Above: Part of Cary’s map of 1796 showing the Isle of Dogs as being almost completely empty land. Within the next ten years, the West India Docks would be built and the land would never look the same again.
The so-called Isle of Dogs is not really an island at all, its actually a peninsula. In medieval times it was just open marshy land. To prevent it from flooding a dyke made from mud was constructed on the eastern, southern and western ‘sides’ of the ‘island’. If you look carefully at the above map you can just see that a footpath is shown all around the edge of the Isle Dogs beside the Thames. Because the land was so marshy, people walked not on the land but along the top of the dyke where the ground was more secure.
Two place names on the ‘island’ allude to that dyke even today. At the NE extremity is the place name Blackwall (seen on the above map) – meaning a black wall or wall of mud. Towards the SW is the place name Millwall (not shown on the above map) – meaning a wall or dyke on which windmills stood.
Until the 16th century, the peninsula was just called ‘Stepney Marsh’ – named after the parish of St Dunstan, Stepney, of which it was a part.
The earliest reference to the land by its present name was in 1593 as ‘Isle of Doges Ferm’. How the name arose is almost anyone’s guess. Listed below are four possible explanations which will immediately give you some idea of how uncertain the experts are on how the name arose.
(i) One suggestion is that the present name might be a corruption of ‘Isle of ducks’. With such marshy land, it is more than likely that wading birds – ducks – were to be seen in the open fields.
(ii) One of the favourite explanations relates to ‘dogs’. Commentaries on the passing riverboats, carrying the tourists to and from Greenwich, often trot out the glib explanation that royalty kept hunting dogs on the ‘island’. Theories include: greyhounds were kept for Edward III; hunting dogs for Henry VIII; or hunting dogs for Charles II. All ideas indicate uncertainty. It is claimed that the dogs were kept on the Isle of Dogs to be well away from the palace at Greenwich so that their constant barking could not be heard. Hunting was presumably to the north of the Isle of Dogs. It is well known that royalty hunted in Epping Forest but that is rather a long way from the Isle of Dogs.
(iii) Another theory is that the modern name is a corruption of ‘Isle of dykes’. There is nothing wrong with the thinking here but, of course, nobody actually knows.
(iv) One intriguing theory relates not to the ‘island’ but to the water that flows around it. Many large sailing ships needed to navigate the River Thames, around the peninsula, on their way to or from the City of London – where goods were landed in the days before the docks were constructed in London. Sailing relies on the power of the wind and it would have taken a skilful captain to sail around the island because it required the ship to move in various directions as it negotiated the peninsula. Moving a ship to take advantage of the prevailing wind is known as carrying out a series of ‘dog leg’ manoeuvres.
Well, that completes all the well-known derivations. You can take your pick. As you will realise from the differing theories, there is no obvious explanation that seems to stand out from the others. Perhaps we shall never find out how its name really came about!