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Remembering London’s “Lost” Village – The Story of Orchard Place

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Orchard Place 1895

In many posts I have mentioned the fact that the Isle of Dogs is relatively unknown to many Londoners. Even more surprising considering the small size of the “Island” is there are parts of the Island that are unknown to Islanders.

Orchard Place occupies a small spit of land surrounded by Bow Creek and since the 1930s has been the home to Industrial concerns except at the tip where it is the home of Trinity Buoy Wharf.

However from the 19th century up to the 1930s this was the home for a small settlement of people who in someways were effectively cut off from the Isle of Dogs. Their remoteness led to number of stories about their lawlessness and rough lifestyle, their reputation were not helped by visitors such as William Booth researchers who considered them some of the ” poorest and roughest in London “and a local vicar Father Lawless who described them in very unchristian way  as ‘hardly human’and ‘incarnate mushrooms’, before finally stating   ‘God must have made a mistake in creating them’.

These stories were obviously exaggerated because a police inspector told the Booth researcher  that they were no trouble and Inspectors of the local board school who often praised its educational performance and behaviour.

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The small population suffered greatly with the 1928 flooding of the area. In the early 1930s a newspaper report labelled them London’s Lost village.

In the slum clearances of the 1930s most of the small population was rehoused in a new block of flats at Oban House in nearby Poplar and the ramshackle houses pulled down, One of the people rehoused was Charles Lammin who wrote down his recollections in 1935 about life in the “lost” village.

“The Orchard House, is in the shape of twin peninsulas, it was populated about 120 years ago. On the site was built about 100 two-storied cottages, also several factories. Thirty or forty cottages have since been demolished at various dates to make room for improvements. (The rest are now in 1935 condemned as unfit for human habitation).

“The Orchard House is part of old Blackwall in the Parish of All Saints, Poplar, but about 1876 it was separated from the main part by the cutting of the basin of the East India Dock which left us isolated from the main roads, excepting a narrow road, named Leamouth Road, (this was formerly named Orchard Street).

“The Orchard House is bounded on the south side by the river Thames, on the north and east by Bow Creek, on the west by the East India Dock. The narrow Leamouth Road between Bow Creek and the East India Dock is all that joins us to the mainland of Poplar; therefore, the natives have always felt to be nothing to do with other districts.

“From its start to the present, we have never had either a butcher, baker, barber, post office, Police Station, Fire Station or Pawn Shop, or seen a tramway or bus in our neighbourhood, so we have to do all our domestic business in Poplar, via Leamouth Road, which is a long and lonely walk, especially by night.

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“The name of the place is derived from the fact that there stood an old Inn named the Orchard House, which was demolished about eighty years ago. The site is now occupied by the Union Castle Line. In the early days the entrance to the Orchard House was started by the old East India Dock on the right – (the basin had not then been made); the dock contained nothing else but the old wooden sailing ships (steamers were not then known), and on the left of the entrance was what was known as the Pepper warehouse. This was the store and warehouse for the sailing vessels in the dock. Ammunitions were brought from Woolwich by Military wagons to the Pepper warehouse, and carried across Leamouth Road, through a gateway in the dock wall, to arm ships in the Dock, as the seas at that period were infested with Pirates. When the basin and warehouses were built and steamers began to come into being, the sailing ships gradually disappeared, the pepper warehouses were taken over by the Great Eastern Railway (now the L.N.E. Railway), and it still stands, and is still known to us as the pepper warehouse.

“The work carried on in the Orchard House during the first half of its existence was, at one end, mast, blocks, sailmaking, ships lifeboats and sailing ships. At the other end was carried on glass-making, oil milling and Boilermaking (Engineering in its early stages).

“The glass-making firm stood on the ground, which is now occupied by Messrs. Baldwins (who still have some of the Glass House walls standing), also the Bow Creek Union Oil Mills, Fowler Sugar Refinery, The Thames Sack & Bag Factory, the L.C.C. School, and also the roadway which leads to the above premises.

“Up to about 1875 the Glass House prospered, employing about 75% of all the inhabitants of the Orchard House, who were nearly all related. Plate glass was made there and sent all over the Country, including all the glass used in making the Crystal Palace, but about 1875 the competition of the United States glass industry ruined the Old Orchard House glass factory and caused them to close down. Therefore, the largest proportion of the workers, both men and women emigrated to New Albany, Indiana, U.S.A. to follow up the same class of work. They have invariably stayed there and have gradually died. (My Grandfather and Grandmother amongst them).

“There are still a large number of descendents of the glass workers living in the Orchard House, the most numerous are the Lammins, the Scanlons and the Jeffries, who also have greatly intermarried. By being isolated as we always have been, the children have always had to make their own amusements and being surrounded by water, naturally we have made the river our playground; therefore, both boys and girls have learned to swim and handle rowing boats equal to anybody. Up till a few years ago, the weekly practices of the young men was to hold rowing and swimming matches among themselves, and excellent form was always shown, but with the advent of the L.C.C. schools the common sports have died down as the men and women have other amusements in the Evening Schools such as woodwork, sewing, singing, dancing, gymnasium, etc.

“As riverside dwellers, it is a common occurrence to hear of children falling into the river, but they generally manage to scramble out themselves, but if they cannot, there is always elder ones near (both boys and girls) who take it as a matter of course, that they must jump in and save the drowning one. This is such a frequent occurrence that the inhabitants make no fuss about it, but only say it is our duty.

“The boys of the neighbourhood, also some of the men, mostly own rowing boats, and can therefore, pick up plenty of flotsam and jetsom, such as firewood, coal, old iron, rope, etc., which they sell at a very cheap rate to the neighbours. If asked, most of the people would outwardly show regret at leaving their old homes and surroundings, but inwardly we are almost invariably longing for the time to evacuate our old vermin and rat infested houses and get into clean and modern dwellings.

“In any time of personal trouble, in spite of any family quarrels, we always rally to each others assistance. We also address each other by our Christian and Maiden names, for years after we have been married. We are also very familiar and friendly with our School masters, teachers, or police who happen to be on their beats, and often have a friendly chat with them. It sometimes happens that strangers out of curiosity visit the old place; when they do, they have always been treated with civility and respect, and shown anything of interest to them.

“There are hundreds of people living in Poplar who have never heard of the Orchard House, or know where it is. I believe that some sections of the populace of London think that we are a low, rough and ignorant lot of scamps, but as the eldest member of one of the most numerous and oldest families still living here, I class myself as a true type of the general class of person in the Orchard House.

“I was born in 1873, right opposite my Grandfather’s old cottage, and at the age of twelve years I started work for Trinity House Corporation Workshops (also on the Orchard House). I was employed by them for 47 years, but was forced to resign through a prolonged illness. Now I am on the dole, and am still able and willing to take any light job. My Maternal Grandfather and Grandmother came from Lancashire to the Glass Works at the Orchard House where they and my mother worked until it closed. My Grandparents then emigrated to the U.S.A. leaving my Mother who was married with three children, (I being the eldest, behind at the Orchard House). My father was employed at Blewitts Oil Mills. Eventually I married my wife at the age of 22, who also came from an old and respected family of Blackwall; we have known each other since childhood, and have borne nine sons and two daughters, who still cling to the old home.

“We are respectful to everybody, but neither owe nor care for anybody, and although we live in such a lonely place I have never heard of anybody being molested by the people of Orchard House.

“Up to a few years ago it was a frequent occurrence to have the tide into our houses as high as eight or nine stairs up, especially in the Winter, which caused a lot of suffering, but the Authorities have by law, forced the owners of riverside premises to raise the banks, which has greatly prevented this happening, unless we get an abnormal high tide, like the recent great Thames Flood 1928, which ruined the bulk of our furniture and bedding, etc., but thanks to the generosity of the public, we were partly compensated for our losses, which helped us to get over it.

“At the present time 20% of the men of the Orchard House own motor boats of various sizes; they are mostly converted from old ships, lifeboats, whalers, fishing boats, etc., These are converted by the men themselves, and a great source of pleasure for them and their families and friends in fine weather or holiday times, is a trip down the Thames as far as Canvey Island.

“We also have our weekly socials at the Bow Creek Evening Institute, which bring people of other districts amongst us, and we pass many happy nights together. I, myself at the age of 63 am still a member of the Evening Woodwork Class and have just built a rowing boat to hold four persons on the Old Bow Creek.

“I regret having to leave the site of my family’s trials and struggles, but am comforted by the thought that we will still be able to see our old home and birthplace in the distance, across the Old Creek, which surrounds the Orchard House.”

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