“In Constant Use” – The Unnoticed End of 200 Years of Millwall Industry

Before the end of the 18th Century, the Island was a sparsely-populated place – a mixture of marshland and pastureland, with windmills down the east side, catching the prevailing winds from the west. Then, the docks, shipbuilding and ironworks arrived – by 1880 virtually all land along the river was occupied by industry, while the centre of the Island was dominated by the West India and Millwall Docks. Island firms and their products were known around the world.

A century later and the docks were closed, and its land handed over to the London Docklands Development Corporation. The LDDC were also given extraordinary powers for the compulsory purchase of land occupied by riverside firms, which they used to buy up almost all land, and demolish everything on it. In less than a decade there was virtually no trace of the Island’s industrial past.

To demonstrate the extent of this, on the following satellite photo of the Island, I have shaded white all areas demolished and/or built-upon since 1980. That is, only that which is still visible in the photo preceeds 1980 (and much of that is occupied by 1960s housing developments).

White-shaded areas represent post-1980 building developments on the Isle of Dogs.

Survivors of note along the riverside are:

A) Sir John McDougall’s Gardens
B) E. Klein & Co.
C) Kingsbridge Estate
D) Burrell’s Wharf
E) Poplar, Blackwall & District Rowing Club
F) Island Gardens
G) Millwall Wharf
H) Cubitt Town Wharf
I) Samuda Estate

I excluded Vanguard from this list because – although the firm preceeds 1980 – their premises do not. However, Vanguard and E.Klein do represent the only original companies still doing business along the river on the Isle of Dogs.

One small area which escaped the attentions of the LDDC, sandwiched as it is between the riverside and dock developments, was Tobago Street. Survey of London:

By the 1890s Tobago Street north of Manilla Street had lost most of its residential character of 30 years earlier. The west side of the street was occupied by nondescript industrial and commercial buildings…

In the twentieth century industry continued to make inroads into the housing throughout the former estate, but only in the most half-hearted manner. By the 1900s, and probably long before, most of the houses, which were let entire to weekly tenants, were in poor condition.

Tobago Street and area, 1900

Some of the ‘nondescript and commercial buildings’ described by the Survey of London are visible in the background of this 1930s photo, which shows the view looking north up Tobago Street from its southwest corner with Manilla Street.

Tobago Street, 1930s (Photo: Island History Trust, E. Ogles)

The warehouse closest to the kid in the background in the previous photo was seriously damaged during WWII, and the site was later occupied by a John Lenanton shed, leaving only the northernmost warehouse standing. It featured briefly in an episode of the 1980s Prospects TV series.

Prospects TV Series

Ten years later, the old Morton’s building in Cuba Street as well as the former Millwall Dock Working Men’s Club were also still standing, but they would be demolished around the end of the 20th Century.

Tobago St. with Cuba St. in the background.

Then, only this last, ‘ nondescript’ warehouse remained. It became a much photographed warehouse, possibly because there were no other old industrial buildings left in the area. I can imagine photographers and historians venturing south from Limehouse, looking for evidence of a rich industrial past, and discovering that there wasn’t anything; just an old shed behind a former pub (the Blacksmith’s Arms, which is now a restaurant) in Westferry Road.

Photo: Peter Wright

Photo: Steve White

The recommended website, http://www.derelictlondon.com, also managed to get a couple of photos of the interior….

As well as the exterior…..

And then, in 2013, it was gone, to make room for another apartment block. Peter Wright managed to get a couple of photos of its demolition….

Photo: Peter Wright, 2013

Photo: Peter Wright, 2013

Photo: Peter Wright, 2013

It was an unremarkable building, architecturally. It had no significance for the industrial development of the Island. Not many people noticed it, and virtually nobody mourns its departure. However, its passing is of monumental significance, as it marked the end of the old Island.

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Images of the Isle of Dogs During WWII

A few years ago I wrote a book about the Isle of Dogs during WWII. It didn’t contain all the photos I had collected of the Island during that period – for copyright reasons they couldn’t be included (many could be reproduced, but not for commercial purposes). And also, since the book was published, I’ve come across other photos.

I thought it was worth sharing them, so here is a selection. Not much text in this article, thus, just lots of images – and also a video of the anti-aircraft gun over the Mudchute doing its thing.

In fact, I think I will start with the video. It’s an extract from 1940 film produced by Shell Film Unit, “Transfer of Skill”. This extract describes the creation of fuses for anti-aircraft shells, whose use is demonstrated at the end, in an AA gun installation that was in the mudchute on the Isle of Dogs. McDougalls flour silo is visible in the background (west).

Reconnaisance photo taken by the Luftwaffe just before the war. It, and other photos of industry and docks along the Thames were bundled into a book which Luftwaffe pilots could study and take with them. It was pretty hard to miss the U-shaped bend in the river which was the Island, a handy navigation aid.

Poplar Borough Council announced public shelters in warehouse basements, church crypts, railway arches and similar. Purpose-built public air-raid shelters would not be constructed on any scale until the Blitz revealed the inefficacy of the shelter arrangements until then.

Tag which was attached to the clothing of a young June Inns when she was evacuated at the start of the war. Nearly all children were evacuated right away, but began to come back during the so-called ‘Phoney War”. When The Blitz started they mostly all moved away again from London. [Island History Trust]

Cubitt Town School (then in Saunder’s Ness Road) evacuation letter [Island History Trust]

[Island History Trust]

Constructing a shelter in Judkin Street in 1939 [Island History Trust]

Construction of one of a number of shelters in the docks. This one is in West India Docks (Wood Wharf is in the background). [Port of London Authority]

Poplar Borough Council meeting minutes

Auxiliary Emergency Workers, Island Baths, c1940. [Island History Trust / Mrs Winnard]

The Island Baths were closed, and converted into an emergency medical centre, protected by sandbags outside. [Island History Trust / Mrs Winnard]

Island Baths. [Island History Trust]

Island Baths converted into an emergency medical centre. The pool was often covered in wooden floorboards in peace time, so that dances could be held.

Ambulance crew [Source unknown, but I bet it’s the Island History Trust]

London Auxiliary Ambulance Service building at 413 Westferry Road (opposite The Ship).

Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) workers at their base at Millwall Central School, Janet Street. Stanley Hook with on his right Jean Skinner and Lily Patterson. On the left, Florrie Bernard. [Island History Trust]

AFS workers at Glengall School (Glengall Grove is on the right). [Island History Trust]

Auxiliary Fireman Barrett at Millwall Central School. I have the original of this photo, and cannot for the life of me remember where I got it from.

Filling sandbags, 1940, location unknown. [Island History Trust / Mr. Silk]

Photo taken at the Fire Station (East Ferry Road in the background). [Island History Trust]

Members of the AFS at Glengall School. [Island History Trust]

Members of the AFS at Glengall School. [Island History Trust]

Members of the AFS at Glengall School. [Island History Trust]

Filling sandbags in the playground of Harbinger School.

Millwall Central School, Olive Hook and ‘Crusher’ Heywood. [Island History Collection]

‘L’ Sub-station crew, West India Docks (filled in Limehouse entrance), 1940 [Island History Trust / J. Devlin]

No. 2 Squad, B Shift, Heavy Rescue Team. Back row, left to right: George Huscroft, Bob Thomas, Alfie Clarke, Fred Harrison (Leader), Charlie Crawley (Driver). Front row: Bert Freeman, George Jillings, Bill Regan. [Ann Regan-Atherton]

Anti-aircraft gun installation in the Mudchute, with a glimpse of the huts between them and ‘the rec’ (or wreck), the gritty football pitch in Millwall Recreation Ground, as it was known.

Mudchute Anti-Aircraft Battalion. [Island History Trust]

Mudchute Anti-Aircraft Battalion. [Island History Trust]

Mudchute Anti-Aircraft Battalion. [Island History Trust]

The Muchute anti-aircraft installation was hit on the first night of The Blitz (7th September 1940). Bombing seriously damaged the command post and destroyed the canteen and stores. The guns could no longer be aimed with radar or fired by remote control; the access road to the gun sites from Pier Street 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]

Mudchute anti-aircraft installation, 7th September 1940. [Island History Trust]

Luftwaffe photo showing the plumes of bomb explosions in the Thames and in Millwall streets.

St, Cuthbert’s Church, destroyed during the first night of The Blitz, 7th September 1940. In the background, Harbinger School, with shattered windows and missing a few roof tiles. An emergency water tank was later built on the site, the area is now part of the school playground. [Rev. Holmes]

St. Cuthbert’s. [Rev. Holmes]

St. Cuthbert’s. [Rev. Holmes]

The ‘Happy Go Lucky’ off license on the corner of Glengall Grove and Strattondale Street – seriously damaged during the first night of The Blitz.

Barrage balloons over the Island. The view from the bridge which would later be replaced by the Blue Bridge, looking towards The Queen public house. [Screenshot from film, The Bells Go Down]

Damage to the Millwall Docks entrance lock at Kingsbridge by high explosive bombs on 10th September 1940. The entrance lock would never go into service again.

Bomb damage to Associated Lead, Westferry Road. [Pat & John Jarvis]

Heavy Rescue worker, Bill Regan (whose moving wartime diaries are available here) took a number of photos of bomb damage to the Island, risking a prison sentence of up to 3 years by doing so. Ironically, his photos were being developed by a policeman friend. Amongst his photos are the serious bomb damage inflicted on Billson Street and Parsonage Street (and area) on 19th April 1941, during which many residents were killed.

Billson Street. [Ann Regan-Atherton]

Parsonage and Billson Street. [Ann Regan-Atherton]

The rear of houses in Manchester Road from Parsonage Street. [Ann Regan-Atherton]

Bomb-damaged West India Docks warehouses [London Fire Brigade]

Bomb damage to West India Docks warehouse

Cubitt Town School was the scene of one of the worst incidents of the war on the Island.  The school had recently been completely rebuilt, the new building dated from 1938, and it had been commandeered for use by the emergency services: Auxiliary Fire Service, Air Raid Wardens, Stretcher Bearers, Ambulance Service, a Mobile First Aid Unit – they were all quartered in the school. On 18th September a parachute mine fell on the school, killing close to 30 people, mostly emergency workers.

Cubitt Town School

Island Baths

Matthew T. Shaw [Island History Trust]

Matthew T. Shaw [Island History Trust]

Roffey House. [William Whiffin]

Roffey House. [William Whiffin]

A bombed house in freezing weather. [Island History / Mr. Devlin]

Damage to M-Warehouse in Millwall Docks

Damage to M-Warehouse in Millwall Docks

Damage to M-Warehouse in Millwall Docks

Shrapnel damage at the lead works. [Lucy Reading]

Shrapnel damage at the lead works. [Lucy Reading] 

The site of Galleon House looking from the Police Station towards Glengarnock Avenue in the background.

Prefabs and the The Builder’s Arms in Stebondale Street, photo taken from the corner of Glengarnock Avenue, with the park in the background. The street was all but destroyed during The Blitz.

UXB dragged from foreshore below the Lead Works. [Lucy Reading]

Wartime notice to move due to bomb damage, at 24 Claude Street. [Lester Stone]

Winkley’s Wharf, 22nd March 1944.

Winkley’s Wharf, 22nd March 1944.

Winkley’s Wharf, 22nd March 1944.

Canadian troops marching in to the West India Docks, 1944, possibly shipping out for D-Day. The beginning of the end…..


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Everything you wanted to know about Alpha Grove but were afraid to ask

Dedicated to Peter Wright, tireless Island photographer and amateur historian. And, yet again, I am in debt to the (Friends of) Island History Trust (http://www.islandhistory.co.uk), without whom this and other blog articles would be bereft of interesting photographs.

Construction of houses on Alpha Grove (Alpha Road until 1939) started in the middle of the 19th century on a short stretch of road on the path of the medieval Dolphin Lane (described here).


Survey of London:

Alpha Grove before the Second World War was that rare thing in dockland: a tree-lined street of mainly well-built, respectable houses. The longest stretch of road in Millwall in the hands of a single landowner, it possessed a high degree of uniformity. Even so, its development was rather sporadic, in the familiar Isle of Dogs pattern. Most of the houses in the Grove (Alpha Road until 1939) were built in two phases: the mid- to late-1870s, and the early to mid-1880s. At the north end, however, were some much older and less desirable dwellings, while at the south end the last block on the west side was not built up until the 1890s; south of that the street gave way to industrial premises.

2 Alpha Road, early 1900s. Sarah Lowry (nee Cargill) with children Sarah, and Jack. Photo: Island History Collection

16-36 (approx) Alpha Road (left), circa 1911. The side street on the left is Tooke Street.

67-83 (approx) Alpha Road, circa 1910

Off Alpha Road, at the eastern end of Janet Street was an area of land belonging to the Millwall Dock Company, who let it to companies for industrial usage. Known as Broadway Works, the first tenant was the sugar manufacturing company, George Clark & Son. Later, the site would be occupied by Tate & Lyle.

Sugar manufacturer George Clark’s Broadway Works, 1900. Photo: Island History Trust / Tate & Lyle

Island History Trust: “Loading up a horse-dray in the yard of George Clark & Son Ltd.”

The first St. Luke’s Church was a so-called ‘Iron Church’ (a usually temporary structure built from corrugated iron) located on the other side of Westferry Road, where St. Luke’s School would later be constructed. The first permanent church was built on the corner of Strafford Street and Alpha Road between 1868 and 1870.

Architectural drawing of St. Luke’s Church

St. Luke’s Church, early 1900s

St. Luke’s from the river (Lenanton’s on the left). Photo: PLA Archive / Museum of London

In 1887, a Methodist (Wesleyan) Mission was built south of St. Luke’s Church, later known as Alpha Hall.

38-54 (approx) Alpha Road, circa 1920. Methodist Mission centre, left. Photo: Island History Trust

A procession from St. Edmund’s Church in Alpha Road in the 1920s. Methodist Mission on the left. Photo: Mrs S. Stone / Island History Trust

c1909. Photo and text, Island History Trust / Mrs L. Allen: “This is 77 Alpha Road, I think about 1909 with my sister, Eliza Lilley and my mother Mrs Pearson. In front is myself, Sister Mabel (who married Arthur Seatcliiffe), Jack Lilley and my brother George, next to Sabel Lilley. We lived opposite the Wesleyan Chapel and witnessed lots of events from our front room window. I remember the Rev. W. Lax paying a visit. We attended St. Luke’s Church and I faintly remember the Rev. Jesse Hewlett and then Mr Schofield; who left hurriedly when war was declared in 1914. I was the youngest of 10. Ethel & Grace Calver lived in the next terrace to ours.”

Originally, Alpha Grove extended from Cuba Street in the north (on the corner with Cuba Street was an off-license/beer-house known as The Dock House)…..

c1890. I’ve added the original house numbering

…and did not quite reach Glengall Road (later Tiller Road) in the south, its path being obstructed by the (wire) ropeworks.


Outside 67 Alpha Road, c1929. Car belonging to Eliza Lilley. Photo: Island History Trust

36 Alpha Road. Photo: Peter Wright

Millwall in the 1920s. Alpha Road runs diagonally from bottom right to top left-of-centre. Photo: britainfromabove.org.uk

The previous photo shows, to the right of Alpha Hall, an empty area of land that would later be occupied by Millwall Central School (opened in 1928), with its entrance in Janet Street.

c1929, Millwall Central School. Alpha Road on the right

To the right of the school is a triangular area of land – this was a metal scrapyard known to locals as ‘The Ironie’. I am not sure if the name is a reference to iron or irony (or perhaps both, which would be ironic).

At the bottom of the previous photo is an area of houses and firms which would be demolished a few years later to make room for St. Hubert’s House (all this demolition and building in recent decades is nothing new for the Island).

c1933. Construction of St. Hubert’s House. Alpha Grove on the left, Janet Street on the right. Photo: Isle of Dogs Housing Society

Improvements were made to the South West India Dock in the 1930s, including the construction of a wider dock road (the present-day Marsh Wall follows much of its path). This necessitated the appropriation of the eastern end of Cuba Street, and the demolition of houses there, including The Dock House. Manilla Street became the northern limit of Alpha Road.

Before and after the appropriation of the eastern end of Cuba Street, 1938.

The Dock House. Alpha Road left and Cuba Street right. Demolished during dock expansion. Photo: Island History Trust

4 Alpha Road, two houses left of the Dock House. Demolished during dock expansion. Mrs. Hillier (nee Brown) and daughter Betty. 1933. Photo: Island History Trust.

It was shortly after this that one of the best-known photos of Alpha Road was taken – showing kids playing cricket in the street at the northern end of Alpha Road, close to its corner with Manilla Street. In the background, behind the dock fence, the West India Docks.

The photo was probably taken in 1939 because any later and the kids would have been evacuated, but perhaps more telling (there was an evacuation immediately at the start of the war, but kids started to come back during the so-called ‘phoney war’ – it was only during the Blitz that most children left the Island), there are no barrage balloons or any other signs of defensive measures in the docks.  As almost the entire terrace on the right was destroyed during the Blitz, with only one house left standing, the photo was certainly taken no later than 1941.

c1950. North end of Alpha Road with its one remaining house. North Pole pub in foreground.

In his moving wartime diaries (highly recommended, with profits going to the Friends of Island History Trust – available here), Bill Regan describes the events in and around Alpha Road:

Christmas 1940
We sat and talked among ourselves, until Sid Masefield came over from Major Brown’s office, which is now set up in the metalwork-cum-woodwork centre. “Would we like to go back to Alpha Rd, to check an Anderson shelter?” Would we like? We went off in pairs. Eddie Sullivan came with me. We roamed through the back gardens between Cheval St and Alpha Rd, from Janet St on­wards. It is still lively, but not concentrated on our little area; we found a few Andersons still occupied, and all the residents uninjured, and seemingly happy. Of course, all the garden walls were now low enough for us to walk over. We get to Malabar St, and the end house, has a higher wall than the others, and there is a chunk of it left, with a door still standing. Eddie says, “Oy, don’t tread on the flowers, use the gate.” Before he can open the door, we hear a high pitched whis­tling, rushing noise, and we know it’s close. There’s an explosion and one hell of a draught, as if someone has left all the doors open. We are both still standing, and Eddie has the door handle in his fist, but the door has gone away. “It blew out of me hand.” He sounded of­fended.
– Bill Regan

AFS dispatch rider Alexander George Jacobs, who was stationed at Millwall Central School. Damage to houses is visible in the background of this photo, as well as dock cranes in the far distance. Photo almost certainly is looking north on Alpha Grove. Photo: Steve Jacobs

Alf had stopped the lorry at Maria St, the men got in the back. I got in the cab with Alf, and as he let in the clutch, there was an almighty explosion from behind, and a rain of bricks, tiles, and any­thing else that had been elevated, was now coming back to earth. Everyone in back of us got out smartly, but definitely, not with ele­gance, and tried to scramble under the lorry for protection. The rain only lasted for half a minute, or less, and except for Eddie Sullivan and Bert Forbes, who both had slightly dented hel­mets no harm had been done, so they mounted up again. Alf looked across at me, and raised his left hand and pulled an imaginary fore­lock, and said, “Where to, sir?” And of course, I did the proper thing and said, “Home James, and don’t spare the horses,” and at that, there was another explosion right in front of us, at the junction with Janet St. It was as bad as I expected, we felt no blast, but a big column of earth and clay, back on us, doing no harm at all.
– Bill Regan

The raid in the night of 19th/20th March 1941 was the largest on London since the raids after Christmas 1940 described by Bill Regan. Many residents of north Millwall sought safety in the shelter at Bullivant’s Wharf, located at 38 Westferry Road, close to Havannah Street (next to the zebra crossing where Topmast Point is now). William Bullivant opened his wire-rope company there in 1883. In 1926, Bullivant’s firm was taken over by British Ropes Ltd who in 1934 built a new building on the riverfront with reinforced-concrete floors designed to be take the weight of heavy machinery. It was appropriately named the ‘Stronghold Works’. The later shelter in the works had room for 400 people seated and 200 in bunks.

Unfortunately, it was the strength and weight of the floors which would prove fatal to many of the people in the shelter that night. A direct hit on one corner of the building in the night of March 19th/20th 1941 caused the roof and floors to collapse on to the people below. There were approximately 120 people in the shelter, and at least 40 were killed, and a further 60 injured. This was to be the worst bombing incident on the Isle of Dogs during WWII. A number of Alpha Grove residents were among the victims:

  • Barbara Edna Brown, aged 14, of 27 Alpha Grove
  • May Annie Morgan, aged 19, of 101 Alpha Grove
  • Annie Florence Sturgess, aged 56, of 129 Alpha Grove
  • Doris Wood, aged 19, of 23 Alpha Grove
  • Minnie Ethel Wood, aged 48, of 23 Alpha Grove
  • Alfred Thomas Wright, aged 56, of 5 Alpha Grove
  • Mary Sarah Wright, aged 24, of 12 Alpha Grove

Fred Harrison, my squad leader, was on depot duty answering calls and had sent the rest of my squad to Bullivant’s to assist Ringshaw’s squad. I went outside again, and met Warden Ernie Lowther limping along from Alpha Road. He looked as if he had been close to a bomb. He had an injured leg, and had been searching for survivors in Alpha Rd when one landed close and knocked him over.
– Bill Regan

The raids in the night of 10th/11th May 1941 are generally accepted to mark the end of the Blitz in London. However, they were also some of the most devastating that the capital had seen. Arthur Sharpe’s diary describes the great raid:

“The raid started about 11.30pm. I was on fire watch at the time; fires were raging all along Westferry Road and in the back streets. Suddenly one of the fellows in our squad said, Look, a land mine! It was in fact drifting our way, we rushed in, shut the door and waited. Three minutes went by, we were just going to get up when under the door a red flash was seen and then a terrific suction of air that seemed to pull your ears off, followed by a high explosion…

It was not until 2am that the raid grew into one of the worst raids of the war for Millwall. Bombs, gunfire and the drone of planes was all that could be heard. We stood at the door shivering with excitement and awe at the sight, we saw a huge orange column of smoke, dust, bricks, glass and pieces of burning sparks going hundreds of feet into the air.

Land mines landed in Alpha Road and Glengall Road…We thought our last moment had come…Morton and Bullivant’s, Watsons, and the side streets were well alight when through the roof came what we had hoped – and hoped would not come. Incendiary bombs, the works was alight from end to end. We did not know where to start. I picked up a stirrup pump and nozzle and the gutter, water shot out and I played on the incendiary bomb which spat and sent burning pieces in all directions. I was then joined by another of the crew and put out one on the drawing office roof but had no success with the Incendex fluid and so threw a sandbag on to it. It broke the windows but the incendiary bomb was out.

On the Island, many lost their lives in the course of the night, including Florence Johnson, aged 64, of 61 Masterman Road, East Ham, injured at 28 Alpha Grove and died 27th May in St. Andrews Hospital.

St Luke’s was seriously damaged during the Second World War. The damage is not visible in this 1950 photograph (contrast that to the damage to the dock buildings in the background), but structural damage had made the church unsafe to use, and so a ‘temporary’ church was built in its grounds, demolished only a few years ago.

St. Luke’s from the air, c1950

Possibly there were plans to repair the church, but this proved too costly in post-war Britain. The church was demolished in 1960.

Demolition of St. Luke’s Church in 1960. Photo: John Salmon

Demolition of St. Luke’s Church in 1960. Photo: John Salmon

Demolition of St. Luke’s Church in 1960. Photo: John Salmon

Most seriously damaged during World War II was the southern end of Alpha Grove, which was almost completely destroyed. The most serious bombing during the first night of the Blitz (7th September 1940) was described thus by the London Fire Brigade:

Explosive Bombs, on or close to Maria Street
– 24 Maria Street, 8 Houses, 6 rooms each, severely damaged
– 52 Malabar Street, Remaining houses are also damaged.

These bombs caused great destruction in the area loosely marked by Maria Street, Alpha Grove, Janet Street and Cheval Street, most of which was taken up by Millwall Central School and a smaller, special school with the name Janet Street (Mentally Defective) Council School.

Emergency housing in the form of Nissen huts was provided, and – more durable, but still intended as temporary homes – Orlit houses were built at the end of the street (which now extended to Glengall Grove aka Tiller Road). Millwall Central School, not more than 15 years after its opening, was gone. St. Hubert’s House seemed to have had a charmed life – almost everything around it destroyed, and yet it was remarkably unscathed.

1947. Photo: britainfromabove.org.uk

After the war, the LCC embarked on a ‘permanent housing programme’ which meant the sweeping away of whole neighbourhoods. Even if the war damage was not too bad, the strategy was one of modernisation and renewal, not of repair.  The aim was to redevelop districts and not just houses. Consequently, from the 1950s and well into the 1970s, large housing estates were built throughout the Isle of Dogs, and one of the largest was the Barkantine Estate, which would take in the whole of Alpha Grove.

Extent of planned Barkantine Estate (grey-shaded) on bomb damage map of Millwall. Blue-shaded areas show premises which where destroyed/damaged-beyond-repair.

The days of the last-remaining old houses in Alpha Grove were numbered.

St. Luke’s Churchyard looking south along Alpha Grove. Photo: Roy Roberts

The north end of Alpha Grove,c1964, with Queenie Watts

36 Alpha Grove, 1956. Photo: Peter Wright

55 Alpha Grove. Photo: Peter Wright.

North end of Alpha Grove, 1962, screenshot from the documentary film, ‘Postscript to Empire’.

The few remaining old houses were thus demolished, and new flats built. The first were built in the 1950s, at the southern end of Alpha Grove:

1951. Photo: Island History Collection / Joe Wright (in photo)

85-109 Alpha Grove [c1958]

Island History Trust: “‘Henry ‘Harry’ Marshall, who lived in Alpha Grove, arriving home after a day’s work repairing ships. Picture taken circa 1950. Harry’s wife was Beatrice nee Andrews, they had three children. One son, called William. Two daughters, Doreen and Jean. Doreen married Brian Wells, whose father Jim ran the fish shop in West Ferry Road at the top of Tooke Street. Jean married Bob Strudwick, who lived in Tooke St before marrying’. It was Bob who contributed the photo.”

Filming of The Sandwich Man in 1966. Val Foster & Michael Bentine. Photo: Verlander/Lloyd Family

The Sandwich Man, 1966, with a young Con Maloney messing around, up to something (left),

Stan Salmon outside his shop (side entrance). Photo: Sandra Brentnall

The rest of the Barkantine Estate planned for construction at the end of the 1960s showed just the slightest nod to the street patterns that had existed in the decades before:

Architectural model of the Barkantine Estate, with Alpha Grove going diagonally centre-left to bottom-centre (-ish)


Development of the estate meant that Alpha Grove became even shorter, terminating at Strafford Street.

Screen Shot 11-10-18 at 09.49 PM

In the 1980s, the southern end of Alpha Grove featured in the TV series, Prospects…..





On 9th February 1996, the IRA detonated a huge truck bomb beside South Quay DLR station. In addition to the loss of life and destruction directly next to the bomb, flats along the north east side of Alpha Grove were also seriously damaged.

The flats were eventually demolished, and lower density homes built in their place.

Photo: Peter Wright

In 1997, Tate & Lyle were still going strong…

Tate & Lyle, looking over Alpha Grove from Malabar Street. Photo: Peter Wright

Tate & Lyle. Photo: Peter Wright

Well, the firm was still going strong, but for the Millwall works it was a different story. Not long after 1997 the works closed and were demolished.

Demolition of Tate & Lyle

The so-called ‘temporary’ St. Luke’s Church was eventually demolished in 2014.

Demolition of St. Luke’s Church, 2014. Photo: Peter Wright

Demolition of St. Luke’s Church, 2014. Photo: Peter Wright

The good news is – a new St. Luke’s Church has just been opened on the spot. It is unusual – and comforting – for a new building to be built on the Island which has cultural and social connections with the past. We’re still in touch, just, with those who walked over Alpha Grove before us.


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Outside The Nelson

The junction formed by Westferry Road, East Ferry Road, Manchester Road and Ferry Street has appeared in many photographs over the years. In great part this is because two of the Island’s best-known original buildings – the Lord Nelson public house and the fire station – stand here.

Originally, many centuries ago, this was not a junction. The road from Poplar to the Greenwich Ferry (the present-day East Ferry Road) was one of just a couple of roads on the Island, although they were not much more than dirt paths. (The history of East Ferry Road is described here, by the way).

This 1741 map shows two lanes, Angel Lane, which was more usually called Dolphin Lane, and Arrow Lane, which was more usually spelled Harrow Lane (I like the way the aitch has been dropped, a cockney cartographer!). Both Dolphin Lane and Harrow Lane still exist, in much shorter forms, as side roads of Poplar High Street.


The opening of the West India Docks in 1802 led to the creation of a (toll) road from Limehouse to the Greenwich Ferry, in order to facilitate the transport of goods and workers. The road was originally known as the Deptford & Greenwich Road. And, not shown on this map, the newly-widened and paved East Ferry Road was known as the Blackwall Road. It would be circa 1860 before the roads received the names we now know.


A couple of decades after this map was created, Cubitt started to build his houses in the east, which led to the need for a main road around that part of the Island. Why he named it Manchester Road, I don’t know, but would like to find out. This 1850 map shows Manchester Road, but actually most of it wasn’t yet built at that time; it was 1854 before it was completed.


One of the first parts of Manchester Road to be built upon was close to the corner with East Ferry Road, where wine merchant Henry Johnson built the Lord Nelson. Johnson’s brother Augustus ran an ironworks in Ferry Street, after which Johnson’s Draw Dock was named – the section of Ferry Street between the draw dock and Manchester Road was originally named Johnson Street.


c1900. The Lord Nelson had more ornamentation when it was first built.

c1900. East Ferry Road, shed and stables at the rear of the Lord Nelson

c1900. East Ferry Road, shed at the rear of the Lord Nelson

Originally, William Cubitt offered to build a fire station on the Island in the 1850s, but it was not until 1872 that action was undertaken, significantly influenced by local concerns that – if a bridge was up – there was no way that an engine from the fire station at West India Dock Road would be able to attend to an Island fire on time.

The Isle of Dogs Fire Engine Station, was opened in 1877 on undeveloped land owned by Lady Margaret Charteris, a major Island landowner and wife of Lord Strafford. It housed six firemen, a coachman, three horses, a steam fire-engine, a manual engine, a curricle and a fire-escape. (See here for more information about the fire station).



Survey of London:

In the mid-1890s it was realized that the building was too small. Because of an increase in the number of staff, some of the men had to be lodged in houses in the neighbourhood, and a pair of horses was kept in rented stables. Additional ground to the rear of the station was acquired, together with the freehold of the original premises, and plans were prepared for the alteration and enlargement of the building. These plans were not executed and revised ones were produced in 1903, but the estimated cost of carrying them out was such that it was decided that it was preferable to erect a new building.

c1904. The new Isle of Dogs Fire Station (only later would it be named Millwall Fire Station)

Fire station not long after opening

This photo, taken shortly after 1918, shows the view from Ferry Street towards Westferry Road, Manchester Road and East Ferry Road. It is one of the very few photos which show the houses on both sides of the street.

Post-WW1 street party. Looking from Ferry Street.

Virtually all houses on the south side of the street (left) were damaged beyond repair in WWII. Those on the north side fared better, but the whole row was also demolished later. This 1950 aerial photo was taken in the same direction as the previous photo – damage to the houses on the left is more obvious.


This c1950 map describes the houses as ‘ruins’.


The larger building on the corner of Ferry Street and Manchester Road, visible in the post-WW1 photo and c1950 map (No. 1 Ferry Street) – housed a greengrocer’s in the 1950s. There is a just a hint of it in this photo, the view looking up Ferry Street.

Summer 1952. Outside “Boston” Skeels’ greengrocer’s shop. Harry Smith at the back, L to R at the front: Mr. Long, Bill Smith and Mr. Sparks. Photo: Island History Trust.

The rear of the shop can be seen in this 1960s photo taken from an upstairs room in the garage opposite the Lord Nelson.

1960s. Photo: Island History Trust / Mr Hart

Ten years’ later and the shop was gone. The street sign – possibly the only one which named Millwall – is the wrong way round in this photo. Some oik or other has decided to turn it 180 degrees.


In this photo of the fire station, the street sign is the right way round. Also visible is the newsagent’s and tobacconist’s on the corner of Westferry Road and Ferry Street.

Fag break at Associated Lead. Lil Devonshire, Ivy Hawkins, Daisy Warren, Jean Haxell and Dolly Winch enjoying a break outside the entrance to Associated Lead in Ferry Street. Photo: George Warren, looks like it was taken in the 1960’s


The junction was also in the background of a scene from the Prospects TV series. (I think, by this time, the corner shop had become a suntan salon or similar).


Snack van on the corner of Ferry Street and Westferry Road, where the newsagent’s used to be.

Snack van on the corner of Ferry Street and Westferry Road, where the newsagent’s used to be.

As with many scenes of the Island, the horizon began to get crowded in the 1990s.

Photo: Peter Wright

The roads have got a lot busier too, which doesn’t always turn out well.

In 2008 the former Millwall Fire Station was converted into apartment blocks named for Violet Pengelly and Joan Bartlett, members of the London Auxiliary Fire Service killed during bombing of their depot at Cubitt Town School in Saunders Ness Rd during World War II, along with more than 20 colleagues. I’ve written about this incident in my book, The Isle of Dogs During World War II, and it features in Bill Regan’s Wartime Diaries.

As for the main building, the ground floor was converted into a restaurant– The Old Millwall Fire Station Restaurant.

How’s the junction looking these days? Not too bad, actually.

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The Isle of Dogs in Maps

Regular readers of this blog will know that maps are frequently used to demonstrate how the Island has changed over the years, and in particular the wonderful Ordnance Survey maps which are available online on the National Library of Scotland’s website.

The origins of the Ordnance Survey lie in the aftermath of the 1746 Battle of Culloden, when, although forces loyal to the government had won the battle, Prince William, Duke of Cumberland realised that the British Army did not have a good map of the Scottish Highlands to locate Jacobite dissenters and to help subjugate the clans. William Roy, one of those involved in producing the map of the Highlands, later went on to become a general in the Royal Engineers, and in 1790, under Roy’s supervision, the Board of Ordnance (a predecessor of part of the modern Ministry of Defence) began a national military survey starting with the south coast of England. The first map, at a scale of one-inch-to-the-mile, was published in 1801, and it set a standard of quality and accuracy that the O.S. maintains to this day.

Other maps, especially earlier ones, could not make this claim. In 1801 the Island was largely empty (apart from the huge construction in the north known as the West India Docks, which would open the following year), but houses, streets and factories were rapidly spreading down the west side. Maps published in the following decades often did not accurately represent this development; over the years, streets and other features would appear and disappear and names would change.

Other maps showed streets which were planned to be built, but never were, while others proposed new schemes for docks or roads in the hope of winning support for one proposal or another. Accurate or not, they all contribute to our understanding of the Island’s history and its development.

In 1800 Thomas Milne published his “Land Use Map of London and England”, six sheets forming a map covering 20 miles around London, with colour-coding to indicate land usage. In the case of the Isle of Dogs, as can be seen, the land usage is almost entirely agricultural.

Extract from “Land Use Map of London and England”, Thomas Milne, 1800

Milne also worked on the first ever O.S. map (of Kent), and used the same trigonometric surveying method for his own maps, so one would expect them to be very accurate. It is surprising, then, that he shows a very wide canal going across the Island. At the time of his survey, there were proposals to create a canal and docks, but they were just ideas at that stage (and the eventual canal, The City Canal, was not of the scale imagined by Milne). In 1810, the newly-opened City Canal and West India Docks looked as follows:


The City Canal was not a success, and it was eventually acquired by the West India Dock Company, who made it a part of their dock infrastructure. By 1836, a large Timber Dock had been constructed south of the former canal.


At that time, there was no connection between the main docks and the South Dock and Timber Dock. Later, the South Dock and Timber Dock were merged, and connected with the main docks via a cutting to Blackwall Basin.


Within a decade, the South Dock had been enlarged, and the West India Docks had attained the form they more or less kept for the next century.


By 1885, Millwall Docks had also opened. Originally, the intention was for the Outer Dock (the southernmost of the two docks) to extend right across the Island, to be also connected to the Thames by an entrance in the east.

The Millwall Dock Company never had enough trade to justify constructing the full-sized version, but when they purchased land on the Island to build their docks in the 1860s, they bought all the land they would need should the expansion ever take place. The dock system imagined in the previous map was not constructed, but land boundaries were very much the same a century later, as shown in this 1960s map of the PLA’s land:

PLA-Owned Land in the 1960s

In the 1880s, another map proposed a wide canal from Limehouse to Blackwall, and two forts on the Island, part of a proposal:

  1. To alter the course of the River in the manner indicated in the Plan.
  2. To convert the bend of the River round the “Isle of Dogs” into an immense “Wet Dock.”
  3. [To request] The Government to acquire possession of the “Isle of Dogs” and to erect thereon Forts and an Arsenal … an “Impregnable Fortress”, and in time of War to be surrounded by a Fleet of Gun Boats and Torpedo Boats for the immediate defence of the River.

Which would have the advantages:

  1. A saving of three miles of difficult navigation in the approach to London.
  2. An increase in the scour of the River, just where needed, carrying the sewage from Barking at least two miles further out to sea….
  3. Providing London with the finest Dock in the world, convenient to the City, with ample space for a large fleet in a time of War.
  4. The establishment of a “Place d’armes”near the centre of London and in the heart of that quarter of the Metropolis to which the “dangerous classes” from all parts of “Europe” … are and have been for many years congregating.
  5. Work for the unemployed.

The plan never had a chance of succeeding – it is hard to imagine that those behind it seriously thought that it did – for it would have meant disrupting the businesses of the West India and Millwall Dock Companies, two powerful companies who would not be moved that easily, not to mention the vested interests along the river which would find themselves cut off from its main flow.

At the same time as proposals  talked of “congregating dangerous classes”, philanthropist and social reformer, Charles Booth, was investigating poverty in London. His work, published in 1889, and titled Life and Labour of the People – along with the work of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree – influenced government intervention against poverty in the early 20th century and led to the founding of – among other things – old age pensions, and free school meals for the poorest children.

Distinctive among the book’s contents are the so-called  Maps Descriptive of London Poverty, which van be viewed online on a London School of Economic’s website. These maps were colour-coded to indicate the income and social status of inhabitants, detailed to street level. Booth defined seven social classes:

According to Booth, compared to other areas of East London, the Isle of Dogs was not that bad (see “The General Tone of the Isle of Dogs is Purple” for more information):

Booth Poverty Map of the Isle of Dogs

And, zoomed in on one area, North Millwall:

Another set of maps from around the same time, which can be found online (on the website of the British Library) is the 1900 Goad series of fire insurance maps, produced to aid insurance companies in assessing fire risks. The maps are incredibly detailed and describe construction materials and fire hazards, as well as the names of the owners of many of the businesses shown.

Goad Insurance Map of North Millwall (click for full version)

Goad Insurance Map of North Millwall (detail)

The following is a 1900 map incorrectly showing Church Street (which had been renamed to Newcastle Street decades earlier, and later would be named Glengarnock Avenue) extending across the later Millwall Park to East Ferry Road. Douglas Place (a short road now under Island Gardens DLR Station) is mistakenly named Railway Road in this map and is much longer than it really was, meeting Church Street in the north. The longer Pier Street really did once go as far as the river.

1900 Streetmap

After WWII, London County Council mapped all the bomb damage to buildings in London, using colour-coding to represent the extent of the damage, giving the maps a resemblance to Booth’s poverty maps.

The LCC Bomb Damage Maps have recently been published in book form (available on Amazon). A great book if you like that kind of thing. The impact of WWII bombing is still felt to this day; all major construction work on the heavily-bombed Isle of Dogs must be preceded by an unexploded ordnance risk assessment. The results of these assessments are frequently to be found online, as a part of building applications to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which are publicly viewable documents, and often contain a detailed analysis of the extent to which an area was bombed – fascinating for history buffs.

One of the maps featured in the unexploded ordnance risk assessment before construction of the Canary Wharf College building in Saunders Ness Road

One of the maps featured in the unexploded ordnance risk assessment before construction at 22 Marsh Wall (aka The Landmark)

In the 1960s and 1970s, serious consideration was given to a major road across the Island, the Docklands Southern Relief Road (more about this in the IanVisits blog).

A few decades after the end of World War II and the docks were closed. The London Docklands Development Corporation were gifted with all the dockland area, and provided with special dispensation for compulsory purchase of land along the riverfront. They promptly demolished virtually everything. The following map shows the developments from 1981 to 1992.   It’s difficult for Islanders to keep up with the recent changes, especially the construction in and around Canary Wharf. But, judging from the maps, this is nothing new – the Island has been changing frequently and significantly since it was first seriously populated just over two centuries ago.

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Millwall House – An Island Secret for 150 Years

The whole block (including the Great Eastern Pub and St. Cuthbert’s Church) between Harbinger School and Westferry Road was destroyed during the Blitz, and an emergency water tank built on the wasteground.


Later, this land would become part of Harbinger’s playground, and the soot-stained walls across Westferry Road – surrounding Westwood’s main works – would become a part of my daily view when I attended the school in the late 1960s. The walls are better viewed in this photo taken around the same time outside the shops under Arethusa House.

Photo: Susan Coy / Hook Family

What I of course didn’t know then, and only discovered recently, is that the walls concealed a grand old villa, built some time in the late 1830s and – even more incredible – it was still there when I went to primary school a century and a half later!

I first saw it represented on an 1870 map which shows a large house at the end of a curving drive over a sizeable garden with trees or shrubs. Separate from the main house is a smaller building, probably a coach house. Deptford Ferry Road ran up to the river north of the grounds. The Vulcan pub was at the corner of this road and Westferry Road, but is for some reason not marked on this map. Across the road was another pub, the Glengall Arms, surrounded by houses which would be demolished during slum clearances in the 1920s (as was the pub).


The house was built by Scottish marine engineer David Napier (1790–1869), one of many Scots who established shipbuilding works on the Isle of Dogs during the 1800s. In 1837 Napier acquired and redeveloped an existing shipyard on the site for his sons John and Francis. In addition to the workshops and other buildings and constructions that you would expect, he also built a Classical-style villa, which he named Millwall House.

It is not clear (to me at least) if Napier lived in the villa himself, or if it was used by one or both of his sons, but it is obvious that it was intended to be inhabited by a well-to-do somebody. This was unusual for the time; virtually all of the iron and shipbuilding firms on the Island were owned by men who would never have dreamed of living there – it was noisy, damp, disease-ridden and dirty and there was nothing in the way of ‘culture’ or other attractions for a Victorian with money. If you wanted to bump into an Island firm owner in the 1800s, you had more chance if you headed over the water and up the hill to Blackheath.

The Napiers didn’t keep the yard for too long, however. Survey of London:

The works remained in operation until destroyed by fire in 1853; most of the yard was then leased to John Scott Russell as the building site of the Great Eastern, and was later bought by the Millwall Iron Works, Ship Building & Graving Docks Company Ltd. It seems to have been wholly or partly unoccupied for some years after the collapse of that company.

The house was apparently not damaged by the fire, and is shown in photographs in a 1912 biography of Napier.

The book describes the acquisition of the site and construction of the house:

Much additional expense, however, was incurred, and a great amount of difficult work was found necessary to fit the ground for the purpose in view. In the following year building-slips were formed, workshops built, and the requisite machinery erected in place.

The upper part of the ground was reserved for a dwelling-house, garden, and offices, in much the same way as had been done at Lancefield. Fairbairn’s shipyard immediately adjoined Napier’s, and both yards, as afterwards referred to, were used together for the building of the Great Eastern.

The new premises came to be known as the ” Napier Yard,” and the dwelling-house as “Napier House.” It is curious to find that after a lapse of seventy-five years, these names remain in current use, — “Napier Yard” being the present address of Messrs. Joseph Westwood Co., Ltd., and their offices still designated ” Napier House.”

The house is clearly recognisable in aerial photos taken shortly after World War II.

In the 1970s, after more than a century of manufacturing on the Island in one company form or another, Joseph Westwood and Son went into voluntary liquidation.

Millwall House was still standing, and the archives of London Borough of Tower Hamlets have a nice colour photo taken at the time.

Not long afterwards, the LDDC did what they did with virtually all industrial premises on the Island – especially those along the river- they demolished it. Napier’s firm is remembered by the present-day Napier Avenue.

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The Millwall Mudlark

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

Photo copyright: Adrian Scottow. Reproduced under terms of Creative Commons License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mudlarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

East London Mudlarks

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

Narrative of a Mudlark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police boat in 1880, off Wapping.

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

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

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

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

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