Millwall Lead Works (aka ‘The Lead’)

These pleasant-looking flats in Westferry Road, close to the fire station, are built on the site of large lead works whose origins can be traced back to the 1840s.


The word, ‘lead’ was not used in the naming of the flats or the area around it – funny, that – I suppose references to a highly polluting and poisonous metal don’t encourage sales. However, the use of the names, ‘Locke’s Wharf’ and ‘Locke’s Field Place’ (the street opposite) are small nods to the area’s lead manufacturing past.

Due to its ready availability, cheapness, malleability and relative inertness to oxidation, lead was ideally suited for use in plumbing materials and paints. There was a high demand for lead in 19th century Britain, with lead works to be found in many industrial areas of the country, including on the Thames, just west of the Ferry House on the Isle of Dogs.

This 1849 map shows a largely empty southern half of the Island, a few years before the construction of the Millwall Docks. Chapel House (Farm) is half way up East Ferry Road – named Blackwall Road in this map – and a never-constructed straight road runs from north-west to south-east.


The ‘Chemical Works’ were set up in the early 1840s by the firm, Pontifex & Wood, who specialized in (according to the Survey of London):

…equipment for brewing, distilling, dyeing, sugar-refining and other industrial processes. The Millwall works embraced a wide range of metallurgical and chemical activities, including dye, colour, paint and varnish making, the manufacture of white lead, copper sulphate, citric, tartaric and sulphuric acids, and the smelting and refining of silver, copper and antimony. White lead, used principally in paint manufacture, became the principal product.

By 1870, the works were much expanded, and more industry and housing was being built in the area, including Lead Street, across Westferry Road on land that had been leased by the lead company (they planned to build a yard upon it, but nothing came of the plans).


The following photo was taken from Greenwich not long after the above map was created. The lead works are easily recognizable by their tall chimney – at 240 feet the tallest ever built on the Island.

1870s. The Isle of Dogs from Greenwich, with the lead works in the centre (click on image for full-sized version).

In 1888, Pontifex and Wood went into voluntary liquidation. Their Island works were sold to the Millwall Lead Company.

That lead was harmful to health was well known at the time. It had been used for thousands of years, and ‘lead poisoning’ was observed by the Greek botanist Nicander as early as in the 2nd century BC. The first scientific research into the effects of lead intake was carried out in the mid-1800s when it was discovered that – although dangerous in its solid form – it was far more dangerous in its fume form.

The first laws aimed at decreasing lead poisoning in factories were enacted during the 1870s. But, despite this, workers at the Millwall Lead Works continued to die. In 1894, ‘an inquest found that a female worker had died of lead poisoning; there were several other cases amongst workers living on both sides of the river.’ (Survey of London). And in 1901, by which time the lead works had been taken over by Locke, Lancaster & W. W. Johnson & Sons Ltd:


The following – and a large number of the photos in this article – were shared by Pat Jarvis (néé Reading), for which I am very thankful. Her husband John, in her own words….

….worked in the Lead and did his Tool Makers apprenticeship there when he left school and when the Lead closed down he was kept on to decommission the site and while he was doing it found the photos in one of the offices and saved them from going into the skip. He knew my mum [Lucy Reading] was interested in any Island history back then, so he gave them to her. She shared them with the Island History Trust and when she passed away they came back to John.

Millwall Lead Works. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis Reading.

Millwall Lead Works. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis Reading.

In 1920, the lead firm built 36 houses for its workers along the south side of Chapel House Street and just around the corner in East Ferry Road. The firm wanted to house some of its employees in the to-be-built Chapel House Estate but failed to reach agreement with Poplar Borough Council. As a consequence they built their own houses, designed to look like those in the rest of the estate.

Millwall Park in 1924 (not long after the park was opened, when many people called it the ‘New Park’). In the background, houses built for the lead firm’s workers, and the lead works’ chimney. Photo: Island History Trust

In 1924, Locke, Lancaster and Johnson merged with two other companies and the resulting conglomeration was named Associated Lead Manufacturers Ltd, although each individual firm continued to trade under its own name.

Millwall Lead Works. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis Reading.

Millwall Lead Works. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis Reading.

Millwall Lead Works. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis Reading.

By the 1920s, the land at the end of Lead Street had been developed into a works football ground.


The lead works’ team was named Locke’s United FC…..

Island History Trust Newsletter

….but other Island teams also made use of the ground:

1920s. (Island History Trust)

1930s (estimated)

1936. Courtesy of Maureen Wilcinskis

During WWII, the lead works were extensively damaged by bombing:

Bomb damage, Millwall Lead Works. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis Reading.

Bomb damage, Millwall Lead Works. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis Reading.

Shrapnel damage, Millwall Lead Works. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis Reading.

Shrapnel damage, Millwall Lead Works. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis Reading.

Unexploded bomb dragged up from the Thames foreshore at Millwall Lead Works. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis Reading.

The view from the top of the 240ft chimney, mid-1940s (estimate). Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis

Looking towards Greenwich. Photo: Pat Jarvis

In 1948, Associated Lead Manufacturers Ltd comprised:

From 1948 the various firms no longer traded under their own name, but instead as Associated Lead Manufacturers. This meant not only new headed letters, advertising and signage, but also a repaint of their fleet of lorries.

Survey of London:

By the 1950s Associated Lead Manufacturers occupied the whole area from the south side of Clyde Wharf to the Ferry House, with the exception of Rigby’s Wharf but including the sites of mid-Victorian terrace houses on the west side of Ferry Street. The ground was densely built over with lead rolling and wire-drawing mills, furnace houses and refining shops, a large shop for the production of lead monoxide (litharge), and various ancillary buildings. The only substantial remnant of the nineteenth-century works was the original furnace chimney-shaft.

Circa 1950

A large three-storey block containing office, laboratory, catering and staff-welfare accommodation was built around 1946. A conventional flat-roofed structure of brick and reinforced-concrete, with a central courtyard, it was one of relatively few such buildings on a large scale to be erected on the Isle of Dogs.

Demolition to make room for new office bloxk

The completed office block. This, by the way, is not far off the modern photo at the start of this article.


Lead works crane after collision with a 277 bus. Note the wartime Emergency Water Supply (EWS) sign on the gate pillar. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis.

The damage to the 277 bus. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarvis

25th June 1957. The official opening of the Cutty Sark by the Queen. But, never mind the royals, the historic tea clipper and the foot tunnel entrance – look at those lead works in the background!

Lead workers’ fag break, 1960s (estimate). Photo: George Warren

In 1971 there were concerns about the effects of pollution from the lead works on the health of Island children. I, and all the other kids at Harbinger Primary School (I am not sure about other schools), had our blood tested.

The tests revealed lead levels which were twice as high as normal, but no further action or precautions were deemed necessary, apart from in the case of three children who lived very close to the works. Their blood had such high lead levels that they were hospitalised for tests (which eventually showed no sign of lead poisoning).

Throughout the 1970s, lead production at the works was wound down, and they were eventually solely occupied by Associated Lead’s Paint Division.


Associated Lead Workers, around 1980 (estimate). Photo: Bill Stone

1980s. Photo: Bill Regan

By 1986, Associated Lead had vacated the site. The works were derelict and demolition had commenced.

1986. Click for full-sized image

The same view in the 2010s:


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5 Responses to Millwall Lead Works (aka ‘The Lead’)

  1. Rich says:

    Also remember red coloured pigeons flying around that factory area also 🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤔🤔

  2. Rich says:

    I also remember red pigeons flying around that area in the 1960s

  3. Pingback: East Ferry Road – The Oldest Road on the Isle of Dogs | Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives

  4. Mrs Jennifer Slater says:

    My father was Chief Research Chemist at Associated Lead Manufacturers and one of his tasks was to take blood samples from the men to test for lead poisoning. He used to work closely with the Works Doctor. I remember going to the Works Children’s Christmas parties which were held for the children of the workers but somehow I managed to attend! On occasions when my father had to work on a Saturday morning I would go with him and spend some of my time in the laboratory where I was shown how various chemicals ‘mixed’ and produced different colours. – I thought it was ‘magic’! My father was Leonard Jones and he had been brought up in Manchester Road.

  5. Edward Aveyard says:

    I think that this is now the St. David’s Square development.

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