Above: Part of Cary’s map of 1796 showing the Isle of Dogs as being almost completely empty land. Notice the ‘Poplar Gut’ caused by flooding in 1660.
Because names on the Isle of Dogs may not be familiar to all readers, two maps have been shown – one from 1796 and the other of today. Between the two maps, it should be possible to relate the places shown to the narrative.
There is a separate blog titled ‘Isle of Dogs as a Name’ which explains how the land gained such an unusual name. The so-called Isle of Dogs has always been a peninsula and not an island because it has always been joined to land at the northern end – where the original village of Poplar developed.
In the early days – from the 1100s and the 1200s – the land was flat and marshy. Most of the land was only a few feet above the height of high tide and often subject to flooding. The land was then called ‘Stepney Marsh’. The name ‘Isle of Dogs’ came centuries later. Around the perimeter of the land, a dyke had been constructed probably in Saxon or Norman times, in an attempt to prevent flooding of what was then mainly pasture. At the NE ‘corner’ was a small hamlet beside the Thames which was overshadowed by the muddy dyke which acquired the name ‘Blackwall’ – a name which is still in use today. On the west side of the Isle of Dogs, several windmills were constructed on top of the dyke which gave that part of the ‘island’ the name of ‘Millwall’.
Made of earth, or earth and chalk, possibly with a timber core in places, the dimensions of the dyke varied in different places. In the narrowest parts, where it was more than 15 feet high, the flat top was about 18 feet across with slopes to both river and marsh giving it an overall width of up to 150 feet. Breaches in the dyke occurred at Saunders Ness in 1652, which is the most easterly point of the ‘island’. More seriously in March 1660, there was a breach to the south of Limekiln Dock caused by ballast-digging on the foreshore. Several acres of land was lost to the river and a large pond or ‘gut’ formed. The owners successfully claimed compensation for the flooded land from the commissioners. The Breach and the Gut remained until the construction of the City Canal (later formed into a third West India Dock called ‘South Dock’).
Above: The Isle of Dogs shown on Google maps. Place names are labelled in YELLOW. Old dock systems are labelled in BLUE.
The West India Docks were constructed between 1800 and 1802. There were two docks running parallel to each other, virtually creating an island of land to the south. The City Canal was unprofitable and the land was acquired by the West India Dock Company who widened it into a third parallel dock in the 1860s. It was then known as ‘South Dock’ – a name still in use today.
With an entrance on the west side of the Isle of Dogs, the two docks forming the Millwall Docks were created in 1868. They form a reverse letter ‘L’ in shape and were originally constructed to increase the length of available wharves for cargo ships to load and unload. Their shape remains today and can be seen on a modern map.
When the docks were in their heigh-day, the Isle of Dogs was a remarkable place. Working in the docks were thousands of men who lived locally in small terraced houses. Looking at the size of the docks and the amount of land that they took up – including the wharves and the warehouses – there hardly seemed to be enough space of the dockers and their families to live. Not only was that the case but there were many large industries also operating on the ‘island’ and their workers also lived nearby with their families as well. In addition, there were schools, churches and pubs to be ‘squeezed in’. For transport, the residents relied entirely on buses for transport. There were then no train services and no underground lines either.
The docks slowly declined from the 1960s onwards and by the end of the 1970s, no docks were operating at all. All industry went into decline at the same time. The heavy bombing of the Isle of Dogs during the Second World was another factor – rendering some docks unusable and destroying several factories. Streets were also bombed and, after the Second World War, some of the housing was replaced by tower blocks and Council estates. After nearly four decades of decline, something had to be done. Redevelopment was the answer, according to the Government of the day and, in 1981, the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was given total freedom over the local area to develop as they saw best.
There were not many options. The Isle of Dogs was bounded on three sides by the Thames. The old roads – Westferry Road, Manchester Road and Preston’s Road – could not be made into a dual-carriageway because they led nowhere. For public transport, the only solution was to install a new ‘light’ railway which became the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) that we know today. It was a rapid transport system but even that could not transport the vast number of office workers required at Canary Wharf. A new underground railway was eventually constructed – the Jubilee Line which opened in 1999, linking Canary Wharf with Stratford in the NE and Central London in the west. At the time of writing, we are waiting for the new Crossrail line which will link Canary Wharf with London Heathrow Airport in the west and Essex and North Kent to the east.
The large development known as Canary Wharf became rather like a new mini-city. It has its financial centre in the high-rise offices. Many of the workers live within walking distance of their offices. During their lunch-break and after work they have several shopping precincts – providing not only all the food-shopping and clothes-shopping that anyone could ever need but a vast array of restaurants and entertainment, including a cinema and concert hall. Canary Wharf has become almost completely self-sufficient.
The SW part of the Isle of Dogs is known as Millwall. That name derives from the fact that there were several windmills built on the dyke at that point, taking advantage of the prevailing winds from the west. The SE part of the Isle of Dogs is often called Cubitt Town. It was named after William Cubitt, Lord Mayor of London who, in the 1840s and 18450s, developed streets of houses as well as a new parish church.
Most of the docks still remain today but they have been put to different uses. The planners from the time of the LDDC made certain there were also large public open spaces to enjoy. There are several parks and there is even an inner city farm! More people are living on the Isle of Dogs now than ever before. Not everything has yet been resolved. Some of the new residents live in the most opulent apartments while, only a matter of hundreds of yards away, there are still run-down Council estates and unemployment endured by many for whom the dream of a better life is still to be realised.
See also: Isle of Dogs as a Name – 11 June 2015.