Billson Street

Current and former residents may beg to differ, but – on the face of it – Billson Street is no more special than any other Island street. However, in some respects it does have a unique history: half the street was destroyed in the course of one night during World War II, and it was later chosen as one of the first locations for the construction of experimental, temporary houses known as ‘Orlit’ homes. The construction of these houses was well documented, and consequently there are a large number of high quality photographs of Billson Street taken just after the war. I wrote something about Orlits in this article, and some of the information and photos from that article are reproduced here, but this article is about the longer history of Billson Street.

The street was named after Jonathan Billson whose building firm was active during the creation of Cubitt Town in the middle of the 19th century. On the Isle of Dogs, the firm built 26 houses and one pub, the Builder’s Arms at 99 Stebondale Street, in the 1860s. Around that time, Billson seems to have got mixed up in all sorts of extra-marital shenanigans. I’ve read and re-read this newspaper article from the time, but I can’t really work out who did what and with whom…..

Daily News. 12th March 1864

In 1870, Billson Street had been laid out, but had not yet been built upon. The street ran from Millwall Dock Company land in the west (later Millwall Park) to Wharf Road (later Saunder’s Ness Road) in the east. The pub at the end of Billson Street was the Builder’s Arms.

1870. Click for full-sized version.

By 1895 more houses had been built on Billson Street, including two large houses close to the west end of the street. Across Manchester Road, opposite Christ Church School, was another large house, Perseverance House, with its own substantial yard.

1895

Christ Church School was built in 1866 on church land north of the vicarage, mainly at the instigation of the first vicar of Christ Church, the Rev. William John Caparn. Faced with financial difficulties from the start (it was funded solely by public contributions), the school closed in the 1890s on the construction of Cubitt Town School close by.

1900

Manchester Road looking north in the 1900s. Billson Street is on the left and right in the centre of the photo.

17 Billson Street in the early 1900s, a house destroyed during WWII. “Probably Granny Cooper who lived at No. 206 Manchester Road, and was one of the Island midwives.” Photo and text: Mrs. Mitchell / Island History Trust.

21 Billson Street, 1930s. Reverend Arthur Holmes, his wife Margaret and Dodger the dog. The Reverend was vicar of St. Cuthbert’s Church and they later lived in Harbinger Road. 21 Billson Street would also not survive WWII. Photo: Rev. Holmes / Island History Trust.

In 1920, parts of Billson Street, Parsonage Street and Stebondale Street and the whole of Kingfield Street had never built upon. Poplar Borough Council filled the gaps with houses intended to match the design of the ‘Garden City’ houses of the Chapel House Street Estate. The council named the loose collection of houses the Kingfield Estate.

28 Billson Street in the 1930s. Thomas Fitzgerald in his back garden.

1934, Billson Street close to its corner with Stebondale Street. Photo: Ruth Bravery

On the night of 19th to 20th April 1941, between midnight and 4:00, 58 bombs, mainly 50 Kg, fell on the East, West India and Millwall Docks. As usual, bombs also fell on residential areas. Heavy rescue worker Bill Regan noted in his diary:

We are out to Parsonage St, found a cluster of U.X.B’s between Parsonage Street and Billson Street, in the back gardens found the wardens and police, moving people out. Back to depot, out again to watch a parachute mine coming down, but it turned out to be a barrage balloon that had broken away. We chased it up Mellish St, grabbed the landing lines, and then wondered what to do with it. We decided to tie it to a lamp-post, and railings outside some of the empty houses, and along came a couple of soldiers with some of their young ladies, so we left them to deflate it and went back to the depot, just in time for another call out. A real mine had floated down and set off the 4. U.X.B’s. It took out all of Parsonage Street, all of one side of Billson Street, the other side was wrecked but not flattened, the Stebondale Street end, and the Manchester Road end, and parts of one side of Newcastle Street [Glengarnock Avenue] were totally wrecked, but parts still standing. We found a man clambering about, he said he stayed in his shelter thinking the four U.X.B’s would be safe for a while. He didn’t appear to be injured, and he wandered off. …as daylight came took photos.

Many were killed by the bombing that night:

  • Firewatcher, Charles Henry Lay, aged 54, of 12 Billson Street
  • Air Raid Warden, Thomas Alfred Williams, aged 49, address unknown
  • Firewatcher, John Whitehead Earl, aged 55, of 25 Kingfield Street
  • Arthur Alling Johnson, aged 64, of 36 Billson Street
  • Jean McNair, aged 39, of 1 Woodstock Terrace, Poplar
  • Alice Miriam Stamp, aged 31, of 16 Billson Street
  • Thomas James Stamp, aged 34 of 16 Billson Street
  • Albert Everson, aged 51, of Long Handborough, Oxford

And two died later of their injuries:

  • Herbert Thomas Penn, aged 31, of 8 Parsonage Street. He died the following day in Poplar Hospital
  • Firewatcher Dalby Hodgson, aged 66, of 4 Parsonage Street

Douglas Inman:

My father was born in Billson Street but by 1939 he had married and moved to East Greenwich. His uncle, Robert Inman, along with his wife Sarah (nee Coombs) and adult children, Alice and Nellie, still lived in No. 16. They were also bringing up the children of their deceased daughter Catherine, twins Catherine and William Everson, at the same address. Robert and Sarah later took these two young children to Wiltshire for safety.

During the night of 19th April, 1941, a large part of Billson Street was destroyed by a landmine. The bodies of Thomas and Alice were found the next day, in Seyssel Street. Albert Everson, probably uncle to the twins, also died at Billson Street.

Alice and Thomas were buried in a mass grave in what is now Tower Hamlets Cemetery.

Pat Jarvis:

My dad was born at 4 Billson Street in 1926 and lived there until they were bombed out at the beginning of the war, my dad was buried under the rubble with my granddad until they were rescued, his house would have stood where the sheds on the left of the “new flats” stands now, (facing Manchester Road), as we always called them. We moved back there when I was nine in 1968 and my mum and dad stayed there until 1996 when they retired to Wales. This is what remained of Billson Street after they were bombed. My dad’s uncle Herbert Spencer Reading had a shop in Stebondale Street just along from the pub with his wife Ivy, they had 7 children and Herbert was killed in active service during WW2, it’s a wonder anyone survived looking at these photos.

Bill Regan risked arrest and possible imprisonment for taking photos of the destruction. Such photos were forbidden not only because of their potential impact on morale, but also because they could provide Germany with intelligence on the results of their bombing. Fortunately for Bill, though, his photo rolls were developed by a policeman friend who had a dark room. The photos he took on 20th April show just how much damage was done…

20th April 1941. Looking over Parsonage Street towards Billson Street

20th April 1941. Billson Street

The shaded areas in the following map shows houses which were either completely destroyed or damaged beyond economic repair (and thus were demolished) during WWII.

1945

1945 aerial photo (RAF) showing the extent of the bomb damage to the area.

The numerous pits in Billson and Parsonage Street in the previous photo were dug to take the foundations of ‘Orlit’ houses. These were experimental, precast concrete houses which were employed to fill some of the gaps left by bombs in regular housing schemes. In 1945, German and Italian prisoners of war were drafted in to clear the sites, and construction commenced in November.

We lived in the middle cottage of the only five remaining houses standing in Billson Street (we were bombed out of Stebondale St). My nan sent big tin jugs of water over to the prisoners. She said they were some mothers sons, she had sons in the forces and if they were taken prisoner she would like to think someone would at least give them something to drink. Over the road in the Orlits I remember the Hales, the Mitchells and Davis rings a bell. My mum and me had to move out when my uncles were demobbed. I lived in a prefab at the end of the road when I was married. – Patricia Catherine Featherstone.

The following images are stitched-together screenshots from an Imperial War Museum film which features the construction and opening of the Orlit Houses in Billson Street. The large building on the left in the first photograph is the Builder’s Arms in Stebondale Street (it was badly damaged during the War and demolished in the 1950s).

1946 Orlit Construction in Billson Street (in the foreground is Parsonage Street). Imperial War Museum

1946 Orlit Construction in Billson Street (in the background is Kingfield Street). Imperial War Museum

1946 Orlit Construction in Billson Street. Imperial War Museum

1946 Orlit Construction in Billson Street. Imperial War Museum

1946 Orlit Construction in Billson Street. Imperial War Museum

The first house was opened in Feburary 1946 by George Tomlison, Minister of Works, and Charles Key, MP for Bow and Bromley, and at the time Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health.

Official opening of first Orlit house. Billson Street, February 1946

The first residents – the Atheis family at 16 Billson Street

1946, Billson Street

1946. Billson Street Orlit interiors. Click for full-sized version

Late 1940s (estimate)

The Orlits were built and initially owned by the Ministry of Works. In 1951 Poplar Borough Council raised a loan for the purchase and ‘remedial measures’ for all Poplar Orlits. Weekly rents for the Orlit houses were eventually set at 21/- per week.

1951 Poplar Borough Council Meeting Minutes

The following map was created in 1950. The gaps left by WWII bombing in Billson Street have been filled by Orlits, while prefabs were built along Stebondale Street and Manchester Road. The former Builder’s Arms at the west end of Billson Street is described as a ‘Ruin’. Across Manchester Road, the former Christ Church School was damaged but is still standing. Cubitt Town School was all but destroyed and needed to be largely rebuilt.

1950

1964. The top half and sloped roof of the former Christ Church School in Billson street as viewed from the playground of Cubitt Town School. Photo: Extract of a photo by Malcolm Tremain

At the end of the 1960s, new flats were built in the area including along Manchester Road (our family moved into one of the blocks). These flats blocked road access between the two halves of Billson Street, and the eastern section between Manchester Road and Saunder’s Ness Road was renamed Glenworth Avenue.

1970s. The former eastern half of Billson Street, by now named Glenworth Avenue. The damaged former Christ Church School buildings – which would have been on the left of the street in this view – were demolished in the 1960s. A view of the rest of Billson Street is obscured by the lorry.

1970s. Looking in the opposite direction up Glenworth Avenue (former Billson Street).

Circa 1977. Billson Street. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

Circa 1977. Billson Street. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

1981. Billson Street. Screenshot from children’s film, 4D Special Agents

1983. Billson Street. Photo: Mike Seaborne

1980s. Billson Street. Photo: Pat Jarvis

In the early 1980’s, a precast reinforced concrete house (not an Orlit) in Leeds burned down. Its method of construction did not in any way contribute to the fire or its outcome, but its destruction did give Building Research Establishment (BRE) engineers an opportunity to examine the condition of the concrete and the metal ties. What they found was that some structural columns had suffered degradation and that some metal ties had corroded, caused by the use of chloride-based mixtures added to the cement in the concrete. This gave concern about the possibility of failure of the structural joints that held the houses together. A secondary problem was caused by flat roofs, which have a tendency to suffer from condensation, which can add the corrosion of the joints.

A sample investigation into the Orlit houses on the Island in 1982/3 showed that the majority were in good condition, but at least two – Nos. 25 and 27 Billson Street – were not considered economically repairable and the council decided to demolish and replace them.

The site of Nos. 25 and 27 Billson Street after demolition. Photo: Pat Jarvis

In the 1990s, the four Orlits from Nos. 6 to 12 were also demolished and replaced.

Late 1990s. Rebuilding of Nos. 6 & 8 Billson Street. Photo: Pat Jarvis

Late 1990s. 10 Billson Street. Photo: Pat Jarvis

At the other end of the street, new homes were built on the corner of Billson Street and Stebondale Street.

2009. Billson Street from Stebondale Street

2015. Billson Street from Stebondale Street

Billson Street does seem to keep changing, but surely there is little room and few options for any more redevelopment ….. unless someone manages to squeeze in a tower block somewhere……

 

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Lorries on the Isle of Dogs

I know nothing about lorries, except that there were loads of them all over the place when I lived on the Island. They lined up outside various firms and the docks, blocked the roads here and there, would swing dangerously out when negotiating the bends next to swing bridges, and – just across the road from me, where George Green’s school service road is located – was a ‘lorry park’ which was a great place to play at night, leaping from lorry to lorry, hiding under the distinctively smelling tarpaulins, getting covered in oil…. I have no idea what the lorries were doing there, the drivers could have all been up the Waterman’s for all I knew.

Over the years I’ve collected many thousands of images of the Island, and have tried to organise or tag them in various ways: by street, by year, by content, whatever – and seem to have ended up with a load of images labeled ‘lorry’. Here are some of them. Sorry if this article is short on text and long on images, but I am sure that there are some lorry aficianados or drivers out there who will like this.

1912. The Sterling Manufacturing Co. of Manchester Road and Davis Street specialised in “Mangles and wringers, wood tables with wringers, garden rollers, refrigerator porcelain cases and linings, gas and electric stoves, water heater parts, etc”.  One of two Thorneycroft vehicles that the company had at the time.

1915. Herbert Bros. were at 285 Westferry Road (approximately half way between St Paul’s and St Edmund’s churches). Proud of their “petrol lorry”, the firm would continue to also use horse carts for a few more years.

1920s. A Hawkins & Tipson lorry outside their Globe Works in East Ferry Road. Photo: Island History Trust

1920s. Lorry belonging to Huish Haulage Contractors of 40 Havannah Street. Photo: Island History Trust

1920s. Lorry belonging to J.W. Cook, who were based at Millwall Wharf.

1924. McDougall’s Flour Mill. The photo was taken approximately a decade before the company built their iconic silo building on the Millwall Outer Dock waterfront. This complex of buildings, known as Wheatsheaf Mills, remained in use – despite considerable bomb damage during WWII- until about 1980.

1926. A bridger at Kingsbridge (formally, the bridge never had this name). Photo probably taken by renowned Poplar photographer William Whiffin.

Late 1920s. In 1924, lead firm Locke, Lancaster merged with other lead firms to form Associated Lead. This meant repainting their lorries with the new company name. Here they are showing off their newly-painted lorries in Saunders Ness Road, outside Island Gardens.

1930s. A Lenanton’s lorry in Westferry Road opposite their timber yard. Osborn’s Grocer’s shop behind the lorry was at 53 Westferry Road, approximately where Spinnaker House is today.

1930s. G. J. Palmer processed clinker and coke and were a well-known East Ham firm. They also had a yard at Slipway Wharf in Stewart Street. This wharf was located between the Storm Pumping Station and the river.

1930s. A lorry in the yard of steel stockholders George W. Mancell Ltd at the end of Cahir Street. Photo: Island History Trust

1930s. Another bridger at Kingsbridge, and another photo that was probably taken by William Whiffin.

1935. It is very difficult to recognize where this was, but it shows the southern end of Preston’s Road where it met the entrance to West India Docks (at Blue Bridge). A few decades later and Len’s Café would be occupying one of the buildings on the left.

1938. A lorry entering West India Docks. Wonder if anyone would get away with loading a lorry like that these days?

1939. The lorry of Graham Turner’s grandad, with the caption “delivering water tanks to Old Church hospital in 1939”.  Photo: Graham Turner.

1946. A post-WWII peace celebration. The Hawkins & Tipson lorry is in Manchester Road, at its corner with Seyssel Street. Dudgeon’s Wharf is in the background.

Lorries belonging to cartage contractors H. Burgoine & Sons. To my uneducated eye, they look like lorries from two different periods, 1950s on the left and 1930s on the right.

1950s. Sugar firm George Clark & Son Ltd. operated in the Broadway Works off Alpha Road.

1950s (estimate). Bob (Bobby) Franklin in his Cubitt Town Transport lorry in Manchester Road (Jubilee Crescent in the background). Photo: Glen Franklin

1950s. The rear of the eastern Rum Quay Shed in West India Docks (a shed later occupied by Limehouse Studios).

1950s. Sternol (also known as the Stern Sonneborn Oil Company Ltd) operated an oil and grease refinery at Grosvenor Wharf in Saunder’s Ness Road. Photo: Steve Heywood

1950s. Tooke Street. Photo: Peter Wright.

1950s. Huish Haulage Contractors of 40 Havannah Street. Photo: Peter Bevan

1950s. West India Docks

1950s. A Westwood-built steel bridge component being manoeuvred into Westferry Road from Cahir Street. On the right are the remains of a WWII emergency water supply tank.

1950s. Lorries belonging to timber firm John Lenanton & Sons in Westferry Road.

1953. Lorries queuing up in West India Docks (in an area now known as West India Quay). I tried to take a photo of the ‘Now’ view, but there’s a tree in the way. I like trees, but it’s a bit odd to preserve some 200 hundred year old warehouses only to obscure the view of them.

1954. Lorries queuing up on the Rum Quay in West India Docks, shortly after the new Rum Quay sheds had been built.

Circa 1954. Lorries belonging to timber firm John Lenanton & Sons in Westferry Road. Photo: Island History Trust.

Circa 1960. A recovery lorry belonging to Cyclo Motors of Westferry Road (diagonally opposite the Lord Nelson). The photo was taken in Ferry Street, and the former North Greenwich Railway Station is visible in the background.

1960s. A lorry being loaded in a Millwall Dock shed.

1960s (estimate). A Pickford’s lorry in what was then named Glengarnock Avenue and is now named Glenaffric Avenue. Could the lorry be delivering frying oil to Tremaine’s chippy or anointing oil to the church? 😉

Circa 1960. In 1956, Brown & Poulson had acquired the George Clark sugar firm and renamed it Millwall Sugars Ltd.

1963. Screenshots from the film ‘Portrait of Queenie’, a documentary about Queenie Watts. This section of the film was filmed from the back of the lorry of Queenie’s husband Slim as he drove round The Walls.

1962. Screenshot from the film Postscript to Empire, which compared life in two communitues, the traditional, working class Isle of Dogs and the new town of Stevenage. In this scene, a family moves from their home at the end of Cahir Street to a new home in Stevenage.

1964. Cubitt Town Transport Ltd. had small and humble origins, at 71a Manchester Road (the garage/workshop at the Manchester Road end of The Arches). By the 1970s, they were occupying a larger yard at 266 Manchester Road (next to the Cubitt Arms) and had numerous vehicles.

Circa 1970. A bridger at the Blue Bridge.

1970s. Hoveringham Gravels operated on a large site along The Walls.

1970s. Huge stacks of wood in Lenanton’s timber yard.

1970s. Beecham acquired Morton’s and built a distribution depot at the corner of Westferry Road and Cuba Street. Lucozade was among the large range of Beecham products.

1970s. David Lee and his lorry in Launch Street with Thorne House in the background. Photo: David Lee.

1970s. The workshop at Reece Bros. Transport of Ferguson’s Wharf (behind the Magnet & Dewdrop).

 

Circa 1974. How to take the bend when crossing the Preston’s Road swing bridge (heading south).

Circa 1974. How NOT to take the bend when crossing the Preston’s Road swing bridge.

1980s. Lorries queuing up to enter Ferguson’s Wharf. Photo: Island History Trust?

1982/3. Construction of ASDA supermarket in East Ferry Road.

1985. Unidentified lorry driving past the lead works in Westferry Road. Photo: Mike Seaborne.

1986. Lorries would queue up outside Seacon’s ‘London Steel Terminal’, often in the service roads of the Barkantine Estate across the road. In this photo, the 1970s-built shed is out of sight, but the construction of the second shed is visible. Photo: Peter Wright

1983. The last lorry out of McDougall’s. Photo: Island History Trust

1986. A lorry leaving Millwall Wharf. The wharf was actually closed by this time – this is a screenshot from the Prospects TV series.

1980s? A proud Keith Bennett and his lorry in Byng Street. Photo: Keith Bennett.

In the 1980s and 1990s you would see more and more cement mixers on Island roads, and less and less lorries carrying freight. By the 1990s, Seacon and Lenanton’s were the only firms left of siginificant size who would need to use lorries regularly, and they wouldn’t last long.

1980s. Westferry Road.

1980s. The former Hoveringham Gravels site in The Walls was used for the preparation of concrete and other materials used during the Canary Wharf construction.

1987. One of Peter Stone’s father’s lorries in Millwall Wharf (that’s not Peter’s father in the photo). Photo: Peter Stone.

Circa 1990. Lorries queuing up opposite Seacon. Photo: Peter Williams.

1990s? Nope. That’s not how you do it either. Outside the fire station.

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A Short History of St Hubert’s House

The Isle of Dogs Housing Society was formed in 1930 and worked with the London County Council to find suitable vacant or (slum) clearance areas on the Island on which to build low rent homes for local workers.

A piece of land between Janet Street and Mellish Street, occupied by a few old houses and a derelict factory, was the first location chosen for building.

Circa 1920. Site of St Hubert’s House

1920s. Site of St Hubert’s House

The LCC declared it as a clearance area to pave the way for redevelopment, and also provided funds to assist with the construction. The housing society built a block of 68 flats and named it St Hubert’s House.

Circa 1935. Photo: Island History Trust / Isle of Dogs Housing Society

The first section of the flats was completed in 1935, and…

…the tenants of Nos 12–34 (even) Janet Street could then be offered accommodation in the new flats, allowing the LCC to implement a clearance order in respect of these houses, to create room for the second phase. This was completed during 1936 and consisted of 44 flats and a shop.
– Survey of London

Present-day view of previous photo.

Circa 1935. Construction of St Hubert’s House. Corner of Alpha Grove (foreground) and Janet Street. Photo: Island History Trust / Isle of Dogs Housing Society

Present-day view of previous photo.

The following contemporary exterior and interior photos were all taken by the Isle of Dogs Housing Society, who later contributed them to the Island History Trust (the Friends of IHT website can be found at https://www.islandhistory.co.uk/).

From an Island History Trust Newsletter

     

St Hubert or Hubertus was a Christian saint who became the first bishop of Liège in 708 AD and was the patron saint of hunters, mathematicians, opticians and metalworkers. According to legend, as he was hunting a stag, the animal turned to reveal a cross shining between its antlers while an other-worldly voice proclaimed a message to Hubert. Survey of London:

The zigzag groundplan … provides novel forms for the front courtyards (for use as drying areas) and rear communal gardens. In the centre of each courtyard is a concrete drying-post topped by a highly decorative finial with a coloured relief of a stag in the forest.

Washing pole

The foundation stone was laid on 29 May 1935 by the Rev. Basil Jellicoe, who had been the inspiration for forming the Isle of Dogs Housing Society….and the first part of the building was officially opened on 20 November 1935 by the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth).

Official opening of St Hubert’s House

Official opening of St Hubert’s House

Official opening of St Hubert’s House

Official opening of St Hubert’s House

1937

Public records such as censuses and electoral rolls give an incomplete picture of the names of the residents, but the names known to me  – most of whom were certainly among the first residents – were as follows in 1939:

No. 2.  Annie Jane, William Albert and William Charles Comper
No. 3. George Henry and Louisa Sarah Bennett
No. 5. Mary Ann French
No. 6. Alfred and Elizabeth Palmer
No. 7. Albert William, Alfred Edward, Annie Elizabeth Jr, Annie Elizabeth Sr, Robert Stephen and William James Bartlett
No. 8. Ellen and Harold Edward Batten
No. 12. Henry and James Bennett
No. 13. Emily, John, Robert and Thomas Dodkin
No. 14. Annie Rosetta and John Ernest Paine
No. 16. Albert Henry and Hilda Amelia Clack
No. 20. Ellen and Michael Lipman
No. 22. Charles George and Julia Ann Burton
No. 23. Alfred William and Robert George Hennis
No. 25. Joseph Collins
No. 26. Ivy Edith Lyddon
No. 27. Frank and Lilian Ada Coulton
No. 28. Albert and Henrietta Ball
No. 30. Charlotte Anne and Mary Ann Durling
No. 32. John Dunk, Alexander and Sarah Pepper
No. 33. Isabel and Solomon Adelman
No. 34. Daisy and William MacDonald
No. 35. Mary Ann and Robert William McAdam
No. 37. Daniel Samuel and Jessica Elizabeth Mantle
No. 38. Charles and Charlotte McCarthy
No. 41. Frederick and Minnie Bonsor
No. 42. Emma Alice and James David O’Leary
No. 43. Eliza Margaret and Rhoda King
No. 44. Horatio and Mary Jackson
No. 45. May Ada Hughes and Georgia Inkpen
No. 47. Charles Jr, Charles Sr and Helena Lapwood
No. 48. Alfred Edward James and Dorothy Crabb
No. 49. Archibald Victor and Eva May Judge
No. 50. Lilian Blanche Moore
No. 51. Alexander John, Ethel Margaret Louise and Mary Ann Miller
No. 52. Eliza and George Abbott
No. 54. Florence May and Leonard Frederick Pepper
No. 56. Annie Ellen and Frederick Arrowsmith
No. 57. Margaret and Thomas Nicholson
No. 58. Rosetta and William Hardy
No. 59. John and Kathleen Morgan
No. 60. Emily, May Jessie and William Arthur Marney
No. 62. Florence, William George Robert and William Henry Arthey
No. 63. George Arthur and Rose Lilian Baulkwell
No. 64. Elias and Ethel Hogsden
No. 66. Alice Lilian and Lilian Goss
No. 68. Eunice Jane and Henry James Judge

St Hubert’s House was relatively undamaged by bombing during WWII, while large sections of the surrounding area were completely destroyed.

1947

Circa 1950

1950s. Island History Trust?

1958-9. Photo taken by Rosemary Freeman, shared by John Freeman

Circa 1960. In the foreground, the site of Millwall Central School

1963

In the 1970s the flats were renovated and a number of extensions buit including two lift towers on the Janet Street side. Undoubtedly a welcome addition for residents, but they are not in keeping with the original architecture and are rather uninspiring blocks.

1970s

Still, it is one of the few old buildings still left standing on the Island…

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Island Baths

I really disliked swimming as a kid; after being herded onto a GLC schoolbus outside Harbinger School, followed by the short journey to Poplar Baths, I would do my best to hide in the changing rooms in the hope I could stay there until it was time for thick, buttered toast in the baths’ café after the lesson.

That said, I did go to Island Baths in Tiller Road a couple of times. I cannot really remember much about it other than being a little nervous of all the big “Tiller Kids” in the pool. I actually remember more about the journey to the place: departing from close to Christ Church and walking through the Muddy and over the Glass Bridge. We probably lived as far from the baths as it was possible to live on the Island.

The first London public baths was opened at Goulston Square in Whitechapel in 1847, yet a half a century later there were still no public baths on the Isle of Dogs. At the end of the 1800s, the local authorities decided to do something about that. Survey of London:

Difficulties of finding somewhere convenient for both Millwall and Cubitt Town residents were great, and in the end cheapness largely dictated the choice of site, which proved far from ideal.

The chosen location was on a piece of wasteland in Glengall Road (the section now named Tiller Road) which – incidentally – was almost certainly the site of Millwall football team’s first pitch. The baths were built by Island building firm F. & T. Thorne and were opened in 1900.

1910. Glengall Road (click for full-sized version)

1920s. Island Baths (www.britainfromabove.org.uk)

According to Survey of London, the baths….

…comprised a swimming pool, slipper baths and a hand laundry. The pool was 75ft by 35ft, was 3½ft deep, galleried all round, with wooden changing cubicles. Of 40 slipper baths, five were for the use of women, while nine of the men’s were accorded ‘first-class’ status. Heating was supplied by two coal-fired Cornish boilers, made by the local firm Stephens, Smith & Company.

1930s. Island Baths’ entrance building. Photo: Island History Trust

1930s. Island Baths. Photo: Arthur Ayres

From the start, the baths were under-used, perhaps due to their location. Despite being quite central – as the crow flies – the docks and other industry provided a significant barrier to convenient access. By 1930, the Council did not think it worth the cost of keeping the pool open (and heated) during the winter, and so every year it was emptied of water and covered with a wooden floor, converting it into a dance hall. This practice did not end until the opening of George Green’s School / Community Centre in 1976.

1930s. Island Baths with dance floor in place. Photo: Island History Trust

Survey of London:

A filtration plant installed in 1930–1 was a welcome improvement, but the building had fundamental shortcomings. Partial reconstruction, carried out in 1934–6, involved the replacement of the front portion of the building, providing new slipper baths (21 for men and 18 for women), waiting rooms, a pay office, committee room and accommodation for the superintendent, together with hot-water storage and a reinforced-concrete water-tower.

1937. The playground of Millwall School aka Millwall Glengall Road School aka Millwall Isle of Dogs School aka Millwall Central School I. Not to be confused with Glengall School in Cubitt Town. The rebuilt baths entrance building is on the right, with Alexander House on the other side of the street.

In anticipation of War, Island Baths were converted into a First Aid Post in 1939.

1937/38 Poplar Borough Council Meeting Minutes

Circa 1940. Island Baths first aid post

Circa 1940. Island Baths first aid post

1940. Auxiliary Emergency Workers at Island Baths. Photo: Island History Trust

The building also received some blast protection through the use of sandbags (and later blast walls).

Circa 1940. Island Baths. Photo: Island History Trust

Circa 1940. Island Baths. Photo: LBTH / Island History Trust

Severe bomb damage was sustained in 1941, wrecking the swimming pool building.

1941. Island Baths pool building after being destoyed by bombing. Photo: Bill Regan

After repairs, the laundry and slipper baths in the entrance building could be used again.

Circa 1950.

Circa 1950.

But it would be the early 1960s before the patched-up entrance building and remains of the pool building were demolished, to make room for a new building.

Circa 1963

Survey of London:

In 1963 the contractors Tersons began work on site. The new baths, completed at a cost in excess of £350,000, were opened in 1966. Although use of the slipper baths and, to a lesser extent, the laundry, had been declining steadily for years, both facilities were included so that payment from the War Damage Commission was maximized.

The slipper baths on the first floor, anachronistic from the start, were so little used by the mid-1970s that they were removed and the space adapted as an Art Resource Centre and recreation room, opened in 1980.

News article from website of Brick Lane Bookshop (https://bricklanebookshop.org/). Click for full-sized version.

The skills practised by the users of the centre were put to effective use in the painting of a mural in the foyer in 1985. Another mural, of whales, was painted alongside the swimming pool in 1991 by Will Adams, who worked in consultation with local primary schoolchildren to develop the design.

1980s. Island Baths

These days, Island Baths are known as Tiller Road Leisure Centre (probably for some time I suspect), and it can also boast a fitness centre. Until they start selling pie n mash, there’s still not much chance of getting me in the place!

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The Isle of Dogs in 1980

1980 was in many ways one of the lowest points in the history of the Isle of Dogs – the end of a long economic decline which arguably started before World War II, and which picked up speed in the early 1970s. The primary reasons for this were:

  1. The decline in cargo handled by the West India and Millwall Docks (and its knock-on effect on firms which depended on the docks).
  2. The high percentage of manufacturing firms which needed to modernize in order to remain competitive, but which had neither the funds nor space to do so, resulting in them relocating or closing for good.

The 1970s was a decade of economic problems and industrial strife – remember the three-day week, power cuts and strikes? During this period, unemployment in Poplar (including the Isle of Dogs) rose from 5% to 16%, while the average for London was 7% and the average for Britain as a whole was 8%. On the Island in 1980, approximately one in every six adults who was able to work did not have a job!

Meanwhile, many of those who were fortunate to have a job had to travel off the Island to go to work, whereas before WWII most Islanders lived within walking distance of their job. Ironically, car ownership on the Island in the 1970s was higher than the average for London – presumably because of the poor public transport and geographical isolation of the place.

By way of demonstration, in this 1980 aerial photo of Cubitt Town, I’ve highlighted the area which until a year or two previously had been occupied by firms. By 1980, most of the firms had since ceased operating, or were about to do so, and most of the factories and warehouses had already been demolished. Apex, Marela, Boropex, Sternol, Luralda – names which will be familiar to many Islanders – all disappeared in quick succession.

1980. Aerial photo of south Cubitt Town. Click for full-sized version.

Apart from the large area of dereliction and demolition, this ‘corner’ of the Island didn’t look too pretty anyway for much of the second half of the 1970s……

The prefabs along Manchester Road were demolished in the early 1970s, leaving a derelict area for many years, separated from the road by corrugated iron fences.

1978, Manchester Road

Shops and houses on the corner of Glengarnock Avenue and Manchester Road were demolished in the mid-70s, ostensibly to make room for the construction of George Green’s School, but this small area also remained derelict for years.

1982

Opposite Christ Church, my estate:

Glengarnock Avenue

At the end of Glengarnock Avenue you can see Millwall Park. It was bereft of trees and shrubs, and was a fairly bare expanse which readily waterlogged when it rained (it still has the tendency to do that, but a lot less so since its level was raised with earth excavated during the construction of the DLR tunnel to Greenwich)….

c1980, Millwall Park. Not entirely bereft of trees – there is a lone, young tree doing its best. Photo: Peter Wright (I think)

On the other side of the park, what was once the Hawkins & Tipson’s rope shed (aka the ‘rope walk’ or ‘ropey’).

c1977. Former rope walk. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

c1977. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

The situation was similar on other parts of the Island….

The Glass Bridge – vandalized. Photo: Mark Daydy

Roffey House

East Ferry Road. Photo: Gary O’Keefe

Manchester Road (Photo: Bill Regan)

Manchester Road (Photo: Bill Regan)

Pier Head Cottages, Westferry Road

Westferry Road

Westferry Road (Photo: Jim O’Donnell)

Westferry Road. Would like to credit this photo, if anyone knows whose it is.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved growing up on the Island in the 1970s, and was too young to pay much attention to the big world around me. Besides, I had a fantastic time as a kid playing in derelict factories, along the river and over the Muddy. The best playground ever!

I certainly had no idea that the closure of the docks and most firms was changing the nature of the Island for good. Thomas J. Cole (Life and Labor in the Isle of Dogs):

As one Island native declared, “people used to come to Millwall to work . . . but now Millwallers have to go off to find work.” Available statistics support this observation. Up through 1970 the Island was a net importer of labor. This is no longer the case. In the inter-war period, seventy-five percent of the Island’s resident work force was employed locally. By the late 1970s, seventy percent of the district’s economically active adults commuted out of the district to work. The potential threat this situation posed to the community was aptly summed up by one Island leader. He remarked that the district “must have [jobs]… Otherwise this is just going to become somewhere to sleep. It’s not going to be a living community [without] industry.”

And also, because I went to university at the end of 1979, I missed most of what happened to the Island from 1980 onwards. I did come home regularly at weekends, in the first year at least, and did notice that more and more had been demolished, but I had no idea of the extent….

The Isle of Dogs appears to also include some of Poplar in this map (from an early LDDC document).

Click for full-sized version

I also had little notion of what the London Docklands Development Corporation was. I knew they had something to do with the Urban Development Corporations that were popping up over Britain, and was immediately bitter that they appeared to be demolishing everything along the river in order to make room for ‘flats for yuppies’, but it’s only recently that I’ve taken the time to properly study the corporation’s influence and impact. (Saving that for another blog, or even a book).

Barkantine Estate

Another change for the Island (and for the rest of the country) was The Housing Act 1980. Survey of London:

The election in 1979 of a Conservative Government committed to privatization and to the encouragement of home ownership brought a new impetus to sales of council houses. The Housing Act of 1980 gave all council tenants of more than three years’ residence a statutory right to buy their dwelling and it permitted councils to give discounts of up to 50 per cent on the assessed value of the property.

This right to buy (which my Mum took advantage of, and was very happy about it) was accompanied by a transfer of much housing stock to housing associations, and a massive cut in council housing budgets – the idea being that housing associations and the free market would provide for sufficient housing. London Borough of Tower Hamlets built no more new homes, and had insufficient funds to maintain the houses that it was still responsible for. Thomas J. Cole:

In general the condition of local authority housing in Tower Hamlets worsened dramatically between 1980 and 1986, the proportion categorized as unsatisfactory rising from 15 per cent to 49 per cent.

Meanwhile, many of those who had benefited from the purchase of their council homes, sold up and moved off the Island – often to Essex or Kent – joining those who had left earlier in order to find work elsewhere. A decade later, this ‘churning’ of the Island population was even more dramatic, with the arrival of thousands from Limehouse who had been displaced by the construction of the Limehouse Link – and even more newcomers who were working in the newly-opened Canary Wharf development. The population of the Island grew from approximately 17,000 to 30,000 between 1980 and 2000!

The jury is out – as far as I can tell. Many current Island residents complain about how it is now: it’s too busy, too overdeveloped, too much this and too much that. One thing is for sure – after the demolitions of the 1980s, construction on the Island has not stopped – after more than three decades they are still managing to find space (or demolish recently-built offices) to squeeze in another tower.

On the other hand, others love living there. Less people say this though, or maybe they’re not so noisy about it.

Some of these opinions I have gathered from friends, but most I have gleaned from social networking groups. I am very curious what kind of posts and comment there would have been if we had Twatter and Facebag in 1980?

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Iron Shipbuilding on the Isle of Dogs

Shipbuilding and repairing had been carried out at Limehouse and Blackwall since before 1500, and for centuries the Thames was the centre of Britain’s shipbuilding industry thanks to its proximity to City merchants and the Admiralty.

Blackwall Yard from the Thames by Francis Holman, 1784 (in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

However, in 1831, twenty five years after the opening of the West India Docks, there were still no shipbuilders of note on the Isle of Dogs. In fact, at the time, there was not much of anything on the Island, apart from along the riverside in the west.

1830. Click for full version.

The enormous increase in international maritime trade in the 1700s meant that ever larger ships were being built. However, limitations in the structural strength of wood meant a limit on the size that ships could become (and also, as ship sizes grew, the amount of space lost to timber frames grew exponentially). On top of this, around 1800, shipbuilding timber was becoming scarcer and more expensive, and most had to be imported.

Iron had been readily available for centuries in Britain, and the first iron-hulled ships were built in the 1760s. However, they were expensive to build and to operate – not only because they relied on marine steam engines and other technologies which were in their infancy –  but also because iron plates of sufficient size and strength where not yet available at a low enough price. By the 1820s, however, large wrought iron plates could be manufactured on a large enough scale and at low enough prices to make them economically viable for use in the construction of ships.

Virtually none of the traditional shipyards along the Thames switched over to iron shipbuilding. The iron shipbuilders were all ‘newcomers’ who built new yards, and the Isle of Dogs, with its undeveloped river frontage very close to the City, was the perfect place to set up business.

William Fairbairn

The first iron shipbuilding yard on the Island – and also on the Thames – was built by general engineer William Fairbairn in 1836. Fairbairn was a Scot; many owners of major Island engineering firms where from Scotland or the North of England who had moved their businesses south to take advantage of the opportunities offered by iron shipbuilding. Fellow Scot, marine engineer David Napier, built his engineering works adjacent to Fairbairn’s “Millwall Iron Works”.

1840s

Speaking in 1859 he said … that he built ‘upwards of a hundred-and-twenty iron vessels’, of which nine were built in sections at Manchester and the rest at Millwall. Millwall got off to a good start. The Ludwig was the first iron steamer built for the Bodensee.

In 1837 the Sirius, built to ply the Rhone from Marseilles, was a triple first for Fairbairn – the longest iron steamer of her day, the first to be launched on the Thames, and the first to be classified by Lloyd’s Register. In 1838 Fairbairn’s twenty-one year old daughter, Anne, launched the first iron steam-yacht, for the Emperor of Russia, an occasion witnessed by ‘thousands of spectators’. By the end of 1840 nearly 600 were employed at the Millwall yard, by which time thirty-one iron vessels had been built.

– Richard Byroms, University of Huddersfield ‘William Fairbairn experimental engineer and millbuilder’

PS Thistle was commissioned by the Hunter River Steam Navigation Co. the first fully Australian-owned steamship company established in 1839. Thistle was wrecked on Port Albert Bar on 23 December 1859 and quickly disappeared. Her wreck was rediscovered in 1997.

“Emperor Nicholas I on the Nevka Steamship” painted by Alexey Petrovich Bogolyubov

By 1860, virtually the whole of the east side of the Island was occupied by shipyards of varying sizes.

1860. Click for full-sized version.

John Stewart

After serving an apprenticeship in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Gateshead-born John Stewart came to London, and was soon appointed managing engineer to the Shipowners’ Towing Co. After some years’ service in this capacity, he commenced business on his own account, and purchased small premises in Russell Street, Blackwall. The business increased so rapidly that in 1854 he moved his ‘Blackwall Iron Works’ to a larger site to the south, off Folly Wall on the Isle of Dogs. Here he built a large number of tug boats, but he specialized in the construction and fitting of marine steam engines.

Alfred Fernandez Yarrow

Yarrow was one of the few Island shipbuilders who was a ‘local boy’, having been born and raised in Stepney. In 1866 he established a small engineering firm in partnership with Robert Hedley on a former barge-builder’s yard known as Hope Yard. The partnership did not last long, and from 1875 Yarrow ran the business alone.

Survey of London:

This plot had a river frontage of only a little over 90ft and the further drawback that a right of way ran across it to the Folly House. The freehold of both the yard and the adjoining area on which the Folly House stood was purchased in 1875, however, and the residue of the lease of the public house was acquired soon after. The yard then became known as Folly Shipyard.

Folly Shipyard. The building on the right is the former Folly House Tavern.

A boat under construction at Yarrow’s. In the foreground is the path, Folly Wall, which was a public right of way. Behind the boat, the houses of Stewart Street, and in the background St John’s Church

1857

Yarrow’s Yard was extended, small section by small section, followed by a large extension southwards into the former Samuda Yard (the firm had been dissolved on Joseph D’Aguilar Samuda’s death). Even this was not enough space, and Yarrow transferred his business to London Yard in 1898.

Marine engine construction at Yarrow’s London Yard

Yarrow’s London Yard

Joseph D’Aguilar Samuda

In 1852, Samuda built a large shipyard between the newly-built Manchester Road (just north of the corner with Glengall Road) and the river. Working originally with his brother, and specializing in marine engine building, ship building was added to the business in 1843. According to his 1885 obituary:

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

Samuda’s Yard (which was not in Millwall)

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

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

The firm did not build only iron ships, they also built iron-clad wooden ships. The following image of Samuda’s Yard appears to show the construction of a wooden ship.

Embed from Getty Images

The Brazilian iron-clad frigate, Aquidabã , built by Samuda’s.

Westwood, Baillie, Campbell & Co.

In 1856 Westwood, Baillie, Campbell & Co. established a shipbuilding yard – known as London Yard – south of Samuda’s shipyard.

London Yard in the 1860s.

The firm built a number of ships at the yard including HMS Resistance.

1861 launch of HMS Resistance (which did not take place at Millwall)

James Ash

James Ash, who had been naval architect to both C. J. Mare and the Thames Iron Works Company, established a shipyard directly north of Pier Street, which at that time extended across Manchester Road to Cubitt Town Pier. Survey of London:

Ash, who had been naval architect to both C. J. Mare and the Thames Iron Works Company, established an impressive yard here, with an extensive two-storey brick office and works building.

James Ash & Co’s shipyard, 1863

1863

Dudgeon Brothers

John Dudgeon (1816-1881) and William Dudgeon (1818-1875), after starting their career in Scotland, moved south, and in 1856 to set up The Sun Iron Works on Lollar Wharf (off Westferry Rd opposite the Tooke Arms). One of their first contracts was to build an engine for the Thunder, a ship designed by John Dudgeon and being built by Messrs Lungley in Deptford.

The Thunder was launched in December 1859, and soon demonstrated that she was the fastest steamer yet provided with a screw propeller. She was a handsome vessel, ship-rigged, with clipper bows, and her masts and funnels had a slight rake which gave her a very attractive appearance.
R. A. Fletcher – Steamships, the Story of their Development to the Present Day (1910)

In 1861 the brothers went into shipbuilding themselves, at a yard directly south of Pier Street (which at the time crossed Manchester Rd). The first ship they built was the 150-foot Flora, the first twin-screw steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Flora, 1862

The innovative twin-screw design allowed much faster and fuel-efficient steamships to be built. The result was fast and highly manoeuvrable ships with low draughts that were ideally suited for events taking place on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean – the American Civil War.

A few days after the American Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, President Lincoln announced a land and sea blockade of the rebellious, southern states. The newly formed Confederate States of America had only 35 ships in its navy, and turned to privateers to penetrate the blockade, using fast steamships that could outrun the Union ships. The Dudgeon brothers exploited this situation and specialized in the manufacture of fast twin-screw blockade runners for the Confederacy, at times employing up to 1500 men at their yard. They also sold similar ships to the Union on the other side of the war.

One of the most famous Dudgeon-built blockade runners was the CSS Tallahassee. Originally developed for the opium trade in China, the Tallahassee was converted into a second class gunboat, retrofitted with a 100-pounder rifle, 32-pounder rifle, 30-pounder Parrot rifle and a brass howitzer.

John Scott-Russell

In 1848, John Scott-Russell and partners Albert and Richard Robinson took over Fairbairn’s Millwall Iron Works. Survey of London:

Their products included sugarcane crushing machinery, but the best-known part of the business was shipbuilding, in both wood and iron. Unusually, vessels were launched from the yard fully fitted out. Ships built by the Robinsons and Russell included the iron steamer Taman, completed in 1848 for the Russian government to operate from the Black Sea ports.

In 1853, the adjacent Napier’s works were destroyed by fire and Scott-Russell leased that land too.

1862

His by now much larger yard would be dominated in the coming years by the construction of the Great Eastern – launched in 1859 – which would eventually bankrupt him (see this article for more details).

Looking across Westferry Road towards the construction of the Great Eastern (click for full sized version)

Left to right in foreground: John Scott-Russell, Henry Wakefield, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Lord Derby

The Millwall Iron Works

After the launch of the Great Eastern and Scott-Russell’s bankruptcy, the Millwall Iron Works wer taken over by C.J. Mare & Company and then – in 1862 – by The Millwall Iron Works & Ship Building Company. Survey of London:

The Millwall Iron Works of the 1860s was the most ambitious industrial concern ever established in Millwall, employing between 4,000 and 5,000 men, who enjoyed conditions remarkable for the period, with half-day Saturday working, a canteen, sports clubs and works band.

Workers at the Millwall Iron Works

Like the Thames Iron and Shipbuilding Works, the Millwall Iron Works not only built ships but also manufactured the iron from which they were built. The two establishments were, according to a contemporary view, ‘of infinitely greater national importance’ than the royal dockyards, with a production capacity for iron ships and armour greater than that of the whole of France.

Twin-screw steamers Honfleur and Renne. Built at the Millwall Iron Works

The works were on either side of Westferry Road, linked by a horse-tramway. On the riverside were building slips, landing wharves, sawmills, joiners’ shops, an engine factory, foundries, pattern-, mould- and sail-lofts and a mast factory. On the landside was concentrated the heavy plant for iron forgings, including hammered armour-plate, rolling mills for turning out bar-iron and angle-iron, armour plate and the rough bars used in the forge and the rolling mills.

1870

The scale of the armour-plate mill was vast, with a flywheel 36ft in diameter, weighing more than 100 tons.

The opening of the West India Docks in 1806 was accompanied by a small increase in the population of the Isle of Dogs in absolute terms (it rose from approximately 150 to 380 in the years 1801-1811). Virtually all those who worked in the West India Docks in the first couple of decades lived to the north, or a ferry journey away in South London; the small increase was mainly due to the opening of firms capitalizing on their proximity to the docks.

The population of the Island only grew dramatically on the arrival of iron shipbuilding firms and related industries (marine engineering, chain and anchor manufacturing, rope works, etc). In 1831, five years before William Fairbairn opened the first iron shipyard on the Island, the population stood at just over 1300 people – in 1861 it was close to 9000. Thomas Cole, in his superb 1984 thesis Life and Labor in the Isle of Dogs: The Origins and Evolution of an East London Working-Class Community. 1800-1980 describes it thus:

The Island’s economy was fundamentally different from that which existed throughout most of the rest of East London. The small workshops and domestic sweated Industries which characterized Stepney and Bethnal Green did not exist in large numbers in the Isle.

Instead, its large Industrial sites and fine water communications attracted great shipbuilding yards, engineering firms. Iron works, and the like. By the 1860s the
peninsula’s Industrial structure was more akin to the great manufacturing centers of the Midlands and the North than to that of London as a whole. Indeed contemporaries sometimes described the Island as the “Birmingham” or “Manchester of London” because the “articles manufactured [there] are large.

The Island’s greatest growth Industry from the mid-1830s until the mid-1860s was Iron shipbuilding. At various times in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, fifteen major shipbuilding firms were located in the peninsula. Some of them were among the largest industrial enterprises in the world.

A large number of houses were built during this period – and historical records indicate that many of these were built in haste, and of poor quality. Also, for decades, the Island’s infrastructure, particularly the sewers, could not cope with such an increase in land usage and population. Nevertheless, it must have been quite an experience to live on the Island at the time.

The boom in business and housing was not to last for long, however. On 11th May 1866 (a day that became known as Black Friday), the London bank and discount house Overend, Gurney & Company collapsed owing about 11 million pounds (equivalent to £1 billion today). The bank’s collapse contributed to panic and loss of confidence in financial institutions on an international level.

In Britain, the bank interest rate rose to 10 per cent for three months and more than 200 companies, including other banks, failed as a result. Unemployment rose sharply to 8% and there was a subsequent fall in wages. The consequences for businesses and residents on the Isle of Dogs were particularly bad due to an unfortunate combination of factors:

  • The Island’s expansion boom of the previous years was based on over-extended credit, and the rise in interest rates crippled many companies and ventures.
  • Many shipbuilding and other riverside companies had borrowed heavily from Overend, Gurney & Co, itself, and some of shipbuilders’ shareholders were even partners in the bank (for example, when the Millwall Iron Works & Ship Building Company Ltd was incorporated in 1862, all the shares were allocated among ten subscribers, who included David and Arthur Chapman and Robert Birkbeck — partners in Overend, Gurney & Company).
  • Despite their reputation for high-quality work, Thames shipbuilders were more expensive than their northern and Scottish counterparts, and their business success was based on the availability of customers prepared to pay more for this quality, such as the Admiralty and foreign governments. Business had also been buoyed by the Crimean War and American Civil War. In 1865, this source of orders dried up just as the financial crisis started.

By the end of December of 1866, 27,000 shipbuilders on the Thames were unemployed. Following January, 30,000 on relief in Poplar alone. Whitaker’s Almanack in 1869 puts the number of unemployed as high as 40,000.

– S. Pollard – The Decline of Shipbuilding on the Thames

… a mournful scene of desolation greets a visitor to the once famous yards of Green, Wigram, Somes, Young … the great works and factories at Millwall, once occupied by Scott Russell, are dismantled and closed, the machinery sold, the factory tenantless, and the shipbuilding yard – the birthplace of the Great Eastern – a grass-grown waste. The adjoining yards of Mare & Co. and the London Engineering Co, are in the same conditions as Scott Russell’s yard. Samuda Bros… are idle, and on the Isle of Dogs, where a few years ago one could count 16-20 large steamers, there are now four vessels only. One of these is… for the British Government. The other three are fast steamers for the opium trade on the coast of China. The prosperity of London as a shipbuilding port is at an end, and no one here looks for revival of the business.
New York Times. 3 September 1869

East London had always been a poor place, but the levels of poverty – and on such a scale – had never been witnessed before the collapse of Overend, Gurney & Co. Unemployment and poverty on the Isle of Dogs were worst. It is estimated that half the Island’s houses became empty as residents left to find work elsewhere, and there were even reports of deaths due to starvation. The Isle of Dogs was a desolate place. Relief funds were set up to help East Londoners in general, and Islanders in particular, including schemes to pay the passage of those who wished to migrate overseas. (Queen Victoria, by the way, refused to assist the fund).

For more information about what was at the time named ‘The Distress’, refer to this article.

Some firms managed to carry on, precariously, sometimes in a different form, but the bank collapse all but marked the end of large iron ship building on the Isle of Dogs:

  • James Ash, who had borrowed heavily from Overend, Gurney & Co. to set up his business, was forced to close his shipyard after the bank collapse.
  • The Millwall Iron Works closed in 1868, its works broken up and sold to different companies.
  • On the strength of a large order book, Samuda’s survived until 1885 but closed on the death of the owner.
  • Westwood-Baillie diversified into the manufacture of bridges and other large iron constructions and would continue on this basis (later evolving into John Westwood & Co).
  • Dudgeon’s survived the crash, also due to a large order book, and even expanded their yard in 1869. However, they were not financially robust enough to survive the mislaunch of their 70th ship – the 300 ft long frigate Independencia for the Brazilian Government.
  • Yarrow’s was one of the few companies that was not too troubled by the bank collapse  due to their being the successful manufacturer of small, fast vessels (they specialised in torpedo boats) which could not be matched by other builders.

The Times, 1874.

“Launch” of the Independencia. Scientific American, 1874.

Survey of London:

In due course, the local economy revived, although the Thames shipbuilding industry was much reduced in size. The numbers employed in shipbuilding and marine engineering on the Thames had increased from an estimated 6,000 men in 1851 to 27,000 in 1865, but fell to 9,000 by 1871, and to 6,000 by 1891. Some yards were able to continue in business until the early twentieth century by taking specialized work, and the industry experienced a brief revival during the First World War, but most of the shipbuilding capacity on the Thames was lost to the Clyde, where costs were lower.

Yarrow’s did not remain long at London Yard… Alfred Yarrow’s business had suffered badly during the engineers’ strike of 1897–8, and the high rates in London, coupled with the increasing costs of materials and labour, eventually made it impossible for him to compete with the firms on Clydeside and Tyneside. Between 1906 and 1908 the Poplar yard was gradually shut down and the firm moved to new premises at Scotstoun in Glasgow, accompanied by most of its machinery and 300 of the work-force.

The departure of Yarrow’s marked the end of significant shipbuilding on the Isle of Dogs, but really the industry lost its importance to the Island on the collapse of Overend, Gurney & Co. in 1866. For thirty years before that, the Isle of Dogs was the centre of iron ship construction and innovation on the Thames, which itself was the most important site for iron ship building in Britain and the World. A short period, really, but one which changed the Isle of Dogs from a mixture of docks, mills, pasture and marsh into an industrial centre the like of which London has not seen before or since.

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East Ferry Road – The Oldest Road on the Isle of Dogs

Until the arrival of the West India Docks at the start of the 1800s, the Isle of Dogs had few buildings or residents. There were of course the windmills which gave Millwall its name, and a little related industry, but these were along the river’s edge, primarily in the west. The ‘inland’ area was occupied largely by marsh and pasture land.

Extract of a 1700s painting of the view from Greenwich, showing ships sailing around the Isle of Dogs.

There were at the time a couple of paths heading south on to the Island from Poplar High Street; these paths are shown as Angel Lane and Arrow Lane on the following map.

Arrow Lane appears on maps in the following centuries variously named as King’s Road, King’s Lane, Blackwall Road and Harrow Lane. Its main purpose was to provide a route from Poplar High Street to the Greenwich Ferry (via St Mary Chapel).

1745

Incidentally, a short section of Harrow Lane still exists off Poplar High Street. I am amused that the mapmaker dropped the aitch on the map, but it was not unusual at the time for mapmakers to spell names as they heard them pronounced by locals.

Harrow Lane (right). The start of the medieval path from Poplar High Street to the Greenwich Ferry.

On the construction of the West India Docks, the northern half of (H)arrow Lane was obliterated by the construction of the West India Docks, apart from a short section in the north which is named King’s Road on the following map (1830).

1830

South of the docks, the old path was replaced by a fully-fledged road which had been somewhat straightened, and rerouted to the east (it was also renamed Blackwall Road). It was lined on both sides along its entire length by drainage ditches.

This road was built from 1812-1815 by the Poplar and Greenwich Ferry Roads Company, who constructed what would later be named Westferry Road at the same time. Both were toll roads, and there were toll gates in Westferry Road (just south of the later City Arms) and in East Ferry Road (next to the later Queen public house). The toll road is the ‘turnpike’ referred to in the following newspaper article:

1821

The article hints at the rural nature of East Ferry Road at the time, as does the following map. Many old Islanders still call the road Farm Road.

Chapel House Farm in 1830

1865. Newspaper report of a ‘150 Yards Handicap’ race (people, not horses) in East Ferry Road.

By the time of this race, building had started in earnest at the north end of East Ferry Road. Note that the road leading up to the dock entrance lock bridge was then also named East Ferry Road; Manchester Road had been constructed a couple of decades before, but its name originally extended only as far as the Queen public house (opened in 1855).

1870. Click for full-sized version.

In 1883, after years of public pressure, the Metropolitan Board of Works moved to have the tolls in East Ferry Road and West Ferry Road (as it was then spelled) abolished.

Minutes of the Metropolitan Board of Works

The Board got its way and the tolls were lifted in 1885. Survey of London:

The [Greenwich Ferry] company scrapped its horse-ferry service in 1844, but tolls continued to be collected. Pressure for abolition of the tolls grew from the 1870s, and eventually the Metropolitan Board of Works obtained powers to buy out the company. On 9 May 1885 there were celebrations as the toll-gates were removed.

9th May 1885. Celebrations around the removal of the toll gate, looking north. The Queen is just out of sight right of the photo. Click for full-sized version.

A map from around the same time shows the north end of East Ferry Road to be completely developed by then, with houses and streets which would change little until the start of WWII.

1892. Click for full version

This section of street was largely residential, with the East Ferry Road Engineering Works being the only industry. A small section of the firm’s East Ferry Road frontage can be seen on the left in this 1900s photo (Launch Street is on the right).

1900s. Island History Trust

The firm, which specialised in pneumatic machinery, started in 1874 on land leased from the Millwall Dock Company.

East Ferry Road Engineering Company

Advertisement for East Ferry Road Engineering Works

Survey of London:

[The firm had] Charles Henry Parkes, the Millwall Dock Company’s chairman, as its chairman, and his son, Charles Reginald Parkes, as its managing director. The engineering company, which was indeed virtually a subsidiary of the dock company, had its origins in Duckham’s Weighing Machine Company, which had been set up in 1872 by Frederic Eliot Duckham, engineer to the dock company, to manufacture a weighing machine that he had invented three years earlier for use at the Millwall Docks sheer-legs. The founding shareholders were virtually all Millwall Dock Company directors and staff.

“A suggestion of nepotism?” I hear you ask.

Just south of the works was a short row of commercial properties, including a large bank at No. 112, more or less opposite the George public house.

112 East Ferry Road

To its left, dining rooms and a boot and short store (which also served as a post office). These and other businesses in the area – including the George – were all built to take advantage of the trade offered by the adjacent Millwall Docks.

1900s. East Ferry Road (left to right) at its corner with Glengall Road, which at that time extended through Millwall Docks all the way to West Ferry Road.

Looking down Glengall Road in the opposite direction, the George can be seen on the left, and more commercial properties on the corner on the right.

1900s. Glengall Road, with East Ferry Road going from left to right in the foreground. Click for full-sized version.

Turning 90 degrees to the left and looking up East Ferry Road. Island History Trust

Diagonally opposite East Ferry Road from the George in 1892 was Millwall Dock Station, opened in 1871 (Crossharbour DLR is today on the site).

Millwall Dock Station in the 1920s, looking diagonally from the opposite corner (from outside the George). East Ferry Road is heading south on the left.

Millwall Dock Station in the 1920s, looking north up East Ferry Road.

The Mudchute got its name because it was the dumping ground for mud dredged from the docks, which had to be regularly dredged or they would silt up. A novel pneumatic device (designed by Frederic Eliot Duckham) was employed which pumped the liquefied mud through a pipe over East Ferry Road close to the George, dumping it on the other side.

The dock company had not yet dumped mud on the northern edge of its land, just south of the George, which meant that the ground was flat and solid. Landlord of the George, William Clark, leased a 400ft by 420ft plot on the flat land, planning to develop an athletics stadium for football, cricket and tennis, with running and cycling tracks. The stadium opened in June 1890 and was occupied by Millwall Athletic FC until 1901.

1892

By the start of the 20th century, so much wood was being imported via the Millwall Docks that the dock company was running out of room to store it all. They reclaimed the Mudchute land being leased by Millwall Athletic, and built new warehousing there (Millwall Athletic moved to a ground at the other end of East Ferry Road, behind the Nelson).

The challenge for the dock company was: how to transport the timber from the docks, over East Ferry Road, and into the newly-formed timber yard? The required timber conveyor needed to extend from the Glengall Road bridge over Millwall Inner Dock to almost Manchester Road in the east (the timber needed to transported in only one direction, of course, from ship to yard).

The solution was a so-called Timber Transporter, a demonstration of which Chief Millwall Dock Engineer, Duckham, had seen on a trip to Sweden.

The Timber Transporter crossing East Ferry Road into the Mudchute (ASDA is on its site today).

For approximately 650 yards along East Ferry Road south of the Timber Transporter, nothing was ever built. The west side of the road here was occupied by a railway line and the Millwall Docks, and the east side by the Mudchute. You had to travel south as far as Hawkins & Tipson’s Globe Rope Works before there was any sign of other buildings.

1930s. Click for full version

Meanwhile, back in 1892, there also wasn’t much to speak of at the southern end of East Ferry Road either.

1892

Other than the rope works, there were just a couple of buildings next to the Lord Nelson, and the fire station on the other corner.

The fire station, circa 1900. East Ferry Road is just visible on the left behind the fire station.

The Lord Nelson in the early 1900s, with East Ferry Road on the left.

Early 1900s. Left of the Nelson

Early 1900s. Further to the left (north)

The Welcome Institute, an organization established by a philanthropist called Jean Price, provided hot meals at affordable prices to factory girls (serving anything between 70 and 170 girls a day), evening classes in dressmaking and needlework, Bible classes for boys and club-rooms for local football teams. In 1905, the institute moved from its damp, cramped premises at 333 Westferry Road to a new building at 197 East Ferry Road.

1905. Welcome Institute

Many readers will immediately recognise this as the later Dockland Settlement building, but it would be 1923 before the Dockland Settlement organisation took it over on the retirement of Jean Price. The photo was evidently taken from a side road of East Ferry Road. This was the newly extended Chapel House Street, which went just past Chapel House Street before 1904.

1916

This map also shows a row of twelve houses at the south, east side of East Ferry Road – Charteris Terrace, built in 1907. The row of houses still exists and you can find a sign with the name of the terrace on it without looking too hard.

It would be many years before houses were built along the full length of Chapel House Street, on the construction of the Chapel House Estate, opened in 1921. The houses along the south side of Chapel House Street and the west side of East Ferry Road look much like the houses west of Chapel House Street, but they have a slightly different origin. When the lead firm, Locke, Lancaster failed to reach an agreement with the Borough Council in 1920 to house the workers from its lead works in Millwall, it formed a public utility society called Locke’s Housing Society Ltd. The Society built 36 houses similar in appearance to those built by the council.

1924. Locke’s houses in East Ferry Road from Millwall Park. Island History Trust

1935. Dockland Settlement

1920s. Hawkins & Tipson from Thermopylae Gate.

Meanwhile, further north, the George underwent a complete rebuild. Its Victorian design was replaced by something more attuned with the 1930s.

1930s. The George. Photo: Mr P. Holmes

1930s. Photo: Cathy Holmes

Then, World War II happened, and virtually every building in the northern half of East Ferry Road was destroyed by bombing. Rescue worker, Bill Regan reported the aftermath of the bombing during the night 28th June 1944 in his diary:

Awakened after dozing for about 15 minutes or so, at about 5.30 a.m. To Glengall Grove and East Ferry Road; Post Office, wrecked, the George, six shops also. Westminster Bank and Thorne’s joinery works completely demolished. Glengall Grove, Launch Street, Galbraith Street, proportionally damaged by blast. About a dozen Light Rescue men there, a light job, and they send for heavy, after almost completing the job. Got two bodies out, man and wife. The woman supposed to be eight months pregnant. They had just previously been bombed out of their home at Catford. Incident closed at 7.00 a.m.

The following map highlights the only buildings still standing at the north end of East Ferry Road in 1948. The remainder were either destroyed during World War II or were not economically recoverable and had to be demolished immediately afterwards. The southern end of East Ferry Road, on the other hand, got off pretty lightly, although the Globe Rope Works Nos. 201-203 (odd) East Ferry Road suffered some significant bomb damage.

1948

1947, Click for full-sized version.

c1950. Dockers in East Ferry Road (with the George in the background) waiting for the call-on.

c1950. East Ferry Road. Island History Trust

In 1950, Poplar Borough Council began clearance of the area and the development of a new estate – St. John’s Estate – named after the church in Roserton Street. The council built the estate in phases, and it was 1981 before the last building was complete (St John’s Community Centre in Glengall Grove). The length of time of the development, and the fact that some sections were built by the LCC, explains the wide variety of architectural styles in the area. Houses and flats in East Ferry Road, however, were among the first to be built.

c1950. Preparation for construction in East Ferry Road with St John’s Mission Hall, Roserton St, on the right and Manchester Road in the far background.

1950s. St John’s Estate

1960s. Looking past Rugless House over East Ferry Road towards Cardale Street.

1960s. The view down East Ferry Road from Oliver’s Wood Yard. Island History Trust.

As already mentioned, the southern end of East Ferry Road suffered very little serious damage during WWII (this applied also to the Chapel House and Hesperus Crescent Estates).

1947. East Ferry Road from Globe Rope Works (left) to Manchester Grove (right).

1950s. The Island Road race, annually organised by Dockland Settlement. The runners raced up East Ferry to the Queen and ran back down Manchester Road, turning right at the Nelson, a distance of 2 miles.

1958. Photo: George Warren

The centre section of the road in the 1970s. The gantry over the road was a leftover of the former Timber Transporter. It is very clear from this photo that the road went uphill to its highest point approximately in the middle (and still does). The apex is very close to what was originally the highest point in the Island – the location of St. Mary’s Chapel and Chapel House Farm (right of the road from this viewpoint).

1970s. Island History Trust

1970s

1970s

1970s. And….. downhill again. Photo: Pat Jarvis.

Circa 1980

Circa 1980. Not sure who I should credit this photo to. If anyone knows?

Circa 1980.

Circa 1980. This brick construction once supported the rail bridge which crossed East Ferry Road here. It is being renovated and strengthened to support the new DLR bridge. Photo Pat Jarvis.

This section of the road was less than welcoming, as can be seen from the photos. Around 1980, attempts were made to brighten things up a little, mostly facilitated by community or youth organisations, and executed by young Islanders.

Mudchute fence murals. Photo: Gary O’Keefe

Mudchute fence murals. Photo: Gary O’Keefe

Decorating a remaining wall of Hawkins & Tipson’s Rope Works.

The finished result. Photo: Gary O’Keefe

1980 was a low point in the history of the Island. The docks closed formally in that year, and many firms along the river were closed and their buildings demolished. The London Docklands Development Corporation started the next year, and plans were made for the redevelopment and regeneration of a large swathe along the Thames where the docks had once formed the basis of the local economy.

An early success for the LDDC was when ASDA agreed to build a new supermarket on the Island – leasing part of the Mudchute which was occupied earlier by Millwall Athletic and after that by the Timber Yard (complete with Timber Transporter).

1981. Construction of ASDA.

1983. ASDA shortly after opening.

The year that ASDA opened saw the commencement of the construction of the DLR. The new line followed the path of the former London & Blackwall Railway Millwall Extension. Crossharbour Station was built on the site of the earlier Millwall Dock Station, and a new station – Mudchute Station- was built further south in East Ferry Road.

It is said that the station was originally going to be called Millwall Park Station, but this was rejected because of (a) the negative association with football hooligans from a certain team over the water (a team which, ironically, played at three different grounds on the Island which were adjacent to the railway line), and (b) the possibility of visiting fans travelling to the station in error. I’ve not seen anything myself to back these assertions up.

Circa 1985. Construction of DLR viaduct over East Ferry Road, just north of the future Mudchute Station

Circa 1985. Construction of the first Mudchute Station. The remains of Hawkins & Tipson’s wall is on the right – beyond that, East Ferry Road.

Mudchute Station formally opened in 1987, but had to be relocated northwards, to the other side of East Ferry Road, ten years later when the DLR was extended under the river to Lewisham (because the line needed to start descending at an earlier point – if seen from the perspective of travelling south).

Demolition of the first Mudchute Station

All this jiggery-pokery with stations, viaducts, railway lines and tunnels means the path of this section of East Ferry Road is quite different to how it originally was. Until the early 1980s, if you travelled up East Ferry Road from the Nelson, there was a relatively sharp and angular ‘curve’ to the right at the rope works.

These days, again travelling in the same direction, East Ferry Road parts company with Locke’s houses almost as far south as Thermopylae Gate, and from there it follows a gentle meander northwards. Millwall Park was also extended at this point all the way to East Ferry Road. (Confused the heck out of me the first time I drove up East Ferry Road after these changes had been made, having not been on the Island for yonks. I wasn’t sure where I was anymore.)

Original path of East Ferry Road superimposed on recent satellite photo.

Another rerouting of East Ferry Road which caused me some confusion, was that at the corner of Glengall Grove and East Ferry Road (a place I tend to migrate to when on the Island, enjoying as I do a pint in the George). However, this junction has changed a few times over the decades.

Until the 1960s, this was a regular crossroads – Glengall Grove crossed East Ferry Road at this point – as is clear in many of the old photos at the start of this article. Glengall Grove was no longer a continuous road from Manchester Road to Westferry Road however – the road bridge over Millwall Docks had been out of action since before WWII, and the only way to cross was via a pedestrian ‘barge bridge’.

The barge bridge in the 1950s, looking towards East Ferry Road (Skeggs House is visible in the background). Photo: Sandra Brentnall

The PLA, who had never been fond of the public crossing the Millwall Docks (but who historically were required to permit public travel between the two halves of Glengall Grove), announced that they no had no plans to restore the road bridge. After arguments and discussions between the PLA and Poplar Borough Council, when even the idea of a tunnel was considered, it was agreed that a high-level pedestrian bridge would be built – a bridge that would soon informally be named the ‘Glass Bridge’. A bridge entrance building was built, and a garage was opened ‘next door’. The area in front of the dock gate – which never opened – was a small undeveloped plot that was used by locals to park cars and lorries.

1970. East Ferry Road from Glengall Grove

1970s. East Ferry Road from Glengall Grove. Photo: Jackie Jordan Wade

1980s. East Ferry Road (left) and Glengall Grove (right). A merge of screenshots from the Prospects TV series. Click for full-sized version.

The Glass Bridge was demolished in the mid-1980s, and replaced by a temporary Bailey Bridge. It was again possible to drive across Millwall Docks to Westferry Road.

1980s

The previous photo shows that the crossroads between Glengall Grove and East Ferry Road had been restored. The junction has been modified in such way that through traffic from the direction of ASDA is led along a newly-built road, Limeharbour. You have to go round the block if you want to follow East Ferry Road all the way to the Blue Bridge (I went straight up Limeharbour by accident….lost again!).

Much has also changed along East Ferry Road since 1990.

Starting at the Blue Bridge end, the Queen was demolished in 2004, and the few remaining older buildings across the road were illegally demolished in 2016.

2016. Preparing for demolition. Photo: Peter Wright

2016. Demolition. Photo: Peter Wright

That row of buildings looked quite different in the past, by the way. Here it is in the 1980s, before the middle one was given another floor, and before the shop on the right was given a mock-Georgian appearance.

1980s

The previous photo shows the little newspaper kiosk that used to be there which at one stage was housed in a container.

Early 1990s. Photo: alondoninheritance.com

From here to Hickin Street not much has changed (I am referring only to buildings directly on East Ferry Road). Many blocks of flats have been renovated, and most have pointy roofs these days, but it is familiar territory.

1986. Screenshot from the Prospects TV series

2018

After Hickin Street, the dock side of the road – formerly the site of the East Ferry Road Engineering Works – is covered in new office and apartment developments.

1980s. Looking north. Island History Trust

2018

Between Glengall Grove and Thermopylae Gate, East Ferry Road is not the isolated place it once was. ASDA takes up a large section on the left, the dock fences and walls are gone – replaced by trees, bushes and neat walls – residential buildings and offices overlook the road on one side.

2010s

2010s

South of the shenanigans around the Mudchute DLR station bend, the other significant change is the closure of the Dockland Settlement, and the demolition of almost the whole building, to make room for Canary Wharf College.

2010

2013. Preparing for demolition. Photo: Peter Wright

2013. Demolition. Photo: Peter Wright

2018. Canary Wharf College

From here to the Nelson, East Ferry Road hasn’t changed that much. The background scenery has changed a lot, though – and keeps changing.

1980s. East Ferry Road from Ferry Street (sorry about the poor quality)

Circa 2000. Photo: Peter Wright

2010s. Photo: Peter Wright

People have travelled over this path since the Middle Ages. It has changed frequently over the centuries, and keeps doing so.

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