Above: One of a mere handful of elegant houses remaining in Poplar High Street.
The original hamlet of Poplar grew up on land just north of the Isle of Dogs and close to the riverside settlement at Blackwall. The earliest spelling was ‘Popeler’ in 1350 and as ‘Le Popeler’ in 1412. The place took its name from the Black Poplar trees which once flourished in the area. Black Poplar is a very rare and exceptionally large tree that grows well in the wet conditions of the land due to the River Thames and the River Lea. A Black Poplar was still in existence in the area until at least 1986 when the naturalist Oliver Rackham noted ‘Nearby, in the midst of railway dereliction, a single Black Poplar even now struggles for life.’
This flat open land became used by the East India Company for building their ships and for unloading their cargoes in specially constructed docks. The East India Docks were built on part of the land beside the Thames. The workers and their families were granted land by the East India Company on which to build what was known at the time as the Poplar Chapel’. It was the first place of worship in Poplar. Now known as St Matthias Old Church, that chapel remains standing beside Poplar High Street, used as a community centre.
As the population increased a new parish of Poplar was created in 1821 from part of the original parish of St Dunstan. A larger church – All Saints, Poplar – was built 1821-23 which still stands in its large churchyard beside East India Dock Road.
In 1899 the Metropolitan Boroughs Act was passed and the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar came into existence. It is long and narrow in shape, with the southern end being the whole of the Isle of Dogs. In 1965, Poplar along with the other two Metropolitan Boroughs of Bethnal Green and Stepney were combined to form the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
Above: Map showing the outline in RED of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The YELLOW dotted lines show the old Metropolitan Borough boundaries (Bethnal Green top left, Stepney bottom left and Poplar as a long narrow strip of land on the right).
Until the 1960s, Poplar’s history was mainly bound up with several dock systems and heavy industry. For the docks, the East India Docks, the West India Docks and the Millwall Docks were all within the Metropolitan Borough boundary. For heavy industry, particularly on the Isle of Dogs, there were all manner of factories and also ship-yards. The most famous ship ever built there was, of course, the ‘Great Eastern’, launched in 1858. The use of the docks declined during the 1960s and 1970s, due to an ever growing increase in the value of the land and the change in how cargoes were being handled – due to containerisation. Containers were being handled at Tilbury Docks – much further downriver of Poplar. The land on which the docks stood continued to increase in value which meant that the land on which the warehouses stood was worth more than the goods that were being stored inside.
In 1981 the Government of the day created the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) which was made responsible for developing the whole area of the docks in London, of which the Isle of Dogs was an important part. The LDDC had a life span of nearly 20 years until all the infrastructure was in place across the Docklands area – a piece of land the size of the City of Oxford. The Isle of Dogs was no longer a viable place for docks and warehouses and new plans were drawn up to create new roads, new infrastructure, new housing developments and – most importantly – new offices. The most well-known of these was the estate known as Canary Wharf. Canary Wharf Tower – Britain’s tallest building at the time – rising to 770 feet (235 m), was its centrepiece, being officially opened on 26 August 1991. The Canary Wharf Estate continues to grow even today as more tower blocks are being added, almost 40 years after the LDDC was created.
Rapid transport was also needed for the area if the new developments were to become successful. The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) was built, with the first part being opened in 1987 – between Island Gardens (on the Isle of Dogs) and two other new termini at Tower Gateway (at the east side of the City of London) and Stratford.
In the 1980s, Poplar was still a run-down area with poor housing, few shopping facilities and very few jobs. The creation of the LDDC drove enterprise, creating many new jobs and a considerable amount of new housing. The changes clashed with how the dockers’ families had hoped the land would be developed. The change came rapidly and ‘left behind’ those unwilling to go with the new developments. Those who live on the Isle of Dogs now are a ‘new set’, working at Canary Wharf, with plenty of money and a lavish lifestyle. They are, of course, resented by the families who remember the days of the docks but a change was inevitable and the Isle of Dogs is totally unrecognisable to anyone who remembers life in the 1960s.
Just north of the Isle of Dogs and slightly inland from the Thames was the village of Poplar. To its east, beside the Thames, was the ancient hamlet of Blackwall – a spot better known today for the northern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel. Further north is the village of Bromley by Bow and just north of that is what remains of the ancient village of Bow. Its church was built on the main road out of London and still stands on an island site in the middle of the same road – now known as the busy A11. The church ‘clings onto life’ as heavy traffic thunders past at all hours of the day and the night.
Further north again, was a hamlet called Old Ford. It was so-named because it was a fording point over the River Lea before Bow Bridge was built. In the days when Poplar was a Metropolitan Borough, the furthest north of the borough was part of Victoria Park, one of Inner London’s largest public parks.
Finally, three canals are shown on the map. Regent’s Canal is only a short distance west of the old Poplar boundary. Running across the old Metropolitan Borough of Poplar, almost on the diagonal, is the Limehouse Cut which joins onto the Regent’s Canal at its southern end and connects with the River Lea at Bow Locks. The River Lea forms the eastern boundary of the old Metropolitan Borough of Poplar – now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Along the southern side of Victoria Park is the Hertford Union Canal whose western end connects with the Regent’s Canal and whose eastern end forms a T-junction with the River Lea. In addition, part of the River Thames forms a boundary around the Isle of Dogs.