Cumberland Oil Mills

One of the oldest photos of the Isle of Dogs (actually, the background of a photo of Greenwich) was taken in about 1860, before much of the housing in Cubitt Town had been constructed. Christ Church and Watermans Arms had been built, and there were a few firms along the river, including Cumberland Oil Mills.

Click for full-sized version

The firm was established in 1857 for the production of linseed oil and oil cake. Linseed oil was produced by cold pressing the seeds, and had (and still has) a number of applications, including as a paint binder, wood finisher and food supplement. The remaining solid substance was known as press cake or oil cake, which was commonly used in animal feed.

Cumberland Oil Mills highlighted. Click for full version.

The works consisted of a number of buildings, the largest of which (built by Cubitt & Company) was three storeys high and had a jetty on the top floor.


In 1861, not long after the construction of the main building, a floor collapsed, killing four workers. An inquest later placed the blame on the use of cast-iron corbels to support the floors instead of stronger wrought-iron corbels.


Cumberland Oil Mills seemed to be a dangerous place to be working all round …

The Observer, 1867

In 1878 the main building was seriously damaged by fire….

Lloyd’s Weekly, 9th June 1878

Cumberland Oil Mills (on the right in the background) in the 1920s, during a very cold winter in which the Thames partially froze.



The works were later taken over by British Oil & Cake Mills Ltd and remained in operation until 1964, more than one hundred years after oil milling started at the location. A steel firm occupied the works for a while, before they were taken over by Apex Rubber.

1960s, Newcastle Draw Dock. The former Cumberland Oil Mills are on the right. If anyone knows how to get a copy of the resulting film, I’d love to hear from you.

1967. Francis Chichester sailing on the Gypsy Moth to be knighted at the Royal Naval College, with the former Cumberland Oil Mills in the background.

Circa 1970 (estimate)

In 1972, the main warehouse was so seriously damaged by a fire that it later had to be demolished.

1974. Photo: Jan Traylen

Circa 1977. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

The remains of the works, pretty much derelict by now, were used by a scrap dealer, and featured in a few scenes of the Prospects television series.

Circa 1986. Prospects TV series

Circa 1986. Prospects TV series

Circa 1986. Prospects TV series

Surrounded by new housing by now, it was only a matter of time before the former works would be demolished.

In the late 1980s, everything was demolished to make room for the Cumberland Mills housing development.

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7 Responses to Cumberland Oil Mills

  1. Malcolm says:

    The picture of Newcastle draw dock where Queenie Watts was being filmed is from the documentary “Portrait of Queenie”. I am in the picture, the boy in dark top and shorts on the left, next to the trombone player walking towards the camera. Queenie wasn’t singing Limehouse Blues, she was singing Muddy Water Around My Feet. I remember it very well. She did two takes and it was done. The film was shown on TV once, as far as I know. I have searched for it but it seems to have disappeared without trace. There are fragments on Youtube but the complete film seems to be lost. After the shoot wrapped Queenie came to my Dad’s fish and chip shop on the corner opposite Christchurch for cod and chips. Nice lady, very down to earth and friendly. She used to run the Iron Bridge Tavern at Canning Town for a while.

    • That’s interesting, thanks. I have a copy of Portrait for Queenie – and there is indeed not a scene filmed at Newcastle Draw Dock. Judging from the rest of your comments, you must be a Tremain 🙂 Hope we find the film one day.

      • Malcolm says:

        I can’t remember if the scene was included in the film or not, it’s a very long time since I saw it and the mind plays tricks…
        But she was definitely singing Muddy Water and not Limehouse Blues.
        I am indeed a Tremain. We lived in the chip shop on the corner of Manchester Road and Glengarnock Avenue.

  2. Jan Hill says:

    Mick, Thanks for interesting read. My dad’s first job (he was born 1901) was ,I think, at Owen Perry’s (maybe Parry’s). That would have been around 1915/6. I think they dealt in Cow Cake. As a kid I wondered what that was and still do. Have you come across Owen Perry (Parry) in your research?

    • Hi Jan, They were in Factory Place, behind the Ferry House (not that I knew that, I looked it up).

      “In the 1830s a steam-washing establishment was run on the site formerly occupied by a herring ‘hang’ beside the ferry. After the closure of the laundry, the premises became a black-lead factory, probably part of Pontifex & Wood’s establishment.

      The premises were certainly part of Pontifex & Wood’s lead and chemical works by the 1850s, but in 1892 4 were occupied by an independent company, BartonWright Ltd, formerly of Bromley-by-Bow, for smelting low-grade antimony ores. Extensive alterations and additions were made to the works from 1896 for new occupiers, Owen Parry Ltd, oil and cake manufacturers. Closed in about 1930, Parry’s mills remained disused until taken over in about 1938 by H. B. Barnard & Sons Ltd as Barnard’s Metal Wharf. From the early 1960s until the early 1970s the premises were occupied by John Rigby & Sons Ltd, wire manufacturers.”

  3. John Wilkinson says:

    In the early 1960s I worked in the Export Department of the British Oil & Cake Mills Limited at their head office in Blackfriars (Unilever House). We used to export Linseed Oil out of the Cumberland Mill. They would load lighters (barges) with up to 14 tons (old money) packed in 40/45 gallon steel drums which went alongside the ocean vessels in the docks and load the drums via nets.
    As an 18 year old I visited the mill a few times on my motorbike and saw the lighters being loaded.
    Cow cake, by the way, is what is left from the linseed after expelling the oil.
    Linseed was widely grown in the UK and the oil was a major ingredient in paints and linoleum ( literally, linseed oil, from the latin).

  4. Pingback: The History of Saunders Ness Road | Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives

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