Millwall Flyers. Guest article by Con Maloney



by Con Maloney

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

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

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

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

click for full-sized version

If you’re curious about the history of cycle speedway, take a look here:

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

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

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

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

Arthur Ayres (left) and Tommy Calvo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Millwall Flyers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

click for full-sized version

click for full-sized version

click for full-sized version

click for full-sized version

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

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


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

‘Millwall Flyer’, Arthur Ayres

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Central Granary

Central Granary grain pumps

Now you seen them….

…now you don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Survey of London:

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

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

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


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

The constructed docks – opened on 14 March 1868 –

Official opening

Survey of London:

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

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

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

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

Central Granary

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

SS Pamir sailing through the entrance lock in 1932


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The Bridges of the Isle of Dogs

Ask most people to name the old road bridges on the Island, and they will probably mention Kingsbridge, the Blue Bridge (or its predecessor), the Glass Bridge (or its predecessor) and the swing-bridge in Preston’s Rd. There were however, two more: both between Limehouse and the City Arms, along the Walls. You’d be forgiven for not knowing about them, though, as they were removed a very long time ago.

North Limehouse Entrance Lock Bridge

If you were travelling around the Island from Limehouse in the late 1800s, the first bridge you would encounter was a swing-bridge which spanned the Limehouse Entrance Lock (the entrance to Limehouse Basin). Not to be confused with the Regent’s Canal Dock north of Narrow Street, which is often incorrectly-named Limehouse Basin, the actual Limehouse Basin was formerly at the west end of the West India Docks.

Originally constructed from timber, the first bridge was not reliable, and it was replaced by an iron bridge in 1810.


Limehouse Lock was closed in 1894 on completion of the Blackwall Entrance Lock in Preston’s Rd. The lock and basin were filled in at the end of the 1920s, but the bridge was not dismantled and removed until 1949.

Almost complete filling of Limehouse Basin – looking west towards the Walls – bridge centre background.


Dismantling of bridge, Providence House visible in the background.

Site of the bridge in the 1980s.

Difficult to show a contemporary view as Westferry Circus is on the spot, but it is possible to mix up the maps.

South Limehouse Entrance Lock Bridge (aka City Arms Bridge)

Continuing south along the Walls, the next bridge spanned the South Limehouse Entrance Lock, providing ship access to the West India South Dock immediately north of the City Arms. Its vicinity to the pub led to it becoming known locally as the City Arms Bridge.

As with the bridge a little further north along the Walls (and built at the same time), this was originally a timber swing-bridge which was later replaced by an iron bridge; a bridge which was itself replaced in 1896.

In 1929, the PLA erected an impounding station – which is still functional – across the entrance lock, making the swing-bridge redundant. It was replaced by a fixed bridge in 1939.

Millwall Dock Entrance Lock Bridge (aka Kingsbridge)

Everybody I knew referred to it as Kingsbridge but that was never its formal name. Formally, it never even had a name. It was just the iron swing bridge over the Millwall Dock entrance lock. People like to have a name for everything, though, and it and the area around it became known as Kingsbridge, named after the Kingsbridge Arms public house

When it was opened, this was the largest dock entrance lock in London, being 80 ft wide and nearly 200 ft long. This photo shows the construction of the inner lock gates (the outer gates were far more substantial, designed to better deal with collisions by ships).


The dock entrance was originally designed to be shorter, but during construction it became apparent that rapidly-increasing ship sizes required the building of a larger entrance. This meant building a lock that extended further east, which in turn led to a slight rerouting of Westferry Rd. I have added the original route of West Ferry Rd in this 1895 map; it was clearly a much gentler curve.

The map also shows a footbridge (“F.B.”) passing over the middle lock gates. This was to allow pedestrians to cross the dock entrance even if there was a ship in the lock. It was a double swing bridge which appears in a couple of old post cards.



A bridger in 1926. This photo was taken looking south. On the left is a glimpse of the Sailor’s Home that used to be next to the dock road entrance.



Ships continued to grow in size and by the 1930s the middle lock gates (and, thus, the foot bridge) were becoming obsolete. The PLA had plans to alter the lock, but these plans were deferred due to the outbreak of WWII. During the war, in September 1940, bombing destroyed the middle gates and much of the surrounding machnery and lock structure. Directly after the war, financial restrictions prevented any reconstruction and the lock remained unused. By 1955, the cost of reconstruction could no longer be justified and the dock was dammed at its inner gate (on the dockside).

The building of a dam at the inner gate meant that the road bridge (aka “Kingsbridge”) had to remain in place, never opening, and crossing a lock that would never be used. The structural solution would have been to completely fill in the locks, but this would have been much costlier , something unthinkable in the austere 1950s. Instead, the lock was allowed to silt up on the river side until the bridge wasn’t even crossing water.


This 1981 photo taken by Dave Chapman from the roof of McDougall’s shows the situation perfectly.


It would be 1990 before the lock was properly filled-in and the bridge removed; work carried out by Mowlem for the LDDC. The following photo was taken by Kathy Duggan not long afterwards, with Michigan House on the right, and the Kingsbridge Arms in the distance.


Today there is a slipway on the river side of the bridge and a watersports club on the dock side (which is now under threat by people who want to build more towers). You don’t have to look too hard, though, to see where the outer and middle lock gates were mounted, and the remains of lock machinery.

South West India Dock East Entrance (aka Blue Bridge)

The ‘Blue Bridge’ (never its official name) opened on 1st June 1969, and is the fifth bridge since 1806 to cross the east entrance to West India South Dock. Its design is based on traditional Dutch drawbridges, and at the time of its opening it was the largest single-leaf bascule bridge in Britain. Its hydraulic machinery is based on that used by the former ‘Glass Bridge’ (the high-level footbridge over the Millwall Inner Dock). Although built for economy and efficiency – it can raise or lower in one minute – it is an attractive bridge that was immediately liked by Islanders.

The first bridge was made of timber. It spanned the 45 feet wide entrance of what was in 1806 the City Canal, a canal that crossed the Island and met the river in the west at the location of the later City Arms. In subsequent years, the canal would be enlarged to become the West India South Dock. The timber bridge survived until 1842, when it was replaced by an iron swing bridge.

Due to the increasing sizes of ships it was decided to widen the dock entrance from 45 ft to 55 ft. Construction took place from 1866 to 1870, along with the construction of bridge no. 3, another iron swing bridge.

Manchester Rd looking north. Glen Terrace is on the left and the Canal Dockyard graving docks are on the right. The 3rd bridge over the West India South Dock entrance lock is visible in the distance.

The Blue Bridge predecessor, was a so-called double-rolling bascule bridge, of a type invented by William Scherzer in Chicago. It was placed in 1929 and was known for being incredibly noisy, with a ‘groaning’ sound that could be heard many hundreds of yards away.

I remember this old bridge very well…we used to live in Rugless House, East Ferry Rd, and you could actually hear the bridge when it was raised up – John Tarff

Still from the early 1960s film ‘Portrait of Queenie’. Queenie Watts watches the bridge open from the river side.


The bridge was slow and unreliable, and was frequently breaking down. For the Port of London Authority (PLA), this was an incredibly important bridge as it crossed the south dock entrance, the only way for ships to get in and out of the West India and Millwall Docks – the iron swing bridges at Kingsbridge and in Preston’s Rd having ceased operations a few years before (the Preston’s Rd bridge did still open on occasion but the lock there was capable of handling barges only).

When the PLA was faced with its latest repair and maintenance bill of close to £200,000, they decided in 1967 that it would make more sense to build a new bridge. This would not only be more cost-effective, a new bridge would also be faster and more reliable, thus increasing the speed at which ships could clear the lock. This was also of benefit to Islanders as they would spend less time waiting for bridges to open and close (known as ‘bridgers’, one of the most effective excuses for being late for school or work).

The Blue Bridge

The bridge parts were manufactured in Glasgow (ironic, considering the number of steel and bridge construction firms of Scottish origin that were operating on the Island until a few years before) and the bridge was assembled in a yard next to the entrance lock.

The old bridge had to be removed in order for the new bridge to be put in place. This meant that, for many months, no road traffic was possible over the only exit/entrance in the east of the Island. Bus passengers would disembark on one side of the lock, and then walk over the lock gates before catching another bus on the other side.

I remember…forever having to cross the lock to get a bus to Poplar scary at 12 years old – Becky Hobson

I am sure I lost property as we walked over those locks – Jill Leftwich

I was terrified of walking over that bridge. You could see the water through the wooden slats. Urgh! – Joan Reading

I remember when I was young we had to walk across the lock to the other side to pick up the bus to Poplar always thought I was going to fall in the water – Shelia Doe

Bridge Construction

My dad was lock foreman at the bridge, some times if I was there he would get me a lift on a tug through the docks and drop me off at the wooden bridge. I always wanted to work on the river, my dad said in the late 60’s don’t bother it’ll all be gone, how right he was. – Keith Charnley.


I can remember getting bridgers when I went to secondary school at poplar – Lorraine Waterson

I remember at Sir Humphrey Gilbert school the kids coming in late to school “Sorry Sir gotta bridger” – Ted Whiteman

In 1976 I was fortunate enough to sail from the docks to the Netherlands (a trip organized by George Green’s Youth Club). The Blue Bridge had to be raised to allow our sailing boat to leave the dock. For the first time I was, in part, the cause of a bridger instead being held up by one. A rare experience. Also coincidental: a bridge based on Dutch design being raised to allow a ship to sail to the Netherlands, where I am as I write this, 40 years later.

Departing for the Netherlands (Photo: Mick Lemmerman)

Blackwall Entrance Lock (Preston’s Road) Bridge

British History Online:

In 1800 Ralph Walker designed a horizontal swing-bridge, double-turning and arched, the plans for which William Jessop used in 1801, in preference to his own designs, for a bridge over the Blackwall entrance lock.

The Blackwall entrance was very busy, and so Rennie had a cast-iron footbridge, supplied by Aydon & Elwell, erected over the east side of the lock in 1813, to allow the road bridge to stay open, unless carriage passage was needed, without inconveniencing pedestrians. Based on a bridge at Ramsgate designed by Rennie, it was 54ft long and only 4ft 6in. wide at the centre. The increasing numbers of workmen passing to and from the Isle of Dogs over this bridge necessitated a second footbridge in 1865, supplied by Westwood & Baillie. This improvement was negated in 1871 when one of the footbridges was moved to a City warehouse. The other was removed when the lock was rebuilt in 1893–4.


1950. Preston’s Rd bridge on the right.


1962. Screenshot from ‘Portrait of Queenie’, with Queenie Watts

Like other bridges, the Preston’s Rd swing-bridge served no purpose eventually, Preston’s Rd was also straightened and widened to such an extent that it is difficult to recognise it as the same road.

Glengall (Road) Bridge, later Glass Bridge

The construction of the Millwall Docks in the early 1860s, made it impossible to get from one side of the other without travelling a long way south. The dock company reluctantly agreed to a public road across their land, and the first bridge was mounted over the Millwall Inner Dock in 1868.

1870, The bridge is in place, but the western end of Glengall Rd has not been constructed yet.


Glengall Bridge from the east.

British History Online:

The Glengall Road bridge became a nuisance both to local people and to the dock company. Its opening was a slow manoeuvre, and it often malfunctioned. Use of the Inner Dock by commercial shipping meant heavy wear and tear for a bridge that had not been designed for frequent opening. Repairs were made on nine separate occasions before 1930, causing much public inconvenience.

Reconstruction was approved in 1938:

Poplar Borough Council meeting minutes 1938

The start of World War II meant the reconstruction was not carried out. When the bridge broke down again in 1945, it was removed, and a wooden pedestrian bridge was buit on a moored barge. If a ship needed to pass, one end of the barge would be released and the barge pulled to one side.

Photo: Sandra Brentnall

Photo: George Charnley

After the war, the PLA stated its intention to close the public right of way across the Millwall Inner Dock, but this led to strong local opposition. The Council, the LCC and Charles Key, the local MP, forced the PLA to reconsider and prepare schemes for adapting the pedestrian crossing. In 1960 the PLA suggested either high-level footways with a double bascule bridge which would cost over £100,000, a tunnel under the dock for about £400,000, or a 180ft-high aerial cable car for about £50,000. The bridge option emerged as favourite, the tunnel being too expensive for the PLA and the cable car unpopular with the Council. A high-level bridge would keep the public out of the docks and allow barges to pass, opening only for ships.





The Glengall Grove high-level bridge gave the public the dubious privilege of a walk high over the Millwall Docks in an enclosed glazed tube. It was immediately renamed by Islanders, ‘The Glass Bridge’.


The ‘glass bridge’ immediately became a prime target for vandals and pedestrians were so intimidated that few used it. The PLA had to spend about £20,000 on repairs. Severe damage to the glass and the lifts in 1975–6 caused the bridge to be closed.


The bridge was closed and demolished by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in 1983.


A temporary bridge was built across Millwall Inner Dock, allowing for road access across the dock for the first time since 1945.

The road access was short-lived, though: a new street – Pepper Street – was constructed through the former dockland, and this is closed to traffic. The eastern and western sections of Pepper Street are connected by the latest incarnation of Glengall Bridge.


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The Anti-Aircraft Gun Emplacement over the Muddy

In 1938, with war imminent, the War Office took over an area of land in the Mudchute west of Stebondale Street, paying compensation to the 37 allotment
holders whose plots were appropriated.


Mudchute Allotments in the 1920s. Photo: Island History Trust Collection

Four concrete ack-ack gun installations were built around a central control bunker, and accommodation and storage huts were built to the east.


Click for full-size version.

The installation was initially manned by the 154 Battery of the 52nd (London) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment – a volunteer air defence unit of Britain’s Territorial Army. While the accommodation and supply huts were still being built, the troops were billeted in Dockland Settlement. George Hames wrote in August 1939:

There was a heavy bang on the front door. A quick glance through the window showed a lorry pulling up outside. It was a battery of the Heavy Artillery (HA) just back from annual camp and as their battery site on the Mudchute was not ready, they just commandeered the club! The take-over was almost entire. The George Hall became the officers’ room, the library went to the sergeants; they took the gym, the main hall and the carpenters’ shop in the arches. The troops were with us until the following May, the HA being relieved by another battery who eventually took to their now finished quarters on the Mudchute.


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection

The Blitz started in the late afternoon of 7th September 1940, when Bill Regan reported in his diary (see Heavy Rescue Squad Work on the Isle of Dogs: Bill Regan’s Diary from the Second World War ):

The Mudshoot [former popular spelling] gun site did its stuff, but was pretty futile. As we understood it, they were popping off with four 3.7’s, which sounded rather feeble to us. They were enthusiastic, and I suppose that was something to be thankful for.

That night, a parachute mine fell  on the site, and the explosion seriously damaged the command post and destroyed the canteen and stores. The guns could no longer be aimed with radar and fired by remote control; the access road to the gun sites was also badly damaged making it difficult to get in fresh supplies, and gunners were bringing in replacement ammunition by hand.


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection


Photo: Island History Trust Collection

I came across a film of the mudchute anti-aircraft gun in action quite by accident while browsing through wartime information films on YouTube. In a 1940 film produced by the Shell Film Unit, “Transfer of Skill”, I spotted what was very obviously McDougall’s flour silo building in the background. Here is an extract:

Bill Regan in his diaries on 11th September 1940:

Met some of the gunners from the Mudshoot today. All very young, none of them regulars, gave them tea, and chatted away until dusk, when the sound of distant gun-fire from down river, then the sirens.

The lads were a bit edgy when the noise came closer and Vi’s mum asked them if they were on duty, and they said no. When their guns started firing, of course the house began vibrating, and each time this happened, they looked very uneasy, and Vi’s dad said he thought they should go back to camp. They went, quick.

They had been very nervous, and they did the sensible thing. Me and Vi said goodnight, and went to our own shelter in the back garden, and surprisingly, had a good night’s sleep, several near misses woke us, but were asleep again almost at once. I suppose the noise is becoming familiar, like the ships on the river, on a foggy night, blowing away on their whistles which we became used to, and regarded as normal background noise.


Screenshot from Shell Film Unit film

And on 24th December:

At this stage of the Blitz, the anti-aircraft defences of London
were not up to the task of protecting the capital, but they did
what they could to put up a fight and had some occasional

Alert about mid-day, we saw a fighter plane going across
towards Essex, rather high and fast, but the Mudchute got off
one shot at it, and we watched the plane suddenly explode and
we were left with a clear sky.

We heard the gunners shouting their heads off. I went round
to the site entrance by the Wesleyan Chapel, and the two men
on guard were grinning like gargoyles, and all I could get off
them was ‘One shot, one bull’.

As I came away, one of them said to me ‘Wait till we get the
four—fives, we’ll show them’. I hope my guess is right, and
that it meant 4.5 AA guns. We could do with something a bit
bigger, if only to give our morale a lift. The last four nights
we have had a mobile gun on an army lorry, going round the
Island, and firing a few rounds in one place, then tearing up
the road, a few more rounds, then back again, ‘ditto repeato’,
to cheer us up, or confuse the enemy. Anyhow, it’s one of
Churchill’s better ideas.”

Just a few days after Bill’s diary entry, a 50 Kg bomb fell on the anti-aircraft battery. It fell outside one of the concrete gun emplacements, but managed to penetrate underneath the emplacement, wrecking its foundations and demolishing some of the 12-inch thick concrete wall. The gun, which was undergoing repairs and was not in use, was damaged.


Photo: Island History Trust Collection

Later, the site was fitted with more sophisticated, radar-controlled guns. Bill Regan wrote in March 1941:

Had a big share of the goodies last night. The Mudshoot has a new man in charge now. They have four big A.A, guns installed, and they used them last night, and what a lovely sound. They go off as one, we can hear the scream as they go up, and follow the sound, and they explode together, forming a square, and if the aim is right, it’s got to be curtains for the plane on the end of it.

Later in the war, in September 1944, Regan described a new type of enemy aircraft:

One machine passed over from S.E, to S.W, as I got out. Searchlight held it, flying very low and fast. Every type of gun, opened up, but it seemed unaffected. One pack of rockets from Rotherhithe surrounded it, but it just veered right as if from blast, and continued toward the city. Seconds later, the engine ceased, it dived, and immediately a terrific white flash was seen. After a lapse of about 6 seconds a big red flash, and a terrific explosion. We congratulated the Ack-Ack to each other, and counted one plane down.

Immediately, another came over, held by searchlights, and surrounded by shell-bursts; as before, right through it, over-head, and going towards Poplar, as I thought. Burdett Rd; as before, the engine cut out, it dived steeply, big white flash, pause, huge red flash, bang. We felt the blast distinctly. That’s two planes, we said. They seemed to be small fast fighters, with an apparently outsize bombload. Just about here, Martin who had varnished his tonsils with his usual double Scotches, got very talkative, and tried to bolster himself with loud talk. “I’m with you lads, first to go out. I’ll be there.” etc, etc. Before he could impress us, another one came over, passed, went silent, dropped, same white flash, pause – red flash, bang. I said to Alf Crawley, that the gunners were on form, three over, three down. Hardly credible.

We began to discuss the possibility of them being planes, as we could see flames coming from the tails of them, also a light in the nose. Some said rockets, as the flames did not seem to impede their progress.

It was Bill’s first sight of a V-1 rocket. Frequently referred to as the Doodlebug or Flying Bomb, the V-1 was an abbreviation of Vergeltungswaffe-1 (the German for Weapon of Revenge or Retribution), notable for the sound of its pulse jet engine and the eerie silence when that engine stopped and the rocket made its descent. Flying at 640 km/h (400 mph), it carried its 850 Kg explosive warhead from Dutch, Belgian and French launch sites to London and the South East. The first V-1 to fall on England was at 4.25 a.m. on 13th June 1944, hitting a railway bridge in Grove Road near Mile End Road. The bridge and railway track were badly damaged and a number of houses were destroyed. Six were killed, 30 injured, and more than 200 people made homeless. The few that fell on the Island are marked on this map (from The Isle of Dogs During World War II, by yours truly):


For perhaps as long as 5 years after the end of WWII, the guns remained in place, after which the land reverted to the PLA. They, obviously, were not so interested in the effort and expense of removing a concrete control centre and four gun emplacements with foot-thick concrete walls, on land they didn’t have any use for. And so they remained in place, a great place for kids to play (as long as the PLA police didn’t kick them out of the muddy, but they didn’t even bother with that after a while).


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


Photo: Gary O’Keefe


I still have a scar on my knee from falling off this one as a kid and landing on some broken concrete. Photo: Pat Jarvis

Gary’s photos show signs of the fledgling mudchute farm, as do my own, taken a few months later.


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman


Photo: Mick Lemmerman

The control bunker has since been demolished, which I think is a shame – it might not have been practical, but it did have some historical value. On a positive note, there is now a renovated anti-aircraft gun on the site. Not an original Island gun, but a good addition all the same.



Photo: Mick Lemmerman

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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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