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Category: East End hamlets

Thomas Neale: the man who invented Shadwell

THOMAS NEALE was very much a man of the late 1600s. A master of a dozen fields, who could move effortlessly between jobs, he was an MP for 30 years, the Master of the Mint, and set up the first properly organised postal service in the United States. He was also the proud bearer of one of the many arcane posts in the gift of the monarch. As Groom Porter to Charles II he was the king’s gambling tsar, charged with settling disputes at gaming tables and closing down gambling houses; he even developed a fairer and truer die to outsmart gambling cheats.

Thomas Neale

Thomas Neale

By the end of his short life (he lived from 1641 to 1699), this remarkable man had burned through two fortunes (one courtesy of his wife, the richest woman in England) and he died penniless. But as a young man, he was responsible for transforming a benighted and boggy stretch of East End waterfront into a thriving commercial concern. Neale, almost forgotten today, should be as lauded as more celebrated developers such as William Cubitt, who at least got a slice of the Isle of Dogs named after him. For it was Neale who gave us Shadwell.

Until the 17th century, the area that would become Shadwell was bleak marshland. That began to change with an Act of Parliament in the 1660s that authorised the reclamation of 130 acres of Wapping Marsh. Until then, the sole function of the wasteland had been to flood with the rising of the Thames, and then drain water back to power the mills at Ratcliff. And as late as 1615, the riverside from Ratcliff up to Wapping was undeveloped, save for a few houses to the north (one of which, on the site of King Edward VII Memorial Park, was obviously of some importance, having a brewhouse and an orchard attached).

It was land that nobody had bothered too much about in the preceding centuries, but the rise in trade and shipping in the 1600s would change all that. The maritime adventures of the previous century had transformed England from a minor country off the coast of Europe into a genuine seapower, as Willoughby, Frobisher et al set sail from from Ratcliff. Britain’s trading routes had developed alongside, with the Port of London growing in step. In 1615 there were just ten ships of more than 200 tons in the Port; by 1640 that number had grown to 100. First Deptford, then Blackwall and Ratcliff had been developed, now eyes turned to the moribund waste of Shadwell.

Shadwell Basin

Shadwell Basin

For three centuries the land had been in the ownership of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s – nobody was quite sure how, as Shadwell lay within the territory of the Manor of Stepney, but for 300 years it had fallen to St Paul’s to maintain the river walls and ditches. The land had been taken from the Church under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, but with the restoration of the monarchy it passed back to the Cathedral, and to their surprise, they found themselves in charge of a valuable piece of real estate.

Enter Thomas Neale, once again, for among his many other jobs he was lessee of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s. He also already knew the area, as along with friends he had speculatively invested in East India trade and the development of the Ratcliff riverfront. Neale now began a huge programme of draining, reclaiming and laying out roads. It was a skill he would later apply to the development of Seven Dials in Covent Garden (despite the variant spelling, Neal Street is named after our man). He built a waterworks and a mill, with housing fanning out behind the newly developed waterfront. As the shipping business arrived so did the ancillary businesses develop, with ropemakers, breweries, bakies, tanneries, chandlers, smiths and the dozen other businesses of the working port. He even built Shadwell’s own church (it was now a parish) in St Paul’s Shadwell.

isaac newton

isaac newton

All of this was done while Neale was still in his twenties and he had an even more colourful career ahead of him. From 1678 until his death he was Master of the Mint, succeeded by another Stuart polymath, Sir Isaac Newton. Newton apparently complained that the Mint he inherited was a nest of “idlers and jobbers”. He was in charge of a mining company, and set up another to recover treasure from the many wrecks that littered the floors of the world’s oceans. Whatever Neale did, there was one common theme: speculation, and the love of a punt on a scheme that could make him very rich. Him or his patrons – it was Neale who was behind the notorious lottery-loans that poured cash into William and Mary’s Exchequer, boldly labelled “a profitable adventure to the fortunate, and can be unfortunate to none”.

Unfortunately there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to speculation and Neale’s difficulty seemed to be not so much raising cash, as holding onto it. Perhaps it was too much time spent around gambling joints as the Groom Porter, perhaps one grand scheme too many, but by 1694, Neale was struggling financially. Fortuitously he would marry the richest widow in England, and became known about London as ‘Golden Neale’. Alas, it wasn’t to last. He died penniless, having blown another fortune, just five years later.

The glassmakers of Ratcliff

As you sip from your glass, read by the light of your window or crunch your way across a pavement carpeted with former car windows, you might reflect that glass is cheap, glass is everywhere. But it wasn’t always so. The unlikely alchemy which transforms sand into crystal, opacity to transparency, was once a secret closely guarded.

Travel back a few centuries and even amid the protectionist guilds of the City London – those who sought to exclude outsiders from becoming fishmongers, tallow-makers, chandlers and the rest – glass was special, an almost magical process guarded jealously by the aristocracy. The secret had travelled down the centuries and across Europe from the glass makers of Murano and Burano, in the Venice Lagoon to London where – amid its finest exponents – were the glassmakers of Ratcliff.

‘Bowles’s Manufactory’ and its ‘Glass Houses’ first appear on maps of the East End in the 1790s, as part of a detailed plan of the area drawn by William Fraser of the Shadwell Waterworks. Ratcliff had, in 1794, been almost totally destroyed by fire – the worst conflagration in London since the Great Fire in 1666 and not matched again until the bombs of the Blitz a century and a half later. Fraser, the sort of man to whom historians say prayers of thanks, was an assiduous type who set to carefully describing Ratcliff in painstaking detail.

John Bowles had started his glassworks at the Bear Garden Bankside in Southwark in the 1670s after splitting with his partner the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was a sharp business brain as well as a toff, though his claim that he had discovered the art of making looking-glass plates (mirrors in other words) and previously a secret only of the Venetians was questionable. Glassmaking was tricky certainly. It was hard to get heat and process consistently right, with medieval glass generally knobbly and translucent rather than transparent, but there were already a select few who had the art. Certainly though, anybody who could make glass good enough for mirrors could make a lot of money, and Buckingham managed to obtain a patent, or monopoly, in 1663, from Charles II.

In 1768 though, Buckingham’s double dealings saw him proclaimed traitor, lodged in the Tower of London and stripped of his patent. But the secret was (at least partially) out. The Duke gave the whole business to his apprentice John Dawson, with the money behind a six-acre factory coming from John Bowles. Within a year or two Dawson had mysteriously disappeared from the business, and Bowles relocated from cramped Bankside to the expanding hamlet of Ratcliff. It gave good access to the Thames, where the silica, sodium carbonate and limestone arrived on barges, and from whose wharves the finished glass was despatched to Europe, and it gave room to build. Equally important, Ratcliff already had a tradition of glassmaking, stretching back decades. Perhaps here Bowles found the skilled men he needed to make his Crown Ratcliff pieces.

Back in 1621 in Broad Street, Ratcliff, Abraham Bigoe had won his own patent from James I to produce glass. In 1680, the Bigoe family sold up and left for Stourbridge. Bowles appears to have taken over the works and, razing them to the ground, started from scratch. He leased the stretch of Ratcliff between Love Lane (then called Cut Throat Lane), the eastern boundary of Sun Tavern Fields and Schoolhouse Lane. It was a huge operation, with new brick workshops and storehouses, a house, stables, gardens and orchards. Nearly a century later the works was going strong, producing its ‘crown glass’ – window-glass which bettered the former supply from Normandy. Bowles was making glass for the windows of coaches for portraits and for the new fashion of sash windows, which were replacing the old lattice casements with their diamond-shaped panes. For decades, the glass was made with a crown embossed in the centre of each plate. Some say there are windows in some old houses in Ratcliff in which the figure can still be faintly traced.

The secret was jealously guarded. Of course we have our secret formulas today. The makers of Coca Cola and KFC earnestly talk of secret recipes containing dozens of ingredients, of only a handful of the cognoscenti knowing the whole truth, and those few always choosing, Royal Family style, to travel separately, lest the whole crew be lost at once. The Bowles family, meanwhile, bought all their raw ingredients from the Continent. Sodium carbonate of the quality they needed could only be obtained (so they believed or claimed) from the burnt ashes of a Spanish weed called “barilla”. It may have been hocus pocus and hype – but it certainly made their process hard to copy. It also made them rich.

But every family business runs out of steam in the end it seems. The Bowleses managed to keep the business for five generations. The story ends in 1794, the year of the Ratcliff Fire. Family firms, like the Royal Family, always need an heir and a spare, but that year the company was inherited by a minor, far too young to run the business and certainly too young to rebuild after the fire. The Bowleses were now extraordinarily wealthy but they seem to have simply decided enough was enough at this point – and simply shut the family firm.

Cambridge Heath

The East End has a collection of place names which evoke a rural past, long buried beneath concrete and tarmac: Fairfield Road, the Old Ford and Spitalfields among them. But what and where was Cambridge Heath?

Now an unflinchingly urban area between Bethnal Green and Hackney, this stretch of the East End was once a desolate stretch of common ground, with marshland stretching to the east and west. The high, dry expanse of heath belonged to the old Stepney Manor to the south and, during the 13th century, records have the heath as being used as common pasture. Long before the mass enclosures of common land during the Middle Ages, any man or woman could come here to graze their sheep.

It must have been a bleak spot to live, though 1275 records have at least one ‘ancient’ house standing there. In 1587, John Slater, ‘a merchant tailor of London’ took out a 99-year lease on a piece of wasteland measuring 24 rods by 11 rods* on the western edge of the heath. But the wild expanses of the heath remained unpopular, and the lease had lapsed by 1652.

By the early 18th century, pressure on land increased as London’s population grew. Building spilled beyond the walls of the City and out of Spitalfields. The blasted heath would have been cheap and available real estate, and in 1722, the trustees of Parmiter’s Charity bought 4½ acres of wasteland on the west side of the Cambridge Road, and on either side of Hackney Road.

The charity had its beginnings in the will of Thomas Parmiter, a silk merchant, who was also to endow ‘six almshouses and one free school house or room’ in Bethnal Green. This was to grow into Parmiter’s Grammar School, in Approach Road (and latterly in Watford). Parmiter’s leased out parcels of land to East Enders. The early inhabitants of Cambridge Heath were artisans, skilled men like Thomas Thorne, a Bethnal Green carpenter who built a house ‘adjoining the sewer’ in 1724; and Thomas King, a glazier and plumber of Hackney, who built cottages ‘on the sweep following the road’ in 1729.

Development started in earnest in 1786, and it’s here we see the real transition of rural into urban, when the Middlesex countryside was buried beneath the East End we know today. Parmiter’s leased its entire estate to Wilmot, who built six houses on the site, before selling his plot on to William Lovell, who built another five. By 1800, Cambridge Place formed the north-western boundary of the new estate, with Howard’s Place and Heath Place, and the Hare public house fronting the Hackney and Cambridge Roads.

This was the era of the small entrepreneurial builder. Andrew Pritchard a ‘tilemaker of Hackney Road’ contracted Woolwich bricklayer William Olley to build a terrace of houses in Hackney Road, butting up against a factory. John Scott, an Islington brickmaker, took the central part of the estate, building Prospect Place in Russia Lane, and Potter’s Row. To the east of Cambridge Road, a five-acre site belonging to Bishop’s Hall was leased to the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, who built Palestine Place. Patriot Square was developed in the 1790s.

By the early 1800s, the Old Bethnal Green Road had an almost continuous frontage of buildings along it, although there were still acres of wasteland within the old heath. It was now apportioned between eight estates: Sebright, Bullock, Parmiter, Rush Mead, Cambridge Heath, Chambers, Pyott and Bishop’s Hall. The gaps quickly disappeared as the estates squeezed as many new streets and buildings as they could onto the fast disappearing land.

The last open patches of the old heath were in the north-western stretch, owned by the Sebright estate. Shrewdly aware of its ‘increasing and improving neighbourhood’ (and of the money to be made), the trustees won the right in 1813 to grant long building leases. The trust then leased the land to Joseph Teale of Shoreditch, and within a few years there were 250 houses on the estate. The last vestiges of Cambridge Heath had disappeared.

For more, see A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume XI, published 1998 by Victoria County History. With thanks to British History Online at www.british-history.ac.uk.

* If you’re unfamiliar with medieval measurements, a rod equalled 5½ yards and was also called a perch or a pole: it was the standard length of the ox goad used by a medieval English ploughman. The measurement survives to this day in sport: the length of a cricket pitch is a chain (four rods); the furlongs of a horse race are 10 chains each.

Bromley by Bow’s history

Brambeley, Bromley Saint Leonard and latterly Bromley-by-Bow. The area that hugs the eastern edge of the East End south has had a number of names. But then its unique history among the Tower hamlets has forced a lot of changes on the area.

Until the 19th century the area was a mixture of farming and market gardening with industries along the River Lea such as calico bleaching, brewing, grain milling and distilling.

J Norris Brewer, writing in 1816, draws a picture of Bromley very different from the modern area. ‘Bromley (written Brambele, Brambelegh, Brembeley, in ancient records) adjoins the village of Stratford Bow on the south-east. This parish contains between four and five hundred acres of land, the greater portion of which is used for farming purposes. About sixty acres are occupied by nursery-men and market-gardeners.’

All that was to change in the middle years of the 19th century, when dozens of streets were laid out, and modern Bromley was born.

Bromley has a history quite independent of its neighbour Bow, which for many years was part of the parish of Stepney. Bromley came about in the eleventh century, with the founding of a Benedictine nunnery in the desolate marshlands east of the River Lea.

There had long been a religious order in the area. But the turn of the first millennium gave a new impetus to church building. Prior to that, conventional wisdom had it that the world was going to end in the year 1000AD. When it didn’t kings, councillors and churchmen alike – fired with a new confidence and optimism – set to building lasting monuments.

William, Bishop of London, gave permission for a nunnery dedicated to St Leonard. Work began during the reign of William I, with the new nunnery to provide a living for a prioress and nine nuns. Now a little hamlet grew up around the priory walls, based upon farming and providing services and provisions to the nuns. That was to give Bromley a unique status among East End hamlets; unlike all the other parishes and hamlets between the City and the River Lee, Bromley didn’t grow from the huge parish of Stepney – and that was to lead to problems in the years to come.

In the centuries before, this part of Middlesex had been a dangerous place – marshy, remote, and prone to the attentions of marauding Vikings sailing up the River Lea. But Norman rule had brought new peace to southern England, and the future Bromley, nestling by the river, with good farmland and plentiful supplies of fish, was a prime spot.

The nunnery was to shelter ‘women of gentle birth and education’ during the Middle Ages. St Leonard’s was seen as a place of quiet retreat and pleasant seclusion. Many nobles were buried here, including Earls of Hereford and Essex and a daughter of William, Earl of Henault. The nunnery wasn’t rich, and endowments from these families would help keep the order going.

One of the earliest records has the manor, and the lands on which the nunnery stood, owned by Geoffrey, Earl of Essex, who writes of ‘The half hide of land [about 60 acres] in Brambeley that William son of Wido gave them when he was made a canon there’. During the reign of Richard I the manor was held by Ralph Triket or Trichet, the King’s Chamberlain. The manor continued in the Triket family for years. The value and importance of ‘Brambeley’ lay in its position on the river Lea, a source of water power for the flour mills.

By the year 1292 the lordship of the manor had passed to the Prior and Canons of Holy Trinity, Aldgate. The clerics supervised the tilling of this fertile land, the draining of the marsh, the making and repair of river embankments, and the building of water-mills. Farm land was customarily granted or leased to tenant farmers, and a glimpse of mediaeval Bromley can be got from one of the Canons’ records of one of these leases.

‘…By the prior and the convent of Holy Trinity, London, to William le Norcis, of three acres at Brambeley in the field called ‘Edmunds field’ all the wall with the willows south of that field, a pond and ditch, a wall by Richard Tuthaits house extending to the Lea, a wood adjoining the three acres, and the [river] wall which was the way to the old mill; saving the way that was upon the first-named [river] wall to men going to St. Leonard’s church and returning, for ever, and the way for horses carrying grain to the mill of the said canons, and bringing it back when necessary; paying half a mare yearly. Other covenants are specified as to repairs, making and working floodgates for millponds &c.’

It is St Leonard’s that Geoffrey Chaucer refers to in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. The poet would visit Bromley from his home in Aldgate, and he used the nuns for material. He describes one of the pilgrims, Madame Eglantine, writing:
‘French she spake full fair and fetisley
After the school of Stratford-atte-Bow
For French of Paris was to her unknown.’

But the idyllic life of the priory at Bromley was soon to change. Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and a hated prioress were to change everything.

The priory of St Leonard’s had been founded as a place of quiet rest, contemplation, and an undisturbed living for daughters of gentlefolk. But as the 16th century drew on, things were not well at Bromley. In 1533, Lady Sterkey, one of the nuns, wrote to Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of Henry VIII, complaining at the prioress that Cromwell had foisted on them.

‘I beg your goodness to us and our house at St. Leonard’s, Stratford, for removing our supposed Prioress. Since our petition to the King we have been worse intreated than ever, for meat and drink and threatening words; and when we ask to have anything remedied, she bids us “Go to Cromwell and let him help us”.

The obnoxious Prioress was Sibilla Kirke. But worse was to come for the nuns. Eight years later, Henry had the monasteries and nunneries of England dissolved, releasing their riches to the Crown, and removing the perceived threat to his authority posed by the established Church. The hated Kirke was given £15 a year for life and permission to reside at the priory house – she stayed another 15 years. The nuns meanwhile were thrown out, receiving one pound apiece.

Until dissolution the lordship of the manor had still been held by Holy Trinity Priory, and at that point, the estate was valued at £108, one shilling and eleven pence per annum. The property was duly disbursed to Sir Ralph Sadler, and passed over the centuries back to the Crown, to a 17th century Prince of Wales, the trustees of the City of London, and eventually back into private hands.

The surviving chapel now became the parish church of Bromley. But this halfway house status, whereby St Mary’s had evolved into a parish church without strictly being one in ecclesiastical law, caused years of argument between the various lords of the manor, the leaseholders of the land and the Bishops of London.

When the ancient chapel finally became too derelict to serve as a place of worship in the 19th century, the authorities came up with an imaginative solution to the debate. The chapel was pulled down in 1842, but two small parts of its ancient walls were allowed to remain. Rather than a new consecration having to take place, the Episcopal authority simply ‘rebuilt’ St Mary’s, and a new parish church arose.

Sadly the new church didn’t last so long as the old chapel. It was
badly damaged by enemy bombs in World War II, and the building of the northern approach road to the Blackwall Tunnel finished the job. Now all that remains is part of the churchyard off Bromley High Street.

By the early 19th century Bromley was supporting a number of charitable institutions. A Sunday School for girls was teaching and clothing almost one hundred children. And just to the south of Bow Road stood two ranges of almshouses. Twelve of these had been built by the Drapers Company, in 1706. Another eight were for poor widows of Bromley and Stratford Bow. Nearby was another almshouse, for aged seamen or their widows.

But things were changing. A second manor in the parish, Bromley Hall, belonged to the Priory of Christ Church, in London. It too was dissolved and in 1799 ended up in the possession of one Joseph Foster. Foster was an eminent calico-printer. This was to lay the foundation for one of Bromley’s main industries in the years to come and was part of the swift change of the area from being largely agricultural to urban and industrial.

Industry needs water, and factories had always thrived along the Lea. Now the striking of the Limehouse Cut accelerated the process. The Cut was opened for traffic in 1770, linking the Thames and the Lea, and cutting out the circuitous navigation round the Isle of Dogs. In time, factories grew up, houses were thrown up to house the workers, and the waterways around Bromley became despoiled and polluted. In 1801 the population of Bromley was 1,684. By 1881 it had risen to 4,846, and by 1931 to 64,111.

When Sir John Jacob razed the old Priory House in the 1660s he had built a new manor house with ‘almost unlimited and unobstructed prospect over the Counties of Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey, with the majestic Thames … a mansion that might vie with many of our most ancient country Halls’. By the mid-1800s Bromley was far from a rural idyll. And now the development of the area began in earnest, with haphazard old road layouts swept away, and linear terraces of yellow-brick raised in their place. Jacob’s manor was demolished, replaced by the school in Priory Street. In 1900 the area would join the rest of the East End, becoming part of Poplar Borough. And Bromley, frequently confused with the larger town in Kent, found itself renamed yet again. Lumped in with its neighbour it became Bromley-by-Bow.

Silvertown by Melanie McGrath


As author Melanie McGrath candidly admits, the life of her grandmother, Jenny Fulcher, was nothing out of the ordinary. ‘It was the kind of life that could have belonged to a thousand women living in the mid years of the twentieth century in the East End of London. Except that it didn’t. It belonged to Jenny.’

But it is the normality of Jenny’s life that makes Silvertown*, such a compelling read. The book – part memoir, part novel – focuses on an ordinary life, lived throughout in the East End, and spanning all but a few years of the twentieth century. And through it all Jenny, unadventurous, passive, and more than a little bitter, experiences the vast changes wrought by two world wars, the developers, and the dispersal of the old East End communities.

Jenny begins her life as Jenny Page, born in 1903 in Poplar. Queen Victoria – the only monarch most of her subjects have ever known – has died two years earlier, ending an era and heralding a century of massive change. Jenny’s life would end in the time of the internet, the mobile phone, and tower blocks on Canary Wharf. But when it begins, horses still pull hackney cabs through unlit East End streets. That same year, Jack London was visiting and writing People of the Abyss.

The Fulchers are a poor family, living in a poor part of London. A couple of centuries before, Poplar had been thriving, rich even, as ships bearing tea, wool, sugar, whale meat and every other cargo imaginable, set down their loads, providing a good income for local dockers, traders, sailors and merchants. The Virginia Settlers set off for the New World from here. And the East India Company carved out two of the most impressive wharves the world has seen, in the shape of the East and West India Docks.

The Fulchers had come here centuries before. Huguenots, they were seeking shelter from persecution and a chance to make a living from their silk-weaving until they could return to the Low Countries. But like so many other immigrants to the East End, they never went back, gradually becoming part of the fabric of east London themselves.

By the time Jenny is born, Poplar has become filthy and overcrowded ‘a victim of its own success’. Those who can afford it have moved out to greener parts, far from the dock walls. The family, headed by mother Sarah and father Frenchie, so dubbed for his foreign surname, live in Ullin Street, between the Cut and the River Lea. His place of labour is the Thames Ironworks which, in the shape of the works’ football team, has just given birth to what will become West Ham United FC. It is a street like hundreds of others to the east of the City. A terrace quickly thrown up in the latter decades of the 1800s, and swiftly subdivided into flats for one, two, three or more families.


Melanie McGrath’s grandfather Len is also washed into the East End, but from a different direction. The Pages are poor agricultural labourers from the tiny hamlet of Corbet’s Tey, outside Upminster in Essex. Come the years before the Great War, the labourers are striking for better pay. But despite the encouragement of visiting Poplar politician George Lansbury, the strike doesn’t hold. Len’s father sees the new combine harvesters and threshing machines making life for his kind even harder, and the family board the train for Fenchurch Street and an easier life in London.

Like the Jews, Somalis, Liberians, Chinese, Russians and a hundred other groups and nationalities, the two families are East Enders because they had ‘to move from somewhere else’. Len and Jenny end up as a couple, an East End family – though not a very happy one.

There’s little pretence that poverty and happiness go hand in hand. The East Enders fight the home front of World War I with not enough food, and not enough coal to keep their homes warm. Meanwhile, English-born shopkeepers with German names are having their windows smashed. Jenny celebrates her 17th birthday by having her teeth pulled, and her excitement at her first job in a sweatshop is soon crushed by the conditions, the poor pay, and the fines and other swindling by the bosses.

She comes to the end of her life with her East End – which she has never had much of a good word to say for in the first place – largely taken apart. Bombs, demolition, hideous and clashing new developments … the docks are gone, as are the jobs, and most of the people.

‘So there she was, at ninety-one, a tiny woman with no teeth who had borne two children but had never seen a naked man; a woman who had been born in London but had never visited the Tower or St Paul’s; a woman who would not talk to her local shopkeeper in case she had to pronounce her name. But a woman whose strong sense of place is hard for me to imagine.’ Not a sad book, but a melancholy one. Melanie McGrath paints a picture of an East End and east London that, for most of us, is gone forever.

Silvertown by Melanie McGrath, published by Fourth Estate, ISBN 1841151432, £6.99 paperback.


An ‘account of the hamlet of Poplar’


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?