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Charting the Past – Frontispiece at the Cannon Workshops

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Anyone wandering through the Canary Wharf mall until recently , could not fail to notice Frontispiece, a shop which sold antique maps and prints. With its maps and prints of the Docklands, it was always a fascinating place to spend some time browsing and was very different from most of the shops in the Canary Wharf shopping complex.

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Last year, the shop re-located to the Cannon Workshops near Museum in Docklands at West India Quay and I was determined to find out more about a firm that has since 1989 been intrinsically linked with the recent developments in Docklands.

The firm’s owner is Reg Beer who after a varied career that included Fleet Street photographer, firefighter and teacher founded the antique map and framing shop. Frontispiece had its origins in the ill-fated shopping centre in Tobacco Dock in the late 1980s, the decision to close down the shopping centre led Reg to look at the then new development at Canary Wharf. When Frontispiece moved to Canary Wharf in the mid 90s, there was a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the estate and the shop was the only store on the mall level for the first two years. The shop became increasingly popular as the site developed as some of the new workers began to want to find out more about the history of the area.

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Frontispiece in Canary Wharf

Last year, after 20 successful years in Canary Wharf, Frontispiece moved to the Cannon Workshops to develop the picture framing and online part of the business.

From 1800, this area was the West India Docks works yard designed by famous architect Sir John Rennie which largely remained unchanged until the Port of London Authority built their Central Stores Depot here in the 1920s. In the 1980s, the PLA set up an estate of rentable workshops for small businesses called the ‘Cannon Workshops’ after a cannon that had stood inside the entrance.

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On a lovely sunny morning, I wandered over to the Workshops to have a chat with Reg and to have a closer look at the firm’s vast library of prints and maps. His workshop is situated just inside the entrance and when you walk through the red door, you will find the workshop with the plaque from his old shop on the door that declares that the Canary Wharf shop was opened by  Philipa, Viscountess Astor in 1995.

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Walking into the workshop, Reg and his colleagues were busy, undertaking some filing of the various prints which tends to be an ongoing process. Reg then explained why he had decided to leave the shopping mall. After reaching 70 and working seven days a week and 12 hours a day for many years, he thought it was time to slow down and develop the picture framing and online part of the business. He had rented a workshop in the Cannon Workshops for 20 years, so believed it was the ideal place for the next stage of his business.

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Reg Beer of Frontispiece

The online part of the business allows Reg to fully investigate some of the stories behind the many pieces of ephemera which are neatly filed around the workshop. Copies of original prints from the Illustrated London News and Vanity Fair catch my eye, whilst Reg finds and shows me two attractive prints of Trinity Bouy Wharf from the 19th century.

For someone who writes about the Island and Docklands, the workshop is an Aladdin’s cave of information in which I could willing have spent hours. If you would like have a glimpse at some of the history in his collection, Reg is  publishing some of the stories and information on certain Facebook sites and on Twitter.

If you want to find an attractive gift related to this area or many others, take a walk down to the Cannon Workshops and Reg with his encyclopedic knowledge of the area will find something for you or contact and order through his comprehensive website here.

The Houseboats of Millwall Dock

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In recent weeks, I have written about the various buildings around the Isle of Dogs, however they are not the only accommodation available on the Island. Lying in Millwall Dock is a number of large houseboats that offer a very different style of living. Most of the houseboats seem to be Dutch in origin and have been a familiar sight in the docks for a number of years.

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However even this style of living is not cheap with the boats often costing £200,000 or above.

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Most of the boats have not moved for years and attract their own particular wildlife, a pair of swans often nest and lay eggs amongst the boats.

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With  the houseboats and when the small yachts go on the water from the Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre, Millwall Docks can be a lovely picturesque sight. However dotted around the docks are reminders of the days when it was a working dock.

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Millwall Dock 1934

The Millwall Dock was constructed by John Aird & Co. to a design by Sir John Fowler and opened in 1868.It originally contained around 36 acres of water and had a 200 acre  estate. The western end of the Outer Dock was originally connected to the Thames at Millwall by an 80 ft wide channel. However in the 1920s, the  Port of London Authority connected the northern end of the  Dock was connected to the West India Docks and closed the direct connection with the Thames. The dock was used mainly for timber and grain, one of the features of the dock was a massive McDougall’s flour mill which was demolished in the 1980s. It also had a dry graving dock to undertake repairs.

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Millwall dock 1934

The Millwall Dock of today may not have the big ships but it still maintains its own unique style and charm. Whilst it was once a place of frantic activity, it is now a place of peace and leisure and is very popular with office workers and Islanders who enjoy sitting around the dock  especially in warm weather.

The Discrete Charm of Jubilee Crescent, Cubitt Town

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Lighting up the River – Thames Barge Driving Race 2013

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It is always a pleasure to see the river full of traffic, and today we saw the Thames Barge Driving Race passing past the Isle of Dogs.

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The race consists of about 12 teams of between 4 and 8 members who drive (steer and row) 30 ton barges over a seven mile course for about 90 minutes from Greenwich to Westminster Bridge.

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As well as the barges there is a flotilla of other boats that follow the action.

It is  38th running of this annual event. Set up in 1975 by a charity called The Transport On Water Association (TOW) with the backing of Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords.

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​The event celebrates the skill of lighterman who moved large amounts of cargo in unpowered barges.

It takes a great deal of river craft navigating a 30 tonne barge in the Thames river currents and the race was created to encourage young people to consider working on the river.

The teams are usually made up by employees of Thames lighterage companies, Port of London Authority  and other Thames organisations.

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Interested spectator