In this 2018 article I wrote about the history of South Cubitt Town, and now it’s the turn of North Cubitt Town, which for the purposes of this article covers the following area:
As most people know, Cubitt Town was named for William Cubitt who developed the east side of the Isle of Dogs on 120 acres of land he leased between 1842 and 1853 (most of which was owned by the Countess of Glengall, daughter of William Mellish).
His firm, William Cubitt & Company, constructed few of the buildings in the area, but did lay out the streets and build infrastructure such as sewers, wharves and river embankments. Building plots were (sub-)let to other building companies who were required to comply with Cubitt’s stipulations for building design, size and even materials used. In some cases he even provided loans to smaller builders.
William Cubitt & Company had a large wharf just north of the Newcastle Arms (a building that they did construct, along with Christ Church) where they manufactured and sold the required building materials.
By 1862 Manchester Road and the houses and shops along it had been built, but streets to the west existed mostly only as plans. East of Manchester Road, at the riverside, was a longer established collection of wharves, occupied at the time of the map primarily by ironworks and shipbuilders, firms such as John Stewart, Samuda, Yarrow and Westwood (see this article for more information about iron shipbuilders on the Island).
Around the same time that the map was created, Westwood’s commissioned N. Newberry of Holborn to create a a lithographic print of their London Yard works. The first few buildings in North Cubitt Town can be seen beyond London Yard, as well as a lot of empty space as far as Millwall. The following is an annotated extract of the print, which featured in this earlier article.
The London Tavern is shown at (A) in the print; this and a number of other pubs were built in the area around this time….
Both the London Tavern and the Manchester Arms (as well as the Pier Tavern in South Cubitt Town) were built by Charles Davis, who also built many houses in the area and even got to name a street after himself. Survey of London:
Davis was indeed the most active builder in Cubitt Town between the mid-1850s and the mid-1860s, erecting 181 houses and shops [in Manchester Road, Samuda Street and Davis Street].
However, Survey of London also goes on to say:
By then somewhat overstretched, having had to assign the leases of completed houses to his creditors. In July 1862 he was declared bankrupt, but, after he had transferred some property to the mortgagors, he was discharged from his bankruptcy.
This proved to be a temporary respite, for by 1866 he had had to assign to a creditor 16 houses in Pier Terrace, on which he owed £1,400 on mortgages, and he had defaulted on the payments on £2,732 that had been advanced to him on mortgage for 16 houses in Stebondale Street. … He did little building in Cubitt Town after the mid-1860s.
Davis’ financial problems were shared with virtually all Island businesses in the late 1860s. On 11th May 1866 (a day that became known as Black Friday), the London bank and discount house Overend, Gurney & Company collapsed owing about 11 million pounds (equivalent to £1 billion today).
The bank’s collapse contributed to panic and loss of confidence in financial institutions on an international level. In Britain, the bank interest rate rose to 10 per cent for three months and more than 200 companies, including other banks, failed as a result. Unemployment rose sharply to 8% and there was a subsequent fall in wages.
Due to an unfortunate combination of factors, the impact of the recession on the Island and on Islanders was particularly bad. The Island’s expansion boom of the previous years was based on over-extended credit, and the rise in interest rates crippled many companies and ventures. Even more catastrophic for the Island was that many shipbuilding and other riverside companies had borrowed directly from Overend, Gurney & Co. (ships, shipbuilding and railways being the investment flavours of the day).
Many residents left the Island. It was estimated that there were almost 800 empty dwellings in 1868, approaching a half of the total (Survey of London). Cubitt’s vision for Cubitt Town was that it would be populated by the middle classes, but the financial crisis put paid to that. Houses intended for better-off families were instead occupied by multiple families, rents dropped, homes were not maintained by the owners, and the area became better known for its poverty in a period that was known as The Distress.
To make matters worse, it was also proven to be unwise to build homes with basements on former marshland below the level of the high tide of Thames. Many families occupying basements lived in damp, unhealthy conditions and when there was heavy rain the sewers tended to back up and flood their homes.
The map above shows another pub, the Folly House Tavern, close to the river near Samuda Street. Not one which was built during this period, but one with a much longer history, based as it was on a folly built by Thomas Davers in 1753 (article here).
A few years after the 1870 map was made, the Folly House Tavern was closed and the building used as office and storage space by Yarrow’s when they extended their yard.
To the south west of the Folly House Tavern was a small green space with trees behind the houses of Samuda Street, Davis Street and Manchester Road. The park was known as Sadler’s Park, named after George Sadler, the landlord of the close-by Manchester Arms.
Despite the late-1860s setbacks and problems, development in North Cubitt Town continued. In 1984, Thomas Cole of the University of Oklahoma, wrote in his Life and Labor in the Isle of Dogs:
In the mid-1860s the district’s population stood at roughly fourteen thousand. Under the impact of a severe trade depression in 1866-68, it dropped to under ten thousand. However, this decline reversed itself in 1869. By 1871 the Isle’s population had climbed back to 12,652 … and steadily over the next two decades, reaching 17,072 in 1881 and 20,669
A growing population needed churches and schools (however, no more pubs were built in North Cubitt Town). St John’s Church was built in 1873…
Glengall School was built in 1876 on vacant land south of Glengall Road which had not already been acquired by William Cubitt. Two years later it was realised that the school was too small and an extension was built offering places for close to 200 more pupils. And then, three years later, the school was extended yet again, adding 795 places. This would explain the higgledy-piggledy appearance of the original school.
In response to the flooding problems reported in 1866, a new outfall sewer was built by the Metropolitan Board of Works who also made plans for the construction of a storm pumping station at the north end of Stewart Street. Unfortunately, in June and July 1888, when the pumping station building was complete but was equipped only with temporary, small pumps, unseasonal storms caused severe flooding on the Island and at other points along the Thames (article here).
The worst such incident occurred in 1888 when rivers of raw sewage from two to six feet deep inundated 923 houses. A major relief effort was required to prevent epidemics and to replace bedding, rugs, and furniture lost in the flood. Two years later, 300 houses were flooded in a similar incident.
Again there was talk of a ‘Distress on the Isle of Dogs’.
In spite of the new storm pumping station, damp homes remained a problem. Survey of London…
…a report of 1890 showed that there were 711 houses in Cubitt Town with basements. Many were found to be in a ‘deplorable unsanitary condition’ with foul and moist basements, and rising damp, which was partly attributable to the use of poor materials. There were occasional outbreaks of scarlet fever. The houses were, in general, poorly built and badly maintained.
North Cubitt Town was almost fully-built by the time of the report…
The large empty space between Strattondale Street and Galbraith Street was acquired in 1905 for the construction of a public library on the Strattondale Street side and a small landscaped green area (with drinking fountain) on the Galbraith Street side.
The library was financed by Scottish-born, massively rich, American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who between 1889 and 1916 gave grants for close to 3000 libraries (half of which were in the US) in the English-speaking world.
Survey of London again:
By the 1910s many were in bad repair and the streets appeared ‘dreary, slummy’ presenting ‘ugly vistas’. Those in Davis and Samuda Streets were singled out as being in a dilapidated condition by the end of the nineteenth century. Even so, there had been little clearance of condemned buildings in the district by 1939.
The start of the 20th century saw the departure of the last major shipbuilder on the Island when Alfred Yarrow vacated London Yard (in 1906) and moved his business to Glasgow, where wages and material costs were lower.
The riverside wharves in North Cubitt Town became occupied mainly by smaller engineering firms (with one notable exception, preserved food manufacturer, Morton’s, who took over a large part of London Yard). Thomas Cole:
The decline of the Island’s traditional staple industries coupled with the expansion of other sectors of the local economy … had a tremendous impact on the character and composition of the district’s resident labor force. The proportion of local workers employed by industries requiring highly skilled labor declined. Conversely, the percentage of local residents pursuing less skilled trades
In 1914, World War I broke out, a conflict which led to the death of 700,000 combatants from the British Isles. In 1918, there was barely a street in Britain that hadn’t lost at least one of its young, male residents – and of course this sad fact applied equally to the Isle of Dogs. In this article I included this 1890s map of North Cubitt Town, annotated with flags marking the homes of men who were killed in action during WWI.
The following photo shows Mrs Sarah Jane Morris of 63 Strattondale Street whose son John William was killed in Flanders on 15th October 1917. She is wearing a brooch with the photo of a soldier, and a black sateen mourning blouse, made out of the lining of a man’s overcoat (probably belonging to her son).
The whole area (like the rest of the country) must have been in mourning after the war, but there was at least a small compensation in celebrating the end of the conflict.
And, a few years later, another excuse for street parties.
All the available data indicate that in the Island the era between the end of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War II was one of extraordinary stability. There was, to be sure, some change. The Labour Party took control of local politics. During the interwar years some important urban renewal projects were undertaken in the district. The First World War and the Depression affected lives of many individual Islanders. However none of these developments really changed the district’s basic socio-economic structure. Likewise they did not alter the character of local life. Rather than changing, local society merely became more settled.
The 1930s did see some slum clearances on the Island, but very little in North Cubitt Town (even though it does appear from all reports that many houses there were very dilapidated). Roffey House and Cubitt House, subject of this recent article, were built in 1933. And, in 1938, the old Glengall School was demolished to be replaced by a new building in 1939.
Observant readers will notice the white stripes painted on the lamp posts and other street objects in the previous photo. In anticipation of war and planning for blackouts, the white stripes were applied to make objects more visible in darkness. Later, when war started, the school – like other Island schools – was requistioned for use by the emergency services.
During the war, the London Fire Brigade made meticulous notes showing the locations and times of bombs dropped on London, and the damage caused. The notes for the first day/night of The Blitz, which started in the early evening of 7th September 1940 report that the following bombs dropped on North Cubitt Town (there were no reports of casualties):
Explosive Bomb, Samuda Wharf, Stone Merchants
A range of buildings of 2 floors covering an area about 800×300 ft (used as machine rooms, workshops, offices and store) and contents and some stock in yard including a number of motor lorries severely damaged.
Explosive Bomb, Glengall Grove
– 60×60 of roadway damaged
– Off license. Building of 3 floors 60×20, used as dwelling and store, contents severely damaged
– Tobacconist, Shop and house of 6 rooms, damaged.
The severely damaged off license was the ironically named “Happy Go Lucky”; it was at 70 Glengall Grove, on the corner of Strattondale Street. It was owned by the Webb family, who also owned the shop next door at number 72.
Explosive Bomb, Glengall Grove (location not further specified)
6 houses, 6 rooms each damage
Although the location was not specified in the fire brigade report, this is probably a reference to the houses that were directly opposite The George.
Although relatively unscathed by the bombing during the first night of The Blitz, North Cubitt Town was particularly badly hit during the course of WWII, and this well known photo – taken from an upper floor of Glengall School – shows some of the prefabs that were built as temporary houses at the end of the war. St John’s Church is visible in the distance; it seems to be intact but it had been so badly damaged it could not be used again.
This map shows the areas of North Cubitt Town that were destroyed (or were damaged beyond economical repair) during WWII. There was virtually nothing left of William Cubitt’s development.
But, it is an aerial photo that best visualises the extent of the damage. No wonder that some newspaper reports called it ‘Prefab Town’.
In the late 1940s, plans were made by Poplar Borough Council to clear virtually the whole area west of Manchester Road and build public housing on what was officially to be named St John’s Estate, centred on a new shopping and communal area to be known as Castalia Square. (One block of flats belonging to the estate, Oak House, was built across Manchester Road.)
Most of the few still-standing buildings built during William Cubitt’s time were demolished, including St John’s Church (which hadn’t been usable anyway since being damaged during the war).
In 1965, redevelopment started on the other side of Manchester Road with the construction of the Samuda Estate.
North of the Samuda Estate, the last remaining houses of Wint Terrace were demolished. Alice Shepherd House was later built on the site, opening in 1969 (Survey of London: John Laing Construction’s SECTRA system was used. It cannot be deemed a success, for in 1980 a Dangerous Structures Notice was served on the building and emergency repairs had to be carried out).
More demolitions took place in the 1980s. There were no 100th birthday celebrations for the Stewart Street Storm Pumping Station as it was demolished in 1985 – 97 years after its opening – to be replaced by a snazzy new pumping station. Cubitt House, Roffey House and Maple House were demolished in 1988. The Queen was demolished in 2004.
So, what’s left of the northern half of William Cubitt’s Cubitt Town?
The oldest building in the area, the library, was built in 1905, well after Cubitt’s time. The former Glengall School building (which now houses Cubitt Town School) and The George are both 1930s rebuilds. Surely there must be a piece of old wall or something, somewhere?