An ‘account of the hamlet of Poplar’, appearing in The Universal Magazine of June 1795 painted a picture that’s hard to conjure up from modern visits down the East India Dock Road or around Chrisp Street Market. An unnamed journalist, venturing ‘two miles from the eastern extremity of the metropolis’ finds a village at the meeting point of Essex and Middlesex. The compact cities of London and Westminster still lay well within Middlesex’s borders in those days, a century and a half before the county itself became swallowed by London.
Poplar marsh was ‘reckoned one of the richest spots of ground in England’. It raised the ‘the largest cattle’ with the lush grass even being good for restoring cattle suffering distemper. The industry and attendant development that would consume the hamlet was already evident though. The East India Company had moved from Deptford to build its own ships at Blackwall from 1614. The Blackwall Yard would go through numerous changes of ownership, through the Perry, Green and Wigram families. The nationalised British Shipbuilders finally closed the book on three and a half centuries of Thames shipbuilding in 1987, when the yard shut.
In 1795, the yard was in the ownership of John Perry, and was the largest private dock in Europe. Covering 19 acres it could accommodate ’28 large East Indiamen and from 50 to 60 ships of smaller burden’. On the south quay of the dock were four cranes, which hauled guns, anchors, quintaledges (iron weights used as ballast in the shapes), and of course the goods which the ships had transported back from the Colonies.
The eastern quay was given over to landing blubber from the whaling vessels returned from Greenland. Next door were huge coppers set up for boiling the blubber down, and next again were huge warehouses to store the whale oil and bone. The maintenance of the ships was a huge undertaking, and one building soared to 120ft in height, able to accommodate the sails and rigging of an East Indiaman fully extended. Above was machinery for masting and demasting the ships. The risks of assembling the vessels on the open water were, thus, entirely removed. The first ship to be ‘masted’ by Perry’s ingenious machine was the Lord Macartney, on 25 October 1791, when a team put the whole rig together in three and a half hours.
By the 1920s, any pretence of Poplar being a hamlet had long disappeared. Now the area was appallingly overcrowded. Shipbuilding on the Thames had long been in decline, with the yards closing or relocating to the deeper waters and more modern equipment of the Clyde. The days when Blackwall had blazed a technological trail were long gone. Now the men were there simply to serve the shipyard, and there were more of them chasing fewer jobs. Jounalist Sydney K. Phelps was a regular visitor and had a remarkable affection for the place. ‘As you approach it after a very long tram ride, and notice the fine wide road [i.e. East India Dock Road] leading to the docks, and the considerable number of open spaces – tree-planted churchyards, fragments of old gardens, and recreation grounds – it does not seem to be such a bad place after all; there must always be a touch of romance in the sight of masts against the sky.’
Yet Phelps understood that the key to Poplar now lay in its poverty. ‘To understand Poplar it is necessary to leave that wide road, to turn up one of the narrower ways which run at right angles from it, and to plunge into the network of small squalid streets which lies behind. Here is a street of the sort I mean. It is long, containing over a hundred houses, all of the same design, all ugly and mean. In the basements are two rooms, one very small, and a kitchen which leads into a strip of grimy back-yard. The ground floors have two rooms, and stand a good way above the street level, in order that the basements may have light; on the top floors there are also two rooms.’
None of the homes had electric light of course and few had water above the ground floor – so baths were rare. Work was too. One women remarked that ‘there are lots of young strong men round here who have not been able to find a day’s work in two years’. The dole had been introduced in 1911, but the poverty trap it could create was just as much of a conundrum as it is today. ‘One man is in constant work at a chemical factory, and has long hours. (His wife’s hours are even longer.) He succeeds in earning exactly 3s. a week more than his neighbour gets from the dole.’ Adding a baby to the family would earn the family a little more dole and now the working man was actually worse off. There were worse things than the dole though. The horror of the workhouse still threatened, and for another decade to come. At the other end of this nascent welfare state were old age pensions – though few lived long enough past retirement age to get much from them.
It took World War II, bombing and some radical town planning to sweep away the old and usher in a new Poplar. The 1951 Festival of Britain saw the Lansbury Estate built north of the East India Dock Road, along with a new Chrisp Street Market. Now people weren’t living in crumbling terraces but in soaring concrete blocks such as Robin Hood Gardens, Balfron Tower, Carradale House and Glenkerry House. Now everyone had electric light and decent plumbing … but would Sydney Phelps think that something had been lost along the way?