The 1970s - A Decade of Uncertainty and Action
For Islanders the 1960s had been by-and-large an optimistic decade, with full employment, rising living standards and recovery from wartime blues. It’s true there were housing shortages as Council-house building did not keep up with the demand from people anxious to return to the Island to live, combined with new arrivals from other parts of London; bus services were poor to nonexistent, so that car-ownership, per household, was higher here than elsewhere in the Borough.; and the nearest secondary school was an (inadequate) bus-ride away. But these issues focussed attention on the activities of Residents’ and Tenants’ Association, and culminated, by the end of the decade, in the intensive campaign to persuade the Inner London Education Authority to provide a secondary school on the Island. Frustration at being “the forgotten Island” found expression in the “Unilateral Declaration of Independence” (UDI) in 1970, which, divided local opinion, gave certain individuals a reputation they would never live down, and, quite possibly, nudged ILEA and the local Council towards providing improvements, which included the George Green School, opened in 1974 and still flourishing.
If the 1960s were Optimistic then the 1970s were Uncertain - and Confusing; and Insecure. It was then that Islanders heard the startling and at first, incredible, rumours that the West India and Millwall Docks were to be closed. This was the issue of the decade, the subject of countless meetings, debates, cartoons, name-calling, blaming, arguing and counter-arguing. These docks had provided work for generations of men from all over the East End and Essex. The huge basins, the giant cranes, the great ships moving with stately determination through the locks, the busy tugs, the endless streams of laden barges, the lorry-loads of goods - all seemed immutable, timeless, permanent - an essential part of the life of London. Hadn’t the trade which flowed in and out of the port been called London’s “lifeblood”? How could all this, and the traditions that went with it, become redundant and disappear? But then again - maybe it wasn’t happening - there was new capaital investment in container facilities and in cargo handling at the Millwall Dock - surely this meant the PLA saw a viable future for the docks?
But no - the last ships came and went. The cranes were still. Today,if you come across a retired port-worker - a docker, a stevedore, a crane-driver, a sampler or one of the hundreds of people who kept the dock system up and running - you can get talking and try to work out WHY did the docks close?? Was it new technology, lack of investment, union obstinacy, workers’ greed, shifting patterns of world trade, managers’ inefficiency, owners’ greed? The answer was never going to be straightforward. At the same time, the Island’s industrial base was crumbling and in this case it wasn’t so hard to see why. The manufacturing firms which lined the river’s edge - some of them, like Brown & Lenox, had been there since the early 19th century - began to close, one by one. Firms which had been household names (and not just on the Island) issued warning notices of closing outright or moving to other premises. Local business rates had risen and turnovers were falling. The Victorian premises with their old-fashioned layouts, narrow entrances and antiquated facilities, were just not efficient production units anymore. A few survived the decade - McDougall’s Flour Mill, Lenanton’s Timber Works, Montague Meyer’s Timber Wharves, Associated Lead, Burrell’s Colour Works - but the majority, large and small and one by one, packed up and left, leaving their ex-employees workless and wondering. The big companies, some of which employed up to 100 people, had supported haulage businesses, cafes, suppliers of overalls, stationery and packaging, small engineering workshops, painters and decorators, electricians and plumbers, bicycle repairers - who could not survive without their customers - or had to look further afield and compete with the rest of the Borough. There is a lot of detail still to be researched and recorded about this gradual winding down of Island industry.
The Island, once busy with goods vehicles, the cars and bikes of workers,the noise, smoke and smells of production, had become quiet, still and green - almost sleepy, as anyone who knew it in 1980 will remember
The 1970s had also been a decade of community action. The campaign to save the docks had seen many noisy meetings, many different plans put forward by different interest groups - and no resolution. There had also been a proposal to run the Southern Relief Road across the Island -local protest groups had helped to fend this off. There had been a plan, by the PLA in cahoots with the Borough Council, to build housing on the Mudchute (which they still own). This had been scotched by community protest and turned around to create the Mudchute Park and Farm - officially opened in 1977 and still the Island’s most popular outdoor space. Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations had joined forces to create the Association of Island Communities. Islanders in these groups had succeeded in getting government funding for better community facilities, like thecentres at St. John’s and Calders Wharf. Playgroups and mother-and-toddler groups had come into being. As well as the George Green Centre, with its school and facilities for people of all ages, there was a new primary school, Seven Mills, on the Barkantine Estate; there were new services for the elderly and a Youth Service run with energy and enthusiasm.
And meanwhile, traditional activities survived - there were dances, outings, sports matches, family events, an Island Carnival and a marching band. Island pubs still served good hot dinners during the working week, and there was live entertainment on Saturday evenings, when customers joined in the old songs round the piano. .
And over all reigned Uncertainty - about the future. Only in 1980 did a concrete proposal emerge from the clouds of proposals and counter-proposals. The Government created the London Docklands Development Corporation with extensive powers including an Enterprise Zone on the Isle of Dogs with relaxed planning laws and tax relief for new businesses for the next ten years. These moves were designed to attract investment capital into this East London “desert” as it was seen. The 1980s were going to be a very different decade from anything that had gone before. Reproduced from Island History News, May/June 2011
This picture tells a lot of stories about a community trying to halt the drastic changes which were threatened in the 1970s, such as the Southern Relief Road, which would have cut the Island in half, and the closure of the docks, which would bring unemployment for many.
The occasion is a demonstration by trade unionists and members of community groups, outside Tower Hamlets Town Hall in Bethnal Green.