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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 1984–6.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
One of the attractions of attending the preview for the new Tunnel: The archaeology of Crossrail exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands was that it offered a possibility for some people to have a look inside the new Canary Wharf Crossrail Station. The upper 3 floors of the station including retail, roof garden and restaurants have been open since 2015, however the lower sections are still being fitted out and access is limited to the occasional special event or open day.
The station is one of the most unusual in London because it has been created by sinking a 250 metre-long station box into waters of West India Quay dock. The station facilities are 18 metres below water level which has presented a number of challenges.
Arriving in the lower levels, the first surprise is the size of the station ticket hall which will be accessed via eight long-rise escalators from the promenade level entrances at either end of the building.
The concourse is 185 metres long and is very similar in design to the main Canary Wharf station with large open spaces.
The platforms are even longer at 241 metres long and will provide plenty of space to passengers.
The platforms are still being worked upon, but a sneak preview of the track and tunnel gives some idea of the scale.
One interesting fact is the station footprint which at 256m long is slightly longer than the height of One Canada Square which stands over the station.
Trains running on the Elizabeth Line will start from the new Canary Wharf station in December 2018. Trains will terminate at Paddington in the west and Abbey Wood in the east.
When the route fully opens in December 2019, a train every five minutes at peak time will allow passengers to travel all the way through to Paddington, Heathrow or Reading in the west and Abbey Wood in the east.
It is important to realise that these types of engineering undertakings are once in a lifetime and Crossrail will be considered to one of the great engineering achievements of the early 21st century. I have written posts about the nearby Thames Tunnel and Blackwall Tunnel which were considered wonders of their time.
Whilst I have been watching the developments around Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs with some interest, there is another development at Orchard Place which is beginning to take shape. In a post in 2014, I reported that a new bridge had been built across from Orchard Place to Canning Town station. Since then buildings have appeared on the City Island site and ‘Mini Manhattan’ is becoming a reality.
Residential living has not taken place on this small piece of ground since the 1930s when it was the location of a small population of around 300 people for over a century.
Because of its location, it is effectively cut off by water, surrounded by Bow Creek and the Thames with just a narrow path going to Leamouth Road and the small settlement of people in Orchard Place felt they were cut off from the Isle of Dogs and Poplar.
In the 1930s an old resident explained “From its start to the present, we have never had either a butcher, baker, barber, post office, police Station, fire Station or pawn Shop, or seen a tramway or bus in our neighbourhood, so we have to do all our domestic business in Poplar, via Leamouth Road, which is a long and lonely walk, especially by night.”
Many people in Poplar and the Isle of Dogs did not even know Orchard Place existed and those that did probably heard stories about the resident’s lawlessness and rough lifestyle.
Many of the residents in Orchard Place were related and worked in the various factories and shipyards, however the Thames Plate Glass Works was a major employer in the 19th century when it was estimated that 75% of the Orchard Place adult residents worked there.
At its height of popularity, Orchard Place had around 100 two-storied cottages but by the 1930s that had been reduced to around 50. The cottages were never that strongly built and were prone to flooding in the lower rooms. However it was the great flood of 1928 which devastated the dwellings and even though people still lived in them into the 1930s, newspaper reports of the time reported on the scandal of the living conditions and labelled the area “London’s Lost village.”
Eventually the residents were rehoused in nearby Oban House in Poplar and the houses demolished and land used for various industrial use.
Considering its history, it is with some irony that the City Island has been built to foster a ‘community feel’ with gardens and leisure facilities. The old Orchard Place residents had a very strong community but few facilities.
Despite the development of Trinity Buoy Wharf as an Art Quarter, this particular area still feels strangely distant from the main areas of Poplar, Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. It remains to be seen whether the land which was the location of “London’s Lost village” will finally be popular with a new generation of residents.
(c) Museum of London
I recently contacted by the Museum of Docklands who are making available some photographs that illustrated some of the aftermath of the Silvertown Explosion of January 19th 1917. Knowing little about the disaster, I decided to undertake some research and came across the following newspaper report from 1935 which includes a harrowing eye-witness account of the disaster by Fireman James Betts who was awarded the King’s Medal for bravery.
The Story of the Silvertown Explosion
Eighteen years ago to-day London had a narrow escape from being blown sky-high when the Silvertown explosion occurred.
Ex-Fireman James Joseph Betts, a survivor, who was awarded the King’s Medal for bravery, described in the London “Sunday Express” the following story of what happened on that terrible evening.
It was ten minutes to seven; a chilly, starry night on January 19th 1917. The war had dragged on for two and a half years. I was on night duty with a number of others of the brigade at Silvertown Fire Station in Poplar.
On every side loomed the black shapes of factories. Behind screened, windows — for every precaution was taken in those days of air raids, and not a light showed — vast armies of war workers were engaged on their various tasks of turning out munitions, food, and clothing for the troops. Opposite the fire station was the munitions factory of Messrs. Brunner Mond, Limited. Behind it the flour mills of W. Vernon and Sons. A little to the east were the oil refineries of Silvertown Lubricants, Limited, and the saw-mill and creosote works of Messrs. Burt, Boulton and Haywood. To the west stretched the sugar factory of Messrs Lyle, Limited.
Nearly 5,000 workers were there in all — hundreds of them women and girls who were “doing their bit” in the absence at the front of husbands, fathers, sons and sweethearts. Perhaps the most important of these factories was that of Messrs. Brunner Mond, for it was here that, night and day, the ceaseless task of manufacturing shells and armaments was taking place. The hourly cry from the front was “More munitions.”
Not the least important branch of this vital work of munitions making was carried out in the chemical laboratories which lay a little away from the main works. These were the “danger” buildings, where high explosives were manufactured. From all sides came the din of racing machinery, the mournful treble whine of sawmills, and the rattle of cranes as the barges lying in the adjacent Thames were loaded. Pedestrians hurried past the fire station to and from their work, for it was about the hour when shifts were changed. Children carrying baskets of provisions and enamel tea-cans containing the evening meals of parents working overtime, hastened on their way. There was in the air the electrical tension brought about by high-speed production in an urgent cause.
General view of “A”, “B”, “C” “D” silos, Royal Victoria Dock
John H Avery © PLA Collection / Museum of London
Suddenly, without warning, a bright orange tongue of flame shot up from the very heart of the Brunner Mond works high into the air, all the more vivid on account of the enveloping blackness of the night. Into the station rushed one of the men. “Brunner Mond’s is alight!” he shouted. None knew better than we the terrible implications conveyed by that brief warning. For, once those rising flames reached the danger, buildings, there was little hope for the lives and property in the vicinity.
There was, too, a further danger, for besides the vast quantity of T.N.T. contained in the “danger” building there lay on the permanent way that ran close to the building four railway trucks containing enough of the deadly stuff to” blow up half London.
Within a few seconds fire alarms rang through the station, and our chief immediately rapped out orders.
We rushed to get out the escape and the pump. There was not a second to lose if we were to quell the fire and avert an explosion. But I felt it was such a forlorn hope that I yelled to my wife who, with our twelve-year-old son, lived in the quarters behind the station. Get out of it, Polly, for God’s sake. We’re all going up in a minute!”
The next second we were tearing across the road into Brunner Mond’s yard. Outside the fire station people stood transfixed as though fascinated by that now fiercely burning building across the way. Others were fleeing helter-skelter anyhow, anywhere from that flaring presage of imminent danger, yelling warnings as they went. Some lay flat, on their, faces on the pavement, some prayed against the walls of the street.
As we entered the factory gates we were met by the flying figure of the timekeeper, a burly Scotsman. “Run for it, mate, we’ll be gone in a minute,” he yelled to me as he almost staggered past, hatless, distraught, his face distorted by a terrible fear.
They were his last words. Then it was as though heaven and gravity plunged to meet the earth in a shattering upheaval. In one second the whole world seemed to have crumbled. It might have been seconds, minutes, hours before I next remembered. I was lying on my back on a piece of waste ground 200 feet from the spot where I and other firemen had been fixing the hose ready to play on the flames.
45 feet girder near silo loading shed, Royal Victoria Dock
John H Avery © PLA Collection / Museum of London
Around me was a vast plain of rubble. The factory had gone. There were fearful sounds in the air, the screams of injured women and children, the groans of those imprisoned under debris, the rattle of rafters and girders being feverishly overturned by rescuers who had rushed to the shattered area, the shrill resonance of ambulance bells, the imperious clang of fire alarms, the roar of flames. On every side great fires were blazing.
In all nine factories and mills had caught alight, ignited by red-hot iron girders, flung sky-high by the explosion, falling in their midst. Something of tire terrific force of the explosion can be imagined when I tell you that parts of our fire-engine were found a quarter of a mile away, smashed and twisted beyond recognition.
Enormous boilers were hurled into the air and landed several streets away. Houses we’re left with cracking walls, windows gone, doors blown in, and roofs with gaping holes. In places which received the full force of the explosion it was as though a giant pestle had descended from the heavens and pounded them to powder.
Every building in London was shaken. Half a million windows in shops and houses across the river a mile away at Charlton and South Woolwich were broken. The explosion was heard in districts as far apart as Salisbury and King’s Lynn. Meanwhile the surrounding factories burned fiercely, and the task of rescuing workers in their blazing depths began.
Every available fire-engine and escape from all parts of London converged on Silvertown. It was a grim and awe-inspiring scene.- For , three or four hours after the explosion the whole of London was lit by the flames.
The fire area itself was an astonishing spectacle. Imagine an arc of towering, flat-faced factories, with row upon row of windows. At that moment they were as if they had been filled with burning coal. Every window opening glared like an iron furnace when the doors are opened.
Through long cracks in the walls long flames waved out like fiery serpents. Now a great fragment of iron — it looked as large as a cottage roof — would slide down the sides of the glowing pile. Towards the river another great factory blazed fiercely. Its windows appeared like a series of white-hot ingots. To the right the widespread frame of a row of timber sheds resembled a great main line railway station afire. The scene seemed unreal.
There were these towering bonfires of light spread out across the black landscape, and as their flames leaped up to the sky they threw into relief the broken shells of rows of houses — streets without windows and, what was more, without inhabitants. Some were dead — no one knew yet how many. The rest were gone — anywhere away from that scene of death and destruction.
High overhead poured vast clouds of smoke. Beneath them from the flour mills, where several hundred girls had been at work, came flying showers of millions of tiny particles of light as though a sweeping storm of sleet had become incandescent. No doubt these tiny specks were the glowing ashes of a myriad grains of wheat carried up into the sky by the waves of flame. It was like a golden rainstorm.
The firemen and their apparatus were almost helpless against conflagrations of such number and magnitude.. For days afterwards the heaps of debris in the midst of the mere shells of these mills and factories that remained were smouldering. Weeks afterwards when the task of clearing .away the wreckage began,the workers. came across red-hot embers deep down among the piles of debris.
While the great battle against the fires, was being waged. By firemen, a large arm of helpers was helping to extricate the dead, and injured from the wreckage of their homes.
The heaps of ruins which had been houses were slowly explored. It was like scraping and scratching among great rubbish heaps. Sometimes a distracted mother in search of a missing child would push herself to the forefront of a group of searchers and herself claw at the pile of rubble in a frenzy of apprehension until her fingers bled.
Such scenes were frequent. One of the bodies dug out of the wreckage was that of a young clerk engaged in a large sugar refinery, one of the factories set ablaze. This youth had run from the factory to the manager’s house close by to warn him of the fire. As he was knocking at the door the explosion occurred, and the wall of the house collapsed and buried him.
One woman was putting her babies to bed when the explosion occurred. She rushed out with them, and in her terror ran on and on till she was taken in by some kindly people, at whose house she stayed. A number became mentally unhinged by the shock. One lad’s blood turned to water. He died six months later. My wife was rendered stone deaf: One encountered at every turn stories of simple heroism and human fortitude in the face of this terrible calamity..
There were tales of rescues by those who themselves were seriously injured. One man dragged four badly injured young children from the wreckage of a demolished house, and it was not until afterwards, when he suddenly sank into unconsciousness, that those around realised that he had himself lost a foot. .
There was one brave girl, Norah Griffiths, who helped to hold up a roof that would otherwise have fallen and crushed to death a number of young children attending a Band of Hope meeting at a local mission hall.
People divested themselves of their outer garments, despite the bitterly cold weather, in order to wrap up the shivering forms of homeless children, scores of whom had been separated from their parents in the darkness and confusion.
In every street stood groups of stranded people, gazing ruefully at what once had been their homes. In many cases the roofs and the bed rooms had just disappeared. Only parts of the walls of the downstairs were now left. These rooms were no longer rooms. They had no ceilings. Their fronts had vanished.
One of the most immediate and pressing problems was the housing of the homeless. The Salvation Army did wonderful work. It established buildings and provided food and hot drinks. A nearby chapel was hastily converted into a creche, and hundreds of children were found shelter. Some of the victims sought refuge further afield, at the house of relatives and charitable institutions.
With the coming of dawn there were still hundreds of homeless ones, weary and pale-faced, trudging the dismal streets. The entire district was cut off by a military guard and police forces. And through this cordon passed streams of refugees from the stricken area in search of food and sleep. Some clutched the glass vases which had adorned their mantelpieces, for in many cases it seemed to have been the most fragile articles that had escaped injury. Others carried clothes baskets filled with personal trifles salved from the ruins of their homes. Everyone seemed to bear a load of some sort — trunks, sacks, bundles, even treasures hastily wrapped in sheets and blankets. Some wheeled perambulators loaded with household goods.
And hundreds who had fled from the place as soon as they had overcome the great, shocks of the explosion begged a night’s lodging a few miles away tramped back to see what they could salvage from the wreckage of their former homes.
How little the world at large knew of this and a score of other similar war-time disasters, involving loss of life and injury among the civilian population! Seventy-four lives had been lost, nearly a thousand maimed and injured. The place which had been a munitions works was a waste of black desolation. Nearly a dozen factories and mills had been destroyed.
Thousands of houses were wiped out. Hundreds of people were rendered homeless. The damage amounted to £1,212,661. There were third-party claims running into several million pounds sterling. A dozen people living in the immediate vicinity of the explosion were never seen again. This terrible story of death and destruction was told to the world in the following prosaic announcement which appeared in the daily newspapers.
“The Ministry of Munitions regret to announce that an explosion occurred this evening at a munitions factory in the neighbourhood of London. It is feared that the explosion was attended by considerable loss of life and damage to property.
The official line of the authorities was to suppress much of the information about the disaster. There were rumours that the explosion was due to sabotage by enemy agents and the government did not want to give any credit to the Germans. This media blackout led to a number of theories about what had happened, it was not until the 1950s that information came to light that suggested that a small fire had set off the explosives to devastating effect. The 1950s report also criticised the authorities for allowing munitions to be manufactured in a dense residential area. For much of the 20th century, the disaster was written out of history and therefore we can hope that the centenary of the event raises awareness of the people who died and suffered in one of London’s worst explosions.
If you would like to see the available photographs at the Museum of London Docklands, visit the website here