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.