Above: Street name plate which is about 80 years old.
Tucked away on the Isle of Dogs is a small street with a long name – Chapel House Street. With a name like that there has got to be an interesting story behind it and there is. The street is just a few minutes walk to the south of Mudchute DLR Station.
Until the docks started to be built, in the 1800s, the Isle of Dogs was quite a remote and desolate place. Its earlier name of Stepney Marsh gives a better idea of how remote it was. Essentially it was low lying land that was often subject to flooding and, apart from a few farmers who kept cattle on the lush grassy fields, very few people lived there at all.
Above: Part of Cary’s map of 1796 showing the Isle of Dogs.
In 1380 there is a mention of a small chapel. Quite why it was built or what it was used for is not recorded. The chapel was situated beside the track which crossed the Isle of Dogs, between Poplar and the Greenwich Ferry. The track was used by pilgrims who, having crossed the Thames by ferry walked via the villages of Poplar and Hackney to Waltham Abbey. From that point their destination was to eventually walk to Little Walsingham, in North Norfolk, where there was one of the most well-visited shrines in all of England.
There are very few references to the little chapel and we have no pictures to show us what it looked like. It was called ‘St Mary in Stepney Marsh’ and was last mentioned in the middle of the 15th century which rather suggests that it may have fallen into disuse or even collapsed.
Standing near the chapel was Chapel House, the only inland farmhouse on the Isle of Dogs. As has already been mentioned, very few people lived on the land.
It is always fascinating when you find out about a new building in London but quite tantalising when you cannot really get a grip on its history. Not being able to find out many facts about it only adds to the intrigue.
Above: The site of St Mary’s Chapel shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1860. The map shows the southern part of the Millwall Docks with its Graving Dock. The yellow rectangle shows the part of the Isle of Dogs which is shown on the old map. There are two Millwall Docks which form a reverse letter ‘L’.
I was working on the history of the Millwall Docks a few years ago, looking at the old maps of the docks. Much to my surprise I found that the site of the little chapel is recorded on the earliest Ordnance Survey map (of 1860). This did not shed much light on the chapel’s history but at least it provides a ‘fix’ on its exact position.
Chapel House Street is not far from the Millwall Docks. It is one of the streets on an early 20th century housing estate of charming small houses. They stand beside several streets which were all laid out at the same time and are now part of a conservation area. Chapel House Street, named after the old farmhouse, is also a reminder of the little chapel. The estate is well worth a visit – to admire the little houses which are around 100 years old. It is surprising how much history is lurking behind one simple street name!