Lenanton’s timber firm was one of the longest-existing businesses on the Isle of Dogs. It was founded in 1864 and was still doing business in the 1990s, well after the docks had closed and when most everything else along the river had been demolished to make room for new apartments.
The founder of the firm, John Lenanton, was born in Portsmouth in 1834 to shipwright, Thomas Lenanton.
By 1864 he was a timber merchant and took over Batson’s Wharf, which was immediately south of the river end of Robert Street (named after Robert Batson, and later renamed Cuba Street). The business was a great success, and within 10 years the firm expanded southwards, absorbing Regent Wharf, just north of Regent (Dry) Dock.
John Lenanton was awarded the freedom of the City of London in 1877, “admitted into the freedom of this City by Redemption in the Company of Shipwrights” (whatever that means).
The 1881 census reveals John to be the owner of a large house at 56 East India Dock Road where he lived with his wife Ellen and their children, his sister and her family, and two domestic servants. Ellen died in 1889, and John remarried. In 1901, John and his new wife Alice were living with one servant – the children had flown the coop – in the very well-to-do 1 Westcombe Park Road in Blackheath. (See also the article, Where the Other Half Lived: the Isle of Dogs & Blackheath Connection).
Most of the sheds shown in the previous map were destroyed by a large fire in 1900. An insurance map made shortly after the event shows what remained.
John Lenanton died in 1917, leaving the business to be run by his sons.
In the late 1930s, Lenanton’s expanded again, taking over Regent’s Dry Dock, which they filled in.
Survey of London:
Extensive modernization was carried out. Plant and machinery for timber-handling and milling was electrified, using a DC supply from steam-powered generating plant. The principal buildings were now open sheds of steel and reinforced-concrete construction. A new neo-Georgian-style office block was built in 1937.
Because of the decline in Thames shipbuilding, less teak — used particularly for decking — was now held, and the firm specialized increasingly in softwoods.
During WWII, Gerald Foy Ray Lenanton – grandson of John, and husband of writer Carola Oman – was appointed as Government ‘Timber Controller’, tasked with coordinating and ensuring the best use of timber in what was a time of reduced imports. In 1946 he was knighted for his efforts.
Lenanton’s, like many other buildings on the Island, suffered bomb damage during WWII. Arthur Sharpe, Auxiliary Fire Service (on BBC WW2 People’s War website):
The fire at Lenanton’s Wharf was some job. We climbed the crane with our hose to play down on the fire. There were three of us hanging onto the hose with a lot of water coming through. Finally we lashed the hose to the crane and got a breather. Suddenly a bomb dropped and the blast caught us. Down we came, unhurt but bloody frightened.
Survey of London:
In the 1950s new concrete sheds were built, and extensive new plant, including vertical and horizontal log-sawing machines and an under-floor wood-refuse collecting system, was installed. The building construction was carried out by the firm’s own employees. Further improvements included redecoration of the entire premises to a uniform colour-scheme with blue for machinery, terracotta for ancillary equipment and stone colour for walls. In 1954–6 the office block was enlarged and remodelled and a works canteen was built above the entrance from Westferry Road.
In 1958, Lenanton’s continued their expansion and acquired London and Oak Wharves, all but surrounding St. Luke’s School.
They also took over land on the other side of Westferry Road, between Manilla Street and Byng Street, on which they built new sheds.
Lenanton’s acquired and demolished St Luke’s school building in 1971 – the school moved to Saunders Ness Road in the same year. Lenanton’s replaced the school with a sheet-materials shed in 1973 – and renamed this section of their yard St. Luke’s Wharf.
The firm featured in a 1974 issue of Commercial Motor:
Economic activity in the Isle of Dogs has declined in parallel with the decline in waterborne freight transport. One of the firms I visited, John Lenanton and Son Ltd. timber merchants, has extensive premises backing onto the Thames. Small ship loads of timber are sometimes discharged from ship to the company’s own wharf but much packaged timber comes by road from Tilbury; it is consigned in such vast quantities from many producing areas as to make the use of small vessels impracticable.
Many of the drivers working from Isle of Dogs depots come considerable distances to work. Only two of about 20 drivers employed by John Lenanton live on the “Island”.
Mr A. A. Aston, transport manager at John Lenanton, complained that lorry drivers were as hard to get as vehicle spares! He has been two drivers short for a year and he sees no special urgency in hunting up spares for two 12 ton Scammell artics which are off the road, because of the known difficulty of recruiting drivers for them.
Lenanton has lost drivers to better paid employment and is constrained by membership of the Timber Trades Federation from bidding-up the wages of lorry drivers. The firm pays drivers a basic of £38.50 and drivers’ gross earnings are in the £40-£44 bracket, thanks to mileage and drop bonuses.
Although timber lorry drivers do not have the chances of pilferage that some road transport staffs do in other trades, the increased cost of timber, and its easy disposal, could tempt some drivers to supplement income in this way. Mr Aston said it was quite difficult to get other employers to furnish references for drivers but the company had had very little trouble over pilferage and in any case long service, trusted employees loaded the vehicles.
From 1988, Lenanton’s and Seacon were beginning to be hemmed in by massive new residential and commercial developments on the Island.
The writing was on the wall, and in the 1990s Lenanton’s closed, to be followed by the inevitable demolition and replacement with an apartment complex.