The earliest known written reference to the name Isle of Dogs is contained in the ‘Letters & Papers of Henry VIII’. Volume 3: 1519-1523. 2 October 1520. No. 1009 – ‘Shipping’. Originally written in Latin, and translated into English and published in 1867 under the editorship of J.S. Brewer:
Opposite the Royal Dockyards in Deptford, the Isle of Dogs was evidently used for refitting or resupplying ships. But, this was not a reference to the large peninsula we recognize on modern maps, but was instead a reference to a very small island. Between this island and the ‘mainland’ was a natural inlet which flooded at high tide, and which was dry at low tide. An ideal tidal dock* for beaching and repairing boats (but not for constructing ships which was carried out in the dockyards in Deptford).
* The name dock is from the early modern English word meaning “area of mud in which a ship can rest at low tide”, borrowed from Dutch dok or Middle Low German docke (“dock, ship’s dock”).
An idea of the size of this island is provided by the later map, Robert Adam’s, Thamesis Descriptio, created in 1588. This map shows Saunders Ness in the south east of the loop in the river (a ness is a headland or promontary) and in the south west, the Ile of Dogges.
A later drawn version of the map shows the Ile of Dogges opposite Deptford more clearly…
Decades after Adams’ map, in 1662, Jonas Moore’s Survey of the Thames showed the Isle of Dogs as a larger area occupying the south west ‘corner’ of the peninsula.
Later still, Joel Gascoyne’s 1703 Survey of the Parish of St Dunstan’s showed the Isle of Dogs covering all the south of the peninsula.
The land covered by what was known as the Isle of Dogs grew northwards (on maps at least), but before the construction of the West India Docks – opened in 1802 – the northern limits were unclear. Many late 18th century reports and documents state that the docks were built on (or in or at) the Isle of Dogs.
However, most maps made in the decades after the opening of the docks placed the name to the south. I suspect this was more a question of design convenience rather than an attempt to be geographically accurate.
Even in the mid 19th century there was some debate about the extent of the Island. Benjamin Harris Cowper, in his 1853 book, A Descriptive Historical and Statistical Account of Millwall, commonly called the Isle of Dogs (the title goes on and on, but I’ll stop there) wrote:
These appear to be the true limits of the Isle of Dogs, in which the West India Docks are properly included. It is, however, more common to regard the City Canal…as the northern boundary of the Island.
By the way, the name Isle of Dogs had no official status until the creation by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets of the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood in 1987. The 2000 London A-Z and many other modern maps usually define a broader area which also includes the West India Docks.
Back to the Ile of Dogges, though. Where was it? The accuracy of Adams’ and many other historical maps cannot be relied upon to locate the island precisely, and subsequent (re)construction of river embankments (or walls) erased visible traces of it. The Survey of London states that Henry VIII’s ship, the Mary George, was docked ‘perhaps at Drunken Dock‘.
Drunken Dock later became a mast pond, eventually filled in to be replaced by wharves and factories; an area now occupied by Mast House Terrace and surrounding streets.
If the Mary George was docked here, the Ile of Dogges would have been an elevated area of land bordering on the location shown above. I might be letting my imagination get away with me, but just east of here is a small area of the modern Isle of Dogs that is higher than its surroundings, and higher than other riverside locations. Unless I got my measurements wrong, the roads from Wynan Road go slightly downhill towards the river, quite unique for Island roads leading to the Thames.
Going back to Adams’ map, which I know cannot be treated as accurate, the Ile of Dogges is opposite the old Deptford church of St Nicholas and Ravensbourne Creeke (now known as Deptford Creek).
The corresponding spot on a modern map is between Westferry Road and the river, close to Chapel House Street, precisely where Wynan Road is!
Could this be the site of the original Ile of Dogges?