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The Return of the Waterman’s Arms

Recently I received information about the redevelopment of the Island’s most famous pubs. In January, The Great Eastern pub on Glenaffric Avenue will be closed for a major £587,000 refurbishment and will reopen in early April as the The Waterman’s Arms.

The Heineken owned Star Pubs and Bars are hoping 15 new jobs will be created on the back of the investment which will see the community pub and hostel being transformed into a top-quality neighbourhood bar with ensuite accommodation, offering high quality food, drink and service.

The new licensees, Laura Lythall and Sam Hawkes have extensive knowledge of the area after running The Ship Inn on the Island for four years. The interior is being opened up to provide seating for 70 and the bar extended through the pub’s two main rooms, with a raised snug created at the back of the pub.

Upstairs there will be seven luxurious individually styled ensuite boutique bedrooms. And outside, a courtyard garden is being created with a firepit and festoon lighting.

The Waterman’s Arms will open from 10am for a late breakfast, cakes and snacks followed by lunch and dinner. Barista style, artisan coffee will be served throughout the day. The aim is to make the pub a focal point of the community and a destination for top quality food and drink.

The pub has a fascinating history, it originally began life as the Newcastle Arms, built by William Cubitt and opened in 1853. However it was in the early 1960s that the pub changed its name to the Waterman’s Arms and it was taken over writer and broadcaster Dan Farson who became licensee in 1962. Farson made his name on television by presenting documentaries about various subcultures like the teddy boys. After he made a documentary about East End pub entertainment, he was determined to run his pub with a music hall atmosphere. Farson lived in Narrow St in Limehouse and was fascinated by the local characters and East End life.

Due to his high profile on television, the pub was an instant success with well-known performers on stage, and the rich and famous making their way to the Isle of Dogs. Clint Eastwood, artist Francis Bacon, Brian Epstein, Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey were just a few of the celebrities that visited the pub.

Farson’s talents as a broadcaster and writer were not matched by his business acumen and he quickly managed to lose a considerable amount of money in a relatively short time. By 1964, the party was over and the pub returned to being a neighourhood pub although there were still the occasional coach party that turned up for the live entertainment at the weekend. As the docks declined, so did the interest in the pub from outside of the Island, although it did feature in a number of films and television, most notably in The Long Good Friday.

More recently, the pub changed its name to the Great Eastern and was converted into a pub and backpacker’s hotel. The building is one of the few remaining original public houses on the Island and we wish the new owners and licensees the best of luck in restoring the pub to its past glories.

The Ferry House- The Oldest Pub on the Island


In the 18th century there were very few houses on the Isle of Dogs, one notable exception was the Ferry House pub which has been plying its trade since 1722 and is still going strong.

The pub’s location near to the old ferry point across to Greenwich meant it was ideally placed to cater for travellers crossing the river.

There had been a ferry at this point since at least 1330, known afterwards as Popeler Ferry and then Potter’s Ferry. The Ferry transported men, horses and cattle and become a lucrative business whose rights were protected by legal statutes.


We know from Rocque’s map of 1745, that the Ferry House was marked on the map near to a gibbet, by consulting Old Bailey cases we can often find a little bit of the history of who was the landlord and the type of customers that frequent the pub.


From the following cases it is clear that the pub’s isolation attracted a number of interesting characters.

In a case from 1764, a John Mather living at the Ferry House is suspected of Theft.

JOHN MATHER,  Theft > receiving, 12th September 1764.

JONATHON SAUNDERS . I am a corn-lighter man : about the 3d or 4th of May, I missed 8 bushels of malt from out of my vessel lying at Pickle-herring-stairs ; it was clean good malt, worth 27 s. the quarter; that was the lowest it was sold at, at that time: the prisoner Mather did live at the Ferry-house at the Isle of dogs: we went down to apprehend him on the information Dimmock had given us, when we took him at Portsmouth. When I charged Mather with buying a quarter of malt, my property, he said he might have had sweepings of him; but he did not brew, and had no occasion for malt at all; he threatened what he would do to us; but we took him in a boat, and brought him before justice Clark; we had Dimmock there: the prisoner owned he had bought some malt off three men, but said it was sweepings; and said he never bought any clean corn off them.


In 1834, the Ferry House featured in another theft case.

ELIZABETH PINKERTON, Theft > pocketpicking, 3rd July 1834.

JOHN BURT. I am a seaman . I met William Punchard on the 10th of June, at the Ferry-house, in the Isle-of-dogs – I gave him my watch to take care of – I was going over to Greenwich – it was an old-fashioned silver watch, and the maker’s name was Brown – it had a steel chain, a seal, and a key.

WILLIAM PUNCHARD. I received the watch, and as I was returning home that night, about half-past ten, I met the prisoner and another woman – they asked me to go with them – I went to a house in Limehouse-hole – I went to an up-stairs room with both the women – I laid on the bed, and went to sleep – I had given them four shillings between the two – I awoke about two o’clock, and missed the watch which had been in my fob – I had pulled my jacket, off, but my trowsers were on – I opened the window, and sung-out for the police – the prisoner was gone – the other woman was there – she was taken, but discharged.

Cross-examined by MR. BODKIN. Q. Your friend asked you to take care of his watch? A. Yes; I had been drinking a little when I went with the women; but I was not drunk – I had been in one public-house, and stayed about half-an-hour with a young man who is now just gone in to Sydney – after I left the public-house, I had to call at a doctor’s – I had the watch safe then – that was about one hundred yards before I met the women – the prisoner laid on the bed; the other woman on the floor – I had been in the house about half an hour when I fell asleep.

GUILTY . Aged 34. – Transported for Fourteen Years .

In 1838, the landlady Amelia Ingram recollects some decidely shady dealings.

THOMAS PAUL, Theft  simple larceny, 14th May 1838.

AMELIA INGRAM . I keep the Ferry-house at the Isle of Dogs, near the Mill-bank. Some time about twelve months ago I remember four men coming, and giving me information that a dead man was at the back of my house in the water—the prisoner was one of the four—he is a navigator, and was working in the neighbourhood—he was in the habit of coming to my house for beer—I knew nothing of the deceased, nor his property. Cross-examined by. MR. PAYNE. Q. Was the prisoner the person that spoke to you about it? A. No, another man—it was on, a Monday morning—I am sure it was not Wednesday—it was about half-past eight o’clock or ten minutes to nine o’clock—the persons went away together afterwards COURT. Q. You say four of them gave you information, and he was one of them? A. Yes—two of them came to the kitchen door, and two stood down the steps—he was one of the two that stood on the steps.

GUILTY      Transported for Seven Years

In 1851 we have the landlord Robert Shepherd cashing a dodgy cheque.

WILLIAM JOHN COLLIER, Theft > embezzlement, 3rd February 1851.

ROBERT SHEPHERD . I keep the Ferry-house, at Poplar—the prisoner brought me this check, and I cashed it for him—I afterwards paid it away.

Cross-examined. Q. How long have you known the prisoner? A. Personally about sixteen months—I never heard anything against his character

GUILTY .—Recommended to mercy by the Jury— Confined Eighteen Months.


Towards the end of the 19th century, a large number of industries  covered the southern tip of the Island and the population increased to take advantage of the employment.

The Ferry House was not so reliant on the Ferry Trade but began to cater for  the large number of workers coming  onto the Island. The building of the foot tunnel virtually killed the ferry trade altogether, and the Blackwall  and Rotherhithe tunnels began to be used to ferry vehicles across the river.


Ferry House early 20th century (photo Island History Trust)

In the 20th century, it’s colourful past was largely forgotten and the Ferry House’s location near the foot tunnel and Island Gardens allowed it to prosper and was fortunate to avoid damage in the Second World War.

The Ferry House is, it is safe to say the oldest pub on the Island, but it is probably the oldest building on the Island that has been in continual use.

It has also had its share of fame, featuring in a number of novels based on the Island.