The Poplar Gut

I must admit to a childish, inner smirk whenever I see mention of the Poplar Gut, inspiring – as it does – images of beer bellies in the Watermans on the Island.  Or is it just me who thinks that?

In medieval times, the marshland that was the Isle of Dogs (Stebunheath, aka Stepney Marshes) was reclaimed by means of a wall, or bank, along the riverfront and drainage of the interior land (see The Mill Wall). There are records of the wall being breached by the Thames on occasion, most seriously at Limehouse Hole in the north west of the Island on 20th March 1660, which led to an area of the Island remaining flooded for many years after. This lake was known as the Poplar Gut (‘gut’ is an Anglo-Saxon word, meaning a narrow waterway or small creek, applied also to intestinal channels).

In this early 1700s map, Poplar Gut is visible, as well as an area of marsh to its west. It was here that the wall was breached.

The extent of the breach made it impractical to restore the wall at its original location – after all, the area was now underwater most of the time. Instead, a wall was built around the breach, slightly inland and – crucially – above the high tide level. This meant that the wall had a distinct bulge to the east, as is clear in the following map.

Survey of London:

The Poplar Commissioners of Sewers repaired the damage and rebuilt other sections of defective wall, at a cost of more than £16,000, raised by the imposition on landowners of very high rates of about £24 per acre. The work was done by William Ham, Orton Brooker and George Salmon, and presumably consisted of timber piling and planking, with chalk and clay fill and buttressing. The new section of wall was set well back from the river behind unprotected foreland that came to be known simply as the Breach. Most of the floodwater was drained, but approximately five acres of water remained, stretching eastwards from the Breach. This came to be called the Great Gut, or Poplar Gut.

This deviation of the wall and the marshland to its west became very significant to the further development of this area of the Island, with evidence visible even to this day, as we will see later.

This 1700s drawing shows the expanse of the breach on the right. The three ships in the centre are moored at what was known as the Breach Dockyard.

Survey of London:

In the early 1730s William Atterbury, a butcher, built a house at the south-west corner of the Gut; this became a public house which by 1750 was known as the Gut House, although it may originally have been the Shipwright’s Arms. In the 1790s a row of eight houses and William and John Godsell’s ropeyard were built south of the Gut House.

The houses didn’t stand for long, because in 1800 they were demolished to make way for the City Canal, built across the Island by the Corporation of London. The canal also took advantage of, and absorbed all of, Poplar Gut.

Survey of London:

Preliminary excavation of the canal started in 1800, by John Clark and Thomas Thatcher, from Wiltshire, and some direct labour. The main excavation and embankment work was contracted to John Dyson, of Bawtry, Yorkshire. He was not able to begin until 1801, because of delays with the installation, supervised by John Rennie, of a Boulton & Watt steam pumping-engine on the site that later became the Canal Dockyard.

The main excavation was completed in 1804, and the locks were approaching completion in July 1805 when the coffer-dam and preventer dam at the east end failed, causing a great wave to rush through the canal. Extensive repairs were needed and the opening had to be postponed until 9 December 1805. The canal was 3,711ft long between the lock gates, 176ft wide at the surface of the water and 23ft deep at its centre, dug only 17ft down, with the spoil used to build up the banks.

The City Canal was not a success, for it was not adopted as a worthwhile short cut. Its potential had probably been overestimated, and London’s growing number of wet docks and the arrival of steamers in the river further reduced its usefulness. From 1811 it became primarily a ‘receptacle for dismantled ships’.

Work started on the West India Docks well before the City Canal opened. One consequence of their construction was that the Gut House also had to be demolished. The owner at the time, James Oughton, then moved slightly further south to build the City Arms public house.

The West India Docks expanded further south, and eventually the City Canal became the South Dock.

By 1875 the transformation was almost complete.

I have to go back to the eastwards bulge in the mill wall. The curving road eventually became known as The Walls.

Drove round that road a million times in my Ford Escort, or on the top floor of a 277. I never imagined the curve of the road was defined by a 17th century flood.

And today, it’s still a bit of an odd place, south of Westferry Circus and still not built up. Only a matter of time, though.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

The Barn Fields

A late 18th century map which depicted plans for the new West India Docks also showed the boundaries of the fields on the Island at the time, including the three Barn Fields.

The fields are also clearly shown in this map, an early 19th century copy of a 1745 land ownership map showing (or ‘shewing’) the land owned by the Ironmongers Company on the ‘Ilsle’ of Dogs.

The map is more more than 250 years old, before even the the Westferry Road was constructed, and it contains some familiar names: Byng, Mellish, Cotton, Ferguson, Barn Field. Here’s the same map with modern roads superimposed:

The Ironmongers Company, formally known as The Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, was one of the livery companies of the City of London. Originally known as the Ferroners, they were incorporated under a Royal Charter in 1463.

Survey of London:

The Barnfield Estate was one of several marshland properties, most of them in Essex, bought by the Ironmongers’ Company in 1730 from Sir Gregory Page, bart, of Wricklemarsh near Blackheath. Barnfield, Great Barnfield and Little Barnfield together formed an irregularly shaped strip of about 33 acres, running south-west from near the Chapel House to the inlet called Drunken Dock or the Great Barnfield Basin.

The company built houses on its estate, the first in the mid-19th century.

1862

They also built three pubs, each with a name related to ironmongery or fire: Vulcan, Ironmonger’s Arms and Magnet & Dewdrop (I must admit, I have never managed to figure out the meaning of magnet and dewdrop).

1895

1900

The Vulcan

Ironmongers’ Arms

Magnet & Dewdrop (where I had my first pint)

The Ironmongers planned to fully build on their estate, with new streets, housing and factories extending to East Ferry Road in the north east. The long north-south street was going to be named Ironmongers’ Street, but in the end only a short terrace was constructed, named Ingelheim Place.

1840s plans

Unfortunately for them, the northern part of their land was subject to compulsory purchase, and absorbed into the to-be-built Millwall Docks. Additionally, a section in the west was similarly acquired by the London and Blackwall Railway Company for a future southern section of the Millwall Extension Railway; a section that never materialised – part of the land became St. Edmund’s school playground, while the rest remained pasture until almost 1900.

Survey of London:

The completion of Ingelheim Terrace by Weitzel and Knight in 1862 marked the end of the main development of the estate. These last (Nos 337–365, odd, Westferry Road) were inferior houses to the rest of the terrace, having only two floors and smaller back additions than the other houses in Westferry Road, but were otherwise similar — plain, old-fashioned houses of stock brick with slate roofs.

So far the development had turned out well. As French boasted, the leases were shorter, the rents higher and the houses bigger than on neighbouring estates, and a site had been let for industrial purposes.

When the Rev. Richard Free came to take charge of St Cuthbert’s, Westferry Road, in 1897, he and his wife had to live south of the river because of the housing shortage, and he commuted by ferry, but after a few months they obtained rooms at No. 1 Ingelheim Cottages (St Cuthbert’s Lodge). It was ‘a terrible old shanty, lacking every convenience’, and crawling with lice. Built as a corner-house on the intended Ironmongers’ Street, it had eight rooms on two floors, with an attic and box-room, and was distinguished by a clumsy bellshaped gable on the street front which gave it a quaint look, reminiscent of ‘a lifeboat station or ark of refuge’. Free had the use of five rooms, two of which he opened as reading-rooms.

He was told that the house had been a school and a beershop, and that 40 years before it had housed eight families, one in each room, while in recent years it had accommodated seven adults and 27 children. At the time of the 1861 census it held three families, a total of ten people, which was no higher than the average level of occupancy on the estate at that time, considering the larger than usual size of the house. The families, typical of others in Millwall, were headed by a gas fitter, labourer and ship-joiner, and included one working wife (a glover) and one single adult lodger (a cordwainer). By 1871 the house was uninhabited, and in 1876 the Ironmongers found it ‘ruinous’, worse than any other property on the estate. It was demolished after c1926.

Someone else concerned with the welfare of locals was a philanthropist called Miss Price, who moved into 333 Westferry Road (diagonally opposite the Magnet & Dewdrop) and opened it as The Welcome Institute – Coffee, Tavern & Club Rooms for Factory Girls. Staffed by well-to-do women volunteers, the institute provided hot meals at affordable prices to factory girls, evening classes in dressmaking and needlework, Bible classes for boys and club-rooms for local football teams.

Totnes Cottages c1930 (Island History Trust)

Like the Isle of Dogs generally, Barnfield suffered badly from the slump of the late 1860s, and it was probably this phase which was most responsible for reducing the houses to slums. By 1868 many of the inhabitants were destitute, their last possessions pawned. In Laura Cottages, for instance, an investigator found a pregnant woman and her five children, all of them suffering from malnutrition. Her husband was away stone-breaking at the workhouse, and to supplement the money he got for this the family spent all week picking a quarter of a hundredweight of oakum from a local ropeworks, for which they received only a shilling, yet the rent of their cottage was five shillings a week. Upstairs was their lodger, his wife and their five children. The man had had only six weeks continuous work in two years and was now too ill to do casual dock labour Unable even to pay their 1s 9d a week rent, they were kept alive by hand-outs from the family downstairs.

In addition to the problem of poverty, the aborted development of the estate left it with inadequate drainage and unmade roads and paths. The ground floors of many of the houses were well below street level, making the buildings permanently damp and prone to flooding. The road to the fibre factory was only a cinder track, often waterlogged. Standing water saturated the front walls of Elizabeth Cottages where, in 1900, there was an outbreak of typhoid fever. The road was finally paved by Poplar Borough Council in 1905.

By the riverside, the proximity of industry caused inconvenience and danger. At Totnes Cottages the bowsprits of ships berthed at Britannia Dry Dock overhung the gardens, while the roadway leading past the cottages to St Andrew’s Wharf was ‘constantly full of vans loading oil’. There was severe vibration from the pounding of machinery at Napier Yard.

Totnes Cottages, Britannia Dry Dock on the right

Deptford Ferry Road

Ingelheim Place (left) from West Ferry Road (Island History Trust)

Ingelheim Place, with Ingelheim Cottages in the background (Island History Trust)

In 1905, the institute moved to much larger, purpose built premises in East Ferry Road – premises that it would later sell to the Dockland Settlement Movement. 333 Westferry Road was demolished in 1919.

353 Westferry Road (Island History Trust)

In 1855 Messrs Tindall of Tindall’s Dock took a 63-year lease of a site at the back of Elizabeth Cottages for a cooperage, at an annual rent of £50. They built a range of sheds and workshops, together with a house for the foreman joiner and his family (No. 5 Elizabeth Cottages).

The cooperage was occupied for a few years from the mid-1860s by the Millwall Iron Works, Ship Building & Graving Docks Company Ltd. In the 1870s and 1880s it was a coconut fibre factory, later becoming a waterproofer’s works and then a soap factory. Its last industrial occupier was the Murex Magnetic Company Ltd, set up to exploit patents relating to ore and oil refining, taken out by two of the soap manufacturers. In 1915–16 the premises were also used for storing copra and coconut oil by George Davis & Son, whose desiccating works were nearby.

Chubb, Round & Co. “Cocoa Nut Manufactory”, Elizabeth Place, 365 Westferry Road, 1885

William Roberts of Millwall self-propelling fire engine, with two firefighters. Roberts’ Jupiter Iron Works later became Samuel Cutler’s yard on the north side of Westferry Road.

Disrepair on the estate was widespread from the mid 1870s, if not earlier, and dilapidations notices were frequently ignored. The good ground rents and comparatively short building leases, which had seemed so attractive, combined with chronic local poverty to offer little incentive to the lessees to make repairs or improvements.

In 1889 John Hollway, the new proprietor of St Andrew’s Wharf, who wanted to build on the remaining open ground, offered to buy the whole estate. But although the £15,000 deal was approved by the Charity Commissioners, it fell through. In 1895 the vacant ground, which now hardly justified the description ‘pasture’, was let on a 21-year lease to Messrs Cutler of Providence Iron Works.

Catholic procession in Westferry Road, showing St. Edmunds and the entrance to Samuel Cutlers. (Island History Trust)

The houses were now squeezed between industrial sites and were at the end of their useful life. They were shabby, insanitary and structurally unsound. Totnes Cottages had already been subject to a Closure Order from the Borough Council. It was becoming obvious that the estate would have to be redeveloped on reversion. Only the public house and the beerhouses seemed of much value. A new lease of the Magnet and Dewdrop was granted in 1899 and new leases of the Vulcan and the Ironmongers’ Arms were sold to brewers in 1916.

Plans for redevelopment drawn up in 1916 by George Hubbard, the Ironmongers’ surveyor, were set aside because of the war, and as the leases fell in the company took over direct management of the houses, which were now falling to bits. Several were subject to closing and demolition orders. Despite the wartime shortage of labour and materials, a gang of builders worked continually on urgent repairs, but the estate remained in ‘deplorable’ condition.

The former Welcome Institute and the house next door had already been pulled down when, in May 1919, the freeholds of the estate were put up for auction. Of eight lots, only two, the Ironmongers’ Arms and the Magnet and Dewdrop, made more than the reserve. Most of the houses failed to sell, and the old pasture failed even to draw a bid.

355–363 (odd) Westferry Road

(Island History Trust)

(Island History Trust)

Nos 311–331 Westferry Road and Ingelheim Cottages were leased to Messrs Cutler soon afterwards for an extension to their works, but because of the housing shortage the Borough Council refused to allow Ingelheim Cottages to be pulled down, even though they had long been unfit to live in. They remained inhabited until c1934, when they were finally demolished. Cutlers’ works remained until the mid-1970s.

The rest of the ground north of Westferry Road was sold in 1920 to Burrell & Company Ltd, who built the Barnfield Works there for the production of organic reds. The factory closed in 1979.

1934

1950

1950

Elizabeth Cottages, Laura Cottages and Ingelheim Place were occupied until c1933. The remaining houses north of Westferry Road (Nos 337–365) were demolished c1936. The sites of Elizabeth Cottages and Nos 357–365 Westferry Road are now covered by part of the West Ferry Estate.

Barnfield Works site (after demolition)

South of Westferry Road, the Vulcan and the former Magnet and Dewdrop were the only reminders of the original development. Both have been rebuilt, the Vulcan in 1937 and the Magnet and Dewdrop in 1939. Totnes Cottages were demolished c1936. Totnes Terrace (by then renamed Mast House Terrace) was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. Several of the remaining houses in Westferry Road were badly damaged by bombing and subsequently demolished or left derelict. Nos 212–224 (even) remained in use until the early 1950s, when they were pulled down.

The sites of Cutlers’ works and the Barnfield Works were developed in 1988–9 by Wimpey Homes as Quay West, an estate of houses and mews built around courts, squares and a ‘pedestrian boulevard’.

c 2012

Looking towards Westferry Rd, c 2012

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Pictorial History of the Millwall Docks. Part 4: Post-World War II

Survey of London:

After the war the PLA could not afford more than urgent repairs and the reinstatement of some warehousing with prefabricated sheds. It was 1958 before redevelopment of the Millwall Dock quays could recommence, by which time mechanization had made the old sheds even more inconvenient, and greatly altered priorities for shed building. The PLA Engineering Department was given an opportunity to redesign virtually the entire quayside accommodation at the Millwall Docks. To limit disruption to shipping, redevelopment was phased, moving from the north and west quays in 1959–65, to the east quay in 1965–9, culminating with the Fred Olsen Terminal for ‘high throughput palletized unit cargo’. Various huge single-storey sheds were erected, many with structurally innovative tubularsteel frames, all with large clear unobstructed floors, high clearances and large doorways for fork-lift trucks and mobile cranes. Associated with the sheds was a new network of roads around the quays, which were themselves rebuilt to allow deepening of the docks. A further proposal, which was nearly carried through in 1966, was the development of part of the Mudchute with a new branch dock.

The redeveloped berths at the Millwall Docks were among the most efficient in the world, but although they were in demand until closure in 1980, this could not prevent the Port’s decline during the 1970s.

Railway sidings east of the buildings that were the Western Granaries (just off Alpha Rd, largely destroyed during WWII). West India Docks are in the background.

The view from the Central Granary. Millwall Cutting and West India Docks on the left.

Repair of the unreliable Glengall Road Bridge was interrupted by WWII. After the war, a ‘barge bridge’ was employed to allow passenger access across Millwall Inner Dock (site of the later Glass Bridge and current bridge in Pepper Street). The barge bridge was pulled to one side if a ship needed to pass. In this photo, courtesy of the Island History Trust, Skeggs House is visible in the background.

Central Granary on the left

Cutty Sark sailing to the dry dock for refitting, c1952

The last ship to unload wood in Millwall Docks

Fred Olsen’s staff parking area

Gate 14 was at Kingsbridge, the entrance to Montague Myers.

Survey of London:

The barge-bridge and the knuckles in the dock impeded the PLA’s post-war modernization plans. Their replacement with an elevated walkway came under consideration from 1950, but before accepting this as necessary, the PLA sought Poplar Borough Council’s agreement to the displacement of the right of way. There was strong local opposition, however, and so in 1958 the PLA asked Parliament for power to close the route. The Council, the LCC and Charles Key, the local MP, forced the PLA to reconsider and prepare schemes for adapting the pedestrian crossing. In 1960 the PLA suggested either high-level footways with a double bascule bridge which would cost over £100,000, a tunnel under the dock for about £400,000, or a 180ft-high aerial cable-car for about £50,000. The bridge option emerged as favourite, the tunnel being too expensive for the PLA and the cablecar unpopular with the Council. A high-level bridge would keep the public out of the docks and allow barges to pass, opening only for ships.

The plans for the high-level bridge and walkway were developed in 1961–2 and amended to include a single opening span pivoting on a trunnion. John Mowlem & Company built the bridge in 1963–4, but the opening span and machinery, separately contracted to Head Wrightson, of Thornaby-on-Tees, were not operational until 1965. The bridge, which cost £256,198, comprised a walkway that was 1,140ft long, 30ft above the ground, 7ft 6in. wide at foot level, and 8ft high, with a hollowrectangular-section steel frame, aluminium roof and translucent glass sides. It was carried on nine precast- and prestressed-concrete supports, T-columns with upper sections enclosing the walkway, with support from the canopy linking F and G Sheds Lift towers at the estate boundaries and the operating tower for the 113ft-long opening section were built of reinforced-concrete with facings of Fletton brick. The bridge operated with oil hydraulic machinery.

The Glengall Grove high-level bridge gave the public the dubious privilege of a walk high over the Millwall Docks in an enclosed glazed tube. The ‘glass bridge’ immediately became a prime target for vandals, and pedestrians were so intimidated that few used it. The PLA had to spend about £20,000 on repairs. Severe damage to the glass and the lifts in 1975–6 caused the bridge to be closed, and it was demolished by the LDDC in 1983. It was temporarily replaced by a girder bridge across the knuckles, and then, from 1987, by a steel footbridge across the Inner Dock. A double drawbridge of a Dutch type opened in 1990 as part of the Glengall Bridge development.

Glassbridge not long after opening.

Fred Olsen’s

Whoops

Wood ship

Fred Olsen (still) deliver the Christmas Tree gift from the people of Norway in recognition of the role of the British in freeing them from the Nazis. Until their closure, the tree was unloaded at Millwall Docks. Lorry driver Jim Howe (whose son shared this photo), then transported it to Trafalgar Square.

The view from the Mudchute over East Ferry Road and a very much operational incinerator.

A glimpse of the ship repair works at Millwall Dry (aka Graving) Dock, with East Ferry Road in the background.

Fred Olsen’s

 

Demolition of the Central Granary in 1970

Labour Party Leader (and one-time PM) James Callaghan – in furry hat – and to his left, local MP Peter Shore, visit Millwall Docks shortly after the PLA stated their intention to close the docks.

Montague Myer’s wood sheds next to McDougalls. Only one ship to be seen in the docks. Probably around the time of the closure, 1980.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Pictorial History of the Millwall Docks. Part 3: World War II

The Luftwaffe flew reconnaissance flights over London and the rest of Britain for years before the war, and had marked targets – such as power stations, docks and gas works – in a set of aerial photos. London was divided into different target areas, and the easiest for bomber pilots to recognize from the air was the one enclosed by a distinctive U-shaped loop in the Thames: i.e. the Isle of Dogs. Covering a large part of the Island, and key targets, were the West India and Millwall Docks.

Luftwaffe pre-war reconnaissance photo of the docks along the Thames

The London Blitz started on 7th September 1940, a day that later became known as ‘Black Saturday’. On that day, and many following days, the docks were repeated targets. This Luftwaffe reconnaissance photo was taken during daylight in the evening. The arrows indicate identified bomb explosions.

In Millwall, explosions can be seen at the corner of Havannah Street and Commons Street (A), and especially in the area around Millwall Central School (B). South of Millwall Outer Dock is an explosion just west of St. Edmund’s Church (C).

A burning East End in the late afternoon of 7th September 1940

Poor weather prevented the Luftwaffe from mounting a major raid today on 10th September. However, there was some bombing of the docks which led to 19 civilian dead and 290 injured. This included high explosive bombs which landed next to the Millwall Dock entrance lock at Kingsbridge, destroying the lock machinery and the central gates. The lock would never be used again.

Bomb-damaged Millwall Dock entrance lock at Kingsbridge

Extracts from The Isle of Dogs During World War II (by yours truly):

1st November 1940

A high explosive bomb landed on the north side of Millwall Outer Dock, near the Railway Gate.

27th December 1940

At 22:10, a 50 Kg bomb fell on the Mudchute anti-aircraft battery. It fell outside one of the concrete gun emplacements, but managed to penetrate underneath the emplacement, wrecking its foundations and demolishing some of the 12-inch thick concrete wall. The gun, which was undergoing repairs and was not in use, was damaged.

A 50 Kg bomb landed on the Millwall Inner Dock.

29th December 1940
A very large number of incendiary bombs were dropped along the Thames causing serious and extensive fires—numbering nearly 1,500 in all —in the City and the docks area.

Millwall Docks were extensively bombed, and bombs fell on East Ferry Road, including on Hawkins & Tipson. Three people died:

  • Gladys Crawley aged 38, of 93 East Ferry Road
  • Robert Thomas Palmer, aged 40, of 396 Manchester Road
  • John William Hill, aged 46, station Office LFB Fire station, died next day in Poplar Hospital

17th February 1941

During what were described as moderate attacks on London (due in part to the cloudy weather), fire bombs caused 7 major fires in Millwall Docks and in the rest of the Island.

Fire in the West India and Millwall Docks (precise location unknown)

19th March 1941 – ‘The Wednesday’

A very bad night for those living and working in the East End, including on the Island. In clear weather, more than 500 aircraft dropped thousands of incendiary and high explosive bombs along the banks of the Thames from London Bridge to Becton.

A later German radio communique described the attack on London as “a heavy one carried out with shattering effect by very strong bomber formations of a period of hours.” Harbour and dock facilities and other military objectives were attacked with bombs of every calibre it stated. It was claimed that “widespread destructions was caused in the main docks as well as to harbour installations.” Other targets included factories north of the Isle of Dogs and merchant shipping in the Thames.

  • Arthur Burgess, aged 50, of 38 Manchester Road, and recipient of the PLA Certificate of Gallantry was killed in Millwall Docks.
  • William Parkin, aged 62, of 113 Elspeth Road, Clapham was killed in West India Docks.

Millwall Docks M-Warehouse before the 19th March bombing.

M-Warehouse after the bombing

M-Warehouse after the bombing

M-Warehouse after the bombing

19th April 1941

On the night of 19th to 20th April 1941, between midnight and 4:00, 58 bombs, mainly 50 Kg, fell on the East, West India and Millwall Docks; damaging much, including items repaired after previous raids. As usual, bombs also fell on residential areas.

11th June 1942

Gertrude Dunn was awarded a British Empire Medal at Buckingham Palace. She was a cook working for the PLA in Millwall Docks and received the award for her actions when the kitchens were destroyed during a bombing raid. She built fires in the open and continued to cook and provide food for workers and emergency services.

Gertrude Dunn (L) and family outside Buckingham Palace

23rd June 1944

Five workers at Thorne’s Woodyard (just inside Millwall Docks, near Roffey House) were killed by bombing:

  • Alfred Henry Hall, aged 74, of 20 Odessa Road, Forest Gate
  • John Patrick Jones, aged 55, of 59 Ellerman Street, Poplar
  • Lewis George Mayo, aged 67, of 72 Morley Road, Plaistow
  • Richard John Johnson, aged 72, of 19 Sutherland Road, Poplar
  • Arthur Davies, aged 70, of 38 Pennyfields

Bill Regan:

“As I came in Depot, one came out of the clouds above the flats, dive inside dock across Mellish Street, several of us watching. Saw explosion, thought of blast, dived with bicycle for safety of lorry, too late. Caught and pushed, ears popped, heard large lump falling, nothing else for some time. Parmenter got the piece that landed near us.

To the ‘Pin’. Had to leave 1 beer. Martin well oiled, wanted me to have a drink with him. Saw one come over us, began to climb, dived straight for Hammond House, twisted to the right, about turn, straightened out, glided across river, landed in Blackwall Lane (allotments).

Five of F & T Thorne’s men killed in the dock by this morning’s bomb.”

30th June 1944

Two V-1 strikes close to the Millwall Dock entrance lock. The one closest to the nearby Montague Myers killed the following workers:

  • Patrick Orwell, aged 15, of 34 Colwick Street, Deptford
  • Home GuardReginald Stanley Andrews, aged 43, of 1 Kingsmead Road, Bishop’s Stortford
  • Francis Collins Gahagan, aged 59, of 50 Ashgrove Road, Goodmayes
  • Albert Henry Robertson, aged 62, of 29 Baildon Street
  • Frederick George Rover, aged 28, of 3 Guinness Trust Bldgs, Stamford Hill
  • Stanley Matthew Strohman, aged 32, of 2 Meads Place, Hackney
  • David John Walter Stranders, aged 44, of 40 Moody Street, Stepney

1st July 1944

Bill Regan:

“Depot 8.10 a.m. Found bomb had fallen behind depot, in Montague Myer’s in the dock, yesterday afternoon about 4.30 p.m. A. Shift working on site until 11.00 p.m. Canteen and Sports room, and sleeping quarters all windows out.”

By this time, the Heavy Rescue Squad had moved from the damaged Millwall Central School to a new depot between Westferry Rd and Montcalm House, just across the road to Montague Meyers.

In the evening a V-1 struck the western (river) end of Deptford Ferry Road

After the War

This post-war OS map extract (click for big, full-sized version) shows ruined dock buildings in red, and non-dock buildings in blue.

The map gives the impression that the Millwall Docks got off lightly, especially compared to the surrounding residential areas. It is misleading: before the war, Millwall Docks had far fewer brick-built buildings than West India Docks and outside of the dock walls. High Explosive bombs had far less impact when falling on timber sheds which could be – and were – quickly rebuilt.

The West India and Millwall docks are high-risk areas with regards to undiscovered, unexploded ordnance. Contemporary bomb censuses gives a good impression of just how many bombs were dropped on the docks (and on the Island in general).

To this day, unexploded ordnance is fished out of the docks, or found deeply buried in the Thames alluvial soil.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Millwall Flyers. Guest article by Con Maloney

‘SKID KIDS’

 THE MILLWALL FLYERS CYCLE SPEEDWAY TEAM

by Con Maloney

It’s hard to believe now but, between the late 1920’s and the second world war, motorcycle speedway was one of the most popular sports in the UK, second only to football.  Over 80,000 cheering spectators watched the World Final held at Wembley and the stands were usually packed at local league matches too. Just as budding footballers played matches in the street back then, young speedway fans were inspired by their heroes to race each other on their bicycles on waste ground.

Cycle Speedway took off on the bomb sites of post-war British cities. The young riders raced each other on outdoor dirt tracks, on modified bikes without brakes or multiple gears. London, being covered in bomb sites, was the first city to hold organized races in 1945 and the very first recorded leagues were formed a year later in both East London and Glasgow.

By 1950 there were more than 200 clubs in East London alone and this exciting sport soon spread across the country. The National Amateur Cycle Speedway Association was formed and consistent rules were laid down, which opened the way to national competitions, championships and international tournaments.

Local and national newspapers began to cover the sport and a magazine was produced called Cycle Speedway Gazette. The ‘Skid Kids’ had well and truly arrived!

click for full-sized version

If you’re curious about the history of cycle speedway, take a look here: http://www.cyclespeedwayhistory.org.uk/

Islander Arthur Ayres, who raced for the Millwall Flyers Cycle Speedway team, takes up the story:

The team was started in 1949 by Ernie Longhurst, who lived in Tooke Street. We were a bunch of teenagers who were keen Motorcycle Speedway supporters mostly at West Ham on Tuesday evenings. I used to go there with my schoolmate Ronnie Hook, who lived in a prefab in Plevna Street. We knew that kids had started to build speedway tracks on waste ground; the earliest one I knew was in the old playground of the bombed Millwall Central School in Janet Street. The place was derelict, it had been used as a fire station during the war and the cycle racing was done on concrete. After the war there were so many sites like that all over London and local kids built dirt tracks with the track boundaries marked by bricks (usually loose bricks just put down).

Meanwhile ‘Hooky’ had found a hole in the fence in the old St John’s Churchyard, which was just off Plevna Street and no longer used for services. Hooky and his mates had built a little dirt track there. I went to watch but didn’t have a bike and someone asked if I wanted to have a go. I did and was hooked! A little while after that, I spotted an advert in Crane’s newsagent’s shop window ‘Cycle Speedway Riders Wanted’ with an emblem similar to the Matchless Motorcycle one, an M with a pair of wings.

I went along to 21 Tooke Street, the address on the advert, and met Ernie Longhurst and his wife Cis. Ernie told me he was trying to start a team. There was only me and Ronnie Hook, Eddie Wilson and a few others at that stage. Ernie arranged for us to visit the Beckton Aces track at Ellesmere Street. Their track was much larger than most and, like most tracks, the surface varied between dirt brick dust with a couple of paving stones which happened to be there. We borrowed bikes from the ‘Aces’ and had a go. My first race ended on the first corner when I encountered a paving stone covered with a thin layer of dirt and the next thing I knew I was on the deck. Everyone was helpful there and we learned about gear ratios, starting techniques and all kinds of useful things. We were also taught some rules, such as never to race in short sleeves or with bare arms, you always wore long sleeves and gloves. Other than that, you were free as a bird. So if you wanted to race in bare feet or fall off and bash your brains out, that was down to you!

Arthur Ayres (left) and Tommy Calvo

My bike was assembled by myself from bits and pieces which had been dumped. The frame was a ladies Raleigh on which Alf Smith (who worked at Bellamy’s) welded an extra crossbar for added strength. No brakes, gears, lights or mudguards were allowed. Most handlebars were home-made from pieces of gas pipe bent in a drainhole but they couldn’t be more than 2’6” wide. If you borrowed a bike it was on the ‘DP’ system – any damages must be paid for!

A few more riders joined us, including Tommy Calvo who’d we met Beckton Aces, he lived in a prefab in Leven Road in Poplar. At first we took part in challenge matches at Ellesmere Street as we didn’t have our own track and were hopelessly outclassed as we were still learning. Eventually we built a home-made track in East Ferry Road near the junction of Launch Street, not far from the George pub, it used to be a timber yard at one time.

Millwall Flyers’ cycle speedway track (click on image for full-sized version)

It was a small piece of land so we had to do a bit of back-filling and the surface varied a lot. When you left the starting gate, the width at the first bend was only about a foot; if you went further out than that, you were up to your wheel in dirt and got bogged down.  As you left the bend you had to make sure you were straight, because you went on to a patch of cinder and if you tried to turn you’d soon be base over apex. Other tracks held their own perils. Walthamstow’s track had a deep hole down one side and although New Cross’s surface was like a billiard table you had to watch out for an open manhole with no cover!

We cleared the track up ourselves and no-one gave us permission to use it, basically it was squatter’s rights. There were four riders in each race and we did three laps of our track, you were knackered after that. After a while things developed and grown-ups came along to help. Bill Kilgour got involved, he drove lorries for the Burgoyne’s firm and was a great supporter of youth and community work on the Island.

We competed in the East London Cycle Speedway League Division 1. Although our bikes had no brakes, lights, mudguards or anything other than wheels and pedals, we rode them to away matches in convoy, with an escort of ‘road legal’ bikes. The matches at East Ferry Road always attracted a large and noisy crowd of supporters, which created a really exciting atmosphere. We would pass the hat round afterwards and the money collected would help with club expenses.

My career lasted for a couple of years. The team organised a ‘Match Race Championship’, where two riders race ‘head to head’ for the best of three races. They started with the bottom half of the team and I raced Tommy Calvo and won 2-0. At practice for my first defence, my front wheel fell apart and I went over the handlebars. I needed a new rear sprocket and the only spare gave an impossible high gear ratio. Practice continued and, having worked up speed over a couple of laps, I passed four riders in the length of the back straight. As I entered the bend, my front wheel hit a tyre and I came off in front of the pack. Alf Smith passed me as I was falling, I attempted to break my fall with my left arm but Bill Shears rode over it and broke both bones. My arm is still slightly bent. When they took the cast off later I still had the greasy chain mark from Bill’s bike on my arm.

So in 1950 I was obliged to succumb to parental pressure and give up. I had to give the cup back as I was unable to defend it. Islanders in the team were Alf Smith (lived in Roffey House), his brother Peter Smith, Eddie Wilson (Alpha Grove), Ronnie Hook (Plevna Street), Roy Martin (Launch Street) and Bill Shears (Mellish Street). There were other riders who came from Poplar, Stepney and elsewhere in what is now Tower Hamlets. When I broke my arm I was 16 years old, some riders were younger and some older. National Service interfered with things at age 18 and eventually redevelopment led to the destruction of many tracks, although in some boroughs the council constructed tracks’.

Meet The Millwall Flyers

The Club Chairman was Cubitt Town-born and bred Ted Davison. Ted ran his own sign-writing business, was a professional cartoonist for several local and national newspapers and also a Poplar Borough Councillor. This gave him good connections in local politics, newspaper journalism and show business. Ted drew a series of lighthearted cartoons of the Millwall Flyers for the East London Advertiser in 1949/50, featuring the riders and officials and also publicised the social events organized to raise funds both for the club and the local St Luke’s Pensioner’s Club.  He also used his contacts in show business to bring stars of the day along to the social club events at St Luke’s Church Hall.

Alf is commonly known as ‘The Whippet’ for his speed out of the trap – sorry – gate. He is 17 and a plater’s mate by trade. Has been with the Flyers since November 1949. Since then he has been a great bolster to the team and is now considered one of Millwall’s best riders. Smithy has beaten some of London’s best cycle speedway riders and can congratulate himself on his prowess in this respect. We are looking forward to seeing him in some championship matches if he continues at his present progress rate.

Eddie is a lank angular chap of 17 ½ years and lives in Alpha Grove, Millwall. He is a plater’s mate at Lovell’s and decided to join the Flyers six months ago. His riding soon earned him the captaincy of the team. Eddies hobbies are playing the drums and generally making himself heard wherever jazz music is concerned. Is courting a very charming girl, although when they dance together, it is a mystery how she escapes damage from his huge feet. To see Eddie on the track, one wonders how he finds the strength to lift his great boots – they seem to dominate the whole landscape. However, Eddie is a very popular chap and a good skipper, besides being a consistent rider. He takes all the jokes thrown at him with that wry grin peculiar only to Eddie Wilson. Here’s hoping that he will skipper the Flyers for a long time to come. The cinder track will miss Eddie when he forsakes cycle speedway, at least, it will miss his boots.

Ron can be safely classed as the pioneer of the club, although he is the youngest member – 15½ years. I can remember when he and other small boys – girls too – built their own track in a blitzed churchyard and rode like fury. Since then Ron has developed into a fine rider and can always be relied upon to turn up trumps in a tight situation. He is heat leader and the cheers of ‘Come on, Ron’ can be heard from all the Hook fans. His favourite hobby is reading but he can’t have much time for that, what with cycle speedway and his paper round. Although the youngest, he is by no means the smallest – quite the reverse – in fact he is one of the tallest. If a chap buckles his wheel or wants repairs or adjustments, it’s ‘Give it to Ron’ or ‘Hooky will fix it’ and Hook wastes no time but gets down to the job without any arguments. He is on the track whenever he has a spare moment, mastering those bends, and has made up his mind to be one of the top-liners. He’ll do it too, if I know Ronnie Hook. Has a slight advantage over other riders by getting his nose over the finishing line just a fraction in front, but, although chipped about his facial characteristics, he joins in the jokes like a true sportsman, realising that all the team have some prominent features themselves, much to a cartoonist’s delight.

Ted Fisher is another angular youth of 17 years and by profession is a coal heaver, working for Albert Coe, coal merchants. Has been with the Flyers for over four months and joined when they badly needed riders. He is a very useful rider and a jolly good trier. Usually comes into the pits after a race with a wide grin spread over his face whether he has won or lost. Ted is rather fussy over his machine and, as his hobby is cycling, it is quite understandable that next to Ted comes Ted’s bike. One outstanding feature about him is his ears – they compare with Wilson’s feet in proportion. It is noticeable that when a stiff wind is blowing, his ears knock a few knots off his speed, but when the wind is behind him – out spread those ears and it sends him along at a spanking pace. However, joking apart, he is firm in the belief that a rider cannot experiment on the track and insists on riding with a partner with whom he can give and take, and Fisher can always take it.

One of the two ‘Arts’ of the Flyers. Redman, a fresh-complexioned blonde, is another of Millwall’s top-line riders. Can always be heard singing ‘one of the latest’ as he rounds a bend and raises his front wheel. He first rode in 1945 for the Forest Gate Tigers and boasts that he was their only rider that could stay on their machine but he cannot compete with Calvo in this respect. Rode in the first ever test match and reached double figures. Was unfortunate in the East London Championships and later joined the Forces. He considers that he has smashed more Army bikes than he has had Army meals. Signed on for Beckton Aces in 1949 but now races for Millwall Flyers and is keen to see them do well in 1950. He has won several cups, all of which are now broken. Has since confessed that all these cups were won at fairs on Wanstead Flats. However, Arthur will have his little joke and it is a wonder how his fiancée, a very charming girl, can tell when he is really joking. The Flyers are looking forward to Arthur making some tip-top scores this season for them.

‘There was a boy, A very strange enchanted boy, And his name was Tommy Calvo’ This ‘Mighty Joe Young’ is 16 years of age and is by trade a metal polisher. Is the smallest rider in the team and one of the most popular. He has had a bike specially made to suit his small stature – a bit smaller and it would be a fairy cycle. Tommy is the gamest little rider it has ever been my pleasure to watch and he has knocked up a great many points since he joined the Flyers. His hobbies are cycle speedway and films, and ‘Nature Boy’ should be on the films himself, so funny are his antics. A tousle-haired blond, he is on the track at every opportunity much to the joy of the younger supporters, who delight to watch his brilliant green machine flash around with the name ‘Nature Boy’ emblazoned on the frame in bright red and gold letters. Good luck to you Tommy Boy and may you grow a few more inches in the coming year.

Tall, blonde, wavy-haired Roy Martin is the assistant team manager and is married with a baby daughter. He is a carpenter and joiner by trade. Is very popular among the supporters and his riding is definitely in the championship class and improving every week. If Roy’s riding continues as it is at present, I can foresee him being one of cycle speedway’s top-liners in the near future. Usually rides best when partnering George Stephens and the pair are a pleasure to watch. Roy’s neck scarf and hair flying never fails to raise a cheer from the girls. He ‘chips’ Calvo unmercifully at times and calls him ‘the horizontal champ’ due to Tommy’s numerous spills, but Roy’s brand of humour is very dry, and his drawling voice is rarely heard at meetings unless it’s something very important. Roy is a stickler for clean and fair riding and sometimes an unfair decision irritates him for the rest of the match. He should have been a cowboy – he looks like one.

Here is an household name in cycle speedway. George, who has a fine record, is an employee of Taylor Walkers and his hobby is the motor-cycle speedway. He was the first on the cycle speedway in 1946 when he was noticed by Poplar Eagles’ talent spotter and, after the Eagles disbanded, was chosen by Terry Brown to occupy reserve position in Beckton Aces. George points in his first races, then went on to win the East London match-race championship in 1948. He was capped for England against Scotland in 1949 and scored the highest points in that match of 15 points. Is now Millwall Flyers’ star rider and has expressed his wish to ride only for Millwall, who promptly elected him captain after the resignation of that position by Eddie Wilson. George is a very pleasant and popular chap on and off the track and takes a disqualification with silent wince. He has one peculiarity – he has his own personal mascot to wheel his bike to the starting gate, and that ritual is strictly observed. Usually paired with Roy Martin, and these two can always give the supporters their money’s worth. He was the inventor of telescopic forks for speedway cycles. Millwall is as proud of George’s record as he is himself, and all look forward to seeing him riding as a motor-cycle speedway rider.

Millwall’s first reserve is aged 16 and a junior clerk at a local ironworks. A tall rawboned youth, Arthur is notorious as a ‘leg trailer’ and will shortly be taking his place in the team. His jet black hair lopping over bushy eyebrows gives him a rather fierce appearance but actually his nature belies his looks as he has never yet been seen in a bad temper. Quite the reverse in fact, for he is somewhat of a comedian in his way. Arthur has often been disappointed when the team is short and a rider has turned up at the last minute, but he just grins and steps down in a sporting manner. Has recently tied a rabbit’s foot to his bike for good luck but it has yet to be tested. Is in and out of the workshop at all hours improving his machine but will leave spanners and tools lying about. However the Flyers would not like to lose Arthur and his present efforts on the track show a good standard of riding. Hobby – Aeromodelling and cycle speedway. We leave Arthur and his low-framed bike with – threepen’orth of bike and five bobs worth of Arthur.

Bill Shears has been with the Flyers from the very beginning and can always put up a good show. He is a baker’s assistant by trade and ‘dabbles in the dough’, the edible variety of course. Bill’s heart is as soft as the commodity he works with and he has a tendency to take things to heart too much. However, he is the first to sympathise with others in trouble. His hobby is cycle speedway and the accompanying cariacature was drawn while he was dreaming, maybe, that he was going round the track. His head certainly appeared in a whirl. I think he has made a New Year’s resolution to attend every Wednesday night’s meetings of the Flyers and I’m sure that he is going to keep to that promise.

click for full-sized version

click for full-sized version

click for full-sized version

click for full-sized version

A new insignia has been designed for the Millwall Flyers by their chairman, who has also designed a summer outfit for the lady supporters. The insignia is a humorous Pegasus flying horse and the accompanying sketch shows this attractive rig-out. It comprises white beret with detachable Pegasus Flyers badge, white jumper with a flying horse motif across the front, navy pleated skirt or slacks, according to taste, and shoes to match. This neat outfit may be worn on or off the track and already many of the girls are at work making and knitting this rig-out ready for the summer. Patterns of the flying horse jumper can be obtained at any newsagent or wool shop, Weldons no. A795. Get busy, girls!

The East London Advertiser reports on the Millwall Flyers ended in the summer of 1950. The local Council redeveloped the land in East Ferry Road and the sport declined right across the country as bomb sites were cleared and potential riders were drafted into the armed forces for National Service. Cycle Speedway once more became a local enthusiasm and many of the clubs closed. Although 40 clubs survive in the UK today, the golden era of the ‘Skid Kids’ had run its course.

Acknowledgements

A special thanks to our very own ‘Millwall Flyer’, Arthur Ayres, for sharing his precious memories. Nothing beats hearing a story from someone who was part of it. Thanks also to George Warren, Brian Grover and Debbie Levett of Friends of Island History Trust, for first raising the idea of bringing this almost-forgotten story back to life. George and Brian spent hours at the Tower Hamlets Borough Archives patiently wading through old copies of the East London Advertiser to unearth Ted Davison’s wonderful cartoons and articles, without which this piece would not have been possible. The excellent ‘Cycle Speedway Teams Down The Ages’ website provides invaluable historical material and it was only thanks to their page on the Millwall Flyers that I realised Arthur Ayres had been involved. As always, Mick Lemmerman’s help and advice in putting this online is greatly valued and appreciated.

‘Millwall Flyer’, Arthur Ayres

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Pictorial History of the Millwall Docks. Part 2: Early 20th Century (Pre-WWII)

In 1909, the government bought all the major docks along the Thames, and the new Port of London Authority (PLA) assumed control on 31 March 1909. The PLA created five dock groups, the West India, East India and Millwall Docks forming one of them, known as the India and Millwall Docks.

1912. Kingsbridge dock entrance. The footbridge was intended to be used by pedestrians if the swing bridge was open, but longer ships meant it always had to open at the same time as the swing bridge anyway.

At that time, the West India and Millwall Docks had no direct water connection with each other.

Various plans were proposed, but these were all interruped by World War I.

World War I. A rare site, never repeated later in the century, female dock workers.

1921

In 1929, work was completed on passages connecting all three West India docks, and connecting West India Docks with Millwall Docks (known as the Millwall Cutting).

The new passages are all visible in the following aerial photo:

1930

In 1934, McDougalls built their iconic flour silo building, with its 10 cylindrical, concrete silos.

McDougalls

Central Granary

Central Granary grain pumps

Now you seen them….

…now you don’t.

In 1933, the PLA held its annual swimming gala in the newly-opened Millwall Cutting.

Ominously, the German team gave a nazi salute during the playing of the German national anthem.

A few years later, their compatriots would return to the Millwall Docks, intent on destroying them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pictorial History of the Millwall Docks. Part 1: The Age of Sail

In 1859, plans were announced for the construction of new enclosed docks south of the West India Docks, conisting of a wide canal stretching from the west to the east of the Island, connected to another heading north.

Survey of London:

More than 8,000ft of dock wall, between 28ft and 30ft high, was built to enclose 35½ acres of water, 24ft deep. This walling survives, but it is behind later quays except at the north end of the Inner Dock and along the south quay of the Outer Dock. It has straight sides with a slight batter, and a brick skin about 2ft thick backed by mass concrete up to 11ft 6in. thick. Horizontal bands of brickwork tie the facing into the backing. The walls originally had Bramley Fall stone copings with continuous mooring rails.

The east extension was deferred, and so the bank at the eastern end of the Outer Dock was wharfed with timber in 1870–1, by John Langham Reed to plans by Wilson. This frontage and the land behind up to the Millwall Extension Railway was a barge-railway wharf for the Great Eastern Railway Company from 1872 to 1926.

Constructed docks. Although the eastern extension was not built, the the dock company still purchased all the land required.

Construction

Construction of the entrance lock gates (at the later Kingsbridge)

The constructed docks – opened on 14 March 1868 –

Official opening

Survey of London:

The dock company built granaries and extended its warehousing in 1883–4, acquiring new powers for raising capital. The gross tonnage entering the Millwall Docks in 1885 was approximately double that of 1871. In 1889 working agreements were reached between all London’s dock companies, assigning and protecting their particular trades. The Millwall Docks were fixed as the centre of the European grain trade. They were also permitted to accept grain from Australia and New Zealand, as well as certain other goods from outside Europe, including a percentage of the timber trade, phosphate, guano, nitrate, bones and bone ash, horns, bulk cotton seed, oilcake, rosin and turpentine. The company handled ever-greater quantities of grain with the introduction from 1892 of Duckham’s novel pneumatic elevating machinery.

In 1900 about a third of London’s grain imports and 10 per cent of its river-borne timber trade came through the Millwall Docks. Of the grain, 57 per cent was immediately lightered out, 30 per cent stored and 13 per cent delivered direct to the railway. In terms of mechanization, the Millwall Docks were already the pride of the Port, handling twice as much as competitors per acre of water space. However, the docks suffered from crowding and delays; the advantage that machinery brought demanded continuing investment if it was not to be lost.

Duckham prepared reports and plans, but outside experts were brought in to help with the design of the two principal improvements, the Central Granary and the Timber Transporter.

Timber transporter at its Millwall Inner Dock terminus (next to Glengall Bridge)

Central Granary

Kingsbridge, the swing bridge is open to allow barges through the entrance lock

SS Pamir sailing through the entrance lock in 1932

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment