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Limehouse Blues – The Rise and Fall of Chinatown


The recent census shows that the Isle of Dogs has one of the largest Chinese populations in the country. How many of these mostly recent residents would realise that London’s first Chinatown had its origin in nearby Limehouse ?

Before the 1900’s there was only a very small enclave of people  of Chinese origin in Limehouse which generally consisted of sailors who worked on the boats travelling in and out of London, a few cafe’s, shops and lodging houses opened in the area to service this often transitory population.

Along  the Thames waterfront especially in Wapping and Shadwell, many other nationalities had areas which they frequented.

However although the Chinese were a very small minority in London and the country as a whole, in the late 19th Century well-known authors such as Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle featured Opium dens in their novels.

For the general public who probably would never meet anyone from China, it was this connection of Opium dens and the Chinese that provided the basis of the many of the assumptions people made in the early 20th Century.

It was also important to understand that London and Limehouse was changing:

By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Limehouse and the whole riverside district of East London, stretching along the Thames from the Tower and Wapping to Limehouse and inland north up to the Commercial Road, was a notorious slum area. Its streets of little terraced houses were squeezed among canals and railway-lines, timber-yards and sawmills, lead-works and coal-yards, dry docks, ship-repair-yards, factories and workshops. There was heavy pollution and bad sanitation. There was overcrowding, along with low and irregular wages and among the highest levels of child mortality and the highest levels of poverty in London.

( John Seed , Limehouse 1900-1940)

It was against this background that the Chinese community in Limehouse grew to perhaps 300 permanent residents, however a number of factors were coming together that would launch this small part of London into national and international prominence.

The two authors more than anyone were responsible for the creation of  Limehouse’s Chinatown as a mysterious and dangerous place were Thomas Burke and Sax Rohmer.

Although generally sympathetic to the local population, Thomas Burke’s stories were often about local girls involved with Chinese men and the effect this had on the local population.

These tales of low life sex and violence were best sellers especially popular in the United States where a number of Burke’s stories were taken up by the early film makers most notably D.W. Griffiths.

One story from Burke’s Limehouse Nights was made into the film Broken Blossoms by D. W. Griffiths in 1919. Griffiths’s film influenced  the creation of  ‘Limehouse Blues’, a jazz number from the early 1920s which became a standard. A few years later Limehouse Blues was the title of a Hollywood movie set in the London docks around Limehouse.

Sax Rohmer used Limehouse as a backdrop for his Fu Manchu novels, Fu Manchu was an evil Chinese super villain who uses his contacts in Chinatown to develop drug smuggling and the corruption of society women who get drawn into his evil empire.

These often lurid stories were often repetitive yet gained a world wide readership, other writers such as Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie based stories about Chinese villains seeking world domination.

In the 20s and 30s stories about Chinese master criminals exploded in books, magazines, film and radio many were just variations on the Fu Manchu model.

This creation of a mythical Limehouse and the reality of local animosity against the Chinese population based on employment and housing issues led to a number of attacks.

The local incidents were not helped by the newspapers of the day who greatly exaggerated the Chinese population and often portrayed the lurid stories about Chinatown as if they were facts.

It was widely accepted by the local police that actually the Chinese population had low levels of criminality compared to other London areas.

These years of the “Yellow peril” scare had a negative effect on the local Chinese population who by the 1940s began to move to other areas.

If you walk around Limehouse now there is few signs of Chinatown, however at the beginning of 2oth Century this was undoubtably one of the most famous parts of London.


Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs 2

Another set of Eric Pemberton’s postcards, these include a set of early cards from the creation of Canary Wharf.


A postcard from the early 20th Century, this was a popular shopping area at the time.


Another early 20th Century postcard with trams, horse drawn wagons.


Postcards from 1991 showing the creation of the Canary Wharf district.


More from the 1991 series


An early DLR train coming from the old Island Gardens which went above the viaduct not underground as it does now.


DLR Car 30 at Crossharbour 3.35 pm 30.10.91.  Still Short Platform Station and the London Arena Still Standing.


A comic postcard

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This School was based on the East India Dock Road, George Green was a local successful shopbuilder who set up almhouses, seaman missions and especially schools in the East End.

The latest George Green school is now situated at the bottom end of the Isle of Dogs.

Other Post you may find interesting

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Limehouse

Stephen Crane looking for Assassins on the Isle of Dogs 1898

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Building Torpedo boat destroyers in Yarrow Shipyard 1899

Stephen Crane was a leading American writer, poet, and journalist who in the late 19th Century came to the Isle of Dogs to visit Yarrows shipbuilders.

Yarrows had started at a small site at Folly Wall  building river boats but progressed to a large site at London Yard on the east of the Island, they were renown for building Torpedo boats and Destroyers.

Many of the boats were built for export especially for the  Japanese Navy, however by 1908 the London site was closed down and all production moved to Scotland.

Crane’s article about Yarrows called Assassins in Modern Battles is a lament about modern warfare and the morals of selling arms to developing nations. He was especially critical of the way the English belief in their own superiority did not allow them to develop their inventions.

Crane travelled to many war zones to see these weapons in action, however he had often suffered from illness and in 1900 although only 28 he died.

Assassins In Modern Battles


In the past century the gallant aristocracy of London liked to travel down the south bank of the Thames to Greenwich Hospital, where venerable pensioners of the crown were ready to hire telescopes at a penny each, and with these telescopes the lords and ladies were able to view at a better advantage the dried and enchained corpses of pirates hanging from the gibbets on the Isle of Dogs. In those times the dismal marsh was inhabited solely by the clanking figures whose feet moved in the wind like rather poorly-constructed weather cocks.

But even the Isle of Dogs could not escape the appetite of an expanding London. Thousands of souls now live on it, and it has changed its character from that of a place of execution, with mist, wet with fever, coiling forever from the mire and wandering among the black gibbets, to that of an ordinary, squalid, nauseating slum of London, whose streets bear a faint resemblance to that part of Avenue A which lies directly above Sixtieth Street in New York.

Down near the water front one finds a long brick building, three-storeyed and signless, which shuts off all view of the river. The windows, as well as the bricks, are very dirty, and you see no sign of life, unless some smudged workman dodges in through a little door. The place might be a factory for the making of lamps or stair rods, or any ordinary commercial thing. As a matter of fact, the building fronts the shipyard of Yarrow, the builder of torpedo boats, the maker of knives for the nations, the man who provides everybody with a certain kind of efficient weapon. One then remembers that if Russia fights England, Yarrow meets Yarrow; if Germany fights France, Yarrow meets Yarrow; if Chili fights Argentina, Yarrow meets Yarrow.

Besides the above-mentioned countries Yarrow has built torpedo boats for Italy, Austria, Holland, Japan, China, Ecuador, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Spain. There is a keeper of a great shop in London who is known as the Universal Provider. If a general conflagration of war should break out in the world, Yarrow would be known as one of the Universal Warriors, for it would practically be a battle between Yarrow, Armstrong, Krupp, and a few other firms. This is what makes interesting the dinginess of the cantonment on the Isle of Dogs.

The great Yarrow forte is to build speedy steamers of a tonnage of not more than 240 tons. This practically includes only yachts, launches, tugs, torpedo boat destroyers, torpedo boats, and of late shallow-draught gunboats for service on the Nile, Congo, and Niger. Some of the gunboats that shelled the dervishes from the banks of the Nile below Khartoum were built by Yarrow. Yarrow is always in action somewhere. Even if the firm’s boats do not appear in every coming sea combat, the ideas of the firm will, for many nations, notably France and Germany, have bought specimens of the best models of Yarrow construction in order to reduplicate and reduplicate them in their own yards.

When the great fever to possess torpedo boats came upon the Powers of Europe, England was at first left far in the rear. Either Germany or France to-day has in her fleet more torpedo boats than has England. The British tar is a hard man to oust out of a habit. He had a habit of thinking that his battleships and cruisers were the final thing in naval construction. He scoffed at the advent of the torpedo boat. He did not scoff intelligently but because, mainly, he hated to be forced to change his ways.

You will usually find an Englishman balking and kicking at innovation up to the last moment. It takes him some years to get an idea into his head, and when finally it is inserted, he not only respects it, he reveres it. The Londoners have a fire brigade which would interest the ghost of a Babylonian, as an example of how much the method of extinguishing fires could degenerate in two thousand years, and in 1897, when a terrible fire devastated a part of the city, some voices were raised challenging the efficiency of the fire brigade. But that part of the London County Council which corresponds to fire commissioners in United States laid their hands upon their hearts and solemnly assured the public that they had investigated the matter, and had found the London fire brigade to be as good as any in the world. There were some isolated cases of dissent, but the great English public as a whole placidly accepted these assurances concerning the activity of the honoured corps.

For a long time England blundered in the same way over the matter of torpedo boats. They were authoritatively informed that there was nothing in all the talk about torpedo boats. Then came a great popular uproar, in which people tumbled over each other to get to the doors of the Admiralty and howl about torpedo boats. It was an awakening as unreasonable as had been the previous indifference and contempt. Then England began to build. She has never overtaken France or Germany in the number of torpedo boats, but she now heads the world with her collection of that marvel of marine architecture–the torpedo boat destroyer. She has about sixty-five of these vessels now in commission, and has about as many more in course of building.

People ordinarily have a false idea of the appearance of a destroyer. The common type is longer than an ordinary gunboat–a long, low, graceful thing, flying through the water at fabulous speed, with a great curve of water some yards back of the bow, and smoke flying horizontally from the three or four stacks.

Bushing this way and that way, circling, dodging, turning, they are like demons.

The best kind of modern destroyer has a length of 220 feet, with a beam of 26-1/2 feet. The horse-power is about 6500, driving the boat at a speed of thirty-one knots or more. The engines are triple-expansion, with water tube boilers. They carry from 70 to 100 tons of coal, and at a speed of eight or nine knots can keep the sea for a week; so they are independent of coaling in a voyage of between 1300 and 1500 miles. They carry a crew of three or four officers, and about forty men.

They are armed usually with one twelve-pounder gun, and from three to five six-pounder guns, besides their equipment of torpedoes. Their hulls and top hamper are painted olive, buff, or preferably slate, in order to make them hard to find with the eye at sea.

Their principal functions, theoretically, are to discover and kill the enemy’s torpedo boats, guard and scout for the main squadron, and perform messenger service. However, they are also torpedo boats of a most formidable kind, and in action will be found carrying out the torpedo boat idea in an expanded form. Four destroyers of this type building at the Yarrow yards were for Japan (1898).

The modern European ideal of a torpedo boat is a craft 152 feet long, with a beam of 15-1/4 feet. When the boat is fully loaded a speed of 24 knots is derived from her 2000 horse-power engines. The destroyers are twin screw, whereas the torpedo boats are commonly propelled by a single screw. The speed of twenty knots is for a run of three hours. These boats are not designed to keep at sea for any great length of time, and cannot raid toward a distant coast without the constant attendance of a cruiser to keep them in coal and provisions. Primarily they are for defence. Even with destroyers, England, in lately reinforcing her foreign stations, has seen fit to send cruisers in order to provide help for them in stormy weather.

Some years ago it was thought the proper thing to equip torpedo craft with rudders, which would enable them to turn in their own length when running at full speed. Yarrow found this to result in too much broken steering gear, and the firm’s boats now have smaller rudders, which enable them to turn in a larger circle.

At one time a torpedo boat steaming at her best gait always carried a great bone in her teeth. During manoeuvres the watch on the deck of a battleship often discovered the approach of the little enemy by the great white wave which the boat rolled at her bows during her headlong rush. This was mainly because the old-fashioned boats carried two torpedo tubes set in the bows, and the bows were consequently bluff.

The modern boat carries the great part of her armament amidships and astern on swivels, and her bow is like a dagger. With no more bow-waves, and with these phantom colours of buff, olive, bottle-green, or slate, the principal foe to a safe attack at night is bad firing in the stoke-room, which might cause flames to leap out of the stacks.

A captain of an English battleship recently remarked: “See those five destroyers lying there? Well, if they should attack me I would sink four of them, but the fifth one would sink me.”

This was repeated to Yarrow’s manager, who said: “He wouldn’t sink four of them if the attack were at night and the boats were shrewdly and courageously handled.” Anyhow, the captain’s remark goes to show the wholesome respect which the great battleship has for these little fliers.

The Yarrow people say there is no sense in a torpedo flotilla attack on anything save vessels. A modern fortification is never built near enough to the water for a torpedo explosion to injure it, and, although some old stone flush-with-the-water castle might be badly crumpled, it would harm nobody in particular, even if the assault were wholly successful.

Of course, if a torpedo boat could get a chance at piers and dock gates they would make a disturbance, but the chance is extremely remote if the defenders have ordinary vigilance and some rapid fire guns. In harbour defence the searchlight would naturally play a most important part, whereas at sea experts are beginning to doubt its use as an auxiliary to the rapid fire guns against torpedo boats. About half the time it does little more than betray the position of the ship. On the other hand, a port cannot conceal its position anyhow, and searchlights would be invaluable for sweeping the narrow channels.

There could be only one direction from which the assault could come, and all the odds would be in favour of the guns on shore. A torpedo boat commander knows this perfectly. What he wants is a ship off at sea with a nervous crew staring into the encircling darkness from any point in which the terror might be coming.

Hi, then, for a grand, bold, silent rush and the assassin-like stab.

In stormy weather life on board a torpedo boat is not amusing. They tumble about like bucking bronchos, especially if they are going at anything like speed. Everything is battened down as if it were soldered, and the watch below feel that they are living in a football, which is being kicked every way at once.

And finally, while Yarrow and other great builders can make torpedo craft which are wonders of speed and manoeuvring power, they cannot make that high spirit of daring and hardihood which is essential to a success.

That must exist in the mind of some young lieutenant who, knowing well that if he is detected, a shot or so from a rapid fire gun will cripple him if it does not sink him absolutely, nevertheless goes creeping off to sea to find a huge antagonist and perform stealthily in the darkness an act which is more peculiarly murderous than most things in war.

If a torpedo boat is caught within range in daylight, the fighting is all over before it begins. Any common little gunboat can dispose of it in a moment if the gunnery is not too Chinese.

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs

Here is another selection from Eric Pemberton’s postcard collection.

This time we concentrate on the Isle of Dogs:


An early 20th Century postcard of Island Gardens.


A postcard that illustrates that the foot tunnel was the death knell of the ferry service.

post 9

Greetings from Millwall 1905 with plenty of pride in the ships visiting the docks.

millwall 05

A really unusual card, the Millwall swimming club Polo team 1905.

millwall 07

Stuart’s Granolithic Chimney

Stuart’s were manufacturers of artificial stone made from cement and crushed granite,
originated in Peterhead with offices in Limehouse. In the 1900s the Stuart’s Granolithic Works occupied the  large site between Island Baths and the Capewell Horse Nail Factory.

They built a 45ft-high chimney shaft  constructed entirely of granolithic blocks, it required a special licence
from the LCC, waiving the normal requirement for chimneys to be of brickwork throughout.

post 7

Blackwall Pier was the main embarkation and disembarkation point for emigrants and immigrants up to 1930s.

The Seamans Institute was one of the many Institutes built round the docks.


Early views of  the Blackwall Tunnel


Christ Church still exists in Cubitt Town.


 Swedish vessel Britannia in Millwall Dock April 1965-  the old Granary is on the left.


  Interior of St.Edmunds old Church, West Ferry Road over 100 years ago.The Church was demolished in 1995.


One of my favourites, 1912 there was a strike in the docks, however the policemen seem more interested in the camera.

Other posts you may find interesting

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Limehouse

The Birth of Colossus – The Story of Tommy Flowers


Tommy Flowers

Recent interest in Alan Turing the codebreaker based at Bletchley Park in the Second World War has led to the re-evaluation of many of the unsung heroes who also worked there.

One of the most interesting of these heroes is Tommy Flowers who not only played a major part in codebreaking but also developed what many  consider to be one of the first electronic computers.

Tommy Flowers was born in Abbott Road, Poplar where he developed his interest in engineering. After leaving school, he completed a four-year apprenticeship in Mechanical Engineering at the Woolwich Arsenal and went to night classes to gain  a degree in Engineering from London University.

However it was when he joined the General Post Office telecommunications branch in 1926 that he developed his interest in Electronics especially into telephone exchanges.

Little did Tommy realise at the time but it was the knowledge gained in the GPO  research station in Dollis Hill that would have a profound effect on Britain’s security and the development of electronic computers.

In 1941 Tommy was asked to work at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing on a project to decode German messages. However it was in 1943 when Turing introduced Tommy to Max Newman that work began on the project that would make their name.

One of the major problems at this time was the code breaking team had access to so much information they needed a way to automate the analysis of the messages.

Tommy was convinced that an electronic system called Colossus would solve the problem, he proposed building a machine with 1800 valves which would automate the process.

To many this seemed a radical solution because of the notorious unreliability of the valves, however Tommy’s experience at the GPO had convinced him that the valves were reliable if they were left on rather constantly switching on and off.

He did not convince the management team but went off and built the machine using old GPO parts and buying some parts with his own money. Tommy and his team built his first machine in 11 months  and it immediately proved its worth by processing 5 times quicker and more accurate than the previous method.


The Colossus machine

Tommy realised that if the machine was successful others would be needed, so began working on an improved second model almost before the first was finished. By the end of the war 10 machines had been made.

Tommy was awarded an MBE as early as 1943, however due to the secret nature of his work and the fact his machines were still being used in the Cold War he was not allowed to develop his ideas commercially and when the war ended he went back to work at the GPO where he was awarded the prestigious Martlesham medal in 1980. He was also involved in the development of ERNIE, the premium bond allocating computer.

It is only in the last few years that the story of Tommy Flowers has been fully told and his contribution to the war effort and development of the modern computer acknowledged.

Unfortunately this was too late for Tommy who died in 1998, however the true legacy of this local hero and the people who worked with him was that their ingenuity and determination at a time when it was badly needed literally saved millions of lives.

From Island of Dogs to Isle of Dogs – The origins of Canary Wharf


In a part of London with a long and varied history , it will be quite surprising to many people that Canary Wharf itself has a recent and humble history.

Canary Wharf  takes its name from No. 32 berth of the West Wood Quay of the Import Dock. This was built in 1936 for Fruit Lines Ltd, a subsidiary of Fred Olsen who from the 1920s got involved in the Mediterranean and Canary Islands  for the  fruit trade. It was Fruit Lines Ltd  request, that the quay and warehouse were given the name Canary Wharf.

The Canary Wharf warehouse survived the Blitz with only minor damage but the Fruit Lines Limited moved to a new Fred Olsen Lines facility at the Millwall Docks in 1970 . The original warehouse  itself was demolished in 1986.

From these humble beginnings  the new developments of the 1980s and 1990s of the old docks began to refered to as Canary Wharf until it achieved national and international recognition.

By a bizarre coincidence the Canary Islands themselves are known in Latin as Canariae Insulae which translates as Island of Dogs.

Isle of Dogs by Tigercats


I recently came across a local Indie pop band who are inspired by the Isle of Dogs so much  they have named their first album “Isle of Dogs”.

Coffin for the Isle of Dogs on their latest album was partly inspired by Ted Johns who declared UDI for the Isle of Dogs in the early 70s.

They are already getting great reviews from the Music press and building up a  reputation as a live band .

tiger 3

The Tigercats, singer Duncan ,his brother Giles, Jonny on drums, Stefan on guitar and Laura on keyboard


The songlist for the first album.

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Double a-side 7″ single, featuring Harper Lee (from the debut album Isle Of Dogs) and Cats Run Free.

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Full Moon Reggae Party was the lead single from Tigercats’ debut LP, Isle Of Dogs  on Fika Recordings [LP] and Acuarela Discos [CD]).

If you want to listen to their music or find out more about the band press here