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 VI - East India Dock Road
The East India Dock Road was laid out in 1806–12 as a branch of the Commercial Road. It extends from Burdett Road on the west to the bridge over the River Lea on the east. Until 1871 the section east of the entrance to the East India Docks was called, like the highway beyond the bridge, the Barking Road. The road is about 1⅓ miles long, of which about 160 yards at the west end lay within the old civil parish of St Anne's, Limehouse, and about 1,130 yards at the east end within the old civil parish of St Leonard's, Bromley: much of the latter frontage on the south side was appropriated to dockyard use.
Numbered buildings at the height of development totalled 238 on the north side and 119 on the south, where the frontage east of Robin Hood Lane was largely occupied by the East India Dock wall.
This account is concerned with the road as enumerated in 1864 and 1871, (fn. 5) including Limehouse and Bromley as well as Poplar (fig. 32). Excluded are the houses built in Limehouse on the west side of what is now Burdett Road (Nos 815–821 Commercial Road), which before 1864 were sometimes regarded as being in East India Dock Road. (fn. 6) Also excluded are the four pairs of semi-detached houses on the north side of, but not numbered in, the road at its eastern end, in Bromley, called Lea Place and built about 1824–6. (fn. 7)
Frontages of the road west of the East India Dock entrance filled with buildings very slowly, between about 1808 and 1860–2 (disregarding subsequent in-fillings). East of the dock entrance the main building development (on the north side only) came later, in 1864–85. The few older buildings that remain are: on the north side the former George Green's Sailors' Home at No. 133 (1839– 41), Palm Cottage at No. 153 (1834), and houses at Nos 199–241 and 261–267 (respectively of 1845–55 and 1812– 27), and on the south side Nos 4–50 (1850–60), 54 (1829), and 104 (1831–7), the bank at No. 52 (1885), and No. 154 (Pope John House, formerly the Missions to Seamen's Institute of 1893–4).
The trustees who made and maintained the road had been established by an Act of Parliament of June 1802 to make 'The Commercial Road' from Whitechapel to the West India Docks. (fn. 8) The making of East India Dock Road was authorized by the Commercial Roads Continuation Act of May 1804 empowering the same trustees, augmented by the chairman and deputy-chairman of the East India Dock Company, to construct a 'branch' of the Commercial Road as far as the East India Docks. As in the 1802 Act, the trustees were empowered to levy tolls. (fn. 9)
The extension of the road to the Lea was under consideration from the beginning (fn. 10) and is shown on the 1807 edition of Horwood's map. But it was June 1809 before an Act authorized the extension of the road to Barking, and the construction of a bridge over the Lea, to facilitate communication with Essex and Tilbury Fort, both for ordinary traffic and 'the march of Troops' (see page 126). (fn. 11)
An Act of 1824 required the trustees to keep separate accounts for the 'Commercial Road' (the Commercial and West India Dock Roads) and the 'East India Branch road'. (fn. 12) These and amending Acts were repealed and a new trust constituted (under the old chairman) by an Act of 1828. (fn. 13) The powers under this Act were prolonged by an Act of 1849 (fn. 14) and expired on 5 August 1871.
The chairman for many years was Charles Hampden Turner, owner of an old-established sailmaker's and canvas-maker's business in Limehouse, who in 1817 bought Rooksnest Park at Tandridge, Surrey. (fn. 15) He was also a director and sometime acting chairman of the East India Dock Company.
The surveyor and engineer for the whole road was James Walker (1781–1862), sometime President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and nephew of the Ralph Walker who was then employed as engineer by the East India Dock Company. Described as of Blackwall in 1803, James was one of the first residents in the East India Dock Road from 1810 to 1816. (fn. 16) He acted as surveyor for some of the private owners along the road. (fn. 17)
The Act of 1802 empowered the trustees to buy entire properties along the line of the road, with an option to sell the surplus land. That of 1804, however, deprived them of the power to buy more than the ground needed for the road itself (a limitation only slightly relaxed in the Act of 1809 for making the further end of the road).
The Act of 1804 envisaged the making of a straight road. (fn. 18) Walker thought the ground for this could be bought for £5,000. (fn. 19) It passed through unbuilt land, and the dock company's engineer, Ralph Walker, among others, expected owners to recognize that the value of their adjacent lands would be much enhanced. (fn. 20) (fn. 2) But it was garden ground and higher prices than expected were demanded. It was said on good authority that £3,000 had been asked for 2½ acres. (fn. 21) This provoked something of a crisis early in 1805, reflected in the board-room of the East India Dock Company. Some directors were in favour of the road, carrying a resolution to contribute £10,000 or half its expected cost of £20,000, (fn. 22) which the Act of 1804 had authorized the trustees to raise by the sale of shares. The chairman of the dock company, Joseph Cotton, dissented, and with some effect. He was unhappy that the cost of buying the land was likely to be £7,200, not £5,000. But he also purported to be doubtful of the great utility of the road to the dock company. The most direct route to the export dock would still be along Poplar High Street, and even from the import dock the new thoroughfare would require a longer access-road than the High Street. He wanted the dock company to contribute only some £3,600. (fn. 23) Whatever the real validity of these arguments, the road trustees bowed to them and Walker drew a new, southward-canted line of road. Charles Hampden Turner, as member of both boards, told the dock company that the cost of purchase would now be only £2,916 10s, or about £380 per acre, and the dock company agreed to a subscription of £5,000. (fn. 24)
Exactly why the altered line had made land much cheaper to buy is not obvious. It did, however, bring the end of the road a little nearer its objective, the East India Docks.
The trustees had power to make a road to a maximum width of 70ft, and in the part leading from Limehouse to the East India Docks they did build to that width, or nearly so. Beyond the dock it was at first little more than 40ft wide. (fn. 25) Apart from considerations of the lighter traffic and the inevitable bottle-neck a bridge over the Lea would cause, any wish to build wider here was thwarted by the perceptible elevation of the road on its north side above the level of Bromley Marsh. This would have made road engineering expensive.
The Act of 1804 had authorized the trustees to increase their tolls as soon as they had paved the whole carriageway as far as the East India Dock entrance to a width of 20ft. (fn. 26) This followed the example of the Commercial and West India Dock Roads, where a pavement of that width was being made to carry heavy goods to and from the docks. The pavement was set in the centre of the carriageway, which was gravelled on either side to take 'the fast light traffic'. (fn. 27) The East India Dock Road was under construction in 1806 (when the trustees were allowed to unload 4,000 tons of Aberdeen granite for the paving at the East India Docks). (fn. 28) Along this road, however, where the imported 'East Indian' goods were lighter than those from the West India Docks, and the paucity of exports to India meant the heavy traffic was in the westward direction only, a central pavement of 10ft width was found sufficient. The square granite blocks of this carriage-pavement were set in macadamized gravel and grouted with lime-water to form a 'solid concreted mass'. (fn. 29)
In 1825 the trustees were confronted by the new railway age in the form of the East London Railway Company, which proposed to lay a railway along the Commercial and East India Dock Roads. (fn. 30) On the testimony of James Walker 11 years later, they associated themselves with the scheme from defensive motives — 'to be present, and see their own property protected'. (fn. 31) It is not clear whether the locomotive force was to be steam, nor whether the 'rails' were to be of iron, although in October estimates of the cost — £9 8s 8d per yard — of a double cast-iron railroad on this route were obtained. (fn. 32) There was a revival of the proposal under various schemes in 1827, (fn. 33) to which the road trustees responded by obtaining in 1828 Parliamentary authority for a project they had envisaged in 1826 — the laying of a 'stoneway' along their roads. (fn. 34) This was a double line of longitudinal granite blocks designed by James Walker to bear the wheels of heavily laden carts. (fn. 35) Such a stoneway was laid along the south or London-bound side of Commercial and West India Dock Roads in 1829–30 (fn. 36) but was not in the end thought necessary for the less ponderous goods of the East India Docks, and the East India Dock Road remained simply paved in the centre and macadamized on the outsides. (fn. 37) (fn. 3) In 1827 an hourly coach service was established between the East India Docks and the City, taking from half to three-quarters of an hour for the journey. (fn. 38)
This could not ward off the arrival of the railway, presaged by a meeting at the Mansion House in October 1835 at which such Poplar worthies as the schoolmaster John Stock and the ropemaker John Garford were active in promoting what became the London and Blackwall Railway. The stance of the road trustees was again hesitant, reflected in the evasive evidence given by Walker to the Commons committee on the railway Bill in the following year. He was reluctant to seem to countenance a railway as an alternative route to the East and West India Docks but admitted to preparing, with Sir John Rennie, schemes for rails along the road itself, as the road trustees had thought it unwise 'to allow large capitalists to ride over the Commercial-road . . . without my knowing what was going on'. (fn. 39) Soon the railway was being made — but well south of the road.
Shortly after the road trust terminated (in 1871) tramways were opened in 1872 by the North Metropolitan Tramways Company, from the East India Docks to Whitechapel, (fn. 40) for the horse-drawn service shown in photographs of the 1890s (when the line ended eastward at a depot in Aberfeldy Street) (Plates 19a, 20C). (fn. 41) In 1906 the London County Council (LCC) constructed an electric tramway along the whole length of the road, with a third central iron rail supplying electric traction on the 'conduit' system. (fn. 42) The lack of uniform width along the road had caused the Poplar Board of Works to insist on widening wherever practicable (as at the George Green's School site in 1882). The requisite widening of the comparatively narrow east end of the road, to permit the extension of the tramway across the Lea, was carried out by the LCC in 1912 13. Trams gave way to trolley-buses in 1939 40, necessitating the erection of overhead cables. (fn. 43)
In the event James Walker's estimate of £20,000 as the likely cost of the road turned out to be accurate, or at least not an under-estimate. In April 1811 he told a committee of the House of Lords that expenditure on the road (then approaching completion) had been £16,318. (fn. 44) In 1840 the capital standing to the road account was £19,460. (fn. 45)
The road was, however, slow to become profitable. The surplus of income over all expenditure was only £408 in 1828 (for the Commercial Road it was £5,564) and £686 in 1851. But by 1859 revenue had increased to £5,452. (fn. 46) A large element in this was the increased yield from the 1 2d toll for pedestrians across the 'Iron Bridge' over the Lea as Canning Town developed. In 1859 it was thought that this produced between £2,000 and £3,000 per annum, with 3,600 persons crossing each weekday. (fn. 47)
This foot-toll on the bridge was probably the chief popular complaint against the trustees, and its abolition on the trust's dissolution in August 1871 inspired a 'fete and gala' on a nearby cricket ground. (fn. 48) There had also been a potential grievance from those wanting to cross the road diagonally, as the trustees did not allow the 100 yards of passage along the road usual on 'turnpike' roads (which, however, the East India Dock Road strictly was not). (fn. 49) But the gates and bars were not numerous — a gate and (hexagonal) toll-house at Upper North Street and Robin Hood Lane, and a bar or chain at Hale Street and Wade Street (the iron bollard for the chain at Wade Street was still in place in 1953). (fn. 50) By 1859, if not before, the regular dock-traffic was not stopped at the gates, but paid its tolls weekly. (fn. 51)
The Act of 1804 allowed the trustees to watch, light and cleanse the road, and levy a rate for the purpose. These functions were, however, left to the parishes and in 1824 the trustees' powers were repealed. In 1826 the parish of Poplar lit its part of the road by gas. (fn. 52)
In 1814 Brayley wrote of the 'new life and consequence' that the East India Docks had brought to Poplar. Many 'humble, but comfortable dwellings' had been built for the 'labourers and other attendants at the Dock', while 'for the officers, etc. several good houses have been built so as to form a new and elegant neighbourhood almost all the way along the line of the Commercial Road [sic] from the East India Dock to [Whitechapel]'. (fn. 53) So far as the East India Dock Road was concerned, this was a great exaggeration. By 1814 little had been built, and subsequent development was very slow and piecemeal. The earliest developments near the East India Docks included very undesirable residences, but a few 'officerclass' houses had certainly been built by 1814. A vestige probably survives at No. 261 and a photograph shows the good houses at Nos 176–178 (Plate 28b), newly built when Brayley was writing. No. 174 was then inhabited by James Walker himself — while his uncle Ralph Walker was resident at No. 178 in 1821–3. (fn. 54)
A humbler level of housing near the East India Docks was evident from No. 218 round into Robin Hood Lane. Most of these houses were built, however, in the decade after Brayley wrote, and some as late as the 1840s. Behind was Burford's Court, which became part of the low-grade leasehold empire of a successful Blackwall pilot. This end of the East India Dock Road, on both sides, was sold for development in 1807 by a family owning Blackwall Yard, and closely associated with the dock company, to a partnership of a Blackwall wharfinger and a Poplar builder — and sold, at least on the road frontage, in decent-sized lots (see page 190). But the purchasers auctioned the land in the following year, with the road frontages still unbuilt upon, and development was desultory and small-scaled.
In the hinterland of the road on its north side the resultant tiny houses (back-to-backs some of them) were 'Rents' — those of a Limehouse timber merchant, William Dalgleish, for example. Recent, if brief, ownership of this corner of land between the East India Dock Road and Brunswick Road by substantial commercial interests had not secured respectability in the eyes of contemporaries, to judge by the Bromley St Leonard's ratecollector's book of 1819. A woman had 'come to lie in of a b-d child at Hagman's in Romanis's Rents', and 'Newcombe's house' — a brothel — was 'where the woman was murdered'. (fn. 55)
The same collector's book suggests that at this end of the road and its hinterland, the strong 'local' character of property dealings as revealed in deeds of title, was perhaps less marked at this low level (where it might have been expected to be most pronounced). The collector noted the 14 out of 54 ratepayers — usually of a very few cottages in 'Rents' — whose rates had to be collected outside Poplar: at least seven were fairly remote, like the pork butcher in Tottenham Court Road who was ratepayer for a very small house in Ann Street (later Oceana Close). (fn. 56)
Eastward of the docks, the dock company sold its land on the north side of the road to its contractor, Hugh McIntosh, in 1813, for £192 an acre (fn. 57) — a little less than it had refused from him six years earlier (a refusal perhaps occasioned by amour propre as well as commercial considerations, as he had then demanded an instant answer). (fn. 58) Apart from the eight houses of Lea Place built in the 1820s, it was some 50 years before the McIntoshes exploited their land in building. Farming, market-gardening and the fattening of cattle were presumably at least as remunerative as building, until Canning Town across the Lea increased the demand for workers' houses here.
When it finally took place, that development, under David McIntosh and a purchaser from him, John Abbott, placed long terraces on the road, as part of a big layout behind. This area was evidently under considerable surveyor-control and effected by a conventional system of leasing. In these respects it mirrored the development at the other end of the road on the Conant estate, carried out a little earlier, in 1850–60. In between them, other development on the road frontages was on a smaller scale and in many hands. No clear pattern emerges. Disregarding the lordship of the manor of Stepney where that survived, at least 18 different landowners were in possession when building took place over a period of more than 50 years. The actual number was doubtless greater, as many sales of building sites immediately prior to development are probably untraced. But the significant units of ownership have the characteristic that they were in some sense local, either actually or in their inheritance from owners in pre-docks Poplar. That is, East India Dock Road attracted few or no substantial buildingspeculators from outside. The Conants, the Perry Watlingtons and the McIntoshes all lived in the country when they began building here, but they all had a reason for being in East India Dock Road other than its speculative appeal.
As to the freeholders' remuneration from ground rents, in 1812 James Walker, on behalf of John Perry, hoped for 6s per foot frontage in proposed terraces west of Upper North Street, but accepted 4s 9d for the advantage of gaining a single lessee for the whole: in 1826 he recommended accepting 6s 6d from the lessee for a villa site. (fn. 59) In mid-century the Conants took only between 3s 6d and 4s 9d at their terraces at the west end of the road, and in 1857–66 David McIntosh gained 4s 9d at his terraces further east in what was then still the Barking Road. (fn. 60)
The best houses tended to be towards the west or London end of the road, but, rather surprisingly, were distributed among humbler houses without obvious rationale. Nor was length of prospective tenure directly linked with quality of building: 99-year leases of the 1820s produced some of the road's humblest houses, at Nos 265–277. Humble houses were not necessarily obscurely situated. Low-built houses of this kind command the view of, and from, the parish church.
In some years the rate-collector or valuation officer distinguished between occupants and owners in the road. On this evidence, in the period 1840–85 not more than a quarter of the houses were 'owner-occupied' — yet that was a high proportion compared with the road's hinterland. (fn. 61) On average each owner possessed two houses, but often occupied neither. By 1885 only 22 of the houses can be recognized as being still in the 'ownership' of their developer or builder or of his heirs.
By that year the acquisition of various houses by William Warren, an estate agent at No. 77, gave a local continuity to their ownership. He had been foreman for one of the big house builders in the road's hinterland in the 1850s and 1860s, and his name continued to appear for decades as the owner repairing or renovating property in the road. (fn. 62)
With the development along the road virtually completed west of the dock entrance and partially so beyond, the Ordnance Survey map of 1867–70 shows 314 terraced houses, 18 detached (of which 13 were built before 1840) and only 10 semi-detached. The terraces, apart from those on the Conant and McIntosh estates at each end of the road, were short, usually of six houses at most. (No fewer than 36 subsidiary names were abolished by the through numbering of 1864.) These short terraces resulted from the fact that many side streets opened into the road. They also reflected the comparative multiplicity of land-ownership in the road when building, and perhaps also its lack, as an avowed transport route, of prime residential status. Impressive terraced vistas were therefore lacking.
Little is known of the internal planning of the houses. (In 1812 John Perry's surveyor left the internal planning of intended houses, unlike their elevations, to the building lessee.) (fn. 63) The 1867–70 Ordnance Survey map shows that, if the recently built houses on the McIntosh estate in Bromley are disregarded, there were equal numbers of terrace houses with and without closet wings: on the McIntosh estate all 23 had closet wings. Few houses built before 1820 had closet wings, and houses were built without them into the early 1850s (at Nos 217–221 and Nos 60–66). Of the houses with closet wings (again disregarding the McIntosh houses), those arranged with identical, repeating plans numbered 41 compared with 23 where the plans were mirrored in pairs. This latter arrangement was first adopted only in 1848, at Nos 70– 72. Virtually all of the 17 houses that exhibit bay windows on the map were of 1853 or later.
The architectural style was overwhelmingly Classical and markedly old-fashioned in its adherence to lateGeorgian forms. The still-standing Nos 211–215 and 4–50 were built in this mode in 1852–5 and 1850–60. Not much is known of the appearance of the larger houses on the south side, but of the houses in the road whose appearance can be traced, the earliest in a recognizably Victorian version of Italianate are Nos 85– 91 (1855) and Nos 135–151 (1854–9), both groups designed by the local architects, John Morris & Son. Perhaps the influence of the son, John Warrington Morris, was at work here, or maybe the Italianate of the public baths (1852) and the first United Methodist Free Church (1854–5) provided examples.
With the exception of George Green's Sailors' Home, stucco seems to have been used very little. If there was a stylistic characteristic of the road's late-Georgian, it was perhaps a tendency to use round-headed forms, especially in door-openings and ground-floor windows. They occur in buildings of the earliest date, like the Dock House Tavern, down to some of 1845–7 (Nos 235– 241). Gothick glazing bars occurred in windows at Nos 214 (of 1839) and Nos 237–239 (of 1845–7). Many twostorey houses had a plain appearance, with occasional use of sunk or raised panels.
The usage of the buildings is naturally best known for the 'better' parts of the road. The Post Office Directory of 1866 noted 203 buildings, of which about half were in the hands of respectable private residents, a quarter in the hands of tradesmen, and the rest divided between professional men, schools, public buildings and taverns or 'hotels'. In 1899 the private and professional occupants together amounted to little more than a quarter, and about a half were tradesmen. The numbers of lodging houses had increased. That houses were giving way to more shops had been noticed in 1887 by Charles Booth's investigators and regarded by them as an improvement, which in poverty-ridden Poplar it perhaps was. (fn. 64) The ranges of houses built east of Poplar Hospital on the McIntosh and Abbott estates in the 1860s–1880s included a few purpose-built shops. Even so, new shopfronts in the road figure very little in the records of the District Surveyors in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the late 1930s there was some reflection of the general revival of the nation's economy in a few new commercial and commerce-related buildings in the road. Photographs and reminiscences confirm that the road's fabric suffered radical decay only with the extensive wardamage of 1939–45 and the replanning for the social initiatives of post-war governments. As an artery of trade, forming part of the A13 route to Tilbury, the road was still heavily used until the opening of the Limehouse Link Road Tunnel in 1993. But although its function is not radically changed, there is little now to recall the old view eastward to the big domed dock gateway, and beyond it the masts and spars of south-bound ships.
The Iron Bridge over the Lea
The Act of June 1809 (fn. 65) empowering the road trustees to extend the East India Dock Road to Barking also authorized them to build a bridge over the River Lea. (fn. 66) In 1809 John Rennie (1761– 1821), surveyor to the East India Dock Company, produced a design for an iron bridge with a single span of 100ft between stone abutments (Plate 119a). (fn. 67) The iron bridge actually constructed in 1810, (fn. 68) however, was made to a quite different design by the road trustees' surveyor, James Walker. (Walker's partner, Alfred Burges, 'worked out all the details and superintended its erection'.) Walker's design, with five arches spanning about 150ft, was unusual, the central three semicircular arches being placed between a narrower straight-sided and pointed arch at each end (Plate 119b). The width of the bridge, 28ft, was about the same as in Rennie's design. (fn. 69) It seems to have been Walker's first bridge and the first road bridge employing cast-iron columns. (fn. 70)
After the road trust had lapsed in 1871, an agitation sprang up for the replacement of the 'narrow, steep and infirm iron bridge of very slight construction'. Defenders of Walker's reputation protested that the bridge was still efficient 'for the purposes for which it was designed — viz. the ordinary traffic of a suburban turnpike-road', but the link between Poplar and Canning Town was now far from that, and it had been necessary to limit loads on the bridge to 15 tons. (fn. 71) Perhaps because the bridge lay between two local authorities and two counties, it was not until the 1890s that it was replaced by the recently formed London County Council, with the help of the Corporation of West Ham. (fn. 72) The design was by the LCC's Chief Engineer, (Sir) Alexander R. Binnie (1839– 1917). The construction of the steel bridge in a single span of 150ft was carried out in 1893–6 by the Thames Iron Works & Shipbuilding Company at a cost of £54,000. The width of the bridge was 55ft. It was a handsome bridge but lacked the lightness of Rennie's single-span design. (fn. 73)
The approach to this bridge still followed the awkward and angular approach of the old one, and became increasingly congested. In 1930–2, therefore, the bridge was replaced by the present wider one on a more northerly alignment of an again-widened East India Dock Road. This was part of a larger scheme to improve access to the 'Royal' docks in Canning Town and was undertaken by the West Ham Corporation with financial help from the LCC and the Ministry of Transport. The bridge, 70ft wide, is built of reinforced-concrete to the design of the engineers, Rendel, Palmer & Tritton. (fn. 74)