Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1994.
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CHAPTER I - Introduction
'A massive gleaming financial centre surrounded by a shanty town' was how a local man described the Isle of Dogs in 1986, commenting on the stark contrast that had emerged between the new large-scale office developments on the former dock estate and the public housing which occupied much of the remainder of the area. (fn. 2) Such a contrast is not new to Poplar, which has attracted a succession of developments notable for their scale and originality: Blackwall Yard in 1614, the Brunswick Dock in 1789–90, and the West India and East India Docks between 1800 and 1806 were all, when they were built, unusual and even unprecedented for their size and ambition. But accompanying these large-scale commercial complexes were modest and mundane developments that were typical of London's East End riverside: shipbuilding yards, metal-working and foodprocessing factories, noxious establishments such as tar and chemical works, and much substandard housing, some of it of a distinctly squalid nature.
The character of the area has been determined not only by such developments, but also by the extent and scale of the topographical changes which it has experienced. Indeed, today the pre-1939 fabric has all but disappeared, and is represented by only a very few dock buildings, churches and public houses, pockets of nineteenth-century housing, and a range of public buildings. The earlier industrial sites, most of them around the riverside, and the nineteenth-century housing have been swept away by a variety of processes – bomb damage during the Second World War, the replacement of poor houses by local authorities, and by economic change and redevelopment following the closure of the docks in the 1970s. In consequence, though the dominant elements in Poplar at the end of the twentieth century are the West India and Millwall dock basins, the rest of the landscape is made up of public housing, chiefly of the 1950s to 1970s, and commercial buildings and private residential schemes erected during the Docklands boom of the 1980s. Although physical traces of the earlier phases of development survive in parts of the area, in others later changes have modified the earlier landscape so much that it is no longer recognizable.
Physically, the area consists of three parts. The northernmost one is a terrace of flood-plain gravel, at no point more than 25ft above sea level, although with sufficient undulations for one section of Poplar High Street to be known as Poplar Hill. To the south of the High Street the land falls sharply away to the Isle of Dogs, a lowlying marshland of alluvial soil, underlaid by clay or mud, in the meander loop of the Thames. This area – also known as the Island – covers more than two-thirds of the parish, but because of the marshy ground and the costs of drainage and flood prevention works it was the last part to be developed. Blackwall, the easternmost part of the parish, is also a low-lying area, much of it forming a peninsula of land between the meanders of the River Lea and the Thames.
The parish's long riverside on the Thames and the Lea was the dominant influence on its economy until the late twentieth century. Nevertheless, the general pattern of development established by the late fifteenth century remained largely unchanged until after 1800, and much of the riverfront was not developed until the period of expansion during the mid-nineteenth century. There was settlement along the line of Poplar High Street on the low ridge of land overlooking the Isle of Dogs and, from the seventeenth century, at Blackwall, which had become an embarkation and disembarkation point for passengers wishing to avoid the river journey around the Island (fig. 1). An earlier settlement in the Isle of Dogs had been abandoned in the mid-fifteenth century. Ship repairing was established at Blackwall before 1500, and the area was chosen by the East India Company for its shipbuilding yard, constructed there between 1614 and 1617. The yard was the largest commercial employer of labour in the London area, and remained the basis of Poplar's economy throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In private hands from the 1650s, it was a major builder of East Indiamen and warships and its fortunes fluctuated with the demand for such vessels. By the late eighteenth century the yard was so prosperous that its owner, John Perry, was able to construct the Brunswick Dock here in 1789–90. Because of its size, its construction attracted widespread interest and admiration. At this time, the district's predominant industries were still maritime, the chief exceptions being copperas manufacture on a site at Blackwall, from the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, a white-lead plant at Limehouse Hole (1717–80), and a potash manufactory in northern Poplar, established in 1778. Such development as there had been by the late eighteenth century, other than in the High Street, had been in the Limehouse Hole area and, more modestly, at Blackwall.
The early nineteenth century saw a major and dramatic change, with the construction between 1800 and 1806 of the West India and East India Docks and the City Canal. The West India Dock Company alone purchased 17 per cent of the area covered by the hamlet of Poplar and Blackwall (from 1817 the parish of All Saints). With the docks came greater economic activity and communications, with an increase in river traffic between the Isle of Dogs and the wharves along the City's riverside as goods were shipped out of the docks, and the construction of road links, principally the Commercial, West India Dock and East India Dock Roads. In addition, the Iron Bridge, opened in 1810, was the first bridge over the lower section of the Lea, providing road communication from Poplar into Essex. Until then the hamlet had been a dead-end as far as land transport was concerned.
Though the presence of the docks stimulated some grandiose, yet abortive, schemes for the Isle of Dogs in the subsequent decades, they produced relatively little actual development. Indeed, the input from the selfcontained dock complexes into the local economy was limited, because the goods brought into the East India Docks were immediately transported into the City, the West India products were not processed in Poplar, and the business community controlling the trade remained in the City. The dock companies made an impact chiefly as a market for tradesmen supplying them and their employees, and as large-scale employers of casual labour, for they employed relatively few permanent staff in the docks. The numbers required fluctuated; in the middle of the nineteenth century the West India and East India Docks employed between 1,300 and 4,000 men, drawn both locally and from other parts of east London, on both sides of the Thames.
The construction of the docks did not produce a rapid expansion of industry, nor a change in its complexion. The industrial and riverside developments continued to creep southwards from Limehouse Hole along Millwall, but southern Millwall and the south-eastern part of the Isle of Dogs, the future Cubitt Town, remained undeveloped until the middle of the century. The additional population was chiefly accommodated in new housing along, and off both sides of, East India Dock Road, and in the area between Poplar High Street and East India Dock Road.
Population growth and industrial expansion continued steadily in the 1820s and 1830s, producing an optimism expressed in the comment, made in 1838, that in these times of Improvement and enterprise Poplar is happy in having so many advantages from its locality and extended River frontage'. (fn. 3) The slow growth of the 1840s was followed by the major boom of the century, in the 1850s and early 1860s. This was part of a wider economic expansion, reflected in Poplar by the development of the shipbuilding industry, further fuelled by orders during the Crimean War of 1854–6 and the American Civil War of 1861–5. These conflicts greatly increased the demand for ships, as did the adoption by the major navies of iron steamships to replace wooden sailing ones. The boom years, which continued after the end of the American Civil War, also saw the construction of the Millwall Docks in 1864–7, although only a part of the proposed scheme was built. The inland sites were not attractive to industry, which was still concentrated around the riverside, and so there was sufficient undeveloped land in the centre of the Isle of Dogs for the new docks 60 years after the first dock boom. During these years of economic growth, new housing was built in the remaining open space in the northern part of the parish, and on the Isle of Dogs, which had hitherto seen little housing development.
In 1866 Overend Gurney & Company, bankers and money dealers, failed. The repercussions were widespread and brought the boom to an abrupt halt, in Poplar as elsewhere. Over-extended credit had left the local economy in a perilously exposed position and the financial crisis had a cumulative and ultimately catastrophic effect. Many of the firms on the riverside collapsed, with shipbuilders, some of whom had borrowed heavily from Overend Gurney & Company, particularly badly affected.
Members of London's fashionable society had turned out in large numbers to witness the opening of Brunswick Dock and the West India and East India Docks, but the area attracted little attention thereafter, apart from the crowds, which attended the attempt in 1857 to launch Brunel's Great Eastern at Millwall. The distress caused by the slump of 1866–7 was so great, however, that widespread interest and sympathy was aroused. The Times reported that the recession in the shipbuilding industry was such that it amounted to almost temporary extinction' and that far too much labour had been brought into the area during the 'bubble period' than could be found employment in normal circumstances. (fn. 4) The plight of the many unemployed was advertised in the newspapers, and local businessmen set up the East End Emigration Committee to arrange free passages to North America for the jobless and their families.
In due course, the local economy revived, although the Thames shipbuilding industry was much reduced in size. The numbers employed in shipbuilding and marine engineering on the Thames had increased from an estimated 6,000 men in 1851 to 27,000 in 1865, but fell to 9,000 by 1871, and to 6,000 by 1891. (fn. 5) Some yards were able to continue in business until the early twentieth century by taking specialized work, and the industry experienced a brief revival during the First World War, but most of the shipbuilding capacity on the Thames was lost to the Clyde, where costs were lower. Another significant loss to the local economy was the closure in 1874 of the glassworks, which had been established in Orchard Place in 1835. There was also a shift away from engineering, as other, lighter, manufacturing trades and the chemical industry, which was already well established, became more prominent. The mid-century boom had drawn much skilled labour into the area, but the industries that were prominent later in the century drew upon unskilled labour, including women and girls. Heavy industry did not completely desert the area, however, and iron-and-steel firms such as Shaws, Westwoods, Brown Lenox and Richard Thomas & Baldwins remained major local employers until the late twentieth century. Wharfingers took over a number of former industrial premises, and wharfage, especially its shabbier and messier branches, became characteristic of the area. The riverside in the late nineteenth century was dominated by shipyards, oil wharves, sack-cleaning works, paint, varnish and chemical works, jam and preserves factories, and a host of miscellaneous enterprises, carried on in a seemingly haphazard jumble of sheds, workshops, warehouses and yards.
The crash of 1866 brought house-building to a sudden halt. Moreover, emigration from the area resulted in large numbers of empty houses, particularly on the Isle of Dogs, where there were almost 800 empty dwellings in 1868, approaching a half of the total. Although an economic revival followed the slump of the late 1860s, the Island was not well placed to benefit from it and there were still 262 vacant houses in 1871. (fn. 6) In such circumstances, building took some time to resume and the developments which were proposed either failed to attract investment or took a long time to get under way. Land prices fell considerably in the aftermath of the crash and some sites did not attract purchasers. House-building in the area was now largely taking place away from the Thames, in Bow and Bromley: in 1863–83, 1,867 notices were received by the District Board of Works relating to the building and drainage of new houses and other property in Poplar, but 9,719 in Bow and Bromley. There was a revival of house-building in the 1880s and 1890s, with a few new developments, but much more in the way of infilling, completing street frontages that were already partially built up. Almost all of the housing erected in the last 20 years of the nineteenth century was on the Isle of Dogs; the earlier developed districts in Poplar and Blackwall had little or no space left for building (fig. 2).
The population of the hamlet rose fourfold between the early seventeenth century and the beginning of the first dock boom, to a figure of 4,493 by 1801. It rose sharply during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, to 7,708 in 1811 and 12,223 in 1821, and continued to grow throughout the remainder of the century, albeit erratically. The most dramatic period of growth came during the boom years of the 1850s and early 1860s, which saw an increase of 53 per cent between 1851 and 1861, from 28,342 to 43,529. The pace of growth then tailed off. The population of Poplar and Blackwall peaked around 1880, while that of the Isle of Dogs continued to rise until the turn of the century. The peak figure for the whole parish was reached in 1901, when there were 58,814 inhabitants. (fn. 7) It was multiplefamily occupation of existing houses which provided much of the accommodation for the extra numbers in the parish in the late nineteenth century.
Despite the modest revival of house-building in the late nineteenth century, the earlier prosperity and optimism had not returned and Poplar was now perceived as one of the poorest districts of the capital. The West India and East India dock companies had been at their most prosperous in the first quarter of the century, but faltered thereafter, following the expiration of the West India Dock Company's monopoly in 1823 and that of the East India Dock Company in 1827. A period of adjustment ensued and the companies merged in 1838. The East and West India Dock Company then enjoyed a prosperous period during the middle decades of the century, but it was not without difficulties. One of the long-standing problems was the effect of the 'free-water clause', which permitted vessels in the docks to unload directly into lighters and thereby avoid paying the dock company's dues. Another was the increasing size of ships, and so the repeated need to rebuild the entrances. The 1870s was a decade of prosperity for the docks, but this was soon reversed. The dock company sought to revive its declining profitability by constructing new docks downriver at Tilbury. These were completed in 1886, but at a cost which far exceeded the estimate, and with little initial success in attracting traffic. The company therefore reduced its charges, breaking the existing cartel and inaugurating a competitive battle among the dock companies on the Thames. (fn. 8)
These problems affected the funding of local government: to help it through this difficult financial period, the dock company negotiated a reduction in its rates, and in 1891 was paying only 58 per cent of its 1839 level. But there was increasing pressure on the rateable income at a time of high unemployment, and the level of rates had to be raised, making Poplar one of the highest-rated parts of London. In 1906–7 the combined rates were 11s 8d in the pound, the highest in the capital, although in a more prosperous area such as Kensington they were only 6s 8d. Throughout the 1890s and 1900s only two or three areas in London charged a higher level of rates than Poplar. (fn. 9) High rates deterred new business, and retailers found it increasingly difficult to continue trading in the area. The failure of Randall's Market, in the north of the parish, to establish itself as a shopping development, and the removal of retailers from Poplar High Street as Chrisp Street developed as a shopping street, were symptomatic of the problems of the local business community.
The dispirited appearance that the High Street presented at the turn of the century epitomized Poplar's identity as one of the poorest and most depressing parts of the capital. In 1887 almost 40 per cent of the population of the parish was classified as living 'below the poverty line', compared with 30 per cent for the capital as a whole. At the same date fewer than 6 per cent of the inhabitants were adjudged to be middle class, the figure for London being almost 18 per cent. (fn. 10) From the seventeenth century, the merchants and shipbuilders with interests in Poplar had favoured Essex as a place to live, and the area was not wealthy enough to attract or retain more than a few members of the professions.
Poplar's reputation as a deprived part of the capital attracted the attention of missionaries, social investigators and members of the literati, whose characterizations created an impression of a district of 'dreary, slummy streets' that were 'narrow, ugly and dirty,' containing 'uniform rows of two storey cottages in grey brick' that were no better than 'miserable hovels'. The general impression was one of 'dreariness and drabness of the heart-breaking kind'. (fn. 11) Even the state of the roads attracted adverse comment. One visitor to the Isle of Dogs was appalled at their condition, which made it difficult to realise that 'Cubitt Town and Millwall are after all integral parts of a Metropolitan borough and are within the area governed by the London County Council'. (fn. 12)
Poplar also attracted attention because of the development of a radical political element, concerned to address the effects of poverty and unemployment. From this background emerged two figures of national importance: Will Crooks (1852–1921) and George Lansbury (1859– 1940). Both served as Mayor of the Borough of Poplar (created in 1900), sat on the LCC, and were Labour MPs, Lansbury being leader of the party between 1931 and 1935.
Crooks also served as Chairman of the Poplar Board of Guardians, reforming the administration of the workhouse, one of the largest in London. Attention was drawn to the Board's poor-relief policies when economic recession produced high numbers of unemployed, as in 1903–6, 1908–9 and the 1920s. It was the levels of assistance paid to those receiving outdoor relief which attracted particular attention. In April 1922, those drawing relief accounted for 18 per cent of the borough's inhabitants. (fn. 13) As one of London's poorest boroughs, Poplar was concerned to alter the existing rate system in the capital. In the absence of a subsidy from outside, a poor borough such as Poplar, with low rateable values, had to levy a high level of rates to obtain the sums required for poor relief. For example, in 1921 a rate of 1d in the pound produced £31,719 in Westminster, but Poplar Borough Council had to levy a rate of 83 4d to obtain that sum. It was alleged that the achievement of rate equalization among the London Boroughs, by which they would pool their resources, was the motive behind the high levels of outdoor relief paid by the Guardians in 1903–6, and it had become their avowed policy by 1921. The Borough Councillors brought matters to a head in 1921, when they chose to levy only the rates for the Borough and Board of Guardians, refusing to meet the precepts from the LCC and Metropolitan Asylums Board. (fn. 14) This led to the imprisonment of 30 Councillors, including Lansbury, for contempt of court, and attracted widespread publicity. From November 1921 the costs of outdoor relief were met through the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, with the poor rate being assessed on the whole County of London, rather than by each Metropolitan Borough individually. (fn. 15)
The term 'Poplarism' was coined in November 1922 by the Glasgow Herald, although the policies to which it referred had been applied in Poplar since the early 1900s. Poplarism was defined as 'the policy of giving out-relief on a generous or extravagant scale, practised by the Board of Guardians of Poplar about 1919 or later; any similar policy which lays a heavy burden on rate-payers'. (fn. 16) In the 1950s this harsh definition was revised to read: 'The policy of giving generous or (as was alleged) extravagant outdoor relief, like that practised by the Board of Guardians of Poplar in 1919 or later'. The word remained current during the 1920s and 1930s as a generic term used disparagingly with reference to local authorities governed by the Labour Party. George Lansbury's riposte was that Poplarism meant 'efficient, cheap public administration'. (fn. 17)
The radicalism of the early decades of the twentieth century was an expression of localism, reflecting an awareness of the needs of the local community, rather than the wider issues within London. (fn. 18) Yet much of Poplar's experience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was similar to that of the other parts of London's East End riverside. Some of the characteristics of the East End that can be identified in Poplar are the relatively high level of poverty, poor housing, lack of infrastructure and shops, and failure to attract commercial and professional middle-class groups.
Like other dock areas, Poplar contained a number of immigrant communities. Those from India and the East Indies reflected its long-standing connections with both regions. According to a former Bishop of Stepney, in 1881 'the Oriental was a familiar figure in the East India Road. A string of lithe and loose-limbed Indians, ready to sell you an inlaid walking stick; or a group of Chinamen in native dress; or a big and coal-black Nubian would meet you ... But now  more of them have come, and they look as though they had settled down and mean to stay'. (fn. 19) Most notably, Pennyfields became the centre of a Chinese community, which gave that small part of the parish a sensational reputation as a sink of gambling and opium dens; an identity that was more imagined than real.
Local concern for conditions within Poplar and attempts to grapple with such problems as bad housing conditions and pollution from the more noxious riverside industries had been a feature of much of the nineteenth century, particularly after the creation of the Poplar District Board of Works in 1855. Despite this, there was little change in the fabric of the area before the First World War. Houses were cleared in the worst slum areas off the High Street, but it proved impossible to attract the philanthropic housing societies to Poplar, and so the 'model housing' built on the cleared sites was erected by private landlords and soon attracted criticism. The local authorities began to erect housing in Poplar before the First World War, but it was only after 1918 that their contribution to the housing stock made a significant impact. They were initially involved in erecting small cottage estates on the Isle of Dogs and flats on the more restricted slum clearance sites. Bombing during the Second World War caused much destruction, chiefly in the raids of 1940 and 1941, and in the bombardment by flying-bombs and rockets in 1944 and 1945. There was much damage to housing, both on the Isle of Dogs and in the north of the parish, and to the riverside industrial sites. The 'empty and derelict shops and houses' in the High Street presented 'a scene of great desolation'. (fn. 20)
The potential for large-scale redevelopment in Poplar in the wake of wartime destruction was identified in the County of London Plan of 1943, which sought to provide a blueprint for the capital's post-war reconstruction. The sites available for new development in the area were much more extensive than hitherto, as ruined and damaged buildings were removed and surviving housing that was judged to be substandard or was in the way of proposed development was demolished. The larger estates that resulted became major elements in the townscape, and by the time that the process came to an end in the mid1980s public housing covered much of the parish.
There had already been a change in the management of the docks, which came under the control of the Port of London Authority on the creation of that body in 1909. The PLA was given responsibility for all of the docks on the Thames, completing the process of amalgamation of the dock companies and removing the scourge of internecine competition. The PLA was able to implement improvements during the 1920s and early 1930s, despite the recession in trade that followed the First World War, and the later depression. The damage inflicted during the Second World War required further reconstruction, although the export dock of the East India Docks, which had been used for the construction of Mulberry floating harbours, was not rebuilt and was filled in. The immediate post-war period was one of expanding trade and optimism, but by the 1960s it was realized that the India and Millwall Docks were obsolescent, with the increasing size of vessels and changes in cargo transportation and handling. The East India Docks were closed in 1967 and the West India and Millwall Docks in 1980.
The problems of the docks were paralleled by a reduction in the number of riverside industrial sites as manufacturing and wharfage declined. With the increasing shift to road carriage, the river frontage was no longer a locational advantage and road connections were inadequate. The wharves were now of value for the space they provided, not for their locations, and the surviving warehouses were used for goods brought in by road and not by river.
These problems were common to much of the Thames riverside in the East End and, to reverse the economic decline of the area below Tower Bridge following the dock closures of the 1960s and 1970s, a major planning initiative was implemented in the early 1980s, with the creation of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). The initiative was also intended to revive an area that was still experiencing a fall in population. This had been a feature of Poplar during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, particularly following the destruction during the Second World War. From the peak figure of 58,814 in 1901, the parish's population fell to only 22,209 in 1961, roughly the same number of inhabitants as in the early 1840s.
After a somewhat tentative beginning, the regeneration of parts of the area designated by the initiative as Docklands quickly produced on the Isle of Dogs one of the biggest building booms in post-war Europe, in both commercial property and housing. It led to rapid rises in property values. Many of the remaining riverside industrial sites and parts of the dock estate were acquired for housing, and the areas designated for commercial building were built up with office developments. The most dramatic manifestation of this, and the one which came to symbolize the process, was the Canary Wharf development erected in 1987–91 on the former West India Docks. The effect was to produce a commercial centre in the Docklands area, which the nineteenth-century boom had failed to do. It also led to an improvement in road and rail communications. As with the boom of the 1860s, the period of rapid building growth came to a sudden halt. Confidence in the business community was checked by the collapse of Stock Market prices in October 1987 and a recession followed in the early 1990s. The Canary Wharf development went into administration, and only a part of the planned scheme has been built so far. In a further echo of the 1860s slump, some buildings were left incomplete as the recession took effect, and property values fell. Nevertheless, the impact on parts of Poplar within the Docklands area, particularly on the Isle of Dogs and at Blackwall, has been spectacular.
Blackwall Yard, Brunswick Dock and the West India and East India Docks were unusual when they were formed, if only because of their sheer scale. This also applied to some of the associated buildings, particularly the 120fthigh mast-house at Brunswick Dock and the half-milelong row of brick warehouses on the north quay of the Import Dock at the West India Docks. From the 1820s and for much of the remainder of the nineteenth century, competition between the dock companies, and the consequent need for economy, generally produced plain buildings in which few attempts at innovation or decoration were made. Nevertheless, there were phases during which relatively new materials and technology were employed at the docks. In the 1810s, John Rennie's resourceful designs, backed by the West India Dock Company's prosperity, made extensive use of cast iron in building construction. Mass-concrete had come into use in the construction of dock and lock walling in the mid-nineteenth century, at first in conjunction with brick, and by the twentieth century on its own. The wide-span Belfasttruss roofs employed for sheds in the West India Docks in the 1890s were a notable use of that type of construction, and the first phase of the PLA's redevelopments, in 1910–17, employed reinforced-concrete on a large scale. Hydraulic power came early to Poplar Dock and the West India Docks, and Duckham's grain-handling machinery employed from the 1870s onwards at the Millwall Docks was similarly innovative. The impact of mechanized handling after the Second World War led to the erection of numerous single-storey wide-span tubularsteel-frame sheds in the period 1957–70.
The most imposing buildings on the riverside, as at the docks, were the warehouses. They were of a plain and conservative design that was largely imposed by their function, but some of them achieved a certain austere grandeur. Many of the factory buildings and workshops were functional and generally mundane, although some were embellished with a rather stylish chimney. But there was originality in such engineering works as the river wall at Brunswick Wharf, where iron sheeting was used.
Conscious attempts at grandeur were rare, although the gateway to the East India Docks had some distinction, and a substantial and imposing station was erected by the Blackwall Railway Company at Brunswick Wharf. Commercial buildings brought a little pretension to the area. This was most apparent in the Classically inspired public houses, but was also to be seen in the dignified building erected for the London and County Bank in East India Dock Road in 1885.
The public buildings generally showed more ambition as regards style than did the commercial ones. This was not true of the rather severe town hall and workhouse building erected in the High Street in 1817, however, and the later workhouse buildings to the rear were even more austere. But the offices of the Poplar Board of Works in the High Street and the town hall in Newby Place, both built around 1870, showed up-to-date designs and colourful, even exuberant, facades. They introduced a degree of style to a drab area, as did Price Pritchard Baly's Italianate public baths of 1852 in East India Dock Road. Lesser, but equally attractive, buildings were designed in the currently fashionable styles that could be seen all over London. They included the fire station in Westferry Road in the Queen Anne style then favoured by the Fire Brigade Section of the LCC Architect's Department (1905), the Edwardian free-Classical-style library in Strattondale Street (1905), and the Coroner's Court in the High Street (1911) which, uniquely for this type of building in London, is in the Arts and Crafts manner. In contrast, the Poor Law Guardians' preferred architecture remained conservative. Their office building in Upper North Street of 1894 was a late manifestation of Barry's Pall Mall Club manner. More advanced was the replacement for the baths building, erected on the same site in the early 1930s, which was in marked contrast to its predecessor. But the authoritarian and forbidding Modern Movement style of the exterior, which caused something of a shock locally, does not prepare the visitor for the light and airy bath hall, spanned by a series of parabolic arches.
The timber-framed houses at No. 151 Poplar High Street and the so-called Raleigh's House at Blackwall are the only recorded examples of early domestic building in Poplar. It is impossible to know how representative these were, although there were substantial houses in the High Street in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it may be assumed that, as in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such buildings stood cheek by jowl with small single-storey cottages. The bigger brick houses of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the High Street would not have been out of place in parts of the West End, but the cottages – some of which retained weatherboard fronting into the twentieth century – were not at all metropolitan in appearance. The juxtaposition of large and small buildings still applied in the 1880s, when it was pointed out that there were 'scarcely six consecutive houses alike'. (fn. 21)
Away from the High Street, much housing was in terraces, with few attempts at villa developments, except the largely abortive one on the Greenwich Hospital Estate in Cubitt Town, and another on the Conant Estate in Stainsby Road, just off East India Dock Road, at the west end of the parish. Perhaps the best of the nineteenthcentury house-building was along East India Dock Road itself, but even there it was of a mixed character, with the larger houses, of four storeys over a semi-basement, intermingled with smaller, less ambitious ones. Other pockets of 'respectable' housing were built around All Saints' church in the 1820s and in Woodstock Terrace in the 1850s. Generally, the styles of even the more fashionable houses in Poplar were distinctly old-fashioned in metropolitan terms. Throughout the century there were schemes for better houses, but there was insufficient capital or demand for them to be implemented and they either failed to get going or they stumbled to a premature halt with much land undeveloped.
The smaller houses had no pretension to architectural style, and few of the terraces could be described as imposing, although there were three-storey houses even in the side streets. The houses away from the main streets were mostly plain flat-fronted structures without decorative features; many lacked even a space in front. Bay windows were generally not employed before the mid-nineteenth century. Terraces did not produce uniformity, for there was little, in some cases no, attempt to control appearance, and the construction was commonly undertaken by several builders, each erecting only a few houses, in many cases no more than three or four.
Lack of control by landlords and of statutory regulation before the Building Act of 1844, together with short leases, produced some very bad housing, mostly during the boom in the early nineteenth century. Slums were created both in small courts to the rear of existing buildings and in new developments, where courts of back-to-back cottages were built at the same time as the houses fronting the streets. A small but densely packed area of the latter kind, close to the East India Docks, earned a reputation as one of the worst slums in London and attracted the attention of Richard Cross, the reforming Home Secretary, in 1875.
Contrasting with the slum housing were a number of small developments of cottages erected by the dock companies, chiefly so that manpower was on hand if there was a fire, rather than as an attempt to provide improved living conditions for their labour force.
Few builders from outside the East End were tempted into Poplar. The chief exception was William Cubitt, the developer of the south-east section of the Isle of Dogs, where he established a riverside works. His company embanked the riverfront, constructed the roads and built Christ Church, but erected relatively few houses, acting chiefly as a contractor supplying materials to smaller builders.
Nor were fashionable architects attracted into the area, except for those commissioned to design churches and chapels. Even the principal public buildings were by local architects until the twentieth century, when local authorities began to use their own departments to design such buildings, as well as their housing developments. Even so, well-known architects in private practice were employed in the design of the LCC's Landsbury Estate and, on a much larger scale, on the modern developments during the Docklands period of the 1980s and early 1990s.
The public housing of the 1890s and early 1900s largely comprised LCC blocks. Further council housing was not erected until the 1920s, when Poplar Borough Council built a series of cottage estates on the Isle of Dogs. Elsewhere, and also on the Island in the 1930s, most blocks of flats were in a simplified neo-Georgian style, although during the 1930s the Borough Council's blocks became increasingly Modern in appearance, though still built of brick. After the Second World War the tendency of both councils was to build mixed developments of terraced houses and low-rise blocks of flats and maisonettes, still usually faced in brick. This is epitomized by the first part of the Lansbury Estate, which formed the Live Architecture Exhibition of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The 11-storey point blocks of the late 1950s, on the later phases of Lansbury, were the precursors of several concrete-framed, and sometimes concrete-faced, tall blocks of flats built in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the 25-storey Kelson House on the Samuda Estate. Nevertheless, tall blocks form a relatively small proportion of the vast stock of local authority buildings in the area. The 1970s and 1980s saw a return to low-rise, domestic-scale housing, usually with pitched roofs and brick-faced walls. Generally much more loosely planned, and often with scant respect for the existing street line, as they have proliferated, council estates have tended to destroy the tightly knit pattern of the old terraced houses which they replaced.
The Isle of Dogs is now dominated by the towering commercial blocks of modern Docklands, of which Canary Wharf is only the most prominent and best-known. These blocks, with their smooth marble-clad and tinted-glass curtain walling, lent credence to the Island's claim to be 'Wall Street on water'. They are interspersed with the high-tech 'shiny sheds' and courtyard-style business units which were the modest beginnings of the Docklands regeneration.
Private housing in Docklands has generally been more conventional in both appearance and construction than the commercial buildings, usually with brick-faced walls and pitched or hipped roofs, the most notable exception being Cascades, a tall, streamlined apartment block built using the latest fast-track methods. 'Nautical' details are provided by brightly painted railings and the odd 'porthole' window. As elsewhere on the Thames, there has also been an attempt in some developments to re-create the appearance of traditional waterside warehouses, while a number of schemes have Georgian or Classical tendencies.
The churches of Poplar were overwhelmingly nineteenthcentury in origin. The exceptions were the medieval chapel in the Isle of Dogs, of which virtually nothing is known, and Poplar Chapel, later St. Matthias's, of 1652 4. The latter is one of the most interesting churches in London and indeed is the capital's only survivor from the Interregnum. Its position in the list of Classical buildings erected under the shadow of Inigo Jones gives it a place in the architectural development of London churches that culminates in Wren's inventions. It is also a reminder that seventeenth-century Poplar was in some degree part of the greater metropolis. Thereafter, however, Poplar's church-building virtually ceased until the end of the eighteenth century.
The first buildings then were for non-Anglican use: four Baptist or Independent chapels in the High Street (1795–1800), Cotton Street (1810–11), Bow Lane (1813) and Westferry Road (1817), (fn. 22) and the Roman Catholic chapel associated with the school in Wade Street (1818).
Poplar's first parish church, All Saints', of 1821–3, is set in a spacious churchyard between the two main streets of early nineteenth-century Poplar. Easily the most expensive of Poplar's pre-modern churches, its construction was funded by the parish's own church rate, to which the prospering West India and East India dock companies were by far the largest contributors. This permitted the little-known architect Charles Hollis to produce a 'Grecian' church with an ampler air to it than its cheaper contemporary, St Paul's, Shadwell. The Wrennish-Gibbsian silhouette of the spire and the gleaming ashlar give it a feeling of a more central part of London.
The ecclesiastical parish of All Saints was subdivided during the second half of the nineteenth century. Christ Church, Manchester Road, was consecrated in 1857 and given the status of a district chapelry in 1860. Further district chapelries were created on the Isle of Dogs for St Luke's, Millwall, and St John's, Cubitt Town, in 1870 and 1873 respectively. Poplar Chapel was dedicated as the church of St Matthias in 1867, St Stephen's, East India Dock Road, was established as a district chapelry in the same year, and in 1875 the church of St Saviour, Northumbria Street, was given a similar status. (fn. 23)
This subdivision helped to stimulate a period of almost 50 years, beginning in 1840, during which 23 or more churches of various denominations were erected. The years 1865–75 were particularly active, producing four new Anglican churches as well as the recasing of St Matthias's, three nonconformist chapels (one a rebuilding), and a new Roman Catholic church. Additionally, throughout the mid-Victorian years the nonconformists were extending a number of their existing buildings. The years 1894–1900 saw the building of three Anglican 'mission' churches, and a nonconformist chapel was rebuilt in 1904–5. In 1904 there were 33 places of worship, of all denominations (some, however, of little significance as church-buildings). Thereafter, nothing of consequence was built until after 1945.
Bomb damage during the Second World War and population decline within the area led to a reversal of the earlier process of the subdivision of parishes. The Diocesan Reorganisation Scheme of 1952 produced two unions of parishes. Firstly, St Stephen's, East India Dock Road, was united with St Saviour's and with St Gabriel's, Chrisp Street, and, secondly, All Saints' was merged with St Frideswide's, Lodore Street, and All Hallows, East India Dock Road, both of which lay outside the boundary of the parish created in 1817. These two parishes were merged in 1971 to form the parish of Poplar and in 1977 the parish of St Matthias was added to it. In 1956 Christ Church, St Luke's and St John's were merged into a single parish.
During the Second World War at least 16 churches were damaged, ten of them severely. Among the subsequent rebuildings were two conspicuous churches from the Festival of Britain period – SS Mary and Joseph for the Roman Catholic church and Trinity church for the Congregationalists (now the Methodist Mission). In contrast, there was also the inconspicuous conversion of the parish hall of the bombed St Luke's into a small Anglican church. These three survive, together with St Matthias's and All Saints'. But of some 23 Victorian church-buildings in Poplar only five remain – Christ Church and St Saviour's of the Church of England, St Edmund's (Roman Catholic), the Wesleyan Methodist church in Malabar Street, and St Paul's Presbyterian Church, Westferry Road (which has passed out of church use).
Poplar had none of the 'Commissioners' churches', erected under the Church Building Act of 1818, or of the churches erected by Bishop Blomfield's Metropolis Churches Fund set up in 1836. The impulses and resources behind Poplar's Anglican churches were various. Some or most of the funds for All Hallows and St Peter's, Garford Street, (1882–4) were provided by the sale of the City churches of All Hallows, Bread Street, and St Martin Outwich. This involved the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (and their architect, Ewan Christian, who designed the churches). The Church Building Society established under Bishop Blomfield in 1854 had played some part at St Stephen's and, later, the Bishop of London's Fund was involved at St Peter's. At St Saviour's the Incorporated Church-Building Society made a grant towards the intended church in 1868. Otherwise the centralized bodies for the raising and distribution of funds were less predominant in poverty-haunted Poplar than might have been expected. The first daughterchurch of All Saints', Christ Church, Manchester Road, which was built in 1852–4 by William Cubitt, is the only Poplar church approximating to an 'estate church', that is one brought into existence by the developer as much to maintain the standing of his estate as to save or edify its inhabitants.
Many of Poplar's churches began as mission churches. The 'mission church' was a response to what was felt to be deprivation in Poplar's life, and the same current of concern is apparent in the fact that so many of the churches were set up in conjunction with or in the train of an adjacent school. At St John's, where, as at St Saviour's, the school came first, its siting perhaps compelled the church to adopt a liturgically improper orientation, and at All Hallows its proposed location rather spoilt the church plan. The importance of the school was very apparent in the Roman Catholic churches. SS Mary and Joseph traces its origin to the chapel that arose about 1819 out of the school in Wade Street, and the second chapel to be founded, St Edward's in Moiety Road in 1846, was actually designed to double as church and school. Among the nonconformists this doubling-up was common, generally in a two-storeyed arrangement, with the church above and the school below. This scheme was followed at the United Methodist Free Church (1854–5 and later), the Baptist chapel in Manor Street (1858) and the Primitive Methodist chapel in Manchester Road (1862 and again in 1904–5). The same utilitarian plan to accommodate a 'secular' need was adopted at the lateVictorian Anglican mission churches of St Alban's (1885) and St Cuthbert's (1897), where the two storeys provided for club-rooms above or below the church. Some Victorian churches had their ancillary buildings placed around them, if space was available. In recent years this arrangement has been sustained, notably in the planning of the post-war Trinity (Congregational) Church. At All Saints', Christ Church, and St Saviours, community facilities have been provided by the reconstruction of crypts or partitioning of parts of the church.
Excluding St Matthias's, the Poplar churches were not architecturally notable. The most striking pre-war churches were Charles Hollis's parish church of All Saints (1821–3) and William Hosking's Trinity Congregational Church (1840–1), representing an 'established' and an 'independent-minded' view of the Grecian style. All the nineteenth-century Anglican churches after All Saints', and all the Roman Catholic churches, were Gothic. Most of the Anglican churches were in an Early English or at least 'early' form, conveniently so for limited resources, although during the century the Gothic style progressed to Perpendicular at St Alban's (1885) and Tudor at St Cuthbert's (1897). Among the Victorian Gothic churches, Arthur Blomfield's St John's (1871–2), gave some sense of scale, enhanced by dramatic lighting. Christ Church's setting, its unrestricted, cruciform plan, and its spire make it the most suburban-looking of Poplar's churches. The spires of Christ Church and All Saints' are landmarks, as was that at St Luke's, but, apart from modest towers at All Hallows and the Roman Catholic SS Mary and Joseph, Poplar's other churches boasted only a fleche or (as at St John's) a simple bellcote. Whatever is thought of its 'style', the post-war SS Mary and Joseph has a more powerful presence than Poplar's previous churches.
The early nineteenth-century nonconformist chapels at Cotton Street and Westferry Road survived until recent times: both presented to the street a central doorway flanked by round-headed windows under a pediment – the common, simple formula that still served at the Primitive Methodist chapel in Manchester Road of about 1862. The later nonconformist churches were miscellaneous in style: Gothic at the Wesleyan Methodist church in East India Dock Road of 1847–8, round-headed Italianate at the United Methodist Free church of 1854–5, minimalist 'Gothic' at the Baptist chapel in Manor Street (1858), startlingly 'Lombardic' (and polychromatic) at St Paul's Presbyterian church (1859–60), aldermanic Classical at the United Methodist Free Church's rebuilding (1866–8), and, much later, Gothic again for the Primitive Methodists in Manchester Road (1904–5). The post-war Trinity Church in East India Dock Road, for all its unfashionable moderate Modernism, is, like its predecessor, a thoughtfully designed building.
The adoption of 'High Church' practices in Poplar's Anglican churches from the late 1880s onwards chiefly affected the fabric by the addition of furnishings, although some stained glass was introduced and walls painted or stencilled. Added chapels were mainly a matter of an altar. Sometimes a chancel screen or a rood was added, but the most telling change was the late-Victorian raising of the chancel, sanctuary and High Altar to a more elevated level, as at St John's, St Saviour's, All Hallows and All Saints'.
The Isle of Dogs was most accessible by river, yet this form of transport has always had its problems. It was dangerous, peculiarly at the mercy of the weather, especially wind and fog, and was relatively slow. Nevertheless, there was evidently a considerable amount of river traffic in people, animals, and goods to and from the Isle of Dogs, both up- and downstream and crossriver. However, its history is confused and almost impossible to unravel, particularly as many of the services were ad hoc and often took the form of small rowing boats plying on request.
There was much cross-river traffic, especially between the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich. The most long-standing crossing seems to have been at Potter's Ferry, which was apparently in existence by at least 1450. (fn. 24) A ferry is mentioned at Blackwall in 1568, (fn. 25) but this may have merely conveyed passengers to and from ships moored in the river there.
Potter's Ferry intermittently also carried animals and vehicles but had ceased to do so by the late eighteenth century. (fn. 26) In the early nineteenth century, therefore, a separate animal and vehicular ferry to Greenwich was started by the Poplar and Greenwich Ferry Roads Company, operating from the same landing place as Potter's Ferry. (fn. 27) However, this vehicular service ceased in 1844, (fn. 28) and in 1888 the introduction of the Greenwich Vehicular Ferry, also running from Potter's Ferry, soon proved unsuccessful and closed in 1902.
Other ferries which were probably in existence well before the nineteenth century were those between Limehouse Hole and Rotherhithe and between Millwall and Deptford. These were joined in the second half of the nineteenth century by steamboat ferries to Greenwich from Cubitt Town Pier and Brunswick Wharf. (fn. 29) The opening in 1872 of the Millwall Extension Railway to North Greenwich led the London and Blackwall Railway Company to acquire the rights to Potter's Ferry and a new pier was built adjacent to the rail terminus in 1877, the steamboat-ferries being operated on behalf of the railway company. (fn. 30) The opening of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel by the LCC in 1902 provided pedestrians with a free and all-weather means of crossing between the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich and swiftly led to the closure of all the Greenwich ferries.
Arrangements for river travel up- and downstream were more informal and until the nineteenth century largely relied on the Thames Watermen, who plied for hire, rather like water-taxis, at the various stairs along the river. The oldest river stairs on the Isle of Dogs seem to have been at Limehouse Hole and Blackwall. In addition, early nineteenth-century maps show, on the west side of the Island, Millwall, Chalkstone, Willow Bridge and King's Arms Stairs. (fn. 31)
During the nineteenth century the watermen found their trade increasingly taken by steamboats and by about 1830 there was a considerable steamboat traffic on the Thames within London and downstream to Gravesend, Margate and Ramsgate. (fn. 32) By 1835 almost 3.5 million passengers a year were said to be travelling by riverboat between the City and Blackwall, although half of them were ultimately bound for destinations further downstream. (fn. 33) Regular steamboats to Gravesend ceased in the 1850s because of competition from the railways, and in 1876 the existing steamboat firms on the Thames merged to form the London Steamboat Company Limited, running a half-hourly service between Chelsea, Greenwich and Woolwich, but this petered out in the 1880s. (fn. 34) Despite this failure, the idea of a frequent regular service between London's many river piers remained appealing. In 1905, as a complement to its tramway network, the LCC started such a service, employing its own specially built steamers, plying between Chiswick and Greenwich, with calls at Limehouse and West India Dock Piers. The service, which was unprofitable, became a major political issue on the Council, and the Municipal Reformers' election victory in 1907 was followed by its closure. Further 'water-bus' or 'river-bus' services were briefly introduced in 1931–2 by a private company and in 1940, at the behest of the government, by the London Passenger Transport Board. A privately operated river-bus service was revived for the summer seasons from 1948. Although a fillip was provided by the Festival of Britain – with its riverside sites at the South Bank, Battersea Gardens and the Live Architecture Exhibition at Lansbury (for which West India Dock Pier was rebuilt) – the service disappeared soon afterwards.
One of the drawbacks of travel up- and downstream was the circuitous journey around the Isle of Dogs, and from at least the fifteenth century travellers wishing to avoid the delays which that involved embarked and disembarked at Blackwall Stairs, travelling to and from the City via Blackwall Causeway (roughly the line of the later Brunswick Way) and Poplar High Street. Northwards from the High Street, North (now Saltwell) Street led to Bow Common, and Bow Lane and Robin Hood Lane merged to form a single road that went to Bromley. Southwards, a series of ways or lanes (including what were to become Dingle, Dolphin and Harrow Lanes, as well as Preston's Road and Blackwall Way) gave access to the Isle of Dogs. A pathway ran along the top of the Marsh Wall right round the Island's riverside. The existence of a ferry to Greenwich by at least 1450 and the road or track known as Harrow Lane or King's Lane, which followed a winding route from Poplar High Street to the ferry, suggests that this was part of an important connection between Deptford and Greenwich on the south side of the river and Poplar and the villages east of the City on the north side.
The physical constraints imposed by the rivers Thames and Lea hindered the construction of any other major east-west or north-south roads until the early nineteenth century. Then, however, the construction of the docks and the prospects of otherwise developing the area led to the creation of a series of new toll roads built by trusts or private companies which were to form the basis of Poplar's main roads until the advent of modern Docklands. The authorization of the Commercial Road from Whitechapel to the West India Docks in 1802 resulted in the construction of West India and East India Dock Roads. The latter was initially intended to go only to the East India Docks, but it was later extended and a bridge was built over the River Lea. By 1825 the City to Blackwall route was the third busiest City-route for shortstage coaches, with 29 coaches making 72 return journeys a day. Steamboat passengers preferred to embark or disembark at Brunswick Wharf, Blackwall, and travel to or from the City via horse-drawn omnibuses, which in 1835 were said to have carried 1,399,097 passengers on this route. In addition, the West India Dock Company operated coaches carrying passengers and samples of goods. (fn. 35) A horse-tramway from Aldgate to Poplar (Brunswick Road) opened in 1872 along East India Dock Road; it was electrified by the LCC in 1906. The East India Dock Road became Poplar's most important, and often most congested, road.
The Poplar and Greenwich Ferry Roads Company built Westferry and East Ferry Roads on the Isle of Dogs in 1812–15. These gave access to the Greenwich ferries. Both roads, however, had to pass over various entrances to the docks, necessitating moveable bridges which often caused considerable delays to traffic. The construction in the 1840s of Manchester Road, as part of the development of Cubitt Town, completed a perimeter road round the Island, allowing development of both riverside and hinterland sites.
The construction of the Blackwall Tunnel by the LCC in 1892–7 gave Poplar its first road-crossing of the Thames. The importance of East India Dock Road, which was thus linked to Woolwich Road south of the river, was greatly increased, as was its congestion. The tunnel itself has remained one of London's most notorious bottlenecks for traffic, even after the opening of a second tunnel in 1967.
The development of modern Docklands has had a radical effect on Poplar's transport system, not least its roads. Marsh Wall, the so-called 'red brick road', was opened in 1983 to provide a new cross-route for the Isle of Dogs and allow development of the newly designated Enterprise Zone, which centred on the former docks area. Stretches of Westferry Road and Preston's Road were widened in the late 1980s to improve access to the Island. Most ambitiously and expensively, the Limehouse, East India and Poplar Links were completed in 1993 and form the Poplar section of the 'Docklands Highway', which provides a more direct and improved route from Wapping to the Royal Docks via the new Lower Lea Crossing. Not only does the road provide much better access to the Isle of Dogs, but it is also a southern relief route to the East India Dock Road. The development of modern Docklands has led to a vast improvement in bus services on the Isle of Dogs. In 1980 there were only two routes on the Island, whereas by 1991 eight routes ran via Westferry Circus at the west end of Canary Wharf. The Docklands period has also seen the completion of a new light railway system, linking Poplar and the Isle of Dogs to the City.
Although the railways came early to Poplar, the dock companies were at first unenthusiastic about them, preferring to wait until the docks could be linked to a nationally developed network (fig. 3). (fn. 36) Poplar's first railway was largely intended to carry passengers, and yet passenger traffic soon dwindled in importance and did little to stimulate development in the area. Gradually the dock owners allowed the railways on their land and railway companies built their own docks, so that goods lines dominated the district, and the great swathe of railway sidings between the West India Docks and Poplar High Street reinforced the isolation of the Isle of Dogs.
Between 1825 and 1831 there were at least six proposals for a railway between the City and both the East India and West India Docks, although none of them materialized. (fn. 37) Then in 1836 Parliament approved one of the two schemes before it for a railway between the City and Blackwall. The line was opened in 1840, as the London and Blackwall Railway. It had been hoped that the dock proprietors might use the railway for transporting goods, and they initially showed interest, but in the event they refused to pay for rail connections into the docks. In its early years the line's traffic consisted almost exclusively of passengers using the steamboats which called at Brunswick Wharf, Blackwall.
The line was just over 3½ miles long and ran to Brunswick Wharf, at first from the Minories (just outside the City boundary) and from 1841 from Fenchurch Street. The intermediate stations included West India Docks and Poplar. Despite the involvement of Robert Stephenson, the London and Blackwall Railway initially had two serious drawbacks. The first was a rail gauge of 5ft, which was 3½in. broader than the standard one, which meant that the line could not be connected with other lines, nor could trains be run on other companies' lines. The second was the use of a cumbersome and inefficient system of cable-haulage, instead of locomotives, to operate trains.
In 1843 the railway company attempted to capture more of the river trade by purchasing three steamboats, and it started an hourly through-fare service from Fenchurch Street, via Brunswick Wharf to Woolwich and Gravesend. The size of this market can be gauged from the fact that in June 1844, of the 331,644 passengers who landed and embarked at Gravesend, over 200,000 were travelling to and from Blackwall.
In 1849 the London and Blackwall Railway adopted standard-gauge track and replaced cable-haulage with locomotives. This was prompted by the decision to build the Blackwall Extension Railway, leaving the London and Blackwall Railway at Stepney and intended to run through to Epping by joining the Eastern Counties Railway (later the Great Eastern Railway) near Bow.
The Eastern Counties Railway, which opposed the new line, was closely involved in and soon acquired the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway, which opened for freight from Stratford to Canning Town in 1846, and was extended to North Woolwich in 1847. Although the main line did not run through Poplar, a half-mile-long freight branch was opened in 1848. This crossed Bow Creek and ran to the Pepper Warehouses (just to the east of the East India Docks), which the Eastern Counties turned into a goods depot.
Meanwhile, in 1845 plans had been put forward for a railway to join the West India Docks to the London and Birmingham Railway at Chalk Farm, and this gained the support of the London and Birmingham Railway and the East and West India Dock Company (which had the right to appoint three of the directors of the newly formed railway company). The line was built by the East and West India Docks and Birmingham Junction Railway, quickly renamed the North London Railway, and soon to become a virtual subsidiary of the London and North Western Railway. It opened in 1851 and terminated at the new Poplar Dock, with a siding laid into the West India Docks.
In 1853 the North London line was connected westwards to the London and South Western Railway at Brentford. This gave the docks rail connections with all the main lines running north and west from London. The London and North Western Railway already had use of Poplar Dock and the Great Northern Railway was now given access to it as well. Until 1866 the North London southwards from Bow Junction was used exclusively for goods traffic which ran over the London and Blackwall to the latter's stations at Poplar and Blackwall. In the same year Harrow Lane sidings were laid out by the North London for exchange with the Blackwall Railway and the dock lines. Also in 1866, passenger services were introduced, running from Broad Street to a new North London station at Poplar (south of East India Dock Road), and were extended to Blackwall (London and Blackwall) in 1870.
Competition from the North London Railway caused the Eastern Counties Railway to look more kindly on the London and Blackwall, whose steamer services had been dealt a serious blow in 1849 when the South Eastern Railway opened its line to Gravesend. In an attempt to recapture the excursion trade, the Eastern Counties and the London and Blackwall combined to build the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway, opened as far as Tilbury in 1854, where there was a ferry connection with Gravesend. Although this line did not pass close to Poplar, it further hit the steamer trade from Brunswick Wharf and relegated the London and Blackwall to something of a backwater, certainly in respect of passenger services. However, a freight branch serving the East India Docks from the west, off the London and Blackwall main line, was opened in 1859, with a goods depot built and operated by the Great Northern Railway. In 1862 the Eastern Counties was absorbed into the Great Eastern Railway and in 1866 the latter acquired the London and Blackwall.
Poplar Dock was extended in 1875–7 to accommodate the Great Western Railway, which joined the London and North Western, the Great Northern, and the North London there, each company having its own goods depot. The Midland Railway decided to build its own dock at Blackwall Yard, which was completed in 1882 and also named, confusingly, Poplar Dock. Approached via a new freight branch from Poplar Junction, it was initially a collier dock, but became a more general one. A few years later the Midland opened a new coal yard at the West India Docks.
The physical difficulties of passing over the West India Docks, and the dock company's dogged determination to guard its land and interests, long delayed rail connections to the Isle of Dogs. However, when the Millwall Docks were built in the 1860s they were designed to be served by rail, and the owners promoted the Millwall Extension Railway, in conjunction with the London and Blackwall Railway and the Great Eastern Railway. The dock company only withdrew its opposition when it was allowed to build, own and control that part of the line which passed over its property, to the east of the docks. Moreover, because it prohibited steam locomotives on that section, horses were used to haul trains as far as the southern boundary of the West India Docks until 1880, when locomotives were permitted to operate over the whole length. The Millwall Extension Railway, which left the London and Blackwall at Millwall Junction, opened to the Millwall Docks in December 1871 and to the terminus at North Greenwich in July 1872.
Freight traffic was almost exclusively to and from the Millwall Docks, and only a few firms on the Isle of Dogs installed their own sidings, most preferring to continue to rely on the river to convey materials and products. Some attempt was made to encourage passenger traffic on the line. The acquisition of the Greenwich ferry and the construction of a new pier enabled passengers to purchase combined rail and ferry tickets to Greenwich, which the Great Eastern then dubbed, somewhat nonsensically, South Greenwich. The combination of ferry and railway enabled the Millwall Dock Company to draw much of its workforce from south of the river, and by about 1900 cross-river traffic between Greenwich and North Greenwich amounted to 1.3 million passengers a year. Passenger traffic on the Millwall Extension Railway had been stimulated in 1885 when Millwall [Rovers] Football Club was formed, and on match days the line carried large numbers of supporters. However, in 1902 the Greenwich ferry was withdrawn when the foot tunnel opened, and in 1910 the football club moved to New Cross, south of the river.
By then the London and Blackwall and the North London had also seen a dramatic diminution in their passenger trade. The expansion of other railways north and south of the Thames, together with the opening of new dock systems downstream from Poplar, led to a drastic decline of river traffic from Brunswick Wharf during the second half of the nineteenth century. From 1883 Sunday services on the London and Blackwall were reduced, and from 1890 passenger trains on the North London ceased to run to Blackwall and terminated instead at Poplar Station. The general introduction of telephones in offices during the 1890s and early 1900s dealt another blow to the London and Blackwall, which was much used by messengers operating between the City shipping offices and ships at the docks. Then both the London and Blackwall and the North London Railway suffered from competition from the electric trams, particularly when they began to run from Aldgate to Poplar in December 1906, forcing the former to reduce its services.
During the First World War passenger services on the London and Blackwall and the Millwall Extension Railway were again reduced, and after the war there was increasing competition from motor-buses. Passenger services on the two lines ceased in 1926 and the Millwall Extension was completely abandoned between Glengall Road and North Greenwich. In the later 1920s the PLA constructed a new entrance to the South Dock of the West India Docks from Blackwall Reach, severing the remaining central part of the Millwall line. In order to maintain a rail connection with the Millwall Docks, a diversion line around their west side was built by the PLA and opened in January 1929. Poplar lost its sole remaining passenger rail-link when the passenger service on the North London line between Dalston Junction and Poplar was withdrawn in May 1944.
After the Second World War shipment of goods to and from the docks was increasingly by road, so that by 1960 only 14 per cent of exports were arriving by rail, compared with 41 per cent in 1937. (fn. 38) Most of the goods lines and depots in Poplar, Blackwall and the Isle of Dogs were abandoned during the 1960s, and railway operations by the PLA in the Millwall and West India Docks ceased in 1970. However, goods traffic to Poplar Dock (the former North London Railway dock) continued until 1981.
Thus, by the time that the LDDC came into being railway activity had virtually ceased in Poplar and the Isle of Dogs. The isolation of the area and its inaccessibility from central London, made worse by the fact that the Underground system never reached there, was a serious hindrance to the redevelopment prospects of the docks. Plans to extend the Jubilee underground line were shelved by the government in 1980 because of the cost, and London Transport, in association with the LDDC and the Greater London Council, decided to go ahead with a light railway, which could be built relatively cheaply and quickly. The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) opened in 1987, with routes from Tower Hill ('Tower Gateway'), on the edge of the City, and Stratford to the east converging just north of West India Quay station, and then running through the heart of the Isle of Dogs Enterprise Zone to the southern terminus at Island Gardens (see plan C). Approximately two-thirds of the DLR was built on disused or under-used railway lines. East of Limehouse station it is carried on a former London and Blackwall Railway viaduct, and at the south end of the Isle of Dogs on a viaduct built for the Millwall Extension Railway. The Poplar–Stratford line follows much of the route of the North London Railway. An extension of the DLR to Bank station, in the heart of the City, opened in 1991, and an extension eastwards to Beckton in 1994.
The development of Canary Wharf led to a revival of plans to extend the Jubilee line, and work on a ten-mile extension, from Green Park, via Waterloo and London Bridge to Canary Wharf and Stratford, began in late 1993. When it is completed, the Isle of Dogs will have better rail communications with central London than ever before.
The parish of All Saints, Poplar, was created in 1817 by an Act of Parliament. (fn. 39) It succeeded the hamlet of Poplar and Blackwall, one of the constituent hamlets of the parish of St Dunstan's, Stepney, taking over its boundaries unchanged. The hamlet contained 1,158 acres, comprising Poplar, Blackwall, and the Isle of Dogs.
Poplar and Blackwall was administered in the same way as the other hamlets which made up the very extensive parish of St Dunstan's. It contributed a proportion of the parish's vestrymen and officers, and a share of the rates. It also had its own administrative structure, which consisted of a churchwarden, two overseers, a constable and a number of other officers, all of whom were chosen at the Meetings of the Inhabitants, a body of ratepayers which had the power to levy a separate rate for disbursement within the hamlet. (fn. 40)
The size of St Dunstan's vestry fluctuated, as some hamlets separated from it to form independent parishes and new ones were created in response to population growth (fig. 4). (fn. 1) Poplar and Blackwall was considered as a potential parish on several occasions between 1650, when separation from St Dunstan's was recommended in a report produced by Parliament's surveyors of church lands, (fn. 41) and the creation of St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, in 1743, which marked the end of the process of parish creation in London until Poplar achieved independence in 1817. The closest that the hamlet came to achieving separation followed the establishment of the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches in 1711, and by a scheme devised by the Commissioners in 1727. (fn. 42) With the completion of Poplar Chapel in 1654, the hamlet had a building which could readily be adapted as a parish church. On the other hand, it was a relatively poor hamlet, and it had a comparatively small population of only 2,250 in the early eighteenth century, (fn. 43) well below the notional figure of 4,750 for each new parish upon which the scheme for the Act of 1711, which established the Commission, was based. (fn. 44)
A further problem was the uncertainty over the right of presentation of the minister, for although the East India Company had come to act as patron, on the basis of its contribution to the minister's stipend, the legality of its claim was uncertain and led to disputes with the inhabitants when they were presumptuous enough to attempt to nominate their own candidate. (fn. 45) This doubtful situation was further complicated when the advowson of Stepney parish was purchased by Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1710, for it thereby acquired the right to nominate the minister of the Chapel. The Company reacted by negotiating with the college for permission to make every third nomination, and in practice it was the Company which continued to present the minister (the college later claimed to have acquiesced in the arrangement because it did not itself have the means to provide a stipend). (fn. 46) The ratepayers' limited abilities regarding the maintenance of the minister were further weakened because holders of ground in the Isle of Dogs were exempt from contributing towards that cost, an arrangement that presumably originated during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when there was a chapel on the Island. (fn. 47)
The hamlet's administration came under increasing pressure following the construction of the West India and East India Docks and the City Canal in the first decade of the nineteenth century, which produced a larger population and greater numbers of poor. The workhouse became increasingly inadequate to hold the numbers of paupers requiring indoor relief. (fn. 48) On the other hand, extra revenue was available from the rates paid by the dock companies, and by the City Corporation, as proprietors of the canal.
The administrative arrangements were still based upon the Bishop of London's Faculty of 1662 regulating the Stepney vestry, and in 1813 the leading inhabitants, perhaps conscious of the weakness of their position, obtained an Improvement Act placing the administration of the hamlet on a more secure footing. (fn. 49) The terms of the Act related chiefly to the power to levy rates and make contracts, the administration of the property of the hamlet and the workhouse, poor relief, the maintenance of the highways and sanitary arrangements. (fn. 50) The two dock companies and the City Corporation were allotted a total of 58 nominated places on the body of Trustees, who were empowered to implement the terms of the Act, and the chairman and secretary of the East India Company were also entitled to serve as Trustees. The largest number of Trustees came from amongst the residents of the hamlet, for at least 150 residents either rented property worth £30 per annum or were assessed at £18 or more per annum for the poor rate and thereby qualified to act as Trustees, and a further 10 nonqualifiers were chosen annually by the inhabitants. (fn. 51) Because of the continued growth of population and rising property values, the numbers of Trustees increased, from c220 at the passing of the Act in 1813 to c450 by the 1850s. (fn. 52)
With the administration of the hamlet more securely established and the number of potential communicants having far outstripped the accommodation available in the Chapel, it was a logical step for the inhabitants to seek full parochial status. (fn. 53) The problems which had arisen a century earlier were not now insurmountable and the various interests were reconciled, with comparatively little difficulty. Brasenose's rights to the advowson were acknowledged, the rector, clerk and sexton of Stepney were compensated for their financial losses and the agreements of the Bishop of London, the East India Company and the East India and West India dock companies were obtained. (fn. 54) By an Act of Parliament of 1817 the hamlet was replaced by the parish of All Saints, Poplar. The Act established a vestry, with identical qualifications to those applicable to the body of Trustees, and the other trappings of parochial administration. It also made provision for the appointment of a rector and a lecturer, and for the erection of a church and a rectory. (fn. 55)
The Trustees' administrative functions were eroded by Peel's Act of 1829 which created a police force in London and thereby removed their role of watching the streets, (fn. 56) and the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1837, which transferred responsibility for poor relief to the Board of Guardians of the newly formed Poplar Union, consisting of All Saints', St Leonard's, Bromley, and St Mary's, Stratford Bow. (fn. 57) The Trustees opposed the Union, partly because it combined Poplar, which was a riverside parish, with two parishes to the north without frontages on the Thames, and which were less densely populated, in 1841 having only a half of the population of Poplar. (fn. 58)
Despite those objections, the same combination of parishes was adopted for the Poplar District Board of Works, created by the Metropolis Local Management Act of 1855. This provoked even fiercer resistance from the Trustees, both on the grounds of the incorporation of Poplar with Bromley and Bow, and the imposition of a more restricted franchise in the election of the members of the District Board than that which applied in the choice of Trustees. Furthermore, although Poplar still had an absolute majority on the Board of Guardians, the 1855 proposals allotted it only one half of the members of the District Board. It was argued that Poplar's size and rateable value were sufficient for the parish to retain a separate status within the terms of the Act, but the point was not conceded. (fn. 59)
The Act of 1855 removed from the Trustees their responsibility for paving, drainage, lighting and other functions comprised under the general heading of 'improving', yet the Improvement Act remained in force. (fn. 60) Their authority thereafter was essentially the power to make and collect the rates, the upkeep of their property and the appointment of various officers. (fn. 61)
The Metropolis Local Management Act of 1855 established a new vestry in Poplar, empowered to elect the parish's 24 members of the District Board of Works. It also took over the electoral functions of the existing vestry and Meeting of Inhabitants in respect of the choice of parish officers and the ten co-opted Trustees. Its other duties were chiefly concerned with certain powers regarding the highways and the management of the public baths and library. The parish vestry established in 1817 remained in being, shorn of many of its original functions and now concerned only with such parochial affairs as the church rate, the appointment of organist, lecturer and vestry clerk, the election of one of the churchwardens – the other was nominated by the rector – and maintenance of the rectory. (fn. 62)
When the Metropolitan Board of Works was replaced by the London County Council in 1889 the District Boards and Metropolis Local Management Vestries continued unaltered, but they were abolished in 1900 by the terms of the London Government Act of the previous year. (fn. 63) The boroughs created by that Act included the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar, which covered virtually the same area as the District Board of Works had done. (fn. 64) The 1899 Act rendered obsolete the residual powers held by the Trustees under the Improvement Act of 1813, and that Act was duly repealed in 1901, but did not affect the compulsory church rate (which was 'probably the last rate of the kind in the Metropolis') and that was abolished by a separate Act in 1903. (fn. 65) Poplar contained 35 per cent of the population and 44 per cent of the gross rateable value within the new borough, (fn. 66) and its five electoral wards contributed 15 of the 42 members of the Borough Council (there were also seven co-opted aldermen). Anomalies between the three constituent parishes in such matters as the levying of the rates created some difficulties, and so in 1907 a new civil parish of Poplar Borough was created by the merger of All Saints', St Leonard's, Bromley, and St Mary's, Stratford Bow. (fn. 67)
In 1963 the London Government Act combined the Metropolitan Boroughs of Poplar, Stepney and Bethnal Green into the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, covering a large part of the area occupied by the medieval manor of Stepney. (fn. 68) This was one of the 32 Borough Councils created by the Act, which also replaced the London County Council with the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority, in turn abolished in 1986 and 1990 respectively.
The ward divisions within Tower Hamlets continued to employ the former western boundary of All Saints', between the Limehouse Cut and the Thames, with a few minor modifications, but the remainder of the line of the parish boundary was altered. The East India Dock Road, between the Lea and the boundary with Limehouse, formed the northern boundary of a ward which was designated as Poplar South until 1978, when it was renamed Blackwall. A boundary drawn across the Isle of Dogs passing through the South Dock of the West India Docks divided this ward from Millwall. The two wards of Poplar West and Poplar East to the north of the East India Dock Road incorporated parts of All Saints'. In 1978 they were renamed Lansbury and East India respectively, and the former was slightly enlarged by the addition of an area to its south-west which extended its boundary beyond that of the former Borough of Poplar. In 1987 Blackwall and Millwall wards were combined into the neighbourhood of the Isle of Dogs as one of the seven such areas established within the borough.
As a result of the 1978 changes the name 'Poplar' was no longer applied to an area of civil administration. The neighbourhood arrangements in force between 1987 and 1994 revived it for a neighbourhood consisting of four wards lying entirely to the north of East India Dock Road, and so, ironically, not including the area of the hamlet of Poplar around the High Street, which was placed within the Isle of Dogs neighbourhood.
Modern Docklands and the London Docklands Development Corporation
The GLC purchased St Katharine's Dock from the
Port of London Authority in 1968 and held an open
competition for its development (won by Taylor
Woodrow), but its Greater London Development Plan of
1969 failed to foresee the closure of the remainder of
London's enclosed docks, and concentrated on plans for
regenerating riverfront sites throughout London. (fn. 69) In
1970 the closure of the London Docks and the Surrey
Docks prompted the GLC to consider drawing up strategic plans for the redevelopment of riverside areas east
of the Tower, as far as Gravesend and Tilbury. As a first
stage, it organized a conference of the various borough
and county councils involved, as well as the PLA. In
1971 the Government and the GLC jointly commissioned
outside consultants to prepare a Docklands feasibility
study, which was published in 1973. (fn. 70) In January 1974 the
Docklands Joint Committee was set up to take responsibility for planning (development control, strategic plans,
and consultation papers) and implementing the redevelopment of London Docklands. It comprised representatives of the GLC and Greenwich, Lewisham,
Newham, Southwark, and Tower Hamlets Borough Councils. (fn. 71) In 1976 the Joint Committee issued the London
Docklands Strategic Plan, the basic aim of which was
'to use the opportunity provided by large areas of London's Dockland becoming available for development to redress the housing, social, environmental, employment/economic and communications deficiencies of the Docklands area and partner boroughs and thereby to provide the freedom for similar improvements throughout East and Inner London.' (fn. 72)
The Plan required £1,138 million of public investment to be matched by £600 million of private money, (fn. 73) yet it offered no real idea of how the latter would be raised.
The South East Economic Planning Council, an independent body which advised the government, urged in
response to the 1976 Strategic Plan – the setting up of a
development corporation, which would be free of political
intervention and would be more likely to win the confidence of developers and investors. (fn. 74) Such a suggestion
was not acceptable to the Labour Government of the
day, and Docklands was left to the local authorities, who
adopted their normal approach of wide public consultation and much discussion between the different
councils and other interested organizations. Progress was
inevitably slow, and in 1981 the Conservative Government, seeking to accelerate redevelopment, vested control
of the Docklands area, including the Isle of Dogs, in the
London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC),
one of the first two Urban Development Corporations
(modelled, as suggested, on those of the New Towns) to
be set up as a result of the Local Government and
Planning Act of 1980 According to the Act, the object
of the Corporation would be
'to secure ... regeneration ... by bringing land and buildings into effective use, encouraging the development of existing and new industry and commerce, creating an attractive environment and ensuring that housing and social facilities are available to encourage people to live and work in the area.' (fn. 75)
The LDDC was given powers to acquire and dispose of land, as well as responsibility for all planning matters in the Docklands area (see plan C). Enjoying strong government support, the Corporation was not subject to the financial constraints then imposed on local authorities, and did not answer to an electorate. (fn. 76)
The East India Dock Road was taken as the northern boundary of the Corporation within Poplar, and so only the Lansbury Estate section of the historic parish of All Saints is excluded from its jurisdiction. In a move which was to have major repercussions for the redevelopment of part of the parish, in 1982 the government designated much of the old docks area on the Isle of Dogs as an Enterprise Zone. This status offered tempting financial incentives to commercial developers and much easier planning processes. The result has been a whirlwind of development producing a physical transformation that has been rapid and spectacular. What is not yet clear is the lasting effect this will have on the economic and social life of the area.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s attention on the Docklands area largely focused on the Enterprise Zone of the Isle of Dogs. The term Docklands also became synonymous with prosperity: the high levels of investment and property prices in particular attracted nationwide comment. Canary Wharf was the most striking and controversial development of the period and completely transformed the scale and rate of change in the area. Yet the new commercial developments and housing are only the most recent of the succession of changes that has produced the environment of late-twentieth-century Poplar. The construction and enlargement of the docks, the piecemeal development, fragmentation and decline of the industrial sites, and the building of the nineteenthcentury houses and their twentieth-century replacements, have all been major elements in the creation of an area which is both fascinating and challenging in its complexity.