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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.

John Betjeman visits the Isle of Dogs 1956

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Castalia Square 1960s (photo Island History)

It is always a great pleasure to come across an article by a writer or journalist visiting the Isle of Dogs. It is often written from the viewpoint of someone going to somewhere remote and uncharted rather than a part of a major city.

The following article written by poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman for the Spectator in 1956 follows this long tradition. It is worth remembering that although John Betjeman was a popular poet who became Poet Laureate in 1972, he also was a supporter of many campaigns to protect historic buildings most famously St Pancras station.

It is his love of architecture  that brought  him to the Isle of Dogs in 1956 where he made an unexpected discovery.

In the evening sunlight on Monday, I went to that least visited part of London, the Isle of Dogs. It’s more than a square mile of docks, houses: shattered Victorian churches, no train service, no cinema, a bus service, and only approachable by swing bridges. The people on the Island are proud of it and don’t like living anywhere else. Poplar people on the mainland don’t like coming to live on the Island. It is a cut-off kingdom, the remotest thing you can find in London, and was very badly bombed in the war. Among the ruins three sights well worth the journey are to be seen. (1) Coldharbour, near Blackwall Basin, where some fine Georgian merchants’ houses have the water washing up to their walls and where a public house looks over Blackwall Reach. (2) Island Gardens on the southern tip of the Island, which commands the best view of Greenwich Hospital there is. Reflected in the water one sees the doomed Union Wharf beside the Hospital, with its weather-boarded houses, Queen’s House, and in the background the trees of Greenwich Park and the outline of the Observatory. (3) 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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Castalia Square in 2013

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There was a refurbishment of the Square in 1992 which was opened by Bruno Brookes Radio 1 DJ