Recently I was contacted by Gerard Gilbertson who has written a short history of his Grandfather John F. Gilbertson who was Mayor of Poplar between 1938 and 1939. John F. Gilbertson was born and lived on the Isle of Dogs and spent many years working for the local community. Although the work of John F. Gilbertson has largely been forgotten, the following piece by Gerard reminds us that in the darkest times for the area, many men and women worked tirelessly for their local community.
For whatever reasons, in recent years Mayors of Tower Hamlets have often been in the headlines. Many of their policies, and personalities, have been somewhat contentious and have aroused interest and comment way outside the confines of the East End. It is an interesting experience to look back at some earlier Mayors (e.g. of the former Poplar Council)) to note what their concerns and policies were in times immeasurably different to modern ones. I often wonder when seeing certain views over the Isle of Dogs from high up in the tower blocks of Canary Wharf (for example in Lord Sugar’s “The Apprentice -You’re Fired!” programmes), how many of the participants have any idea whatsoever of what life there used to be like.
One of these earlier Mayors of Poplar was my Grandfather, John F. Gilbertson, who was in office at the time of the outbreak of World War II. When he was elected on November 9th 1938, few could imagine the horrors of the coming war in what was certainly one of the area’s darkest times, or the changes it would bring for Britain as a whole and for the Isle of Dogs in particular.
His speech of acceptance after being elected was generously reported in the local press. The London Shipping Chronicle (an edition of the East End News), for example, published a long article on November 11th 1938 reviewing his speech, as well as dwelling on the successful work of the retiring Mayor Mrs. E. Lambert.
Then, as now, nearly 80 years later, the provision of modern and affordable housing was a major problem , but – in the words of the Chronicle – the new Mayor pointed out the comprehensive adoption of “ legislation into municipal affairs that was 20 years in front of other people’s” since the Poplar Borough Council became Labour-dominated. It continued that “the Labour Council found that its predecessors had built one house in about 25 years. In a few years, the Labour Council built houses and flats and he could say from observation that the Council houses and flats in Poplar were second to none”. He added that “people were taken out of hovels, and put in decent accommodation”.
Mayor Gilbertson was well qualified from personal experience to talk about poor housing, for he had been born in 1882 in the Elizabeth Cottages, a small block of four slum houses, often flooded at high tide, and prone to disease, which by the 1880’s backed onto a coconut fibre works along the Westferry Road . They were demolished at long last in 1933-4 and the site was buried under the new Westferry Estate built by the LCC.
Source (British History online)
Elizabeth Cottages on the edge of the Barnfield Estate on the Westferry Road. Much of the area shown on this map from 1871 is now under the Westferry Estate built in 1933-35.The cooperage shown here became the coconut fibre manufactory.
Moreover, in approximately 1901, John Gilbertson moved with his parents to Crew(s) Street, one of the three near-identical Thames-side streets close to Kingsbridge which were coloured “black” in Booth’s poverty map of 1897 – black being the category “ lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal”. These streets exemplified Booth’s comment elsewhere that the poorest were always to be found closest to the River. Not until after his marriage to Margaret Rose Gilbertson (née Stamp) did he reside in better housing at the western end of Mellish Street, and from ca 1911 in Havannah Street.
Coconut fibre manufactory yard in Elizabeth Place next to Elizabeth Cottages, 1885 (Isle of Dogs History/Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
In his acceptance speech, the new Mayor also praised the work of those members of the Council who had been Members of the old Board of Guardians, for they had helped bring about major reforms and improvements on a wide social level: “When he was a boy children went to school without boots and stockings. They did not see that today”. He was also proud of Poplar’s record in laying down many miles of modern street surfaces of tarmac. (The stabilizing of road surfaces by using tar was , incidentally, invented in Millwall way back in 1834 by Cassel’s Lava Stone Works, see entry on Wikipedia). However, cobblestone surfaces were still the norm in the 1920’s and ‘30s, as is shown in most street photos of the Isle in that era. The arrival of motorized traffic in the early years of the century gave a boost to an improved tarmacadam process introduced by Edgar Hooley.
Westferry Road 1901, Chapel House Street on right, looking north – road gang repairing road with large cobblestone blocks. Asphalting was still a fairly rare event worthy of note even in the 1930s. (Photo Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
One of the very first tasks Mayor Gilbertson had to tackle was the move of the Council offices from the old Town Hall to the new one in Bow Road. This move and official opening took place barely a month into his period of office. It is difficult to imagine the administrative and personnel /staffing difficulties of such a move at the very start of one’s period of office! The opening ceremony was attended by, among others, the Labour MP George Lansbury who himself had been Mayor of Poplar more than once.
Former Poplar council offices in Poplar High Street ca 2010. (built 1870)(Wiki)
…and the new Town Hall in the Bow Road opened in 1938 (THLHLA ca 1965).
The ceremonial opening of the new Poplar Town Hall in Bow Road, December 3rd 1938. The recently elected Mayor John F.Gilbertson is in the centre, his wife Rose Gilbertson the Mayoress with a large bouquet is on his left, with MP and former Poplar Mayor George Lansbury on extreme left of photo. (Enlargement from THLHLA photo)
Less than a year after John Gilbertson became Mayor, war was declared on Germany in early September 1939. The initial worries, panic even, that flooded the country were accompanied by the first massive evacuations of children from major cities into the countryside in an attempt to save them from the dangers of enemy bombing. Although the “real” Blitz on London’s East End did not occur until the autumn of 1940, Poplar children were already evacuated in large numbers towards the end of 1939 to places like Wells in the west country. The “Wells Journal” of October 13th 1939 carried an article headlined “The evacuees in Wells – Letter of thanks from the Mayor of Poplar”. The wording of this Mayor-to- Mayor letter reads as follows:
(Wells Journal, 13th October 1939)
Isle of Dogs evacuees in Wells, Somerset in 1939 Photo (Island History Trust/ Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
The national edition of the “Daily Herald” of just a few weeks later in January 1940 carried a large article claiming that East End children evacuated to Oxford “..all like being up at Oxford” and carrying a large photo of Clement Attlee (the Labour MP for neighbouring Stepney) visiting them in their temporary homes. The paper also gave information on the larger number of extra trains being laid on for parents of evacuees to visit their off-spring.
After handing over his position as Mayor to Mrs. E. Lambert towards the end of 1939, John Gilbertson continued to serve on Poplar Council through the war years, but shortly afterwards became ill. He stepped back from his duties on the Council for several months, returned briefly in April 1947, but died on June 10th 1947. The naming of Gilbertson House in Mellish Street after its construction in 1948-50 was Poplar’s tribute to its former Mayor. This building is still occupied and in good condition.
Gilbertson House towards the western end of Mellish Street.(Own photo, 2012)
Dog and Anderson shelter during WW2 in back garden somewhere in Havannah Street (Photo Island History Trust/ Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
John Gilbertson was in office in momentous times, on the cusp of a very dark period for Poplar and particularly the Isle of Dogs. His Mayorship covered the inauguration of the new Town Hall, the increasing political and military tensions on an international level, the declaration of the second world war, the first bombing attacks on London, the first call-ups for active duty in the armed forces, the wide-spread construction of Anderson bomb shelters, the compilation of the historic 1939 Register, the first mass evacuations of children to safer homes outside the cities, and a host of other wartime measures.
If one combines the management of the effects of these events with his many, many years of leading activity in the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement, it can indeed be said that he served Poplar and its citizens well. He rose from extremely impoverished circumstances to positions of great responsibility, ability, and trust. He was indeed a great, if little-known, Mayor.
John Francis Gilbertson was a dry dock worker in the Millwall docks. He was on the executive of the Dry Dock Workers’ Union for some 18 years before its amalgamation with the General and Municipal Workers Union. He represented Cubitt Town as a Labour Councillor from 1933 and was elected Mayor of Poplar in 1938. He was Treasurer of the local Labour party, and of the Poplar Trades Council. He was a school manager for the Isle of Dogs Group of Schools. He was a close associate of the MP and former Mayor George Lansbury in many of these political activities. From 1911 until he died in 1947 he lived with his family at 46 Havannah Street on the Isle of Dogs opposite St Luke’s church.(IHT)
Many thanks to Gerard Gilbertson for sharing his family history with our readers and reminding us of a man who served the Island community for many years.
A new addition to the public art in Canary Wharf is the arrival of Henry Moore’s ‘Draped Seated Woman’ which was nicknamed ‘Old Flo’ by residents of the Stifford Estate in Stepney where she resided from 1962 to 1997. For the last 20 years, the sculpture has been on loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
The bronze sculpture was created in 1957/58 by Henry Moore based on drawings he took of people sheltering from the Blitz. The sculpture was originally acquired by London County Council as part of the LCC’s Patronage of the Arts Scheme to site works of art in housing estates and other public spaces, for the enjoyment of the local population. The sculpture was located on the LCC’s newly built Stifford Estate in 1962, remaining there until 1997 when the estate was earmarked for demolition.
‘Old Flo’ has been the subject of some controversy in the past regarding ownership, however Tower Hamlets Council have been judged to be the rightful owners of the sculpture, and Canary Wharf Group will provide a new home for this work of art for the next 5 years. Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs who ’ pledged to bring ‘Old Flo’ back to the borough was at hand to promote its return. The location for the sculpture is Cabot Square, overlooking Middle Dock.
A recent post about public art and disappearing statues illustrates that many public works of art often are put into storage and forgotten about. Therefore it is nice to see that a piece of work by one of the most famous British sculptors has returned to the East End and can be enjoyed by the general public.
Over the weekend saw the arrival of the HMS Sutherland (F81) in West India Dock, HMS Sutherland is a Type 23 frigate which was launched in 1996 at the Yarrow yard (BAE) on the Clyde. One unusual aspect of the official launch was the smashing of a bottle of whisky against the hull not champagne which is the usual tradition. The Sutherland’s home port is Devonport in Plymouth.
Since she was launched, HMS Sutherland has undertaken a number of missions, in 2000 she undertook the first circumnavigation of the globe by a Royal Navy ship for 14 years.
More recently she has taken part in Exercise Griffin Strike, a UK-French combined exercise. The Sutherland escorted the Russian warships through the English Channel in 2016 and 2017. Also the Sutherland was the first vessel assigned to escort HMS Queen Elizabeth when she embarked on sea trials in 2017.
The ship is 133 m (436 ft 4 in) long with a beam of 16.1 m (52 ft 10 in) and draught of 7.3 m (23 ft 9 in).
The ship has a general crew complement of 185 with accommodation for up to 205.
At this moment, the plan for the ship is not known or how long it will stay in dock .
History of the Thames River Postman in the Pool of London 1800 to 1952 by Clifford. L. Evans – Part Four
In the final part of the fascinating history of the Thames River Postman, there is some evidence of the interest in the Thames postman by the media and the recognition that in the 1950s that it was the ‘end of an era’ and the end of the Evans postman dynasty.
Over the years there have been many articles written in newspapers and magazines. H. L. Evans was also interviewed on 13th October 1934 on the BBC Radio program “In Town Tonight”. He was paid the sum of 2 guineas, for the telling of this unique story.
Invitation from the B.B.C. for the “In Town Tonight show”.
Photo of H.L.Evans during transmission on the B.B.C. “in Town Tonight Show
(H.L.Evans is second from the left)
Possibly the final letter delivered.
Above is a selection of pictures taken of H.L.Evans on duty in 1924
Above is a selection of pictures taken of H L Evans on duty in 1952
Tower Bridge raises it bridge as if to say goodbye dear friend.
After H. L. Evans retired, and he sold the “Alice Maud”. The boat was used later in the film “The Sword and the Rose”. During filming the boat was dropped and broke its back and was completely destroyed
Order of Service Served
William Simpson Snr. 1800 – 1806*
William Simpson Jnr. 1806 – 1810*
Samuel Evans Snr. 1810 – 1832*
Samuel Lowden Evans Jnr. 1832 – 1845*
Samuel Evans Jnr. (son) 1845 – 1856*
George Thomas Evans (brother) 1856 – 1885*
George Henry Evans (son) 1885 – 1914*
Herbert Lionel Evans (son) 1914 – 1952*
(* These dates are as serving River Postman and do not include apprenticeships)
“During war and peace whatever the weather or state of tide the Postman and his skiff went out delivering”.
And so ends the historic Evans family dynasty of the Thames River Postmen of the Pool of London.
Written and researched by Clifford.L.Evans.
The youngest grandson of Herbert Lionel Evans.
Herbert Lionel Evans on his way home for the final time.
H.L. Evans died on 28th December 1979
The Thames Postmen played an important role connecting people who lived on the river with the rest of the world. They also became something of a local celebrity being a constant in the fast changing landscape of the river. Considering that the job was not without its dangers, it was remarkable that the Evans dynasty managed to continue for over a century.
Many thanks to Clifford Evans for sharing his family history.
Recently I was contacted by Debbie Levett of the Friends of Island History Trust with news that one of the
the last buildings from the great shipbuilding era of the Island has been renovated and was going to be open to the public.
The building on Westferry Road is known as the Forge, however it was used from the mid 19th century by some of the largest shipbuilding and manufacturing firms.
Following the building of the Great Eastern in the 1850s, the shipbuilder Scott Russell went bankrupt and the famous Millwall Iron Works were taken over by C. J. Mare & Company. The Millwall Iron Works of the 1860s was one of the largest industrial complexes ever established in Millwall, employing between 4,000 and 5,000 men. The works not only built ships but also manufactured the iron from which they were built, it was said at the time that the works were one of the most important in Europe.
The works were situated on either side of Westferry Road, linked by a horse-tramway. On the riverside were shipbuilding, wharves, sawmills, joiners’ shops, an engine factory, foundries, sail-lofts and a mast factory. On the other side of the road was located the heavy plant for iron forging including armour-plate and rolling mills for turning out bar-iron,angle-iron and armour-plate.
Like many shipbuilders, Millwall Iron Works suffered economically in the depression of the 1860s. When they went bankrupt, the buildings north of Westferry Road known as Millwall Yard and Klondyke Yard were occupied for many years by Westwoods and Maconochies. Westwoods made some alterations to the premises included building a machine shop, 155ft long, in 1939.
Former machine shop, erected in 1939 by Joseph Westwood & Company Ltd, in 1994
It is the Millwall Yard building that is now known as the Forge, the building remained in use into the 1990s and although partly rebuilt over time still retains the C. J. Mare’s 1860 plaque and some of its original structural ironwork.
Considering it historical importance, it has gained Grade II-listing and remains one of the last buildings from the golden age of shipbuilding on the Island.
I was delighted to accept an invitation from the new tenants, the Craft Central charity to look around the building and find out about their plans for the building. Although the building is fairly unremarkable from the outside, once inside its industrial past is apparent with old gantries and ironwork dotted around the enormous space.
Craft Central promotes traditional craft industries and have paid respect to the buildings historical past by leaving much of the structure alone, yet creating exhibition space, new studios and workshops in an unusual and imaginative way.
The Craft Central charity, recently moved to the building after nearly 40 years in Clerkenwell and would like to revive the traditional crafts tradition on the Island and provide a creative working space for designers in a whole range of media. Craft Central also offer professional development support to its network of 700 designer-makers.
Another aim of Craft Central is to welcome local people into the Forge with a series of exhibitions, open studio events, workshops and markets. Studios, working spaces, rooms and exhibition space will be available to hire for meetings, talks and workshops.
The Forge will be a welcome addition to the Island and the building provides a tangible link from the craftsmanship of the past to the many designer skills of the present.
From the 19th century, the Island was famous around the world for the remarkable shipbuilding and manufacturing by a number of large firms, perhaps less well-known is that smaller concerns operated on the Island like Frederick Gerrard and his Millwall pottery who worked more in the arts and crafts tradition.
Many thanks to Debbie and Craft Central Staff.
History of the Thames River Postman in the Pool of London 1800 to 1952 by Clifford. L. Evans – Part Three
In the fascinating history 0f the Thames River Postman we learn a little more about the job and the perhaps surprising fact that the River Postman had to provide his own boat.
The Postman supplied their own boats (skiffs) and their oars (skulls) with the Post Office paying for repairs. In 1825, the Postmaster General approved a payment of £8 for providing a boat for the service.
Here is a picture of a typical Skiff at St. Katherine’s Dock, London
L. Evans had his boat built from a single Oak tree felled at Bromley, Kent. The boat was 21ft 6 ins in length, and 5ft 8 ins beam, it weighed 2 tons, and the skulls were 11ft 10 ins long and it cost £38. The skulls, skiff staff and shoe were made by G. Randall Coe and cost £1. It was sign written by W. J. Watts a Boat and Barge builder since 1828.
Copy of receipt for H.L.Evans’ Skulls
Copy of receipt for H.L.Evans’ Skiff.
H L Evans named his Skiff “Alice Maud”. (pictured below)
In 1916, during World War I. H. L. Evans served in the I. W. T. (Inland Water Transport) Royal Engineers, in France and Belgium. During this time his father G. H. Evans came out of retirement, to take over his duties as River Postman.
H.L.Evans in 1918, in his I.W.T. uniform.
H.L.Evans and the I.W.T. at Zebrugge 1918.
At Christmas he would send home postcards to his family.
In 1919 H.L. Evans returned from WW1, and resumed his duties as River Postman, allowing his father to go back into retirement.
His boat was moored on the Custom House jetty known as the “Harpy”. The River Postman had an official tunic, scarlet red in colour, with black velvet collar and cuffs. The sleeves were braided in black. Down the front of the tunic there were 12 brass buttons with 5 down the cuffs all embossed with the letters G.R.
He also had a Royal Arms badge made of solid silver bearing the “Arms of Hanover”. This was worn in the days of sail to protect them from the press gangs, and also acted as a warrant whilst on duty as a servant of the Crown.
Silver Badge (6in x 4in)
(Both of these items are kept in the Post Office Archives museum London)
When H. L. Evans retired in 1952 aged 60, he was awarded the “Imperial Service Medal” on the 23rd May 1952 for 38 years of service as a River Postman. (pictured below).
H.L.Evans’ Imperial Service Medal letter
When G.H.Evans and H.L.Evans retired they received a letter of thanks from the Postmaster General of that day on behalf of the General Post Office.
G.H.Evans retirement letter 1914
H.L.Evans retirement letter 1952
H.L.Evans was also a Freeman of “ The Company Of Watermen And Lightermen Of The River Thames. (The Certificate is Pictured Below).
Many thanks to Clifford Evans for sharing his family history.
Many people who have lived or live on the Island have taken great pride in its history, this site is one of many that delves into the Island’s fascinating past.
One of the main resources for local history on the Island in the 20th century was The Island History Trust which was created by local people in the 1980s. This was a time of great change on the Island with the closing of the docks and many of the local factories. Many on the Island thought a way of life was under threat and began to record and preserve the local history of the Island.
The Island History Trust began by collecting photographs and then started to undertake recorded interviews with elderly Islanders, other people were encouraged to write about their lives which were then added to the collection.
When the original The Island History Trust ceased in 2013, a new group formed in 2014 to take on the task of recording and sharing the History of the Isle of Dogs from the late 19th century to present day. The new group called the Friends of The Island History Trust have undertaken to collate and categorise photographic and historical data to make it more freely available to researchers and interested parties. It also aims to expand projects around the Isle of Dogs which have historical importance to the groups members or anybody that may have an interest in the islands past.
The Friends of The Island History Trust in its short life has built up a strong network with other local groups and organisations relying on its dedicated volunteers and funding provided by a growing number of friends and members to undertake projects. One of the traditions that the new group has carried on from the original Island History Trust is the popular Open Days where people can see some of the historical and photographic data and can talk with many of the volunteers who have comprehensive knowledge of the Island.
The next Open Day is on the 7th October 2017 at St John’s Community Centre at 37-43 Glengall Grove between 11.30am and 5pm.
If you would to find out more about the history of the Island, the Friends of The Island History Trust in one of the main resources and it is well worth a visit to one of the Open Days.