Fred & Thomas Thorne – Isle of Dogs Builders of Note

Fred & Thomas Thorne ran a building firm on the Island that operated from 1898 until 1952. Their main premises were at 266 Manchester Road (next door but one to the Cubitt Arms) which had a large yard and a number of buildings to the rear. For many years they also occupied part of the former premises of the East Ferry Road Engineering Company (opposite The George).

In researching the many articles I’ve written for this blog I have come across their name time after time, and have gradually come to appreciate the scale of their business. The cottages in Jubilee Crescent, the rebuilding of Cubitt Town Primitive Methodist Church, the construction of the ‘Canadian Estate’ off Preston’s Road, the construction of the first Island Baths, houses in Westferry Road and Mellish Street, and more…. the Thorne Brothers were not only involved, they were mostly the main building contractors. They were also significantly engaged in the development of Millwall Athletic.

Not by any means the small firm I assumed it to be when I first encountered the name.

266 Manchester Road in circa 1930. The two men on the right are Thomas Thorne and Fred Thorne. Top right is a glimpse of the Cubitt Arms. Photo courtesy of Ronald Thorne.

Fred (1868-1949) and Thomas (1871-1941) and their many siblings were born in Yarnscombe, Devon, to Henry Thorne and Jane Thorne (nee Fisher). Records show that the brothers moved to the Isle of Dogs in their early 20s and both married Poplar girls. In 1888, Fred married Portia Guy from Bromley and the couple eventually lived at 266 Manchester Road. In 1893, Thomas married Limehouse-born Edith Burgoine at Christ Church and the couple lived at her father’s chandler’s shop – a greengrocer’s in modern parlance – at 212 Westferry Road.

Six Thorne brothers. Fred and Thomas are front-row centre and right. Photo: Ronald Thorne.

Their earliest building venture that I am aware of – and it was surely not their first – was in 1900 when they were about 30 years’ old. Bus proprietor George Middleditch operated his buses out of a yard just north of Kingsbridge and engaged the Thornes to build him a terraced row of three houses, numbers 227A-C Westferry Road. Survey of London:

Single-fronted and ornamented with the plainest of moulded dressings, they had narrow round-arched doorways opening straight off the pavement. Each house accommodated two families. They were demolished c1987.

1980s. On the left, 227A-C Westferry Road. Photo: Bill Regan

George Middleditch family/employees. Extract from an Island History Trust calendar

At around the same time Fred & Thomas Thorne built the first Island Baths in close by Glengall Road (the section of road now named Tiller Road).

Island Baths in about 1930, shortly before it was rebuilt (the new building was seriously damaged during WWII). Photo: Island History Trust

One street north of Glengall Road was/is Mellish Street. In 1901-2 Fred & Thomas Thorne built numbers 107-129 (0dd).

1953. On the left, 115 and higher Westferry Road (right to left). Many other houses with lower house numbers were destroyed during WWI. Photo: Keith Charnley

Amazingly enough, by Island standards, these houses are still standing!

In the year that these houses were completed the Thornes took over part of the premises of the former East Ferry Road Engineering Company who had ceased operating there a few years earlier.

Location of works of East Ferry Road Engineering Company

In the same year the Thorne brothers commenced work on a project of a far larger scale altogether, the construction of the so-called ‘Canadian Estate’ between Preston’s Road and Gaselee Street. Yes, I know the estate was just off the Island, but it has to mentioned.

Map c1950

Survey of London:

The six blocks were named Ottawa, Baffin, Ontario, Hudson, Quebec and Winnipeg Buildings (often referred to as the ‘Canadian Estate’) and were built by F. & T. Thorne of Manchester Road between 1902 and 1904. In plan they were very similar to the Raleana Road and Cotton Street housing, with a combination of two- and three-room tenements, each with its own w.c., scullery and ventilated lobby, but in this instance access to the buildings was via a staircase entered from the yard on the ground floor, with balconies running along the top four storeys facing the yard.

Circa 1904, just before the flats were completed. Demolished in the 1970s.

At the same time, ‘Fred & T. Thorne’ – as they were more commonly named, reflecting Fred’s senior and more active position in the firm – built St Lawrence Cottages, also part of the estate.

Diagonally opposite the Thorne’s firm was the Cubitt Town Primitive Methodist Church. When it was decided to rebuild the church in the early 1900s, Fred played a very significant role in the fund-raising.

1900s. Photo and text: Island History Trust. Fred Thorne and his family moved to Blackheath some time after this photo was taken.

1904. Artist’s impression of the new Cubitt Town Primitive Methodist Church

1905 trustees of Cubitt Town Primitive Methodist Church. Photo and text: Island History Trust

The Cubitt Town Primitive Church in the 1970s. Photo: Pat Jarvis

Fred’s role was commemorated on the building’s foundation stones, which were removed when the church was demolished in the 1970s and can now be found cemented into the wall of Newcastle Draw Dock in Saunders Ness Road (opposite the Watermans’ Arms):

Photo: Peter Wright

Photo: Peter Wright

Fred’s evident community spirit extended also to him becoming one of the first shareholders in Millwall Athletic, purchasing 20 shares (the highest shareholders had 30 shares each). His brother Thomas even became director of the club.

A notable – but by no means large – project for the firm in 1935 involved the transport of huge propellers that had been built by Manganese Bronze of Westferry Road. The propellers were transported by road – by Millwall hauliers, H. Burgoine & Sons (I wonder if they were family of Thomas’s wife, wouldn’t surprise me) – and the transport was so large that the lorries could not negotiate ‘The Walls’ without some sections  being demolished. These sections were later rebuilt by F. & T. Thorne.

In 1935, F & T Thorne built the cottages in the Jubilee Crescent – on former allotment plots opposite their Manchester Road premises. Survey of London:

They were built for R. & H. Green & Silley Weir Ltd, the local ship-repairing firm, for retired workers in the shipbuilding and repairing industries. They were the personal brainchild of the chairman of the firm, John Silley, who knew that many men in these two industries could not afford to retire at 65 and maintain a home on the old-age pension.

1935. Some of the first residents of Jubilee Crescent outside their new homes. Photo: Island History Trust

In 1938, F & T Thorne constructed the new main building at Hawkins & Tipson’s Globe Rope Works in East Ferry Road.

c1938, Hawkins & Tipson, East Ferry Road. Since demolished.

Apart from a few houses in Mellish Street, all pre-WWII buildings constructed by the Thornes survived the war. The same could not be said for their East Ferry Road premises. Bill Regan reported the aftermath of bombing during the night 28th June 1944 in his diary:

Awakened after dozing for about 15 minutes or so, at about 5.30 a.m. To Glengall Grove and East Ferry Road; Post Office, wrecked, the George, six shops also. Westminster Bank and Thorne’s joinery works completely demolished. Glengall Grove, Launch Street, Galbraith Street, proportionally damaged by blast. About a dozen Light Rescue men there, a light job, and they send for heavy, after almost completing the job.

Thomas had died in 1941, and Fred a few years after the war. In 1952 their company was wound down and 266 Manchester Road was vacated. Its ground floor was used as a temporary bank for a few years.

1953. 266 Manchester Road

In the 1980s, WWII rescue worker Bill Regan, who reported the destruction of the Thorne’s East Ferry Road premises, took a photo of their former Manchester Road premises. Part of the Thorne’s painted sign is just visible next to the advertising board.

Photo: Bill Regan

This building has also since been demolished.

Directly opposite, however, Jubilee Crescent is still going strong. I imagine the Thorne brothers were very proud to walk out of their firm, or look out of the windows, and directly see the fruits of some of their work.

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9 Responses to Fred & Thomas Thorne – Isle of Dogs Builders of Note

  1. David Searls says:

    Love this latest post, brings back many memories. Our family business occupied 266 Manchester Road from the early sixties trading as Cubitt Town Transport.

    On Wed, 8 Dec 2021, 19:51 Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives, wrote:

    > Mick Lemmerman posted: “Fred & Thomas Thorne ran a building firm on the > Island that operated from 1898 until 1952. Their main premises were at 266 > Manchester Road (next door but one to the Cubitt Arms) which had a large > yard and a number of buildings to the rear. For many ye” >

  2. Rich says:

    Another great post Mick
    Looking at all those photos again reminded me of what has actually gone on before.
    You mentioned Manganese Bronze and yes I also remember them what with the gigantic propellers they made for the Queen Mary liner

  3. Nicholas Sack says:

    Thanks for another fascinating post, Mick. Funny to think that walls had to be demolished for propellers to be transported off the island. And it’s good that the Thornes have left such an attractive legacy in Jubilee Crescent. Whenever passing, I’m struck by the exotic, colonial appearance of the houses with gleaming white-painted balconies.

  4. Ann Williams says:

    Lovely piece! I have no connection with Isle of Dogs at all, but I’m fascinated by local history and local architecture in particular. I’ve never seen anything like those Jubilee Crescent cottages before: well done to the Thornes for their work, and to the ship-repair firm for providing for their retired workers.

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