Isle of Dogs Described by Besant

Above: The remaining offices on the large site beside Westferry Road which remain from the days when the land was a shipyard. The Blue Plaque commemorates the fact that the famous ‘Great Eastern’ was constructed on the site.

As well as the West India Docks and the Millwall Docks taking up a large part of the Isle of Dogs, along with large warehouses with railway access, there was a large amount of heavy industry carried out by many factories. Many of these factories produced items that were related to ship-building or ship repair.

The well-known historian Walter Besant, writing in 1903, in his book titled ‘East London’ provides a wonderful description of life in his day with the words ‘all round the shore there runs an unbroken succession of factories supporting thousands of working-men who form the population of the Isle of Dogs. All kinds of things are made, stored, received, and distributed in the factories of this industrial island; many of them are things which require to be carried on outside a crowded town, such as oil storage, oil paint, colour, and varnish, works; disinfectant fluid works, boiler-makers, lubricating oil works; there are foundries of brass and iron, lead-smelting works, copper-depositing works, antimony and gold-ore works. All kinds of things wanted for ships are made here – cisterns and tanks, casks, steering-gear, tarpaulins, wire-rope, sails, oars, blocks and masts; there are yards for building ships, barges and boats.’

Considering how much land was occupied by the docks and their adjacent warehouses, it is rather surprising to find that such industries – many with large factory premises of their own – were able to find the space to carry on their businesses. In addition, you have the fact that countless dockers and their families lived on the Isle of Dogs, along with most of the workers in the factories just mentioned who also lived very close to their place of work with their families.

As can be seen from this very graphic description, the Isle of Dogs was a very busy place – with large factories and endless terraced houses in narrow streets ‘squeezed’ in wherever there was enough space. In addition, there were numerous pubs – almost one on every street corner. Then, don’t forget the schools and the rows of local shops.

Besant mentions ‘oil storage, oil paint, colour, and varnish, works’. As an example of this, towards the SE ‘corner’ of the Isle of Dogs is a housing estate around Burrell’s Wharf Square. That name commemorates the site of Burrell & Company who were oil refiners and manufacturers of paints, varnishes and colours. They were in operation from the late 1880s until the early 1920s and were a famous name in their particular trade.

Just north of that site is Napier Avenue, recalling the site of Napier Yard – a ship-yard owned by Scott Russell. It was there that Isambard Brunel designed and built the ‘SS Great Eastern’. Brunel worked to breaking point and finally, in 1858, the ship was eventually launched. Part of the enormous slipway remains to be seen on the site as well as the buildings that are shown in the picture.


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