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Yearly Archives: 2012

Paper Boats in the Docks


Photo Philip Vile

The recent cold dark evenings  have been brightened up by the   Voyage installation which consists of three hundred floating ‘paper boats’, encasing coloured dynamic LED lights   in the Canary Wharf Middle Dock

Created by Aether & Hemera . Aether is Claudio Benghi, the media architect; Hemera is Gloria Ronchi, the lighting artist.

According to the artists the work is :

The etymon of the word ‘voyage’ comes from Latin ’viāticum’, which means ’provision for travelling’, and the aim of the artwork is to allow viewers to travel and sail with absolute freedom to all the places they care to imagine.Colourful paper boats’ on the water invites everyone to make a transition from reality to imagination, reliving childhood memories and embracing our freedom; blurring the lines between the real and hyper-real, ‘Voyage’ invites the thoughts of the visitors to cross the borders of their imagination.

Voyage installation is designed to be an interactive experience; people can engage with it and impact on the behaviour of the lights from their mobile phone.

All that might be slightly over the top , but it is great fun.

Dickens visit to Terra Incognito


Picture from Greenwich Maritime Museum

We cannot enter into the christmas period without a contribution by Charles Dickens, however we will forego his more popular works and concentrate on his exploring expedition to the Isle of Dogs in the 1850s. Although there may be an element of tongue in cheek , Dickens is probably correct that many people would be more familiar with the continent than Terra Incognito.

We have a theory that, if among the metropolitans resident westward of Temple Bar, all those who have travelled to the Rhine were collected into one group, and all those who have explored the Isle of Dogs were to form another, we have a theory, we say, that the former group would constitutethe larger of the two. For this mythical Isle has very much the character of a terra incognita. There is a vague supposition that it lies somewhere opposite Greenwich; but, even whether it be an island, is not by any means well known. If from the top of Observatory Hill we have a penny peep through a pensioner’s telescope, and direct it towards a greenish-looking spot on the Middlesex shore,we may learn that this is the Isle of Dogs ; but neither dogs nor men are to be seen there, and we wonder how on earth such an uninhabited island came to be pitched down between busy Blackwall and busy Limehouse. On further examination we find it to be a low, level, marshy field, fringed with factories and taverns, and inhabited by a few cows. There may possibly be half a dozen trees on this island of “the blessed.” but we will not positively assert it as a fact. Nevertheless, as Robinson Crusoe’s island was found on examination to contain objects of some interest to  that admirable explorer, so, we hope, will the Isle of Dogs be found not altogether a desolate and profitless island.

 The reader has, of course, been in Waterman number twelve, and has probably heard orders given to ease her (the Waterman), and stop her (the Waterman), and put her (the Waterman) a-starn, at Limehouse pier. He is then on the western confines of the Isle of Dogs. Or, he may be returning from a review at Woolwich, in the Dryad, and may be listening to the same mysterious instruction concerning easing her, and stopping her, and putting her a-starn, at Blackwall. He is then on the eastern confines of the Isle of Dogs. Or, he may be travelling over the chimney-pots from Fenchurch Street” to Blackwall, and may have a magnificent view of the sugar-warehouses belonging to the West India Docks. He is then a little beyond the northern or land-ward margin of the Isle of Dogs. Or, lastly, he may cross the river by the ferry for Greenwich, to take that smallest of all metropolitan omnibusesfrom Millwall to Limehouse. He is then (at the Millwall Ferry House) on the southern confines of the Isle of Dogs. Thus have we, on the true principles of a geographical Primer, marked out the limits and boundary of the Isle of Dogs, as determined by the four cardinal points.

Dive ! Dive ! Dutch Submarine in West India Dock

DSC01128H.M Bruinvis in West India Dock

There was considerable excitement in West India Dock today with the visit of the Dutch Submarine H.M. Bruinvis.

Although quite old ,the walrus class submarine created a lot of interest in the shadows of Canary Wharf .We are used to seeing all different types of vessels, however a submarine so far from the coast is something of a rarity.


T’is the season to be jolly


As we enter the season of the Office Party, the sight of drunken office workers  rolling and reeling around Canary Wharf could lead many to believe “Binge Drinking” is a modern phenomenon .

However we might have to reconsider if we read the following excerpt from Seven Year’s Hard, a book written by Richard William Free who was a clergyman who come to work in Isle of Dogs in 1897.

Christmas is the thankfully acknowledged time for
the most glorious ” drunk ” of the whole year. Then
our friend the working-man will go to the public-house
and lay his golden sovereigns on the counter, with in-
structions that he is to have drink as long as the
money lasts. When he becomes incapable, he reels
home, or is carried home, and ” sleeps it off.” On
returning to consciousness, back he goes and repeats
the process. If there is still a balance on his deposit
account, he will go at it again and again until it is
exhausted. Many a man has five or six such bouts
during the Christmas holidays.

Worse still, mere children of from thirteen to sixteen
years old will be seen in the open streets, in the glare of
the morning, maudlin or utterly helpless. On Christmas
Eve the factory girl will draw out of her wine-club every
penny she has been saving for weeks past, and will
spend the whole of it on cake (a little) and liquor
(much). I have known her to knock off work at one,
and be dead drunk by five.

It’s a East End Christmas (Call the Midwife and Ripper Street)

midwife_2410215bPhoto BBC/Neal Street Productions/Laurence Cendrowicz

Other than the usual drama’s in Albert Square, this year’s East End television treats are the 1950’s drama Call the Midwife and the more well-worn path of 1890s Whitechapel in Ripper Street.

Call the Midwife is based on a series of books written by Jennifer Worth who worked as a midwife in the Poplar area in the 1950s, the books are a fascinating mix of social history and stories of some of the characters she worked with and dealt with.

The 50’s was a traumatic time for the East End and the Isle of Dogs in particular.

The bombing of the Docks had made thousands homeless with little public funds for rebuilding.

Therefore many of the tenements were generally overcrowded and poorly maintained.

Although the docks were still busy it was to be their swan song , for within a generation they would be run down and neglected.

It was also a time of large families and countless social problems, however few could have guessed that the swinging sixties was only a few years away.

One theme the books also deals with is the loss of community and how the transformation of social housing in particular led to the dispersal of Eastenders who had lived here for generations going to the new towns of Essex in particular.

Ripper Street is more straightforward , the fascination with Jack the Ripper shows no sign of abating , this series is just another variation on the theme of the Ripper story.

Jennifer Worth Books are available in the shop

Mines a couple of Belgians and a Estonian

DSC01091 (591x480)

More visitors to West India Dock  The Estonian Navy mine countermeasures vessel Sakala M314 and the Belgian Navy mine countermeasures vessel Narcis M923  sit slongside The Belgian Mine countermeasures support vessel Godetia A960. They are part of  a fleet that has been touring around UK and France. It interesting to note that Estonian ship Sakala was originally owned by the Royal Navy as HMS INverness until sold to Estonia in 2005.

Mapping the Blitz


Churchill visiting the East End

Today saw the launch of a  new interactive map which shows  the scale of the German aerial assault on London during World War II. The Bomb Sight project showing where individual bombs fell during one of the most intense periods of the Blitz. The map uses information from a ‘bomb census’ between 1/10/1940 and 06/06/1941 .

The Isle of Dogs and docks were a prime target and the data shows that 1259 High Explosive Bombs and 32 parachute mines were dropped on the Tower Hamlets area in this period.

The map is only one part of the site that includes photographs from the Imperial War Museum and oral history from the BBC People’s War archive to give some idea of the terror of the blitz.

Here is an excerpt from the People’s War archive

Our neighbour, Mrs Greenaway, a quiet lady who had a husband who was on a night-shift at the Tate and Lyle sugar factory at Wandsworth, had a very sad experience. One night when he was at the factory, it was hit by a V2 rocket and everyone was killed. As this was a V2 rocket there was no air raid warning and his wife knew absolutely nothing about this until the next morning when she heard some women talking about it in the queue at the local butchers. They said that Tate and Lyle had had a direct hit in the night and she immediately dashed over there on the bus, a distance of about 2 miles, only to find that it had been completely demolished. She staggered about desperately on the rubble until a policeman came over to her and asked her what she was doing. She explained that she was looking for her husband and was told that tragically there were no survivors. She was so helpless and, in utter shock, blindly found her way home. She must have been completely overwrought which resulted in her immediately gassing herself without even stopping to think about it. Her 12 year old daughter Joan discovered her body on returning home from school that day. Sadly when she left for school in the morning, she thought that both her parents were alive. Poor distraught Joan had no alternative but to go and live with her devastated grandparents. This was one of the many tragic statistics of the war. Another one was when I was at school and my art teacher, Mr Carpenter, went home for lunch one day which he did regularly, only to find that his house had been bombed and his wife and young son had been killed. Such was the misery of war.


Kids clearing a bomb area

If you wish to visit the Bombsight Project press here

Start of the Coldest Journey


One of the joys of living on the Isle of Dogs is that West India Docks  are still used by vessels and when it gets busy you get a little bit of the excitement of what it was like when it was a working dock.

One of our latest visitors is the expedition ship SA Agulhas.

On 6th December, the SA Agulhas will set off from London on what will be the start of the world’s first ever attempt to cross the Antarctic in winter.

The 2000-mile  winter traverse of the Antarctic is considered the last great polar challenge, the expedition will be  led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes – with the six man team exposing themselves to temperatures dropping close to -90c and operating in near permanent darkness.

A fund-raising initiative will run side-by-side with the expedition with the aim of raising $10m for Seeing is Believing to help fight blindness around the world.

Having never been attempted, the expedition will also provide unique and invaluable scientific research that will help climatologists, as well as forming the basis for an education programme that will reach up to 100,000 schools.

Coming on the centenary of the death of Scott in his ill fated polar adventure, we wish them all the best.


The Ship in it’s more usual environment

If you want to find out more visit  about the expediton click here ,where you can if you wish  donate to the Seeing is Believing charity

Thomas Burke visits the Isle of Dogs 1915

Photo Jas Harbert Millwall Docks 1915

Thomas Burke was a writer who at the turn of the 20th Century wrote a series of books about London.

He was fascinated by everyday life and his books were often a mixture of anecdotes and travelogues  and became very popular just before and after the first World War.

He knew Poplar and Limehouse very well and often made an excursion to the Isle of Dogs.

Here is an excerpt from his book Nights in London from a chapter called A Workers Night (Isle of Dogs).

I am not of those who share the prevailing opinions of the Isle of Dogs: I do not see it as a haunt of greyness and distress. To the informed mind it is full and passionate. Every one of its streets is a sharp-flavoured adventure. Where others find insipidity I find salt and fire. Its shapes and sounds and silences and colours have allured me from first acquaintance. For here, remember, are the Millwall Docks, and here, too, is Cubitt Town…. Of course, like all adorable things, it has faults. I am ready to confess that the cheap mind, which finds Beauty only in that loathly quality called Refinement, will suffer many pains by a sojourn in its byways. It will fill them with ashen despair. In the old jolly days it was filthy; it was full of perils, smelly, insanitary, crumbling; but at least one could live in it. To-day it has been taken in hand by those remote Authorities who make life miserable for us. It is reasonably clean; it is secure; the tumbling cottages have been razed, and artisans’ dwellings have arisen in their stead. Its high-ways—Glengall Road, East Ferry Road, Manchester Road—are but rows of uniform cottages, with pathetically small front gardens and frowzy “backs,” which, throughout the week, flap dismally with the most intimate items of their households’ underwear. Its horizon is a few grotto-like dust-shoots, decorated with old bottles and condensed-milk tins.

It is, I admit, the ugly step-child of parishes; but, then, I love all ugly step-children. It is gauche and ridiculous. It sprawls. It is permanently overhung with mist. It has all the virtues of the London County Council, and it is very nearly uninhabitable. Very nearly uninhabitable … but not quite.

And the colour…. There is nothing in the world like it for depth and glamour. I know no evenings so tender as those that gather about the Island: at once heartsome and subdued. The colour of street and sky and water, sprinkled with a million timid stars, is an ecstasy. You cannot name it. You see it first as blue, then as purple, then lilac, rose, silver. The clouds that flank the high-shouldered buildings and chimneys share in these subtle changes, and shift and shift from definite hues to some haunting scheme that was never seen in any colourman’s catalogue.