While I’ve never really been a fan of Canary Wharf – a soulless place where you could be anywhere in the world, as I’ve written before – I do admit to having made use of a number of shops over the years. Few of the visitors to the mall or people working in one of the skyscrapers that represent Britain’s financial heart, opt to explore little else of the Isle of Dogs beyond this mini-Manhattan. As I myself have only recently discovered, wandering south along this little peninsula can be a fascinating experience.
Glitzy apartments – which must have amazing views across the Thames and beyond from the upper floors – are springing up left, right and centre on the northern half of the peninsula. But head south and the construction work is less hectic. You wouldn’t believe how much pleasant green space is hidden away here, with plenty of parkland for families to enjoy.
I opted to explore the Isle of Dogs on foot (keep an eye out for the network of information boards). But following the arrival of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in 1987 (with extensions added later) the transport links are excellent. In one direction, the driverless trains head towards the City and Stratford, while the other way – after passing under the Thames to connect with Greenwich – the line now stretches as far as Lewisham.
As for where the name Isle of Dogs comes from, there are a number of different theories – none of which can be proven correct it seems. Brewer’s 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says for example: “So called from being the receptacle of the greyhounds of Edward III. Some say it is a corruption of the Isle of Ducks, and that it is so called in ancient records from the number of wild fowl inhabiting the marshes.” Others have suggested that Henry VIII – who had a palace across the Thames at Greenwich – may have kept his dogs in farm buildings on the island. “These hounds frequently making a great noise, the seamen called the place the Isle of Dogs,” reported the East London History Society’s magazine in 1795.
Little happened (apart from housing perhaps dogs or ducks, as well as a few sparsely populated communities) on the Isle of Dogs until the late 18th century – as John Rocque’s 1747 map of London demonstrate. Vast new purpose-built, private docks were created then. Called West India Docks on account of those involved in trade with the West Indies and who financed the project, the first on three docks (which would be called in time North Dock) opened in 1802 and covered 30 acres. It was the creation of these docks that made the Isle of Dogs truly an island.
Merchants had become fed up with the congestion further down the Thames, where ships would sometimes have to wait for weeks before they could be unloaded. “In fact, the whole river, from the bridge to, for a vast way, is covered with a double forest of masts, with a narrow avenue in mid-channel,” noted one contemporary chronicler. During the time the ships waited, goods were often plundered or damaged, leaving the owners with big losses.
The merchants therefore lobbied hard for permission to build new docks with a secure outer perimeter wall. They were rewarded by the 1802 West India Act which gave the green light to the project and a 21 year monopoly on trade with that region to protect their investments. West India Docks was used to import a range of products, predominantly from the West India, such as sugar and rum.
The original docks consisted of North Dock – used for imports – and what would become known as Middle Dock, which was reserved for exports. Between them they had an official capacity of 600 vessels and the site was surrounded by a six metre high perimeter wall, which was protected by the company’s own private police force. Imported goods were stored in the complex in five-storey, brick-built warehouses designed by George Gwilit and his son (also George) – one of which is now the home of the Museum of London Docklands. Later, in 1805, the southern most of the three docks (which in time would become known as South Dock), was built to replace an unprofitable canal.
As a result of the development, the population on the Isle of Dogs grew to about 21,000 people in 1901 – a complete transformation given how barren it would have been little more than a century earlier.
But as ships became bigger and the use of heavy containers became the norm, the likes of West India Dock were no longer practical and shipping was moved to places like Tilbury. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s trade declined and West India Docks was officially closed to commercial traffic in 1980. Today, about 50 per cent of the original three pools remain intact – much of the middle one was filled in so that Canary Wharf could be built.
Dockyard development continues
The success of West India Docks persuaded others to be created, such as the vast L-shaped Millwall Docks which were predominantly used for timber and grain and survive largely intact. Built in the 1860s by some 4000 Irish navvies and supported by 200 horses, the pool – which is about seven metres deep – became surrounded by grimy industry, where chemicals were produced and distilling took place. The area was named after the the mills which stood on the marsh wall in the 17th and 18th centuries. Information panels showing pictures the dock in the 20th century bring the history of the area to life.
Following the closure of the docks here, numerous apartments have been built around the water’s edge in recent years – and more are on the way. Compared to the hustle and bustle that visitors here would once have witnessed, there was little activity on the actual water when I visited. On one side there is a floating Chinese restaurant and a few houseboats moored, while round the corner is the Poplar Sailing Club. Even though industry is long gone, three grey cranes remain in situ, to remain of times gone buy.
The vast Wheatsheaf Mill – owned by McDougal’s – was constructed in 1869 on the south side of Outer Dock and remained in place until it was demolished in 1980 (it was replaced by Mill Quay housing development). And until recently, the West Ferry Print Works operated here and was the largest newspaper print works in Europe, but these vast buildings now stand empty and permission has been granted to create more than 700 apartments in nine blocks up to 30 storeys high.
Further south still, you reach the Burrells Wharf development, which features a network of surviving 19th century listed industrial buildings (that have now been converted into attractive apartments). It was here that the Great Eastern – the largest steamship of the 19th century – was built and launched by John Scott Russell and Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1858 at the former’s shipyard (iron and shipbuilding boomed in Millwall and Blackwall in the 1840s).
Unlike Brunel’s other engineering projects, this was not a great success. Thousands turned out for what was supposed to be a grand launch, but the hydraulics were not powerful enough to be able to move the Great Eastern (which had to be positioned sideways anyway because it was so large) into the Thames. There were several other aborted launch attempts, but even once it was water-borne, it was deemed too expensive to run on its planned regular route to and from Australia. It was used to lay cables across the Atlantic, but after a number of other uses, such as being used as a floating amusement park in Liverpool, the Great Eastern was broken up just 30 years after having being built.
Brunel died a year after the Great Eastern was launched and some say it was the problems with the project that had brought about his worsening health. Part of Scott’s shipyard was developed in the 20th century into a pigment and dye factory. But fortunately, in amongst the recent development, one of the two slipways – complete with wooden rafters – that was used to launch the Great Eastern remains for visitors to see today.
Despite all the building work that has taken place on the Isle of Dogs over the years, it’s pleasing that so much greenery exists. Heading south from Canary Wharf, you reach Mudchute Park and Farm, which boasts “32 acres of countryside in the heart of East London”. Created on derelict land where the spoils of the aforementioned Millwall Dock were dumped, it was saved from development in 1974 (the Greater London Council who had earmarked as the site for a high rise housing estate). Regular tours can show visitors the full extent of the farm’s more than 100 animals. And there is also a very nice café here.
Not far from here is Millwall Park, which before it was created was the home of Millwall Football Club. The team took over the open field where cattle grazed in 1901 and needed to steam-roll the water-logged land to enable the playing surface to be suitable for the first match, against Aston Villa. Millwall was born out of a group of players from C & E Morton confectionary factory, which had two sites on the island. The club moved across the river to the Bermondsey area in 1910.
As well as all the parks on the Isle of Dogs (there are many more than I have described here), I also like the fact that not all of the housing is high rise. Many homes on the southern part of the peninsula are just two-storey and weren’t built for those on high incomes. Some of the long-standing residents of these are reported to be worried about the rapid development of the Isle of Dogs, fearing that the transport systems are adequate to cope with the rapid increase in residents.
On this note, Chapel House conservation area – which is opposite Millwall Park – is a fascinating place to explore. The houses here were largely built in the 1920s (although there are some that were erected in the late 19th century) to give ordinary ‘Islanders’ a decent standard of living. They echoed the garden city schemes of the interwar era and many boast a sizeable garden. Numerous tenants benefitted from the Right to Buy legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Elsewhere on the Isle of Dogs, attempts were made to create a new villa colony in the form of Cubbitt Town, but the middle classes could not be attracted. “They are for the most part countrymen imported some years back to break a combination of corn porters,” said Beatrice Webb of the Millwall dockers who came to instead occupy the houses. They were “cut off by their residence in the interior of the Isle of Dogs from the social influences of the East-end, they have retained many traits of provincial life.”
Transport – more specifically the DLR – has been the catalyst for the rapid development on the Isle of Dogs in recent years. The line opened in 1987 and is partly built on the site of an old railway line operated by London and Blackwall Railway that served dockers from the 1870s (and closed to passengers in the 1920s).
Originally operating only on weekdays to carry office workers, it now runs seven days a week and transports more than just those needing to reach the area for work. On the north of the Isle of Dogs peninsula, there is for example the aforementioned fascinating Museum of London Docklands which recounts the history of Maritime London. And the DLR extension from Island Gardens to Lewisham – which involved building a tunnel the Thames to reach Greenwich – opened in 1999.
My walk ended at a peaceful little park called Island Gardens – the most southerly point of the Isle of Dogs – which was created in the 1860s to give the pensioners at Greenwich Hospital (a place I’ve written about previously), directly across the Thames, something pleasant to look at. Trees were erected to mask the dirty industry that existed in these parts then. Maritime Greenwich may only be a short walk through the charming early 20th century foot tunnel – or one stop away on the DLR – but here it couldn’t be more tranquil.