Burrell’s of Millwall

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’).

The Plate House as it looked in c1888, viewed from the river end of the building (Illustration: Survey of London)

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.

1900. Chas E. Goad Fire Insurance Map (British Library). Click for full-sized version.

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.


Year unknown. Workers in Burrell’s print shop

1913-14 Burrell’s Football Team. Photo: Roy Dennett / Island History Trust Collection

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.

1929. Burrell’s is highlighted on the left

1937. PLA Collection

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.

1958 or 1959 Burrell’s Works Dinner. Left to right: Eileen Cane, Nancy Wisewell, Carrie Dawson, Wally Terch, Ivy Byron, Cyril Herbert, Lil Chapman, Lil Anderson, (couple at back not known), Bella Garland and Nancy Bennett. Photo and caption: Island History Trust Collection

1979. A screenshot from ‘The Long Good Friday’ (released in 1980)

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.


1980s. Photos: Mike Seaborne

c1982. Plan: Survey of London


The works closed in 1986, two years’ short of a century after Alfred E. Burrell acquired the site in 1888.

1986. Photos: Survey of London

1986. Photos: Survey of London

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.

1986 or later.  Redevelopment of Burrell’s Wharf. Viewed from Westferry Road. Photo: Tim Brown

1986 or later.  Redevelopment of Burrell’s Wharf. Viewed from Westferry Road. Photo: Tim Brown

1986 or later.  Redevelopment of Burrell’s Wharf. On the left, one of the former Venesta buildings. On the right, new-build. Photo: Tim Brown

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.


2012. The Plate House viewed from my private yacht on the river (aka the ferry from the Tower to Greenwich).

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8 Responses to Burrell’s of Millwall

  1. richard debenham says:

    Hi Mick another great and highly researched article on Burrell’s wharf.

    I do remember it well.

    I was wondering Mick do you know why Cyclops wharf got its name because it does seem to be a strange name for whatever reason ? Kind Regards Rich

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Rich says:

    Another great and interesting article on Burrell’s Wharf Mick

    I was wondering do you know how and why Cyclops Wharf got its name ?

    Cheers Mick
    Kind Regards

  3. Allan says:

    Thanks for the detailed article Mick. I’ve lived at Burrell’s Wharf for the past 6 years, so find your history and photos extra interesting!

    You’ll be happy to know that scaffolding is currently going up around Plate House for repointing of the brickwork, so the preservation of this iconic building continues.

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