Until the arrival of the West India Docks at the start of the 1800s, the Isle of Dogs had few buildings or residents. There were of course the windmills which gave Millwall its name, and a little related industry, but these were along the river’s edge, primarily in the west. The ‘inland’ area was occupied largely by marsh and pasture land.
There were at the time a couple of paths heading south on to the Island from Poplar High Street; these paths are shown as Angel Lane and Arrow Lane on the following map.
Arrow Lane appears on maps in the following centuries variously named as King’s Road, King’s Lane, Blackwall Road and Harrow Lane. Its main purpose was to provide a route from Poplar High Street to the Greenwich Ferry (via St Mary Chapel).
Incidentally, a short section of Harrow Lane still exists off Poplar High Street. I am amused that the mapmaker dropped the aitch on the map, but it was not unusual at the time for mapmakers to spell names as they heard them pronounced by locals.
On the construction of the West India Docks, the northern half of (H)arrow Lane was obliterated by the construction of the West India Docks, apart from a short section in the north which is named King’s Road on the following map (1830).
South of the docks, the old path was replaced by a fully-fledged road which had been somewhat straightened, and rerouted to the east (it was also renamed Blackwall Road). It was lined on both sides along its entire length by drainage ditches.
This road was built from 1812-1815 by the Poplar and Greenwich Ferry Roads Company, who constructed what would later be named Westferry Road at the same time. Both were toll roads, and there were toll gates in Westferry Road (just south of the later City Arms) and in East Ferry Road (next to the later Queen public house). The toll road is the ‘turnpike’ referred to in the following newspaper article:
The article hints at the rural nature of East Ferry Road at the time, as does the following map. Many old Islanders still call the road Farm Road.
By the time of this race, building had started in earnest at the north end of East Ferry Road. Note that the road leading up to the dock entrance lock bridge was then also named East Ferry Road; Manchester Road had been constructed a couple of decades before, but its name originally extended only as far as the Queen public house (opened in 1855).
In 1883, after years of public pressure, the Metropolitan Board of Works moved to have the tolls in East Ferry Road and West Ferry Road (as it was then spelled) abolished.
The Board got its way and the tolls were lifted in 1885. Survey of London:
The [Greenwich Ferry] company scrapped its horse-ferry service in 1844, but tolls continued to be collected. Pressure for abolition of the tolls grew from the 1870s, and eventually the Metropolitan Board of Works obtained powers to buy out the company. On 9 May 1885 there were celebrations as the toll-gates were removed.
A map from around the same time shows the north end of East Ferry Road to be completely developed by then, with houses and streets which would change little until the start of WWII.
This section of street was largely residential, with the East Ferry Road Engineering Works being the only industry. A small section of the firm’s East Ferry Road frontage can be seen on the left in this 1900s photo (Launch Street is on the right).
The firm, which specialised in pneumatic machinery, started in 1874 on land leased from the Millwall Dock Company.
Survey of London:
[The firm had] Charles Henry Parkes, the Millwall Dock Company’s chairman, as its chairman, and his son, Charles Reginald Parkes, as its managing director. The engineering company, which was indeed virtually a subsidiary of the dock company, had its origins in Duckham’s Weighing Machine Company, which had been set up in 1872 by Frederic Eliot Duckham, engineer to the dock company, to manufacture a weighing machine that he had invented three years earlier for use at the Millwall Docks sheer-legs. The founding shareholders were virtually all Millwall Dock Company directors and staff.
“A suggestion of nepotism?” I hear you ask.
Just south of the works was a short row of commercial properties, including a large bank at No. 112, more or less opposite the George public house.
To its left, dining rooms and a boot and short store (which also served as a post office). These and other businesses in the area – including the George – were all built to take advantage of the trade offered by the adjacent Millwall Docks.
Looking down Glengall Road in the opposite direction, the George can be seen on the left, and more commercial properties on the corner on the right.
Diagonally opposite East Ferry Road from the George in 1892 was Millwall Dock Station, opened in 1871 (Crossharbour DLR is today on the site).
The Mudchute got its name because it was the dumping ground for mud dredged from the docks, which had to be regularly dredged or they would silt up. A novel pneumatic device (designed by Frederic Eliot Duckham) was employed which pumped the liquefied mud through a pipe over East Ferry Road close to the George, dumping it on the other side.
The dock company had not yet dumped mud on the northern edge of its land, just south of the George, which meant that the ground was flat and solid. Landlord of the George, William Clark, leased a 400ft by 420ft plot on the flat land, planning to develop an athletics stadium for football, cricket and tennis, with running and cycling tracks. The stadium opened in June 1890 and was occupied by Millwall Athletic FC until 1901.
By the start of the 20th century, so much wood was being imported via the Millwall Docks that the dock company was running out of room to store it all. They reclaimed the Mudchute land being leased by Millwall Athletic, and built new warehousing there (Millwall Athletic moved to a ground at the other end of East Ferry Road, behind the Nelson).
The challenge for the dock company was: how to transport the timber from the docks, over East Ferry Road, and into the newly-formed timber yard? The required timber conveyor needed to extend from the Glengall Road bridge over Millwall Inner Dock to almost Manchester Road in the east (the timber needed to transported in only one direction, of course, from ship to yard).
The solution was a so-called Timber Transporter, a demonstration of which Chief Millwall Dock Engineer, Duckham, had seen on a trip to Sweden.
For approximately 650 yards along East Ferry Road south of the Timber Transporter, nothing was ever built. The west side of the road here was occupied by a railway line and the Millwall Docks, and the east side by the Mudchute. You had to travel south as far as Hawkins & Tipson’s Globe Rope Works before there was any sign of other buildings.
Meanwhile, back in 1892, there also wasn’t much to speak of at the southern end of East Ferry Road either.
Other than the rope works, there were just a couple of buildings next to the Lord Nelson, and the fire station on the other corner.
The Welcome Institute, an organization established by a philanthropist called Jean Price, provided hot meals at affordable prices to factory girls (serving anything between 70 and 170 girls a day), evening classes in dressmaking and needlework, Bible classes for boys and club-rooms for local football teams. In 1905, the institute moved from its damp, cramped premises at 333 Westferry Road to a new building at 197 East Ferry Road.
Many readers will immediately recognise this as the later Dockland Settlement building, but it would be 1923 before the Dockland Settlement organisation took it over on the retirement of Jean Price. The photo was evidently taken from a side road of East Ferry Road. This was the newly extended Chapel House Street, which went just past Chapel House Street before 1904.
This map also shows a row of twelve houses at the south, east side of East Ferry Road – Charteris Terrace, built in 1907. The row of houses still exists and you can find a sign with the name of the terrace on it without looking too hard.
It would be many years before houses were built along the full length of Chapel House Street, on the construction of the Chapel House Estate, opened in 1921. The houses along the south side of Chapel House Street and the west side of East Ferry Road look much like the houses west of Chapel House Street, but they have a slightly different origin. When the lead firm, Locke, Lancaster failed to reach an agreement with the Borough Council in 1920 to house the workers from its lead works in Millwall, it formed a public utility society called Locke’s Housing Society Ltd. The Society built 36 houses similar in appearance to those built by the council.
Meanwhile, further north, the George underwent a complete rebuild. Its Victorian design was replaced by something more attuned with the 1930s.
Then, World War II happened, and virtually every building in the northern half of East Ferry Road was destroyed by bombing. Rescue worker, Bill Regan reported the aftermath of the bombing during the night 28th June 1944 in his diary:
Awakened after dozing for about 15 minutes or so, at about 5.30 a.m. To Glengall Grove and East Ferry Road; Post Office, wrecked, the George, six shops also. Westminster Bank and Thorne’s joinery works completely demolished. Glengall Grove, Launch Street, Galbraith Street, proportionally damaged by blast. About a dozen Light Rescue men there, a light job, and they send for heavy, after almost completing the job. Got two bodies out, man and wife. The woman supposed to be eight months pregnant. They had just previously been bombed out of their home at Catford. Incident closed at 7.00 a.m.
The following map highlights the only buildings still standing at the north end of East Ferry Road in 1948. The remainder were either destroyed during World War II or were not economically recoverable and had to be demolished immediately afterwards. The southern end of East Ferry Road, on the other hand, got off pretty lightly, although the Globe Rope Works Nos. 201-203 (odd) East Ferry Road suffered some significant bomb damage.
In 1950, Poplar Borough Council began clearance of the area and the development of a new estate – St. John’s Estate – named after the church in Roserton Street. The council built the estate in phases, and it was 1981 before the last building was complete (St John’s Community Centre in Glengall Grove). The length of time of the development, and the fact that some sections were built by the LCC, explains the wide variety of architectural styles in the area. Houses and flats in East Ferry Road, however, were among the first to be built.
As already mentioned, the southern end of East Ferry Road suffered very little serious damage during WWII (this applied also to the Chapel House and Hesperus Crescent Estates).
The centre section of the road in the 1970s. The gantry over the road was a leftover of the former Timber Transporter. It is very clear from this photo that the road went uphill to its highest point approximately in the middle (and still does). The apex is very close to what was originally the highest point in the Island – the location of St. Mary’s Chapel and Chapel House Farm (right of the road from this viewpoint).
This section of the road was less than welcoming, as can be seen from the photos. Around 1980, attempts were made to brighten things up a little, mostly facilitated by community or youth organisations, and executed by young Islanders.
1980 was a low point in the history of the Island. The docks closed formally in that year, and many firms along the river were closed and their buildings demolished. The London Docklands Development Corporation started the next year, and plans were made for the redevelopment and regeneration of a large swathe along the Thames where the docks had once formed the basis of the local economy.
An early success for the LDDC was when ASDA agreed to build a new supermarket on the Island – leasing part of the Mudchute which was occupied earlier by Millwall Athletic and after that by the Timber Yard (complete with Timber Transporter).
The year that ASDA opened saw the commencement of the construction of the DLR. The new line followed the path of the former London & Blackwall Railway Millwall Extension. Crossharbour Station was built on the site of the earlier Millwall Dock Station, and a new station – Mudchute Station- was built further south in East Ferry Road.
It is said that the station was originally going to be called Millwall Park Station, but this was rejected because of (a) the negative association with football hooligans from a certain team over the water (a team which, ironically, played at three different grounds on the Island which were adjacent to the railway line), and (b) the possibility of visiting fans travelling to the station in error. I’ve not seen anything myself to back these assertions up.
Mudchute Station formally opened in 1987, but had to be relocated northwards, to the other side of East Ferry Road, ten years later when the DLR was extended under the river to Lewisham (because the line needed to start descending at an earlier point – if seen from the perspective of travelling south).
All this jiggery-pokery with stations, viaducts, railway lines and tunnels means the path of this section of East Ferry Road is quite different to how it originally was. Until the early 1980s, if you travelled up East Ferry Road from the Nelson, there was a relatively sharp and angular ‘curve’ to the right at the rope works.
These days, again travelling in the same direction, East Ferry Road parts company with Locke’s houses almost as far south as Thermopylae Gate, and from there it follows a gentle meander northwards. Millwall Park was also extended at this point all the way to East Ferry Road. (Confused the heck out of me the first time I drove up East Ferry Road after these changes had been made, having not been on the Island for yonks. I wasn’t sure where I was anymore.)
Another rerouting of East Ferry Road which caused me some confusion, was that at the corner of Glengall Grove and East Ferry Road (a place I tend to migrate to when on the Island, enjoying as I do a pint in the George). However, this junction has changed a few times over the decades.
Until the 1960s, this was a regular crossroads – Glengall Grove crossed East Ferry Road at this point – as is clear in many of the old photos at the start of this article. Glengall Grove was no longer a continuous road from Manchester Road to Westferry Road however – the road bridge over Millwall Docks had been out of action since before WWII, and the only way to cross was via a pedestrian ‘barge bridge’.
The PLA, who had never been fond of the public crossing the Millwall Docks (but who historically were required to permit public travel between the two halves of Glengall Grove), announced that they no had no plans to restore the road bridge. After arguments and discussions between the PLA and Poplar Borough Council, when even the idea of a tunnel was considered, it was agreed that a high-level pedestrian bridge would be built – a bridge that would soon informally be named the ‘Glass Bridge’. A bridge entrance building was built, and a garage was opened ‘next door’. The area in front of the dock gate – which never opened – was a small undeveloped plot that was used by locals to park cars and lorries.
The Glass Bridge was demolished in the mid-1980s, and replaced by a temporary Bailey Bridge. It was again possible to drive across Millwall Docks to Westferry Road.
The previous photo shows that the crossroads between Glengall Grove and East Ferry Road had been restored. The junction has been modified in such way that through traffic from the direction of ASDA is led along a newly-built road, Limeharbour. You have to go round the block if you want to follow East Ferry Road all the way to the Blue Bridge (I went straight up Limeharbour by accident….lost again!).
Much has also changed along East Ferry Road since 1990.
Starting at the Blue Bridge end, the Queen was demolished in 2004, and the few remaining older buildings across the road were illegally demolished in 2016.
That row of buildings looked quite different in the past, by the way. Here it is in the 1980s, before the middle one was given another floor, and before the shop on the right was given a mock-Georgian appearance.
The previous photo shows the little newspaper kiosk that used to be there which at one stage was housed in a container.
From here to Hickin Street not much has changed (I am referring only to buildings directly on East Ferry Road). Many blocks of flats have been renovated, and most have pointy roofs these days, but it is familiar territory.
After Hickin Street, the dock side of the road – formerly the site of the East Ferry Road Engineering Works – is covered in new office and apartment developments.
Between Glengall Grove and Thermopylae Gate, East Ferry Road is not the isolated place it once was. ASDA takes up a large section on the left, the dock fences and walls are gone – replaced by trees, bushes and neat walls – residential buildings and offices overlook the road on one side.
South of the shenanigans around the Mudchute DLR station bend, the other significant change is the closure of the Dockland Settlement, and the demolition of almost the whole building, to make room for Canary Wharf College.
From here to the Nelson, East Ferry Road hasn’t changed that much. The background scenery has changed a lot, though – and keeps changing.
People have travelled over this path since the Middle Ages. It has changed frequently over the centuries, and keeps doing so.