Most of the very many Isle of Dogs engineering firms from the past were unknown to me until I started learning about Island history a few years ago. A few firms, however, were familiar as they were still in business when I was a young kid in 1960s (or they were not operating any more but their signs and factories were still to be seen).
One of these was Samuel Cutler & Sons whose Providence Iron Works were opposite St Edmund’s School in Westferry Road (they also had a few buildings on the other side of the road, adjacent to the school). The following photo was taken in the 1960s, the decade that Samuel Cutler’s closed. By the way, all photos of Cutler’s workers in this article are courtesy of the Island History Trust collection (https://www.islandhistory.co.uk/).
Samuel Cutler Sr. opened his original Providence Iron Works in the 1850s on the former site of the Poplar Gas Light Company diagonally opposite Mellish Street. Assisted later by his sons Samuel Jr. and George – the firm Samuel Cutler & Sons manufactured:
… products included roofing, marine boilers and machinery, but they specialized in gasholders and other plant for the gas industry. They later developed a large business as general constructional engineers. (Survey of London).
A couple of years after the death of Samuel Sr. in 1870, the Providence Iron Works were moved to larger premises further south in Westferry Road.
Extract from 1924 Institution of Mechanical Engineers Obituary for Samuel Cutler Junior. the driving force behind the continuing growth and success of the company:
Mr. Samuel Cutler was the inventor of the triangular system of gas-holder guide-frame which bears his name, and this was adopted for important gas-holders in Denmark, Italy, in the East, and in South America.
The Kennington Lane gas-holder of the Phoenix Gas Co. was an interesting example of the firm’s boldness and pioneering skill in the construction of large holders.
As the years went on, still larger dimensions were reached. The works at Millwall were well placed for Continental business, and a 4 million cubic foot holder erected at Vienna, and subsequently removed to Berlin, afforded samples of the Firm’s activities.
Severe damage was caused by bombing in the Second World War. In the following aerial photo just a large amount of bomb-flattened space in the area, and Cutler’s shed roofs have been largely patched up or entirely replaced.
The works closed in the early 1960s – when the firm relocated to Telford – and the whole site had been cleared by the mid-1980s. It was redeveloped in the early 1990s as part of the Masthouse Terrace housing scheme.
What of the many gas holders built by Samuel Cutlers & Sons? The introduction of a national grid pipework for natural gas in the late 20th century meant that gas holders were no longer needed. With one or two exceptions (such as next the Oval), they have largely been demolished despite efforts to have them protected. For example, this gas holder built by Samuel Cutler & Sons in Hornsey was part of an action by locals and others to have it listed.
Industrial Archaeology News Issue 172. 2015 described it as follows:
The truth is Gas holder No 1 at Hornsey Gasworks is a remarkable, innovative and historic architectural structure and it is astonishing that it has remained neglected and unsung for so long.
It was constructed in 1892 and is the oldest surviving example of ‘Cutler’s Patent Guide Framing’, which enables a structure using a lattice of vertical guides and helical girders to provide the necessary rigidity with a relatively lightweight and strikingly elegant appearance.
Samuel Cutler & Sons of Millwall patented this helical shell concept in 1888. This is not to be confused with conventional rectangular frames with cross-bracing – it is a truly geodesic cylinder. It was thirty years in advance of Barnes Wallis coining the term ‘geodesic’ for these lightweight structures for airships and aircraft and fifty years ahead of Buckminster Fuller’s trendy geodesic domes.
The action to save the gas holders was however unsuccessful and they were demolished in 2016.
Closer to the Island there are other gas holders (again, built by Samuel Cutlers & Sons) that are currently under threat: these on the Regent’s Canal near Bethnal Green.
A couple of months ago, the planning committee of Tower Hamlets Borough Council voted to demolish the gas holders, making room for a housing association to build new homes on the site. Again, various groups have started an action to have them saved (and if you agree, you can sign their petition here: https://www.change.org/p/tower-hamlets-strategic-developement-committee-petition-to-tower-hamlets-council-objecting-to-st-william-homes-planning-application).
One argument is that they can be preserved by incorporating them in the new housing development, as has happened at King’s Cross (gas holders not built by Samuel Cutler & Sons) and in Dublin (where the gas holders were built by Samuel Cutler & Sons):
The company’s name is on a plate at the base of at least one of the large iron supports:
In Dublin, and in other places around the world, you can still find evidence of Samuel Cutler & Sons and other former manufacturing firms from the Isle of Dogs, including even in Hong Kong (if you’re confused by the year, the firm was still operating in 1981, just no longer on the Island).
You won’t find anything on the Isle of Dogs, though.