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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Eric Pemberton’ s Postcards – Limehouse

Eric Pemberton has lived on the Isle of  Dogs for 30 years and is a well known figure working for the local community.

Eric has a great interest in local history and very kindly has given me access to some of his  collection of postcards and ephemera about the Isle of  Dogs and surrounding areas.

Over the next few months I will share these with you.

We start with Limehouse:


A postcard from early 20th century showing all the sights of Limehouse.

Commercial Road, West India Dock Rd, East India Dock Rd, Sailors Palace,Town Hall,

St Annes Church, Burdett Rd, Salmon Lane.


The Passmore Edwards Sailors Palace or Jack’s Palace as it was known was a hostel for Seamen.

It was well-known around the world for its superior accommodation

DSC01272       DSC01274   DSC01275     DSC01276

In 2013, the building still exists but has been turned into a block of flats.


Burdett Road going to Mile End by Horse Drawn Tram 1906.


A view of Limehouse from Commercial Road looking towards West India Dock Rd.


The original Charlie Brown was a legendary East End character, this was his son who ran a pub in Limehouse.


The Star of the East pub was run by the Baxter Family for many generations.


In 2013 It is still there with two original gas lamps outside.

From Communist Bloc to Bloc Party – The MS Stubnitz


A new visitor to West India Dock is the MS Stubnitz, a East German made ex fishing vessel which has been transformed into a floating cultural venue.

The MS Stubnitz was rescued from the scrapheap at the end of the cold war by Urs “Blo” Blaser a Swiss sound artist. He then set about transforming the ship into ” a moving platform of cultural research and exchange “.

Since 1998 the ship has travelled around the Baltic and the North Sea docking in cities such as Amsterdam,Copenhagen,Hamburg and St Petersburg.

It arrived last summer to be part of the Bloc Party/London Pleasure Gardens event which had to cancelled due to safety concerns. But has held a number of events in the Royal Docks where it was previously moored.




Starving in Victorian London – The Tragic Story of Catherine Spence

dore 5

The Docks night scene. Gustave Dore 1872

The 1850s was a boom time for the Isle of Dogs, the building of Brunel’s Great Eastern and other shipbuilding  on  the Island had attracted workers from all over the United Kingdom. However by 1866 there was a financial crash that devastated the shipyards which caused great distress among thousands of workers. This distress continued unabated for the next three years putting considerable strain on local authorities and charities to provide relief.

It was against this background that the story of the death of a young woman and child on the Isle of Dogs in 1869 gained national and international notoriety.

The exact details were recounted in Ruskin’s book Eagles Nest.

“An inquest was held in the Isle of Dogs by Mr. Humphreys, the coroner,
respecting the death of a woman named Catherine Spence, aged thirty-four, and
her infant. She was the wife of a labourer, who had been almost without employ-
ment for two years and a half. They had pledged all their clothes to buy food,
and some time since part of the furniture had been seized by the brokers for rent.
The house in which they lived was occupied by six families, who paid the landlord
5s. 9d. for rent. One of the witnesses stated that ‘all the persons in the house
were ill off for food, and the deceased never wanted it more than they did.’ The
jury on going to view the bodies found that the bed on which the woman and
child had died was composed of rags, and there were no bed-clothes upon it. A
small box placed upon a broken chair had served as a table. Upon it lay a tract
entitled ‘ The Goodness of God.’ The windows were broken, and an old iron tray
had been fastened up against one and a board up against another. Two days after
his wife’s death the poor man went mad, and he was taken to the workhouse.
He was not taken to the asylum, for there was no room for him in it was
crowded with mad people. Another juror said it was of no use to return a
verdict of death from starvation. It would only cause the distress in the island
to be talked about in newspapers. The jury returned a verdict that the deceased
woman died from exhaustion, privation, and want of food.”

The story appeared in many British Newspapers and was published  widely aboard most notably in The New York Times.

Although this was a tragic story, many people at this time were destitute and many died from starvation.

What set this story apart was a number of factors, it illustrated that even the respectable poor  who had worked but were now unemployed were faced with the choice of taking local charity which barely covered the rent or face the horrors of the workhouse.

The religious tract on the table for some indicated that even the church had let Catherine down.

The callousness of the juror who was more concerned about the good name of the Island was widely criticised and for many illustrated some of the hypocrisy of Victorian society.

Many writers and social reformers used the case to fight the social ills of  the time and promote reforms.

The shame of this case and others to Victorian society did lead to greater Church and philanthropic works in the East End but the scale of the problem led  some Victorians began to consider that part of the  answer was to help people to emigrate. By the late 1860s and early 1870s there was a number of  Isle of Dogs people who took advantage of this help and went to Canada and Australia.

The story was remembered by the Reverend Joseph B McCaul who was Canon Of Rochester Cathedral  and  Rector Of St. Michael Bassishaw,City of London in 1880 when he wrote this poem.




PRAY you, kind folks, have you ever
Of Cubitt Town, Isle of Dogs ?
It’s the grisly Cholera’s London
Amidst typhus, famine, and fogs !

Fair lovers of change and
excitement lay
That sensational novel down !
Let us go together, and
visit in thought
Saxon’s Alley in Cubitt Town.

Up the dismal
staircase in No. 1.
We must mount to the ” third floor back,”
And the scene I’ll show you has this good point,
It is terribly true — Alack !

Nay, search not your purse for its smallest coin —
It’s no case for
alms or bread.
You needn’t to knock at the door, for see —
The occupants
are stone-dead !

In a corner, on rags, lies a skeleton form
With its
glazed eyes staring wide —
It is Catharine Spence, aged thirty-four.
With a new-born babe at her side !
Hard by the sheetless
corpse, on a box,
Is a tract ” On the Goodness of God ! ”
And a lump of salt which the famished wretch
In the throes of starvation
gnawed !

Ask you perchance whether Catharine Spence
Was a trull or a
faithless wife ?
Had she no husband to work, or beg.
Or steal to
preserve her life ?

She had a husband — two years and more
He had had no work. They say
The “Guardians” had offered  he starveling
work —
Stone-breaking at eightpence a day !

Spirit and strength
and energy gone,
Spence prepared ” to die in peace ” ;
He went raving
mad on the second day
After death gave his wife release !

At the
“Coroner’s Quest” on Catharine Spence
A juror ” felt bound to object ”

To the proper verdict of ” Starved to Death”
As ” it might on the
district reflect ! ”

” What use are the dead ? ” asked this parish sage,
” An egg-box is all they’re worth —
” Or else without any coffin I’d put
” Dead paupers into the earth ! ”

So now, gentle Ladies, you’ve
been with me
To Cubitt Town, Isle of Dogs —
Can you wonder that paupers
will sometimes die
In that home of typhus and fogs ?

George R Sims – Off the beaten track in the Isle of Dogs 1905


Mellish St, Millwall from around 1905

It is one of the curiosities of the Isle of Dogs and the East End in general, that in the Ninetieth Century and at the turn of the Twentieth Century writers and journalists visited these areas and wrote articles as if they had travelled to a distant country rather than area close to the centre of London.

George R Sims was a journalist, author,poet and social reformer who sought to raise awareness of the social conditions of the poor.

He was  also known for his sense of humour and the following account illustrates his particular style of writing.

JUST outside the West India Dock Station there is a little one-horse ‘bus which takes you by a winding way of high, black walls, broken here and there by bridges and wharves and the towering masts of ships, to Millwall.

As you near the journey’s end the driver – there is no conductor – opens a little trap in the roof of the ‘bus and puts his hand through. In his open palm you deposit the penny for your fare, and a few moments later the ‘bus stops, and you alight and find yourself at the commencement of the West Ferry Road and in the famous Isle of Dogs.

It is the island note that greets you at first. If the bridge is up you have to enter by the lock gates, and you may, by a stretch of the imagination, fancy yourself performing a Blondin feat, with the welcome addition of a row of protecting chains on each side of you.

Across the water you are in a land of one familiar sound and a score of unfamiliar scents. The sound is one ever dear to the Briton – the clang of the hammer as it descends on ringing iron. You listen to the sound that speaks of England’s might, and you remember the song that Charles Mackay sang of Tubal Cain. The memory that the scents bear in upon you is of another poet – Coleridge, who sang of Cologne.

The odours are overpowering. They do not mix, but with every breeze each salutes you with its separate entity. One odour is that of heated oil, another that of burning fat, others are of a character which only visitors with a certain amount of chemical experience could define.

The odours saturate you, and cling to you, and follow you. They are with you in the highway and the by-way. You pass into the house of a friend who has offered you his hospitality at the luncheon hour, and the door that closes behind you does not shut them out. Nothing is sacred to them, not even the church. Even the flowers in the little gardens that the West Ferry Road can show here and there have lost their own perfume and taken that of the surrounding industries.

The island is no dreaming place. It is a land of labour. From morn till eve the streets are deserted; the inhabitants are behind the great walls and wooden gates – husbands, wives, sons and daughters, all are toiling. The only life in the long, dreary roads and desolate patches of black earth that are the distinguishing notes of the side streets is when the children come from school. Then the red and blue tam-o’-shanters of the little girls make splashes of colour here and there, and the laughter of romping children mingles with the clang of the hammer and the throb of the engine.

In Ingleheim Street, a turning off West Ferry Road, there is a quaint brick building that at once attracts your attention, for above it is a flagstaff, and in the wire-protected windows there are flowers.

When you go down over the rough bit of roadway that ends in a wall of corrugated iron and a suggestion of black sheds beyond you read above the doorway of the quaint building the words, ‘St. Cuthbert’s Lodge,’ and you remember that this is the address of the Rev. Richard Free, the author of that intensely human document, ‘Seven Years’ Hard,’ the story of seven years’ patient, and often heart-breaking, work among the poorest population of a land of drudgery and desolation.

When we came first upon St. Cuthbert’s Lodge, not knowing what it was, the oddness of the building struck both my colleague and myself. The suggestion it conveyed to my mind was that of a lifeboat station or ark of refuge on a lonely shore. Why it conveyed that impression I cannot say. I am inclined to imagine that somewhere on the Yarmouth shore I have, in years gone by, seen something like it.

A veritable ark of refuge has this quaint little building – with the ship masts stretching high above it – proved to many in Millwall.

Mr. Free and his wife, cut off from the world, with which their one link is the little, conductorless one-horse ‘bus, have brought the love of light and colour into houses of grimness and gloom, and, taking the human view of our poor humanity, have become popular characters in the island of mighty tasks and mean surroundings, of noxious trades and pleasureless lives, an island in which there are no places of amusement of any kind. When the day’s work is over the lads and lasses of Millwall get out of it as quickly as possible. The island gardens form a green oasis in the desert. They are not in Millwall, but Millwall has in them a beautiful breathing space and a glorious view on the other side of a ‘cleaner, greener land.’

So over the Thames – or rather under it by County Council subway – that portion of young Millwall which has not passed on to Poplar hastens, and finds in Greenwich a welcome surcease from the miserable monotony of dead wall and black chimney-pot.

There is a Ladies’ Settlement, St. Mildred’s House, in Millwall, which suggests the refining influence of gentle womanhood. The conditions of life among the women workers of the place are affected by the nature of their employment. The dirt of their drudgery, the odour of their occupation, are brought into the home by the men and women alike. There is no escape from either. But the humanising influences brought to bear upon the situation have not been altogether in vain, and in the little back-yards and scanty patches of green still left here and there before some of the houses there are flowers struggling to be pretty under difficulties, and fowls and rabbits that look considerably plumper and healthier and happier than their owners.

In the centre of the island lies Desolation-Land, a vast expanse of dismal waste ground and grey rubbish heaps. All round the open space is a black fringe of grim wharves and of towering chimneys, belching volumes of smoke into a lowering sky that seems to have absorbed a good deal of the industrial atmosphere.

This waste land is spanned by the soot-dripping arches of the railway, which is the one note of hope in the depressing picture, for occasionally a train dashes shrieking by towards a brighter bourne.

Across the waste, as we gaze wearily around it, borne down by our environment, comes a lonely little lad, who wheels his baby sister in a perambulator roughly constructed out of a sugar box. They are the only human beings in sight.

Years ago this desolate spot was farm land. It might yet be secured and made into a green play ground for the children, who at present have only the roads and the miniature mountains of rubbish that have gradually risen at the end of side streets closed in by factory walls. If this central desert could be secured and ‘humanised’ and turned into a healthy playground, it would be a grand thing for the Millwall that is – a grander still for the Millwall that is to be.

Sir Walter Besant complained that in all Millwall there were no book-shops. That is still true, but the taste for reading has penetrated to the island, and in the shopping part of it there are several stationers’ shops where periodical literature may be obtained. It is principally for the younger generation. The windows are filled with ‘Tales of the Wild West’ for the young gentlemen and ‘How to be Beautiful’ for the young ladies, and of fashion journals there is quite a plentiful display. As I have not, in any of my visits to Millwall, observed the fashionable hats and blouses given in the plates exhibited, I can only surmise that they are reserved for the evening visits to Poplar and Greenwich, or for the Sunday trips to regions still farther away ‘on the mainland.’

Room for a View ? The Battle of Island Gardens

A View of Greenwich from the River circa 1750-2 by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) 1697-1768

A View of Greenwich from the River circa 1750-2 Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) 1697-1768

Source Tate Museum

Island Gardens  lies at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs overlooking the river Thames, visible from the river and from Greenwich. It  is famous for its classic views over the river to the buildings and sights of Greenwich. The view was judged to be the greatest view in Europe by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th Century. It is especially associated with the painting of Greenwich from this spot by Giovanni Antonio Caneletto in the 18th Century.

A little bit of Island Gardens History

Up to the 19th Century most of the Isle of Dogs was farmland, however when shipbuilding and other industries began to spring up along the riverfront, the land that became Island Gardens was leased to the Admiralty who wished to preserve the site to maintain the views to Greenwich.

However it  was not until 1893 when there was a movement to turn this space into a public open space. This was achieved in 1895 when Island Gardens was considered “a little piece of paradise” amongst a rapidly industrialised and residential environment.

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Early 20th Century Postcards.

Most people are agreed that this is one of the great views of London,  a view that almost unique in London due to the fact that it has remained virtually unchanged over the last 300 years. It is also a tourist attraction that is visited by thousands of visitors every year, many who come from Greenwich through the foot tunnel. It is used extensively by local residents who value it as one of the few green spaces left on the Isle of Dogs.

The Gardens lie within sight of  Greenwich World Heritage Site . Island Gardens  is on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest; Island Gardens and the lift tunnel rotunda are listed Grade II. The Gardens sit at the centre of the Island Gardens Conservation Area.

However in the 21st Century these classic views are considered under threat from encroaching developments of  riverside property developers.

The Battle of Island Gardens

In 2011/2012 planning permission was sought to build a five-story block of Flats almost adjacent to Grade II Lift tunnel rotunda.


Artist impression of new flats

This has caused widespread opposition to the plans from conservation groups and local residents

Local residents objections are not based on that there should be no development, but rather that any development should be sympathetic and in keeping with its surroundings. They also point out that it is in the centre of a conservation area which was created to protect the gardens.

One local resident Eric Pemberton argues:

“No one has any objection to the site being developed as long as it is in keeping with the present layout, five storeys is too much, the block would go immediately on the left of the entrance dome thus destroying that aspect and the axis to and from Island Gardens. If allowed it means the whole area could be redeveloped and more tower blocks thrown up.

Parm Mahil another local resident has set up a petition that already attracted 500 signatures.

If you wish to show some  support for the campaign please sign the petition by pressing here.

The Icemen Cometh Part 3 – Freestyle

On Sunday it was the last day of the London Ice sculpting Festival and despite the near freezing temperatures there were large crowds to see the Freestyle Competition.

The ice sculptors were allowed to create their own designs, here are  a few of their amazing efforts.


Slightly scary


Feather Ball and Sea Horse


The Thinker ?




Big Ben with King Kong on top


The Icemen Cometh Part 2 Wonders of the Universe

Day two of the London Ice Sculpting festival at Canary Wharf brought out the crowds in near freezing conditions.

Today it is the doubles competition with the theme Wonders of the Universe.


The teams from Europe and the USA were showing their considerable skills.


The Cross from the USA team.


An Ice maiden.


The Icemen cometh – London Ice Sculpting Festival at Canary Wharf


Now the winter cold spell is well and truly here, what could be better to stand around large blocks of ice in Canary Wharf.

I am standing in the  freezing cold waiting for the chisels to cut into the gleaming ice, but wait there is an announcement that the sculpting will be delayed for a short while due to technical difficulties !

If the technical difficulties are sorted out , Friday  is the start of the three-day London Ice Sculpting Festival and talented sculptors from the USA and Europe will battle it out to be Champions.

Creating magnificent sculptures from glistening blocks of ice, the Festival will feature teams from around the globe. In a nod to NASA’s ongoing Mars mission they will carve to the themes: The Wonders Of The Universe and Infinity.


To keep you amused  there is  ice carving Masterclasses, the fun, snow-filled Snow pit, an interactive Ice Graffiti Wall, Ice Chess, Winter Market and loads of not to be missed highlights including a special Northern Lights Laser Show.




Dickens and the Isle of Dogs – where did the name come from ?


Just before Christmas I published a piece by Charles Dickens which described his exploring expedition to the Isle of Dogs in the 1850s, here is another excerpt  in which Dickens discusses an issue that is still debated today namely how did the Isle of Dogs get its name ?

But, now a grave difficulty stops our way. Why is the Isle of Dogs called the Isle of Dogs?

What have the dogs to do with it ? Was it formed originally by or for dogs, or is it going to the dogs ? There appear to be two different theories among antiquaries learned in these matters. One of them, in Strype’s Stow, is to the effect that the Isle of Dogs is ” a low marshy ground near Black-wall, so called, as is reported, for that a waterman carried a man into this marsh, and there murdered him. The man having a dog with him, he would not leave his master ;but hunger forced him many times to swim over the Thames to Greenwich ; which the waterman who plied at the bridge (probably a sort of pier or jetty) observing, followed the dog over, and by that means the murdered man was discovered. Soon after the dog swimming over to Greenwich, where there was a waterman seated, at him the dog snarled and would not be beat off; which the other waterman perceiving (and knowing of the murder) apprehended this strange water-man ; who confessed the fact, and was condemned and executed.”

A doleful theory this, and not so pleasant to think upon as that propounded by Dr. Woodward, who tells us that ” the fertile soil of the marsh, usually known as the Isle of Dogs, was so called because when our former princes made Greenwich their country seat, and used it for hunting, the kennels for their dogs were kept on this marsh ; which usually making a great noise, the seamen and others there upon called the place the Isle of Dogs.” The hunting theory being more pleasant than the murder theory, and both resting (for aught we see) on equally trustworthy evidence, we will adopt the former.

The rise and fall of the London Arena


Recent residents and visitors who visit the Isle of Dogs will have great views of the O2 Arena , but how many realise that the Docklands for a short period had an Arena which had a seating capacity for over 15,000 people.

The London Arena (also known as the London Docklands Arena)  based near Crossharbour  was built as an indoor arena and exhibition centre. It  hosted concerts and sports events and was for a time the home of London Knights ice Hockey team, the London Towers Basketball team and later the London Leopards Basketball team from Tower Hamlets.

The first concert in the Arena was Duran Duran and it also featured the very popular at the time WWF wrestling.

First opened in 1989, it had a major £10 million refit in 1998,  it struggled to become a financial success,  and in 2005 it closed. The arena was demolished in 2006.

arena 1

Photo by Jonanamary

When we look at the phenomenal success of the O2 , it is hard to believe that the Arena could have failed , however the lack of a comprehensive  transport system and lack of access onto the Isle of Dogs for cars probably had a lot to do with its failure.

arena 2

Photo by Jonanamary

How many people out there came to a concert or game at the London Arena , send in your story.