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Monthly Archives: December 2013

West India Dock Visitors Review 2013

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One of our more unusual visitors, the futuristic  Turanor Planet Solar

We have been fortunate this year to have had a wide range of visitors to the West India Docks.

Let me remind you of some of our most notable visitors.


MS Stubnitz –  a East German made ex fishing vessel


HMS Lancaster – Royal Navy


HMCS Iroquois – Canadian Navy

The Gorch Fock – tall ship belonging to the German Navy



L’ Aigle –  Eridan Class Mine Warfare Vessel of the French Navy.


HMS Richmond – Royal Navy

STS Tenacious –  a wooden sail training ship

F.S. Cormoran  is a Flamant class patrol vessel in the French Navy

MV Arctic Sunrise an Icebreaker ship operated by Greenpeace


Currently held by the Russian Government for Trespass and Piracy

French Training Ships

A748 Léopard,  A749 Panthère,  A750 Jaguar , A751 Lynx , A752 Guépard , A753 , Chacal A754 , Tigre,  A755 Lion.



Montigne – Super Schooner


Turanor Planet Solar – Solar panel powered

Stad Amsterdam – Tall ship

Big Eagle – Super Yacht

Amerigo Vespucci – Italian Navy Tall Ship



Light Holic – Super Yacht

Stavros S Niarchos – British brig-rigged tall ship

HMS Northumberland F239 – Royal Navy


Odessa II – Super Yacht

Sea Owl – Super Yacht


FS Eridan  (M641) – French Navy Minesweeper

HMS Tyne (P281) – Royal Navy


Massey Shaw – Historical Fireboat


Other Highlights

City of Adelaide at Greenwich

Great River Race

Clipper around the World Race.

London Christmas Paintings

(c) Childhood Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Christmas Presents by Hugo Oehmichen (Victoria and Albert Museum )Date painted: 1882

As we edge nearer to Christmas Day, I thought it would be interesting to view how different artists at different times have captured the Christmas Period.

All the paintings  have in common that they are either about London or can be seen in London.

(c) Michael M. Atwood; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Christmas Day in the London Bridge Young Men’s Christian Association Canteen: Her Royal Highness Princess Helena Victoria, Mrs Norrie and Miss Ellen Terry by Clare Atwood
IWM (Imperial War Museums) Date painted: 1920

(c) Anthony Green RA; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Christmas Mirror 1947 by Anthony Green (British Council Collection) Date painted: 1982
The scene in this painting is Christmas Day 1947 in the Green family home in Lissenden Mansions in North London. It is the only painting of the artist’s parents together (they divorced when Green was 13).

(c) Mrs Elizabeth Bulkeley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Christmas Tree Viewed through Red Curtains by Charles Mahoney (The Geffrye, Museum of the Home ) Date painted: c.1952


A Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Stairs, London by Abraham Hondius (Museum of London)
Date painted: 1684

dolimsan 1880

Friends in Adversity, Christmas Day at the Dreadnought Hospital, Greenwich (Coming Down to Dinner) by John Charles Dollman (Nottingham City Museums and Galleries) Date painted: 1880

the artist; (c) Henry Kondracki; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Christmas Party by Henry Kondracki (UCL Art Museum)  Date painted: 1986

May I wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

The Music of Life – Charles T Smith and Glengall Road School


Glengall Road School Early 20th Century (photo Island History and Heritage)

In the early years  of the 20th Century, the Isle of Dogs was the location of a radical education experiment by a teacher named Charles Thomas Smith.

Charles T Smith developed a system of teaching Music and Drama that enabled children even from disadvantaged backgrounds to learn complex musical arrangements.

The children of Glengall Road School put on a number of Opera’s and shows which were widely praised. In 1919 Charles T Smith published a book called a Music of Life that explained and promoted his methods developed at Glengall School. The book generated a large amount of interest as the following newspaper report in 1921 illustrates.


The children who attend the Glengall Road School, situated in the ‘Isle of Dogs’ one of the poorest and most unattractive districts of London— have for some years received a remarkably thorough and comprehensive training in music. In the junior classes special attention has been devoted to time and rhythm, and the children have been trained to execute maypole and morris dances, hornpipes, reels, and other folk dances. They have also been taught to analyse  these dance tunes, and to name the various phrases and sections of the music. This training in rhythm is continued in the higher grades, where more intricate movements are practised. Other topics studied in these classes are the evolution and history of music, the development of song; forms, the great composers and their chief works, the development of opera and oratorio, and the various forms of instrumental music. Harmony and counterpoint have been explained with such simplicity and clearness that many children have been enabled to harmonize simple melodies, and even to compose tunes suitable for use in schools. Mr Charles Smith, who has been chiefly responsible for the musical work of this school, has also trained his scholars to give public performances of several well known operas. Such works as ‘Maritana’ and ‘Faust’ (suitably arranged for children’s voices) have been sung and acted by his pupils with wonderful completeness in the matter of scenery and costumes (mostly ‘homemade’), instrumental accompaniment, and other essentials. Mr Smith’s scholars have held their own successfully in other school subjects, as well as in music. Their work is the more  remarkable when their uncongenial environment and the poverty of their homes are taken into consideration. Under the title of ‘The Music of life,’ Mr Smith has published a most interesting account of the methods by which these unusual results have been achieved. He has dearly proved that, even in the limited time available for school singing lessons, it is possible to do much more for the musical education of children than has yet been attempted in most public schools.


Glengall School  1937 (photo Island History and Heritage)

Charles T Smith followed up the Music of Life with another book called the School of Life. The Spectator in 1921 published the following review.

The School of Life. By Charles T. Smith.

An account of the attempt of an Elementary School master to educate his scholars mainly through contact with music and the drama. The book illustrates the application of the author’s principles through the performance, by Elementary School children in the Isle of Dogs, of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Mr Smith is clearly an educational genius. Though his book is extremely interesting and we are in agreement with the greater number of his contentions, he is obviously a man who could infuse life into a study of Sanskrit grammar. Thus, his contention that the drama and music are the readiest methods of humanizing the child, though perhaps true, remains unproved in this book.

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Glengall School Early 20th Century (photo Island History and Heritage)

The Spectator review illustrated the problem facing Mr Smith which was people could see the merit of the approach but thought that it  would be more difficult to replicate in other schools.

Charles Smith went on to write further books about teaching and became involved in the Rationalist Press Association , although largely forgotten now, his ideas about raising aspirations and developing the talents of children  still has relevance in the modern educational system.

Memories of Poplar in the 40s and 50s – Coral Rutterford


Coral’s Grandfather on his Poplar Council cart

Recently I was contacted by Coral Rutterford  who now  lives  in New Zealand, she very kindly sent some of her memories of her early life in Poplar and Shadwell.

Coral lived with her family in 2 rooms in her grandparents rented house in Bright St, Poplar and about 1949 they moved to a block of flats in Watney St, Shadwell, About 2 years later they moved to St. Paul’s Cray, Kent. In 1964 Coral and her husband and baby son sailed on the P & O liner “:Oriana” to Auckland, NZ, it was an immigrant sailing with 2000 passengers wanting to settle in Freemantle, Melbourne and Sydney, then onto Auckland.


Oriana 1964

My grandfather was a dustman who worked for Poplar Borough Council and he drove a horse and cart and he used to bring it home and park outside each lunchtime. The horse would then receive his bag of oats or whatever horses eat for lunch. I used to love stroking his head and his muzzle was so soft.

Grandfather had a bad accident, he had picked up some French chalk that had spilled inside the high sided cart. He slipped and broke both arms and his kneecap was twisted. He suffered with the kneecap injury the rest of his life, one operation after the other, and he never returned to work again.

I attended Alton St. Primary School, Poplar, after the war ended, previously my mother, brother and myself travelled out of London to Staffordshire, Yorkshire, Co Durham  during wartime to escape the nightly bombing raids around the dock areas of the East End, I remember vividly sleeping in the Anderson shelter in the back yard amongst the rabbit hutches and chicken runs that Granddad had to help with supplying food for the family and to sell off some at Christmas time.

It was a happy time at Alton St, at playtime the kids all played together, all very friendly, with skipping ropes, 2 tennis balls playing up against the walls and a giant ring of kids all playing and singing “The Farmer wants a wife” At assembly each morning we sung with gusto the hymn “Jerusalem”  and did those feet in ancient times walk upon fields of green….. there was no fields at all in Poplar at that time.


Paulette Goddard; the film actress, visiting to the East End to distribute food parcels to children of the Hague-street school, Bethnal Green in 1948

Mr Mills was the Principal and he introduced country dancing and we all loved that and we put on a show for our parents and all feeling very proud to do so. Just before I left the school we had a surprise visitor who was a movie actress Paulette Goddard, who was once married to Charlie Chaplin who also came from the East End, she looked so beautiful in her white rabbit hooded long coat with gold sandals.It was the only school in London that each child received a large 20 pound weight box of goodies of tinned butter, a huge bar of chocolate which was so good as we had rationing for almost everything and confectionery was almost non-existent and other food stuffs that our mothers were grateful for.
I had the honour of accepting a parcel from Paulette on behalf of my class and a child from each class also  represented their classmates.

After passing my 11 plus exam I went to George Green’s Grammar School which was in East India Dock Rd at that time and the playing fields were in Millwall where we bussed weekly to play netball and hockey.

I used to walk through Chrisp St market on the way to Grammar school and the barrow people were friendly and would say hello and I used to buy a 1d – penny speck apple or pear and eat it on the way home, often I got a nice red apple with no specks.

Walking behind a lady one day who had bought live eels from a barrow and they were wrapped in newspaper. I saw them wriggle out into the gutter and slide into a drain, I bet she wasn’t too pleased when she got home.

queens theatre

Queen’s Theatre Poplar

Each Christmas we were treated to a Pantomime at the Queen’s Theatre, in Poplar and Billy “Uke” Scott was the star at one time. Often we would go to Music Hall and I loved seeing the performers singing and dancing and got to learn all the words of the old music hall ballads. “My old man said follow the van” and “For it was Mary, Mary” and the audience would sing along too, good old memories of days long ago when the folk were getting on with their lives after the war years.


1950’s Music Hall star Billy ‘Uke’ Scott

We moved from Poplar to Shadwell and I still attended grammar school and got a bus each day to ride along Commercial Rd  to East India Dock Rd.

I enjoyed walking Cable St and onto Leman St to visit “The Tower of London” in those days we just walked into the Tower area and I used to follow the Beefeaters around and listen to their telling of historic facts and I soaked it all up.

Nearby is  Middlesex St, or Petticoat Lane as it is commonly known for the Sunday market with stall holders lining the street and full of varied goods and often not of value for money. Fast talking barrow boys were entertaining and one had to be careful that during their banter they were only putting 10 apples in the bag but somehow they had counted 12 going into it. My mother  was approached by someone/ undercover police? who had been watching this and asked Mum to count her apples and was asked to testify in court.

Historic Fireboat Massey Shaw in West India Dock


Today we had the arrival  in West India Dock of the historic fireboat Massey Shaw.

The ship arrived by trailer and was lowered into the dock by a large crane.


Massey Shaw was a former London Fire Brigade fireboat which was saved by a group of volunteers who have restored the boat to its former glory.


The Massey Shaw was built in 1935 by the J. Samuel White company at Cowes, Isle of Wight.  Built to a London County Council design and costing around £18,000 , The vessel was named after Eyre Massey Shaw, a former chief of the London Fire Brigade.

When it was delivered it saw action straight away, when it played its part in putting out a major fire in Wapping. A newspaper report of 1935 gives more of the details.


Colonial Wharf at Wapping , Sept. 26. Twenty-four hours after the out break of fire at the Colonial Wharf, Wapping, firemen are still at work, seeking to subdue the flames which, though under control, continue to burn fiercely through the lower floors, with occasional explosions. The walls are gradually collapsing, and the stream is flowing with liquid rubber from the burnt stores. The river floats continue their attack on the burning building, and firemen are perched precariously on cranes on adjacent wharfs. Fire engines from all parts of London and the suburbs were arriving during the day, bringing men to relieve those who had been on continuous duty for long hours, and a few of whom had suffered minor injuries. It is expected that it will be days before the fire is extinguished. It spread to an adjoining warehouse today, but was controlled. The district is covered with soot, and the schools and tenements are uninhabitable.


However it was in the Second World War that the boat really made its name. The boat   played  a major part in protecting the Thames riverside in the war, but it gained national fame by being one of the small boats that went over to Dunkirk to rescue British troops trapped on the beach. Once again a newspaper of 1940 tells the story.

Fire Brigade Boat Aids B.E.F.

LONDON, June 3.-Among vessels of the great fleet participating in the rescue of the B.E.F., London’s fire boat Massey Shaw was not the least prominent. Volunteer firemen manned the Massey Shaw, and under the command of a naval lieutenant they crossed the Channel on Friday and brought back 60 soldiers from the beach. Under a naval crew, she returned to Dunkirk on Saturday and transferred 500 men from the shore to larger ships, and then brought back 46 to England. Later taking aboard a volunteer crew. the Massey Shaw resumed her saving work.


It is understood  that  the  boat will spend the rest of December in West India Dock  before making an appearance at the London Boat show at the Excel Centre in early January.



The Massey Shaw has been moved to the end of the South Dock and is moored next to the Lord Amory and the Portwey.



The Story of the River Palace on the Isle of Dogs 1860


The River Palace (The London Journal) 1860

The Isle of Dogs was one of the sites considered for the site of the Great Exhibition of 1851, eventually that honour went to Hyde Park. However the success of the Exhibition and the Crystal Palace led to a boom in Victorian Architecture made of Iron and glass.

One of the most unusual structures made was a River Palace or Kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt.

This was manufactured by the famous Ironworks of Henry Grissell at Regents Canal. Henry Grissell was known as ‘Iron Henry’ and had provided high quality Ironwork for prestigious buildings in England, Russia and Egypt.

The palace was designed by Robert Stephenson, one of the most famous Victorian Engineers who had played a major part in the creation of the Egyptian railway network.

The Viceroy of Egypt spared no expense both in using these eminent Victorians but also in the materials used.

In 1858, construction of the Palace began on a piece of land owned by Grissell on the Isle of Dogs and when it was completed became for a couple of years a tourist attraction.

The London Journal of 1860 gives more details of the remarkable building.

The peculiar building which we illustrate this week is remarkable in several respects, and has been constructed of iron by Messrs.  Grissell & Co, from (as we understand) the designs of the late Robert Stephenson. the eminent engineer, The Kiosk for the present Pasha of Egypt will thus form a memento of the genius of Stephenson, of an ornamental character, in contrast with the vast railway works which were carried out in Egypt under his direction.

The plan of the structure, is, somewhat strangely, that of a cross, with arms equal in length, having their internal angles filled by quadrants of circles, and its central intersection crowned with a large conjoined double dome or cupola, the lower’ diameter of which is 40 feet, and its height, from the floor line to the summit (which is terminated by the crescent symbolic of the Moslem faith) is upwards of 80 feet,

It will be observed, by our illustration, that there is a minor cupola over each of the quadrantal portions of the structure, which, in combination with the large central dome, will produce a fine, picturesque effect.

The iron edifice has been put together on a large space of ground adapted for the purpose at the Isle of Dogs, and it is eventually intended to be fixed permanently at Kafrellais. It will stand at some distance from the shore, in the waters of the Nile, the depth of which at this place is 60 feet at its highest rise, and 30 at the fall.

The foundations of the building are of cast iron cylinders, which will be deeply embedded in the sand, and be fixed eight feet above the highest water level. Upon the top of these cylinders girders are to be laid horizontally, for the purpose of supporting the lower platform of the structure, which is of a circular form, and measures 120 feet in diameter. Projecting from the outer edge of the cylinders, as shown in our view, are brackets on which a balcony rests.

One peculiarity of the building is that a bath will be suspended from the centre of the principal dome by an ornamental chain of great strength, which is ingeniously contrived to pass along the top over concealed pulleys, and then be attached to winding machinery.

The style adopted is strictly oriental, partaking of Saraconic peculiarities of detail, and many of the embellishments are of a highly elaborate and decorative character, modelled with great precision and highly finished, and assuredly, as specimens of casting in iron, are amongst the best productions of the kind we have seen.

The Kiosk has been executed under the general Superintendence of Mr. Rishton, of the firm of Messrs. Grissell and Co, Regent’s Canal Iron Works, and Mr. Bewick was the practical manager of the operations. which reflect the highest degree of Credit on all parties. concerned, as affording a most excellent specimen of iron architecture and workmanship.

We should rejoice to hear that the Kiosk, under certain restrictions, would be exhibited for the inspection of the public, previously to its being despatched to the sultry shores of the Nile, on which, as we conceive, it cannot be fixed until the autumnal solstice, after the subsidation of the waters of that remarkable river.


The Iron Kiosk (The Builder) 1860

After 1860 the Palace was dismantled and packed to be sent to Egypt, however by the time the Palace was delivered, the Viceroy of Egypt Said Pasha had died in 1863. His successor, Ismail Pasha did not share his enthusiasm for the River Palace and  a later obituary (1883) for Henry Grissell  explains what happened next.

Henry Grissell was engaged to construct all Stephenson’s bridges over the Nile in Egypt, and other bridges and massive cast iron works. His foundry was used as a laboratory, with pioneering examinations of the strength of materials such as cast iron and concrete. He also pre-fabricated a grand bathing-kiosk or river-palace for the vice-regent of Egypt, which was assembled temporarily at his premises at the Isle of Dogs, where its Minton floor tiles, parquetry-work, stained-glass, and domes became a great attraction. But once delivered, the kiosk remained packed-up at Alexandria as the vice-regent had been replaced and the new one no longer wanted it. It was so grand that it was said to be have been considered for re-use as a railway station!

The Story of the London Graving Dock


The London Graving Dock

The history of the London Graving Dock is long and varied. When the West India Docks were built, it was decided that shipbuilding and repair would not be allowed in the docks area. However a dry dock was built in Millwall Docks in the 1860s and it soon became clear that not having a dry dock was leaving the West India Docks  at a disadvantage. Eventually there was a change of mind and a small site was found just off Preston Road.
The West India Graving Dock as it was named was completed and opened in 1878, it was at the time one of the largest dry docks in the country.

west india dry dock 1878
West India Dry Dock 1878

 By 1890 the site was taken over by the London Graving Dock company who built new buildings and plant and in 1917 extended the site. Although the site suffered heavy bomb damage in the Second World War, it was repaired and the site extended again in 1951.
In 1977 the London Graving Dock Company was taken over by British Shipbuilders and made part of River Thames Ship Repairers, however the decline of wet docks was the death knell of the dry dock which closed in 1979.
The caisson was removed in 1985 which flooded the dry dock and a concrete bridge built over dock in 1988.
The area surrounding the dock was later used for building a number of apartments.

Recently I have come across the books of David Carpenter who worked at the London Graving Dock.

He very kindly sent me some information about the Graving Dock and some anecdotes of working in the area in the 1950s.

Many people may be surprised where the remains  of  the Graving dock  are actually located .



Just off Preston’s Road there looks like a small ornamental pond , a concrete bridge and then a small stretch of water that  then feeds into Blackwall Basin.


Graving Dock 1950s (Photograph  Dr Bob Carr)

The photographs sent by David show the scene in the 1950s and David explains the layout.

The one looking down the dry – dock from approx. where Lovegrove walk (as it is now called) is situated shows the end of the dry dock where the pump room was, at the bottom can be seen the tunnel which extends round Coldharbour to exit into the river beneath the ‘Guns’ terrace. The wooden skin floor of the dry – dock can be seen exposed just outside the tunnel. On the left of the picture can be seen part of the Graving Docks Blacksmith’s shop.




Graving Dock 1950s (Photograph  Dr Bob Carr)

The other photograph of the dry – dock shows the caisson (now gone). On the right behind the tall double doors was the Graving Docks plumbers shop. Beyond the Cassion is Blackwall Basin and beyond this is the entrance to British Railways Poplar Dock.

David Carpenter has published a humorous and informative account about the his time working in the London Graving Dock  in the book ‘Dockland Apprentice’.

In his later book, Below The Waterline follows the Author through his experiences from the end of his apprenticeship in 1961 with The London Graving Dock Co. on the Isle of Dogs to his time in the Merchant Navy as an engineer.

Both books are available here

David has kindly offered a 10% discount if you mention Isle of Dogs Life.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting some more of David’s memories of the Isle of Dogs in the 1950s.

A New Blog for the Isle of Dogs


Isle of Dogs

We are very fortunate on the Isle of Dogs to have some great websites and blogs that cover the Isle of Dogs.

The work of Eve Hostettler and the Island History Trust is well-known , but probably the website that has the widest range of photographs of the Island is the Isle of Dogs Heritage and History website.

The Isle of Dogs Heritage and History website was set up by three ‘ Islanders’ who have a shared passion for the ‘Island’ . Their mission is to capture images of the buildings , streets and landmarks of the ‘Island.’ They also capture important documents, reports and maps to make available to everyone.

Their site and the Island History Trust are  important resources for anyone with an interest in the history of the Isle of Dogs.

Mick Lemmerman , one of the founders of the Isle of Dogs Heritage and History website has decided to create a blog that will tell some of the stories behind the photographs on the site.

His first post tells the story of the Waterman’s Arms, one of the most famous Pubs on the Island.

Mick’s reasons for starting the blog are sentiments shared by many who write about the Island.

The history of the Isle of Dogs is a remarkable story. Before the closure of the docks and the development of the shiny new financial centre around Canary Wharf, most people – including Londoners – had never heard of the place. Further back, before 1800, only a few people lived around the edges of this marshy wasteland. Yet, this small area of East London, hidden away behind high dock walls and the embankment of the looping Thames, was the birthplace of an uncountable number of industrial innovations and mighty enterprises. Its people, isolated from the rest of London for close to two centuries, had their own character, a character that is still there, if you know where to look for it.

Mick has joined a long line of people who have contributed to the telling of the Isle of Dogs story and I wish him great success in his new venture.

To visit the new blog click here

Isle of Dogs Heritage and History is available here.

Tales of Mean Streets – Arthur Morrison in Poplar


Arthur Morrison

Arthur Morrison is probably best known for his book, Children of the Jago published in 1896, this novel highlighted the notorious Old Nichol District of East London and made Morrison’s reputation as a ‘realist’ writer.

What is probably not generally known about Morrison is that he was born in John Street in Poplar in 1863 and spent much of his childhood in Grundy Street. His father was an engine fitter  who worked in the docks who died when Morrison was quite young, it is believed that his mother then ran a shop in Poplar. The reality of Morrison’s childhood is the subject of some debate due to the fact that when Morrison was older, he tried to hide his rather humble beginnings even to the extent of citing in census returns that he was born in Blackheath.

a child of

What he could not hide was the fact that  many of his stories included inside knowledge of the Poplar, Isle of Dogs and Wapping areas.

In Tales of Mean Streets there ia a short story called In Business about a Cubitt Town family that come into a small inheritance.

To come into money is an unusual feat in Cubitt Town; a feat, nevertheless, continually contemplated among possibilities by all Cubitt Towners; who find nothing else in the Sunday paper so refreshing as the paragraphs headed “Windfall for a Cabman” and “A Fortune for a Pauper,” and who cut them out to pin over the mantelpiece. The handsome coloring of such paragraphs was responsible for many bold flights of fancy in regard to Ted Munsey’s fortune: Cubitt Town, left to itself, being sterile soil for the imagination. Some said that the Munseys had come in for chests packed with bank notes, on the decease of one of Mrs. Munsey’s relations, of whom she was wont to hint. Others put it at a street full of houses, as being the higher ideal of wealth. A few, more romantically given, imagined vaguely of ancestral lands and halls, which Mrs. Munsey and her forbears had been “done out of” for many years by the lawyers. All which Mrs. Munsey, in her hour of triumph, was at little pains to discount, although, in simple fact, the fortune was no more than a legacy of a hundred pounds from Ted’s uncle, who had kept a public-house in Deptford.

In a magazine article in 1888 he relates about young love ‘On Blackwall Pier.’

Blackwall Pier! The name strikes the ear with that half-lost, time-agone familiarity which is the inseparable association of Vauxhall Gardens, the Barn at Highbury, and the Eagle Tavern. Blackwall is not as it was. Anyone you meet, from the grimy lounges at the pier-wall to the tradesman behind the most pretentious ‘front’ in High-street, Poplar, will give you the same words – ‘Ah! Blackwall isn’t what it was; Poplar isn’t as it used to be.’ The days looked back upon so regretfully by the local Jeremiahs are the days of East End Commercial prosperity and the days when there such a thing as a Blackwall whitebait dinner, the days of Albert Smith’s first novel, brightener of our youthful leisure. ‘There’s Blackwall!’ ejaculated Johnson, looking out through one of the glazed portholes that form the cabin windows, ‘many a prime dinner I have had at the Brunswick, after fourpenn’orth of rope on the rail. Do you like whitebait?’ The ‘four-penn’orth of rope on the rail,’ with a reference to which the mind of the respectable Mr. Ledbury was thus illuminated, is another departed glory of the district. Any number of indubitable specimens of the ‘oldest inhabitant’ genus are prepared to furnish the inquiring stranger with an extensive collection of things which are not facts dating from the era in which the Blackwall railway from Fenchurch-street was almost the only line of rails in the country, and when the window-less and roofless carriages were dragged to and fro by a rope from a stationary engine on a principle not unlike that of the cable-tramway on Highgate-hill at this moment.


The book To London Town charts the story of a young boy in Blackwall, many of the incidents in the novel are considered  autobiographical.

So Johnny explored the streets with wide eyes and a full heart. For here was London, where they made great things — ships and engines. There were places he fancied he recognised — great blank walls with masts behind them. But now the masts seemed fewer and shorter than in the old days: as in truth they were, for now more of the ships were steamships, filling greater space for half the show of mast. Then in other places he came on basins filled with none but sailing-ships, and here the masts were as tall and fine as ever, stayed with much cordage, and had their yards slung at a gallant slope, like the sword on Sir Walter Raleigh’s hip. And at Blackwall Stairs, looking across the river, stood an old, old house that Johnny stared at for minutes together: a month or two later he heard the tradition that Sir Walter Raleigh himself had lived there. It was first of a row of old waterside buildings, the newest of which had looked across, and almost fallen into, the river, when King George’s ships had anchored off Blackwall — and King Charles’s for that matter. There, too, stood the Artichoke Tavern, clean and white and wooden, a heap of gables and windows all out of perpendicular: a house widest and biggest everywhere at the top, and smallest at the ground floor; a house that seemed ready , to topple into the river at a push, so far did its walls and galleries overhang the water, and so slender were the piles that supported them.

The novel Hole in the Wall is centered around a pub in Wapping.

We walked first to the head of the stairs, where opened a wide picture of the Thames and all its traffic, and where the walls were plastered with a dozen little bills, each headed “Found Drowned,” and each with the tale of some nameless corpse under the heading.

“That’s my boat, Stevy,” said my grandfather, pointing to a little dinghy with a pair of sculls in her; “our boat, if you like, seeing as we’re pardners. Now you shall do which you like; walk along to the dock, where the sugar is, or come out in our boat.”

It was a hard choice to make. The glory and delight of the part ownership of a real boat dazzled me like another sun in the sky; but I had promised myself the docks and the sugar for such a long time. So we compromised; the docks to-day and the boat to-morrow.

Out in the street everybody seemed to know Grandfather Nat. Those who spoke with him commonly called him Captain Kemp, except a few old acquaintances to whom he was Captain Nat. Loafers and crimps gazed after him and nodded together; and small ship-chandlers gave him good morning from their shop-doors.

A hundred yards from the Hole in the Wall, at a turn, there was a swing bridge and a lock, such as we had by the old house in Blackwall. At the moment we came in hail the men were at the winch, and the bridge began to part in the middle; for a ship was about to change berth to the inner dock. “Come, Stevy,” said my grandfather, “we’ll take the lock ‘fore they open that. Not afraid if I’m with you, are you?”

No, I was not afraid with Grandfather Nat, and would not even be carried. Though the top of the lock was not two feet wide, and was knotted, broken and treacherous in surface and wholly unguarded on one side, where one looked plump down into the foul dock-water; and though on the other side there was but a slack chain strung through loose iron stanchions that staggered in their sockets. Grandfather Nat gripped me by the collar and walked me before him; but relief tempered my triumph when I was safe across; my feet never seemed to have twisted and slipped and stumbled so much before in so short a distance—perhaps because in that same distance I had never before recollected so many tales of men drowned in the docks by falling off just such locks, in fog, or by accidental slips.

A little farther along, and we came upon Ratcliff Highway. I saw the street then for the first time, and in truth it was very wonderful. I think there could never have been another street in this country at once so foul and so picturesque as Ratcliff Highway at the time I speak of. Much that I saw I could not understand, child as I was; and by so much the more was I pleased with it all, when perhaps I should have been shocked. From end to end of the Highway and beyond, and through all its tributaries and purlieus everything and everybody was for, by, and of, the sailor ashore; every house and shop was devoted to his convenience and inconvenience; in the Highway it seemed to me that every other house was a tavern, and in several places two stood together. There were shops full of slops, sou’westers, pilot-coats, sea-boots, tin pannikins, and canvas kit-bags like giants’ bolsters; and rows of big knives and daggers, often engraved with suggestive maxims. A flash of memory recalls the favourite: “Never draw me without cause, never sheathe me without honour.” I have since seen the words “cause” and “honour” put to uses less respectable.

In Morrison’s later writing career he moved away from stories of the East End and he created a series of books featuring the detective Martin Hewitt, after 1903 he virtually stopped writing fiction altogether and became an expert on Japanese Art and built up a sizeable collection that he later donated to the British Museum.

The slum fiction of Morrison and especially the Child of the Jago has not really stood the test of time mainly due to  his rather hard negative view of the human condition. Part of the reason for this harshness was perhaps that he wrote about the Child of the Jago from an outsiders point of view. The stories about the areas he knew intimately namely Poplar, Blackwall and Wapping were less harsh and portrayed some warmth for his characters.