The Isle of Dogs has a rich history, but there is little evidence of that if you walk around the Island (and what remains is – admittedly – mostly less than spectacular). However, if you are that way inclined, it is worth standing still at a few of the less obvious places and looking for signs of the past.
1. The Walls
In medieval times, the only path around the Island followed the top of a man-made river embankment known as a wall. In March 1660, the embankment was seriously breached just south of Limehouse and a large part of the north of the Island was flooded by the Thames. Due to the width of the breach it was not practical to rebuild the embankment along its original path, so it was instead built further back from the original riverside, following the path of some of the breach. This resulted in a bulge or curve in the embankment path which could later be seen in the characteristic bends of the section of Westferry Road known locally as ‘The Walls’.
The reason for its name was the approximately 600 yard long, high dock wall which ran from the City Arms in the south to Emmett Street in the north. In sections, there were also once walls along the river side of the road.
The dock wall lost its purpose when dock operations ceased at the West India Docks in 1980, and in the following years it was demolished. Just a small section still exists at the northern end, separating Cannon Workshops from the road.
For more information about The Walls, see this article.
2. The Impounding Station
In order to maintain the water level of the docks, water had to be pumped in from the river to compensate for the water lost when the entrance lock gates were opened (and also to a lesser extent due to evaporation and leakage). This work was performed by so-called impounding stations, one of which is still operating at the former western entrance to the West India South Dock, immediately north of the site of the recently-demolished City Arms/Pride pub.
The impounding station was opened in 1929, and is capable of pumping 65 million gallons into the docks over a four-hour period around high tide. The building is not listed, or formally protected in any other way, but it should be free from the risk of redevelopment – for the time being at least – there remains an obligation for the water level of the West India Docks to be maintained in order for the docks to be able to accommodate ships of a certain size. Now managed by the Canal & River Trust (who organise occasional open days), the station is now fully automated and was recently restored.
3. Blacksmith’s Arms
Located at 25 Westferry Road, the pub opened as a beer house around 1895 and remained in business until 2001, when it was converted into a restaurant.
If you look up towards the roof, you can still see the orignal pub name…
4. Anchor & Hope
One of the earliest pubs on the Island, it opened as a beer house at 41 Westferry Road in 1829. It closed in 2005 and spent quite some time empty, and suffered a fire on the upper floors while derelict, before being renovated (during which one of the construction workers sadly died in an accident) and converted to flats and a sports school on the ground floor.
5. St Luke’s School
St Luke’s School started life in a so-called iron church (essentially, constructed with corrugated iron) built in 1865 on a piece of waste-land close to the east end of Strafford Street. The church became redundant upon the opening of St. Luke’s Church and in 1873 a new school was opened on the other side of Westferry Road from Strafford Street.
In 1971 the school transferred to the former Cubitt Town School in Saunders Ness Road. The old building was demolished and its site absorbed into Lenanton’s. The school’s memorial stone was preserved and can now be seen mounted on the wall close to the supermarket at 26 Westferry Road.
The memorial stone names some notable Islanders of time. The businesses of Robert Wigram, Samuel Cutler and John Lenanton were still operating a century later. William Bradshaw was the son of Henry Bradshaw – one of the first people to be registered as born on the Island, and who was involved in many local enterprises and organisations.
6. Bullivant’s Wharf
During the night of 19th-20th March 1941 – just over 80 years ago – more than 40 people were killed, and dozens injured, when the public air raid shelter at Bullivant’s Wharf, behind St Luke’s school, received a direct bomb hit. This was the Isle of Dogs’ worst wartime bombing incident.
I previously wrote two articles about the tragedy – one describing an investigation into its precise location and events, and another about the placing of a memorial on the site in 2014. The memorial is placed on a wall on Thames Path, best reachable via Hutching’s Street.
7. Magnet & Dewdrop
Located at 194 Westferry Rd, this pub was re-named the Telegraph in 1985. It closed in 1995 and was converted into housing.
8. The Vulcan
Located at 240 Westferry Rd. The Vulcan was established by 1882 and closed in 1992, becoming a grocer’s store and then a restaurant.
9. Marsh Street
The first purpose-built school on the Island was Millwall British School (aka British Street Millwall School), opened in 1847 in British Street on a site donated by the Countess of Glengall.
In 1873 the school moved across British Street to much larger premises. When British Street was renamed Harbinger Road in the 1930s, the school was also renamed, but its original name can still be seen on a set of tiles at the rear of the building in Marsh Street.
10. Hesperus Crescent
Hesperus Crescent was relatively unscathed by bombing during WWII, but on 19th March 1941 – during the same raid that caused the destruction of the Bullivant’s Wharf shelter – the terrace of seven houses at Nos. 1-13 (odd) were destroyed by bombing. No residents of Hesperus Crescent were killed, but three emergency service workers and a resident of Harbinger Road lost their lives.
The seven houses were replaced with six slightly larger houses – Nos. 1-11 (odd) – and as a consequence, there is no longer a No. 13 Hesperus Crescent
11. The Forge
The building now known as The Forge – seen hemmed in by new-builds in the previous photo – was once part of a huge (27-acre) complex occupied by the Millwall Iron Works. According to the Survey of London, The Millwall Iron Works of the 1860s was the most ambitious industrial concern ever established in Millwall, employing between 4,000 and 5,000 men (this at a time when the population of the Island was less than 9000).
In c1859, the works were taken over by Charles John Mare, an engineer and MP with a ‘colourful past’.
Mare was … an innovative East End shipbuilder. Thought to be a millionaire when he was returned for Plymouth in 1852, his election proved the apex of his career. He was unseated for bribery in 1853, and declared bankrupt, for the first of four times, in 1855.
Mare fitted up his new yard and engineering shops, and added rolling mills for iron plates and armour, investing about £100,000 in the mill. A metal plate on The Forge still bears his initials:
12. Robert Burns
During the construction of the Great Eastern, a handful of beer houses and pubs popped up in the area hoping to take advantage of the trade offered by workers and visitors. One of these was the Robert Burns at 248 & 250 Westferry Road, which was present by 1853 and closed in 1991.
The building now houses a mosque, a community centre and a take-away food outlet.
13. Great Eastern Slipway
It is well known that the Great Eastern was – due to its size – built parallel with the Thames and launched sideways (for details about the launch, see this article).
Sections of the ship’s launch ramps have been preserved on the river embankment, but you have to wait for low tide to see the concrete ramps at the river’s edge.
The previous image begins to give a better idea of the size of the Great Eastern, but we need to zoom out some more to fit the whole ship in.
14. Undine Road
A relatively new road situated between the former Millwall Dry Dock and East Ferry Road, it was also once the site of a refuse incinerator (one of its jobs was to destroy old bank notes; if I’d known that as a kid, I’d have been standing downwind every day, just in case….).
The unremarkable chimney, built in 1952, is all that survives of the Millwall Docks’ buildings. (Other Island chimneys are also described in this article – yes, I did write an article about Island chimneys.)
15. The Arches
Known simply as ‘the arches’ to most Islanders, the railway viaduct which runs through Millwall Park has lost its original purpose – albeit with a brief revival in the 1980s and 1990s when it was used by the Docklands Light Railway. The 2008 Millwall Park Management Plan accurately described it as:
…an important local feature, visually very important as a backdrop to activities in the park (and also a visual barrier) and a reminder of the industrial heritage of the area.
London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Look closely enough at the arches, and you will spot two things. The first being repairs made after WWII bomb damage (I have to admit that these are becoming very difficult to detect):
The second is a reminder of the time when the arches at the Dockland Settlement end were used as a public air raid shelter….
….the walls under the arches still hold tiny reminders of the shelter:
16. Dockland Settlement
The Welcome Institute, an organization established by philanthropist Miss Jean Price, provided hot meals at affordable prices to factory girls (serving anything between 70 and 170 girls a day), evening classes in dressmaking and needlework, Bible classes for boys and club-rooms for local football teams. In 1905, the institute moved from its damp, cramped premises at 333 Westferry Rd to a new building at 197 East Ferry Rd.
In 1923, following Miss Price’s retirement, the Welcome Insitute closed and the building was handed over to a youth-club organization founded by the former playwright Reginald Kennedy-Cox (1881-1966). Its official name became Dockland Settlement (No. 2).
Between 2009 and 2011 most of the old buildings was demolished, and a new school built on the site. The chapel (added in 1913-14) and rear building were retained, though, and you can see them if you walk a little further north up East Ferry Road.
See here for a full article about the Dockland Settlement.
17. Greenwich Ferry
For centuries, the Isle of Dogs was best known as a place to take the ferry to Greenwich (article here). One of the companies that plied the route over the years was run by the Greenwich Ferry Company, which made its first crossing in February 1888.
Centuries earlier, small boats were used to ferry passengers and sometimes horses and livestock across the river – but there was relatively little traffic, and it was customary to wait for the tide to be at the right height in order to able to board a boat.
Later, especially after the West India Docks opened, there was a much greater demand for the crossing, and ferry companies employed larger (later steam-powered) boats. Larger ferries required a pier, and the usual type was a floating pier which rose and fell with the tide. Depending on the height of the tide, however, the slope of the pier could be too great to be negotiated by horses and carts. For this reason, from some time during the 1800s, the Greenwich Ferry transported only foot passengers.
With its new “Greenwich Vehicular Steam Ferry”, the Greenwich Ferry Company made it possible to transport horses and carts again, using a novel system which towed horizontal platforms up and down a concrete slope to the level of the ferry.
A detailed description of the mechanics and the history of this ferry can be found on the very interesting website, The Forgotten Highway, which also explains why the ferry was shortlived:
Despite its mechanical ingenuity, the ferry was never a commercial success principally due to insufficient traffic. It closed between 1890 and 1892, then reopened and by the end of October that year traffic was said to be up to 500 vehicles and 1000 passengers weekly.
In 1892 Greenwich ferry owners were anxious for it to be taken over by the London County Council. It is stated as not being a remunerative service at half hour frequency, but it is still a worthy public utility. It would be for sale at a moderate price.
It finally closed for good in about 1899 after less than ten years active life.
The concrete slipway which formed the basis of this innovative ferry is still very much visible when the tide is low. You can’t see it from Ferry Street, but you can from the foreshore:
Another place to see it is from Locke’s Wharf, where you can see that stuff over the water at the same time.
18. Ferry Street
The following map shows the Victoria Iron Works in the 1870s (street names have changed since then – Johnson Street and this section of Wharf Road are now part of Ferry Street).
The large house on Wharf Road, next to Johnson’s Draw Dock, was built by William Cubitt in 1845 for the owners of the Victoria Iron Works. Remarkably, the house has managed to survive to this day (Its address is now 58-60 Ferry Street.). It is a large and attractive house, but its nicest features are largely hidden from the street.
19. Parsonage Street
No. 13 Parsonage Street, the house on the left in the following photo, looks somewhat different to the rest of the houses in the terrace. The bricks are different, and its front is closer to the road.
The reason for this, as many who live(d) in the area will know, is that No. 13 was completely rebuilt after the original was destroyed by a gas explosion in October 1976. Fortunately, nobody was home at the time.
20. Christ Church
There is much that can be written about the history of Christ Church, but here are just a couple of subjects.
St Mildred’s Windows
In 1873, the Millwall Dock Company built the Millwall Dock Club (for its permanent employees) behind St. Paul’s Church. The club wasn’t a long-term success, and it closed in 1892, after which its hall was taken over by St. Paul’s church, and the main building by an institute for poor women, known as St Mildred’s House (Mildred, was an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon abbess of the Abbey at Minster-in-Thanet, Kent.).
During WWII, St Mildred’s was seriously damaged, as the Church Times reported:
When a bomb hit the warehouse opposite, the street became a hot stream of peanut butter and for weeks, boots and carpets were saturated with the strong-smelling substance. Finally, a flying bomb fell within the dock gates and St Mildred’s walls were split from top to bottom.
St Mildred’s stained-glass windows were rescued and stored for safe keeping in McDougall’s flour mill (considered a safe storage place, with its thick concrete silo walls), after which all memory and trace of them was lost. Almost 50 years later, in 1990, they were found in an organ loft at Christ Church during renovations. They were cleaned and installed in the church (an action that was in part funded by Rank Hovis McDougall, a nice link to the past), where they can be seen today.
Reg Kingdon Memorial
Revd Reginald (better known as Reggie) Arthur Kingdon was the well thought-of vicar of St John’s Church in Roserton St. from 1917 until his retirement in 1948. From the outset, he endeared himself to the Islanders around him, being clearly concerned for the well-being of his parishioners. During WWII:
….he bestrode the parish with a tin hat on his head instead of his customary birette, but still with cassock, patrolling the air-raid shelters each night. The presbytery was destroyed by a direct hit on 19th March 1941. The church was battered but remained in use.
– Outposts of the Faith: Anglo-Catholicism in Some Rural Parishes, by Michael Yealton
Father Kingdon retired in 1948, and returned to Cornwall. He died in 1955, aged 86. A memorial to him was placed in St John’s, and this was moved to Christ Church when St John’s was demolished a couple of years later (ironically, he was very much opposed to the merger of the parishes of St John’s, Christ Church and St Lukes). Revd Kingdon is commemorated also by the naming of Kingdon House in Galbraith Street.
21. Pier Tavern
283 Manchester Road. This pub was built in 1863 and converted to a restaurant in March 2013. The restaurant has since closed and the building is being extensively redeveloped (only the facade remains).
22. Millwall Wharf
Millwall Wharf, on the riverfront off Manchester Road, contains a range of grade II listed warehouses. Built in the 1860s, the buildings are some of the few old industrial buildings still remaining on the Island.
The wharf previously extended to Manchester Road (see here for article), but all except the riverside buildings were demolished. Much of the original wharf wall along Manchester Road was used as a perimeter wall for the new housing built on the site. I am assuming that this was to save money rather than to preserve history. The results are quite patchy.
23. Cubitt Arms
262 Manchester Road. Opened in 1864 and closed in 2011. The pub was built by Henry Smallman, also responsible for building The Queen. The building exterior is far plainer than originally, with the more ornate features removed in the 1960’s.
24. The Priory
Not an old building by any means, but the name of the block at 45 Glengall Grove, Benedict Court, is a reminder of when this address was occupied by Benedictine Monks and was known as ‘The Priory’.
According to the Survey of London, No. 45:
…occupied by two young men who had trained as doctors before establishing the Priory, where they lived according to Benedictine rules as ‘the Monks of Cubitt Town’. The house was then fitted up with a chapel, library and club-room.
– Survey of London
25. Glen Terrace
No. 599 Manchester Road doesn’t look like its neighbours in Glen Terrace.
Many old (and not so old) Islanders will remember that there used to be a gap in the terrace here, not filled until a new house was built in the 1980s.
No. 599 was destroyed by Luftwaffe incendiary devices during the first night of the Blitz, 7th September 1940. Harry Easter, who lived at the address and was 15 at the time, shared his memories of the event with the Island History Trust:
A fire bomb attack. There were three of four of us putting buckets of sand over some that had started in the street. We had a shelter in the garden, but we thought we had do something about the fires, we just came out on our own, there were buckets of sand all over the place, left on doorsteps, or earth – anything we could get hold of.
At the back of 599 Manchester Road was the Dock Master’s House, if I remember rightly their trees were afire. I was over there with another chap, we were chopping down those trees, and this fell said, “Oh, look, there’s the house on fire, I think it’s the Easter’s”, and I looked up, and it was! Soon I came round to the front of the house, and the top was then well ablaze, and I thought I’d try to see what I could rescue. I whipped up to one of the bedrooms, got a pillow case and put all the cutlery in it.
Later, standing in the street with his mother and two of his sisters:
The firemen by that time had arrived with the Green Goddess and they were playing water on the house. The water was filtering down through the floors on to us, I remember how warm it felt because it had got heated by the fire, and I could hear the lumps of masonry falling onto the area steps and I can still hear those lumps falling down.
By then we had got tin hats from somewhere. Then we realized the house was a write-off, we just stood there for a while in bewilderment that they dare do that to us, then we turned away and made our way to my married stepsister who lived in Becontree.
26. Fishing Smack
9 Coldharbour. A pub was present at this location in the 1750s, then known as the Fisherman’s Arms.
The Fishing Smack was demolished in 1948, but a small section of its brickwork survives at the south corner of No. 7.
Not spectacular, not even that pretty, but I do like these quirky little reminders of the past.