One of the first blog articles I wrote was about the Mudchute (I always called it the ‘Muddy’ when I was a kid). In the six years that have passed since that article was published I have gathered a lot more photos and information about the Mudchute, and even the odd video. Reasons enough to release an updated version of the article.
When the Millwall Docks formally opened in 1868, the dock company did not plan to stop at the Millwall Inner and Outer Docks. It was their intention to one day extend the docks to the east when there was enough business to justify it and in preparation for this they acquired vast areas of land on the Isle of Dogs. This 1875 map shows their planned extension, and I have also highlighted the land that they owned (around 200 acres, most of which was still owned by the PLA when the docks closed just over a century later).
During the construction of the Millwall Docks, the area to their east – the future Mudchute – was used a brickfield – with an oven and chimney set up to make bricks from the clay. The clay was of not good enough quality to create bricks for buildings or load-bearing structures, but the bricks were suitable for building dock walls.
When the Millwall Docks were opened in 1868, and there was no longer a need for the brickfield, the land was let for grazing.
A few years later however, the land was unexpectedly required again by the dock company. All London’s docks needed to be reguarly dredged in order to remove mud that has made its way in from the river via the locks, but nobody had anticipated just how much dredging the Millwall Docks would require (due primarily to its very large lock – the largest in London at the time). The dock company decided to deposit the dredged mud on its land on the other side of East Ferry Road.
Fortunately for the Millwall Dock Company, their Clerk of Works (and later General Manager) was the very talented Frederic Eliot Duckham who designed an innovative dredging boat and hydraulic pumping system.
Filling usually took three hours. Once full, the dredger steamed to her berth on the east side of the dock. A 20 in. diameter discharge from the bottom of the tanks was connected by a leather hose to a 15 in. pipeline 150 yd. long that ran under the East Ferry Rd to the dumping ground, where there were large settling pools surrounded by ash banks
– “Frederic Eliot Duckham M.I.C.E. and the Millwall Docks” by E. Sargent.
By 1895, land just outside of the embanked settling pools had been let to Millwall Athletic and to local allotment holders.
The area was known to locals at the time as the ‘Mud Shoot’ or ‘Mudshoot’ and it was apparently not only very smelly, but was considered also a health risk. In 1879, after years of dumping of dredged mud, the Poplar District Board of Works (predecessor of the borough council) complained that the deposits were bad for health, but it was 1898 before the dock company:
Was advised of what was believed to be the relationship between the mud deposits and diphtheria on the Isle of Dogs. Duckham experimented with other methods of disposing of the mud, including brickmaking, and in 1900 a reward of £100 was advertised for the most practical way of dealing with the problem, but no satisfactory solution emerged.
In 1902 Poplar Borough Council insisted on the removal of the mud-pipe. The dock company argued that the mud had no bad effect and that the objections were merely sentimental, based on the unsightliness of the mud-field. The Council removed the pipe in August 1903, but lost a court action to prevent its reinstatement. The PLA, having taken control of the docks in 1909, discontinued the mud pumping in 1910, hoping to use the land for a dock extension.
– Survey of London, Vol XIV, The Athlone Press
By the end of the 19th century, so much wood was being imported via the Millwall Docks that the dock company was running out of room to store it all. The company decided to evict Millwall Athletic from its land off East Ferry Road in order to construct new warehousing there.
The challenge for the dock company was: how to transport the timber from the docks, over East Ferry Rd, and into the newly-formed ‘Transporter Yard’? In 1900, Chief Millwall Dock Engineer, Duckham, travelled to Sweden for inspiration, where he inspected a timber transport system not yet known in England. On his return, he:
…proposed the adoption of an electrically motivated elevated timber transporter invented by the Stockholm engineers Adolf Julius Tenow and Johan Edward Flodstrom. The transporter was fixed to run …. from the south-east corner of the Inner Dock. Bolinders supplied a further 200 yards of transporter and Joseph Westwood & Company, of Millwall, supplied and erected steel bridges to carry the structure across the railway and road. The transporter was quickly assembled and a trial on 17 June 1901 was a success…. It was inaugurated with a Coronation Dinner for the poor of Cubitt Town…. In late 1901 it was extended 200 yards eastwards and a spur was added to serve C Yard.
The timber transporter consisted of a system of rollers, about 15ft above the ground, supported by a steel and wood trestle system. Above the rollers was a pitched roof to keep the timber and roller mechanism dry. This photo shows the transporter crossing East Ferry Rd from the docks (right) and into the Transporter Yard in the Mudchute (left). See this article for the full story of the Timber Transporter (and more photos).
In 1919, the London County Council bought the land south and east of the Mudchute from the PLA and created a playground and public open space. They named it Millwall Recreation Ground, but many Islanders called it New Park (a name which stuck, and which is still used by some older Islanders).
Some of the first photos of the Mudchute taken by Islanders were taken around this time. The following four photos of allotments and allotment holders are from the Island History Trust Collection (see https://www.islandhistory.co.uk/ for information about the Friends of Island History Trust).
The following photo was taken in the 1930s and shows the PLA’s football pitch in the Mudchute. On the right are the rear of houses in Stebondale Street (a section since renamed Pier Street). In the background is Manchester Road – the gasometers in the far distance are on the other side of the river.
In early 1938 there were approximately 350 allotment plots in the Mudchute – with each allotment holder paying the PLA 5s per annum for their plot. According to Poplar Borough Council a large number of the allotment holders were either unemployed or in casual employment and were relying on the allotments to provide their families with vegetables. There was no water supply to the Mudchute – and the little water that was obtained from wells sunk by plotholders was acidic and harmful to plants.
The council was prepared to lay a water supply but the work would not be started until later in 1938 ‘on account of the disturbance which would be occasioned to the plotholders at the commencement of the summer season’. However, the anticipation of war disrupted all plans and also included the appropriation by the War Office of land occupied by 37 allotments (the dispossessed plotholders were compensated).
The War Office took over an area behind Stebondale St. They constructed four octagonal Ack-Ack gun-emplacements with concrete store rooms, a central concrete command post, and assorted accommodation and supply huts close to the Millwall Park in Stebondale St. For a full article about the gun emplacements, see here.
The Blitz started in the late afternoon of 7th September 1940. Bill Regan reported in his diary (see Heavy Rescue Squad Work on the Isle of Dogs: Bill Regan’s Diary from the Second World War ):
The Mudshoot gun site did its stuff, but was pretty futile. As we understood it, they were popping off with four 3.7’s, which sounded rather feeble to us. They were enthusiastic, and I suppose that was something to be thankful for.
That night, a parachute mine fell on the site, and the explosion seriously damaged the command post and destroyed the canteen and stores. The guns could no longer be aimed with radar or fired by remote control; the access road from Pier Street was also badly damaged making it difficult to get in fresh supplies, and gunners were bringing in replacement ammunition by hand.
I came across a film of the Mudchute anti-aircraft gun in action quite by accident while browsing through wartime information films on YouTube. In a 1940 film produced by the Shell Film Unit, “Transfer of Skill”, I spotted what was very obviously McDougall’s flour silo building in the background:
When WWII ended, allotment holders took over a couple of the sheds that had been built by the War Office. Poplar Borough Council agreed with the PLA that the allotment holders would be responsible for the sheds’ maintenance, and that the Council would demolish them should that ever be required by the PLA. Even after WWII the PLA was still considering building a new dock from the Millwall Outer Dock to the Thames in the east, encouraged by a brief post-War resurgence in shipping.
Meanwhile, land and sheds in the Transporter Yard were leased to private firms. This was not so unusual; Millwall Docks’ business model was always based on leasing space and facilities to private firms, as demonstrated by McDougall’s, Fred Olsen, Montague Myer’s and others.
The PLA’s continuing commercial interest in the Mudchute meant that gates and fences were maintained, PLA police continued to patrol the land, and security was sometimes to the inconvenience of allotment holders (on the other hand, there were plans to restore the land lost to the gun emplacements to allotments):
Ten to fifteen years later and the PLA had given up on any plans to expand the Millwall Docks, and firms moved out of the Transporter Yard and the sheds demolished. The PLA consequently paid less attention to the security of the Mudchute; a PLA police van might be seen now and again – a token effort to patrol the place – but more and more holes appeared in the fences which were never repaired.
Meanwhile, Island kids had discovered a huge, wild playground!
One of the great fascinations of the place was the Newty: the drainage ditch which ran along the bottom of the ash banks built a century before to hold back the mud dredged from the docks. Named for its many newts, it was also a stinking, polluted piece of water…
My favourite places were the gun emplacements and the central command bunkers….
Some of the antics were more than a bit dangerous – in particular walking over the corrugated asbestos roof of the ‘cow shed’…..
The Mudchute was also a popular place for dumping and setting fire to (stolen) cars. Grass fires were also common during dry periods.
Well before the West India and Millwall Docks officially closed in 1980, discussions started about what to do with the Mudchute. In 1973 the PLA agreed in principle to sell most of the site to the GLC for housing, but this deal never went through.
Residents’ groups spearheaded by the Association of Island Communities campaigned for the land to be a public open space, including an urban farm, and gained acceptance of the proposals. In 1977 the newly-formed Mudchute Association leased a large section of the Mudchute.
Some Mudchute land was lost to the public, though. New houses were built on land close to Jubilee Crescent (the Friar’s Mead development) and the north-west section of the Mudchute, where Millwall Athletic had their ground at the end of the 19th century, was leased to ASDA. The approximate boundaries between the three areas are here drawn on the 1895 map used earlier in this article:
In the late 1970s, more allotment plots were developed, and the Mudchute Farm began to take form.
In 1981, parts of an episode of Dixon of Dock Green were filmed on the Isle of Dogs, including in the Mudchute (I was surprised to discover that the series was still running in the 1980s). The Mudchute Farm had not developed a great deal by then, and construction of ASDA and Friar’s Mead had not yet started, and these are probably the last images of the Mudchute in its ‘wild’ state that I remember as a kid.
I could not get my head round the idea of any kind of superstore on the Island – it just didn’t fit in with my idea of the place. Who would shop there? Why? What was wrong with Sinfield’s and Powells and Rowells and Wavy Line? OK, I was young and naive and had no idea of how the Island was about to change. I went to visit ASDA soon after it opened, and for the first time on the Island I didn’t recognise where I was – a disorienting feeling that I experienced a lot in subsequent years. Survey of London:
The ASDA superstore, off East Ferry Road, was the first major modern retail development on the Isle of Dogs. In the early 1980s part of the site of the Transporter Yard to the north of the Mudchute was leased from the PLA by the Leeds-based Associated Dairies, who were seeking to build a ring of supermarkets around outer London. The Isle of Dogs store was … built by Wates Construction in 1981–3.
Work started on construction at Friar’s Mead in the year that ASDA opened, but it took longer than expected due to the soil being very toxic and so low-lying (welcome to the Isle of Dogs) that special drainage work was necessary. It was 1986 before the development was complete.
The Docklands Light Railway was constructed from 1983 and followed the route of the old Millwall Extension Railway. The last station before the (then) terminus at Island Gardens was on the site of the former Globe Rope Works in East Ferry Road. The station was originally planned to be named Millwall Park but apparently – if you believe the rumours and Wikipedia – the negative associations with the football team and the possibility that there would be some confusion over its location (Millwall F.C. plays on the other side of the river to Millwall) meant assigning a new name, Mudchute Station, before it opened in 1987. The station has since moved to the other side of East Ferry Road.
The London Docklands Development Corporation funded landscaping in the Mudchute in the mid-80s and it began to change beyond all recognition (for me at least).
Even more difficult to comprehend – the Newty has gone!
Still, the Mudchute is a genuine asset for residents of the Island and beyond – a large piece of green space in an area that is disappearing under concrete and tall buildings. We are fortunate that Islanders in the 1970s managed to save it for public use. A handful of years later, after the LDDC got to decide what would happen with former PLA land, and we can guess what would have happened.