The Isle of Dogs in the Fifties

Close to one third of the Isle of Dogs’ housing stock was lost to bombing during WWII – a high proportion even compared to East End levels of destruction – and in 1950 the damage was still evident.

Maria Street diagonally from bottom left, with Janet Street and St Hubert’s House in the background. The cleared site was once the location of Millwall Central School, destroyed during WWII.

A travelling knife sharpener outside St Hubert’s House, with Maria Street and St Luke’s Church in the background. Photo by Rosemary Freeman, courtesy of her son John.

The Happy Go Lucky off license on the corner of Glengall Grove (foreground) and Strattondale Street (right).

Cubitt Town ( Click for full-sized version.

North Millwall ( Click for full-sized version.

The north end of The Walls looking south, with Providence House lower left ( Click for full-sized version.

Buildings on the Isle of Dogs destroyed or damaged beyond economic repair during WWII. Map: Mick Lemmerman

Temporary housing in the form of prefabs and Orlit houses had been built, and there had been some patching up of the buildings which could be repaired, but – due to post-war austerity – new housing developments on a large scale were yet to commence.

Looking north from an upper story of Glengall School, with St John’s Church and West India Docks visible in the distance.

Stewart Street. Photo: Christopher Dunchow

Stebondale Street

Parsonage Street. Photo: Valerie MacDonald Cattle

The scarcity of places to live was reflected in the population figures: in 1950 the population of the Isle of Dogs was under 10,000, less than half its size before the start of WWII (and back to the same size it was in the 1860s, almost a century before).

Graph: Mick Lemmerman

From 1950, major new housing schemes started in Poplar, with virtually all homes being in the form of council flats. This marked a major change to the character of housing on the Isle of Dogs: before WWII there were comparatively few flats and most homes were privately owned. By 1980, however, much of the pre-war Island had been swept away and replaced by new housing estates, with almost 100% of people living in council homes.

During the 1950s, the new developments were probably welcomed by Islanders. The first homes – for example those in the St John’s Estate around Castalia Square, or those in Alpha Grove – were low-rise, sympathetically built and often occupied by (returning) Islanders. Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, was also impressed, writing in 1956:

John Betjeman, The Spectator, 1956

Street layouts also remained pretty much unchanged at first, and pre-WWII Island communities could re-establish themselves. Life was returning to normal, and during a decade which saw economic recovery in the UK. I can imagine there was some optimism amongst Islanders at the time; and if you were a kid then, so many bomb sites to play on!

1950s. Click for full-size version

1950 (wiki)

Clara Grant & Gilbertson Houses were opened in Mellish Street. They were named after Clara Grant, who had done much for poor children at the Fern Street Settlement in Bow, and John F. Gilbertson, a former long-serving member of the Borough Council.

Clara Grant House, Mellish Street

Poplar Borough Council Minutes 1950/51. The Manchester Road development concerned what was later named Betty May Gray House (opened in 1953) named after Betty May Gray whose endowment helped fund the construction (she had nothing to do with the Isle of Dogs, but had left considerable funds in her will with the stipulation that they be used to provide housing in deprived areas).

Work started on Cressall House in Tiller Road with the block opening a year later. It was named after the recently deceased, former member of the Borough Council, George J. Cressall (husband of Nellie Frances Cressall).

Cressall House, Tiller Road

Christine Coleman and brothers outside the entrance to Cressall House later in the decade. Behind them, on the left, the bomb-damaged Island Baths. Photo: Christine Coleman

Seyssel Street, year unknown. Photo: Christine Egglesfield

Jim Devlin singing in the Newcastle Arms (later Waterman’s Arms). Year unknown. Photo: Island History Trust

1951 (wiki)

Scheduled to be an exhibition ship in the Festival of Britain, the Cutty Sark was towed into the Millwall Docks Graving (or Dry) Dock for survey.

February 1951. Cutty Sark in Millwall Docks

Another consequence of the Festival of Britain was the repair and reopening of the West India Dock Pier at the river end of Cuba Street which had been destroyed by bombing in March 1941.

1950/51 Poplar Borough Council Meeting Minutes

Section of an advertising poster

A ferry departing from West India Dock Pier.

Timber firm, Oliver & Sons, whose yard and sheds were also damaged during WWII, took over and cleared the former East Ferry Road Engineering Works site just north of The George.

Oliver & Sons Timber Yard in East Ferry Road. Skeggs House in the background was opened in 1956, which dates this Island History Trust photo to at least the late-50s.

Tooke Street. In the background, Alpha Grove and the Millwall Dock Western Granary warehouses. Photo: David Lloyd.

Further up (or down, depending on your perspective) Tooke Street. Photo: Peter Wright.

If you followed Tooke Street as far as Westferry Road and turned left, you would come across the Millwall Independent Chapel just round the corner.

Millwall Independent Chapel

This unremarkable building had an interesting history. Survey of London:

The first place of worship built on the Isle of Dogs since the medieval chapel of St Mary, this was erected in 1817 by a congregation which had been meeting since 1812, at first in a house on the Mill Wall belonging to John Howard, a mast- and block-maker. Prominent in the founding of the chapel were Prows Broad, whose boatbuilding yard was nearby, and George Guerrier, a grazier, who contributed largely to the cost. Guerrier died in 1824 and was buried at the chapel (the only known place of interment on the Isle of Dogs since medieval times).

The chapel closed about 1908, after which it became a girls’ institute and later a printing works. Disused and dilapidated by 1951, it was pulled down soon afterwards. In 1981 the date-stone from the front of the chapel was in a garden at Shenfield*.

* I’d love to know where in Shenfield…..

1951 also saw LCC proposals to connect Island Gardens with Millwall Park by means of a green space following the path of the old Millwall Extension Railway. A good idea, I think, but nothing came of it. Today, apartments and the rowing club are on the site.

LCC proposal to connect Millwall Park to Island Gardens

1952 (wiki)

24 three-storey houses were opened at Nos 85–131 (odd) Alpha Grove.

Alpha Grove

Alpha Grove

Building work on St John’s Estate started early in the year.  A foundation stone in the wall of 12 Castalia Square marks the commencement of the estate.

Foundation Stone, Castalia Square

Castalia Square Construction. Photo: Island History Trust

St John’s Church, Roserton Street, was damaged during air raids in 1941 and was abandoned and eventually demolished in the 1950s. Survey of London:

Worship continued in a temporary ‘church’ in the hall on the opposite side of Roserton Street. Between 1939 and 1947 St John’s lost 90 per cent of its communicants, and the three Island parishes were merged in 1952 under the title of the Parish of Christ Church with St John and St Luke, with Christ Church as the parish church.

Derelict St John’s Church, possibly during demolition

East Ferry Road, with St John’s Hall on the right being repaired.

The first of the Poplar’s prefabs were demolished in 1952, but it was 1977 before the last was removed.

Wedding of the Barry family. Photo: George Warren / Island History Trust

Canary Wharf

Lorries queuing in Millwall Docks

Cubitt Town School in Saunders Ness Road (now the location of St Luke’s School) was rebuilt in 1938 but the new building was all but destroyed during one of the worst WWII bombing tragedies on the Island (described in this article). The again-rebuilt school was opened in 1952.

Cubitt Town School. Photo: Christine Egglesfield

1953 (wiki)

Another eventful year, this time thanks to the coronation of a new queen. There are very many photos remaining of the street parties on the Island, too many to include here, so here are just a few…

Mellish Street. Photo: John Fairweather (who appears to be sitting bottom left).

Manchester Road, Glen Terrace. Photo: Island History Trust

The following photo shows the footbridge that used to connect Hesperus Crescent and Chapel House Street over a railway siding. The rails were long gone by the time of this photo and later in the decade (in 1959 to be precise) Poplar Borough Council purchased the strip of land and demolished the footbridge.

Hesperus Crescent

Photo: Island History Trust

In December 1952, G. W. Mansell’s lease on a piece of land off Harbinger Road had expired and the site reverted to Poplar Borough Council. The buildings were demolished in 1953, but it took a few years for flats (41-53 Harbinger Road) to be built on the site, eventually opened in 1957.

Site of future Nos. 41-53 Harbinger Road, looking from Hesperus Crescent towards Harbinger Road.

Further north in Millwall, boilermakers John Bellamy Ltd asked the Council for approval to close a portion of Tobago Street so that the land could be subsumed into their works.

Poplar Borough Council Meeting Minutes

Island Gardens in the 1950s. Photo: Island History Trust

Island Gardens in the 1950s.

1954 (wiki)

Manchester Road in the 1950s.In the middle on the left is Stebondale Street. On the right, the Princess of Wales (‘Macs’). Photo probably taken by William Whiffin.

During WWII, 80 per cent of the covered storage at the West India Docks had been lost. Replacements were sheds which were more suitable for mechanized operations, including two at the former Rum Wharf on the south quay of the Import Dock (one of these sheds was later occupied by Limehouse Studios), opened in 1954.

West India Import Dock, South Quay

West India Import Dock, South Quay

The London Tavern on the corner of Glengall Grove and Manchester Road lost its top floors during WWII, and the remains were demolished in 1954.

London Tavern

Dockers waiting for the call-on in East Ferry Road, close to The George.

Poplar Borough Council Meeting Minutes

1955 (wiki)

Survey of London:

The [Millwall Dock] entrance lock was set to be substantially repaired and altered in 1939, but the outbreak of war caused the work to be deferred. The lock was badly damaged in September 1940, when bombing destroyed the middle gates, hydraulic machinery, sluices, culverts and part of the south wing wall.

Damage to Millwall Dock entrance lock

Reconstruction to a revised version of the pre-war plans was proposed for 1949, but the work was postponed because of government restrictions on capital expenditure. By 1955 the cost of reconstruction could no longer be justified, and concern regarding the strength of the inner gates, and the effect of the unused lock on impounding and dredging costs, led to damming of the lock inside the Outer Dock.

Dam at Millwall Dock entrance lock. Michigan House, just south of the lock, was built between 1958 and 1960.

The dam was built in 1956 by John Mowlem & Company using precast-concrete blocks and timber taken from a temporary dam at the Royal Albert Dock. Redevelopment around the quays brought increasing traffic to the Millwall Docks in the 1960s, and a rebuilding of the lock was again considered before it was permanently closed in 1967, its east end filled so that the road bridge would not have to be replaced. The bridge was removed in the late 1970s.

Smiling neighbours watching a wedding group outside Christ Church. Photo: Elsey Family.

George Clark & Sons Ltd. rebuilt their Broadway Works sugar manufacturing plant during the late 1940s and early 1950s, with completion in 1955 (the year before the firm was acquired by Brown & Polson who themselves were acquired by Tate & Lyle).

Rebuilding at George Clark & Sons, Broadway Works, Alpha Grove.

Firemen were called into action at a fire in the area of land between Manchester Road, Barque Street and Saunders Ness Road. The land was owned by the Calder wharfingers, whose Calder’s Wharf was adjacent. In the photo, the firemen are cooling down barrels of collodion cotton and boxes of paint – inflammable materials that really ought to have been stored more securely and not in the open behind housing. The windows of the Barque Street houses in the background were shattered by the explosion and heat from the fire.

May 1955. Photo: London Fire Brigade

As mentioned earlier in this article, St John’s Church was demolished in the 1950s and the close-by former hall refitted as the new church. This church was dedicated in 1955.

Dedication of St John’s Church in the former mission hall

Next to the hall, a new clergy-house was also built, along with numbers 521 and 523 Manchester Road. All three buildings are visible in the following aerial photo.

Part of the St John’s Estate in the 1950s.

1956 (wiki)

Lenanton’s built new concrete sheds and extended their wharf southwards during the 1950s and 1960s, absorbing other wharves along the way. Survey of London:

In 1954–6 the office block was enlarged and remodelled and a works canteen was built above the entrance from Westferry Road.


Start of the Island Road Race, organised by the Dockland Settlement. The racers, ran up East Ferry Road to the Queen, and turned right to follow Manchester Road back to East Ferry Road, a distance of 2 miles. If you want to run it today, be prepared to run an extra 50 yards or so due to rerouting of East Ferry Road in a couple of places. Photo: Island History Trust

Running down Glengall Grove towards Manchester Road. Photo: Island History Trust

George Green’s Playing Fields in Millwall Park. Photo: Ada Price

The paddling pool in Millwall Park. Photo: David Lloyd

1956. Many Wrights outside 36 Alpha Grove. Photo: Peter Wright

1957 (wiki)

Jayne Mansfield behind the bar in The George. Photo: Tarbard Family.

Tooke Arms.

Maple House shortly after opening.

Strattondale Street (more or less opposite the library). In the background are the sheds of the Transporter Yard in the Mudchute, where ASDA now stands.

1958 (wiki)

Kingfield Street. Photo: Ada Price (forgive me, Jan Hill, if this photo was taken much later and I just added years to your age 🙂 )

The LCC launched a programme to improve some of the dwellings they had built between the wars. This applied also to flats in the West Ferry Estate (Cahir Street) which had gas hot-water systems installed.

Outside Akbar House. Photo: Christopher Gary Stevens

The following photo shows a bridge-component built by Westwood’s being transported from their Harbinger Road yard. The corner out of the yard into Harbinger Road was too tight for a load of this side, so the lorry drove through Marsh Street into Cahir Street to reach Westferry Road. Note the WWII emergency water supply tank on the right of the photo, still in place almost 15 years after the end of the war.

Transport of bridge-component built by Westwood’s

Photo of ‘Nob’ Davison: Island History Trust

Christ Church. Photo by Rosemary Freeman, courtesy of her son John.

The following photo shows Crews Street. Most of the houses were damaged beyond repair during WWII. The council demolished them and those in Gaverick Street around this time. Only the Kingsbridge Arms and a couple of houses in Manchester Road remained standing. The space was variously used by road hauliers and the occupiers of Lowe’s, Winkley’s and Cyclops Wharves (Survey of London).

Crews Street

Westferry Road (Strafford Street on left). Photo by Rosemary Freeman, courtesy of her son John.

1959 (wiki)

Morton’s, one the Island’s largest employers for many decades had been taken over in 1945 by the Beecham Group who moved the operations to Lowestoft. Survey of London:

The Millwall works were gradually run down. Waterways Ltd, wharfingers, an associated company of Morton’s, occupied the riverside buildings for some years after the Second World War. A food and soft drinks distribution depot, with a north-light concrete shell roof, built in the 1950s on the corner of Westferry Road and Cuba Street, remained in use into the 1980s.


Survey of London:

The barge-bridge and the knuckles in the [Millwall Inner] dock impeded the PLA’s post-war modernization plans. Their replacement with an elevated walkway came under consideration from 1950, but before accepting this as necessary, the PLA sought Poplar Borough Council’s agreement to the displacement of the right of way.

There was strong local opposition, however, and so in 1958 the PLA asked Parliament for power to close the route. The Council, the LCC and Charles Key, the local MP, forced the PLA to reconsider and prepare schemes for adapting the pedestrian crossing.

In 1960 the PLA suggested either high-level footways with a double bascule bridge which would cost over £100,000, a tunnel under the dock for about £400,000, or a 180ft-high aerial cable-car for about £50,000. The bridge option emerged as favourite, the tunnel being too expensive for the PLA and the cablecar unpopular with the Council. A high-level bridge would keep the public out of the docks and allow barges to pass, opening only for ships.

The ‘barge bridge’ across Millwall Inner Dock, later replaced by the Glass Bridge.

Millwall Outer Dock

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to carry on reading at The Isle of Dogs in the Sixties.

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16 Responses to The Isle of Dogs in the Fifties

  1. Tom chittock says:

    I lived on the island at sir William Burnett in the caretakers house on site,
    We moved to Essex late 59-60,
    Don’t see many pictures of the site,

  2. blackbramling says:

    Absolutely brilliant. Thanks Mick

    Sent via BT Email App

  3. j.mcsweeney. says:


  4. Bill Wiseman says:


  5. Em says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog and remembering my family who lived on the island. Thank you.

  6. Pingback: Tear down | things magazine

  7. David Parsons says:

    I’m sitting here in Melbourne, Australia, utterly engrossed in this and other posts on this wonderful site. I got to know parts of the Isle of Dogs and Limehouse when working as a sales agent on a few developments there between 1997 and 2000 and have never lost my interest in its history and development.

    It’s probably trite to observe what has been observed many times before but this fascinating post shows how post-war (and immediate pre-war) planning policy was, in the longer run, far more destructive of organic street-level community, and of an urban landscape developed on a human scale to facilitate that community, than was the Luftwaffe.

  8. Barry Broom says:

    What a fascinating and nostalgic trip down memory lane. I have lived in Australia for many years but lived on “the Island” (as we called it) until my late teens. We lived opposite the Island baths in Glengall Grove (now named Tiller Road I believe) and I went to Glengall Grove Primary School on the corner of Manchester Road and then Harbinger Road secondary school. I crossed the pedestrian “barge bridge” numerous times, often waiting as the bridge was swung back by wire rope in order to let ships through. A lot of our family lived and worked on the Island, many later moving to various places in Essex. Like many children of the time we played on various bomb sites and we also use to climb over the fence to get into the Mudchute and catch newts in the water course there. The number 56 bus ran round the Island to Poplar and elsewhere and in my teens I quite often walked home because I had missed the last night bus ( I think they stopped running about 10.30 pm). I think that I have bored you and your readers enough! Thank you for the memories.

  9. Bob(Robert) Campbell says:

    Well, thank you so much for all the nostalgia you invoked with your pictures/article.Pics of my house,Westwoods where I helped build the same type of bridge(crane driver)Sitting here in Florida and seeing the Island I grew up on makes me proud to see my beginnings.

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