Commercial Road (article here) was built to connect the City of London with the newly-built West and East India Docks at the start of the 19th century. At a junction just east of St. Anne’s Church, the new road was divided into two road, the southernmost of which was built in 1802 by the dock company’s engineer, Ralph Walker. This section was also named Commercial Road, and it was not until 1828 that it received the name, West India Dock Road.
The following image shows the development in and around West India Dock Road in the following decades. In 1818 the north side of the road was still occupied by fields; urban East London hadn’t quite yet expanded this far east. Even in 1827 north of the road was not yet developed. By 1862, however, West India Dock Road was very much part of a thoroughly urban Limehouse.
Approaching the West India Dock Road from the east end of Commercial Road in the late 1800s the most striking building was the Eastern Hotel, built in c1860 at the corner of East India Dock Road and West India Dock Road. Although it occupied 1 West India Dock Road, its postal address was 2 East India Dock Road so I’ll be saving its history for a later article about that road, but I had to at least mention the iconic building at the entrance to the West India Dock Road here.
The Sailors’ Palace
Sailors from around the world visited the West India Docks, and many needed cheap, short-term accommodation. A large number of seamens’ hostels were built locally, often run by missionary societies who mostly wanted to provide a more wholesome alternative to other lodgings and tempations in the area.
Diagonally opposite the Eastern Hotel – on the corner of Beccles Street was the Sailor’s Palace, a hostel run by the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society (it was also their headquarters).
The building, which still exists, was built in 1901 and was funded by newspaper owner and philanthropist John Passmore Edwards.
2-12 West India Dock Road
Left of the Sailor’s Palace were numbers 2-12 West India Dock Road, a row of shops (including in the 1960s one of the many Chinese restaurants in the area).
14 West India Dock Road
To the left of the shops, and visible in the previous photo was 14 West India Dock Road, originally known as the German Sailors’ Home (this building also still exists). Opened in 1908, it was the successor of the ‘Deutsche Seemannsmission’ which was founded in the 1880s in East India Dock Road.
The Sailor’s Home was an employment exchange for some time, but has since been converted into flats. The single-storey section on the right became an independent flat with its own entrance from the street. My sister Karen and her then very young daughter Karly lived in this flat for a period in the 1980s. It was small, dark and noisy, and I was relieved when they moved on.
3-9 West India Dock Road
A row of shops in buildings which were somewhat grander than those on the other side of West India Dock Road. Morris Senefft’s shop at Nos. 3-5 was one of many in the area that specialised in clothing for sailors and other nautical types. A family business, Isaac Senefft was registered at No. 5 as early as 1912.
In February 1956, the shop was the scene of a murder – West India Dock Road was no stranger to murders* but this one is still remembered by some – when Betty Senefft was stabbed to death by David Kemp. Also, the murder received national and international attention as the House of Commons had recently voted to abolish the death penalty, but the legislation had not yet been enacted. Kemp was automatically sentenced to hang, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment.
* In 1945, Lilian Hartney was found murdered literally across the road from Senefft’s in Rich Street, outside the former German Sailor’s Home. That murder was never solved.
Later (I am not sure in which year), Senefft’s shop was taken over by a local shopowner, S. Grant. Grant’s were also nautical outfitters in the past, but I think that that part of their business was very insignificant by the time the following photo was taken.
11 West India Dock Road
This building was built in 1860 by sail makers and ship chandlers, Coubro & Scrutton. Since their departure the building has seen a number of different occupants, including the Salvation Army for a period. It is now Grade II listed.
The Strangers’ Home
To the right of Coubro & Scrutton (and opened a couple of years earlier), this sailors’ hostel was opened in 1857 by Prince Albert. Sailors commonly referred to as ‘lascars‘ from the Indian subcontinent had been hired since the 17th century by the East India Company to carry out a range of (often menial) jobs on ships. Poorly paid and sometimes harshly treated, many lascars could also end up spending weeks and months idle in Britain while waiting for a return ship to India.
By the mid-1800s ‘lascar’ had become a generic term for almost all non-European sailors, and Christian missionary societies became concerned about their plight. This led to the establishment of the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders (to give it its full name).
It was described by Count E. Armfelt in Living London (c. 1902) as having:
…reading and smoking and bagatelle rooms, bedrooms, baggage rooms, kitchens, and dining rooms, where every individual can cook and eat his meal with the ritual which his conscience commands him, undefiled by even the shadow of an infidel.
A Chinese community grew around the Home and the 1881 census recorded that of the 22 people who lived there, eleven were born in China, six in India or Sri Lanka, two in Arabia, two in Singapore and one in the Kru Coast of Africa. In 1886 the Home informed the India Office that they were evicting five Punjabi performers and a bear who could not pay their bills.
Despite the welcoming attitude of the Missionaries, there was much antagonism by locals towards the residents of the home. Tower Hamlets Archives:
From January to August 1919 mass riots broke out between white and black seamen in port cities across Britain. African, Caribbean, Chinese, Arab and South Asian sailors had kept the merchant navy running during the First World War but as peacetime began and competition for jobs increased, workers from Britain’s colonies living in port cities across Britain became the targets of racist attacks by gangs of white seamen.
In May 1919 the Strangers’ Home for African, Caribbean and Asiatic Seamen in West India Dock Road, was surrounded by a hostile crowd.
It is well known that Limehouse once had a large Chinese community, and that this was London’s ‘Chinatown’ before the post-War migration of Chinese families to Soho. In the middle of the 19th century there were people of several different nationalities recorded in and around West India Dock: Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Indians, Chinese and others, but no large group of a particular ethnicity. Larger scale Chinese immigration started later in the century, espcially when the Blue Funnel Line established a route to Shanghai in 1865, with Chinese immigrants settling mainly around Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields. Survey of London:
By 1918 the number of Chinese living in Pennyfields totalled 182; all were men, nine of them had English wives. At its maximum size during the 1930s, Chinatown (which included Limehouse Causeway) consisted of 5,000 persons, many of whom were sailors. A few Chinese remained in Pennyfields until the demolition of the street after 1960. As early as the 1920s, many of the houses occupied by the Chinese were described as ‘very old and in many cases extremely dilapidated externally’. Internally most were clean, uncrowded, vermin-free and less susceptible to infectious disease than their English neighbours.
Meanwhile, back at the Strangers’ Home, a lack of funds and the reduced numbers of sailors in need of help led to the closure of the home in 1937.
The Stranger’s Home was demolished and West India House was built on the site, the first post-War block of council flats to be built in what was then the Borough of Stepney.
A British Pathé film of the opening by Clement Attlee is available on YouTube (odd to hear the commentary referring to the place as Stepney, as I know it as nothing other than Limehouse):
16-56 West India Dock Road
Across the road to The Strangers’ Home, from No. 16 to 52, was a row of shops and businesses.
Various maps and websites show that there was a pub at No. 16 – The Alma. It appears to have survived WWII, but I’ve not been able to find a photo of it or any information.
The following photo shows a gentlemen’s outfitters at an unidentified location in West India Dock Road. However, a close look at the reflection in the window reveals the sail maker’s building and West India House on the other side of the road.
Is the shop just visible on the right of the following photo the same place?
40 West India Dock Road was a far more substantial building and stretched back as far as Rich Street and Grenade Street. Next door is Dunbar House – possibly named for Duncan Dunbar, a wealthy local brandy dealer whose son (also named Duncan) became a millionaire shipowner in the 1800s. It was for many decades a lodging house.
In 1871, 40 West India Dock Road was owned by the Kirkaldys – a father and sons business consisting of plumbers, painters and marine engineers.
Later, the building was occupied by The Cunningham and De Fourier Company who boasted of selling “the choicest potted meats & fish in the universe”. They were succeeded by a series of ships chandlers.
58-70 West India Dock Road
The most memorable building for many in this row was at No. 70, on the corner of Manadarin Street, the address of the Old Friends Chinese restaurant.
17-43 West India Dock Road
In the 1880s, immediately to the right of The Stranger’s Home were three houses, which were eventually replaced by a telephone exchange (“London Telephone Service – East Exchange”). Neighbouring them was a Salvation Army Hostel and then Blundell’s London Copper and Brass Works.
Later, the Salvation Army Hostel was replaced by an engineering works, which itself was subsequently absorbed by the neighbours, Blundell’s. Blundell’s eventually became part of the partnership, Blundell & Crompton Ltd. which operated from West India Dock Road until well into the 1960s.
At No. 27-29 is Limehouse Police Station, built in 1940 on the site of an earlier police station.
To the right of the police station was originally a row of houses, a large shop (later a Chinese restaurant) and at the corner of Birchfield Street: the Oporto Tavern (renamed the Westferry Arms) at 43 West India Dock Road.
A Small Diversion
Westferry Road meets West India Dock here, but that was not always the case. In fact, it is relatively recent. Until the 1950s, West Ferry Road (as it was then spelled) terminated at Garford Street. Leaving the Isle of Dogs, drivers could turn left and head for Emmett Street, or turn right in the direction of West India Dock Road.
Neither route – due to narrow roads and tight corners – was suitable for the heavy traffic which included many lorries and buses. Westferry Road was eventually extended… past Windward House and past Jamaica House, to meet West India Dock Road opposite the Oporto Tavern.
72-86 West India Dock Road
Much of this block was destroyed by bombing during WWII, and what remained was cleared on the creation of the junction with the newly-extended West Ferry Road in the 1950s.
45-55 West India Dock Road
The whole block formed by 45-55 West India Dock Road and the houses to their rear was cleared in the mid-1960s to make room for new housing. The following photo shows the cleared area. Across West India Dock Road, the construction of the TGWU building can be seen.
88-116 West India Dock Road
The 1963 photo above shows a distinctive building at 88 West India Dock Road, the former premises of engineering firm, James Walker & Co.
James Walker – nephew of Ralph Walker who was responsible for building West India Dock Road – was involved in a wide number of major projects during his career, including at Greenland Dock, the first Vauxhall Bridge, Needles Light House, Caledonian Canal, Bishops Rock Lighthouse and the construction of the Commercial Road (he devised the stone tramways) – as well as numerous jobs in the East and West India Docks. In 1835 he became president of the Institute of Civil Engineers. The firm James Walker & Co. still exists, but outgrew its Limehouse base more than a century ago.
At No. 92 was another Chinese restaurant that will be remembered by many as ‘Up the Steps’. This building was once a Chinese Mission House, opened to bring Christianity to the Chinese community.
The restaurant featured in an epsiode of the 1980s TV series, Prospects, in which the main characters are tempted to take advantage when the staff bundle out of the building and into the street in order to chase a group of customers who had done a runner. This clip has some great scenes of the interior of the restaurant, West India Dock Road and Garford Street.
Further east, and visible in the following photo, was the Railway Tavern, more commonly referred to as Charlie Brown’s (which became its formal name later).
Charlie Brown’s (The Railway Tavern)
The Railway Tavern opened in about 1840. The landlord Charles Brown took over in 1896, taking with him a collection of curios and objets d’art that he had started to amass at his former pub, the Duke of Cambridge in Whitechapel Road.
Survey of London:
Contrary to popular belief, Brown’s collection was not the product of casual deals with sailor patrons on shore leave, but was carefully built up through purchases from dealers or via a number of overseas agents. Brown, the origins of whose wealth are obscure, acted as unofficial banker to many customers, and was often supportive of their interests. He is said to have given away large sums in aid of the 1912 dockers’ strike, and he was made honorary treasurer of the Stevedores’ Union.
The Edwardian and 1920s fascination with the Limehouse Chinatown as a hotbed of gaming, white-slavery, drug-taking and subversion — fuelled by popular writers such as Thomas Burke and Sax Rohmer, and a few sensational criminal cases — put Charlie Brown’s at the centre of the tourist’s map of dockland. After the First World War, charabanc-parties of sensation-seekers regularly descended on the pub. Famous visitors included King Alphonso of Spain, the actress Anna May Wong, and local politician George Lansbury.
Brown died in 1932 and his daughter Ethel took over the running of the pub along with her husband. Charles Brown Jr. became landlord of the Blue Posts pub across the road (more about this pub below).
No sound on this 1945 film, unfortunately:
The pub was demolished in 1989, having to make room for the Limehouse Link roadway.
57-77 West India Dock Road
The following photo by William Whiffin shows the Poplar Training School Band marching in West India Dock Road in the 1920s. Recognizable on the left are Harry Jacobs’ outfitter’s shop, J. Downton & Co (pump makers), Blue Posts (surrounded by scaffolding) and the Fire Station.
The Toll Gate
As was the case with Commercial Road, West India Dock Road was operated as a toll road by the dock company who also recovered some of its road-construction costs by selling parcels of land along the road. The original toll gate was just south of Pennyfields, but later it was replaced by a toll house in the road close to King Street (later renamed Ming Street) which operated until the abolition of the tolls in 1871.
The following photo shows the toll house. Some of the buildings in the background are identifiable in the William Whiffin photo above.
The Blue Posts
Just past the toll gate, at 73-75 West India Dock Road, was The Blue Posts pub, which is on the right in the following photograph, taken from King (later Ming) Street looking over West India Dock Road towards Charlie Brown’s and Garford Street. It became the Buccaneer shortly before its demolition in 1987–8.
The fire station was completed in 1868 The adoption of motorized fire engines led to a reduction in the number of stations required, and a report in 1920 recommended the closure of Poplar Fire Station. The building then had a number of owners before it was demolished in 1987-8 for road improvements:
- 1920-28 – London Salvage Corps.
- 1928-69 – T. F. Maltby Limited, stevedores
- 1970-?? – Crome & Mitchell, nut merchants
West India Docks Station
This was opened in 1840 as part of the London and Blackwall Railway. The platforms were timber built onto the viaduct. It was partly rebuilt by the Great Eastern Railway in 1896. It closed in 1926 and was demolished in 1931. The DLR station is in the same vicinity. The station included some rudimentary goods handling equipment in the shape of a crane and some chutes.
Today, West India Dock Road no longer goes under the railway viaduct to the main West India Dock entrance. For history and images of the other side of the railway line, you might want to take a look at this earlier article: A Small Corner of The West India Docks.
Many other changes have taken place along West India Dock Road since the late 1980s. Or, to put it another way, much has been demolished thanks to the creation of the Limehouse Link road and tunnel. There is little or nothing left to remind us of the colourful history of the road. You can go on to Google Street View and have a look around, but this ‘Then and Now’ image sums if up for me.