Home » Literary Life » Dickens and the Isle of Dogs – where did the name come from ?

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.

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