The Millwall Docks in 1984
The Millwall Docks in 1984, a photograph by Mike Seaborne.

The Isle of Dogs lies in a loop of the River Thames in the East End of London between Limehouse and Blackwall, opposite Greenwich on the South Bank. It is the site of the old West India and Millwall Docks and of the new Canary Wharf office development.

People on the Isle of Dogs started collecting photographs and reminiscence in 1981. This was at the time when the docks and most of the local factories had closed and redevelopment was on the horizon. A way of life which had survived for generations was about to be lost forever.

The activity of recording and preserving local history, of sharing memories and renewing contacts, helped in a small way to counter the loss of local identity and of traditional ways of working and living.

Although very few artefacts had survived the Blitz and post-war re-housing, many people had collections of photographs, preserved in albums and boxes.

1930s party in Mellish Street
Photographs, like this one of a 1930s party in Mellish Street, were loaned to the Trust to be copied and returned. New prints were made. With every print, information was gathered – names, dates and stories.

The information was indexed for easy reference. In the end there were nearly 5,000 pictures in the Photograph Collection and many thousands of names.

The Collection was kept on open access and was used by people living locally, by visitors with a connection to the Island, by new residents and by researchers.

Visitors rarely went away without finding someone connected to their family, or a school, a street, a building, a workplace, connected to their personal history.

Today, you can see the original Island History Photograph Collection in hard copy form at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive in Mile End,East London, where you can also get help with other aspects of local and family history research. The Collection will also go on line.

Recorded interviews were made with elderly Islanders. Some people wrote down their memories, in many cases producing complete autobiograhies and diaries.

This material has been archived, catalogued and indexed. It has been added to, with leaflets, programmes, publications and other printed material. The catalogue to this Archive Collection, which includes many hundreds of local names, can be viewed at the Borough Archive, where the hard copy is also held.

The material was used alongside the photographs in a series of Island History publications and exhibitions. There was an annual Calendar and a regular Island History Newsletter.

In 1985, a slot in the Timewatch television programme put Island History in touch with many Islanders who had moved away since the Second World War.

This broadened the base of Island History support and led to our Open Days. At these events, which were held twice a year in May and October at the Dockland Settlement, people would gather from near and far to reminisce, to meet up with old friends and long-lost relatives, and browse the Photograph Collection.

An Islanders’ re-union, without the Photograph Collection, in October 2013, was extremely popular, showing that Islanders love nothing more than to meet up and reminisce face to face about their own history.

anti aircraft gun on the Mudchute in the Second World War
Anti-aircraft gun on the Mudchute in the Second World War

The Trust worked closely with Islanders for over 33 years, creating records, ensuring public access, running local history classes and workshops and supporting other groups in projects around the theme of local history. We recorded and celebrated the history of the Isle of Dogs and had fun doing it!

The dark moments in the history of the Island, times of loss and struggle, were not forgotten (See Wartime Memories)

Between 1982 and 1987, Island History collaborated with London photographer Mike Seaborne to create a special collection of photographs showing Island life as it was then – just as redevelopment was beginning in earnest. Now, in 2014, the 1980s Island Photographs are accessible online at www.80sislandphotos.org.uk

You can also see the hard copy 1980s photographs in the Borough Archive.

In early 2014 The Island HistoryTrust wound down its activities, because ways of collecting and sharing memories and photographs have changed completely since 1980. Friends of Island History, a voluntary organisation, was set up in June 2014 to continue some of the popular activities and perhaps branch out into new fields.

Today, as well as the Collections gathered by the Trust, there are also several websites and other ways of keeping in touch, as anyone can see who simply types “Isle of Dogs history” into a search engine! See also Newsletter.