The Millwall Mudlark

Metal-detectorists and others who search river foreshores for historic artefacts often describe themselves as “mudlarks”. The word has a playful and cheery ring to it; what could be more fun than larking around in the mud? It is even the name of the children’s gallery in the Museum of London Docklands.

Photo copyright: Adrian Scottow. Reproduced under terms of Creative Commons License (

Its origins, however, are grimmer. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the name given to those, many of whom were children, who scraped a living scavenging on river foreshores looking for items of value that could be sold.

In Victorian East London, it was an unhealthy and dangerous job carried out by the poorest in an area already renowned for its poverty. This was a time when raw sewage was emptied into the Thames, and it was common for waste (including sometimes the corpses of cats and dogs, and even of humans) to be dumped in the river. In addition to the filth, risk of injury was provided by broken glass, metal shards and other sharp objects – not to mention the chance of drowning (many mudlarks were not averse to climbing onto barges and other boats to see what might be found there – anybody brought up on the Isle of Dogs will know how dangerous that is, and many will have been told by their parents to stay off them).

Henry Mayhew (1812–1887) was among a number of journalists and social reformers who were active in Britain around this time. He wrote many articles about the lot of the poor in Southeast and East London for the newspaper, Morning Chronicle, which were later compiled into the 1851 book series  London Labour and the London Poor. In a later version of one book, in the section titled “Felonies on the River Thames”, in which he describes mudlarks, Mayhew includes the “Narrative of a Mudlark”, an interview with a thirteen-year-old boy working the foreshore off Millwall.

Without making any judgments about the boy, just presenting facts, Mayhew (for the words are surely his interpretation of the boy’s narrative – they can hardly be the words of a poor, barely-schooled and young boy in Victorian times) describes a hard life, just about surviving, yet at the same time the boy demonstrates some pride and self-assuredness.

Mayhew’s introduction and the narrative are reproduced in full here. It’s hard to imagine that children once had to live like this in Britain (and even harder to imagine that in some parts of the world this is still the case, more than 150 years later). The boy’s story is very close to home, though, as he talks of working off Millwall – on the foreshore under a section of the Island that is now occupied by Sir John McDougall’s Gardens.

London Labour and the London Poor, extra volume
Mayhew, Henry, 1851
Felonies on the River Thames

There are a great number of robberies of various descriptions committed on the Thames by different parties. These depredations differ in value, from the little ragged mudlark stealing a piece of rope or a few handfuls of coals from a barge, to the lighterman carrying off bales of silk several hundred pounds in value. When we look to the long lines of shipping along each side of the river, and the crowds of barges and steamers that daily ply along its bosom, and the dense shipping in its docks, laden with untold wealth, we are surprised at the comparatively small aggregate amount of these felonies.

The Mudlarks

They generally consist of boys and girls, varying in age from eight to fourteen or fifteen; with some persons of more advanced years. For the most part they are ragged, and in a very filthy state, and are a peculiar class, confined to the river. The parents of many of them are coalwhippers—Irish cockneys—employed getting coals out of the ships, and their mothers frequently sell fruit in the street.

Their practice is to get between the barges, and one of them lifting the other up will knock lumps of coal into the mud, which they pick up afterwards; or if a barge is ladened with iron, one will get into it and throw iron out to the other, and watch an opportunity to carry away the plunder in bags to the nearest marine-storeshop.

They sell the coals among the lowest class of people for a few halfpence. The police make numerous detections of these offences. Some of the mudlarks receive a short term of imprisonment, from three weeks to a month, and others two months with three years in a reformatory. Some of them are old women of the lowest grade, from fifty to sixty, who occasionally wade in the mud up to the knees.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Wapping Wharf (Thames Police), 1859

One of them may be seen beside the Thames Police office, Wapping, picking up coals in the bed of the river, who appears to be about sixty five years of age. She is a robust woman, dressed in an old cotton gown, with an old straw bonnet tied round with a handkerchief, and wanders about without shoes and stockings. This person has never been in custody. She may often be seen walking through the streets in the neighbourhood with a bag of coals on her head.

In the neighbourhood of Blackfriars Bridge clusters of mudlarks of various ages may be seen from ten to fifty years, young girls and old women, as well as boys. They are mostly at work along the coal wharves where the barges are lying aground, such as at Shadwell and Wapping, along Bankside, Borough; above Waterloo Bridge, and from the Temple down to St. Paul’s Wharf. Some of them pay visits to the City Gasworks, and steal coke and coal from their barges, where the police have made many detections.

East London Mudlarks

As soon as the tide is out they make their appearance, and remain till it comes in. Many of them commence their career with stealing rope or coals from the barges, then proceed to take copper from the vessels, and afterwards go down into the cabins and commit piracy. These mudlarks are generally strong and healthy, though their clothes are in rags. Their fathers are robust men. By going too often to the public-house they keep their families in destitution, and the mothers of the poor children are glad to get a few pence in whatever way they can.

Narrative of a Mudlark

THE following narrative was given us by a mudlark we found on a float on the river Thames at Millwall, to the eastward of Ratcliffe Highway. He was then engaged, while the tide was in, gathering chips of wood in an old basket. We went to the river side along with his younger brother, a boy of about eleven years of age, we saw loitering in the vicinity.

On our calling to him, he got the use of a boat lying near, and came toward us with alacrity. He was an Irish lad of about thirteen years of age, strong and healthy in appearance, with Irish features and accent. He was dressed in a brown fustian coat and vest, dirty greasy canvas trousers roughly-patched, striped shirt with the collar folded down, and a cap with a peak.

I was born in the county of Kerry in Ireland in the year 1847, and am now about thirteen years of age. My father was a ploughman, and then lived on a farm in the service of a farmer, but now works at loading ships in the London docks. I have three brothers and one sister. Two of my brothers are older than I. One of them is about sixteen, and the other about eighteen years of age. My eldest brother is a seaman on board a screwship, now on a voyage to Hamburg; and the other is a seaman now on his way to Naples. My youngest brother you saw beside me at the river side. My sister is only five years of age, and was born in London. The rest of the family were all born in Ireland.

Our family came to London about seven years ago, since which time my father has worked at the London Docks. He is a strong-bodied man of about thirty-four years of age. I was sent to school along with my elder brothers for about three years, and learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. I was able to read tolerably well, but was not so proficient in writing and arithmetic. One of my brothers has been about three years, and the other about five years at sea.

About two years ago I left school, and commenced to work as a mudlark on the river, in the neighbourhood of Millwall, picking up pieces of coal and iron, and copper, and bits of canvas on the bed of the river, or of wood floating on the surface. I commenced this work with a little boy of the name of Fitzgerald.

When the bargemen heave coals to be carried from their barge to the shore, pieces drop into the water among the mud, which we afterwards pick up. Sometimes we wade in the mud to the ancle, at other times to the knee. Sometimes pieces of coal do not sink, but remain on the surface of the mud; at other times we seek for them with our hands and feet.

Sometimes we get as many coals about one barge as sell for 6d. On other occasions we work for days, and only get perhaps as much as sells for 6d. The most I ever gathered in one day, or saw any of my companions gather, was about a shilling’s worth. We generally have a bag or a basket to put the articles we gather into. I have sometimes got so much at one time, that it filled my basket twice—before the tide went back.

I sell the coals to the poor people in the neighbourhood, such as in Mary Street and Charles Street, and return again and fill my bag or basket and take them home or sell them to the neighbours. I generally manage to get as many a day as sell for 8d.

At the time of publication of Mayhew’s book, housing development in Millwall consisted of not much more than West Ferry Road and a few, short sides streets. Charles Street would later be renamed Malabar Street. Mary Street was an early, alternative spelling of Maria Street – a street that disappeared on the construction of the Barkantine Estate.

In addition to this, I often gather a basket of wood on the banks of the river, consisting of small pieces chipped off planks to build the ships or barges, which are carried down with the current and driven ashore. Sometimes I gather four or five baskets of these in a day. When I get a small quantity they are always taken home to my mother. When successful in finding several basketfuls, I generally sell part of them and take the rest home. These chips or stray pieces of wood are often lying on the shore or among the mud, or about the floating logs; and at other times I seize pieces of wood floating down the river a small distance off; I take a boat lying near and row out to the spot and pick them up. In this way I sometimes get pretty large beams of timber.

On an average I get 4d. or 6d. a-day by finding and selling pieces of wood; some days only making 2d., and at other times 3d. We sell the wood to the same persons who buy the coals. We often find among the mud, in the bed of the river, pieces of iron; such as rivets out of ships, and what is termed washers and other articles cast away or dropped in the iron-yards in building ships and barges. We get these in the neighbourhood of Limehouse, where they build boats and vessels. I generally get some pieces of iron every day, which sells at 1/4d. a pound, and often make 1d. or 2d. a-day, sometimes 3d., at other times only a farthing. We sell these to the different marine store dealers in the locality.

We occasionally get copper outside Young’s dock. Sometimes it is new and at other times it is old. It is cut from the side of the ship when it is being repaired, and falls down into the mud. When the pieces are large they are generally picked up by the workmen; when small they do not put themselves to the trouble of picking them up. The mudlarks wade into the bed of the river and gather up these and sell them to the marine store dealer. The old copper sells at 1 1/2d. a pound, the new copper at a higher price. I only get copper occasionally, though I go every day to seek for it.

Pieces of rope are occasionally dropped or thrown overboard from the ships or barges and are found embedded in the mud We do not find much of this, but sometimes get small pieces. Rope is sold to the marine store dealers at 1/2d. a pound. We also get pieces of canvas, which sells at 1/2d. a pound. I have on some occasions got as much as three pounds.

Old Bailey proceedings of a trial in September 1824. The punishment for stealing anything could be severe. ‘Our’ mudlark sold rope at a halfpenny a pound, so 22 lbs of rope would have earned 11 pennies, not even a shilling – but enough to be transported to Australia for seven years. (A shilling in 1850 had approximately the purchasing power of a fiver in today’s money.)

We also pick up pieces of fat along the river-side. Sometimes we get four or five pounds and sell it at 3/4d. a pound at the marine stores; these are thrown overboard by the cooks in the ships, and after floating on the river are driven on shore.

I generally rise in the morning at six o’clock, and go down to the river-side with my youngest brother you saw beside me at the barges. When the tide is out we pick up pieces of coal, iron, copper, rope and canvas. When the tide is in we pick up chips of wood. We go upon logs, such as those you saw me upon with my basket, and gather them there.

In the winter time we do not work so many hours as in the summer; yet in winter we generally are more successful than in the long days of summer. A good number of boys wade in summer who do not come in winter on account of the cold. There are generally thirteen or fourteen mudlarks about Limehouse in the summer, and about six boys steadily there in the winter, who are strong and hardy, and well able to endure the cold. The old men do not make so much as the boys because they are not so active; they often do not make more than 6d. a day while we make 1s. or 1s. 6d.

Some of the mudlarks are orphan boys and have no home. In the summer time they often sleep in the barges or in sheds or stables or cow-houses, with their clothes on. Some of them have not a shirt, others have a tattered shirt which is never washed, as they have no father nor mother, nor friend to care for them. Some of these orphan lads have good warm clothing; others are ragged and dirty, and covered with vermin.

The mudlarks generally have a pound of bread to breakfast, and a pint of beer when they can afford it. They do not go to coffee-shops, not being allowed to go in, as they are apt to steal the men’s ‘grub.’ They often have no dinner, but when they are able they have a pound of bread and 1d. worth of cheese. I never saw any of them take supper. The boys who are out all night lie down to sleep when it is dark, and rise as early as daylight.
Sometimes they buy an article of dress, a jacket, cap, or pair of trousers from a dolly or rag-shop. They get a pair of trousers for 3d. or 4d., an old jacket for 2d, and an old cap for 1/2d or 1d. When they have money they take a bed in a low lodging-house for 2d. or 3d. a night.

We are often chased by the Thames’ police and the watermen, as the mudlarks are generally known to be thieves. I take what I can get as well as the rest when I get an opportunity. We often go on board of coal barges and knock or throw pieces of coal over into the mud, and afterwards come and take them away. We also carry off pieces of rope, or iron, or anything we can lay our hands on and easily carry off. We often take a boat and row on board of empty barges and steal small articles, such as pieces of canvas or iron, and go down into the cabins of the barges for this purpose, and are frequently driven off by the police and bargemen. The Thames’ police often come upon us and carry off our bags and baskets with the contents.

The mudlarks are generally good swimmers. When a bargeman gets hold of them in his barge on the river, he often throws them into the river, when they swim ashore and then take off their wet clothes and dry them. They are often seized by the police in boats, in the middle of the river, and thrown overboard, when they swim to the shore.

Police boat in 1880, off Wapping.

I have been chased twice by a police galley. On one occasion I was swimming a considerable way out in the river when I saw two or three barges near me, and no one in them. I leaped on board of one and went down into the cabin, when some of the Thames’ police in a galley rowed up to me. I ran down naked beneath the deck of the barge and closed the hatches, and fastened the staple with a piece of iron lying near, so that they could not get in to take me. They tried to open the hatch, but could not do it. After remaining for half-an-hour I heard the boat move off. On leaving the barge they rowed ashore to get my clothes, but a person on the shore took them away, so that they could not find them. After I saw them proceed a considerable distance up the river I swam ashore and got my clothes again.

One day, about three o’clock in the afternoon, as I was at Young’s Dock, I saw a large piece of copper drop down the side of a vessel which was being repaired. On the same evening, as a ship was coming out of the docks, I stripped off my clothes and dived down several feet, seized the sheet of copper and carried it away, swimming by the side of the vessel. As it was dark, I was not observed by the crew nor by any of the men who opened the gates of the dock. I fetched it to the shore, and sold it that night to a marine store dealer.

I have been in the habit of stealing pieces of rope, lumps of coal, and other articles for the last two years; but my parents do not know of this. I have never been tried before the police court for any felony. It is my intention to go to sea, as my brothers have done, so soon as I can find a captain to take me on board his ship. I would like this much better than to be a coal-heaver on the river.

I hope he got to go to sea. I cannot imagine it was a much easier life, working on a ship, but who knows, he may have ended up a far-off place with more opportunities for a better future?

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Petticoat Market in 1947 – The Extraordinary Photos of Willem van de Poll

This is the first time I’ve posted something here that has nothing to do with the Isle of Dogs – not even a loose connection. I was looking for photos of the Isle of Dogs, online, in the National Photograph Archive of the Netherlands of all places (, when I came across a collection of extraordinary photos taken in Petticoat Market in 1947 by Willem van de Poll. They are not only of high quality, they also capture perfectly the post-war grittiness and crowded energy – you can almost smell and hear what it was like down the lane. Unsurprisingly, van de Poll is considered as among the best Dutch photographers – yes he is barely known outside of the country.

The best place I could think of sharing the photos was here. In all cases you can see a larger version by clicking on the photo. They are public domain, which means they are free to copy and reproduce; the text on the photos just shows their source, and is no claim to copyright.









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A Brief History of Castalia Square

Castalia Square was built on the site of the area bounded by East Ferry Road, Roserton Street, Galbraith Street and Castalia Street (itself named after a famous hospital ship).


Originally, much of this area was dominated by St. John’s Church, Vicarage, School and Hall – all built around 1870,

St. John’s Church from Castalia St.

St. John’s Church (Mission) Hall (Photo: Island History Trust)

The corner of Castalia St. and Galbraith St.

1928, outside the gates of St. John’s School (Photo: Island History Collection / Mrs Wisewell)

Castalia Street also had a couple of houses close to its corner with Galbraith Street.

Graham’s Cottages, Castalia Street (Photo: Island History Trust / Maud Choat (nee Whiteman))

Galbraith St. 1935 (Photo: Island History Trust / Mrs. M Wisewell)

As is the case with at least half of the blog articles I write about the Island, World War II changed everything. By Island standards, this area was particularly badly hit, as this c1950 photo shows. The church is shown as still standing, but it had been so severely damaged in 1941 that it had by this time been abandoned. Virtually all other buildings were gone, to be replaced by prefabs. Only the hall was still in use (see below).


Galbraith Street area – with St. John’s Church in the background.

Derelict St. John’s Church

So serious was the extent of the damage in the area that Poplar Borough Council decided to clear it all, and build public housing on what they officially named ‘St. John’s Estate’ (does or did anybody else call it that?), centred on a new shopping and communal area known as ‘Castalia Square’.

Demolition c1950. East Ferry Road looking towards Manchester Road, with St. John’s Hall on the right.

Corner of East Ferry Road (foreground) and Roserton Street (right)

Looking north from Castalia Street

Construction in Castalia Square. c1952

The positively-received and popular Lansbury Estate had just been built by the LCC in Poplar, and the Poplar Borough Council was determined to also build workers’ homes of high quality. Even the usually acerbic Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, reported glowingly on the area in The Spectator:

The houses and shops immediately around Castalia Square were the first of the estate to be opened.

1950s (Photo: Island History Trust)

1958 (Photo: George Warren)

c1960? (Photo: Brian Smith)

1966 (Photo: Island History Trust)

St, John’s Hall in the 1960s (Photo: Island History Trust)

Survey of London:

…only the hall and club-house survived the Second World War, to be refitted as the new church and hall respectively. They were demolished in the 1970s to make way for the new Island House community centre … built for the Presbyterian Church of England in 1972, replacing St Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Westferry Road.

Island House (Photo: Island History Trust)

Island House

Island House

It was around this time that our family moved to the Island. I was a frequent visitor to Castalia Square; the health centre was there (I was a young lad, busy getting vaccinations, tetanus injections and breaking bones), there were occasional discos and parties in Island House, and there were the closest alternative shops to the shops near my flats opposite Christ Church.

But, the most important reason to be there was to get my hair cut at Barnet Fayre (entrance through the back door in East Ferry Road), typically of a Saturday morning. I cannot remember who the barber was, but I am sure it was the same bloke who cut my hair from the age of 10, covering different fashions from long-haired Herbert through skinhead and suedehead to flat-top. Strangely, I don’t recall visiting him during my punk period. Here’s the ‘Ladies & Gent’s Stylists’, in all its glory:

1970s (Photo: Island History Trust)

I’ve not been back to Castalia Square for a long time – I don’t have enough hair for that kind of thing any more – but I get the impression it hasn’t changed that much over the years, apart from a bit of LDDC-fuelled refurbishment (see ‘local resident’, Bruno Brooks, below).


1982 (Photo: Chris Hirst)

1980s (scene from Prospects TV series)

1980s (scene from The Bill TV series)

1980s (scene from The Bill TV series)

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The Last Windmill in Millwall

Almost everybody knows that Millwall is named after the windmills that once occupied the river bank (or ‘wall’) down the west side of the Isle of Dogs. The earliest of these mills was built in 1679 on land owned by George Byng just west of the present day Manilla Street. On most maps it was referred to as ‘Brown’s Mill’, and it was one of seven mills featured on Gascoyne’s 1703 map of London.

Extract of Gascoyne’s map

Detail of a drawing in a 1754 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine

Eventually there were twelve recorded mills on the Island. They had a variety of functions, but mostly they were oil mills – grinding mills designed to crush oil-bearing seeds, such as rapeseed or linseed, which would then be pressed to extract vegetable oils. These oils could be used as lubricants, fuel for lamps and in the preparation of food. The pomace or press cake – the remaining solid material from which the oil had been extracted – was also used as animal feed.

Oil milling formed the basis for the development of a wider oil industry on the Island.  One of the earliest examples of this industry was that of Sir Charles Price, who set up his oil works in 1805 on land formerly occupied by Brown’s Mill (see A Wander Around the Block Near the City Arms):

…erecting a complex of buildings for crushing rapeseed and linseed, and the production and storage of tar, oils, turpentine and varnish. An old windmill on the site, long used for seed-crushing, was converted to an oil-refining house.
– Survey of London

Windmills in Britain remained popular until the mid-19th century, before their decline following the arrival of steam-driven roller mills. In Millwall, however, the decline started earlier; most became defunct and were demolished in the few decades following 1800.

Drawing of two windmills at Millwall.

The primary reason for their decline was the arrival of the West India Docks, which opened in 1802. This was an impetus for industry to spread southwards down the Millwall riverside, accompanied by the development of housing ‘inland’. The Island very quickly lost its pastoral character, as more money was to be made in the manufacture of all things to do with iron and ships (or both). By this time, anyway, London was growing rapidly and was swallowing up what was once Stepney, Poplar and Essex farmland.

The southernmost of the seven mills, known as Theobald’s Mill survived the longest. Survey of London:

Theobald’s Mill was built c1701 on a 99-year lease granted by John Lockey of Barking to Daniel Mayhew of Rotherhithe, miller. The site had a long river front of 290ft. William Peace, another Rotherhithe miller, acquired the lease in 1763 and in the following year Peace assigned it to an oil-presser, William Smith of Poplar. In 1788 George Byng granted a new 90-year lease of the site, including the mill, apparently rebuilt as a smock mill, to a Wapping biscuit baker, Murty Cullen, at a rent of two guineas.

It appears as Ward’s Mill on Gascoyne’s 1703 map, and a century later was known as Theobald’s Mill. By this time part of the ground was a shipyard, and in the mid-1830s the site became Weston’s cement and plaster works.


1819 map, zoomed-in

Not being an expert on windmills, I had to Google ‘smock mill’. According to Wikipedia, it is a type of windmill that “consists of a sloping, horizontally weatherboarded or thatched tower, usually with six or eight sides, and made of wood. It is topped with a roof or cap that rotates to bring the sails into the wind. This type of windmill got its name from its resemblance to smocks worn by farmers in an earlier period”.

Only two of Millwall’s mills were smock mills, so this helps us to identify Theobald’s Mill in old drawings and paintings. The Wikipedia description certainly matches the appearance of the mill in the following drawings, both made in the 1830s.

Millwall,. W. Tombleson, 1830.


The 1837 drawing also features large quantities of timber in the foreground, possibly belonging to the shipyard mentioned in Survey of London. The following painting, made in 1843, is clearly of the same mill (I am curious if the drawing is in fact a sketch made by the same artist, in preparation for the painting). By this time, at least one of the out-buildings of Theobald’s Mill was reported as being used as a public house, most frequently referred to as “The Windmill”.


The letters on the sign are difficult to read, but they appear to spell “Truman Barclay”, the names of two breweries (Barclay’s brewery was just across the river in Southwark).

By this time, Theobald’s Mill was the only mill still standing in Millwall, as demonstrated by this 1840 map:


Just a few years later, though,  it was no longer functional, and its sails had been removed. In his 1853 book, A Descriptive Historical and Statistical Account of Millwall, commonly called the Isle of Dogs, Benjamin Harris Cowper describes the remains of the windmills:

‘There is a view of London and Westminster, (published in 1752) taken from One Tree Hill, in Greenwich Park. This view includes the Isle of Dogs, and represents seven windmills upon the the river bank, opposite Deptford, and the same number of smaller buildings, one beside each of the mills. Chapel House is also shown.

Another dated 1754, (in the Gentleman’s Magazine,) is in all respects similar. Some of these windmills are well remembered even now. The foundations of two or three of them may yet be traced and in fact one of of them without its sails still exists on the premises of Mr. Weston, near which is the house above named, known by the sign of the Windmill.

An 1859 drawing of the Thames off Millwall, including a depiction of a sail-less smock mill.

Weston’s cement works was a collection of different buildings adjoining the remains of Theobald’s Mill. In this 1870 map, the octagonal base of the former mill is clearly visible on the north side of the Windmill pub (‘PH’).


According to Survey of London:

This whole jumble of structures was burnt down in January 1884, and the site was rebuilt for new occupiers, A. B. Fleming & Company Ltd, printing-ink makers and oil refiners. Flemings left after a few years, the wharf (renamed Glover’s Wharf) remaining in industrial use for a time.

In 1893 Mark Winkley, an oil wharfinger of Ferguson’s Wharf, took a 21-year lease of Weston’s and Glover’s Wharves, calling the whole site Winkley’s Wharf. Some old buildings on Weston’s Wharf were pulled down when Winkley moved in, but part of the dilapidated old cement works was still standing 20 years later.

The parts still standing must have included part of Theobald’s Mill, for Walter Besant later reported in his “The Fascination of London – The Thames” (a book published in 1903, two years after Besant’s death, and probably written during the 1890s):

Walter Besant, 1903.

At the time of Besant’s description, there was still a small section of the public right of way that was the “Mill Wall” going south from the entrance to Millwall Docks as far as the present-day Britannia Road. Just a few years later this was lost to expanding industry, and the last remains of the last mill in Millwall were removed to make room for the oil tanks of Winkley’s Wharf.

Orion Point, at the end of Claude Street, is built on the site of Theobald’s Mill. It is a standalone building, which is handy, because it’s quite easy to edit it out of a photo and replace it with a smock mill (one down, six to go) :).

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The Sad Deaths of Heinz Marchlowitz and Richard Bomba

Heinz Marchlowitz (23) and Richard Bomba (26) were two young German men who in 1938 were forced to make plans for a new life, choosing for the US. Marchlowitz is clearly a Jewish surname, and Bomba was also a not uncommon surname among Eastern European Jews, so it is highly likely they were trying to escape Nazi persection.

Richard was born in Berlin, and Heinz in Beuthen – once a German city with a significant Jewish population, and now the Polish city of Bytom. The Bytom Synagogue was burned down by Nazi SS and SA troopers during the Kristallnacht on 9–10 November 1938, and during World War II, the city’s Jewish community was liquidated via the first ever Holocaust transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It was just a few weeks before Kristallnacht – when it was certainly a terrifying time to be Jewish and German – that Heinz and Richard made their escape by stowing away aboard an American ship. Contemporary news articles are not clear about where they departed from, but they got as far as South America before being discovered in the hold of the ship. They were arrested and placed on the US freight ship ‘Liberty’ which was sailing for Hamburg where they could be repatriated.


On the way to Germany, by this time it was October 1938, the Liberty docked at West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs, where the men were locked in a cabin and placed formally in the custody of aliens officer, PC Charles Steadmen. Not long afterwards, Heinz and Richard disappeared. Newspapers later reported:

… they were locked in a cabin with a steel door and a padlock on the outside. Thomas Rutter, watchman on board the Liberty, said that the lock of the cabin in which the two men had been confined had been broken within twelve minutes, apparently with an iron bar. Somebody must have let them out.

The next morning, a number of ships in West India Docks were searched, but the men could not be found. This was not much of a surprise – there are countless places to hide in a large cargo ship, and perhaps they had already managed to climb over the dock wall and escape completely.

In fact, Heinz and Richard had found a place to hide in the hold of the British ship, ‘Jamaica Progress’, moored not far from the Liberty.

Jamaica Progress

It is here that the men’s story and young lives came to a sad end. The hold of the Jamaica Progress was due to be fumigated – a common practice still carried out in order to destroy rodents, insects and other pests which might otherwise carry diseases between the different ports of call.

Before World War II, this was usually achieved with hydrogen cyanide gas. Ventilators were plugged with canvas, and gasmasked men released clouds of poisonous gas into the tightly closed hold of the vessel. Workers operating in pairs, with no man ever out of sight of another, dropped gas-emitting discs or emptied canisters (containing liquid which evaporated into gas) into the hold.

Workers in gas masks on the deck of a ship. One is emptying an hydrogen cyanide canister into an opening in a tarpaulin-covered hatch while another, crouched nearby, opens another canister.

Harry Marner from Poplar, who was bo’sun on the Jamaica Progress, said that he had searched the hold before it was sealed, and fumigation procedures required also that warnings were shouted before the operation was commenced (later it was suggested that Heinz and Richard would not have understood the warnings anyway, as they did not speak any English). Satisfied that it was safe to do so, the fumigators went about their business of pouring the hydrogen cyanide fluid through the holes in the deck.

This is not the place to go into the effects of the inhalation of hydrogen cyanide gas on the human body, except to say that it is painful and lethal. If the men were ‘lucky’, they were dead within a few minutes.

Newspapers around the world reported the incident:

Later, an inquest was held at Poplar Coroner’s Court, and the coroner, Dr. R. B. Harvey Watt recorded a verdict of accidental death. The men were buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, and their burials are registered in the cemetery’s records.

I have no idea if their graves were marked and/or are still present, but if so, they deserve a visit. Heinz Marchlowitz and Richard Bomba were two young men, understandably trying to escape Nazi Germany, who died in a tragic accident in the dark hold of a ship miles from home.

A devastating irony of their deaths – which some readers would have spotted right away – is that they were killed by the type of gas which would later be used by the Nazis to murder approximately one million Jews and other prisoners in concentration camps – a cyanide-based pesticide for fumigation (Zyklon B in the case of the Nazis).

[ As for the ships Liberty and Jamaica Progress, both were torpedoed and sunk during World War II, with much loss of life. This story has no happy end. ]

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St. Mildred’s House, Westferry Road

In 1873, the Millwall Dock Company built the  Millwall Dock Club for its permanent employees (around 800 men at the time – most dock workers having to put up with the insecurity of the call-on system). The company built the club partially behind St. Paul’s Church – on dock land, but with its main entrance facing Westferry Road.


The club wasn’t a long-term success, and it closed in 1892. The building had two main sections, a three-storey building and a single-storey hall. Some time after the closure of the club, the hall was taken over by St. Paul’s church, and the three-storey building by an institute for poor women, known as St. Mildred’s House (Mildred, was an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon abbess of the Abbey at Minster-in-Thanet, Kent.).

Photo: Island History Trust

The institute – set up by Miss Hilda Barry and formally opened in October 1897 – was opened as:

…a centre in the Isle of Dogs at which ladies could reside for religious, social, and eductional work among women and girls in that isolated district. The Settlement would accommodate seven residents … The district was populated by over twenty thousand persons who were practically cut off from the rest of the world. (The Morning Post, Thursday March 15th, 1900)

The quote from ‘The Morning Post’ is part of an article about a so-called ‘drawing room meeting’, a meeting held by well-to-do Londoners in an attempt to raise interest in, and funds for, their philanthropic endeavours. For, as ‘The Guardian’ reported at the time:

…difficulty was experienced finding lades who would go there [to St. Mildred’s] not only casually and at intervals, but would reside there for a certain specified period and assist in much needed work on behalf of the very large number of women and girls employed in the various factories of the district.

And further:

Mrs. Creighton spoke of the progress which had been made in the matter of women’s settlements of late years and of the need which existed for more workers. They did not want to make their settlements hospitals for moral invalids, but wished to secure the best and the brightest workers.


“Off the track in London” by George R. Sims, published by Jarrold & Sons, 1911. Originally published in “The Strand” magazine, July 1905. Chapter XI – In Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs:

There is a Ladies’ Settlement, St. Mildred’s House, in Millwall, which suggests the refining influence of gentle womanhood. The conditions of life among the women workers of the place are affected by the nature of their employment. The dirt of their drudgery, the odour of their occupation, are brought into the home by the men and women alike. There is no escape from either.

Three boys in front of St. Mildred’s. Photo donated to Island History Trust by St. Mildred’s.

Children at play at St. Mildred’s. Photo donated to Island History Trust by St. Mildred’s

Residents at St.Mildred’s House, Millwall, in 1932. They are, at the back, Marjorie Hartley, Joan Duff, Barbara Blackwell. In front, Anne Tetley, Margaret Balfour, Ursula Robbins and Kay Knights-Smith (later Kay Leonard). Photo donated to Island History Trust by St. Mildred’s.

In the evening of 7th September 1940 – the first night of the Blitz – the nearby St. Cuthbert’s church (on the corner of Cahir Street and Westferry Road) was destroyed by bombing.

St. Cuthbert’s after the night of 7th September 1940, with Harbinger School in the background. Photo: George Hardy.

Subsequently, St. Cuthbert’s congregation began to meet in the chapel at St. Mildred’s. However, St. Mildred’s was itself also seriously damaged, as the Church Times would report:

When a bomb hit the warehouse opposite, the street became a hot stream of peanut butter and for weeks, boots and carpets were saturated with the strong-smelling substance. Finally, a flying bomb fell within the dock gates and St. Mildred’s walls were split from top to bottom.

St. Mildred’s stained-glass windows were rescued and stored for safe keeping in McDougall’s flour mill (considered a safe storage place, with its thick concrete silo walls), after which all memory and trace of them was lost.


The London County Council bomb damage maps do not indicate any damage to St. Mildred’s – while all the buildings around have some level of damage, as indicated by their colours. However, the lack of colour may have been because the building was on dock property; the considerable damage to dock buildings was not always marked on the LCC bomb damage maps, possibly due to the PLA not giving full access to their land.

LCC Bomb Damage Map

A 1950 map shows that the three-storey building was no longer present at that time.


This is borne out by a 1963 aerial photo which shows that the building had been demolished, and the land used for storage of timber (almost certainly belonging to Montague Meyer, whose sheds can also be seen in the photo).


In the 1960s, the remaining building was replaced by new premises in Castalia Square. Island House website (

The vicarage in Castalia Street had been destroyed by a direct hit in the war, and in 1955 was replaced by a new clergy house on the north side of Roserton Street overlooking the new Square, adjoining the St John’s mission hall and club house. This was called St Mildred’s House to continue the name of the former Anglican settlement in Millwall; St Mildred’s House was used temporarily by Island House as an overflow to provide offices for the Health Trainers project in 2010-11.

St. Mildred’s and Island House, Castalia Square.

As for those stained-glass windows which had been stored in McDougall’s, and then ‘lost’, they were found in 1990 in an organ loft at Christ Church during renovations. They were cleaned and installed in the church (an action that was in part funded by Rank Hovis McDougall), where they can be seen today.

St. Mildred’s stained glass windows, Anunciation 1 & 2. (Photo: John Salmon)

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Off the Track in London – On the Isle of Dogs in 1905

George Robert Sims, 1847-1922, was an author, playwright, journalist and philanthropist.

George R. Sims

He was among a new breed of journalistic writers at the time who made the effort to describe the lot of working class men and women. He wrote a series of articles about the East End for The Strand magazine (later collected in a book, ‘Off the Track in London’) and number eleven in the series was titled ‘In Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs’.

Unlike some of his contemporaries who ‘discovered’ the East End in Victorian times, Sims’ descriptions were unsentimental and not condescending towards the inhabitants (unlike  ‘Seven Years’ Hard’ by  Rev. Richard Free, a book and writer mentioned by Sims below –  Rev. Free seemed to despise his Island flock).  Instead, Sims presented a sympathetic and evocative vision of life in a place of industry, dirt, noise and smells.

The “Island part” of Sims’ article is presented here in its entirety, accompanied by images of the time.  The illustrations which are included appeared in the original article in The Strand and were drawn by Thomas Heath Robinson (brother of  William Heath Robinson, best known for drawings of ridiculously complicated machines for achieving simple objectives; so-called ‘Heath Robinson Machines’).

JUST outside the West India Dock Station there is a little one-horse ‘bus which takes you by a winding way of high, black walls, broken here and there by bridges and wharves and the towering masts of ships, to Millwall.

Coach at West India Dock station, circa 1910. The coach belonged to the firm of Joseph W. Squires of 62 West Ferry (two words, then) Road. The firm’s name will be familiar to many Islanders as it later operated as a pawnbrokers, doing business at the same location, opposite Maria Street, into the 1960s.

As you near the journey’s end the driver – there is no conductor – opens a little trap in the roof of the ‘bus and puts his hand through. In his open palm you deposit the penny for your fare, and a few moments later the ‘bus stops, and you alight and find yourself at the commencement of the West Ferry Road and in the famous Isle of Dogs.

In 1906, Westferry Road started – or ended, depending on your point of view – at a swing bridge over the entrance lock just north of the City Arms (which was rebuilt and much expanded a couple of decades later).

It is the island note that greets you at first. If the bridge is up you have to enter by the lock gates, and you may, by a stretch of the imagination, fancy yourself performing a Blondin feat, with the welcome addition of a row of protecting chains on each side of you.

Across the water you are in a land of one familiar sound and a score of unfamiliar scents. The sound is one ever dear to the Briton – the clang of the hammer as it descends on ringing iron. You listen to the sound that speaks of England’s might, and you remember the song that Charles Mackay sang of Tubal Cain. The memory that the scents bear in upon you is of another poet – Coleridge, who sang of Cologne.

The odours are overpowering. They do not mix, but with every breeze each salutes you with its separate entity. One odour is that of heated oil, another that of burning fat, others are of a character which only visitors with a certain amount of chemical experience could define.

The lead works and the area around them, viewed from Greenwich.

The odours saturate you, and cling to you, and follow you. They are with you in the highway and the by-way. You pass into the house of a friend who has offered you his hospitality at the luncheon hour, and the door that closes behind you does not shut them out. Nothing is sacred to them, not even the church. Even the flowers in the little gardens that the West Ferry Road can show here and there have lost their own perfume and taken that of the surrounding industries.

The area around Maconochie’s and Burrell’s

The island is no dreaming place. It is a land of labour. From morn till eve the streets are deserted; the inhabitants are behind the great walls and wooden gates – husbands, wives, sons and daughters, all are toiling. The only life in the long, dreary roads and desolate patches of black earth that are the distinguishing notes of the side streets is when the children come from school. Then the red and blue tam-o’-shanters of the little girls make splashes of colour here and there, and the laughter of romping children mingles with the clang of the hammer and the throb of the engine.

In Ingleheim Street [Ed: actually spelled Ingelheim], a turning off West Ferry Road, there is a quaint brick building that at once attracts your attention, for above it is a flagstaff, and in the wire-protected windows there are flowers.

Ingelheim Street from Westferry Road. The houses would later be demolished during slum clearances, and Arethusa House built on the site. (Photo: Island History Trust)

When you go down over the rough bit of roadway that ends in a wall of corrugated iron and a suggestion of black sheds beyond you read above the doorway of the quaint building the words, ‘St. Cuthbert’s Lodge,’ and you remember that this is the address of the Rev. Richard Free, the author of that intensely human document, ‘Seven Years’ Hard,’ the story of seven years’ patient, and often heart-breaking, work among the poorest population of a land of drudgery and desolation.

Drawing: Thomas Heath Robinson

The former St. Cuthbert’s Lodge later. “Amongst the children playing in the street are Fred Rea and Arthur Hedgecock This photograph was used as an example of poor housing conditions on the Island and published in the Isle of Dogs Housing Society brochure as part of an appeal for funds to provide better houses in the East End. The Society built St. Hubert’s House in Janet Street in the 1930s. Donated by IOD Housing Society” Photo and text: Island History Trust

When we came first upon St. Cuthbert’s Lodge, not knowing what it was, the oddness of the building struck both my colleague and myself. The suggestion it conveyed to my mind was that of a lifeboat station or ark of refuge on a lonely shore. Why it conveyed that impression I cannot say. I am inclined to imagine that somewhere on the Yarmouth shore I have, in years gone by, seen something like it.

A veritable ark of refuge has this quaint little building – with the ship masts stretching high above it – proved to many in Millwall.

Mr. Free and his wife, cut off from the world, with which their one link is the little, conductorless one-horse ‘bus, have brought the love of light and colour into houses of grimness and gloom, and, taking the human view of our poor humanity, have become popular characters in the island of mighty tasks and mean surroundings, of noxious trades and pleasureless lives, an island in which there are no places of amusement of any kind. When the day’s work is over the lads and lasses of Millwall get out of it as quickly as possible. The island gardens form a green oasis in the desert. They are not in Millwall, but Millwall has in them a beautiful breathing space and a glorious view on the other side of a ‘cleaner, greener land.’

Island Gardens, 1902

Island Gardens, 1906. James Dewar Junior and Senior of Faulkner Terrace, East Ferry Rd. Photo: Elliott Family

There is a Ladies’ Settlement, St. Mildred’s House, in Millwall, which suggests the refining influence of gentle womanhood. The conditions of life among the women workers of the place are affected by the nature of their employment. The dirt of their drudgery, the odour of their occupation, are brought into the home by the men and women alike. There is no escape from either.

St. Mildred’s House, with St. Paul’s Church on the left. (Photo: Island History Trust).

But the humanising influences brought to bear upon the situation have not been altogether in vain, and in the little back-yards and scanty patches of green still left here and there before some of the houses there are flowers struggling to be pretty under difficulties, and fowls and rabbits that look considerably plumper and healthier and happier than their owners.

“A Poor Man’s Flower Box at Millwall. Mrs. Free, of St. Cuthbert’s Lodge, Millwall, is doing an excellent work in encouraging a love of flowers among her poor. About four years ago, through her efforts, a Window-box Society was started. Members (there are now about seventy) pay twopence annually, and in return receive gifts in kind of bulbs and plants. Prizes are awarded for the best display of flowers. Few families, alas! possess the smallest bit of garden ground, and many have no space for a window-box, but must make the best of a few plants indoors, on a table as near the light as possible.” Text and photo from the 1903 book: ‘The Book Of Town & Window Gardening’, by F. A. Bardswell

In the centre of the island lies Desolation-Land, a vast expanse of dismal waste ground and grey rubbish heaps. All round the open space is a black fringe of grim wharves and of towering chimneys, belching volumes of smoke into a lowering sky that seems to have absorbed a good deal of the industrial atmosphere.

Across the waste, as we gaze wearily around it, borne down by our environment, comes a lonely little lad, who wheels his baby sister in a perambulator roughly constructed out of a sugar box. They are the only human beings in sight.

Drawing: Thomas Heath Robinson

This waste land is spanned by the soot-dripping arches of the railway, which is the one note of hope in the depressing picture, for occasionally a train dashes shrieking by towards a brighter bourne.

Steam train travelling over the arches. Photo probably taken looking towards the later site of the paddling pool.

Years ago this desolate spot was farm land. It might yet be secured and made into a green play ground for the children, who at present have only the roads and the miniature mountains of rubbish that have gradually risen at the end of side streets closed in by factory walls. If this central desert could be secured and ‘humanised’ and turned into a healthy playground, it would be a grand thing for the Millwall that is – a grander still for the Millwall that is to be.

[Ed: A prescient comment; two decades later, Millwall Recreation Ground – the precursor of Millwall Park – would be constructed on the site.]

Sir Walter Besant complained that in all Millwall there were no book-shops. That is still true, but the taste for reading has penetrated to the island, and in the shopping part of it there are several stationers’ shops where periodical literature may be obtained. It is principally for the younger generation. The windows are filled with ‘Tales of the Wild West’ for the young gentlemen and ‘How to be Beautiful’ for the young ladies, and of fashion journals there is quite a plentiful display. As I have not, in any of my visits to Millwall, observed the fashionable hats and blouses given in the plates exhibited, I can only surmise that they are reserved for the evening visits to Poplar and Greenwich, or for the Sunday trips to regions still farther away ‘on the mainland.’

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