Having just walked a route that I’m intending to get up and going on the ‘isms’ of the East End, for research purposes, my stroll set me up nicely for a quick pint in a wonderful little boozer called the Old Ship in York Square, luckily for me though the Cabaret hadn’t yet started ! Being just two minutes from Limehouse station I decided to make use of the daylight (what there was of it yesterday, such a grey day!) and head down to southern part of the Isle of Dogs. I fancied a bit of peace and knew I’d get some down there on one of the riverside walks.
Utilising the fantastic DLR to alight at the beautifully named Mudchute station, I took a right and headed just to were the DLR descends underground, before it heads under the river on its way to Greenwich. Having been here a few times, and one of the more memorable pieces of historical structures starts/ends here. I’m talking of course about the railway viaduct. If you stand where I am am now, you’ll notice you are on a raised piece of earth. This would have been where the viaduct crossed East Ferry Road. It’s amazing that when the DLR was built in the mid 80’s, they reused the viaduct as the trains originally terminated at Island Gardens, a station built especially for the DLR, and terminated just before hitting the Thames at North Greenwich station, right beside the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel.
Okay, so enough about trains ! There is an information board just as you enter down the steps an into the park. It tells us about a couple of interesting things in this locale. First off that directly to the left, running parallel with the park is Ropemakers Walk. A pathway that follows where the extensive Globe Ropemakers yard once stood.
The other interesting site is that Millwall FC’s final East London ground was right here. Hemmed in by the railway viaduct and the Ropemakers it closed down in 1910 and the club moved south of the river to The Den, New Cross.
If you look closely near the viaduct, you can see what look like remnants of the old terracing of the ground. The club had played at numerous other sites around the Millwall Dock area since their formation. At the end of Ropemakers walk until the end of the war, a large open air swimming pool once stood.
So, I’ve mentioned the rather unappealing name ‘Mudchute’, but where doe the name come from ? It’s kind of obvious that mud was somewhere along the line involved, and that ‘mud’ came from the nearby Millwall Dock. The dock was dredged regularly and the discharge deposited onto land that became known as the Mud shoot, via a system that bought the silt and mud over the East Ferry Rd. Where Asda now stands, was once the site of one Millwall F.C’s many grounds and was built over part of the Mudchute. Players complained that when they hit the ground the smell that rubbed of on them would hang around for weeks!
During the war, there were four anti aircraft guns stationed in Mudchute. There is a replacement Ack Ack gun (not an original) in place in one of the emplacements, to remind us of what a tough job the Royal Artillery and then the Heavy Anti Aircraft Regiment had during those dark days.
The Government took over a large piece of land for the gunners. The gun now stands in the middle of Mudchute urban farm, a place so tranquil that I had to ask one of the sleeping pigs to keeping his rather loud snoring down to a minimum!
The farm forms a real contrast with the ever expanding steel & glass of Canary Wharf and is well worth a visit, especially if you have kids.
So, out of the park and heading towards the river and into Cubitt Town. Speculative builder William Cubitt had been busy all over town up ‘til now. From a family of master builders he and kin had built terraces in Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Pimlico. William began building here in the 1840’s to cater for the rise in dock worker numbers on the Isle of Dogs. He later went on to become an MP and then Lord Mayor of London. Cubitt Town is generally noted as being the streets and houses inland from the river, generally north and to the west of Wharf Rd and and to the west of Manchester Rd. Anything to the east or south of these roads were nearly all taken up with industrial or shipbuilding units.
It’s the aforementioned part of the Isle of Dogs which has disappeared so vividly to the human eye. If you take a look on the wonderful ‘Britain from above’ website and put Millwall in the search, you’ll clearly see that from Blackwall basin entrance on the east, all along the bend in the south and up to Limehouse Basin, the riverbanks were packed full of these buildings. These industries have all but gone completely, to be replaced by faceless 80’s / 90’s low rise estates mainly on the east side of the Isle of Dogs and higher rise buildings of mundane steel & glass. These wharves were taken up by such delightful businesses as manure works, colour paint works, and oil refineries!
Ducking in and out from the Thames path (this is of course a fairly new feature, as the old companies allowed no public access to the river through their yards) and Manchester Rd is sprinkled with now closed down pubs, some recently refurbished and saved from the hammer. There were of course many more that did not survive. This was a hard drinking area and pubs were an integral part of life here, not just for the alcohol but equally as important was the social side, the comradery. The community here had hard lives, even up until regeneration in the late 80’s, this place was a by word for hardship and degradation, but equally synonymous with community support for each other, whichever part of the world you came from. If you were an Islander, you could expect help from those around you.
As I head around to Island Gardens I read that the gardens, formally laid out in 1895 (as the Government slowly realised that even the poor should have a healthier environment to live in) were leased to Cubitt from a Lady Glengall to build an area for upmarket homes but in the end only one ever built, Osborne House, as it appears that the ‘well awf’ did not want to live on the Isle of Dogs! Osborne house unfortunately does not exist today. Strange really, because if any of you guys have been to Island Gardens, it has one of the most amazing views in town, that of facing directly Greenwich.
Before traversing the bend of the Thames and heading slowly north, the last thing to notice in the park itself is the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel.
Opened in 1902 it was known as the ‘workingmen’s tunnel between Greenwich & Poplar. Built as a free way for working people to cross the river. The ferry was unreliable in bad weather and expensive over the year for these people. It is an experience to walk under the River Thames and pop your head up in Greenwich, a place very different for the working class of Poplar !
As I head out of the gates to the park, if I were here 100 years ago, I’d hit the North Greenwich station directly in front of me, and 30 years ago the site of the DLR Island Gardens. Crossing the road I’m struck by a cheeky little pub, The Ferry House. A sign on the side states the pub to be the oldest on the Isle of Dogs, and so far records say it to be true. This building dates from 1822 and stands on the grounds of an older pub.
The ferry to Greenwich left from directly outside, so this made perfect sense to build a pub here. At the end of the road one of the Islands most famous pubs, if not buildings, is the Lord Nelson pub on the corner of Manchester Road and East Ferry Rd. One of the last remaining buildings from a bygone age, the Nelson is one of the very few pubs to remain in business around here.
For football fans and in particular Millwall fans, it is important to note that the Nelson was one of the pubs that attached itself to the club when they offered their services and Millwall FC played their home matches on ground behind the pub on what is Manchester Grove from 1886 to 1890. Manchester Grove in itself is an important place in its own right as it was one of the original ‘garden cities ‘ to be built. These houses were made for returning war heroes and constructed to a high standard.
On the opposite corner to the Nelson we have the beautiful old Millwall Fire Station. The original building was constructed in the 1870’s as it thought that if a fire took place when the bridges were up then a brigade could not reach the Island, so Cubitt took upon himself to erect the station.
The building here has obviously been turned into ‘luxury loft’ apartments at I’m sure a ‘very affordable price’ but I wonder how many of the occupants know that the company which once held court here made fuel used in flamethrowers in the wars!
Literally right next is a fascinating piece of history. Here you’ll notice these large pieces of wood that are actually the remnants of the slipway of Napier’s shipbuilding Yard. It was here that the humongous SS Great Eastern was built.
Constructed by Scott Russell and finally launched in 1858 after a few mishaps, the ship was the largest on the high seas for over 40 years! It was 700 ft long and weighed an incredible 22,500 tons! It was however a failure in terms of business and ended being broken up on the River Mersey.
Once again, I’ve expanded much more than I originally intended to do and it’s finally time to put Island Gardens ward to bed. I haven’t touched on many things, such as the plethora of business that once utilised the space all along the Thames for so many years. I’ll just throw this little beauty in though,which was St Paul’s church and now a little theatre, and open space for the arts and exercise.
Oh my God, nearly forgot the huge flour mill on the south side of the Millwall Dock……just too much around here!
As much as this place is not affordable for me as a Londoner to live, I must admit I probably wouldn’t want to. I grew up a couple of miles away and used to come down here because I loved the bleakness, the quiet, the desolation and the lost history. I miss those days. If anyone feels like me there is a fascinating site called https://islandhistory.wordpress.com/, where you’ll find some fantastic information and even better photos of time in distant past and the time of huge change here on the Isle Of Dogs, the 80’s and 90’s.
I would like to thank Mr Lemmerman for all his hard work on that site and it’s my go to place for information on the Island. Also check out on Youtube an 80’s comedy / drama set on the Isle of Dogs called ‘Prospects’.
Here you’ll see the places talked about here and on island history website in pre gentrification days. It’s astonishing to see the difference!
Speaking of differences, next week I’m in Limehouse. It’s not all East London on here but I’m just going through a ‘back to my roots’ phase!
Ta ta for now.
Take a stroll with Ade, a qualified London Borough Guide
‘Enthusing the enthusiastic’