The Isle of Dogs in 1980

1980 was in many ways one of the lowest points in the history of the Isle of Dogs – the end of a long economic decline which arguably started before World War II, and which picked up speed in the early 1970s. The primary reasons for this were:

  1. The decline in cargo handled by the West India and Millwall Docks (and its knock-on effect on firms which depended on the docks).
  2. The high percentage of manufacturing firms which needed to modernize in order to remain competitive, but which had neither the funds nor space to do so, resulting in them relocating or closing for good.

The 1970s was a decade of economic problems and industrial strife – remember the three-day week, power cuts and strikes? During this period, unemployment in Poplar (including the Isle of Dogs) rose from 5% to 16%, while the average for London was 7% and the average for Britain as a whole was 8%. On the Island in 1980, approximately one in every six adults who was able to work did not have a job!

Meanwhile, many of those who were fortunate to have a job had to travel off the Island to go to work, whereas before WWII most Islanders lived within walking distance of their job. Ironically, car ownership on the Island in the 1970s was higher than the average for London – presumably because of the poor public transport and geographical isolation of the place.

By way of demonstration, in this 1980 aerial photo of Cubitt Town, I’ve highlighted the area which until a year or two previously had been occupied by firms. By 1980, most of the firms had since ceased operating, or were about to do so, and most of the factories and warehouses had already been demolished. Apex, Marela, Boropex, Sternol, Luralda – names which will be familiar to many Islanders – all disappeared in quick succession.

1980. Aerial photo of south Cubitt Town. Click for full-sized version.

Apart from the large area of dereliction and demolition, this ‘corner’ of the Island didn’t look too pretty anyway for much of the second half of the 1970s……

The prefabs along Manchester Road were demolished in the early 1970s, leaving a derelict area for many years, separated from the road by corrugated iron fences.

1978, Manchester Road

Shops and houses on the corner of Glengarnock Avenue and Manchester Road were demolished in the mid-70s, ostensibly to make room for the construction of George Green’s School, but this small area also remained derelict for years.


Opposite Christ Church, my estate:

Glengarnock Avenue

At the end of Glengarnock Avenue you can see Millwall Park. It was bereft of trees and shrubs, and was a fairly bare expanse which readily waterlogged when it rained (it still has the tendency to do that, but a lot less so since its level was raised with earth excavated during the construction of the DLR tunnel to Greenwich)….

c1980, Millwall Park. Not entirely bereft of trees – there is a lone, young tree doing its best. Photo: Peter Wright (I think)

On the other side of the park, what was once the Hawkins & Tipson’s rope shed (aka the ‘rope walk’ or ‘ropey’).

c1977. Former rope walk. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

c1977. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

The situation was similar on other parts of the Island….

The Glass Bridge – vandalized. Photo: Mark Daydy

Roffey House

East Ferry Road. Photo: Gary O’Keefe

Manchester Road (Photo: Bill Regan)

Manchester Road (Photo: Bill Regan)

Pier Head Cottages, Westferry Road

Westferry Road

Westferry Road (Photo: Jim O’Donnell)

Westferry Road. Would like to credit this photo, if anyone knows whose it is.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved growing up on the Island in the 1970s, and was too young to pay much attention to the big world around me. Besides, I had a fantastic time as a kid playing in derelict factories, along the river and over the Muddy. The best playground ever!

I certainly had no idea that the closure of the docks and most firms was changing the nature of the Island for good. Thomas J. Cole (Life and Labor in the Isle of Dogs):

As one Island native declared, “people used to come to Millwall to work . . . but now Millwallers have to go off to find work.” Available statistics support this observation. Up through 1970 the Island was a net importer of labor. This is no longer the case. In the inter-war period, seventy-five percent of the Island’s resident work force was employed locally. By the late 1970s, seventy percent of the district’s economically active adults commuted out of the district to work. The potential threat this situation posed to the community was aptly summed up by one Island leader. He remarked that the district “must have [jobs]… Otherwise this is just going to become somewhere to sleep. It’s not going to be a living community [without] industry.”

And also, because I went to university at the end of 1979, I missed most of what happened to the Island from 1980 onwards. I did come home regularly at weekends, in the first year at least, and did notice that more and more had been demolished, but I had no idea of the extent….

The Isle of Dogs appears to also include some of Poplar in this map (from an early LDDC document).

Click for full-sized version

I also had little notion of what the London Docklands Development Corporation was. I knew they had something to do with the Urban Development Corporations that were popping up over Britain, and was immediately bitter that they appeared to be demolishing everything along the river in order to make room for ‘flats for yuppies’, but it’s only recently that I’ve taken the time to properly study the corporation’s influence and impact. (Saving that for another blog, or even a book).

Barkantine Estate

Another change for the Island (and for the rest of the country) was The Housing Act 1980. Survey of London:

The election in 1979 of a Conservative Government committed to privatization and to the encouragement of home ownership brought a new impetus to sales of council houses. The Housing Act of 1980 gave all council tenants of more than three years’ residence a statutory right to buy their dwelling and it permitted councils to give discounts of up to 50 per cent on the assessed value of the property.

This right to buy (which my Mum took advantage of, and was very happy about it) was accompanied by a transfer of much housing stock to housing associations, and a massive cut in council housing budgets – the idea being that housing associations and the free market would provide for sufficient housing. London Borough of Tower Hamlets built no more new homes, and had insufficient funds to maintain the houses that it was still responsible for. Thomas J. Cole:

In general the condition of local authority housing in Tower Hamlets worsened dramatically between 1980 and 1986, the proportion categorized as unsatisfactory rising from 15 per cent to 49 per cent.

Meanwhile, many of those who had benefited from the purchase of their council homes, sold up and moved off the Island – often to Essex or Kent – joining those who had left earlier in order to find work elsewhere. A decade later, this ‘churning’ of the Island population was even more dramatic, with the arrival of thousands from Limehouse who had been displaced by the construction of the Limehouse Link – and even more newcomers who were working in the newly-opened Canary Wharf development. The population of the Island grew from approximately 17,000 to 30,000 between 1980 and 2000!

The jury is out – as far as I can tell. Many current Island residents complain about how it is now: it’s too busy, too overdeveloped, too much this and too much that. One thing is for sure – after the demolitions of the 1980s, construction on the Island has not stopped – after more than three decades they are still managing to find space (or demolish recently-built offices) to squeeze in another tower.

On the other hand, others love living there. Less people say this though, or maybe they’re not so noisy about it.

Some of these opinions I have gathered from friends, but most I have gleaned from social networking groups. I am very curious what kind of posts and comment there would have been if we had Twatter and Facebag in 1980?

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2 Responses to The Isle of Dogs in 1980

  1. Rich says:

    I lived in Limehouse in the 1950s 60s and early 70s
    I worked as a plank turner at John Lenantons when I was 16 years old

    When I was a kid in the 1960s I knew the island extremely well and often going to Greenwich Park via the foot tunnel so I knew a lot of the businesses around there such as associated lead and many others.

    To me it was much like any other part of the East End it had its ups and it certainly had it fair share of downs.

    In my teens I went to the docklands settlement and became a sea cadet with
    TSS Havock yes I liked sometimes it but there was an awful lot of nasty and very dodgy people around at that time.

    I just wish they could have kept some of the old traditional buildings
    But no they completely cleared the lot.

    Do I miss it ? Not really !!

    I have no real yearning to ever go back

  2. Jacqueline S says:

    I used to stay with my friends in Balfron Tower (23rd floor) in Tower Hamlets around 1982, up until around 1987. Their flat overlooked the Island and had a brilliant view of the massive changes going on – the demolition and the ‘regeneration’ of the area by the LDDC. I’d give a lot to be able to go back and take a few photos from their balcony so I could capture what it was like back then. Do you remember the TV ads with The Crows trying to attract new businesses with the catchline “Why move to the middle of nowhere, when you can move to the middle of London?” I never thought that would be me, but I did move to the Island in 1999. It was all very different by then.

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