To my knowledge (and I am open to correction), there was never a ‘proper restaurant’ on the Isle of Dogs before the appearance in the late 1980s of the Gaylord Indian Restaurant at 141 Manchester Road in the former premises of Evans’ fruit and veg shop. I was thrilled that there was an Indian restaurant just ‘around the shops’, but also astounded. A restaurant? On the Island? In the same row as the betting shop, the chemist’s, Sinfield’s and the launderette? That can’t be right! Thirty-odd years later and the restaurant is still going strong.
By ‘proper restaurant’, I mean an eating establishment that you would visit primarily for social reasons, usually in the evening, often with friends, lovers or family. Historically there were businesses on the Island that described themselves as ‘restaurants’, but these catered for a very different type of customer: working men (mostly) and women (infrequently) who were looking for a daytime meal. Alcohol was rarely served, the food was simple fare, it was not unusual to visit and eat alone, and virtually all such establishments closed their doors at the end of the afternoon. They were what we would more recently call lunch rooms or cafes.
In addition to these were the places where you could buy cheaper, warm food to take away: pie shops, fried fish shops, and similar. Pub food was non-existent until relatively recently (unless you count crisps, peanuts, pickled eggs and pork scratchings as food).
The first places on the Island where it was possible to order sit-in food have their origins in Victorian coffee rooms or coffee houses. Initially, coffee rooms did what they said on the tin – they sold coffee – but by the start of the 20th century many also offered food. At the outbreak of WWI there were around 20 coffee rooms on the Island, mostly on the main roads where there was passing trade, like Westferry Road, Manchester Road and Glengall Road.
After WWI, however, mention of coffee rooms in trade and post office directories covering the Island all but disappeared. The businesses hadn’t disappeared, they just became more commonly known as dining rooms.
The oldest photo of dining rooms on the Isle of Dogs that I am aware of was taken just before WWI and shows the business that occupied two former shops at 124 and 126 East Ferry Road, just across the road from The George.
Another indication of the potential trade in the area is provided by the following photo, taken around the same time, and showing more dining rooms diagonally opposite, at 89 Glengall Road.
The George wasn’t missing a trick either. Survey of London:
Its prominent position close to the docks and station was exploited by its landlords: rooms were available for businessmen’s meetings and dining rooms and a large billiards room for their relaxation.
A couple of decades later, a little further along Glengall Road, the Cox family opened dining rooms in a former chandler’s shop….
Just north of the West India South Dock entrance was Charles Rich’s dining rooms in the building which would later house Leslie’s Cafe.
By the end of the 1950s, the name dining rooms was going out of fashion, and was being replaced by café (or cafe), taken from the French for coffee or coffee house. The dining rooms at 148 Manchester Road, owned by Edith Rutter in the 1950s, showed how names changed.
Ten to fifteen years later and the business was known as Edie’s Cafe, but the old painted sign remained. The cafe was owned by an Edith Anderson, possibly the same Edith who owned the dining rooms but who had since married (or divorced, of course)?
The interior certainly fits my memory of what cafes were like then….
Another cafe, not far away, was Parkside Cafe in Douglas Place, a cul-de-sac at the end of which used to be the main entrance to Millwall Park (Island Gardens DLR Station is on the site).
And also not far away was the cafe in Ferry Street which started life in 1910 as coffee rooms under North Greenwich Railway Station.
On 28th September 1940, The Millwall Docks Tavern & Hotel – a grand old building at the Kingsbridge entrance to Millwall Docks – was destroyed by bombing.
All that remained (just about) was the adjacent shed – on the right in the above photo – which probably housed stables when the pub first opened in 1869. In 1951, Dennis McGinnis ran a refreshment bar in the patched up shed, but by 1968 the business was owned by someone evidently named Bob.
In the 1970s, Bob was succeeded by Norman.
Later, Norman moved into more salubrious premises in the row of shops under Arethusa House.
Norman’s Nosh Bar was very close to my primary school, Harbinger. I lived opposite Christ Church, walked to and from school, and every day I passed Sid’s Cosy Cafe at 423 Westferry Road, opposite The Ship. It wasn’t much more than a shed really, like some other cafes on the Island, and it hadn’t changed much since its opening before WWI.
257 Westferry Road, opposite the Kingsbridge Arms (I’ve just realised that I frequently use pubs to reference a location 🙂 ) was a shop since the building was constructed in the 1800s.
No. 277 housed a cafe for a few years in the 1980s, until the buildings were demolished.
Every coffee room, dining room and cafe so far mentioned in this article is no more, and in almost cases the building has gone too. I planned to mention a couple of exceptions, including Harry’s Cafe at the north end of East Ferry Road, next to the old buildings which were recently illegally demolished.
Unfortunately I just found out that Harry’s Cafe has since closed for good.
The other exception was supposed to be the cafe in Island Gardens. However, this cafe is also permanently closed, earmarked for demolition, to be replaced with a pavilion-type building (the first design ideas for this building indicate it will be an oversized box-like structure which will be totally out of character in these small Victorian gardens).
Fish and chip shops, pie shops and similar were also prevalent on the Island (and, takeaway food is more popular then ever) offering warm food to be eaten outside in the street, or to take home. Fried fish shops became popular towards the end of the 19th century, when larger fishing boats and new trawling methods meant that fish could be caught in much larger quantities than ever before, driving down their price. Initially, some businesses sold wet fish, with fried fish as a side business, while others sold only fried fish and chips. By the way:
Most people think that Fish and Chips originated in England, this is not actually true. The real history of Fish and Chips is traced back to 15th Century Portugal where the dish really was invented.
According to trade, electoral and other historical records, there are/were at various times fried fish (or fish and chip) shops at:
- 6 The Quarterdeck
- 50 Glengall Road
- 80, 153, 156, 258 and 479 Manchester Road
- 62 Mellish Street
- 28, 33, 46, 91, 125, 329 and 427* Westferry Road
* This shop was actually in a small building at the rear of the address, accessible only via Chapel House Street
The chip shop at No. 6, The Quarterdeck – the Britannia Fish Bar – is relatively recent and doing good business. One other address – 153 Manchester Road – still houses a fish and chip shop (albeit one that has expanded the menu) and has a longer history.
I remember when the fish and chip shop opened at this address in the very early 1970s: The Skate Inn, owned by the Tremain family (hard not to remember it seeing as I lived almost above it and was a frequent customer).
The Tremains moved to this address when their business just across the road at 156 Manchester Road was earmarked for demolition (ostensibly to make room for the new George Green’s School, but the school was not built that far east).
An honourable mention must go to an entirely different kind of food shop: the Lickabowl pie and mash shop which was at No. 7, The Quarterdeck in the early 1980s. Pie and mash is my favourite food, and I did eat in the Lickabowl once or twice, but no pie and mash could ever be as good as that from Kelly’s as far as I’m concerned. I think most people prefer the pie and mash they grew up with, anyway. I am being diplomatic here, not wanting to start a debate about the best pie and mash, or whether the pies should be upside down, or which cutlery you should use. Unfortunately I have no photos of the shop, only of one of its adverts…
Another new development in the 1980s, as far as the Island was concerned, was the arrival of snack vans….
Tijen and Ahmet also sold food at the corner of Ferry Street and Westferry Road, across the road to the Fire Station where they later opened a restaurant. (I’ve enjoyed eating there a couple of times. This is not the first time I’ve mention this fact in this blog, and I am still waiting for some Turkish food as a reward for the free advertising 🙂 ).
Another van was the one run by Ernie Bennett. Michael Bennett:
Dad used to run the Isle of Dogs Angling club (may have been called Millwall Angling club) and used to take his caravanette into the docks whilst fishing and make cups of tea for the anglers.
1985-ish When he stopped working as a van driver, he decided to convert the caravanette into a snack bar, which he did himself, and was first used during the London Marathon. In fact, it was the first snack bar on canary Wharf.
My mum, Doreen, started working in their after a while serving people on the dockside near where the Britannia Hotel was built The snack bar then moved was the hotel was being built to just out side the dock gate in Byng Street, with a little area for tables and chairs.
The original caravanette actually caught fire out side their house in Strafford street one morning, we don’t know why. He then replaced this with a tow snack bar.
When Dad died in 1993 my Sister Sharon left her job at the bank of England and kept the van going with my Mum. After a few years the council placed a zebra crossing or zig zag lines by the pitch in Byng street so they had to move.
So they moved into the area by the Nat West Bank off of Marsh Wall. They stayed there until a few years ago when the rent and changing clientele made it unviable. Quite a few Island ladies helped Sharon and Mum over the years including Sharon and Michelle Harris, Pat Howell and my sister in Law Janet, our next door neighbour Carol.
The story of eating out on the Isle of Dogs has almost reached the present. Today there is a very wide choice of ‘proper restaurants’ and takeaways – reflecting the huge growth in the population of the Isle of Dogs and in the change in clientele as Michael Bennett described it. You can always Google “Where to eat on the Isle of Dogs” and you will have your answer. Me? If I am not getting free Turkish food, I’m going for a pint and a packet of crisps in The George (even though they do sell good cooked food). 🙂