Alfred E. Burrell was born in 1822 in the small market town of St Ive’s, Cambridgeshire. The 1861 census shows Burrell and his wife and children living in Hackney, and describes him as an ‘oil and colour manufacturer, employing 5 men and 5 boys’. His registered office at the time was in Minories, and his works were at ‘Queen Street, Mile End New Town’, the other side of the railway line from Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane. Burrell also had works in Southwark and – in 1874 – he opened a paint factory on Garford Wharf in Limehouse (at the river end of Garford Street).
When the huge Millwall Iron Works collapsed in the late 1860s, its land and buildings were divided into sub-plots which were acquired by different businesses. In 1888, Burrell acquired one such plot, complete with a number of buildings that had been built decades earlier for John Scott-Russell, builder of the Great Eastern.
In the following illustration of the Great Eastern (at the time, its name was still not fixed, and initially the name ‘Leviathan’ was used), the buildings on the left are among those later taken over by Burrell, some of which are still standing.
The most distinctive of these is the building now known as the ‘Plate House’ (but known to at least the early Burrell’s workers as the ‘Big Shop’).
This 1900 map shows the extent of works at the time (just in view on the right is a footbridge which connected the main works to other buildings on the other side of Westferry Road). In the following years, the firm extended to the north and to the south, absorbing its former neighbours’ land and buildings into an ever-growing Burrell’s Wharf.
Burrell’s also – in 1920 – acquired land a couple of hundred yards to the north in Westferry Road, where they built their Barnfield Works, shown as ‘Dye Works’ in the following photo.
The 1914 edition of “Who’s Who in Business” described the company as follows:
BURRELL & CO., Ltd., Colour and Varnish Makers. Established in 1852 by A. E. Burrell. Succeeded by the late ‘A. L. Burrell and E. R. Burrell (sons). Incorporated as a Limited Company in 1912. Directors: E. R. Burrell (Chairman ), P. E. Burrell, K. Burrell, J. B. Shand. Premises: Works, Burrell’s Wharf, Millwall, E., cover two acres, fully equipped with modern appliances.
Staff: Total, about 150. Branches: Sydney, New South Wales, Santa Cruz de Teneriffe, Mexico City, Madrid, Victoria, B.C., Buenos Aires. Agencies throughout the world.
Specialities: Burrell’s Snow-white Zinc Paint Burrell’s Durable Enamel; ” Limogene ” Enamel; Burrell’s Superfine Motor Body Varnish, Burrell’s Graphite Paint, &c. Patents: ” Helix” Roller Mills for the production of fine colours, pastes, &c.
Survey of London:
With the business concentrated at Burrell’s Wharf, extensive building was carried out. From the late 1880s until the early 1920s a succession of stores, warehouses, workshops and minor ancillary buildings appeared. Earlier buildings on the site were adapted and retained. The result was characteristic of Victorian industrial development at its most ad hoc.
The long building in the previous photo, one of two parallel workshops, had previously belonged to Venesta, manufacturers of all kinds of boxes, packing cases etc. (Stock Exchange Yearbook, 1908). Venesta moved their production to Silvertown in 1928 and, according to the Survey of London:
In 1935, after ‘many years’ of disuse, the former Venesta factory was acquired by a firm of wharfingers (in which Mr Calder, of Calder’s Wharf, had an interest), renamed Eastern Wharf, and thoroughly refurbished. In 1937 the name Whittock Wharf was adopted. After the Second World War the premises were amalgamated with Burrell’s Wharf.
During the war, the works produced a variety of chemicals for the government, including a constituent of flame-thrower fuel. Paint production ceased in 1943.
Burrell & Company Ltd was wound up in 1981, but colours were continued to be made at Burrell’s Wharf by Blythe Burrell Colours Ltd, a subsidiary of Johnson Matthey.
The works closed in 1986, two years’ short of a century after Alfred E. Burrell acquired the site in 1888.
After closure, the works were acquired by property developers, Kentish Property Group plc, who had plans to redevelop the site for housing while retaining its industrial architecture. The group also intended to create, according to the Survey of London…
…a complex of recreational, social and artistic facilities, it was to have become a cultural hub for the new Isle of Dogs.
However, the 1987 stock market crash led to the demise of the Kentish Property Group, and the Halifax Building Society (the main lender for the Burrell’s Wharf development) continued the development in a modified form, with less or little attention paid to the original cultural ideas. Still, at least a small part of the Island’s rich industrial heritage has been preserved.
Note the blue plaque commemorating the construction and 1858 launch of the Great Eastern at the site. The plaque was placed by the London County Council in 1954, and was removed in 1974 (why and by whom, I don’t know). English Heritage replaced it in 1992.