Island History moved around the Island a good deal in its 34-year life.
It started out – as a voluntary project – in the the Adult Education Centre within the George Green School. That was in 1980. One year later, it moved into 151 Manchester Road, sharing office space with the Association of Island Communities and their Secretary, Ted Johns. Being on street level made it easy for Islanders to drop in with their ideas, stories and photographs. There were up to five full and part-time workers then, indexing and cataloguing the material, creating publications and exhibitions.
In 1988 the Island History Photograph Collection was overflowing the crowded shelves of this office. The project, by then a charitable trust, found larger premises in Island House, Castalia Square. On the top floor! There was no lift, but staff and volunteers cheerfully carted the photograph collection up and down for Island History Open Days, held twice a year in various venues around the Island. We even had a reconstructed 1930s kitchen to display!
Funding for voluntary organizations was in crisis by 1996 and the end of the line seemed to have come for the project, even though it was now a charitable trust. Creating the Collections, exhibitions and publications, supporting workshops and outings, answering queries – all the different Island History activities – had never been cheap. Even with volunteer help and donations from subscribers, it looked as if the work could not go on and plans were made to transfer the collections to the Museum of Docklands. MoD in those days was a huge archive, housed in premises in Poplar Business Park and not open to the public except by appointment.
That move did NOT come off. Trustees rallied round and a temporary home for Island History was found in St. Matthias Church in Poplar High Street. It was there that work began on digitising the Photograph Collection – a significant move into the age of new technology. But the future had been so uncertain that there was no Island Calendar for 1997, the only year missing between 1983 and 2014! Island History News was part-suspended – only an occasional issue appeared in the next 12 months.
Within a year, Island History had been offered a permanent home in the Dockland Settlement, moving there in 1998 and eventually occupying two large rooms on the first floor, staying there until 2013. There wasn’t a lift there either. To move the dozens of boxes of photographs, exhibitions and wall hangings up and down the stone stair case for Open Days in the Main Hall, volunteers (experienced stevedores and dockers) organised a chain gang!
After a further decade, a complex series of changes – demographic, technological, bureaucratic, financial – began to make it clear that Island History could not continue as it was. There was now no danger of the history of the Island being forgotten.The early days of the 1980s, when the Island’s traditional community and its culture seemed likely to disappear for ever under new skyscrapers, were long gone. Apart from the work done by the Trust itself, the Isle of Dogs was by now arguably the most talked about, written about, filmed and photographed community in the British Isles. It has been the subject of academic books and treatises, of Open University courses, of television documentaries, of political pamphlets and Sunday supplement articles.
Meanwhile, Islanders were using new technology to find and share their own family histories for themselves. Trustees decided that the Collections should be safely housed for the long-term in the Borough Library and that the Trust itself should be wound down. While this was happening, Island History had one final home, in St. John’s Community Centre, the Dockland Settlement having been demolished to make way for Canary Wharf Free School.
But Islanders still love to talk about their history and to cherish it. Friends of Island History has come into being at St. John’s, perhaps to continue some of the activities of the Trust, perhaps to expand into new fields.