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Tucked away behind some offices off Marsh Wall is a small white van dispensing food and drink to the office and construction workers.
The van is located opposite the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and few would realise the connection between the two.
Remarkably Ernie Bennett who began Ernie’s Snack Bar was Canary Wharf’s first retailer, When Olympia and York started the Canary Wharf development, there was virtually no catering facilities nearby for refreshments. So Ernie moved his burger van to a pitch at Westferry Circus, and soon became a favourite with the construction workers providing tea and food.
However it was not just the construction workers, in the early days of the London marathon, around the top of the course there were few catering outlets. The developers asked Ernie to pitch his van just off Cabot Square.
Canary Wharf News 1991
Ernie ‘s catering career started in the docks just after the war when he would provide tea for the dockers, however he then got a job with a clothing firm in the city for the next 30 years.
In 1984, Ernie was made redundant and to fill his time he started the Isle of Dogs Angling Society and began to use his caravan to make cups of tea for the members. Gradually he had the idea of a burger van. He was quoted in a local newspaper saying ” so here I am, back where I started, selling tea.”
Although his original van was destroyed in a fire , that did not deter Ernie who bought a new one.
From the Canary Wharf News 1991
Ernie was born in the Isle of Dogs and his family had lived on the Island since 1863, he was always proud of this heritage and in the windows of the new van he had pictures of the Island .
Ernie’s at Mudchute 2000
From a number of pitches around the Island, Ernie’s Snack Bar became a familiar sight , Ernie and his wife Doreen sold food and drink and built up a loyal following. When Ernie passed away in the 1990s , Doreen and other members of the family have carried on the business.
So if you are passing down Marsh Wall, you will most days see Ernie’s and Doreen’s daughter Sharon busy serving customers who little realise the intriguing history of Ernie’s Snack Bar.
Many thanks to Sharon and Michael Bennett for the further information and the permission to use some of the photographs.
West India dock Pier , last year (Photo copyright Anita Gerzsenyi)
Last year I was lamenting the state of West India Dock Pier which had been derelict for 20 years and was slowly getting worse.
Pier – last year
Imagine my surprise in the last few weeks when there were signs that the old pier was getting a bit of a facelift. It was at this stage when I began to grow a little bit curious of what was happening.
Pier – now
If you look at the pier now, you may find it hard to believe that there has been a pier on this site since the 1870s. The original pier was built-in 1874–5 to allow access for merchants to the East and West India Dock Company’s new wool warehouses at the South Dock of the West India Docks.
Since then it has been used in many schemes to provide a comprehensive transport service on the river. In 1905 – 1908 it was part of the Penny Steamer Service, then it was used by private steamboat operators before being transferred to the new Port of London Authority (PLA) in 1909.
West India Dock Pier 1936 Photo A.G. Linney (Museum of London)
It was in use up to the Second World War, then the pier was destroyed from German bombing in 1941.
The pier was rebuilt in 1949–50, it was one of the stopping points for the river buses in the Festival of Britain.
It was used by Docklands River Bus service in 1987–91 which was subsidised by Olympia and York, builders of Canary Wharf. When they had financial troubles the River service was stopped.
One of the 1980s River Buses
But what of the present ? I was fortunate enough to come across the pier’s new owner who kindly showed me around the pier and gave me some indications of his plans.
Unfortunately twenty years of neglect has led to some damage to the pier, so the first priority for the new owner is to repair the damage and give the pier a bit of a makeover in a way sympathetic to its surroundings.
He is fully aware of the pier’s history and is keen to restore the pier to reflect this, he also has another historical project in mind.
Tied next to the pier’s pontoon is a large barge which has quite a history of its own. The barge is a Humber Keel barge which was once owned by Victor Waddington who was known as the “King of the Canals”.
Born in Yorkshire, he inherited a small family boatyard, EV Waddington of Swinton and Mexborough, and turned it into a multi-million pound inland canal fleet.
Whilst others left the canals to leisure craft, he carried on hauling freight around the Humber estuary, the South Yorkshire mines and steel foundries.
In the 1980s, he was estimated to have been worth 40 million pounds and run a fleet of 80 large barges. His particular favourite barge was the Northern King which now stands attached to the West India Dock pier pontoon.
Built in 1928 by well-known barge builders J Scarr of Howden, the Northern King was still a working boat at Waddington’s up till a few years ago.
When you get close to the barge it seems enormous and it is not hard to imagine it winding its way through the Yorkshire canals full of steel.
However like the pier it has seen better days and needs considerable restoration to bring it back to its former glory.
With a large number of historic parts of the Isle of Dogs under threat from modern development it is nice to report that one old tumbledown Isle of Dogs pier may be getting a new lease of life.
Canary Wharf Late 80s
If you walk amongst the shiny skyscrapers of Canary Wharf today, you may find it hard to believe that only thirty years ago this was the derelict site of the once great West India Docks.
Pre Canary Wharf Docks
However although the cranes of the construction sites have taken over from the cranes in the docks, the transformation into Canary Wharf was not without its problems and setbacks.
The creation of an enterprise zone in the Isle of Dogs in the 1980s may have made the area attractive for potential investors, however finding the Investment to finance one of the largest schemes in the UK proved elusive.
Originally G Ware Travelstead were going fund an office complex, but was unable to fund the scheme and it was taken over by North American developers Olympia & York.
In 1987 the master building agreement was signed between Olympia & York and the LDDC for a 12.2 million sq. ft. development at Canary Wharf.
However although building commenced and firms were beginning to move into some of the completed buildings, this progress was halted when in 1992 Olympia & York Canary Wharf Ltd went into Administration.
Although they came out of administration the following year and created a new company that would be eventually called the Canary Wharf group the next few years progress was slow until around the turn of the millennium (2000) when the completed DLR and Jubilee connections solved one of the great problems of the project namely transport for the increasing number of workers to the site.
The increase of high-profile businesses coming into Canary Wharf in the years since 2000 has seen considerable growth both in office space and the retail space that now numbers over 240 shops, bars and restaurants. The number of workers has also increased from 7.000 in 1994 to 75,000 in 2012.
However this success has bought it own problems, the large footprint of the old docks has been gradually swallowed up by new buildings therefore offering limited potential for expansion. Also the City of London in recent years has allowed more skyscrapers to be built trying to regain its position as London’s premier business district.
Riverside South Construction
Even high-profile projects like Riverside South has had its own funding problems and it is unclear how it will develop, although it seems clear that the grand Richard Rogers scheme of the twin towers will not be built.
Richard Rogers Plans for Riverside South
The development of Wood Wharf on the other side of Canary Wharf as a mixed retail and residential may signal a change of emphasis for the owners of Canary Wharf , this development together with other large residential buildings being planned in the area means that the cranes will be probably around for a few years to come.
Canary Wharf 2013
If history tells us anything it is that businesses and business areas rise and fall and time will tell whether Canary Wharf will follow the story of the West India Docks becoming a powerhouse of London business before it gradually fades and declines.
Many thanks to Eric Pemberton for the use of photographs and postcards