St John’s House.
No. 1 in June 1972. Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’ was No. 1 later in the month, but this one was 10 times better….
The PLA announced it would gradually transfer operations from the India and Millwall Docks to the Royal Docks.
To make space for the construction of the new George Green’s School, demolition started in Manchester Road and side streets.
Three streets were lost due to the construction: Barque Street, Schooner Street and Brig Street. All the old shops along this section of Manchester Road disappeared, as well as a pub, the Princess of Wales (known as ‘Macs’).
The former Westwood’s site opposite Harbinger School was also demolished that year, and the area cleared.
It wasn’t all about demolition, though. New flats were built in the area between Byng Street and Strafford Street, on the site enclosed by the corrugated iron fence on the left in the following photo.
No.1 in June 1973. Again there was a choice here – could also have used ‘Can the Can’ by Suzi Quatro or ‘Rubber Bullets’ by 10cc.
Another instance of ‘unofficial demolition’; the very dangerous asbestos-covered roof of the cow shed over the Mudchute.
It was beginning to get very quiet in the West India Docks.
With the land cleared, construction had started and George Green’s School was beginning to take shape.
Express Wharf, south of Lenanton’s, was redeveloped as the ‘London Steel Terminal’. Construction started on two sheds which where designed to provide fast unloading from shops and loading on to lorries.
Houses in the new development, Capstan Square, were opened. According to the Survey of London:
Capstan Square was the first large private housing project. It was reported in The Times in 1974 that hostility from long-time local residents had led to windows in the square being smashed.
I don’t believe that – it was probably just kids.
No building, no demolition, just a lorry driver showing how not to cross the Preston’s Road swing bridge. (If you were crossing the bridge in a car, it became second nature to slow down before departing the bridge, in case there was a lorry or bus swerving out in order to take the bend properly.)
Dr. Morris Blasker, well known and much respected by many Islanders, whether a patient or not, died at the end of the year. You can find an article about him here.
No. 1 in 1974. I disliked this lot with a passion. It’s either them, “The Streak” by Ray Stevens, or “Always Yours” by Gary Glitter. Not a good month for music…..
Millwall Docks were also becoming quieter. Fred Olsen’s operations dominated the inner dock, while most of the business in the outer dock involved the unloading of timber ships at Montague Meyer’s.
The last remains of Rye Arc, demolished the year before, were cleared away and the area was made ready for building work (River Barge, Ovex, and New Union Closes, built between 1976 and 1982).
The previous photo, by the way, was taken from an article in the Evening Standard titled ‘Bright Vision for a Blurred Dockland’. It was at around this time, with the writing on the wall for the docks and much of the industry along the Thames, that plans were being drawn up for the redevelopment of the area, the first serious effort being the GLC’s ‘London Docklands Strategic Plan’ (published in 1976). One of its ideas was to run a major road across the Island:
The plan was given serious consideration for some time, the precursor of many ideas and much discussion which led to the creation of the London Docklands Development Corporation a few years later.
No. 1 in June 1975. Oh my good gawd…..
In 1973, the PLA had announced its intention to move its West India and Millwall Docks business to the Royals. In 1976 it set a deadline for the move.
The swing bridge at Kingsbridge – which hadn’t actually crossed water for many years – was finally removed.
The Glass Bridge, which had been subject to increasing vandalism since the year before, was closed due to the severity of the damage to the glass and the lifts.
Dr Michael and Mrs Jennifer Barraclough started construction of four distinctive houses by the river next to the rowing club. According to the Survey of London, ‘some materials from the previous buildings were incorporated in the houses’. I knew that already, I had an odd job working on the construction, and one of the things I most remember is pulling the many thousands of nails out of wooden beams that were once part of the factory on the site.
All three blocks of Dunbar House were demolished….
Although George Green’s community centre had not yet been offically opened, I joined its youth club in January. I was the third person to join (it cost me 35p) and I also signed up for badminton, table tennis, 5-a-side football and photography. How do I know all of this rubbish? I not only noted all sorts of trivia in my diaries of the time, I’ve kept the diaries and published them in a blog (I’m weird like that). Below is the page in question. Click here to see the blog.
Later in the year, a gas explosion destroyed No. 13 Parsonage Street and badly damaged the house next door. Fortunately the residents were not at home at the time.
My family, however, were all at home – in the flats opposite. The massive and painfully-loud explosion not only shook our flats, it blew the front door open (it was closed at the time and neither the door or lock were damaged – it’s as if the door frame buckled to accommodate the opening), and sharp pieces of wood from the explosion had embedded themselves in the wooden facades under our bedroom windows.
My mum, who was in the bathroom at the time – probably depositing yet another half-can of hairspray over her hair – heard the bang but was too scared to come downstairs to see what it was about. The first thing to cross her hairspray-befuddled mind was that the telly had exploded and that her family were lying dead in the front room.
I ran out on to the balcony before all the dust and smoke had settled. When it all cleared, I could shout to everyone inside, “Hey, No. 13 is gone!”.
No. 1 in June 1976.
1977 is most memorable as the year of the Silver Jubilee celebrations.
For a really great film covering the different street party events, see the late Ray Subohon’s film which he earlier kindly allowed me to post online, Part 1 of which is here….
In 1977, Fire Brigade workers went on strike, which means the army had to serve as backup.
My photography lessons at George Green’s seemed to be paying off. I’m still more than a little proud of the photos I took at the time (I was only 16, after all)…
1977 was also the year that I discovered a new kind of music and clothes, which suited me right down to the ground.
No. 1 in June 1977…
The Cubitt Town Primitive Methodist Chapel in Manchester Road was demolished.
John Tucker House in Mellish Street was opened.
Building work started on the Empire, Alpha, and Grosvenor Wharf housing wharf schemes in Saunder’s Ness Road.
No. 1 in June 1978…
Financial difficulties, disappointing trade and labour problems caused Olsen to move to Southampton.
I turned 18 in 1979, and celebrated it in the Waterman’s Arms. At some stage during the evening, after a lager or two, I borrowed the crutches from an injured friend and tried to perform a balancing trick. I slipped and knocked over a table full of beers. My dad was sitting at the table – he wasn’t angry, he just said, “It’s time I took you home, you silly sod.” How I would love to hear him say that to me again.
The last song was actually No. 1 in January, not June. Can’t listen to Ian Dury’s authentic accent and language without thinking about ‘My Old Man’, who died a year later.
If you enjoyed this article, you might want to carry on reading at The Isle of Dogs in 1980.