Home » Cultural Life » John Betjeman visits the Isle of Dogs 1956

John Betjeman visits the Isle of Dogs 1956

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Castalia Square 1960s (photo Island History)

It is always a great pleasure to come across an article by a writer or journalist visiting the Isle of Dogs. It is often written from the viewpoint of someone going to somewhere remote and uncharted rather than a part of a major city.

The following article written by poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman for the Spectator in 1956 follows this long tradition. It is worth remembering that although John Betjeman was a popular poet who became Poet Laureate in 1972, he also was a supporter of many campaigns to protect historic buildings most famously St Pancras station.

It is his love of architecture  that brought  him to the Isle of Dogs in 1956 where he made an unexpected discovery.

In the evening sunlight on Monday, I went to that least visited part of London, the Isle of Dogs. It’s more than a square mile of docks, houses: shattered Victorian churches, no train service, no cinema, a bus service, and only approachable by swing bridges. The people on the Island are proud of it and don’t like living anywhere else. Poplar people on the mainland don’t like coming to live on the Island. It is a cut-off kingdom, the remotest thing you can find in London, and was very badly bombed in the war. Among the ruins three sights well worth the journey are to be seen. (1) Coldharbour, near Blackwall Basin, where some fine Georgian merchants’ houses have the water washing up to their walls and where a public house looks over Blackwall Reach. (2) Island Gardens on the southern tip of the Island, which commands the best view of Greenwich Hospital there is. Reflected in the water one sees the doomed Union Wharf beside the Hospital, with its weather-boarded houses, Queen’s House, and in the background the trees of Greenwich Park and the outline of the Observatory. (3) One of the best new housing estates I have seen since the war, comparable with Lansbury, intimately proportioned, cheerful and airy and yet London-like. It is called Castalia Square and makes one realise. when one compares it with the gloomy blocks of ‘artisans’ dwellings’ of the mid-war and pre-1914 periods, how good modern architecture can be. In all the destruction I record in this column, it is a pleasure to be able to write about something newly built which makes one’s heart rejoice.

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Castalia Square in 2013

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There was a refurbishment of the Square in 1992 which was opened by Bruno Brookes Radio 1 DJ


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