There is little natural and untouched about the Isle of Dogs. Little that doesn’t bear the mark of Man and his relentless industrialisation, tinkering and changing down the centuries. The embankments and defensive walls that gave the old marshy island its defined shape. The enormous hollowing out of its hinterland that created the West India and Millwall Docks (and turned a peninsula into an ‘island’ in the process) creating pocket communities almost completely isolated from one another and from the rest of London. The development of Canary Wharf, building over much of the West India Dock and turning it from island to peninsula once again.
As the architectural critic and topographer Ian Nairn wrote in his excellent Nairn’s London in 1966, “You will know a bit about East End topography by the time you find this one.” For just as the elements shape the topography of the landscape and leave historical curiosities (the meandering Thames having created the ox-bow of the Isle of Dogs in prehistory), the relentless building and overbuilding of the Island has created its own oddities. Head south down Prestons Road and you’ll probably miss it – unless you know what you’re looking for.
Coldharbour was once the main thoroughfare down the east side of the Island, but is now marooned, cut off by the development of the West India Docks in the early 19th century. Turn left off Prestons Road and you find yourself in an impossibly narrow road, more a cobbled path really. Apart from challenging the driving skills of the modern Islander, manoeuvring their Land Rover Discovery round the neighbour’s Audi, it gives aclues to the medieval highway. Once the island was embanked against the river here, creating the ‘Blackwall’ that gave that hamlet its name, a path was run along the top. ‘Coldharbour’ as it became known, ran south from Blackwall Stairs before petering out somewhere near the present entrance to the South Dock of the West India Docks.
There is little known about the early inhabitants of an area that, in medieval times, must have been very bleak and remote, prone to flooding and to river fogs, damp and low lying and isolated from the rest of London. A series of architectural digs in the 1960s and after revealed old wooden piles (remnants of earlier river defences) but little more. By the time reliable church and tax records appear in the 18th century, the roll call is an unsurprising one – there are fishermen, watermen, lightermen, river pilots, shipwrights, boat builders and ship-chandlers. Some of them grew rich on the river trade. The Clippingdales, river pilots who lived in a house on the site of No. 15 in the eighteenth century, were reputed to have made a fortune out of their profession.
From the second decade of the 17th century buildings began to appear. The development of the East India Company’s shipbuilding yard at Blackwall in 1614 and the opening of Browne’s (later Rolt’s) shipyard in the 1660s, saw the hamlet of Blackwall grow into a bustling riverside village. The river side of the old path, now the high street, became built up – so much that today you might be unaware that the Thames lies on the other side of the buildings. It’s only as you approach the southern end of Coldharbour that a gap appears: between the modern development at Concordia Wharf and the Gun pub (where dubious legend has it that Lord Nelson enjoyed a drink). Then Coldharbour curves back round to meet the highway again. As Nairn described it “a tiny loop off Prestons Road”.
300 years ago this was the highway, but in the 1800 work began on the West India Dock. Progress was extraordinarily swift. By 1805, the Import and Export docks were complete (and would eventually become the north and middle docks). And to the south, the City Canal completely bisected the Island from Limehouse Reach on the west to Blackwall Reach on the east. What had once been a main thoroughfare with businesses, houses and pubs (the Gun dates from the 1720s) now became almost completely isolated, an island within an island. Coldharbour, once part of Blackwall, now found itself cut off from the village.
Perhaps it’s that isolation that has seen the character of Coldharbour remain distinctively antique. There is little elsewhere of even the Victorian Isle of Dogs. Some grand buildings remain. Overlooking the entrances to the West India Docks are the two houses built for dock officials. Bridge House (1819) was designed by John Rennie for the Superindent of the West India Dock Company, while Isle House (1825) was built by Rennie’s son. The elegant, detached houses have full-height bow windows – designed to allow the dockmasters to observe the ships entering the dock. Number 3 is an amalgamation of two houses by Samuel Granger (1820), giving a double-bowed river frontage, looking onto a garden. At Number 15 is the former home and workshop of Benjamin Granger Bluett, joiner, mast and block maker. Built in 1843 on an earlier 1770 house, it’s listed today for its largely intact interior.
A little slice of old docklands has survived the destruction and development of the 20th century then. But what happened to the City Canal? You’ll look in vain on a modern map for this marvel of engineering. Next week, we find out.