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Life on the Isle of Dogs 1981 – 88 by Chris Hirst (Part One)

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Bonfire Night 1984 (photo Chris Hirst )

Recently, I was chatting with photographer Mike Seaborne who is well known for the photographs he took of the Island in the 1980s. We both said there was for various reasons, very few photographs of the Island in this important period survived when the docks had closed and redevelopment had not really began. This is why, I was delighted when Chris Hirst got in touch with some memories of his time on the Island in the 1980s and produced a number of fascinating photographs. Both give plenty of insights into a place which was lamenting the loss of the docks and was looking forward to an uncertain future. Chris takes up the story which I will publish in two parts. 

My wife and I moved to the Island in the summer of 1981. Tower Hamlets were offering “hard to let” council housing to students, and friends of ours had a 3-bedroom flat in Skeggs House on Glengall Grove and wanted someone to share it. Cheap rent was the only thing Skeggs House had going for it!

The first picture shows the front of Skeggs House in 1981. Note there were no trees on Glengall Grove at that time. The old red telephone boxes are still there but would soon be replaced. The two people are on the balcony of our flat (number 7).

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Skeggs House ( photo Chris Hirst )

Conditions in the flat were fairly primitive. The only heat source was a gas fire in the living room. The bedrooms were extremely cold in the winter (single-digit temperatures during a cold spell). The leaky windows let in all the street noise. The water heater was unreliable and exploded twice (once taking weeks to be repaired). The lifts never worked of course, but it was only two flights of stairs. 

The following picture was taken from the other side of Skeggs House. It all looks very much the same today!

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  Skeggs Rear 1981. ( photo Chris Hirst )

Public transport on the Island was pretty much limited to the 277 bus, but we bicycled almost everywhere and only used the bus occasionally. At the time the 277 route ended at the south side of the Blue Bridge and the bus turned around on that little loop of Manchester Road. So it didn’t affect the bus if the bridge was up, as it was in this 1982 picture.

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Blue Bridge Open 1982. ( photo Chris Hirst )

The next three pictures were all taken from or close to the Blue Bridge in 1982. The view towards South Dock was pretty barren, and nothing like it is today. I assume the three cranes near the middle of the picture are the same ones that now sit on the opposite side of the dock entrance.

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Dock from Blue Bridge 1982. ( photo Chris Hirst )

Leslie’s Cafe was demolished when Preston’s Road was straightened. We never went inside, but cycled past that spot daily.

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 Leslie’s Cafe 1982 ( photo Chris Hirst )

The dock entrance had to be dredged periodically, and that required the bridge to be raised. The next shot was probably taken on the same day as the one above showing the bridge open.

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Dredging 1982, ( photo Chris Hirst )

This was before the Asda was built so we did a lot of our shopping off the Island, although Castalia Square was useful for many things (including the launderette). In the following 1982 picture note the old red telephone boxes, which are gone in Mike Seaborne’s 1984 pictures.

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 Castalia Square 1982 ( photo Chris Hirst )

 The Glass Bridge was still standing when we first moved there, although I think it was already closed and soon afterwards it was demolished. This picture was taken from the balcony of 7 Skeggs House in 1982.

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Glass Bridge 1982 ( photo Chris Hirst )

 Roffey and Cubitt Houses were also still there, although no longer occupied by 1982.

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 Roffey House 1982 ( photo Chris Hirst )

Things started to improve on the Island with the Asda opening in 1983, the Enterprise Zone and the red brick road with the new D1 bus, and the announcement of the DLR in 1984.

On November 5th 1984 there was a spectacular bonfire between Skeggs and Thorne Houses. This picture was taken from the balcony at the rear of Skeggs House.

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  Bonfire Night 1984. ( photo Chris Hirst )

Many thanks to Chris for his contribution and the use of his photographs.

Walking the Island Board Walk Trail (Part Four)

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The final part of the Island Board Walk Trail brings us to the east of the Island and views over to North Greenwich and the unmistakable O2 complex.

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However we begin near the George Pub with a board that illustrates that working in the docks could be a precarious way to earn a living. Whilst there were a large number of permanent workers in the docks, large numbers were taken on casually to cope with the often erratic nature of when the work was available.

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Large numbers of workers would hang around gates waiting to see if any work was available. If selected you may be lucky to have half a day or a full days work but were not guaranteed any more than that. This created a great deal of uncertainty about whether you could earn enough to survive. The George would often be the place where men would congregate and wait for their name to be called out.

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We then move back into the Millwall Dock on the east side to the board near Glengall Bridge and the floating Chinese restaurant, the view across the water and up to Canary Wharf gives some idea of the large number of developments that have sprung up since the docks closed in the 1980s.

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The walk then takes us up to South Quay and along Marsh Wall to the Blue Bridge and the West India Dock Entrance. If you are in this area when a ship comes into the dock, it gives some idea of the disruption a ‘bridger’ causes. The sight of the Bridge coming up is a wonderful sight and people in their cars often get out of the vehicles to watch the boats moving into the dock. However ships coming into the dock are limited and a ship often comes through the dock within thirty minutes. In the past the bridge may be up for hours while a succession of boats entered the dock and Islanders could be effectively stranded for hours.

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The walk down East Ferry Road takes you into Cubitt Town which has been a built up area for over a century with a quite odd mix of buildings both quite old and modern. The next board is situated in Castilia Square, a small neighbourhood shopping area near the green space of St John’s Park.

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Poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman wrote an article for the Spectator in 1956 about architecture  that brought him to the Isle of Dogs in 1956 where he made an unexpected discovery.
One of the best new housing estates I have seen since the war, comparable with Lansbury, intimately proportioned, cheerful and airy and yet London-like. It is called Castalia Square and makes one realise. when one compares it with the gloomy blocks of ‘artisans’ dwellings’ of the mid-war and pre-1914 periods, how good modern architecture can be. In all the destruction I record in this column, it is a pleasure to be able to write about something newly built which makes one’s heart rejoice.
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To finish the walk, we make our way to the Thames path on the east of the Island and look at the development on the other side of the river in North Greenwich. When we reach the last board, we can see the outline of Greenwich in the distance and the board offers the opportunity to reflect on the enormous variety of history in a small piece of East London. For anyone new to the area, the boards provide some insight into remarkable changes that have taken place in the area even within the last thirty years. In many ways the history of the Island is one of change, it has been the home to thousands of people from all over the world and yet still maintains it own character that is very different to other areas.
To understand some of this character, read the boards and listen to some of the wonderful interviews on the audio trail.

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The Boards are a great introduction to the Island and this project provides plenty of interest, the new audio tour has been devised to coincide with the launch of the walk and will be available to download as a podcast from the website: www.islandboardwalk.com/audio-trail It is derived from exclusive interviews with those who live and work on the island and provides real insights into the past, present and future of the Island.

‘Free’ Leaflet/Trail Maps which are available to download online and to collect from The Ship pub, The George pub, HubBub cafe bar and restaurant, Cubitt Town Library and the Great Eastern pub by the School Day’s board at start of the trail.

For downloads and more information visit:

www.islandboardwalk.com