Dolly Fisher – ‘Tugboat Annie of the Thames’

[Thanks and apologies to for the inspiration and blatant ‘borrowing’ of some text and images. You know I’m always happy to return the compliment.]

Recently, a friend, Con Maloney shared with me a link to an online version the 1962 documentary, ‘Postscript to Empire, Britain in Transition’. Controversial and patronising in places, it compared the life and attitudes of inhabitants of Dockland with those who had recently moved to a New Town. The Dockland area in question was the Isle of Dogs; and the documentary contains some unique and magical images and sounds of a lost world and people (OK, I admit that sounds a bit dramatic – we’re talking about 1960s London, not the lost city of the Incas). You can find the link at the end of this article.

A couple who feature larger-than-lifely (I might have made up that expression) in the documentary are the husband and wife owners of a well known barge-building firm of the time, Dorathea (Dolly) and William (Bill) Woodward Fisher of 94 Narrow St, Limehouse.

Not Islanders, not even East Londoners, but still with close links to the Island; due not only to business dealings along the river, but also to their active support for a number of good causes, including that of the Poplar and Blackwall District Rowing Club, which at the time kept its boats (or sculls, or whatever their proper name is) in a wooden shed in Ferry St and used the Princess of Wales pub (‘Macs’) round the corner in Manchester Rd as club house.

1960s broadcaster, Dan Farson, knew Dolly and Bill well, for he rented a flat above their barge-building works for many years around 1960. Farson wrote in his autobiography, Limehouse Days:

Sometimes referred to as ‘the Tugboat Annie of the Thames’, she commanded a fleet of 200 barges from her control room in her handsome house in Blackheath [actually, Lewisham], cultivating a startling resemblance to George Arliss by wearing well-tailored suits, a stock, and sometimed a monocle. Everybody obeyed her, including her husband William, a born riverman.

I grew to know the Woodward Fishers over the next few years and though Mrs. Fisher….proved a splendidly vigorous octogenarian, one of the true characters of the river, I never lost my fear of her.

Tugboat Annie is a 1933 American comedy film starring Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery as a boisterous and argumentative middle-aged couple who operate a tugboat.

I’ve never seen the film myself, and have no idea if the comparison is fair or complimentary. There certainly seems to have been no physical similarity,


Dolly and Bill on the balcony of their firm. A screenshot from the 1962 documentary ‘Postscript to Empire, Britain in Transition’.

Farson again:

My first meeting was with her son Ken, a courteous young man, smooth and citified in contrast to the rough background of his parents, who started their fleet with £20 and a single barge, subsequently absorbing the wharf owned by W.N. Sparks and sons, builders of wooden sailing barges.

…he did his utmost to dissuade me, stressing that the place was unsuitable except for a hardened East Ender or impoverished students. This was followed by my first meeting with Dolly Fisher in Narrow St, where she led me to the balcony and pointed out the disadvantages  with scrupulous honesty: the excruciating scream of the electric scrapers as they removed the rust from the worn-out barges; the grime from the coal-loading wharf near by, settling a layer of black dust where we stood; the smell, or rather the stink, of the river at low tide.


Dolly in front of the coal wharf.

Beneath her gruff exterior, with that bark of a voice frequently mistaken for a man’s as she roused her workmen from their tea-breaks on the radio, Dolly Fisher was a kind if abrasive woman, and she sensed my passion – and indeed she shared my romance with the river.

Incidentally, it was while living in the flat above the barge building firm that Farson discovered it once served as a beerhouse, named Waterman’s Arms, a name he later re-used when he purchased the Newcastle Arms on the Island.


William wearing his Doggett’s coat and badge.

William was the winner of the coveted Doggett’s Coat and Badge, the annual rowing race of six young watermen on 1 August, started in 1716 by an actor called Doggett to commemorate the accession of George I. As a prize he offered an orange coat of antique cut with a silver badge on the right sleeve denoting the White Horse of Hannover, hence the name, though this had been replaced by a gift of money.


Narrow St in the late 1950s, with a Woodward Fisher van parked on the left. Photo: Dan Farson.


Woodward Fisher’s from the river.


The tug, Billdora, which Bill and Dolly named after themselves.

As well as her three London wharves. Mrs Fisher owned a wharf and a refreshment bar on the Isle of Wight. Her large Victorian mansion in was home to a menagerie of five tortoises, nine cats, two dogs, a parrot and a budgerigar. When her husband died in the 1960s,  Mrs Woodward Fisher took over the business.

She also raised 66 thousand pounds to buy land and build a club house for the Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club, of which her husband was a member. She was “inordinately proud of the spanking new clubhouse” – round which she was carried shoulder high at the opening. And of her “‘boys” at the club, aged between eight and 80. And of the club’s star sculler, Ken Dwan, who represented Great Britain at the Munich Olympics.


1960 launch of the new boat, Kenneth, in Ferry St. Dolly is peering into the boat, while Bill is standing to her left. North Greenwich railway station, on the right, made way for the new rowing club later; Manchester Rd is in the background. Photo: Island History Trust / Bill Smith.


1960. Dolly helping the new tenant in the Princess of Wales, Mrs Pat Pearce, to celebrate her arrival. Photo: Island History Trust / Bill Smith

In 1961, Dolly was awarded an OBE.


She had become quite a celebrity in the conventional sense.


Life Magazine. 1966

In 1972, the BBC made a programme about Dolly, naming it ‘Mother Thames OBE’. Nancy Banks-Smith, reviewing the programme in the Guardian, wrote:

At 77, Mrs Dorathea Woodward Fisher has gladdened many a heart; and to everyone on the river she is known affectionately as ‘ Mother Thames.’ Meeting Mother Thames … is an illuminating experience. Inebriating even … She is a great swell, a rip, a nut. Her clothes, her caps, her cigarette, her silver, her style, her soul are dashingly individual …


She was often in demand for interviews; the following is an extract from one in Woman’s Weekly in 1973:

A voice, harsh and vibrant, crackled through the radio receiver: “Calling Duke shore, position please …”

“Barge Dog Fisher, loaded with molasses, moor up the Wash and stow ready for ten o’clock in the morning.”

Was it a man talking, newcomers to the Thames dockside invariably thought so. lt was, in fact. Mrs Dorathea Woodward Fisher, otherwise known as the Grand Old Lady of the Thames, or Lady Dorathea of the River, the only woman barge-owner actively in the business and its personality queen as well.
“People think I’ve got a gruff voice.” she said. “Well, so I have and I wouldn’t be without it. If I’d had a sweet girlish voice I wouldn’t have got anywhere.

“I’ve been called all kinds of things and done all sorts of business on the phone, when if they’d known I was a woman, they wouldn’t have talked to me.”

(One tug skipper always refers to her as “old cock.” He sends her the occasional box of cigars as well.)

Reluctantly, on her 79th birthday in 1973 (and by now long a widow), Dolly wound up her lighterage business. She should have done so four years previously, according to her businessman son Ken. But she didn’t have the heart. She paid off the lightermen who ran her barges – “Grand chaps all. though they do ask for too much money these days.” She took the remaining 88 barges out of commission. She kept, though, her last nine tugs and she surrendered none of her extensive property interests, which included three wharves on the Thames.

Women’s Weekly:

Mrs Fisher’s could easily be just another “tings ain’t what they used to be” sob-story. But it is lifted out of the ordinary by the amazing personality of the woman at its heart and by the accelerating decline of the Thames as an artery of commerce, which is a tragedy for London and Londoners.

Mrs Fisher is appalled and saddened by this. “I still like going out on the river, but each time now it breaks my heart a little bit. I come away with a lump in my throat.”

Still she acknowledges that progress must go on. ” I don’t blame containerisation. It is an efficient way of moving goods. But those huge lorries! They’ve really plumped for the beast and not the beauty, using those.”

She was closing, she said, because she could not stand the financial strain. For some time she had paid out three thousand pounds a week in salaries, while the business brought in just half that.

She had a fercious sense of humour too. “Did you hear the one about the bishop and the lady learner driver who arrived simultaneously at the Pearly Gates?” she asks. “St. Peter came out and invited the lady driver in, in front of the bishop. ‘Oh no,’ said the bishop, you can’t let her in before me.’ ‘My good man.’ St. Peter replied, ‘she’s put the fear of God into many more people than you ever did’.”

She might have been talking about herself. Dolly died a few months later.

Link to film, which is well worth seeing:

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McDougall’s, Millwall Docks

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History:

1845 Alexander McDougall, previously a struggling Scottish shoe merchant from Dumfries and then a Manchester schoolmaster, finally achieved his ambition of setting up as a manufacturing chemist.

1864 He recruited his sons into the business and, in 1864, the McDougall Brothers developed and produced a patent substitute for yeast. This was the starting point which was not only to revolutionise home baking, but firmly position McDougall’s as a household name, as pioneers of self-raising flour.

1869 The first large mill to be built alongside any of the London docks was the Wheatsheaf Mill, at Millwall Docks, which stood on the southern quay of the Millwall Outer Dock. Its construction was started in 1869 by the Manchester-based McDougall Brothers.

The firm of McDougall Brothers evolved into the first of Britain’s giant flour milling concerns, more often known by the name of their product McDougall’s. They owned several large mills elsewhere in the country. The Wheatsheaf Mill, rebuilt several times over the following century, became one of the major landmarks of the Isle of Dogs.

This 1890 map shows the location of the flour mill:


The same location today:


British Survey Online:

A fire in 1898 destroyed the mill, despite the efforts of 25 engines from all over London. A new McDougall & Company flour mill was built in 1899–1900. H. Jameson Davis was the milling engineer and Robert E. Crosland the architect. The lowest tender for the building work was from Holliday & Greenwood. The mill, again on the north-west quarter of the site, was of brick, built around three sides of a yard. The north range housed timber and cast-iron storage bins over wheat mixers. Its north elevation to the dock was a symmetrical façade with decorative gables. The south range had offices under the mill proper, which had 12 grain elevators, top-floor sifters for grading the flour, and second-floor purifiers with mahogany hoppers feeding 13 first-floor double-roller mills. An 82ft-tall tower linked the main ranges and housed wheat-cleaning machinery and a water tank. South of the mill there were offices, stores, a 142hp steam engine, and a chimney, 120ft tall.

As Wheatsheaf Mills, this building became the centre of McDougall & Company business. The east or fertilizer premises were sublet to J. Taylor & Sons in 1914 for the production of cattle food. Two long ranges of 51ft-tall timber bin silos were erected on the northeast quarter of the site. Around 1926 two-storey office, canteen and laboratory buildings were built to the southwest.


After the fire (Photo: Island History Trust)

The rebuilt Wheatsheaf Mill:



McDougall’s works dinner, 1920s



In 1934, a new silo building was built. It had ten 20ft-diameter cylindrical bins, was 100ft tall and had a capacity of 8,000 tons.


The almost-complete new silo building in 1935.







King George VI hoping to get some free flour.


Photo: Island History Trust


In 1960, two steel-bin silo cylinders, each 30ft in diameter and 50ft high, were erected west of the main silo.

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The company, by then named Rank Hovis McDougall Branded Foods closed the mill in 1982.

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1982 demolition of the Glass Bridge.

The buildings were demolished in 1984–5.



1986, The pile of rubble on the opposite quay is all that remains of McDougalls silo building. Photo: Chris Hirst

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The Timber Transporter

By the end of the 19th century, so much wood was being imported via the Millwall Docks that the dock company was running out of room to store it all. The company owned a lot of land beyond the dock fences – including the whole of the mudchute – so they booted Millwall Athletic off their land just south of Glengall Road in order to construct new warehousing there (see this post for more the story of Millwall Athletic on the Island).



The challenge for the dock company was: how to transport the timber from the docks, over East Ferry Rd, and into the newly-formed ‘Transporter Yard’? In 1900, Chief Millwall Dock Engineer, Duckham, travelled to Sweden for inspiration, where he inspected a timber transport system not yet known in England. On his return, he:

…proposed the adoption of an electrically motivated elevated timber transporter invented by the Stockholm engineers Adolf Julius Tenow and Johan Edward Flodstrom. The transporter was fixed to run …. from the south-east corner of the Inner Dock. Bolinders supplied a further 200 yards of transporter and Joseph Westwood & Company, of Millwall, supplied and erected steel bridges to carry the structure across the railway and road. The transporter was quickly assembled and a trial on 17 June 1901 was a success….  It was inaugurated with a Coronation Dinner for the poor of Cubitt Town…. In late 1901 it was extended 200 yards eastwards and a spur was added to serve C Yard. The whole cost was £7,798.


Post-booting-out of Millwall Athletic. Bolander’s conveyor in 1906.

The timber transporter consisted of a system of rollers, about 15ft above the ground, supported by a steel and wood trestle system. Above the rollers was a pitched roof to keep the timber and roller mechanism dry. This recently-uncovered, fascinating photo shows the transporter crossing East Ferry Rd from the docks (right) and into the Transport Yard in the mudchute (left).


Transporter crossing East Ferry Rd into the mudchute, 1906 (click on image for full version)

There was a remnant of the transporter still in place as late as 1970:



The same view today (East Ferry Rd has been redirected at this point in recent times, and the bend in the road is no longer present):


An important feature of the transporter was its wood-housed system of claw lifts which carried deals up from the quay:


The previous photo shows the start of the transporter where it met Millwall Inner Dock, close to Glengall Bridge and parallel with Glengall Rd. The following photo shows the start from another angle, across Millwall Inner Dock. Glengall Bridge, a swingbridge, is open – the pedestrians are waiting for it to close.  Note the fence on both sides of Glengall Road to keep people out of the docks. The dock company, and later the PLA, were never happy with a public right of way going through their land; after the post-war closure of the last ‘bridge’ – which was actually a barge – the PLA tried to close off the cross-dock route altogether – the eventual construction of the raised glass bridge was a compromise.


Photo: Island History Trust / George Pye

The same view today:


The transporter also had an interesting system for offloading and stacking timber (the ‘lowering system’). This was a mobile construction which ran on tracks under the raised rollers, allowing dockers to offload at any point along the route of the transporter. In this photo, the steep mudchute embankments are visible in the background:


Although an innovative and impressive piece of engineering, the transporter did not save on costs – it proved cheaper to transport timber at street level on conventional (rail) trollies. Survey of London:

It did not save on labour, as porters had to sort the deals at the delivery end. The PLA stopped the use of the transporter in 1909 and, after a fire, it was dismantled in 1911.

Postscript: Some of the photos and information in this article were found in a 1905 publication, The Mechanical Handling of Materials. The relevant pages, with extra information for the mechanically minded, are reproduced here:


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The Mill Wall

As mentioned in an earlier blog article (Wet, Wet, Wet), the Island was in pre-Roman times uninhabited marshland which flooded at high tide, as was the case with much of the land along the Thames. In the medieval period, an earth, chalk and timber bank (or wall, from the Old English weall, meaning ‘rampart, dyke, earthwork’) was constructed along the riverfront to protect the land from flooding. On the land side of the wall was a large ditch into which the water drained. At low tide, sluice gates were opened to empty the ditch into the river. By this method, the interior of the Island was drained, and pastureland was created from marshland.


The wall was a large construction: 15 ft high, with a flat top of about 18 ft across and a total width (including slope and ditches) of up to 150 ft. Such constructions are still commonly applied as sea or river defences.

The above photo shows a modern Dutch wall (trivia: Amsterdam’s red light district is more widely known amongst the Dutch as De Wallen (The Walls), built as the area is on the site of a former defensive earthern bank).

Jumping ahead a lot, no photo better shows the role of the embankment in keeping the Thames at bay. St. Paul’s Church, now known as The Space, in a photo taken from the other side of the water. The Island lies low in the Thames flood plain.


Old paintings and sketches, primarily of Greenwich but painted/drawn from the Island, give an impression of the appearance of the wall then.


Greenwich from the Isle of Dogs by Dodd BHC3867

Back to the Dutch again; many English words related to rivers and sailing are derived from the Dutch language: Deck, Sail, Dyke, Mast, Boat, Ship, Keel, Canal, Sailor, Skipper … I can go on and on.

Another such word is Dock, from the Dutch Dok, the earliest incarnations of which were places to lay ships dry for repair.  The wall around the Island was perfect for this – a stable, gentle slope where ships and boats could be tethered at high tide to be left exposed when the tide went out. Even better were places with a small inlet, where the ships could be dragged (or drawn) even higher, places later known as drawdocks, such as Newcastle Drawdock opposite the Waterman’s Arms and Johnson’s Drawdock next to the rowing club.

Meanwhile, back to a long time ago, in 1700:


Observant readers will immediately spot the windmills down the west side of the Island, all seven of them. There were at other times more (up to 12) or less than seven mills, but the idea of seven mills has stuck, and is reflected in the name of the primary school of the Barkantine Estate. The west side of the Island was perfect for windmills, it being a very windy place, due to the westerly prevailing winds and the wide open space of the Thames.

Survey of London:

It was said in the 1850s that ‘when in other parts of London the wind is scarcely felt, it sweeps over this place with great strength’.

Initially, most of the mills were engaged in corn grinding, but, later, oilseed crushing became the norm. Usually, the owners lived over the water (there were few residents on the Island in the 1700s). The path along the wall was more usually referred to as Marsh Wall, but Mill Wall made its introduction. Survey of London:

The name Mill Wall came into use in the late eighteenth century (it is first used in the rate books in 1784), initially referring to the western marsh wall, where windmills stood. Later, the name was used for both the path on the wall and the district generally. By the 1840s, the one-word form was usual. As late as 1875, this part of the Isle of Dogs was listed in the streets section of the Post Office Directory under Millwall alone – although Westferry Road had existed for 60 years, and had long ago superseded the marsh wall path, parts of which had already been stopped up as development proceeded. The anachronism was no doubt perpetuated in deference to the occupiers of riverside wharves.

As can be seen in the previous map, the path along the top of the wall – the Mill Wall – was the only way to get around the Island, apart from the north-south track from Poplar (the future East Ferry Rd, whose main use was to get to and from the Greenwich Ferry). The arrival of industry in the late 1700s, and especially the opening of the West India Docks in 1806, meant a proper road was required, and the West Ferry Road was opened in 1815.

In this 1818 map, the new road is shown in the west of the Island (but not the mill or marsh wall), while in the east of the Island the marsh wall is shown. It would be more than 20 years before the Manchester Rd was constructed.


Around this time the mill wall came under pressure as a right of way. Industry began to spread down the west side of the Island, and factory owners preferred to control their land between the new Westferry Rd (then also known as, amongst other names, the New Rd, Deptford & Greenwich Rd or Greenwich Ferry Rd) and the river without the pesky business of providing for a right of way. In this 1827 map the mill wall path is becoming patchy in the north of Millwall, close to Limehouse:


The path is obstructed by the western entrances to the West India Docks, but makes its way south before swinging inland a little at the mast pond, the site of the present Mast House Terrace (this was once the outlet of a brook which gave rise to a river bay – the origins of the mast pond). Further east, the wall winds its way past Saunders Ness, Folly Wall and Blackwall. The map says also Drunken Dock, but that’s a mistake. Drunken Dock was another name for the mast house pond. Strictly, by this stage, we’re not talking about the mill wall any more – there were no mills in the east of the Island.

This unique image is a painting of the windmill and surrounding buildings on the wall at the west end of Claude St, close to St. Paul’s Church. A rural scene, but with the masts of the docks in the background. The ramschackle collection of buildings included a beerhouse at the bottom left corner (The Windmill). The whole lot burned down in the 1880s.


The encroachment of industry upon the wall was not without protest from the few locals. Westferry Rd was a toll road, and many were not happy that the ancient – and free – wall path was being obliterated. By 1890 you’d be hard pushed to find traces of the wall.








Twenty years later, there was just a little bit south of Kingsbridge hanging on.



From the south of the Island, traces of the wall are still visible: Ferry St, Saunders Ness Rd and Folly Wall – they all follow the path. But they’re not in Millwall so it doesn’t count.




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Gizza Job, I Can Do That.

If you look at a trade directory dated around 1900, you will not be surprised to see many firms on the Island engaged in activities to do with the docks, shipping, engineering and metal works. But, there is also mention of other trades and industries which are not familiar to me, and/or which have interesting- or amusing-sounding names (to my 21st century ears in any event).

Talking Machines

A profession in the latter category belonged to Henry Lunn of 85 Westferry Rd, who described himself in a 1914 trade directory as a Talking Machine Repairer. What was a talking machine? I had to Google that to find out, and according to Wikipedia:

 In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “Phonograph”, “Gramophone”, “Graphophone”, “Zonophone” and the like were still brand names specific to various makers of sometimes very different (i.e. cylinder and disc) machines; so considerable use was made of the generic term “talking machine”.


Lunn’s (right)

Lunn’s shop would later be a bicycle shop, occupied in the 1950s by bicycle dealer Patrick Coleman. What is it that links audio systems with bicycles? It wasn’t the only example; at 161 Manchester Rd in the 1920s was Horace Clary’s Bicycle & Radio Repairs shop.


Photo: Tony Clary


Anybody living in Millennium Drive (behind the former Cubitt Arms) might be interested to hear that they are living on the site of a large 19th century manure works. I am not certain of its name, but it was either the Guaranteed Manure Company or the London Manure Company, both of whom were listed as Manure Merchants & Manufacturers operating on the Island in 1884.


I thought I knew what manure was, but the internet corrected me. In Victorian times, manure was a generic term for fertilizer (including that made from animal bones), and what they were producing by the Thames were nitro-phosphates, whose manufacturing process was based on sulphuric acid and which released hydrochloric acid particles into the atmosphere. Not only did the works stink, their emissions were highly toxic. This led in 1863 to the Alkali Act – the first incarnation of a ‘clean air act’ – but only after landowners and farmers downwind of such factories complained of dying plantlife in parks and pastures. Meanwhile, other Victorians claimed it was healthy to live in such an environment because the chemicals killed airborne diseases.


In Victorian times, it was permitted to sell beer – but not strong drinks – without requiring a license. If you had licensed premises, then you were known as a publican, but if you had no license then you were a beer retailer. One such beer retailer was Thomas Brunton who ran a beer house known as The Windmill on the river wall at the end of Claude Street in the 1880s.

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The beer house was in a jumble of wooden structures built around the windmill (which was built in 1701). The windmill and all the buildings were burnt down in January 1884.

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The Windmill beer house (left) on the river wall, looking north. 1843

Unfortunately for the authorities, because they had no license requirements, beer houses were never inspected, and thus became renowned as dens of vice and crime. The law was quickly changed to make sure that all premises were licensed, but most Island pubs were beer houses at one time. The exceptions were the grander establishments such as the Queen, Cubitt Arms or Lord Nelson. From the start, these were large, licensed premises aimed at the well-to-do (who were not actually to be found in any appreciable numbers on the Island); they were all to be found around Cubitt Town.


In 1890 there was a Cocoa Nut Fibre Manufactory off Westferry Rd near Cahir Street (Brownfield Place is now on the site).



Coconut fibre, or coir, is a natural fibre extracted from the husk of coconut and used in products such as floor mats, doormats, brushes, and mattresses. Other uses are in upholstery padding, sacking, and the manufacture of string and rope.


Coconut fibre works, Millwall, 1885.

DDKPTF Coconut fibre works, Millwall, London, 1885.

Coconut fibre works, Millwall, 1885.


Burning limestone produces a powder which is of use in building mortar and agriculture (it increases the pH of acidic soil). It is well known that Limehouse is so named because of the many lime kilns that were in the area in medieval times, but lime burners could be found all along the Thames – reliant as the business was on bulk transportation – as late as the 1880s, including Michael Pass who operated out of Plymouth Wharf (north of Cubitt Town Wharf at the top end of Seyssel Street).

The burner’s job also included removing the newly burnt ‘quick lime’ and general attention to kiln operation. Work on the lime kilns was arduous, hot and dusty. The gases leaving the top of a continuously operating kiln must have made manual charging an exhausting and unpleasant operation, although the top layer was cool. Gas leaving a coal fired kiln was not toxic but could induce nausea …

Removing the newly burnt lime from the base of the kiln had an element of danger, because it was both hot and caustic and in those days protective clothing was very primitive.

Oil Cakes


Nope, didn’t know that either, but that’s what the McDougall Brothers were also making in Millwall. In 1845, Alexander McDougall, previously a struggling Scottish shoe merchant from Dumfries and then a Manchester schoolmaster, finally achieved his ambition of setting up as a manufacturing chemist.

He recruited his sons into the business and, in 1864, the McDougall Brothers developed and produced a patent substitute for yeast. This was the starting point which was not only to revolutionise home baking, but firmly position McDougall’s as a household name, as pioneers of self-raising flour.

The first large mill to be built alongside any of the London docks was the Wheatsheaf Mill, at Millwall Docks, which stood on the southern quay of the Millwall Outer Dock. Its construction was started in 1869 by the Manchester-based brothers.


Millwall Inner Dock. McDougall’s Wheatsheaf Mill (right) and their newly-built silo (left). 1934.

Fancy Repository

A Fancy Repository, such as that owned by James Bulbick at 81 Westferry Rd in 1882 has an unclear meaning. Repository usually means a warehouse or storage place, but 81 Westferry Rd was a run-of-the-mill shop.


81 Westferry Rd (right) in the 1950s.

A fancy was more or less any article that you didn’t need, but which you wanted (or fancied). So, no foodstuffs, no clothing, but other items such as bird cages, croquet sets, toilet bottles, vases, etc. I’m not making this up, I’m quoting from a newspaper advert for a Fancy Repository. Basically… was……tat.


There were LOADS of chandlers on the Island. In 1882:

Alexander Noall, 120 Stebondale St
Alfred Gibbs, 63 Glengall Rd (E)
Alfred Baldwin, 2 Manilla St
Augustus Mitchell, 363 Westferry Rd
Edgar Ellis, 82 Westferry Rd
Edward Brindley, 5 East Ferry Rd
Elizabeth Middleton, 33 Charles St
George Dixey, 73 Manchester Rd
George Meason, 97 Westferry Rd
Henry Suffolk, 29 Stebondale St
Henry Adcock, 62 Glengall Rd (E)
Herbert Davey, 237 Westferry Rd
James Marner, 153 Manchester Rd
James Hembrough, 32 Manilla St
James Collins, 9 Strattondale St
James Godden, 288 Westferry Rd
Jesse Burgoine, 212 Westferry Rd
John McCartney, 43 Glengall Rd (E)
John Blakebrough, 469 Manchester Rd
John Johnstone, 313 Manchester Rd
Mary Koch, 47 Stebondale St
Richard Freeman, 248 Manchester Rd
Sarah Dines, 519 Manchester Rd
Sarah Moull, 7 Manilla St
Sarah Terry, 7 Strafford St
Thomas Weaver, 294 Westferry Rd
Thomas Mulliner, 124 Manchester Rd
Thomas Miskin, 25 Glengall Rd (E)
William McCully, 12 Manilla St
William Bishop, 21 Samuda St

So, what’s a chandler? Wikipedia says:

Not to be confused with Chandelier.

They’re only right.

A chandler was the head of the chandlery in medieval households, responsible for wax, candles, and soap. More recently, a couple of hundred years ago, ship chandlers were dealers in special supplies or equipment for ships. Eventually, chandler became the name for the person who sold general provisions, later known as a grocer (does anybody use that word any more?). The term chandelier, at one time a ceiling fitting that held several candles together, is still used. Ah – the association is not that daft after all.

Globe Maker

John Calver, 80 Westferry Rd, Globe Maker


Encaustic Tile

Encaustic tiles are ceramic tiles in which the pattern or figure on the surface is not a product of the glaze but of different colours of clay. They are usually of two colors but a tile may be composed of as many as six. The pattern appears inlaid into the body of the tile, so that the design remains as the tile is worn down. Encaustic tiles may be glazed or unglazed and the inlay may be as shallow as an eighth of an inch, as is often the case with “printed” encaustic tile from the later medieval period, or as deep as a quarter inch. They are very pretty:


John Lewis James of Wharf Rd used to make them in the 1890s. Wharf Road used to run from the Ferry House to Seyssel St. In the 1930s, the west end of the street (from Johnson Dry Dock aka the slipway next to the rowing club) was renamed Ferry Street and the east end Saunders Ness Road.


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Samuda Estate

The following the shows the boundaries of the Samuda Estate on an 1890 map.


The large ‘Shipbuilding Yard’ was originally established in 1852 by Joseph D’Aguilar Samuda (1813-1885), one of the earliest and most successful builders of iron and steel steam-ships. His obituary in the proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers described him thus:

JOSEPH D’AGUILAR SAMUDA was born in London in 1813, and early became a pupil of his elder brother, Jacob Samuda, with whom he entered into partnership as an engineer in 1832.
The firm were at first principally engaged in marine-engine building, but in 1843 shipbuilding was added to the business; and from 1842 to 1848 ho was engaged in carrying out, on the Kingstown and Dalkey, Croydon, South Devon, and Paris and St. Germains lines, the atmospheric railway on the plan of his elder brother and Mr. Samuel Clegg.

From 1851 he occupied himself almost exclusively in iron and steel shipbuilding, and constructed a large number of vessels for most of the principal navies and leading mercantile companies. Amongst them may be mentioned the “Thunderbolt,” the first armour-cased iron vessel built; the “Prince Albert,” the first iron-clad cupola ship built; and the “Mortar Float No. 1,” the first iron mortar vessel built.

More recently he built two very fast steel vessels, the “Albert Victor” and the “Louise Dagmar,” each 1040 tons burden and 2800 H.P. with a speed of 18.5 knots per hour, for the Channel service between Folkstone and Boulogne; and subsequently the “Mary Beatrice” with a speed of 19 knots per hour.

Of late years the principal part of his work was the construction of armour-clad vessels, the most recent being the Brazilian turret ships “Riachuelo” and “Aquidaban.”

In 1860 he assisted in the formation of the Institution of Naval Architects, of which he was subsequently a Vice-President.
In 1864 he became a Member of this Institution.

In 1865 he entered parliament as member for Tavistock ; and in 1868, and again in 1874, he was elected to represent the Tower Hamlets.

He died on 27th April 1885 at the age of seventy-one.


Survey of London:

The original yard was a plot of 370ft frontage to the Thames with a drawdock adjoining to the north, taken from December 1852 at £538 per annum. Samuda Brothers were pioneers in their use of steel in shipbuilding, gaining a reputation for constructing warships, steampackets, and other special-purpose craft of iron and steel. Expansion was an almost inevitable consequence. In 1860 the yard was extended to the north and west to meet Manchester Road and Davis Street, and a smaller, irregularly shaped plot to the north of the drawdock was added in 1862, giving Samuda a combined riverside frontage of over 500ft. According to P. Barry, by 1863 Samuda’s Yard was producing nearly double the output of the other London dockyards combined. Many of Samuda’s orders came from emerging foreign naval powers such as Germany, Russia and Japan, and the specialized nature of their merchandise enabled the firm to survive the 1866 financial crash and the subsequent decline in Thames shipbuilding.


Samuda’s Yard


Samuda’s Yard, one of the earliest photos taken on the Island.

Samuda’s firm was rolled up after his death, and the wharf was taken over by the Haskin Wood Vulcanizing Company, specialists in the ‘vulcanizing, seasoning, or preserving of wood’ who operated there until c1912.

haskin-wood-18990364274 haskin-wood-19426335839

An industrial area, but there were already some well-established residential streets at the time – Davis St, Samuda St and Stewart St – as well as the grander houses along Manchester Rd.


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Sadler’s Park was enclosed by the houses on Samuda St, Stewart St, Davis St and Manchester Rd.


Samuda St


336 Manchester Rd. Photo: Island History Trust Collection


338 Manchester Rd. Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Manchester Arms, on the corner of Manchester Rd and Davis St. Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Dance Family. Manchester Rd.


Manchester Rd. 1935. King George V Silver Jubilee Celebration. Photo: Island History Trust Collection


332 Manchester Rd. Photo: Island History Trust Collection


1937. Sadlers’s Park


Saddler’s Park. Note the sheds which are also visible in the Haskin Wood illustration above.


Photo: George Warren.

Predictably, sadly, as with all my posts about Island neighbourhoods, World War II changed everything. The area was particularly badly hit, including two V-1 (Doodlebug or Flying Bomb) strikes on Samuda Wharf.


Stewart St and the river from Stewart St.


The Manchester Arms and Manchester Rd from the first floor room of a house in Samuda St.


1950, with prefabs built on the site of the former houses.

In the 1950s, the LCC bought up the former Samuda’s Wharf, and other land from Poplar Borough Council. It would be their later form, the GLC, who developed the area and the estate subsequently became part of the Tower Hamlets council housing stock.

The estate was designed by Sir John Burnet, Tait & Partners, architects; and construction was carried out from 1965 by Tersons Ltd of Finchley. In spite of  difficulties with old timber piles and mass-concrete foundations on the site of Samuda’s Wharf, the estate was opened in 1967. Total cost of construction was £2,879,424.

The estate comprises four and six-storey blocks arranged around central traffic-free squares, some connected by covered bridges:

  • Ballin Court, named after Louise Sakina Ballin wife of Joseph d’Aguilar Samuda
  • Yarrow House, named after Alfred Fernandez Yarrow (1842–1932), an engineer who set up Folly Shipyard just north of Samuda’s Yard.
  • Pinnace House, named for a type of light boat carried on ships.
  • Reef House
  • Hedley House, named after Joseph Hedley, one time partner of Alfred Yarrow
  • Talia House
  • Halyard House; a halyard is the rope used to raise or lower sails
  • Dagmar Court

And of course, the 25-storey Kelson House.

Survey of London:

The blocks are arranged around a series of traffic-free squares and they are sited to give most dwellings a southerly or westerly aspect. Halyard, Hedley, Pinnace, Reef, Talia and Yarrow Houses, together with Ballin Court and Dagmar Court, are four- and six-storey blocks of flats and maisonettes, faced with aggregate-concrete panels and mottled, dark-red brick. Some of the blocks are connected by covered bridges, while two of the four-storey blocks contain bedsitter and one-bedroom flats for old people.

To the riverside, Kelson House is a 25-storey block of maisonettes, faced in aggregate-concrete panels. It is of the ‘scissors’ type developed in the early 1960s by a team in the LCC Architect’s Department, headed by David Gregory-Jones, Colin Jones and Ian Hampson. Such blocks were intended to give greater flexibility and economy than the existing LCC dwelling types – in particular by placing all living-rooms on one side of the building, and by providing a central corridor, which avoided the need for access-balconies. The somewhat complicated layout, ultimately derived from Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (1947–52), is best described ‘by comparison with a pair of half-opened scissors, the handles representing the bedroom levels, the blades the living levels and the pivot the bathroom level’.

The bedrooms are, therefore, a full storeyheight above or below the living-rooms, with the sanitary accommodation in between. Each dwelling is approached either up or down half a flight of stairs from the access corridor. A separate tower contains lifts, escape-stairs and other services, and is linked to the main block by bridges leading to the access-corridors.











422 of the 505 dwellings completed by 1974 had individual oil-fired boilers and radiators. This was a novel diversion for council housing: giving residents control over their energy consumption instead of everyone contributing to a central energy provision.

Survey of London:

Because of competing demands for space on housing estates, underground garages were adopted in several schemes completed by the GLC in the later 1960s and first half of the 1970s, although they were expensive. They were built … on the Samuda Estate (where 200 garages and 31 motorcycle stores were provided in a large semi-basement area).

The (semi-)underground spaces have since reputedly become areas to avoid, the terrain of drug-users and vandals. Meanwhile, conflicts exist between residents and the housing corporation, the successor of the council as manager of the housing, and in particular concerning the neighbourhood community accommodation. An estate the size and configuration of the Samuda Estate is not tenable without its communal facilities, unless you plan to confine people to their homes and talk not of ‘community’. But hey, what do I know?

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Tooke Times

Tooke is (or was) a well-known name on the Island. The Tooke Arms public house has a prominent place on Westferry Rd – one of the few original Island pubs still doing business (although, admittedly, it is a late 1960s version of a pub that was originally a few yards to the south).


The original Tooke Arms, shorly before its demolition. Photo taken from Sir John McDougall Gardens, courtesy of Nick Trevillion.

Before the construction of Barkantine Estate, there used also to be a Tooke St, running from Alpha Grove (formerly Alpha Road) to Westferry Road.



This was a typical Millwall street, with simple terraced houses for local workers and their families.



Photo: Island History Trust Collection

The view eastward was dominated by the large warehouses of Millwall Docks.


Photo: Island History Trust Collection

3-5 Tooke Street was notable for being the address of The Islanders public house (known commonly as Sexton’s, after an early landlord). This was the first home and unofficial club house of the local Millwal football team which would later become the modern-day Millwall FC. See Millwall FC – The Millwall Year(s) for the full story.


The Islanders pub is on the left in this photo. Photo: Arthur Ayres


Outside The Islanders. Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Original Tooke Arms on the corner of Westferry Rd and Janet St.


Photo: David Lloyd

Tooke Street is so named as it was built on land owned by the Rev. William Tooke (1744–1820), British clergyman and historian of Russia (he was for a time the chaplain of English merchants operating in St. Petersburg). The Island land had come into the hand of his family when his father Thomas married the daughter of Richard Chevall, whose own family had acquired it in 1660.

William Tooke  married Elizabeth Eyton in 1771, and the couple had two sons, Thomas and William, and a daughter Elizabeth.  Son Thomas became a renowned economist and served several terms between 1840 and 1852 as governor of the Royal Exchange Corporation. Likewise, he served for several terms as chairman of the St Katharine’s Docks company. He was also an early director of the London and Birmingham Railway. William’s second son, his namesake, went on to become a lawyer, politician, and President of the Society of Arts.

There is no evidence of any member of the Tooke family visiting the Isle of Dogs. Doesn’t surprise me, no pubs had been built yet.

by Joseph Collyer the Younger, after Sir Martin Archer Shee, line engraving, published 1820

Rev. William Tooke by Joseph Collyer the Younger, after Sir Martin Archer Shee, line engraving, published 1820

The following map shows the principal land holders in the early 1800s; many names that are still in use in Island street names.


Key to landowners: A Port of London Committee: B Sir Charles Price: C Robert Batson: D George Byng:E Rev. William Tooke: F William Mellish: G Ironmongers’ Company: H Ferguson and Todd: I Earl of Strathmore:I William Stratton

It was only after the creation of the Westferry Rd (then West Ferry Rd) around 1815 that industry began to develop down the west side of Millwall, providing opportunities for landowners to develop housing on the east side of Westferry Rd. Survey of London:

Like so much of the Isle of Dogs, Tooke Town developed patchily. By the riverside there grew up a dense urban muddle typical of Millwall: cramped wharves; awkward, inaccessible factories and workshops; mean houses and shops cheek-by-jowl with the noise, pollution and danger of industry and wharfage. East of Westferry Road the side streets, stopping short in the marsh at the boundary of the estate, were not fully built up for many years. They were eventually extended across the Mellish Estate, but the resulting grid pattern of streets has since been broken up, largely by public-housing developments.

By 1817 William Tooke had put a road called Moiety Street through his riverside land, with three turnings off Westferry Road. The probable intention was to split the estate into residential and industrial portions, Moiety Street acting as a service road to factories and wharves and the backs of terrace-houses in Westferry Road. However, only about half the main-road frontage south of the first turning was built up with houses, and most of these did not appear until the 1850s.

There was no house building on any scale until the 1840s, when Charles Chevall Tooke [grandson of Rev. William Tooke, and son of Thomas Tooke] began to sell building leases on plots fronting Westferry Road and new side streets. The name Tooke Town appears in leases from the mid-1840s.

The development of the western part of Tooke Street began in 1842 when William White, a local baker, took a building lease of four plots on its south side. As well as a terrace of four houses, he wedged in two cottages at the rear, White’s Cottages. (ref. 204)

There was some further building in 1842–7 — the lessees including a butcher and an engineer, both from Limehouse, and a Millwall stonemason — then a second wave of building in the mid-1850s. In 1854 George White, an iron-founder, completed a row of plots he had agreed to take in 1846. A few years later William White built another row of houses and about the same time a couple of pairs of houses appeared, on leases granted to a Spitalfields watch-case manufacturer, and a Millwall sawyer.

Almost all the western (Tooke) part of the street had been built up by the late 1860s; the eastern part, on the Mellish Estate, was laid out later and built up in 1879 with terrace houses by Abraham Cullen of Havannah Street, a house agent.




Tooke Town and part of the Mellish Estate. Based on the Ordnance Survey of 1893–4. Key: A Tooke Estate: B Mellish Estate (part): C Byng Estate (part)

The area around Tooke St did not change much for the next 40 years, until the outbreak of World War II when it was heavily damaged by bombing, as was the rest of the Island and the East End in general.


Luftwaffe photo of bombs dropping in Millwall during the Blitz


Assessment of one week’s worth of fire bombing in December 1940

After the war, the damage to the street was evident; it had taken quite a battering due to its proximity to the docks.


Black shading corresponds to buildings destroyed or damaged beyond use.


Photo: Peter Bevan


Photo: Peter Wright

During the 1960s, the area was largely cleared of housing (including undamaged buildings) to make room for the new Barkantine Estate.


Architectural Model








But still a bit more to be built – the flats in Byng St / Strafford St for example. Photo: Jonathan Barker


New Tooke Arms

If you were wondering where Tooke St was, stand with your back to the Fried Chicken Shop (the one opposite Barkantine) in Westferry Rd and look down the right side of the football cage.


You’re looking down the old route of Tooke St. Can’t see it? No, me neither.

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