West India Dock Road

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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'West India Dock Road', in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, (London, 1994) pp. 117-119. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp117-119 [accessed 29 February 2024]

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West India Dock Road

Most of the West India Dock Road lies outside the parish of All Saints. The sections within it are now largely part of the Birchfield Estate. The road was laid out in 1802 as part of the Commercial Road, linking the West India Docks to the City of London. (fn. 1) The dock company's engineer, Ralph Walker, was responsible for making the section of road from the docks to Limehouse. (fn. 2) There was a toll gate just south of Pennyfields, succeeded by a toll house in the road near the junction with King Street. The toll house, which remained in use until 1871, was a single-storey room with round-headed windows and a heavily dentilled cornice. (fn. 3)

The north-east side of West India Dock Road, between Birchfield Street and Ming Street, was developed in the early nineteenth century. The section north of Pennyfields was called Dean's buildings (later Nos 45–55). A large part of this group was an iron-foundry (No. 55) occupied by a succession of firms manufacturing ships' fire-hearths. From c1929 to the late 1950s these premises, rebuilt in 1937, were held by the British Scaling & Painting Company as works and stores for their trade in removing and preventing corrosion on marine boilers and ships. Nos 47 and 49 West India Dock Road were made a workshop in 1875–6 to become part of William Byron Bawn & Company's Byron Tank Works, most of which fronted Castor Street. Wrought-iron tanks and cisterns were made here until c1940. (fn. 4) These buildings were cleared in the early 1960s for the erection of Elderfield House in the Birchfield Estate.

The buildings along the section of West India Dock Road south of Pennyfields (Nos 57–67) were known as St Ann's Place in the early nineteenth century. No. 67 was an eighteenth-century house that had been built as part of Back Lane (Ming Street). In the early nineteenth century it was occupied by Theophilus Westhorp, a ships' rigger. In the 1870s he or his son became a manufacturer of patent machine-picked oakum and antiseptic marine lint. In 1899 Westhorp's Limited moved to No. 59 West India Dock Road, where they had erected an office, showroom and multi-storey warehouse, which they occupied until c1940. This red-brick building had steel joists and its glazed-brick ground-floor elevations had broad windows under moulded four-centred arched heads. Nos 57–71 were cleared in the mid-1960s for part of the Birchfield Estate. (fn. 5)

In the eighteenth century the Blue Posts Tavern stood on the south side of Limehouse Causeway at its junction with Pennyfields and Back Lane. Soon after the West India Dock Road had been formed the establishment moved to a new building on the north-east side of that road, south of Back Lane. (fn. 6) The Blue Posts public house (No. 73) was a three-storey brick building of three bays. It was extended to the south-east (No. 75) in 1876 with a two-storey block giving a long street frontage. The Blue Posts, with the Railway Tavern and Jamaica Tavern, was well placed to serve labourers and others passing to and from the West India Docks. Charles W. Brown, son of the famous Charlie Brown (see below), displayed half of his father's curio collection at the Blue Posts in the 1930s. It became the Buccaneer shortly before its demolition in 1987–8. Nos 69 and 71 West India Dock Road were two- and three-storey mid-nineteenth-century houses and workshops, occupied by J. Downton & Company, brass-founders and pumpmakers, until the 1920s. (fn. 7)

Fire Station (demolished).

The provision of a modern fire station in Poplar was a priority of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Soon after it was formed in 1865, Edward Cresy, a principal assistant clerk at the Metropolitan Board of Works, identified a suitable site adjoining the Blackwall railway, on the east side of the West India Dock Road. In 1866 an 80-year lease was negotiated with the East and West India Dock Company, (fn. 8) and the freehold was acquired in the 1880s. (fn. 9) Cresy acted as secretary to the MBW's chairman Sir John Thwaites, but he was also an architect and had been a surveyor with the Metropolitan Commissioners of Sewers. When the MBW took over fire-fighting services in the capital, George Vulliamy, its superintending architect, recommended that Cresy should undertake the work of finding sites and preparing designs for the new fire stations. (fn. 10) Cresy's plans for the Poplar station were produced in 1867 and the contract was awarded to William Howard of Chandos Street. (fn. 11)

The building was completed in 1868 at a total cost of £2,429 10s. (fn. 12) It was of brick and was three bays wide, with a symmetrical street front (Plate 18d). The appliance room was placed in the centre of the building, behind double doors. Residential accommodation was provided on the upper floors. (fn. 13)

The initial strength of the station was seven men, a steam engine, a manual engine, two escapes and four horses. (fn. 14) In 1900 an open-sided iron ladder-shed was built in the yard to the south of the main building. (fn. 15)

The adoption of motorized fire engines by the London Fire Brigade led to a reduction in the number of stations required, for the speed and range of these new appliances were greater than those of their horse-drawn counterparts and so a station could cover a wider area. A report produced in 1920 recommended the closure of 15 stations, including Poplar. (fn. 16) The station was closed in that year and the building was sold to the London Salvage Corps for £3,000. (fn. 17) The Corps carried out improvements in 1921, but used the building only until 1928. (fn. 18)

The former fire station passed to T. F. Maltby Limited, stevedores, for use as a store. This firm redeveloped the site in 1959–60, erecting a simple two-storey flat-roofed brick building as offices, stores and carpenters' shops. This passed to Crome & Mitchell, nut merchants, c1970 and was demolished in 1987–8 for road improvements. (fn. 19)

West India Dock Railway Station (demolished).

This stood on the east side of West India Dock Road as part of the London and Blackwall Railway as built in 1839– 40 (see page 13). The station was a two-storey structure with covered platforms at the upper level in a range crossed by another to produce a cruciform-plan building with elevations of a domestic character (fig. 31). The Great Eastern Railway Company altered the station and replaced the bridge over West India Dock Road with the present girder bridge in 1896–9, re-using the six granite columns in the centre of the road. The station closed with the railway line in 1926 and was removed shortly afterwards. (fn. 20)

The Railway Tavern, No. 116 West India Dock Road ('Charlie Brown's') (demolished).

A legendary dockland public house, the Railway Tavern on the corner of Garford Street originated c1840 as a modest beerhouse. Plans for rebuilding on a grander scale were drawn up in 1916 for Charrington & Company by Edward Carter of Kingston-on-Thames and Arundel Street, Strand, but were not carried out until 1919 owing to the First World War. The builders were George Parker & Sons of Peckham. The new building, which also occupied the site of No. 114, comprised five storeys over a basement, and was substantially built of brick with reinforcedconcrete floors. Crowned by a copper-covered cupola above a broken and open segmental pediment, it had some pretensions to Baroque style. Its chief points of interest, however, were its interior furnishings, and its first landlord, Charlie Brown, the 'uncrowned king of Limehouse'. (fn. 21)

Charles Brown (1859–1932) was born near the Commercial Road. A baker's son, he ran away to sea, but, disliking it, came back to the family shop and eventually became a publican. He moved to the Railway about 1896, but it may have been at his former public house, the Duke of Cambridge in Whitechapel Road, that he began to amass the collection of curios and objets d'art that made the Railway famous. (fn. 22)

Contrary to popular belief, Brown's collection was not the product of casual deals with sailor patrons on shore leave, but was carefully built up through purchases from dealers or via a number of overseas agents. Brown, the origins of whose wealth are obscure, acted as unofficial banker to many customers, and was often supportive of their interests. He is said to have given away large sums in aid of the 1912 dockers' strike, and he was made honorary treasurer of the Stevedores' Union. (fn. 23)

The collection contained some large and valuable items, among them two ivory-inlaid Florentine cabinets and an 800-year-old Chinese ebony cabinet. Much was Chinese, and included Ming vases and a number of carved figures and deities. These valuable pieces were mostly displayed in private or semi-private rooms upstairs; the groundfloor saloon and dance-floor was somewhat different. Here, under a ceiling hung with shark's teeth, tribal weapons and other exotica, 'a small cosmopolis gathered every night, and welcomed the landlord with the traditional acclaim, "Here come Charley Brown!"'. (fn. 24)

The Edwardian and 1920s fascination with the Limehouse Chinatown as a hotbed of gaming, white-slavery, drug-taking and subversion — fuelled by popular writers such as Thomas Burke and Sax Rohmer, and a few sensational criminal cases — put Charlie Brown's at the centre of the tourist's map of dockland. After the First World War, charabanc-parties of sensation-seekers regularly descended on the pub. Famous visitors included King Alphonso of Spain, the actress Anna May Wong, and local politician George Lansbury. (fn. 25)

Brown died in 1932, leaving his collection half to his daughter Ethel Chandler, who took over the running of the Railway with her husband, and half to his son, Charles W. Brown, landlord of the Blue Posts across the road. For a few years both buildings displayed rival lamps each proclaiming 'Charlie Brown's'. Mrs Chandler's illness forced the closure of the Railway collection to the public in 1936, and about two years later Charlie Brown, junior, moved to a public house called the Roundabout, in Woodford, where he continued to display his collection. (fn. 26) The Roundabout was demolished in 1972, and the collection is no longer open to public view.

In later years the Railway continued to be frequented by dockers, sailors, and assorted bohemians. Its famous past was not forgotten, and in 1972 the name Charlie Brown's was formally adopted. But its fortunes were then reaching a low ebb. Extensive refurbishment was carried out in the 1980s, but the site was required for the Limehouse Link roadway and the building was demolished in November 1989. (fn. 27)

For the Birchfield Estate and the Saltwell Street Scheme, see pages 90 and 94.

Figure 31:

The London and Blackwall Railway, a view published in 1840 showing West India Dock Station and the viaduct over West India Dock Road


  • 1. 42 Geo III, c.101, local.
  • 2. WIDC 300, p.18; 304, f.1: The Times, 26 July 1802, p.[2].
  • 3. GLRO, PCS/PR2: Pop. 785, pp.50–1: ELA, 19 Sept 1931, p.7.
  • 4. POD: The A to Z of Regency London, LTS, no. 131, 1985: OS 1868, 1895, 1919, 1947, 1963: DSR 1875/548; 1937/234, 318: DA S/006325: VFB, 1935, No. 118, f.44: Thames: Waterway of the World, 1893, p.87: Industrial World, mid-May 1929, pp. 18–19.
  • 5. POD: OS 1868, 1895: DSR 1898/248: DA S/000171, 004266: PRO, IR58/84648/3304: ELA, 19 Sept 1931, p.7: GLRO Photographs, Whiffin 366.
  • 6. MDR 1791/2/228: MiD, WID portfolio, Sheet No.15: GLRO, PCS/PR2.
  • 7. POD: DA S/012909: GLRO Photographs, Whiffin 366: AR/HB/5233, Photographs 77/9/8804.
  • 8. GLRO, MBW 909, pp.95–7: MDR 1866/25/227.
  • 9. EWIDC, F.Vigers & Company's Valuations of Outlying Property with Plans, 13 Nov 1883.
  • 10. PP 1876 (371), XI.53, Report...on Metropolitan Fire Brigade, 20 July 1876, p.218.
  • 11. GLRO, MBW 910, pp.35, 398–400.
  • 12. GLRO, MBW 912, p.45: MBW Mins, 1868, p.1239.
  • 13. GLRO Photographs, 80/6963.
  • 14. PP 1876 (371), XI.53, Report...on Metropolitan Fire Brigade, 20 July 1876, p.609.
  • 15. AR/BA/4/105/174: DSR 1900/174: PRO, IR58/84648/33313.
  • 16. LCC Mins, 1920, i, pp.603–4.
  • 17. LCC Mins, 1920, ii, pp.217, 714; 1921, ii, p.227.
  • 18. RIBA Drawings Collection, 38/J/1(1–36): POD.
  • 19. POD: VFB, 1950s series, No. 15, pp.95–6: DA S/009689–90, 009712.
  • 20. 'West India Docks Station in 1840': PRO, RAIL 227/212–13: DA S/004294: GLRO Photographs, Whiffin 366.
  • 21. GLRO, BR 83467: DSR 1919/20, 132.
  • 22. THLHL, cuttings 653.2: POD.
  • 23. THLHL, cuttings 653.2.
  • 24. Ibid: Daily Herald, 6 June 1932, pp.1, 6.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. Ibid: POD: Tony Phillips, Pubs of Tower Hamlets, 1988 (unpaginated).