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‘Peter Possum’ visits the Isle of Dogs in 1867


The Docks night scene. Gustave Dore 1872

In 1860’s  a British born writer Richard Rowe (Peter Possum) who had made his name writing for Australian newspapers and journals returned to Britain and began to write articles which were then sent back to Australia.  Previously I published his impressions of the Thames Tunnel, in this article for the Argosy magazine he turns his attentions on the Isle of Dogs.

But when I wandered through the docks, I had still time upon my hands. A sudden thought struck me – I would explore the Isle of Dogs. The name is a household word to all Cockneys – they have heard it played upon scores of times in punning pantomimes; but how many of them know anything of its local habitation beyond the glimpse that may be got of its fringe from a Gravesend or Margate boat? No one, except on occasion of a great ship-launch, would think of going to the Isle of Dogs for pleasure, and great ship-launches unfortunately do not take place there now.

The artisans who used to swarm to it for business from Poplar and East Greenwich frequent it now in sadly diminished floods. At its busiest time it was a terra incognita to the vast majority of Londoners; now it possesses in addition the painful interest of being comparatively deserted by its  flourishing denizens. I set out for a walk round it, although within earshot of  railway whistles and almost within eyeshot of St. Paul’s, with a prose-dashed feeling of the poetry that must affect a visitant of ruined cities buried in American forests.
On the right rose the dead wall of the West India Docks, with little black hut showing at regular intervals above, furnished with pulley-wheels, as if inhabited by marsh-hermits who so hauled up their supplies. I crossed white drawbridges ridged with high metal flanges to keep crossing waggons in the middle. On the left rolled the almost vacant reach of river; on the right masts rose above brick walls, looking as land-sprung as park-trees; and vessels and timber floated in lanky artificial lochs. I passed “Lloyd’s Proving Range,” a long lofty gallery of rusty corrugated iron, bristled with scolloped pinnacles; and paced the deserted streets of Cubitt Town.

I once heard a humorous Kentish rustic describing a part of Maidstone as a locality which the Creator had “made o’Saturday night, and so he left it unfinished.” I was forcibly reminded of that somewhat bold description whilst wandering through Cubitt Town. The houses are of the normal squat, flimsy, featureless class which finds favour with the “cheap builders” of London; but suddenly every pretence at pavement vanishes, the post of the “doctor’s” red lamp at the corner stands lonely as Eddystone lighthouse, and the street runs into marsh, on which horses, with burs in their manes, are fattening themselves for the knacker’s yard, mud-streaked little pigs are squeakingly complaining of the bites which stray mangy dogs persist in taking at their by no means too plumps behinds, and patriachally-bearded Billygoats, big-uddered Nannygoats, and frisky kids are nosing and vaulting amidst shards of yellow pottery.

In the distance tower truncated pyramids of red and yellow brick, with grey haze wreathing over them. Nearer at hand are wastes of hummocked land, laked with pools of stagnant, scummily-irised water, which the bigger small boys of the place have converted into artillery ranges; more diminutive brethren being the whimpering targets for their hot fire of oyster shells.gustave-dore-1872

Dockland – Gustave Dore 1872

The grey-stone church, the red and yellow brick schools, are almost the only wholesome-looking building in the town. Most of the houses look like decaying mushrooms. There is an appalling proportion both of private dwellings and of shops “To Let;” the lower windows of the former being roughly boarded up to exclude gratuitous tenants. Public-houses are plentiful, but the dinginess which previous thronging custom has brought upon them stands out with dismal prominence in their present desolation. Workmen who can get no work, unshorn and clad in dirty duck and greasy corduroy, lounge about in knots of three and four, drearily moping, still more drearily joking at to the probabilities of the passing stranger’s standing an eleemosynary pint. The puff of a steam-engine, the rattle of a hammer, are sounds as rare as welcome. Again and again the road is fringed with a long range of workshops, through the starred holes of whose broken windows no bustle can be seen, no clank of tools, no hum of voices comes. Broad, white-lettered black boards above their portals announce “These Desirable Premises to be Sold or Let on lease.”
Between two such establishments a narrow street runs down to a deserted pier. The green grass is fast covering the black clinkers with which it is paved. At the bottom a glimpse may be got of a deserted shipyard. It is a forest of bare poles. On the pebbly “hard” into which it slopes lies a dismasted black barge – her cracked, sprawling sideboard looking like the broken fin of a dead, stranded whale. That may be taken as the type of the shipyards of the Isle of Dogs at present. I saw only two vessels shored up for repairs; abnormal quiet reigns even in the ship-breaker’s yard, littered with sea-greened copper, fractured spars, sun-blistered planks, and noseless, armless figure-heads. Other trades, however, seem still to thrive in the Isle of Dogs and perfume its atmosphere with a strange medley of malodour. Were it not for the penetrating scent of abundant tar, the nose would collapse under the infliction of the horribly mingled stinks of rancid grease, bilge-water, and mysteriously anonymous “chemicals.” “Family Night Lights” have a great factory all to themselves in Millwall. As you follow the river’s curve, you pass all kinds of works – some of them so big that their buildings have to be linked on to one another with rhubarb-coloured bridges running above the roadway. Boeotian fatness broods in the air around this oil mill. The steam corn mill next to it is furred with flour in streaks like rain-furrowed whitewash. Above this wall peeps a chaos of blighted-pumpkin-like boilers and pipes carefully wrapping in filthy, shaggy swathing. Through the wall runs a hose, swelling like an angry snake as the stream which the turncock in mufti has just supplied from the plug outside rushes through it. Just inside that wall a lofty chimney-stalk springs up like a blasted Californian pine, seemingly quite cut off from the works to whose ill-humours it gives vent. The smoky, dumpy cones of a pottery come next, pitched higgledy-piggledy amongst ash-heaps, rain-pools, clay-piles and avalanches of smashed pipkins. The pottery cones are cracked, but they seem to be chuckling over the thought that if they tumble, they will not have so far to fall as their tall neighbours, some of which are also cracked, and others prophylactically hooped like barrels – a precaution which gives them the aspect of vastly-magnified bamboos. In the midst of the fuming chimney-stalks, rumbling wheels, and panting engines, is interposed the cool, quiet contrast of a stone-yard, with moist numbered blocks piled one upon another and arranged in avenues, like “Druidical remains.”
I have said that no one would dream of going to the Isle of Dogs for pleasure; but nevertheless, I found “villas” there; enclosed in smart palisades, skirted with grass-plats and fringed with little trees and shrubs. Apparently their builder soon repented of his enterprise, for one of the small number can only boast of a basement, and moulders a ready-made ruin above its shaggy lawn. Noble Greenwich Hospital opposite, backed by its wooded hill, looks pityingly across at the pretentious row that dares, perched on the margin of a marsh, to assume Cockney architectural airs in face of its time-mellowed domes and colonnades.
In spite of its frill of works, the Isle of Dogs still looks a marsh. Blind alleys between the works are blocked with river-wall: where little lanes open on the river, the island seems to have sprung a leak, and one expects the water to rush in. Mist hangs about the flat, creeping hither and thither like visible ague: the houses look as if they had caught cold through not changing their wet stockings. The one omnibus which has come to an irresolute stand-still in the miry main street of Millwall, “like one who hath been led astray,” seems to have wandered from some slug-haunted old yard in which superannuated “buses” are laid up in mildewed ordinary. The two policemen look equally blue-mouldy, and pine for the far-off beats in which more fortunate brethren behold cooks’ faces beaming like rising suns between area rails. The hobbydehoy roughs who loaf out amongst the puddles have something alligator-like in their moist lankiness. The cheap periodicals in the one or two little shops, which satisfy the island’s thirst for literature, appear damper than when they came fresh from the press a month ago. “Champagne Charley” and the “Three Jolly Dogs” droop along-side them in lugubriously limp coarse woodcuts, hydropathically cured of all their fastness. Jolly Dogs in the Isle of Dogs seem as much out of their element as Clown, Harlequin, and Pantaloon at a Methodist class-meeting.

The 1850s was a boom time for the Isle of Dogs, the building of Brunel’s Great Eastern and other shipbuilding  on  the Island had attracted workers from all over the United Kingdom. However by 1866 there was a financial crash that devastated the shipyards which caused great distress among thousands of workers. This distress continued unabated for the next three years putting considerable strain on local authorities and charities to provide relief. Although Peter Possum wrote whimsical pieces, the article does give some illustration of the state of the Island at the time.

Walking the Island Board Walk Trail (Part Four)

island board walk

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.
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.


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:


The Discrete Charm of Jubilee Crescent, Cubitt Town


The Isle of Dogs is a collection of all kinds of buildings, however Jubilee Crescent is unusual in many ways. Built in 1935 by architect G R Unthank, Jubilee Crescent is a very attractive group of properties that stand in their own landscaped grounds. They have that sort of 1930s design that would not look out-of-place in the suburbs but represents  quite a different design for the Isle of Dogs.


The story behind the building of the crescent is tied into the Island’s history of ship building and the philanthropic works of one the largest local firms. Local ship repairing firm, R. & H. Green & Silley Weir Ltd were based in Blackwall and were part of a long  shipbuilding tradition. R. and H. Green Ltd was formed from the old-established Blackwall firm of Wigram and Green who were famous shipbuilders in the 19th century, however with the decline of Thames shipbuilding in the early 20th century,  R. & H. Green became part of  ship repairing partnership called R. and H. Green and Silley Weir.
It was the chairman of the firm, John Silley, who was determined to provide homes for retired workers of the shipbuilding and repairing industries. Silley had already built some dwellings for his workers in Falmouth and chose the Isle of Dogs to build a series of dwellings that would mark King George V’s Silver Jubilee.


Silley  approached the Port of London Authority and persuaded them to give him 1.5 acres on the edge of the Mudchute in exchange for some land owned by his firm at Beckton. The firm then provided the money to build the flats and then handed them over to a trust – the Shipworkers Jubilee Housing Trust – which initially let the dwellings at 2s 6d per week.  The scheme received a State housing subsidy, and Poplar Borough Council co-operated by charging a special inclusive figure for the costs of rates (at a nominal assessment of £3 per house), electric light, and water rates, so that these could be covered by the rent.


The crescent got its name because it was built-in the year of the Silver Jubilee of King George and Queen Mary. There are  two reliefs of the King and Queen on the front of  two   houses in the crescent.


John Silley was a committed Christian who contributed toward the YMCA and numerous other charities, however although Green and Silley Weir still had 8,000 employees in the 1960s, the firm went into decline and in 1977 was sold to become part of the Government-owned River Thames Shiprepairers.

royal museum green

Staff at R. & H. Green and Silley Weir Ltd’s Blackwall establishment
Date: circa 1930s (Photo Royal Museums Greenwich)

Amazingly, although the firm has now disappeared, Jubilee Crescent managed to avoid the bomb damage that blighted this particular area in the war and still provides very attractive accommodation for retired people and is managed by a housing trust.

An Interesting Case of Suicide – The Story of Dr Lombard Tanner


Dr Lombard John Newman Tanner was born in Cork, the son of notable surgeon Dr William Kearns Deane-Tanner. In the early 1890s he moved to 451 Manchester Road,  Cubitt Town, to set up a medical practice. For whatever reason he decided to end his life, this tragic event was widely reported in the newspapers due to his brother being a Member of Parliament and because he left an extraordinary suicide note.  The following report gives the main details.

An Interesting Case of Suicide.
Dr  Tanner, of Cubitt’s Town, England, committed suicide on April 28th last. At the inquest the following letter, written by the deceased, was read:-  5  April 28th, 1893. I am tired of life, and therefore have made up my mind to die. I think that suicide is quite justifiable, and in strict accordance with all economic laws. I think instead of being made an offence against the law every facility should be given to anyone desirous of ending his life, and of doing it in a comfortable, satisfactory, and painless manner. I have no religion, and abhor so-called Christianity, and therefore beg most earnestly that I may not be buried, but that my body may be sent or taken to any of the schools of medicine for dissection. I think Bradlaugh’s allowing himself to be buried was a mistake, and if by this action of mine I pioneer a movement against such barbarism sanctioned in the name of religion I shall not have lived in vain. We are brought into this world without our consent, and I therefore do not see why we should not leave it when we like. I have intended to do so for the last three months, as my energy is gone, and I cannot battle against the world as I used to. If there be another world, which I very much doubt, then I will take my chance and start afresh. But what I most need is rest. I am so wearied and tired of it all. The few effects I do possess should pay my hotel bill, £8, I owe the Queen’s Head, Theobald’s read, Hayhoe’s bill for drugs, and any small items that may be due by me. I apologise to the proprietors of this hotel if I have caused them any inconvenience, which, indeed, I know I shall: but what can I do? I thought of going to Richmond Park, but it would equally give trouble. I do not want to be selfish, but it is a fault of the State not to give us proper facilities, therefore I must apologise not alone for myself but my country.

LOMBARD J. TANNER, late of the National Liberal Club, Whitehall place, and at 451 Manchester Road. Cubitt Town.


Dr Charles Kearns Deane Tanner MP (Lombard’s brother)

The Inquest was not without incident, when his brother entered the court.

Dr  Tanner MP, who seemed much agitated, here entered the court, and was accommodated with a seat. A hypodermic syringe was lying on the dressing table. It was produced. Dr  Tanner (interrupting): It is mine. The witness, continuing, stated that there were a number of letters on the mantelpiece. Dr  Tanner, M.P. for the Mid-division of Cork, identified the deceased as his brother, who was christened after the Protestant Dean of Cork. He was forty-one years of age. Witness last saw him alive before he went to Ireland prior to the meeting of Parliament. The last time witness saw him alive he bought him a practice in the East- End of London. Witness knew nothing that was pressing upon his mind. He differed from witness politically and also upon religion. The witness identified a letter in his brother’s handwriting which is as follows :—” Dear Charlie,— Goodbye. I shall be no more On the back of the letter were the words “March 3, 1893.—Received the sum of £2 on account of Messrs. Nathan and Co., 27, Chancery- lane, re Willows.” Some minor details having been brought out. Dr. Alfred Withers Green, of Bouverie street, Fleet-street, stated that he was called to the hotel at half-past 5, and found the deceased lying in an easy position. He had been dead about 24 hours. There were two marks of puncture on the left leg, the pupils were contracted, and all the organs were healthy but congested. Death was due to an overdose of morphia , which had been injected. The Coroner, in summing up, left it to the jury either to take the strong view adopted by deceased’s brother, and returned a verdict of felo de se, or to arrive at the opinion that the deceased had committed suicide while temporarily insane. Personally, the Coroner thought the letter which they had heard read was of such an extraordinary and incoherent description that it could only come from a person whose mind was unhinged. Dr Tanner MP again sought to address the Court, but the Coroner entreated him to remain composed. The jury consulted for about five minutes, and agreed to a verdict that Lombard John Newman Tanner died from the effects of morphine poisoning, and that such poison was self administered while he was in an unsound state of mind.

This case is extraordinary for many reasons, Dr Lombard Tanner’s plea that the state should allow people to commit suicide  and anti religious stance was quite radical at the time and undoubtedly convinced the Coroner that  he was mentally unstable despite the pleas of Dr Tanner’s brother. The Coroner description of the letter as a ‘ extraordinary and incoherent’ seemed rather strange considering it seemed quite rational and well thought out.

It is also extraordinary that no-one asked what had led the Doctor into this state and why a Doctor from a prestigious Irish medical family should be bought a practice in the East End of London. Despite their differences of opinion over religion and politics, the two brothers were very close.

When Dr  Tanner’s brother  died in 1901 of consumption, he was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery next to the grave of his brother.

Unfortunately this was not the only tragedy to affect the family , Dr Lombard Tanner’s nephew  William Cunningham Deane-Tanner  went to America changed his name to  William Desmond Taylor and became a well known film director in early Hollywood. In 1922 he was found murdered in his bungalow,  the murderer was never found and the case was considered one of great scandals of Hollywood.



Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Cubitt Town and the Isle of Dogs

Multi-view of Cubitt Town 1912
Once again many thanks to Eric Pemberton for sending an intriguing collection of postcards and photographs.  The above postcard is interesting for the views shown, they mostly consist of Island Gardens, Greenwich and a couple of churches.
Primitive Methodist Church Cubitt Town

The chapel stood on the west side of Manchester Road, the first Primitive Methodist building here was begun by Thomas Ennor of Limehouse in 1862. There was a schoolroom below the chapel. The building was extended backwards in 1878 and again in 1891, increasing the accommodation to 450.

Scanstluke - Copy
St. Lukes Church was bombed out during 2nd World War, the last remaining part of the church was demolished last year.
 Mellish Street.
A very unusual view of Mellish Street from the early 20th century.
The Granary Millwall Docks
The Central Granary could cope with 550 tons of grain handled in an hour. The granary had a capacity of 20,000 tons and was considered a major advance in dealing with grain. The building itself was a shell of three million  bricks with 7½ acres of floor space. It was 259ft by 103ft and 95ft tall in eleven storeys, ten for storage in five firewalled divisions, with delivery on the ground floor. The basement and the attic were for conveyors. The Central Granary remained the principal granary in the Port and a vital part of London’s grain trade until 1969, it was demolished in 1970.
Freat Eastern
A very rare Stereoscope of the Great Eastern launch
Eric Pemberton and his colleagues in the Friends of Island Gardens have helped to promote changes in Island Gardens to make the area more attractive. Island Gardens are visited by over one million people each year but do not have any public toilet facilities. Eric has began a petition to address this oversight to provide better facilities for the many visitors to Island Gardens.
If you would like to support and sign the petition, visit the Government site here. 

The Isle of Dogs by Thomas Wright 1867


Workers in a Isle of Dogs Foundry mid 19th century

Thomas Wright (12 April 1839 – 19 February 1909) was an English author who wrote predominantly  about the  working conditions in England.

What made him unusual was he was a working man himself, travelling around finding work as a labourer in a engineering firm. Even when he became a writer he was known as the ‘The Journeyman Engineer ‘.

He was mostly self taught and had a number of books published, his most popular being Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes (1867), The Great Unwashed (1868), and Our New Masters (1873).

The following essay is from Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes when he visits the Isle of Dogs and describes the industries and the considerable Scottish influences.

millwall docks 1867

Building the Millwall Docks 1867

One of the most interesting, and in many respects representative of these little known districts, is the Isle of Dogs. “The island,” as it is familiarly called – although properly speaking it is a peninsula – is not very pleasant in its physical features. It is situated about six miles below London Bridge, and lies considerably lower than the level of the river, which is only prevented from overflowing it by strong embankments. As owing to its exceedingly low level it cannot he efficiently drained, it is very marshy; broad ditches of filthy water running on each side of its main road. To a casual observer it would appear that a visit to the island could only be interesting to persons who wished to study a peculiar style of dwelling- house architecture, the effect of which is that a dissolution of partnership takes place between the woodwork and brickwork of the lower stories before the upper ones are built; or to antiquarians desirous of seeing what the roads of England were like before Macadam was born or commissioners of paving created. And while its slushy, ill-formed roads, its tumble-down buildings, stagnant ditches, and tracts of marshy, rubbish-filled waste ground make the outward appearance of the island unpleasant to the sight, chemical works, tar manufactories, and similar establishments render its atmosphere equally unpleasant to the olfactory sense. Nevertheless, there is much that is interesting in the Isle of Dogs. I have somewhere seen this district described as the Birmingham of London; but I think that the “Manchester of London would convey a much more accurate idea of the kind of place the Isle of Dogs really is.
But in the Isle of Dogs, as in Manchester, the articles manufactured are large, important, and of an eminently utilitarian character.


Launch of the Northumberland 1866

  On “the island” is centred the iron ship building and marine engineering of the Thames. There are more than a dozen ship and marine engine building establishments upon it, amongst them being the gigantic one in which the operations of the Millwall Iron Works Company are carried on, and in which the Great Eastern, the large Government armour-plated ram Northumberland, and many other of the largest merchantmen and vessels of war afloat have been built. Here, too, a great portion of the armour-plate with which our own and foreign nations are encasing their ships of war, and with which the coast defences and other fortifications of Russia are being strengthened, is manufactured. The works of this company alone employ on an average 4000 men and boys, and the other ship and marine engine works on the island employ from 2000 to 100 men each. It would be within the mark to say that the shipbuilding and marine engineering of the Isle of Dogs gives employment to 15,000 men and boys; and, in addition to these shipbuilding establishments, there are on the island tar, white-lead, chemical, candle, and numerous other factories, which afford employment to a large number of men. There are two townships on the island-namely, Cubitt Town and Millwall, and it is in the latter place that a major portion of the manufactories of the island are situated; and Millwall is the place usually indicated when “the island” is spoken of by the inhabitants of the locality.

valiant 1863
Launch of the Valiant 1863

 Any person having a practical acquaintance with the construction of iron ships would naturally expect to find a sprinkling of Scotchmen among the inhabitants of the island; for the mechanics who learn their trade in the shipbuilding establishments of the Clyde are among the most proficient workmen in “the trade,” and the wages paid to this class  of mechanics being as a rule considerably higher in England than in Scotland, it follows as a natural consequence that many Scotch mechanics come to London. The expectation to meet with the Scottish element in the Isle of Dogs is more than realized, for one of the first things that strikes the visitor is the preponderance of this element, as manifested by the prevalence of the Scottish dialect and Christian names. “Do ye no ken sting’n the wee boy, ye ill-faur’d limmer, ye?” were the first words that greeted my ears on landing on the island on the occasion of my first visit to it, the exclamation having been uttered by a pretty little Scotch lassie about eight or nine years of age, who was in pursuit of a wasp under the impression that it was the same one that had on the previous day stung a “wee boy” whom she had been nursing. As I journeyed into the interior of the island the striking, distinctly-marked Scotch accent and phraseology continued to strike on my ear at almost every step; for owing to the sharp ringing noise caused by the riveting hammers which are at work in all parts of the island for many hours in the day, the inhabitants acquire a habit of speaking very loud when in the streets. And thus the broadly-accented “How are ye?” and the “Brawly, how are ye?” which the gude wives exchange when they meet, and the invitations to come awa’ in (to a public-house) and have “twa penny-worth,” or “a wee drap dram,” reach my ears. During meal hours, and the early part of the evening, when the workmen are passing through the streets, the ascendancy of the Scottish tongue is still more apparent, and Sandy, Pate, and Andrew are the names that are most frequently exchanged as the men from the various workshops salute each other while passing to and from their work. At these times a good deal of chaffing goes on among the workmen, and in this species of encounter, the dry humorous Scotchmen have very much the best of it. But as the burly Lancashire men on whom the Northern wit is chiefly exercised, are as good- tempered as they are big, and the dapper, sprightly Cockneys who occasionally join in the encounter are unable to realize the idea that they are getting the worst of a contest of wit with countrymen, the unpleasant consequences to which chaffing often leads are obviated here.
Of course, in a locality so favoured by Scotland’s children, there is a kirk, and a very comfortable little kirk it is, and equally of course the patriotism of the “whisky” drinkers is appealed to by such public-house signs as “The Burns” and “The Highland Mary;” and it must be confessed that on the island the public-houses are a much greater success than the kirk.
Life in the Isle of Dogs commences at a very early hour, and that “horrid example” in sluggards who always wanted a little more sleep, would have had great difficulty in obtaining it after five o’clock in the morning, had it been his fate to live on the Isle of Dogs. At that hour a sound of hurrying to and fro begins, heavily nailed shoes patter over the pavement, windows are thrown up, and shouts of ” Can you tell us what time it is, mate?” or “Do you ken what time it is, laddie?” are answered by other shouts conveying the required information; while knockers are plied by those who are “giving a mate a call” with extraordinary energy and persistence. By a quarter-past five the sound of footsteps has increased until it resembles the marching of an army, and from that time till ten minutes to six it continues unabated. It then rapidly decreases and becomes irregular. At  five minutes to six the workshop bells ring out their summons, and then those operatives who are still on the road change their walk into a run. In the midst of all this bustle rise shrill cries of “Hot coffee a ha’penny a cup,” “Baked taters, all hot,” and “Cough no more, gentlemen, cough no more,” this latter being the trade cry of the vendors of “medicated lozenges.” Before the hubbub raised by “the gathering of the clans” of workmen has fairly subsided, the sharp ringing of the riveting hammers, and the heavy throbbing sound of working machinery commences; and by half-past six life on the island is in full swing. At half-past eight the workmen come out to breakfast; and at that time the gates of the various large workshops are surrounded by male and female vendors of herrings, watercress, shrimps, or whatever other breakfast “relishes” are in season. The instant the breakfast bells ring the workmen rush out through the workshop gates, some hastening to their homes, and others into the numerous coffee-shops in the immediate neighbourhood of the yards. A good breakfast of coffee, bread and butter, and an egg, can be got here for fourpence-halfpenny. Forty minutes are allowed for the discussion of the morning meal. During dinner hour, which is from one till two, and from half-past five till half-past six in the evening (in the workshops that are closed at one on Saturdays the men work till six in the evening on the other five working days of the week, in those where they work till four on Saturdays they leave off work on other days at half-past five), the streets of the island are again alive with the crowds of hurrying workmen. But during working hours the streets are comparatively deserted, save by children, and the numerical force of the juvenile section of the inhabitants of the island does great credit to the papas and mammas, for though the island is generally considered a very unhealthy place, the children as a rule appear to be robust.

Cubitt Town Carnegie Library by Rebecca Mitchell

cubitt lib

Cubitt Town Carnegie Library by Rebecca Mitchell

Recently I have been sent a picture painted by talented young local artist, Rebecca Mitchell of one of my favourite buildings on the ‘Island’, the Cubitt Town Carnegie Library on Strattondale Street.

In a previous post I gave a little bit of the history of the library and told the story of the book ‘Rose-Marie’ that was returned after being overdue for 70 years.

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However it is important to realise that the library is of national and international significance being part of a the chain of Carnegie Libraries. Carnegie Libraries were built with money donated by Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, it is estimated that 2509 libraries were built between 1883 and 1929. The majority (1,689) were built-in the United States, but 660 were built-in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada and others in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, Mauritius and Fiji.


Cubitt Town library, one of the 660 in Britain and Ireland was part of a movement that developed what we consider the modern library. One of the innovations of the libraries was the idea of open stacks that encouraged people to browse and choose books for themselves.

A Poplar Guide of 1927 relates with pride “The Cubitt Town Free Library, opened in January, 1905, in Strattondale Street, is on the ‘Open Access’ system, by which means borrowers can select their own volumes from the shelves with full satisfaction to themselves and a saving of time to all concerned: the library is open from 9 a.m. to 9.30 p.m.”

Before Carnegie libraries, in most libraries you went to the Librarian at the counter and ask for books which were then retrieved from closed stacks.

It cannot be overestimated the role that libraries played in the late 19th and 20th centuries especially in poorer areas, they provided escapism and a refuge from the often harsh world outside.

However in the 21st century a number of Carnegie Libraries have been demolished or used for other purposes, this has led to many libraries widening their access to provide more community services. Cubitt Town has developed a number of special and community events so hopefully for many years to come the library will go from strength to strength.


Rebecca in the Library


Other Posts you may find interesting

Cubitt Town Carnegie Library and the Story of Rosemarie

An ‘Island’ Girl – Rebecca Mitchell, Artist

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Island Gardens and Isle of Dogs


Island Gardens

Many thanks once again to Eric Pemberton who has sent a fascinating set of postcards and photographs.

The first three show Island Gardens in the early 20th century,  in the 19th century and early 20th century there were very little space on the riverfront that had not been taken over by industries. This small parcel of land had been protected due to the fact the land had been owned by the Admiralty who wanted to protect the view to and from Greenwich. Local MP Will Crooks and others fought to use this land to provide a park for local people.


The postcards  show the gardens were set up to be enjoyed by the local population and a bandstand was often used to provide music at the weekends.


Island Gardens


Great Catholic Procession through Poplar – Annual Event from the church of St Mary and St. Joseph processing down East India Dock Road July 1931.

Poplar like many areas of the East End had a large Catholic population and the annual processions were watched by thousands of people, the parades continued up to the 1960s

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Early 20th century postcards of Millwall

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Primitive Methodist Church – Cubitt Town

There was a chapel on the site from 1862 but was rebuilt in 1905, demolished in 1978.

Eric Pemberton is part of a group aiming to protect Island Gardens from development, the group have started a petition , if you wish to sign the petition  click here

Other posts you may find interesting

Room for a View ? The Battle of Island Gardens

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – The Battle of Stepney

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Victoria Park

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Seamens Missions

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – The London Hospital

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards Poplar and East India Dock Road

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs 2

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Limehouse

Tales of Mean Streets – Arthur Morrison in Poplar


Arthur Morrison

Arthur Morrison is probably best known for his book, Children of the Jago published in 1896, this novel highlighted the notorious Old Nichol District of East London and made Morrison’s reputation as a ‘realist’ writer.

What is probably not generally known about Morrison is that he was born in John Street in Poplar in 1863 and spent much of his childhood in Grundy Street. His father was an engine fitter  who worked in the docks who died when Morrison was quite young, it is believed that his mother then ran a shop in Poplar. The reality of Morrison’s childhood is the subject of some debate due to the fact that when Morrison was older, he tried to hide his rather humble beginnings even to the extent of citing in census returns that he was born in Blackheath.

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What he could not hide was the fact that  many of his stories included inside knowledge of the Poplar, Isle of Dogs and Wapping areas.

In Tales of Mean Streets there ia a short story called In Business about a Cubitt Town family that come into a small inheritance.

To come into money is an unusual feat in Cubitt Town; a feat, nevertheless, continually contemplated among possibilities by all Cubitt Towners; who find nothing else in the Sunday paper so refreshing as the paragraphs headed “Windfall for a Cabman” and “A Fortune for a Pauper,” and who cut them out to pin over the mantelpiece. The handsome coloring of such paragraphs was responsible for many bold flights of fancy in regard to Ted Munsey’s fortune: Cubitt Town, left to itself, being sterile soil for the imagination. Some said that the Munseys had come in for chests packed with bank notes, on the decease of one of Mrs. Munsey’s relations, of whom she was wont to hint. Others put it at a street full of houses, as being the higher ideal of wealth. A few, more romantically given, imagined vaguely of ancestral lands and halls, which Mrs. Munsey and her forbears had been “done out of” for many years by the lawyers. All which Mrs. Munsey, in her hour of triumph, was at little pains to discount, although, in simple fact, the fortune was no more than a legacy of a hundred pounds from Ted’s uncle, who had kept a public-house in Deptford.

In a magazine article in 1888 he relates about young love ‘On Blackwall Pier.’

Blackwall Pier! The name strikes the ear with that half-lost, time-agone familiarity which is the inseparable association of Vauxhall Gardens, the Barn at Highbury, and the Eagle Tavern. Blackwall is not as it was. Anyone you meet, from the grimy lounges at the pier-wall to the tradesman behind the most pretentious ‘front’ in High-street, Poplar, will give you the same words – ‘Ah! Blackwall isn’t what it was; Poplar isn’t as it used to be.’ The days looked back upon so regretfully by the local Jeremiahs are the days of East End Commercial prosperity and the days when there such a thing as a Blackwall whitebait dinner, the days of Albert Smith’s first novel, brightener of our youthful leisure. ‘There’s Blackwall!’ ejaculated Johnson, looking out through one of the glazed portholes that form the cabin windows, ‘many a prime dinner I have had at the Brunswick, after fourpenn’orth of rope on the rail. Do you like whitebait?’ The ‘four-penn’orth of rope on the rail,’ with a reference to which the mind of the respectable Mr. Ledbury was thus illuminated, is another departed glory of the district. Any number of indubitable specimens of the ‘oldest inhabitant’ genus are prepared to furnish the inquiring stranger with an extensive collection of things which are not facts dating from the era in which the Blackwall railway from Fenchurch-street was almost the only line of rails in the country, and when the window-less and roofless carriages were dragged to and fro by a rope from a stationary engine on a principle not unlike that of the cable-tramway on Highgate-hill at this moment.


The book To London Town charts the story of a young boy in Blackwall, many of the incidents in the novel are considered  autobiographical.

So Johnny explored the streets with wide eyes and a full heart. For here was London, where they made great things — ships and engines. There were places he fancied he recognised — great blank walls with masts behind them. But now the masts seemed fewer and shorter than in the old days: as in truth they were, for now more of the ships were steamships, filling greater space for half the show of mast. Then in other places he came on basins filled with none but sailing-ships, and here the masts were as tall and fine as ever, stayed with much cordage, and had their yards slung at a gallant slope, like the sword on Sir Walter Raleigh’s hip. And at Blackwall Stairs, looking across the river, stood an old, old house that Johnny stared at for minutes together: a month or two later he heard the tradition that Sir Walter Raleigh himself had lived there. It was first of a row of old waterside buildings, the newest of which had looked across, and almost fallen into, the river, when King George’s ships had anchored off Blackwall — and King Charles’s for that matter. There, too, stood the Artichoke Tavern, clean and white and wooden, a heap of gables and windows all out of perpendicular: a house widest and biggest everywhere at the top, and smallest at the ground floor; a house that seemed ready , to topple into the river at a push, so far did its walls and galleries overhang the water, and so slender were the piles that supported them.

The novel Hole in the Wall is centered around a pub in Wapping.

We walked first to the head of the stairs, where opened a wide picture of the Thames and all its traffic, and where the walls were plastered with a dozen little bills, each headed “Found Drowned,” and each with the tale of some nameless corpse under the heading.

“That’s my boat, Stevy,” said my grandfather, pointing to a little dinghy with a pair of sculls in her; “our boat, if you like, seeing as we’re pardners. Now you shall do which you like; walk along to the dock, where the sugar is, or come out in our boat.”

It was a hard choice to make. The glory and delight of the part ownership of a real boat dazzled me like another sun in the sky; but I had promised myself the docks and the sugar for such a long time. So we compromised; the docks to-day and the boat to-morrow.

Out in the street everybody seemed to know Grandfather Nat. Those who spoke with him commonly called him Captain Kemp, except a few old acquaintances to whom he was Captain Nat. Loafers and crimps gazed after him and nodded together; and small ship-chandlers gave him good morning from their shop-doors.

A hundred yards from the Hole in the Wall, at a turn, there was a swing bridge and a lock, such as we had by the old house in Blackwall. At the moment we came in hail the men were at the winch, and the bridge began to part in the middle; for a ship was about to change berth to the inner dock. “Come, Stevy,” said my grandfather, “we’ll take the lock ‘fore they open that. Not afraid if I’m with you, are you?”

No, I was not afraid with Grandfather Nat, and would not even be carried. Though the top of the lock was not two feet wide, and was knotted, broken and treacherous in surface and wholly unguarded on one side, where one looked plump down into the foul dock-water; and though on the other side there was but a slack chain strung through loose iron stanchions that staggered in their sockets. Grandfather Nat gripped me by the collar and walked me before him; but relief tempered my triumph when I was safe across; my feet never seemed to have twisted and slipped and stumbled so much before in so short a distance—perhaps because in that same distance I had never before recollected so many tales of men drowned in the docks by falling off just such locks, in fog, or by accidental slips.

A little farther along, and we came upon Ratcliff Highway. I saw the street then for the first time, and in truth it was very wonderful. I think there could never have been another street in this country at once so foul and so picturesque as Ratcliff Highway at the time I speak of. Much that I saw I could not understand, child as I was; and by so much the more was I pleased with it all, when perhaps I should have been shocked. From end to end of the Highway and beyond, and through all its tributaries and purlieus everything and everybody was for, by, and of, the sailor ashore; every house and shop was devoted to his convenience and inconvenience; in the Highway it seemed to me that every other house was a tavern, and in several places two stood together. There were shops full of slops, sou’westers, pilot-coats, sea-boots, tin pannikins, and canvas kit-bags like giants’ bolsters; and rows of big knives and daggers, often engraved with suggestive maxims. A flash of memory recalls the favourite: “Never draw me without cause, never sheathe me without honour.” I have since seen the words “cause” and “honour” put to uses less respectable.

In Morrison’s later writing career he moved away from stories of the East End and he created a series of books featuring the detective Martin Hewitt, after 1903 he virtually stopped writing fiction altogether and became an expert on Japanese Art and built up a sizeable collection that he later donated to the British Museum.

The slum fiction of Morrison and especially the Child of the Jago has not really stood the test of time mainly due to  his rather hard negative view of the human condition. Part of the reason for this harshness was perhaps that he wrote about the Child of the Jago from an outsiders point of view. The stories about the areas he knew intimately namely Poplar, Blackwall and Wapping were less harsh and portrayed some warmth for his characters.

Cubitt Town Carnegie Library and the Story of Rose Marie


Cubitt Town Library

As many people would know the ‘Island’ suffered greatly from bombing in the Second World War, one of the consequences of this was that many fine old buildings were damaged or destroyed.

One of the buildings that escaped that fate was the Cubitt Town Library on Strattondale Street. It is a pleasant surprise to come across the fine classical styled building amongst the post war houses  and modern developments.

The Cubitt Town library was part of the movement at the start of the 20th Century in which local authorities began to build public libraries often with joint funding provided by the Scottish American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Andrew Carnegie had humble beginnings in Dunfermline before emigrating to the United States in 1848. Carnegie over the next two decades through hard work and clever investments became a very wealthy man. Carnegie never forgot his background and looked at ways to use his wealth to help people from a poor background. With his love of books and reading, Carnegie believed that establishing public libraries was a way to encourage people to aspire to move beyond their poor backgrounds. To get local support he provided the funding to build and equip the Library and the local authority provided the land and money to maintain its operation.

Cubitt Town Library was built after the Mayor of Poplar heard Carnegie speak in 1902 and soon afterwards made the application and set about raising funds. It was officially opened by well known local politician Will Crooks in 1905.

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In our modern world of instant communications we sometimes forget that the important role the libraries such as Cubitt Town played in a local community.

Kay Everson who grew up on the Island in the 1930s remembers her visits to the library:

I loved the library and spent a lot of time there as I have always been a voracious reader and books  were a form of escapism whilst growing up. I lived in Strattondale Street so the journey to the library was easy. My one ambition at that time was to get in to the adult section to find more exciting books. My mother and my Aunt who lived upstairs in our house used to send me to get them any romance, particularly anything by Ethel M. Dell or Ruby M. Ayres.

Walking around the Library I came across a book Rose Marie in a glass frame and next to it a short history, it is within this history that  Kay’s childhood friend Iris Chadwick plays a leading part.


Iris and Kay in the 1930s

Just after the start of the second world war, Iris was 13 and a pupil of Millwall Central school , she had developed an interest in the piano and went into Cubitt Town Library to get the musical score of the popular musical Rose Marie.

However within days, steps were undertaken to begin evacuation of many of the Islands children.  Iris was evacuated to Slough with her mother,sister and brother whilst her father a London Fireman stayed at their home on  Stebondale  Street.

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Iris with her brother, sister and cousin in 1939

Whilst she was evacuated her home was damaged by a bomb and declared unfit to live in, fortunately her father was uninjured and  managed to salvage a few items which included the Rose Marie book.

Within the next few months Iris’s father was able to be relocated to Catford and soon after the family was reunited.

For Iris her childhood was over, for whilst she was evacuated she had started work  and when she moved to Catford joined the W.J.A.C. (Womens Junior Air Corps).

After the war in 1946 Iris got married then moved to Surrey Docks, Hampshire and Dorset, all through this time she was unaware if the Library had survived the Blitz. Therefore she looked after the book until 2009 when she thought it was time to try to return the book to its original home.

The story of the returned library book after 70 years was picked up by the media and Rose Marie became a bit of a celebrity,and the Cubitt Town Library entered in the spirit of the story by not demanding the estimated £2,500 overdue fees and putting Rose Marie in place of honour within a glass case.


Rose Marie at Cubitt Town Library

In the destruction of large amounts of housing on the Island during the war there was simply not enough housing for people who wished to return. Therefore many former Islanders were scattered around London and the rest of the Country.

The Island pre war had been a close knit community with many generations of the same family living on the same street. The disruption of the war had a profound effect on these communities in which people lost touch with family and friends.

Iris’s childhood friend Kay Everson was only 11 when she was evacuated to Eynsham in Oxfordshire before eventually moving to Hornchurch, it was only in the last few years that the childhood friends were reunited.

Iris’s story and Rose Marie are a timely reminder that for many people and certainly many children, the war had long term consequences which often meant they would never return to their childhood home. For many children brought up on the Island but then sent away for their own safety often without their parents, there was no doubt that those war years changed their lives forever.

Many thanks to Iris Chadwick and Kay Everson for their contribution to this post.