The West India Dock Road – A Short History

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 proposed new roads in c1800. (Name labels for the proposed roads are my own, and in the original version of this map, East India Dock Road was not shown at all.)

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.

Development of West India Dock Road area. Click for full-sized image.

Late 1940s. West India Dock Road in the post-WWII ruins of Poplar. Click for full-sized version. Photo: http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk.

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.

Late 1800s (estimated). Eastern Hotel.

1927

1977. London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=123854)

1990, by which time the Londoner (formerly named Eastern Hotel) had been demolished to widen the junction. Also, the construction of new buildings in and around Canary Wharf was in full swing. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

Recently. Much of the former site of the Londoner is surrounded by a huge hoarding meant to represent a building, complete with an advertising screen.

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).

c1950 map (with an incorrectly spelled Pigott Arms)

The building, which still exists, was built in 1901 and was funded by newspaper owner and philanthropist John Passmore Edwards.

c1950 (estimate)

Recently

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).

1965. 2-12 (right to left) West India Dock Road. London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=123812)

1970s. The dental surgery used to be a butcher’s shop.

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.

German Sailors’ Home.

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.

2010s

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.

Nos. 3-5 and 7 West India Dock Road.

1963. Outside 3-5 West India Dock Road. Jim Watts, husband of Queenie Watts, in a screenshot from the documentary, Portrait of Queenie.

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.

1970s

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.

1970s. Former Coubro & Scrutton premises at 11 West India Dock Road

3-11 West India Dock Road recently.

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.

1925. Lascars in West India Dock Road

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).

c1900

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.

Wikipedia:

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.

1902. The main hall of The Strangers’ Home

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.

Daily Herald, April 1919

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.

1946 aerial photo of construction of West India House (www.britainfromabove.org.uk)

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):

Late 1940s (estimated). West India House. The coat of arms on the side of the building is that of Stepney Borough Council.

An unusual view of West India House from below street level

Present-day image of the former Coubro & Scrutton’s building and West India House.

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.

1890 map

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.

West India Dock Road

Is the shop just visible on the right of the following photo the same place?

1964. 26-32 (right to left) West India Dock Road. London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=101518)

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.

1925. The three men leaning against the fence outside Dunbar House look to me like the same Lascars as in the photo above in this article.

In 1871, 40 West India Dock Road was owned by the Kirkaldys – a father and sons business consisting of plumbers, painters and marine engineers.

1889

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

c1950

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.

1960s (estimated)

1970s (estimated)

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.

1962

At No. 27-29 is Limehouse Police Station, built in 1940 on the site of an earlier police station.

Original Limehouse Police Station (click for full-sized version)

1960s

1970s

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.

1920s (estimated) 41 West Ferry Road

1920s. The Oporto Tavern

1960s. The Oporto Tavern

c1980. The Oporto Tavern

Recently (and looking pretty good)

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.

1950, showing the planned extension to Westferry Road. The map also shows the extent of the bomb damage in the area.

1970s. Oporto Tavern viewed from Westferry Road. On the left, the offices of the building firm R.W. Bowman Ltd and the TGWU building (both demolished).

1983. West India Dock Road and its junction with Westferry Road are at the top of the photo.

72-86 West India Dock Road

1890

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

1932. No. 45 West India Dock Road is on the left.

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.

1963. London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=123866)

88-116 West India Dock Road

1890

The 1963 photo above shows a distinctive building at 88 West India Dock Road, the former premises of engineering firm, James Walker & Co.

1800s. James Walker’s premises on the right, the West India Docks on the left.

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.

1970s. West India Dock Road, Nos. 88 (right) and higher (left)

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).

1970s

1980s. An old road sign is still in place directing drivers to Millwall by turning right into Garford Street. Photo: Tim Brown

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).

April 1944

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

57 West India Dock Road, on the corner with Pennyfields.

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.

1920s. William Whiffin

Year unknown. The same view as the previous photo.

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.

1868. The toll gate and houses are shown in the centre of the map.

The following photo shows the toll house. Some of the buildings in the background are identifiable in the William Whiffin photo above.

Late 1800s. Toll House. London Metropolitan Archives (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=231683)

The Blue Posts

May be an image of one or more people and people standing

Late 1800s. Left to Right: Blue Posts, Fire Station, Railway Station

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.

1925. Charlie Brown’s and The Blue Posts

1970s. Charlie Brown’s and The Blue Posts

1987. Charlie Brown’s and The Blue Posts (which by this time had been renamed The Buccaneer). Photo: Tim Brown

Fire Station

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

1905. Fire Station. London Metropolitan Archives. (https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/view-item?i=215176)

1940s. A lorry which had crashed into a bomb crater. The former fire station is visible across the road.

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.

1840s. West India Dock Railway Station left, and the warehouses of West India Docks in the background.

View from more or less the same place in 1990. You can see the warehouses if you look carefully. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

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.

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14 Responses to The West India Dock Road – A Short History

  1. Jan Hill says:

    Mick, very much enjoyed this article. Brought back some memories. I remember Senefts and the murder. I would have been quite small at the time. Also my dad used to go to a Chinese restaurant, presumably just for a cuppa, in west India dock road which I remembered as having steps up to it so was interested in Up The Steps. When I married in 1969, we lived in south woodford and the nearby pub was called Charlie Browns and I think it had all the curios from the original Charlie Brown’s. All the best. Jan

  2. Nicholas Sack says:

    Thanks, Mick, for such a detailed history of a road I often walk – and thought I knew well. I hadn’t realised that the legendary Charlie Brown’s pub, which features in Bill Brandt’s famous photos from the 1940s, was still standing and possibly even trading when the DLR was running past the upper windows! Also loved this vignette about The Strangers’ Home, 1886: “five Punjabi performers and a bear were evicted for not paying rent”.

  3. Mike Green says:

    Brilliant stuff this, Mick. I’m in awe of your diligent and thorough research and attention to detail – like spotting those three lascars in both pics! My grandfather Marney Green was a docker living in Ebenezer Place just off West India Dock Rd in 1919 and I wonder if he took part in that riot outside the Strangers’ Home, or the dock strike in 1912 when he was aged 22? Loving your work, please keep it coming!

  4. Con Maloney says:

    Mick, you’ve written some great blogs but this is my favourite of them even though it’s not about our Island! So much history crammed into a few hundred yards, from ‘the Eastern’ to ‘Charlie Brown’s’. Superb.

  5. Alkamal says:

    Marvellous article. Loved poring over each and every photo and the history of this road. I did not realise how different that area looked prior to the Limehouse Link.

  6. Bill says:

    Great article as usual Mick, wonderful detail. Plenty of invoked memories… Remember Chings well, we just called it Paulines and “up the steps” (think they served curry sauce in a sterilised milk bottle). Also The Buccaneer, Probably the 2nd pub I drank it. My mum and dad were horrified I was drinking in The Blue Posts!

  7. Kevin Gates says:

    Great article Mick with your usual thorough research. Great to see my old Grandma Surry’s home Providence House in some of the ariel photos, it was a pioneering form of social housing in its day when it was built around 1935. Many a good time spent on the top floor balcony looking over the docks with my Uncle’s (both dockers) explaining what the ships flags meant and where they had come from

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