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The ‘Fishing City’ and Other Isle of Dogs Projects

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Last week’s post about Wood Wharf was a reminder that the Isle of Dogs have had some remarkable transformations. However the Island has been subject of a few schemes of the last 350 years, some that came to fruition and others that were considered follies.

The peculiar nature of the  Isle of Dogs which forms a horseshoe around which the Thames has led many to consider the possibility of creating a short cut at the top of the Island to cut down the time spent going around it. In the early 1570s, a scheme was considered by the City of London to construct a canal from the Thames at Limehouse Hole to the River Lea. They even bought in a  Dutchman to survey the potential sites and come up with a plan, eventually nothing was done but it was an idea that did not go away.

A century later, in 1681, the engineer, Andrew Yarranton came up with a scheme for turning the Isle of Dogs into a ‘fishing city’, to provide safe berths for a shipping fleet and houses for fishermen. His plan was to build two parallel docks and a connecting channel, controlled by locks, with houses lining the quays for the fishermen and families. He also believed other businesses like the making of rope and nets could use the Island. The Fishing city never came to light but some of these ideas and the idea of a canal were part of the grand scheme to build West India Docks over a century later.

The building of the West India Docks between 1799 and 1806 changed the whole character of the Isle of Dogs with the top part of the Island effectively cut off by large walls, docks and the City Canal. Between 1800–5, the Corporation of London built the City Canal which had long been thought about but never built. The canal was 3,711ft long between the lock gates, 176ft wide at the surface of the water and 23ft deep at its centre, disaster struck in early 1805 when the coffer-dam failed, causing a great wave to rush through the canal. Extensive repairs were needed and the opening had to be delayed to late 1805.

The City Canal was not a success because the cost of going through the short cut was not really worthwhile. Eventually the West India Dock company bought the canal in 1829 and turned it into the South Dock. This was not the end of the docks expansion with the heart of Island turned into Millwall Dock in the 1860s.

Despite the success of the docks, Philip Revell developed a plan of the 1870s to clear the whole Island and build an island fortress for the defence of London. It was not taken that seriously but was an interesting idea with what seemed to be locks on the Thames.

Even as recently as the 1930s, people were looking at reintroducing a passageway through the Island, a newspaper report gives more details.

An ingenious scheme for shortening the course of the Thames in London by about two and a half miles and converting the Isle of Dogs into a vast docks is advocated by Mr. H. Bragg, L.R.I.B.A., in the current issue of Modern Building Construction (says the London “Daily Chronicle”).

Mr Bragg proposes that the present U-shaped course of the river encircling the Isle of Dogs should be “cut out,”, and that a straight cut be constructed across the north part of the isle between Bugsby’s Reach and the Lower Pool. This could be done, he suggests, by widening the present West India Import Dock and extending it to the river both east and west.

Mr Bragg’s other proposals are:— Five new docks to be built on the Isle of Dogs, A river wall to be constructed along the south bank of the river from Lower Pool to the east end of Greenwich Reach and then across the present land to the river west of Woolwich Reach. Mr Bragg proposes that the ground between the new docks should be utilised not only as wharfage and warehousing space, but also for the erection of dwellings for dock workers with attractive gardens and children’s playgrounds.

Mr Bragg’s ideas were not taken up but this is one of the lessons of these types of schemes it is very difficult to know which will be a success and which will be a disaster. The ideas to turn West India Dock into a financial district and the creation of City Airport were not taken seriously at first.

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