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Remembering Wharf Road and St John’s Church

College View on Wharf Road

Regular readers will know that Eric Pemberton often sends photographs and postcards which often illustrate little known aspects of the Island. Recently he sent an interesting photograph of College View and a postcard of the interior of St John’s Church which was damaged by bombs in the Second World War and eventually demolished in the 1950s.

Wharf Road in the 1860s with College view  ( inset Island Gardens after 1937 )

College View was on Wharf Road which had been a feature on the Island from the 1850s, there was little housebuilding in this area till the 1860s when the small amount of development was quickly bought to a standstill by the depression on the Island due to financial problems of many of the shipbuilding yards. Wharf Road ran parallel with Manchester road from Ferry Street to near Pier Street.

Wharf Road 1880s with Station built.

Just off Wharf Road, three cross streets were formed: Barque Street, Ship (later Schooner) Street, and Brig Street.

In the 1880s,two rows of two storey houses with basements were put up in Wharf Road. These were No. 5–8 Wharf Road and No. 1–10 College Row were built. By this time, some of the area near Wharf Road was sold to build North Greenwich Station.

As the photograph shows, the railway cut across Wharf Road and a subway was built to allow people access.

So the question is, what happened to Wharf Road ? in 1937 it was renamed Saunders Ness Road which it remains today. As time moved on, Wharf Road has been forgotten but it is amazing that an old photograph can remind us of these little piece of Island History.

A walk down Saunders Ness Road today shows very little has survived of the past, the George Green School occupies much of the site near Island Gardens.

St John’s Church was consecrated in 1872 was designed by (Sir) A. W. Blomfield. The church was one of most active of the Island parishes where attendances at the church exceeded those at Christ Church and St Luke’s in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was estimated that the annual attendance figures for St John’s had reached 6,000. Unfortunately the church was a victim of the extensive bombing in the area in 1941 and became abandoned. Other churches on the Island lost the vast majority of its worshippers during the war and the three Island parishes were merged in 1952.

The postcard appears to be from someone associated with the church in 1904. Once again many thanks to Eric for providing such interesting information about the Island’s history.


London Symphony at the Barbican – 3rd September 2017

In 2014, I was contacted by Alex Barrett who was raising funds for his very interesting film project about London. The project has now become a reality with the impending release of London Symphony.

London Symphony is a new silent film which offers a poetic journey through the capital. It is directed and edited by Alex Barrett, and features an original musical composition by composer James McWilliam.

The film is a contemporary take on the ‘city symphony’, a genre of that flourished in the 1920s and consisted of works that attempted to build poetic portraits of city life. London Symphony is celebration of London’s culture and diversity, footage for the project was captured in over 300 locations around every borough of London.

London Symphony will get a theatrical release in the UK on September 3rd 2017 and will be launched with a special screening at the Barbican Centre, where it will be presented with the live premiere of McWilliam’s musical composition, conducted by Ben Palmer.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Barrett, McWilliam, Palmer and London history specialist Mark Rowland, chairman of Footprints of London. It will also mark the opening of the Barbican’s autumn ‘Silent Film and Live Music’ series.

After this special launch event, London Symphony will tour around a number of carefully selected venues throughout the UK, including conventional cinema spaces and alternative spaces such as a Parish Church and a Buddhist Meditation Centre. “In many ways,” says Barrett, “London Symphony is a community project, and we hope to bring it directly into those communities during our release”.

If you would like to see the film, you can find tickets here

Return of the little ships: an installation in Greenwich

Whilst enjoying the sunshine in Greenwich, I came across the Return of the little ships: an installation in Greenwich in front of the Royal Maritime Museum. The installation celebrates the anniversary of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation of troops from the beaches by a large number of small ships.

In mid May 1940, the British and Allied Forces were desperately fighting to stop the German advance through Europe, but the decision was made to evacuate the Allied Forces in the North from a small area around Dunkirk.

On the May 27th, the Ministry of Shipping requested that all small craft that were capable of taking troops off the beaches should be made available, the small craft were particularly important to reach parts of the beaches where the larger ships could not penetrate. A large number of boats with shallow draughts were assembled to make the dangerous trip across the channel.

The Little Ships and  a fleet of Naval and Merchant Marine vessels operated off the Dunkirk beaches and the harbour between the 28th May and the 4th June 1940 and over 338,000 British and French troops were evacuated.

The installation is an attractive and poignant reminder of the bravery of the people involved in the Little Ships rescue who saved a large number of lives.

The Rise and Fall of Westferry Printing Works on the Isle of Dogs

With all the new development in the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf, it would have been easy to overlook the demolition of the Westferry Printworks. Although it was only built in the 1980s, the works played an important part in the modernization of the newspaper industry and led to the decline of Fleet Street as the heart of British Newspapers.

Whilst many people may remember the Wapping dispute, the newspaper revolution of the 1980s led to the introduction of new technology. Docklands played a major part in the story with printing facilities set up on the Isle of Dogs, the West Ferry Printing Works of the Westferry road were considered the largest newspaper print works in Western Europe when it was built in 1988.

The closing of the docks led to large expanses of relatively cheap land not far from the centre of London. Newspaper owners saw the opportunity to modernise the printing plants and introduce different working practices. This was not completed without conflict which was mostly focused on Wapping.

There is some irony that the decline of the newspaper industry has coincided with the rise of land prices in the Isle of Dogs. This led to the decision to close the West Ferry Printing Works in 2011, move the works to Luton and redevelop the site.

The 15 acre site will provide over 700 new private and affordable homes which will be available to buy or rent. There are plans for open spaces, waterside walks, two new parks and a waterfront promenade.

Some concerns has been raised about the future of the Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre which is near the site and will be impacted by the development.

The West Ferry Printing Works has always been quite mysterious, when it was open, you seldom saw anyone go in or come out. The dark mirrored glass made it difficult to see inside. It seemed just the place where a Bond villain would hang out and rather bizarrely the works were used as Elliot Carver’s printing works for his paper “Tomorrow” in the film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), where James Bond fights with several henchmen.

The rise and fall of the West Ferry Printing Works is just the latest of a long line of businesses who have been located in the Isle of Dogs in the last 200 years that became internationally famous before they either closed or moved elsewhere.

London Marathon Day on the Isle of Dogs

It was expected over 40,000 runners were to attempt the London Marathon and from early morning, thousands descended on the Isle of Dogs to get in place to support their runners in the field.

Marathon day is quite a surreal occasion with lots of people visiting the Island for the first time and generally getting lost in the often confusing layout. This is especially the case around Canary Wharf with the massive building works complicating the matters considerably.

The Marathon on the Isle of Dogs begins with the arrival of the Male wheelchair races, the closely packed field raced around the Island with Britain’s David Weir and reigning champion Marcel Hug in the leading pack. Weir managed to win the race beating Hug and Rafael Botello Jimenez in third.

Next was the Women wheelchair race with Swiss Manuela Schar eventually beating American’s Amanda McGrory and Susannah Scaroni .

One of the most remarkable races was the Elite women’s race with Kenya’s Mary Keitany having a long lead when she reached the Island and finishing with a World Record of 02:17:01, Tirunesh Dibaba and Aselefech Mergia of Ethiopia finished second and third.

There was a surprise in the men’s elite race with Kenyan Daniel Wanjiru beating track legend Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia with fellow Kenyan Bedan Karoki finishing his first marathon in third.

The elite races are just one part of the marathon day with  thousands of club athletes, fun runners, charity fundraisers, celebrities, politicians and fancy dress costume wearers pounding their way around the Island.

Coming between the 15 and 18 mile points, the Island is not a popular spot for many marathon runners who begin to struggle at these particular points. However because the crowds are not quite so big, this section is popular for families and friends to congregate to shout encouragement to their particular runners.

In 2016, the London Marathon raised £59.4 million for charity and many of the runners will have personal reasons for facing the gruelling distance. Local Islanders have supported the Marathon since its beginning and still turn out in numbers to cheer on the runners on their way.

Congratulations to all those involved in putting on and taking part in one of London’s premier events which is watched live by millions and has a massive global audience.

In Search of Old Ratcliffe

Ratcliffe 1795

Anyone who has looked into the history of Docklands will come across the small enclave of Ratcliff or Ratcliffe which is located between Shadwell and Limehouse. It is now a district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets which just adds to the confusion because the new Ratcliffe is above Commercial Road whereas the old Ratcliffe was generally below that main thoroughfare.

Ratcliffe 1804

The name of Ratcliffe is probably most known for the notorious Ratcliffe Highway, the road from the Tower of London towards Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs. The Ratcliffe Highway was the scene of a infamous murder of seven people of 1811.

The name Ratcliffe derives from a small sandstone cliff that stood above the surrounding marshes which had a red appearance, it was originally called Redcliffe. Ratcliffe from the fourteenth century was known for shipbuilding and the fitting and provisioning of ships. In the sixteenth century, various voyages of discovery were began from Ratcliffe, including those of Willoughby and Frobisher. The Brethren of Trinity House made Ratcliffe their headquarters in the early 17th century before they moved to the City.

One of the most interesting structures at this time stood at the bottom of Butcher Row, it was a Market Cross of considerable age which was still standing in 1732. The market that stood at this place later moved to Ratcliff Square.

Ruins of Ratcliffe after the fire of 1794

In the 17th and 18th century, Ratcliffe developed an unsavoury reputation with waterfront made up of lodging houses, pubs, brothels and music halls. In 1794, almost half of the hamlet was destroyed in a fire
which began when a barge loaded with saltpetre exploded, the resulting fire destroyed over 400 homes and 20 warehouses and left 1000 people homeless.

Although the slums returned in the early nineteen century, by the late 19th century the area was cleaned up and populated with people associated with the maritime trade.

Looking at the old maps, the area of old Ratcliffe gradually became  absorbed into Limehouse but it is possible to find odd references to the historic old area.

Ratcliffe 1851

The hamlet was divided between the parishes of Limehouse and Stepney until 1866, when it was constituted a separate civil parish (as Ratcliffe). From 1855 it was administered by Limehouse District Board of Works, and in 1900 became part of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney.

Ratcliffe 1908

Generally the old maps show Ratcliffe occupying the land between Love Lane and Butcher Row with the boundary of Commercial Road to the north.

One of the most historic slipways to the river is the Ratcliffe Cross stairs which was a crossing for centuries and the starting off point for a large number of voyages. Part of the Old stone slipway to the River Thames has Grade II listing.

Making your way inland you come across Ratcliffe Lane near the Limehouse DLR station. This was not really on the old maps and does not go anywhere in particular.

More interesting is the Ratcliffe Cross Street which runs from Commercial Road down to Cable Street, once again this is a relatively new road but is in the general area of Ratcliffe Square which was a well known part of old Ratcliffe.

Not on a lot of maps is Ratcliffe Orchard  which is really just a footway, what makes this interesting is that there was for a long period an orchard in the area but it was not called Ratcliffe Orchards on the old maps.

The area that was known as Ratcliffe for centuries was one of the most notorious areas of the old docklands, now it is a rather strange mix of small industrial units and a few residential areas. Little remains other than place names of the place that was known all over the world has the starting place for adventures and the location of lodging houses, pubs, brothels and music halls that crowded the waterfront.

The Tragedy at the Upper North Street School in Poplar – 1917


The post about the recent centenary of the Silvertown explosion was a reminder to write about another tragedy that happened a century ago. This tragedy involved a Poplar school and children who were victims of one of the early bombing raids on London.

Although the first air raids on Britain were from German airships, these tended to be short and sporadic. However in late 1916, the German Air Force formed an ‘England Squadron’ commanded by Captain Ernest Brandenburg which undertook a bombing campaign designed to strike terror into the British population. The campaign saw the squadron’s Gotha G.IV and R.VI Giant bombers conduct raids across the country.

The worst raid in terms of casualties took place on the 13th June 1917 and involved 20 Gotha bombers attacking London; when the raid had finished 162 people were killed and 432 injured.

The East End of London was one of the places the Germans targeted especially around the Dock areas. On the 13th June, In the East End alone; 104 people were killed and 154 seriously injured.


One of the worst incidents involved a bomb which entered the Upper North Street School in Poplar and exploded killing 18 young children. 


The pupils who were killed were mainly between the ages from 4 to 6 years old. Around a week later, one of the biggest funerals ever seen in London was held for the children. Fifteen children were buried in a mass grave at the East London Cemetery, while the other three children were buried in private graves. A newspaper report gave details about the ceremony.


Child Victims of  London Air Raid.

Seventeen Little Coffins, covered with pink and white blossoms, seventeen little coffins—-some of them pathetically small—lay in a row before the altar of Poplar Parish Church, London, on the 20th June.

Sixteen of them held the bodies of sixteen child victims of Germany savagery, school children who were killed in the daylight raid. In the seventeenth coffin were broken fragments of two other little bodies.

Seated amongst the mourners were many little boys and girls dressed all in black, with tense white faces, the brothers and sisters of the dead. Some of them (says the London “Daily Express”) had themselves been extricated from the medley of powdered brick, wood, and human flesh and blood in their school building after the bomb exploded.

The eighteen children—fourteen of them were aged only five—were all killed in their classroom at a London County Council school on Wednesday, 13th June, by a bomb dropped by a German airman.

Children took a large part in the funeral ceremonies. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides made an aisle on the church steps, cadets in khaki from the secondary schools lined the road in front of the church, and at the end of the service the band of boys from the Poplar Training School played the “Dead March,” and, later, a special funeral march composed by their conductor.

Although the tragedy has largely been forgotten, at the time it was widely used by the newspapers and government for propaganda purposes and encouraged anti-German sentiment, often the newspaper reports had lots of gory details.

Whilst people accepted atrocities on the battlefield, air-raids breached the boundary between soldiers on the battlefield and civilians at home. It was the first time that people began to understand the concept of total warfare.

A memorial in Poplar Recreation Ground, unveiled in June 1919, bears the names of the 18 Upper North Street School pupils that were killed.