The more I learn about the history of the Isle of Dogs, the more I appreciate just how many innovations in the industries of ironworking and shipbuilding took place there, and also how many products and structures manufactured by Island firms can still be found all over the world, including one structure not so far away: the Palm House in Kew Gardens.
Built in the 1840s, the Palm House was designed to accommodate the exotic palms being collected and introduced to Europe in early Victorian times, not only to display them to the public, but also for scientific and commercial purposes. It is considered to be the world’s most important surviving Victorian iron and glass structure, and is officially a World Heritage site.
The first design for a palm house at Kew was by architect Decimus Burton. He proposed an arched, cross-shaped building framed in cast iron. However, the weight of cast iron and its relative lack of tensile strength meant that Burton’s building would have required a large number of internal columns which would have restricted space for the cultivation and display of plants.
Another designer, Richard Turner of Dublin, proposed a building with curving arches constructed with wrought iron beams, the lightness and tensile strength of which would enable the roof to span greater distances without columns.
Turner proposed to use newly-patented Kennedy & Vernon rolled wrought iron I-beams, which were designed originally for ship decks (you don’t have to look too closely to observe that the design of the Palm House is essentially an upturned ship’s hull).
In 1840s Britain, if you were looking for a firm specialising in the construction of modern iron ships and other structures, you went to the Isle of Dogs. The contract for construction of the beams was won by Malins & Rawlinson, a West Bromwich firm which also had an iron works in Hutching’s Street.
The structural wrought iron ribs were rolled at Malins & Rawlinson’s works at Millwall…. They left Millwall as straight I-beams 229mm deep, were shipped to Turner’s works in Dublin for joining and rolling to the correct curve and then shipped back to Kew. The first one was erected on 15th October 1845.
Malins & Rawlinson didn’t last too long as a company, despite its succesful involvement in the prestigious Palm House construction. Survey of London:
Contracts carried out by the company at the Millwall works included the galvanizing of the cast-iron roof tiles of the Houses of Parliament; but the work, which involved dipping the tiles in molten zinc, was not a long-term success, and by 1860 the tiles had to be protected with paint. It soon became apparent that the company was over-stretched, and in 1848 an Act of Parliament was obtained to regulate its winding-up.
Adverse claims, mainly secured by mortgages (on properties assessed at some £500,000), amounted to about £200,000, but given the depressed state of the property market barely half that sum could have been realized. There were other problems too, the company and its directors having carried out various ‘illegal, irregular, or informal’ proceedings.
Later known as West Ferry Mills, the works had various owners over the years, including a colour factory which suffered a serious boiler explosion in 1907.
Despite the violence of the explosion, damage was limited to a small area and the works remained largely intact. After WWI, they were taken over by the General Constructional & Engineering Company Ltd, a company with a history founded in (another unintended pun) the manufacture of cast-iron goods. Peter Wright, who worked for General Construction & Engineering, took this photo of the works in 1980s:
Not long after this photo was taken, virtually everything between Westferry Road and the river was demolished to make room for housing. The following is the same view today. Those flats have a curved roof. A nod to the history of the site and its significance to the construction of the Palm House? Yeah, right.