Home » Art Life » Thomas Heath Robinson in Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs 1905

Thomas Heath Robinson in Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs 1905

heath robinson

William Heath Robinson was a cartoonist and illustrator best known for drawings of ridiculously complicated machines. Even today, the term ‘Heath Robinson’ is used by many to describe a complex complicated machine that is constructed from everyday items.

However , he had a brother Thomas who was also a talented cartoonist and illustrator and was known for his book and magazine illustrations, and it was looking through a Strand magazine of 1905 when I came across these illustrations.

The article it illustrated was “”Off the track in London” by George R. Sims which I have featured before, but the illustrations bring some of the article to life.

The first illustration is ” Ye Olde Jimmy Thicks ” which was apparently an eating place in Three Colt Street, Limehouse, the article gives us a little more information.

At the end of the Causeway are a few two-storey houses built into railway arches. The trains run over the top-floor ceiling. Outside they are peaceful-looking dwellings. How much peace there can be on the top floor when an express or a heavy goods train passes over them one can only conjecture.

Leaving these quaint specimens of architecture on the right, we wander in and out of a network of narrow by-ways and quaint old-world thoroughfares to find ourselves presently in Three Colt Street. We have left Oriental Limehouse behind us. Here the environment is typical of the old-fashioned Cockney district with a strong leaven of the Irish element.

Here are plenty of public-houses well filled, and here are the local gentlemen who loll against the wall and the local ladies who gossip at street corners, basket or bag on arm and latchkey on forefinger.

Three Colt Street is a shopping neighbourhood, and one in which the shoppers take the middle of the road, for here are stalls and barrows with comestibles to suit the purse of the humble housewife whose allowance from her lord and master compels her to buy in the cheapest market.

Half-way down the street is a block of old-fashioned wooden houses, which are in curious contrast to the up-to-date bustle of the inhabitants.

One of these, an eating-house, boldly announces itself as ‘Ye Olde Jimmy Thicks,’ and I take it that the ‘thicks’ are the slices of bread and butter, which are better known at the coffee stalls of the people as ‘door-steps.’

Nearly opposite these wooden houses is a public house, in the window of which the programme of a. summer outing is already displayed. ‘An outing will leave here for a day in the country first Monday in July; five shillings, including tea, cornet-player and hat.’

The hat is given that the party in the brake may all be similarly headgeared. It is a light white sun hat, suggestive of a song and dance in the cotton fields. That you may see yourself in one before you start, a photograph of the company in a former excursion, all in the ‘included hat,’ is also exhibited in the tavern window.

heath robo2 - Copy (2)

The second illustration ” Desolation Land” offers a view from what is now Mudchute Park and Farm  looking towards the Viaduct that is now in Millwall Park.

George Sims surveys the waste land and wonders if it could not be used for better purposes, which is of course what happened with the creation of Millwall Park and Mudchute Park and Farm.

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.

heath robo2 - Copy

The third illustration is named ” St Cuthbert’s Lodge ” which regular readers of the blog  will know was the home of the Reverend Free whose book Seven Years Hard has been featured on the site.

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.

Anyone reading Mr Free’s book would know that his stay in Millwall  was not quite that easy and Millwall was not quite as grim as George Sims suggests.

Thomas’ younger brother William Heath Robinson produced a series of humorous sketches in the First World War which showed his trademark sense of humour.


The German Button Magnets 1915

After the First World War his designs become even more complex and were used in books and advertisements.

He died in 1944 but his designs are still popular and there is a move to build a Heath Robinson museum in Pinner where he spent most of his adult life.

Update : The William Heath Robinson Museum is due to open in October 2016 and an exhibition  that will feature the work of both of the brothers will open in 2017.

Many thanks to Peter Higginson of the William Heath Robinson Trust for the latest updates.


  1. lemons says:

    Very interesting, good find!

  2. Jon Ingram says:

    I’ve just transcribed this article from The Strand Magazine as part of a project to transcribe the non-fiction articles from Strand Magazine volumes that I own.


    I’ve taken some time to scan the original illustrations in fairly high quality – feel free to use them yourself if you’d like!

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