A quick glance at the name of this beautiful Isle, located in London on its east end, you cannot but wonder if it is a dedicated location for rearing royal dogs in London or if, at a point in time, a dog saved the life of the Isle’s king. Nevertheless, nothing could be farther from the truth. My duty, in this article, is to take you by the hand and walk you through this breathtaking business hub surrounded by tranquil sexy seas. Take a cool breath. Are you ready? Let us go.

Oh, I did promise to tell you why it has that name. To be honest, I do not know; history seems to dwell more on speculative gyrations. I am not one to indulge in hearsay and the origin of the name Isle of the Dogs would keep eluding us for centuries to come.

The Isle, as people from the region fondly call it, was sparsely populated. Shaped like a giant foot no thanks to River Thames wrapping it within its embrace. It was made up of marshland and was drained in the 13th century to provide pasture for animals and cornfield for farmers while anglers still went about their businesses. However, a deadly flood swept through the area in 1488, resetting it to its default marsh state. It took the efforts of Dutch engineers to drain it again in the 17th century. It is worthy of note to state that it had no official recognition until 1987.

Early map

Until 1800 the Isle of Dogs, also known by its original name of Stebunheath or Stepney Marsh, was pastureland.

It was protected from the high tides of the River Thames by a great bank of earth, wood and stones, erected in the distant past.

From time to time the river broke through this bank and flooded parts of the Island; on one occasion it left a permanent inland lake, called The Breach, or Poplar Gut.

The pastureland was divided into fields by drainage ditches. A road or track ran round the top of the bank. Another road led from Poplar High Street to the Greenwich Ferry.

As the saying goes – with the hands, a little bit of determination, dedication and foresight, the forest can be transformed into a dwelling place. No other place this statement is brought to life more than in this epitome of man-made miracles called the Isle of Dogs.

After re-draining the marshland, they took to farming, grazing, and working the docks. Before any other forms of developments took place. Below, are the developmental timeline and the major architectural strides/technological breakthroughs.

Windmills for grinding corn were built on the western side of the bank between 1680 and 1720, giving the area its name: Millwall.

They build windmills converting wind power into some forms of energy used for grinding corn and crushing oil seeds.

The Island was a rather isolated place in those days, inhabited only by millers, graziers, ferrymen, fishermen, cowherds and their families.

For goods and services to move freely from one part to the other, roads where built to interlink the area. Poplar and Greenwich Ferry Roads Company was commissioned and empowered by Parliament to ply a horse-ferry between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs.

They also made toll-roads to serve people from both sides of the river. The construction of roads brought about developments leading to the building of various factories, cottages, workshops, warehouses etc.

Increasingly in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was ship-building activity at nearby Limehoouse and Blackwall.

You cannot be surrounded by River Thames and not take advantage of it. This ship-building was a sign of the growing prosperity of London as a port. By the end of the 18th century, there were so many ships coming into London that there was scarcely room for them to unload and load safely on the quays and wharves of the port around the Tower.

The West India merchants, whose sugar ships came crowding up the river all at the same time, petitioned Parliament for permission to build enclosed docks across the northern end of the Isle of Dogs. The West India Docks were opened in 1802, and traces of their once grand open vistas of water still survive, overshadowed by the skyscrapers of the late 20th century. Some of the original sugar warehouses have been turned into a home for the Museum of London Docklands.

In the years that followed the opening of the West India Docks, the western foreshore of the Island was developed with shipyards, barge builders, mast makers and iron works.

Several men with foresight went to venture into shipbuilding – men such as Henry Wimshurst, constructed the Archimedes.

Skilled workers and labourers came to Millwall to live. Rows of cottages were built for them, and smart villas for the better-off. There were new roads, shops, pubs and clubs. The air resounded with the noise of industry and with the accents of all parts of the United Kingdom.

Manchester Road looking towards Christ Church
Manchester Road looking towards Christ Church, c.1900

The name “Millwall” became associated with the most advanced engineering of the day, leading to the construction of Brunel’s famous and ill-fated Great Eastern steamship in the 1850s.

On the eastern side of the Island, William Cubitt, master builder, had developed Cubitt Town. This was the first screw-propelled ship and Millwall/Cubitt Town saw boom in shipyards construction in the 19th century. New streets were laid out and more industries opened up around the eastern foreshore.

By the 1860s, the Island population had risen from a few hundred in 1800 to over 14,000.

Millwall Dock on the quayside
Millwall Dock, on the quayside, 1919.

Shipbuilding declined in the 1860s, but engineering, chemical works and food processing flourished. More ports where launched to accommodate more timber and grain imports. The Millwall Docks were opened in the centre of the Island in 1868 to handle imports of grain and timber. Today these docks survive almost intact, the wide stretches of water allowing you to imagine a cargo steamer, perhaps from a Baltic port, edging gently towards the quayside for unloading.

By the end of the 19th century, the Island population had risen to over 21,000 and the entire foreshore was ringed with factories and workshops.

inside Mortons confectionery factory in Westferry Road
inside Morton’s confectionery factory in Westferry Road, c.1900.

Some of the famous products associated with the Isle of Dogs in its industrial heyday were chain cables made by Brown & Lennox, suppliers to the Admiralty; McDougall’s Self-Raising Flour; Duckham’s Oil; Maconochie’s Pan-Yan Pickles; Cutler’s gas holders; Westwood’s bridges; and the Hercules rope made at Hawkin’s and Tipson’s rope works in East Ferry Road.

Labour Councillors

In the 20th century a settled working-class community lived on the Island in the streets of terraced houses crowded in amongst docks and factories. This community, still somewhat isolated from the rest of East London, had its own schools, pubs, churches, clubs and societies, traditions and customs – and a very low crime rate! The Island was part of the London Borough of Poplar, which was run by Labour Councillors after the First World War. They worked hard to initiate improvements in wages and living conditions for the poorer residents.

Isle of dog saw great developments and became a trade hub (grain, vegetables, fruits, timber and liquor) in the 19th century through the construction of docks. Most of the dockworker were engaged on casual bases. However, with great success came some challenges as the casual dockworkers formed a union, demanded an end to casual working system and payment of 6d/hour, which is equivalent to 2.5p.

This lead to a lengthy struggle that resulted in the London dock strike, 1889. Workers eventually won and this wave of the victory swept across the nation in form of a national union with every casual worker jumping onboard.

St. Cuthberts Church on the corner of Cahir Street

During the world war II, Isle of dogs because of its strategic position and the fact that a lot of guns with anti-aircraft capabilities that aided London in its defense where located there, was a prime target for the bombing attacks by the German.

Parts of East London were badly damaged by bombing in the Second World War and because the docks were a prime target, the Island suffered greatly. Many homes and businesses were destroyed and the population was scattered.

Photograph on right: St. Cuthbert’s Church, on the corner of Cahir Street, early in the Blitz. The church was never rebuilt and the site is now part of the playground of Harbinger School; 1930s flats in Cahir Street are in the background. See under Wartime Memories for a first-hand account of this particular incident.

The community survived the Blitz and after the war, local authority housing was built to replace the ruined Victorian terraces. The photograph shows a tower block going up on the Barkantime Estate, which had been a network of little streets. A new population was moved here from other parts of London. Tenants’ and residents’ associations sprang up out of the old neighbourhood connections.

After the war, council took it upon itself to develop and rebuild the ruins left in the wake of the war. Industrialization boomed until 70s and a lot of businesses closed shop with unemployment taking a tow on the isle.

However, at the beginning of 1980, London Docklands Development Corporation strolled by and took the isle by storm through major investments and developments. This gave birth to the now popular Canary Wharf with its financial might.

This is the history of development of a people with strong survival spirit. A people pelted with a lot of setback pebbles in form of marshland, isolation, war and worries. However, their never giving up soul shone through at last.

Furthermore, due to the success of the docks, many industries sprang up (sugar processing, timber/flour mill and of course, living true to form, construction of ships). The Isle consist of Millwall, Cubitt Town and Blackwall and was once referred to as Stepney Marsh.

rebuilding Isle of dogs

During the 1950s and 1960s, there was plenty of work in the docks and factories. Much of the desperate, unremitting poverty and the bad housing of the inter-war years had been overcome as living standards improved and successive governments implemented the welfare state. With rising wages, many people could now own a motor car and a television and other comforts. A new era of prosperity appeared to have opened. Solidarity engendered in the workplace and in community life continued to make the Island a friendly, safe and supportive place in which to grow up.

This was not to last and the 1970s saw a general economic downturn. Island factories were absorbed into larger companies, or they moved away from their Victorian buildings on the Island to modern premises outside London. The West India and Millwall docks had also closed by the early 1980s, in response to changing technology and new patterns of international trade.

mill and silos on the Island demolition

There was a period when the Island environment, once so busy, was a silent one. The dominant views were of still waters, rusting cranes and corrugated iron fencing round derelict riverside sites. The loss of work also destroyed traditional community life with its supportive networks and values.

McDougall’s Flour had been incorporated into the larger company, Rank Hovis McDougall. The mill and silos on the Island were demolished in 1985, as seen here in this photograph by Mike Seaborne.

Tower to Tilbury

There was a lot of debate at both local and national level, about what to do with “Docklands”, as the area from the Tower to Tilbury was now designated. Eventually the government created the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) with powers to attract investment capital into the area.

After 30 years, the result of the redevelopment programme is highly visible, particularly in One Canada Square, the tower on Canary Wharf. The Docklands Light Railway links the Island with the City, Lewisham, Stratford and Woolwich; the Jubilee Line extenson connects to the London Underground system; there are a host of new people to fill the new jobs which have replaced the traditional port work and engineering.

While the tall towers dominate the northern end of the Island, the southern half has retained some of its charm and sense of community. New residents are quick to recognise that the Isle of Dogs is a very special place.

The isle is tranquil with very warm people and a rich culture robed in colours.