The Isle of Dogs was a relatively sedate and stable place during the half century from the start of 1880s to the end of the 1930s. In large part due to its physical isolation – enclosed by the docks and the Thames – it was a close-knit community: there was plentiful work in the docks and in local firms, people mostly went to school and worked on the Island, Islanders married other Islanders, there was little reason for many to leave the Island (except perhaps for a weekly trip to Chrisp Street market), and so it went on.
WWII changed all that, and Islanders saw their home change dramatically and permanently. After experiencing the danger and destruction of the war, they witnessed the demolition of much of the remaining housing followed by the construction of new housing of a very different type and density.
While some new homes were built in the 1950s – around the new Castalia Square in particular – the peak of the redevelopment was during the 1960s when whole areas were cleared and replaced with new housing estates, consisting mostly of blocks of flats, and including a number of large tower blocks. Many of the new homes were often occupied by ‘newcomers’ from other areas of the East End
During this period, the population of the Island grew from about 9,000 to about 12,000, and the percentage of Islanders living in publicly-owned housing grew from 60% to 97% of the population (compare this to 68% for all of Tower Hamlets and 25% for Greater London)!
My own family was among the ‘immigrants’, moving as we did at the end of the 1960s from a Victorian tenement off the Whitechapel Road to a brand new flat opposite Christ Church. I loved my new home, but my mum was less than impressed: she thought it was dreadful to move to such a quiet place which felt like it was on the other side of the world. Some small compensation lie in the fact that a number of old neighbours and acquaintances had also moved from Stepney to the Island, so at least there were some familiar faces.
Back to the start of the decade, what was happening on the Isle of Dogs……?
Bomb-damaged during WWII and derelict ever since, St Luke’s Church in Alpha Grove was finally demolished.
Start of construction of the Manchester Estate in the area bounded by Seyssel Street, Manchester Road and Pier Street.
At the other end of Seyssel Street, the National Dock Labour Board established a training centre at Plymouth Wharf in Saunders Ness Road.
The footbridge that connected Hesperus Crescent with Chapel House Street was demolished (the railway that it used to cross was no longer in use and Poplar Borough Council had purchased the land).
Betty May Gray House at the corner of Manchester Road and Pier Street was officially opened in March. The block was built by the Isle of Dogs Housing Society with the assistance of money left by Betty May Gray who had died in 1933, leaving the residue of her estate to be devoted in the most general terms ‘to the furtherance of practical measures of slum clearance’ (Survey of London).
Construction started on the Schooner Estate on land bounded by Stebondale Street, Glengarnock Avenue and Manchester Road.
Writer and broadcaster Dan Farson became the licensee of the Newcastle Arms, which he renamed the Waterman’s Arms. He completely redecorated the pub and organised live music in order to recreate the atmosphere of old time music halls, and in the following years the pub was extremely popular, frequently packed and regularly visited by celebrities.
The former reading room in the libary in Strattondale Street was extended and became a public hall which could be used for public meetings and social events.
John MacDonald House, named after a borough councillor, was opened in East Ferry Road in March 1962.
The Island Tenants association (ITA), fed up with the apparent inaction and indifference of local Labour councillors, decided to contest all three Cubitt Town seats on the forty-two-member Poplar Borough Council, and won. It was the first time since 1913 that any non-Labour candidate had won an Island seat.
Postscript to Empire is a documentary which compared the life and attitudes of inhabitants of Dockland with those who had recently moved to a New Town. The Dockland area in question was the Isle of Dogs. The film is quite patronising in places, but has some great scenes of familiar people and places…
Construction started on the elevated pedestrian bridge which crossed the Millwall Inner Dock, a bridge that would be dubbed the ‘Glass Bridge’ by Islanders. The western part of Glengall Grove (which used to provide public vehicle access across Millwall Docks and was named Glengall Road until 1940) was renamed Tiller Road.
A number of scenes from the film, Sparrows Can’t Sing, were filmed in and around the Pride of the Isle pub in Havannah Street. Reputedly, this was the first English-language film to be shown in the US which needed English subtitles.
Brown & Polson Limited sell their Broadway Works premises (off Alpha Grove) to Tate & Lyle.
Construction started on the Samuda Estate, which included the tallest residential block in London at the time, the 25-story Kelson House.
Survey of London:
Cumberland Oil Mills … latterly occupied by British Oil & Cake Mills Ltd … closed in 1964. Subsequently the premises were occupied for a few years by a steel-fabrications company and then by the Apex Rubber Company Ltd of Cubitt Town Wharf for warehousing.
Normandy, Valiant, Tamar and Watkins Houses in East Ferry Road were opened.
Portrait of Queenie, a documentary about Island-born singer Queenie Watts, featured somes scenes filmed on the Island…..
The Island also featured quite a lot in the film, Saturday Night Out, about a group of seamen who were determined to make the most of their short time off-ship in London…..
The Glass Bridge was opened.
The LCC approved proposals for the clearance and redevelopment of what would become the Barkantine Estate.
Survey of London:
Attendances continued to fall, and in 1965 the congregations of St John’s and Christ Church were combined and Christ Church was rededicated as the Church of Christ and St John. St John’s church and hall were demolished following fire damage in 1970.
Nellie Cressall resigned after serving as one of the Island’s six borough councillors since 1919.
Four in the Morning, a film starring a very young Judie Dench, featured a scene filmed at West India Dock Pier, when the body of a murdered young woman is brought ashore by the river police.
Plans to repair and alter the Millwall Dock entrance lock and its bridge (known informally as ‘Kingsbridge’) were postponed due to the outbreak of WWII, during which the lock was badly damged. Financial issues after the war meant abandoning the plans; the lock was dammed and eventually silted up. The bridge no longer crossed water after a few years.
The swimming pool at Island Baths was destroyed during WII and the building patched up so that the slipper baths and laundry could still be used. In 1963 the building was demolished – after rebuilding, the new baths opened in 1966.
Construction of Kedge House and Winch House, and Nos. 1-20 Starboard Way open in/off Tiller Road.
Construction in Mellish Street of Scoulding House, named after J. T. (‘Tom’) Scoulding, a prominent local Trades Union official with the Transport and General Workers Union, who was also a member of the Board of the PLA.
Opening of Alastor, Argyle, Finwhale, Killoran, Kimberley, Kingdon, Lingard and Montfort Houses in and around Galbraith Street.
A scene from the film, The Sandwich Man, was filmed in and off Mellish Street….
Survey of London:
Closure of the [Millwall] dry dock was proposed in 1966, as it was losing money. Ship-repairers failed to persuade the PLA to lease it, and it was closed and flooded on 30 October 1968. The site and the 25-ton crane were subsequently used for a barge berth.
The Blackwall entrance became much less important after 1929, following the completion of a new South Dock east entrance and passages linking the Import, Export and South Docks. It was closed from 1940 to 1950, reopening only for barge traffic. The lock was last used in 1968.
Seven Mills Primary School opened; the southern half of its site was previously occupied by Millwall Central School (destroyed during WWII) and the so-called ‘Janet Street Mentally Defective School’.
The first section of the Barkantine Estate was opened.
The opening of the bridge of the South West India Dock East Entrance Lock aka The Blue Bridge.
The opening of Alice Shepherd House, named after a local councillor who had served from 1928 to 1962.
Closure of the Central Granary after the opening of the Tilbury Grain Terminal. The Central Granary was demolished a year later.
Construction in Millwall Docks of Fred Olsen office buildings designed by Norman Foster.
Sir John McDougall Gardens and the first buildings on the Barkantine Estate were opened in 1968, but the bridge connecting the park to the estate was not completed until 1969.
Survey of London:
Calder’s Wharf remained in use for wharfage until c1969, when a boathouse for the Poplar, Blackwall & District Rowing Club (which had been using the old covered-way shed) was built on the site.
On 17th July disaster struck at Dudgeon’s Wharf, with tragic consequences. Workers were busy demolishing the long disused oil and petrol tanks with oxy-acetylene burners when a fire started in one of the tanks.
The fire brigade were called out, but the fire was out by the time they arrived. A number of firemen climbed on the rim of the tank to pour water inside, as an extra precaution, but at the time a demolition worker was still working below with his oxy-acetylene burner. The tank exploded, killing five firemen and one demolition worker.
The firemen are commemorated in a London Fire Brigade memorial by the river.
Construction of the Kingfield Estate – comprising most of the area bounded by Stebondale Street, Seyssel Street, Manchester Road and Glengarnock Avenue – was started in 1924 but was not completed. The development area increased in size due to the WWII destruction of homes along the named streets, most of which were lined with prefabs. In 1964, Poplar Borough Council made plans to complete the estate, and the first blocks of flats were opened in 1969.
These were the flats that we moved into in 1969.
If you enjoyed this article, you might want to carry on reading at The Isle of Dogs in the Seventies.