West India Dock Pier: Festival of Britain, Murder and Nico

West India Dock Pier (sometimes named West India Docks Pier) has had its ups and downs; recently it has been closed or derelict as much as it has been open, and has disappeared completely on occasion. The name originally misled me as to its location. It is not in the West India Docks. Close by, admittedly, but on the Island everything is close by. It is at the river end of Cuba Street – a dead-end street when I lived on the Island, which you didn’t enter unless you had business there (or you’d had one too many in the Blacksmith’s Arms).

Circa 1890

According to the Survey of London, the original pier was built for the convenience of merchants who were visiting from their usual place of work in the City:

The original pier was constructed in 1874–5 to facilitate access for merchants to the East and West India Dock Company’s new wool warehouses at the South Dock of the West India Docks.

In 1905, the pier was taken over by the ‘Penny Steamer’ service, an initiative from the LCC which lasted just a few years, named as such due to the flat price of one penny for all journeys. From 1909, on the ending of the service, the pier was run by the newly-formed Port of London Authority (PLA).

1920s (Photo: Richard Milton)

West India Dock Pier, with Lenanton’s on the right. The warehouse on the left belonged to Morton’s. 1936

19th March 1941 (later known as ‘The Wednesday’) was a particularly bad night for those living and working in the East End, including on the Island. In clear weather, more than 500 Luftwaffe aircraft dropped thousands of incendiary and high explosive bombs along the banks of the Thames from London Bridge to Beckton.

A later German radio communiqué described the attack on London as “a heavy one carried out with shattering effect by very strong bomber formations over a period of hours.” Harbour and dock facilities and other military objectives were attacked with bombs of every calibre it stated. It was claimed that “widespread destruction was caused in the main docks as well as to harbour installations.” Other targets included factories north of the Isle of Dogs and merchant shipping in the Thames. It was during this action that West India Docks Pier was destroyed.

A pier-less Cuba Street in 1949

After the war the pier was rebuilt in time to serve visitors to the newly-opened Lansbury Estate (a ‘Live Architecture’ exhibition, part of the Festival of Britain in 1951).


Painting of Morton’s, with West India Dock Pier at the top. Date unkown, but probably the 1950s.

In 1965, the pier was the backdrop for a promo film by Nico for her song “I’m Not Sayin”, which can be found on YouTube. Or you can click here……

If that video doesn’t work for you, here are a couple of screenshots:

In the same year, the pier featured in the film, ‘Four in the Morning’, starring a very young Judi Dench.  The plot revolves around the lives of two couples living in London – who are unknown to each other – and how they are connected to the body of a young woman found drowned in the Thames.

Film Poster

The body was brought ashore at West India Dock Pier.

From 1987, the pier was used by the Docklands River Bus service.

River Bus

West India Dock Pier (left) during the construction at Canary Wharf. Circa 1989.

Another use of the pier that didn’t last too long – in 1991 the service was discontinued, which meant a period of decay and dereliction for the pier.


Today, the pier has been somewhat fixed-up, including the addition of a pontoon to which a residential vessel has been moored. At least the pier is being used for a change.

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The Blue Bridge

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

The Early Bridges

The first bridge was made of timber. It spanned the 45 feet wide entrance of what was in 1806 the City Canal, a canal that crossed the Island and met the river in the west at the location of the later City Arms. It is represented in this section of an 1802 painting by William Daniell (see An Elevated View of the New Docks & Warehouses now constructing on the Isle of Dogs near Limehouse).

In subsequent years, the canal would be enlarged to become the West India South Dock. The timber bridge survived until 1842, when it was replaced by an iron swing bridge.

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

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

Enlarged section of previous photo, more clearly showing the iron swing bridge.

The Noisy Bridge

Ever increasing ship sizes meant the lock had to be enlarged yet again in the 1920s. At the urging of Poplar Borough Council it was also decided to move the bridge a few yards to the east at the same time because, as can be seen in the following map, the bridge was crossing the middle of the lock. This meant that the bridge had to remain open until the entering or exiting ship had completely cleared the locks. ‘Bridgers’ (The Islanders’ term for the traffic delay due to a raised bridge) lasted a very long time in those days.



The following (much later) map shows the situation after the bridge was moved to the right and is outside of the lock. The arrow shows the original path of Manchester Rd, still followed by Glen Terrace to this day.



Bridge No. 4

Bridge no. 4, the Blue Bridge predecessor, was a so-called double-rolling bascule bridge, of a type invented by William Scherzer in Chicago. It was placed in 1929 and was known for being incredibly noisy, with a ‘groaning’ sound that could be heard many hundreds of yards away.

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

1929 construction. Photo: Island History Trust / Mrs M. Bayer

1929 construction. Photo: Island History Trust / Mrs M. Bayer

1929. Photo: Island History Trust / Mrs M. Bayer

1930s, looking north toward’s Preston’s Road. The ship is in the graving (or dry) dock off Blackwall Basin.


Cutty Sark on her way to Millwall Dry Dock, c1950. She was to be repaired and renovated in preparation for the Festival of Britain.

The submarine Thermopylae entering the West India Docks in 1956.

Scene from an unknown 50s film showing a character using the emergency telephone in the police box south of the bridge.

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


A 277 turns round, just leaving Glen Terrace to head back down Manchester Rd.

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

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

Bridge No. 5 – The Blue Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Marie Foote

Bridge Construction

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



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

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

Glen Terrace, following the original path of Manchester Rd

Leslie Stephens: my sat nav directs me up glen terrace turn right then left to go over the bridge, lol, should really get it up dated but I like this little quirk it has.

Peter Wright:  Ah so thats why my sat nav says it!

Leslie Stephens: Yours as well?

Peter Wright: Yeah

Not many years later and the Blue Bridge was one of the sites selected for protest during the 1970 Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of the Isle of Dogs (see It Was All a Bit of a Joke). Protesters picketed the bridge, preventing ships from entering and exiting the docks for a number of hours.



In 1976 I was fortunate enough to sail from the docks to the Netherlands (a trip organized by George Green’s Youth Club). The Blue Bridge had to be raised to allow our sailing boat to leave the dock. For the first time I was, in part, the cause of a bridger instead being held up by one. A rare experience. Also coincidental: a bridge based on Dutch design being raised to allow a ship to sail to the Netherlands, where I am as I write this, over 35 years later.

1976, Departing for the Netherlands (Photo: Mick Lemmerman)

1980s, A scene from the ‘ Prospects’ TV series.

Raised Bridge

Photo: Con Maloney

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Limehouse Basin. No, not that one.

Ask most people who know their way around East London where Limehouse Basin is, and they will say that it’s this. It’s marked as such on many maps, and was even referred to as such in newspapers and other documents published in the 19th century.

I’d hesitate to say that these people are wrong, but – formerly – this was not Limehouse Basin, this was the Regent’s Canal Dock. My hesitation is because I am a believer in the natural development of place names and language; formal rules certainly have their uses, but are not mandatory in deciding what something should be called.

However, as we’re being formal for a moment, the piece of water known as Limehouse Basin was not off Narrow Street; it was about half a mile to the east, and connected the West India Import and Export Docks with each other and the Thames.

The main business of the West India Docks was the loading and offloading of ships which were sailing to and from the sea, and which used the eastern entrances to the docks. Limehouse Basin was mostly used by lighters which were passing between the docks and the quays further upriver. These were smaller ships, and at two acres, the basin was much smaller than the Blackwall and South Dock Basins at the eastern end of the West India Docks.

The West India Docks opened in 1802, and Limehouse Basin and the entrance locks were supposed to open in the same year. However, on 13th October 1802:

…a high tide passed over and behind the uncoped south wall and, though 4ft 6in. thick, part of it collapsed. Jessop blamed Walker, claiming that the walls had been laid 22in. lower than he had specified. [Chief Dock Engineer] John Rennie was called in to report on the incident, and in doing so he made extensive criticisms of the work. He stated that the wall should have been thicker and more markedly curved, and that stone bonding-courses should have been used.
Survey of London

The basin was eventually opened in July 1803. At the end of the 19th century, at the other end of the docks, Blackwall Basin was significantly enlarged, and a new impounding system (the system which kept and still maintains the water level) introduced. The Limehouse entrance lock was considered detrimental to the effectiveness of the impounding system, and so it was closed (in 1894).

Survey of London:

…after the Limehouse entrance lock closed in 1894 the basin was little used. It survived as a lay-by for barges and repair of boats, and as a cut between the Import and Export Docks.

The closure of the entrance lock meant that Limehouse Basin lost its original purpose, and in the 1927-1928 the basin:

…was filled in … to save on maintenance and to increase storage ground, using material from the excavations for the Millwall Passage

Filling in of Limehouse Basin. Looking east from the entrance lock.

Filling in of Limehouse Basin. Looking west. In the background, in the centre, is the iron swing bridge over the former entrance lock.

Filling in of Limehouse Basin. Looking east.

The following is a later view of the centre of the previous photo, and shows the situation after the basin was filled in, with a truncated section of the entrance lock.

West India Import (North) Dock from the filled-in Limehouse Basin.

The Observer newspaper on 10th February 1929 saw the filling-in of Limehouse Basin as  marking the definitive passing of the age of sailing ships, and described it eloquently thus:

Referred to in the newspaper article is the closed entrance lock at the western end of the basin, with its capstan, and post grooved by decades of sailing ship ropes. Beyond them, a fence to separate the docks from the public road (a section originally known as Bridge Road, later part of Westferry Road).

Visible behind the fence is the distinct shape of the iron swing bridge which crossed the now-redundant entrance lock (the Island had a few bridges of this type). The bridge is highlighted in this photo, in which the form of the filled-in basin can be clearly seen:

Limehouse entrance lock bridge.

The following photo show the bridge’s demolition (looking north, with Providence House in the background).

Demolition of bridge over former Limehouse entrance lock, 1920s

After removal of the bridge, looking south.

In case you’re curious about where Limehouse Basin was in modern money, the following shows the development over the years. Today, Westferry Circus and other stuff belonging to the Canary Wharf Group is over its site.

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Cuba, Tobago and Manilla – Three Old Island Streets

This is Cuba Street:

This is Tobago Street:

And this is Manilla Street:

Just two buildings, both former pubs, give any indication of the age of these streets. In London terms, they are whippersnappers, but they are among the oldest streets on the Island (the oldest, if you exclude Cold Harbour).

Until the arrival of the West India Docks in 1802, there were a few lanes or paths which crossed the Island or followed its river embankment (known as Marsh Wall or Mill Wall), but these were unpaved, narrow paths which had developed naturally over the centuries – not streets in the strictest sense of the word.

Millwall, c1810

Mill Wall in 1843

The 1810 map indicates a ‘Turpentine Work’ and ‘Rope Walk’ at the north end of the path (actually, I believe they were a little further south, south of The Breach – inaccuracies can be found in many early maps of the Island). These were built on land belonging to Limehouse shipbuilder, Robert Batson Senior, who purchased the land in 1793 and rented parcels of it out to others. Part was used by Charles Price for his oil and turpentine works, and part was a rope walk belonging to John Lyney of Limehouse (taken over by George Joad and Edward Spencer Curling in 1810).

A rope walk was – and still is – a long straight narrow lane, or a covered pathway, where long strands of material are laid before being twisted into rope (also known as cables, hence the name Cable Street). Many were to be found close to the Thames and the docks, taking advantage of the large numbers of sailing ships that were built and repaired in the area. To give an idea of how much rope was needed, HMS Victory required 31 miles (50 km) of rope.

A rope walk, c1900

Robert Batson Senior died in 1806, and his son, Robert Batson Junior, set about laying out the first formal streets on the Island. One street ran along the southern boundary of the rope walk, and he named this Robert Street. A little further south, he created Alfred Street, named after his younger brother. They were connected by a short street, named Cross Street (referred to as Marsh Street in at least one old map).


By 1818 a new road had been built down the west of the Island, connecting Limehouse with the ferry to Greenwich (and also cutting off the river end of the rope walk from the main works). The map also shows that development along Alfred Street is taking place piecemeal, while no houses have yet been built in Robert Street. It would be the 1860s before both streets were fully developed, along with other new streets in the area.


Cross Street now extends across Alfred Street to meet George Street (named after another member of the Batson family, presumably). The east end of Alfred Street shares a corner with the fledgling Alpha Road. Millwall Gate is the toll gate – West Ferry Road, and East Ferry Road, would stop being toll roads a few years after this map was made.

Survey of London (written in the 1980s):

Because of the long-drawn-out building process, Cuba Street, Manilla Street and Tobago Street evolved only a ragged uniformity. The houses were plain and mean: two-up, two-down, terraced cottages with narrow roundarched doorways, mostly built to the edge of the pavement. Rear extensions were built on to some houses only after many years, and as late as the First World War several houses still had no kitchen, scullery or wash-house. There were two developments of tiny dwellings at right angles to the street: Escott Cottages of about 1840, built by William Escott, a local waterman, later publican, and Wildman’s Cottages. Other lots were occupied by sheds or stables.

Escott Cottages, Cuba Street


In the 1870s, streets on the former Batson estate were renamed; the new names reflecting the sources of sugar imports to the West India Docks. Robert Street and Alfred Street were renamed Cuba Street and Manilla Street, respectively. Cross Street merged with George Street to become Tobago Street. By the time of this 1890s map, the rope works had been replaced by engineering and iron works:


The map also shows a public house at the corner of Tobago Street and Manilla Street. This was the Prince Alfred, aka The Ash Bucket.

Manilla Street, Prince Alfred on the right. (Photo: Island History Trust)

Outside Prince Alfred c 1930 (Photo: Island History Trust / Mr Lapwood)

Manilla Street. (Photo: Marion Burton/Hesselden)

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, some of which remain. 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

Outing, Tobago Street, 1920s. (Photo: Island History Trust)

Catholic Shrine, Tobago Street c1930. (Photo: Island History Trust)

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

Cuba Street had an industrial character from the beginning, with firms along the entire north side (on the site of the original rope works) and at the western half of the south side.

Cuba Street

Cuba Street (L), Tobago Street (R)

Cuba Street

In the late 1930s, the PLA annexed a piece of land at the eastern end of Cuba Street and Manilla Street in order to make room for improvements to the West India South Dock. A new road connected Manilla Street to Cuba Street.

This meant the demolition of not only Escott’s Cottages, but also the Dock House – a beer house (or off license, the records are not clear) at the east end of Cuba Street.

The Dock House (Photo: Island History Trust)

Also as a consequence, Alpha Road was shortened by a few yards, and the North Pole became more exposed.

Corner of Manilla Street and Alpha Road

The North Pole (Photo: Island History Trust)

The area fared no better than other Island areas during World War II.


Many of the houses in Manilla Street remained empty until the 1960s, or were gradually replaced with light industrial units. The southern half of Tobago Street was also closed, to be replaced by an extension of an adjacent firm.

Prince Alfred, post WWII. Tobago Street (L) and Manilla Street (R)

Manilla Street. The Prince Alfred on the left.

By 1970, the only houses left in the area were those in Cuba Street.

Cuba Street

Cuba Street (Photo: Steve White)

During the 1980s, after the closure of the docks and the arrival of the London Docklands Development Corporation, construction sites could be seen on the horizon.

Cuba Street

However, despite this, there was still some industry in the area. Initially, one of the aims of the LDDC was to create jobs by encouraging firms to operate in the area – this was before the time that the ventures of the LDDC and its predecessors were dominated by property development.

Tobago Street (L) with Cuba Street in the background. The remains of the Prince Alfred on the right. (Photo: Peter Wright).

Manilla Street (Photo: Steve White)

Manilla Street (a scene from the Prospects TV series)

Cuba Street

Gradually, though, the old buildings were cleared, new buildings began to rise in the streets.

Tobago Street

Cuba Street

In at least one case, a new building was demolished after just a few years, in order to be replaced by a larger building – as was the case opposite The North Pole. The drive to build and build higher is still very strong on the Isle of Dogs.

The North Pole


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Unique Images of Canary Wharf from the Late 80s to the Early 90s

I was fortunate to recently receive a lot of photos taken in the West India and Millwall Docks during the decade from the late 1980s. They show the construction and topping out of 1 Canada Square, as well as many views from the top of that building which show what the Island and further afield looked like after the docks and factories had been cleared away, and before the frenzied construction of apartment blocks and office buildings commenced.

Here are some of those photos, with little comment. I’ve not been sure what to do with them, how to best present them, but the only thing I was sure about is that they should be shared…..

Architectural Model



Topping Out






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A History of South Cubitt Town

I started this article with the idea of making a short, potted history of a small area on the Isle of Dogs – the area in which I grew up, so it has a special significance to me – but there turned out to be so much to say that it was impossible to keep it short.

This 1920s photo shows the extent of the little world in which I grew up, the southern end of Cubitt Town (mind you, I’m not that old, we moved there in the late 1960s, but this photo nicely shows how it was before the war).

1920s. Click for full-sized version.

It was a well-defined area, in some ways isolated from the rest of the Island, which itself was for many decades isolated from the rest of East London.

  • The western edge was marked by the Nelson and East Ferry Road (which I and everyone else called Farm Road). Beyond the Nelson were the lead works and industry and no houses for a long time, according to my young perspective.
  • In the south was the river.
  • In the (north) east, the Dorset Arms formed the boundary. Beyond that were estates with kids I didn’t know too well, unless they also went to Harbinger Primary School.
  • “Inland”,  Millwall Park and the Muddy marked the edge.

Nobody visited unless they had business there, or they were driving the long way round the Island because of a bridger at Kingsbridge or Blue Bridge (and even then you were probably better off driving via East Ferry Rd), or they were  lost.

In 1840, the area east of East Ferry Road was largely undeveloped marshland.


Its potential for development was first realised by William Cubitt, who made his fortune in a building firm in which he was a partner with his brother Thomas. Cubitt later went on to become an MP and then Lord Mayor of London (from 1860). Survey of London:

By four agreements made between 1842 and 1853, Cubitt was responsible for the development of much of the district. All but one of the agreements were with the trustees of Margaret Lauretta, Countess of Glengall, daughter and co-heir of William Mellish, who had inherited her father’s estate on the Isle of Dogs on his death in 1834. Her trustees, acting with the advice of their agent, John Hooper, first came to an arrangement with Cubitt in 1842.

The trustees were aware that the value of the land on the Isle of Dogs was diminishing and their agent was coming under pressure to lower the rents. The land was low lying and its draining and embanking, which were badly needed, could not be effected without a large input of capital. The area had no road access and it was thought at that time that the nature of the ground made it unlikely that a railway could ever be built across it.

Moreover, the foreshore was being steadily eroded by the wash caused by steamships, traffic which was obviously going to increase. Without the embankment of the riverside and the drainage of the inland areas the value of the estate could not be increased and was likely to diminish.

It was anticipated that Cubitt’s investment in the strip of land around the riverfront would benefit the adjoining parts of the Mellish estate by opening them up for development, particularly for house building.

By 1860, the principal roads had been laid out, and some building was complete: Church Street (later renamed Newcastle Street and now Glengarnock Avenue) is fully built, as are Christ Church and Newcastle Arms (later Waterman’s Arms and now the Great Eastern). Cubitt must have been very confident of his speculation if he was prepared to build such a large church and public house before hardly any houses were built.


1862, detail

It was around this time that one of the oldest photos of the Island was taken. Actually, the main subject of the photo is the Royal Naval College, but the Island is quite visible in the background; it is mostly empty, with some development along the riverfront, and the masts of the ships in West India Docks in the background.


c1855, annotated detail

Housing development continued at a fast pace but came to an abrupt end during the international financial crisis of 1866, caused by market panic after the collapse of the bank Overend, Gurney and Company. This not only brought house building to a halt in Cubitt Town, it devastated the shipping businesses along the Thames.


By now, though, in the approximately three decades since 1840, the start of this story, much had been achieved in Cubitt Town…..

1842 Construction of Manchester Road.

1888. Manchester Road, looking north just this side of Billson Street.

1888. Manchester Road, looking east (Stebondale Street on the left)

1845 Newcastle Draw Dock is built

1849 Land belonging to the Greenwich Hospital Estate – ‘Scrap Iron Park’, as it became known locally – is set aside as an open space. It would later be officially named Island Gardens.

1853 Construction of The Newcastle Arms (later renamed the Waterman’s Arms).

1854 Opening of Christ Church

1855 The Lord Nelson public house is built by Henry Johnson.

c1899. The Lord Nelson

1857 Cumberland Oil Mills, adjoining the Greenwich Hospital Estate, is established for the production of linseed oil and oilcake.

William Cubitt erects a timber pier roughly three-quarters of a mile along the shore from Potter’s Ferry (at the end of Pier St, which previously went as far as the river) and hires a steamboat to ferry passengers to Greenwich and other places on the opposite shore.

The premises of shipbuilder’s James Ash & Company. Pier St, then leading to the river, is on the right.

1859 Completion of the 200th house in Cubitt Town.

1861 The ‘Asphalte de Seyssel Company of Thames Embankment’ develops Pyrimont Wharf on Wharf Rd (later Saunders Ness Rd).

1862 Opening of the Princess of Wales (aka Macs) public house at 84 Manchester Rd.

Princess of Wales

1863 Charles Davis builds the Pier Tavern at 283 Manchester Road.

John and William Dudgeon, engineers and boiler makers, take a lease of the riverside site immediately south of Cubitt Town Pier. The firm lasts a little over a decade, but leaves the name Dudgeon’s Wharf as a legacy.

1864 A good year for pubs….

Henry Smallman builds the Cubitt Arms at 262 Manchester Road.

Cubitt Arms

The Dorset Arms is opened in Manchester Road, occupying one of the four houses in Dorset Terrace. It was later extended into the neighbouring house.

Dorset Arms

The Builder’s Arms, 99 Stebondale Street, is built at the junction with an intended extension of Billson Street.

Builder’s Arms

1865 The London, Blackwall and Millwall Extension Railway Bill is passed on 19 June. The bill authorizes the creation and maintenance of an extension to ‘…the quay or wharf or river wall on the northern shore of the River Thames at or near a point about 22 yards to the eastward of the draw dock or landing place at the southern end of Johnson-street’. It further authorizes compulsory purchase of land and ‘the construction of stations, sidings, junctions, roads, approaches, bridges, cuts, drains, tramways and other works and conveniences’.

Isle of Dogs Police Station is built at 126 Manchester Road. The station provides accommodation for a married sergeant (or inspector) and married constable, their families and six single constables, with up to three prisoners.

Police Station, c1910

1866 The Christ Church National Schools are erected at the northern end of the church lands (south side of Billson St). They serve as a Sunday School and as parish rooms for games, society meetings and concerts.

1871 Opening of the Millwall Extension Railway, extending the railway south from Millwall Junction to the Millwall Docks Station, and to the terminus at North Greenwich the following year.

1878. North Greenwich Railway Station (the rowing club is now on the site)

1890s (estimate), a steam train travels over the arches.

The economic crisis caused much suffering on the Island – so much so that there were campaigns in the national press to collect money for those impacted by ‘The Distress‘.

The individual stories were heart breaking……

It was several years before investment in manufacturing in the area revived, but shipbuilding never really recovered. It found its home in cheaper and more practical locations.

The failure to complete Cubitt Town as envisaged by William Cubitt meant that the Island never had anything like a middle class. Houses designed for better-off families could not be sold, and were occupied by multiple working families (frequently one family per room). They were poorly maintained, prone to flooding, and were slums in no time. According to British History Online:

The crash of 1866 brought house-building to a sudden halt. Moreover, emigration from the area resulted in large numbers of empty houses, particularly on the Isle of Dogs, where there were almost 800 empty dwellings in 1868, approaching a half of the total. Although an economic revival followed the slump of the late 1860s, the Island was not well placed to benefit from it and there were still 262 vacant houses in 1871. In such circumstances, building took some time to resume and the developments which were proposed either failed to attract investment or took a long time to get under way. Land prices fell considerably in the aftermath of the crash and some sites did not attract purchasers.

Manchester Rd, north of Millwall Wharf (Cubitt Arms on the left)

Manchester Rd, c1910, Stebondale St on the left (Island History Trust).

One of the problems of the housing in Cubitt Town was that many basements were liable to flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, when the sewers were unable to carry the sudden increase in volume. The difficulty was reported in 1866 and, although the completion of the outfall sewer alleviated it for a time, became increasingly frequent during the 1880s, with particularly severe flooding after storms in June 1880 and June and July 1888. The completion of the pumping station at Stewart Street in 1889 did reduce the incidence of flooding, but did not remove the problem. The area was affected during the disastrous flooding on 7 January 1928, when the river overflowed at Johnson’s draw dock.

The Medical Officer of Health found it ‘scarcely credible that . . . it is possible to build houses with sunken basements, without the intervention of concrete or other impervious layers on low-lying, damp soil difficult to drain and sewer and liable to floods and overflow of sewage’. Nevertheless, a report of 1890 showed that there were 711 houses in Cubitt Town with basements.  Many were found to be in a ‘deplorable unsanitary condition’ with foul and moist basements, and rising damp, which was partly attributable to the use of poor materials. There were occasional outbreaks of scarlet fever. The houses were, in general, poorly built and badly maintained; by the 1910s many were in bad repair and the streets appeared ‘dreary, slummy’ presenting ‘ugly vistas’.

Social researcher and reformist, Charles Booth (1840-1916), published his Life and Labour of the People in 1889. It, and later revisions – 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. These maps were colour-coded to indicate the income and social status of inhabitants, detailed to street level. They presented the south end of Cubitt Town as follows (see “The General Tone of the Isle of Dogs is Purple” for more information):

Booth Poverty Map of Cubitt Town (South), 1889

Booth’s publication described Stebondale Street and the area around it, in 1897, thus:

Has the character of being the worst street in the Island. Houses with basement floors, 9 feet below high tide, drains run backwards. Some looked very poor, but by no means all – had the air of a street that is improving – all the homes looked better than those in Gaverick, Crewe and Claude Streets mentioned above.

Church St Now named Newcastle St, of poorer aspect than Stebondale St – rents 8 /- a week from a notice board at one end “All homes in good repair”. Newcastle St looked the poorest in this block.

Parsonage St, Billson St, Kingfield St, Seyssel St – all of a better class than Newcastle St.

Pier St – though marked blue, was not given a different character to the foregoing.

Of amusements in the Island there are practically none. The Millwall Athletic ground football matches attract great crowds and have given the men some interest. Public houses get up sing songs of an evening, but there are no music halls.

Booth’s publication mentions Millwall Athletic, whose ground from 1890 was on the site of the present-day ASDA supermarket. From 1886 to 1890, the club, then named Millwall Rovers, played on a pitch behind the Lord Nelson, on land now occupied by the Manchester Grove estate.

The Nelson – like other pubs of the period – actively sought the patronage of sports clubs, not just because of the steady and reliable fees and custom from club members, but also because of the large crowds on home match days. The landlord of the Nelson managed to poach Millwall Rovers from their former home base in Millwall (see Millwall FC – The Millwall Year(s) for more information).

Satellite photo superimposed with football pitch with 1890s markings.

This 1895 map shows that the football team had already moved to its ground close to the George.

1895 (click for full sized version)

The map also shows that not many more houses had been constructed since 1870 (see map above).  A turn-of-century resident of Cubitt Town would easily have recognized it at the start of World War II; not much changed in the fabric of the area.

1895 Formal opening of Island Gardens

Previously, medical inspector to Greenwich Hospital, John Liddell, had complained that respiratory complaints among patients were rife due to the smoke from local factories. He wrote:

No casual visitor can fail to be struck with the dull & stupified air of a Greenwich Pensioner, or with the monotony & melancholy that pervade the Hospital, where one dull routine of existence is unchequered by any occupation or incident to beguile its weariness.

Liddell desired to create a healthy and pleasing environment to match that enjoyed by Chelsea Pensioners further up river. Amongst his recommendations was a scheme to purchase part of the riverside opposite the hospital, on the Isle of Dogs, an area which was not yet fully developed, in order to:

…prevent the total closure of its vista, and to shut out the annoyances of gloomy unsightly and offensive buildings, that are sure to be erected.

In other words, to hide the Isle of Dogs from view.

The land opposite Greenwich was owned by Lady Glengall and leased from her by William Cubitt. In 1852 they signed a 99-year sub-lease agreement with Greenwich Hospital. Initially, Lady Glengall stipulated that there should be no building at all on the land, but eventually she agreed to Cubitt’s idea for the creation of a well-to-do neighbourhood. It was to have landscaped gardens (a “plantation”) with imported trees and shrubs, and five large villas were to be built a little back from the river so they could not be seen from the hospital.

But, there was no interest from buyers; the wealthy businessmen that the development was expected to attract did not want to live on the Isle of Dogs. Close to 50 years later, only one villa had been built. The land that had been set aside for gardens had become a public open space, but it was far from landscaped. Locally it was known as ‘scrap iron park’.

The end of the 19th century saw an energetic period of public park creation by the newly-formed LCC and other urban governments – understanding the importance of a healthy environment for city dwellers. In 1892, the LCC took over the land and the villa (named Osborne House). John James Selby described it in his 1905 book “The municipal parks, gardens, and open spaces of London; their history and associations”:

The ground when acquired for public purposes was in a very rough and neglected condition, and paths had to be formed, drained and fenced, which, together with other works, cost nearly £2,000. A residence had been built at one end of the ground, part of which is occupied by the foreman, whilst the remainder is used as a free library.

Osborne House

Near the centre of the gardens an inexpensive bandstand, surrounded with a rockery, has been erected, where performances are given during the season. In a corner of the ground is a gymnasium ; but the principal feature of the laying out has been the formation of a gravelled promenade along the river-front, which is nearly 700 feet in length. This is liberally provided with seats, and affords splendid views of the river and its surroundings.

1890s. Island Gardens

The following map shows the transformation from ‘scrap iron park’ to Island Gardens (inset).

1870. Map source: British History Online.

In 1870, the park extended as far west as Johnson’s Draw Dock. A couple of years later the western section of the park (shaded in the map) was acquired by the London and Blackwall Railway for the construction of North Greenwich Railway Station (now the site of the rowing club and Calder’s Wharf).

A couple of years later, the Island Gardens were officially opened by Councillor Will Crooks in 1895, more land was lost when an 1897 act of parliament gave the go-ahead for the construction of a foot tunnel from the Island to Greenwich.

1902 Opening of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Greenwich Foot Tunnel

At the end of the 19th century, the London County Council first proposed to build a tunnel between the Island and Greenwich, as an alternative to the ferry.

A new free crossing would benefit working people on both sides of the river. Communications were so unreliable that some employers on the Island refused to allow their foremen and timekeepers to live on the southern bank because of delays at the ferry during foggy weather. The passenger steam-ferry from Greenwich Pier to North Greenwich Station was the only safe method of crossing the river at this point, but the penny toll amounted to an annual outlay of £2 12s – a considerable sum for the working men and women of the area. A new tunnel would also allow the inhabitants of the built-up industrial areas of Millwall and Cubitt Town to visit the more salubrious surroundings of Greenwich Park and Blackheath for recreation.
– Survey of London, Athlone Press

1901 newspaper tunnel impression

For an article about the history of foot tunnel, which opened in 1902, see Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

c1920 Opening of Millwall Park

The undeveloped, triangular piece of land between the railway, the rope walk and Stebondale Street was the property of the PLA. In 1905 it was sketched by Thomas Heath Robinson:

1905. Thomas Heath Robinson

In 1919, the London County Council bought the land and created a playground and public open space. They named it Millwall Recreation Ground, but many Islanders called it the new park (a name which stuck, and which is still used by some older Islanders).

This is probably the oldest photo of the park (although the year is unknown). It is looking past the paddling pool towards East Ferry Road.

An open air swimming pool was built in 1925, behind the Stebondale Street houses at the end of Parsonage Street.



The view from the Princess of Wales pub, with a hint of Stebondale Street on the left. The 6th shop in the row is No. 103 (see following photo) (Island History Trust).

Island History Trust: “Near the junction with Stebondale Street (the section now named Pier Street), looking towards the Dorset, and the London (Tavern) pub in the distance. The older child is Mercy Linghorn, the little one is June Inns. Donated by Grace MacFarlane. “

Island History Newsletter

72 Stebondale Street (Jan Hill)

Post WWI peace party, Ferry St (East Ferry Rd in background). Island History Trust.

Ship St, looking from Saunders Ness Rd towards Stebondale St, crossing Manchester Rod in the middle distance. (Island History Trust)

Brig Street, Manchester Rd in the background (Island History Trust)

Newcastle St (later Glengarnock Ave). Island History Trust

Wharf Rd, now Saunders Ness Rd, near Calder’s Wharf. Barque St on right. Row of houses was known as College View.

The 1920s and a partially frozen Thames. Cumberland Oil Mills are on the right. On the left, Island Gardens and Osborne House

Parsonage St, with Manchester Rd (and vicarage) in the background.  Photo by Haden or Harden? Comment from Gill Denman: I am related to the people I mentioned. I suspect the photo was taken by Mabel Brown’s father, he was apparently very into photography. The Pankhursts lived at 8 Parsonage Street, they left just before the street was bombed.  Why I asked about the surname Harden is that would be a surname connected to Henry Brown’s family, they would be my cousins, I’ve never met them or had contact with them. They might have a copy of his picture. I would be very interested to know where the family is.

17 Billson St. Photo: Island History Trust / Mrs. Mitchell

Seyssel St, 1920

New Developments

In the 1920s, Poplar Borough Council built new homes on undeveloped land in Cubitt Town – including land east of the Nelson, and in Billson, Parsonage, Kingfield and Stebondale Street. Survey of London:

Completed in 1921, [the Chapel House Estate, of which the houses in Manchester Grove were a part] was a worthy inauguration of the Borough Council’s housing programme and there was great pride at Poplar’s first ‘Garden City’.

These ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ set a standard which was scarcely surpassed, and all too often never reached, by later council developments; the quiet, almost villagey atmosphere provides a pleasant oasis and is a lasting testimony to the Garden City spirit.

Manchester Grove

It was not until May 1923, despite characteristically vigorous protests from the Borough Council, that approval was given for the Kingfield Street scheme under the rather less generous terms of the Housing Act just introduced by the new Conservative Minister of Health, Neville Chamberlain. The estate was finally completed in 1924.

Kingfield Street

In 1935, local firm R. & H. Green & Silley Weir built a group of cottage-flats for retired shipbuilding workers or their families, Jubilee Crescent.

Jubilee Crescent (Island History Trust)

Mayor of Poplar, George Lansbury, playing bowls at the ceremonial opening of Jubilee Crescent.

Around this time, Cubitt Town School in Saunder’s Ness Road was demolished, and adjacent land was purchased for the construction of a new, enlarged school.


Cubitt Town School, 1938


As was the case with the rest of the Island, industry was located largely along the river in south Cubitt Town. Unlike the rest of the Island, there was not much in the way of shipbuilding firms – probably because this industry (on the Island at least) was in decline at the time of the development of Cubitt Town.

Notable firms/works included Seyssel Asphalte, Storer’s Paints, Cumberland Oil Mills, Dudgeon’s, Grosvenor Wharf, Cubitt Town Wharf, and James Ash; some of whom are remembered in modern street names.

1900 insurance map

1900 insurance map

1900 insurance map

1900 insurance map

Cyclo Motors, opposite the Nelson

One firm that was not situated near the river was Hawkins & Tipson, who established their Globe Rope Works in East Ferry Road in 1881, with a rope walk that ran for 1,270 ft between the Mudchute and the later Millwall Park.

Rope Walk. Photo: Island History Trust / J. Studd

Aerial view of Hawkins & Tipson

Hawkins & Tipson Workers, 1905 (Island History Trust)

World War II

As stated in many of my blog articles, World War II changed everything. In the 50 years or so leading up to 1939, the Island’s fabric didn’t change that much. Firms came and went, but the houses, buildings and docks provided a physical environment which must have been comfortingly reliable.

Unfortunately for Islanders, the docks were a significant Nazi target. Making the docks inoperable would severely impact Britain’s economic and military capabilities, and this extended to destroying the homes, roads and other infrastructure of those who worked in the docks. And also, the U-shaped bend in the Thames was an unmissable target for the Luftwaffe. (For those interested in the full story of the Island during WWII, I recommend my book, The Isle of Dogs During World War II, Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I 🙂 ).

In 1938, anticipating war, the War Office took over an area of land in the Mudchute west of Stebondale Street, paying compensation to the 37 allotment holders whose plots were appropriated. Four concrete ack-ack gun installations were built around a central control bunker.

Mudchute anti-aircraft installation

On 7th September 1940, the first day of the Blitz, Stebondale Street was seriously damaged, and there was damage to surrounding streets (as well as the swimming pool in Millwall Park being damaged beyond repair). The following map shows the recorded locations and times of the bombs that fell that night.

Shortly afterwards, in night of 18th/19th September, tragedy struck when Cubitt Town School – which had previously been commandeered for use by the emergency services – was hit by a parachute mine. 24 people were killed. Rescue Work, Bill Regan, described it thus:

What a bloody mess, the whole guts blown away, only two end flanks standing. There were more than 40 people stationed here; I only saw one survivor, the gatekeeper, a man who lived in Pier Street, who had lost a leg in the 14-18 war.

He said he saw this parachute coming down, and thought it was a barrage balloon, it was a parachute mine, and he was lucky to be on the opposite side to where it landed, with a building between him and it. He was blasted into the road, but miraculously none of the debris had hit him. Within minutes we had located the spot they were likely to be, and got two people out, but I don’t think they were alive as were working without lights and they were at best unconscious.

I don’t know how many we recovered, our relief came on at 8.00 a.m., but we carried on until nearly ten, when a squad from the other end of Poplar came to help.

The victims were fire-brigade personnel, ambulance men, and a complete mobile operating theatre, [which was] billeted next to our depot, in the swimming baths, and always left for Saunders Ness when the sirens sounded.

(Bill Regan’s moving wartime diaries have been published by his daughter Ann, and are available from Amazon: Heavy Rescue Squad Work on the Isle of Dogs: Bill Regan’s Diary from the Second World War).

Cubitt Town School after the bombing

Significant damage also occurred in the night of 19th and 20th April 1941, when a parachute mine destroyed many houses in Billson St, Parsonage St and the surrounding area, killing many. Bill Regan again:

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.

Billson St and Parsonage St. Photo: Bill Regan.

One statistic makes clear the extent of the damage during WWII: 75% of the houses that were present in Cubitt Town at the start of the war were either destroyed or considered unfit for habitation by the end of the war. The following map and photo show the areas around Billson Street which were in some way damaged (to varying degrees):

As a temporary measure, the post-war housing problem was partially solved by the construction of Orlit houses and prefabs. The following map (a bit vague, sorry), shows the prefabs built in Cubitt Town South (from the article, Island Prefabs):


Prefabs in Stebondale St, photo taken from corner with Glengarnock Ave.

Being detached bungalows, prefabs were not an efficient use of space, and by the end of the war the council was investigating how to quickly and cheaply build two-storey, terraced houses. Messrs Orlit Ltd of Buckingham Gate proposed prefabricated houses constructed with precast reinforced concrete (PRC), designed by the Czech architect Ervin Katona who had immigrated to England in 1938.

In 1945, German and Italian prisoners of war were drafted in to clear the sites, and construction commenced in November. In the following image, a still from an Imperial War Museum film, 3 ft foundations have been prepared for the houses on Parsonage St. and Billson St. In the background on the left is the Builder’s Arms pub which backed on to Millwall Park on Stebondale St.

In February 1946, after a construction lasting just 3 months, the first semi-detached pair of homes was officially opened in Billson St by Alderman C. W. Key, MP for Bow and Bromley, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health.

Official Orlit opening (Billson St)

The first proud family were Ann and John Atheis and their children who moved into number 16. They were undoubtedly happy with their three bedroom home with living-room, kitchen, bathroom and WC. Cookers and wash-boilers were provided, the costs of which were added to the rent.

Atheis Family

Billson St, 1948

For a detailed history of Island Orlits, see: Home Sweet, Defective Home.

1945 Plans are announced to unite the three parishes of Christ Church, St John and St Luke, with Christ Church as the parish church. Father Kingdon of St. John’s was not happy about it, and registered his protest.

Protest letter, Rev, Kingdon

1962  Opening of Betty May Gray House. Mrs Gray, who had no connection with the Society, or indeed with East London, had died in 1933, leaving the residue of her estate to be devoted ‘to the furtherance of practical measures of slum clearance’. The Isle of Dogs Housing Society managed to secure some of this money and built the block on land occupied by a couple of prefabs, a few bomb-damaged buildings and a debris.

In the same year, writer and broadcaster Dan Farson becomes the landlord of the Newcastle Arms, renaming it the Waterman’s Arms.

Farson (1927-1997)  was the son of American journalist James Negley Farson (prior to WWII, Dan had accompanied his father on an assignment to Germany and was patted on the head by Adolf Hitler, who thought he looked like a ‘good Aryan boy’). In his 1997 obituary by the Independent newspaper, the opening paragraph summed him up as, “Mythomaniacal, egotistical, and often unable to tell the truth or the difference between it and fiction –  the character of Daniel Farson – photographer, writer, and drunk .”

He was inspired to run his own pub, and create within it an old style music hall atmosphere, after making a documentary for Rediffusion about East End pub entertainment, at a time when he was living 92 Narrow St in Limehouse. He was fascinated by the local characters and pub culture (in addition to the sexual possibilities offered by visiting sailors).

After a major revamp, including creation of a plushly-decorated stage with a painted backdrop showing the Royal Naval College in Greenwich as viewed from Island Gardens a couple of hundred yards up Saunders Ness Rd, the Waterman’s Arms was ready to do business. It was a hit from the start – with well-known performers appearing on stage, and the rich and famous making their way along Manchester Rd to see and be seen.  Locals at the time recalled seeing Clint Eastwood, Francis Bacon (a good friend of Farson’s), Brian Epstein, journalist Nancy Spain, Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, and many others. For the full story, see Waterman’s Arms.

Roger Mitchell (sometimes known as Henry Champion at that time) performing on stage with the resident band, possibly the John Gale Trio. Photo courtesy of Roger Mitchell.

Dan Farson behind the bar.

Also that year, the Manchester Estate between Pier St, Manchester Rd and Seyssel St was built.

Manchester Estate shortly after opening

1963 Completion of the first part of the Schooner Estate, consisting of Galleon House, Capstan House and Nos 19–41 (odd) Glengarnock Avenue/Nos 139–149 (odd) Manchester Road.

Clearance of last-remaining houses (after WWII) to make room for the Schooner Estate. If you were to take a photo from the same place today, you would be standing outside the main entrance of George Green’s School and looking at the side of Galleon House. In the background of the old photo are houses and prefabs in Stebondale St.

Queenie Watts in Schooner St (renamed from Ship St in the 30s), with Galleon House being built in the background.

1964 The former Cumberland Oil Mills premises close.

1965 The congregations of St John’s and Christ Church are combined and Christ Church is rededicated as the Church of Christ and St John.

The site of the Builder’s Arms is acquired by the LCC, and incorporated into Millwall Park.

Completion of the last part of the Schooner Estate, consisting of Carvel, Clipper and Frigate Houses.

Schooner Estate shortly after opening

1966 Demolition of the Christ Church church hall and Billson Street buildings, which were damaged during WWII.

1966. The view from Galleon House, with a view of the clearance of prefabs to make room for the construction of the estate to which our family would move a couple of years later.

My flats not long after opening

1969 A boathouse for the Poplar, Blackwall & District Rowing Club is built on Calder’s Wharf. The club had been using a former North Greenwich station shed as premises.

Construction of the rowing club.

July. Five firemen and a demolition worker are killed, and five more firemen seriously injured, after an explosion in oil storage tanks at Dudgeon’s Wharf. The tanks were being demolished when a fire broke out. The fire was extinguished and the firemen were checking the site when the explosion occurred.

East London Advertiser

1971 The Globe Rope Works is closed and the buildings are demolished.

1972 Land to the east of the Christ Church, on Saunders Ness Rd, is sold for private housing.

Construction of what we called ‘the posh houses’ in Saunder’s Ness Road.

Cubitt Town School moves to the former Glengall Rd school premises. The former Cubitt Town school premises are occupied by St Luke’s Primary school, which transfers from West Ferry Rd.

Plans for a new mixed secondary school for 900 pupils, replacing the old George Green’s School in East India Dock Road, are approved by the Inner London Education Authority, thanks to protests and demands by Islanders in the years after their Unliteral Declaration of Independence (see “It Was All a Bit of a Joke”).

Architectural model of George Green’s School

Construction of George Green’s School meant the demolition of a large number of shops and houses along Manchester Rd and in the side streets, Brig St, Schooner St and Barque St.

1960. Mrs Stewart’s shop. (Island History Trust)

Suffragette and Labour activist Nellie Cresall entering the shop at 114 Manchester Rd. Screenshot from “Postscript to Empire”, 1962

Manchester Rd – Tremain’s Chip Shop – 1960 Mrs Martin, courtesy Sue Law

1973 The Isle of Dogs Police Station at 126 Manchester Rd is demolished.

Manchester Road police station, shortly before demolition. Old Police Station

1976 A gas explosion destroys No. 13 Parsonage Street and badly damages No. 15. Nobody is hurt.

Dad, friends and neighbours having a break from their Sunday football game in Millwall Park (can’t remember if this took place before or after the lunchtime session in the pub). Photo: Mick Lemmerman

1977 Mudchute land is leased to the Mudchute Association through Tower Hamlets Borough Council and a farm and garden are established.

Early days of the Mudchute Farm. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

Manchester Road, with the George Green construction site on the right.

George Green’s School and Centre are officially opened.


1987 Opening of the original Island Gardens DLR station, as the southern terminus of the initial system. It was built adjacent to the site of the old North Greenwich Railway Station.

Construction of the original Island Gardens DLR Station. Photo: Sophia Pettman

During (unofficial) testing, one of the trains overshot the end of the line.

March 1987

1988 The remaining buildings of the former Cumberland Oils Mills – chiefly a range of brick sheds and a chimney shaft – are cleared away for the Cumberland Mills residential development.

Newcastle Draw Dock, with the remains of Cumberland Oil Mills on the right.

This is where my story stops, close to 1990 and the opening of 1 Canada Square and other buildings in Canary Wharf. Why? For a number of reasons:

  • The demolition of so much of the Island’s industrial heritage – as typified by the previous photo – marks the end of an era in the strictest sense. The Island was marshland before the coming of the docks and industry, and for two centuries these factors greatly influenced what the Isle of Dogs was, and what it meant to live here (even after WWII when so much was destroyed). The arrival of the LDDC changed that fundamentally.
  • So much has changed since 1990 that it would require a whole article (or even a books) to do describe it properly.
  • The period since 1990 is very recent history, and – although it’s more than obvious that the changes are massive and fundamental – I think it is too soon to place events in a longer term historical perspective. If we look back further, over longer periods, it is easier to identity what was significant and what was characteristic of the time.

And also, if you remember, Cumberland Oil Mills appeared in the one of the first photo of this article. It’s demolition seems a logical place to also conclude.

[I had to omit loads of wonderful photos when preparing this article, unfortunately, but you always see them all at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/islandhistory/collections ]

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A Wander Around the Block Near the City Arms

The City Arms (later in life named City Pride) is no more, demolished just a few years ago, to be replaced by yet another tower.

To the left, a glimpse of the West India Dock Impounding Station, a pump house whose job is to maintain the level of the water in the docks – one of  the few ‘original’ industrial buildings still standing on the Island.

The small area around the City Arms, as shown in the following satellite image, saw some of the earliest development of industry on the Island, and has a rich history. So much so that this article took days to produce, instead of the few hours I imagined.

For much of the 18th century there wasn’t much of note down the west side of the Island, just a few windmills connected by a riverside path.


The west side of the Island was exposed to prevailing westerly winds blowing across the river and was particularly suitable for windmills. Joel Gascoyne’s 1703 map, “Survey of the Parish of St Dunstan’s, Stepney” shows seven mills – inspiration for the naming of Seven Mills Primary School on the Barkantine Estate.


There were more mills at other times – this 1750 map (created for ship’s navigation, so short on land features) has nine. I’ve counted a total of thirteen on various maps.


Sir Charles Price’s Oil Mill

I have highlighted in the map above the area covered by this article, which includes a windmill named the ‘Oil House’ (it was also known as the ‘First Mill’). The mill changed ownership many times during the 18th century, and was extended during this period to include – apart from an oil mill – a two-storey dwelling house with cellars, and a two-oven bakehouse and a granary. Eventually, the premises were known as Sir Charles Price’s Oil Mills, and one part of the site was made into an oil refinery. The owner, Charles Price (1747-1818) was a wealthy oil-man and banker, who became first an alderman of the City, then an MP, before eventually becoming Lord Mayor of London (in 1803).

West India Docks & City Canal

The peninsula that was the Isle of Dogs changed fundamentally on the construction of the West India Docks (opened in 1802) and the City Canal (opened in 1805), both of which are described in a previous article, An Elevated View of the New Docks & Warehouses now constructing on the Isle of Dogs near Limehouse.

Plans for the City Canal and West India Docks (western end), 1799

The Gut House

A number of buildings in the north west of the Island, including the Gut House tavern (see The Poplar Gut for more information) had to make way for the construction of the canal and docks. The landlord of the Gut House rebuilt his pub just north of the new canal (map above shows the original site of the tavern).

The Gut House

Business Opportunities

Survey of London:

The building of the City Canal left a large area of surplus land between the west entrance lock and the marsh wall. The City was quick to exploit this valuable though as yet unembanked property, letting it in 1807 in three plots, each with river frontages of 95ft …. [one of the plots going in 1809 to Coulson & Co. who] built an iron foundry, reputedly London’s largest, called the Canal Iron Works.


The opening of the West India Docks also led to the revival of the fortunes of the Greenwich Ferry. Survey of London:

During the late eighteenth century the ferrying of horses and cattle appears to have been discontinued, footpassengers only being conveyed, but with the opening of the West India Docks the need for a regular horse-ferry revived. In the early nineteenth century a rival ferry service was set up by the Poplar and Greenwich Ferry Roads Company, both operators sharing the old landingplace, though not harmoniously. The Potter’s Ferry Society twice destroyed the company’s toll-gates-claiming that prospective passengers were using the Deptford Ferry in preference to Potter’s Ferry, to avoid having to pay the road toll — and the two bodies were involved in much litigation. During the 1840s the horse-ferry was discontinued, and in 1868 the company assigned its rights in the ferry to the society. In 1878 the society sold out to private operators and was itself subsequently dissolved.

The section of road from the canal to the Rope Walk (location of the present-day Cuba Street) was named Ord Street, a name it retained until the 1890s. The much longer section from there to the ferry was known as the ‘Deptford and Greenwich Road’ until it was renamed ‘West Ferry Road’ in the 1860s.

In 1811, the road from Limehouse to the City Canal (then known as Bridge Road, later part of West Ferry Road) was realigned. The Gut House was displaced yet again, for the second time in just over a decade. The landlord built his new pub just south of the City Canal and named it City Arms.

Seaward and Capel

In 1824 John Seaward (1786-1858) took over the Canal Iron Works, later joined by his brother Samuel and engineer James Capel.

John Seaward was a Jack of all trades, and master of a few of them. He was born the son of a builder in Lambeth, and initially worked with his father as a surveyor and architect. Later he managed lead mines in Wales, where he acquired a knowledge of chemistry, and became friendly with a few well known mechanical engineers of the period. Upon his return to London he oversaw the construction of a number of docks on the Thames, and became an agent for the Gospel Oak Ironworks in Staffordshire.  Seaward was at the same time connected with the Imperial Continental Gas Association and introduced gas lighting to several towns in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. (I’m getting worn out just listing his different employments.)

Survey of London:

They also designed large swing bridges, dredging machines, cranes, and other dock apparatus, plus machinery for lead, saw, and sugar mills. Among the improvements and inventions for which John Seaward was personally responsible were tubular boilers, which were used by the Royal Navy, disconnecting cranks for paddle-wheel engines, the telescopic funnel, self-acting nozzles for feed and for regulating the saturation of the water in marine boilers, double passages in cylinders both for steam and education, cheese-couplings used to connect and disconnect screw propellers to and from engines, and other minor improvements.

In 1850 the company built what is considered to be one if its finest works, engines for the RMS Amazon, a ship constructed for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. at Blackwall Yard by R. & H. Green (an early incarnation of R. and H. Green and Silley Weir). Unfortunately, the vessel was destroyed by fire off the Isle of Scilly on her first passage to the West Indies in 1852. The cause of the fire was never established.

The loss of the RMS Amazon

Samuel Seaward died in 1842 and James Capel left the firm in 1856, so – when John Seaward died in 1858 – the yard was auctioned. Canal Iron Works were taken over by William Jackson and Richard Watkins.

Marine engines continued to be built at the yard until 1882, when the site was sold to preserved-provisions manufacturer, J. T. Morton, who was expanding his Millwall factory.

The Toll-Gate

Ord Street in 1862.

Millwall Gate is a reference to the toll gate just north of Robert Street (later renamed Cuba Street). In 1885, the tolls were abolished and the toll gates in West Ferry Road and at the north end of East Ferry Road were ceremoniously closed.

Cermonial closure fof West Ferry Road toll-gate, 9th May 1885. Looking south towards Cuba Street (Morton’s is recognizable on the right)


John Thomas Morton was a provision merchant from Aberdeen who built up a large and successful business exporting canned and other preserved food. He opened his Millwall factory in 1872, and after his death in the 1897 the company was run by his sons Charles and Edward.

The firm was one of the biggest employers on the Island, and is renowned for being the birthplace of Millwall FC (described in full in: Millwall FC – The Millwall Year(s)). Their first factory was constructed on the site of Sir Charles Price’s Oil Mills:


By 1895, their factory had expanded to take over the site of Canal Iron Works in the north, and the Oil Works on the east side of West Ferry Road (which probably were also part of Sir Charles Price’s oil mills).


Morton named his wharf, “Sufferance Wharf”. Formally and legally, a place of “sufferance” was:

A place appointed by order under the hands of the Commissioners of Customs and Excise for the lading and unlading of goods liable to Customs duties (Section 14, Customs Consolidation Act, 1876)

A sufferance wharf was thus a licensed private wharf where dutiable goods could be kept until the duty is paid.

Morton’s workers

Morton’s workers

It was during the expansion of his Millwall factory that Morton constructed a number of buildings which were still standing a century later.

Morton’s from the river

Morton’s from the river

Morton’s from the river

Morton’s from the river

Morton’s from the river

Morton’s Workers

Westferry Road, opposite the City Arms

Westferry Road, opposite the City Arms

In the previous photo, Beecham’s can be seen on the left.  The Beecham’s company took over Morton’s in 1945 and gradually ran down the Millwall works (concentrating their Morton’s activities in Lowestoft instead). The distinctive Beecham’s building was built around 1950, on the corner of Westferry Road and Cuba Street, on the site of part of Morton’s factory that had been destroyed during World War II.


Westferry Road (foreground), Cuba Street heading up to the river. c1949




Cuba Street, Beecham’s Right

As mentioned, Morton’s also had premises on the other side of Westferry Road.

Morton’s from Westferry Road. On the right Cuba Stree heading east, and a hint of the Blacksmith’s Arms

Looking north up Westferry Road.

Same view later (Photo: Peter Wright)

Rear of Morton’s, Westferry Road, East Side

These buildings lasted longer than those on the west side of Westferry Road, and still had an industrial use until their demolition in 2007.

Looking through the gates (Photo: Steve White)

Cuba Street (East)

Cuba Street was originally named Robert Street, after Robert Batson on whose land it was constructed, along the south edge of a “Rope Ground”. This was a ropewalk, built shortly after the arrival of West India Docks, obviously intending to capitalise on business offered by the many sailing ships in the proximity. Wikipedia:

A ropewalk is a long straight narrow lane, or a covered pathway, where long strands of material are laid before being twisted into rope. Ropewalks historically were harsh sweatshops, and frequently caught fire, as hemp dust ignites easily and burns fiercely. Rope was essential in sailing ships and the standard length for a British Naval Rope was 1000 ft. A sailing ship such as HMS Victory required 31 miles (50 km) of rope.

The original owners of the ropeworks were Joad & Curling. George Joad (1764-1837) also made money selling mortgages to Jamaican slave-owners, even managing to acquire some estates in Jamaica as compensation from mortgage defaulters.


Survey of London:

About 1860 the ropeworks was occupied by the newly incorporated Telegraph Cable Company Ltd. Wire-rope and cables were manufactured at the works by a succession of companies until the mid-1880s. The western part of the site, fronting Westferry Road, then became the Royal Iron Works of Messrs Whitford & Company… Whitfords’ products included iron churches, bridges, staircases, tomb railings, verandas, fireproof floors and lightning conductors. In 1910 the works were sold to C. & E. Morton Ltd.

1895. Already used in this article, but repeated here for the sake of convenience.

Next to the Royal Iron Works, in 1887 Stephens, Smith & Company took a 63-year lease of No. 40 Cuba Street, which then comprised several old sheds, part of the ropeworks. These were soon replaced by a brick-built factory with a lofty skylighted roof.

Stephens, Smith & Company ceased to trade in 1969, by which time the Cuba Street works were in the occupation of another engineering company. For many years part of the building was sublet to a succession of firms, including F. F. Scott & Sons, shipping butchers and meat packers, who installed refrigeration plant in the early 1920s. The building, disused by the late 1980s, was demolished in 1990.

F. F. Scott vans and lorry in Cuba Street. c1930

F. F. Scott, Interior

40 Cuba Street (R)

40 Cuba Street (L)

40 Cuba Street (L)

West India Dock Pier

At the other end of Cuba Street, on the riverfront, was West India Dock Pier (now known as West India Pier). The original pier was built in 1875 by the East and West India Dock Company (as it was named at that time), as a place for City wool merchants to board or alight boats when visiting the new wool warehouses in the West India South Dock.

1920s. West India Dock Pier. Photo: Richard Milton



The pier was destroyed by bombing in 1941, and was not rebuilt until 1950. Possibly it would never have been rebuilt had it not been designated to serve visitors to the Festival of Britain Live Architecture Exhibition at the newly-built Lansbury Estate in 1951.

1951. Festival of Britain visitors

The pier has also appeared on screen.

Screenshot from the film, Four in the Morning, 1965

Screenshot from the film, Four in the Morning, 1965

Including being featured in a promo film made by Nico for her 1965 song, “I’m Not Sayin”.


Further Up Westferry Road

Between the old Morton’s buildings and the City Arms was, in the Seventies, as far as I remember, a rather plain box-shaped building, just in view on the right in this photo.

Westferry Road. Left, the old Morton’s warehouses. Right. City Arms

There also used to be houses here:


The remains of which can be seen in this photo:

But not in this one, which was taken a little further south:

Photo: Peter Wright. Beecham’s on the right. 

City Arms

Survey of London:

[City Arms] stands on ground purchased by the Corporation of London for the City Canal and developed in 1811–17 with two short rows of houses, Ord Street and Montague Place. Six 61-year building leases for 30ft-wide plots on the east side of the street were granted in 1811. James Oughton, proprietor of the Gut House, took the northernmost plot, on which he built the City Arms and Canal Tavern, a simple block with a three-bay north entrance front. The houses in Montague Place (renamed Osborn Close in 1937) were pulled down in the 1940s, following bomb damage.

Image and text: Island History Trust

Not long after this photo was taken, the brewers Mann, Crossman & Paulin acquired the vacant sites of Nos 5–9 Westferry Road, and in 1936 built a much larger, detached building.

Later, the pub would be renamed City Pride.

Impounding Station

The impounding station is a pump house that maintains the water level in the West India and Millwall Docks. It is built over what was originally an entrance lock to the West India Docks. Survey of London:

In 1856, when the outer gates of the lock had been removed for repair, the inner gates gave way at low tide and the South Dock suddenly emptied, scattering shipping. New inner gates were supplied by Hack & Son. The outer gates were replaced in 1863, by Westwood, Baillie & Company, presumably in iron. The dock company considered rebuilding the lock in 1877-82, but did not do so, perhaps because this was the least important entrance at the West India Docks. Its closure was determined in 1887, but it remained open until 1891.

The PLA built an impounding station over the lock in the 1920s, with pump-discharge pipes and sluicing-culverts, after first damming it with mass-concrete. The impounding station is still operating to this day.

What Happened Next?

Simply, everything was demolished (apart from the impounding station), that’s what happened next. The riverside Morton’s factories and warehouses were demolished in the 1980s.


To be replaced by Cascades, amongst other buildings.

Photo: Ken Lynn

Beechams was demolished, to be replaced by a block of something.

The former Morton’s buildings east of Westferry Road kept going for a while, until their demolition in 2007.

Photo: Peter Wright

Photo: Peter Wright

The West India Docks Pier’s been looking a bit sad, but I think these photos are a few years old.

The City Pride stuck it out for a while – even seemed to be doing quite well in the shadow of the new buildings,

But the value of the land on which is stood was much and much more than could be earned from pulling pints or putting on drag queen acts (might be going back a bit, there).

I’ve long given up caring about how the Island’s industrial heritage has been totally neglected and destroyed, but preparing this article has been saddening. I don’t expect us to preserve the past in pickle (do you see what I did there – a Morton’s reference), but Millwall was for many decades the centre of innovative engineering of global influence. This article covers just a small part of it – and I left out a lot in order to keep things brief – every street corner, every street, is drenched in history – and most of us don’t know it.

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