Cubitt Town: Riverside area, Island Gardens and the Greenwich Hospital estate

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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'Cubitt Town: Riverside area, Island Gardens and the Greenwich Hospital estate', in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, (London, 1994) pp. 518-528. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

In this section

Island Gardens and the Greenwich Hospital Estate

'Scrap Iron Park', as it became known locally, was set aside as an open space in 1849, but it was not until 1895 that it was laid out as a garden and formally opened to the public (fig. 196).

It was in 1848 that John Liddell, medical inspector to Greenwich Hospital, put forward the idea of saving from industrial development the ground on the Isle of Dogs opposite the Hospital. In a report on the Hospital's sanitary condition he drew attention to a growing number of environmental problems. Low-lying by the river, with a wooded park rising behind it, and flanked on either side by 'one of the dirtiest Towns in Europe', Greenwich Hospital found itself choked by sulphurous smoke from steamboat funnels and industrial chimneys. The Isle of Dogs, whence mephitic fumes from brick clamps had been blowing across the river for several years, was threatening to become 'a second Manchester, in a series of Manufactories'. The local burial ground stank from an excess of bodies. Now a vast sewerage plant for London was being planned for a site nearby. Respiratory complaints among the inmates were rife, and the general ambience compared unfavourably with the old soldiers' hospital at Chelsea. 'No casual visitor' wrote Liddell 'can fail to be struck with the dull & stupified air of a Greenwich Pensioner, or with the monotony & melancholy that pervade the Hospital, where one dull routine of existence is unchequered by any occupation or incident to beguile its weariness'. His recommendations included the purchase of part of the riverside across the river from the hospital 'to prevent the total closure of its vista, and to shut out the annoyances of gloomy unsightly and offensive buildings, that are sure to be erected'. He suggested that the land, which formed part of William Cubitt's leasehold estate, might be used for the Hospital laundry. (fn. 4)

Liddell's report was sent by Admiral Sir Charles Adam (1780–1853), Governor of the Hospital, to the Admiralty, where the plan for preserving the view immediately struck a chord. Approached by Philip Hardwick (1792– 1870), Architect to the Hospital, Cubitt expressed himself willing to give up a quarter of a mile of riverfront for no more than £3,000 compensation for works already carried out. With the purchase of the freehold from Lady Glengall, the total expense would have been about £13,000. Despite the strong Admiralty support for the scheme, the Commissioners for the Hospital decided that the cost put it out of the question, the more so since preventing industrialization of a short stretch of riverfront would have had a negligible effect on future levels of pollution. (fn. 5)

The First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Auckland (1784–1849), decided not to overrule the unanimous opinion of the Commissioners, even though he was much in favour of the purchase. There the matter might have ended, but a year later the Admiralty was in touch with Hardwick, asking him to sound out Cubitt to see if he was still willing to give up the land, which he was. The new First Lord, Sir Francis Baring (later Lord Northbrook, 1796–1866), now made a determined effort to win the Commissioners over. Writing privately to the senior Commissioner George Tierney, he brushed aside both the possible benefit to health and the laundry scheme to plead on purely aesthetic grounds:

Greenwich Hospital is one of the finest Buildings of which we can boast. The erection of smoky Manufactory Chimnies directly opposite will materially affect the appearance of the Building - and I much fear when the thing is done and it is too late we shall be sorry that we have allowed the land to slip out of our control, and the public when they learn that there was an opportunity of securing it will cry out.

In order to make up my own opinion I went down to Greenwich, and I must say I came away entirely agreeing with Lord Auckland & those who believe it will sadly affect the view ... I cannot but think that it is very essential for the eye at least that some line of Trees or agreeable objects should close the Vista.

As to the money question ... you must recollect that the Foundation and Building is not done niggardly, and when a Palace is erected for such a purpose it is not improper that some consideration and expense should be incurred for appearance. (fn. 6)

Reluctant though they were, the Commissioners entered into agreement for a sub-lease from Cubitt coterminous with his own 99-year lease from Lady Glengall, who declined to sell the freehold. Cubitt relaxed his original insistence that none of the ground might be brought on to the market in competition with the rest of his estate, agreeing to allow the building of private houses and to limit all restrictions to 20 years. In March 1852 the lease was granted by Cubitt, the rent being set at £350 14s. (fn. 7)

Figure 196:

Greenwich Hospital Estate and Newcastle Street. Based on the Ordnance Survey of 1867–70. Hatching shows the areasold in 1871 for North Greenwich Station, and stippling the houses built in 1882. Inset plan shows Island Gardens as laid out in 1895, the hatched area being taken for the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

The River Wall

Cubitt had begun to build a wall along this section of the riverside in 1848, about 800ft (including the return alongside Johnson Street drawdock) having been completed by the time the Hospital acquired the ground in 1850. William Cubitt & Company had already been promised the job by Hardwick. Only two-thirds were to have been built that year, but by December the whole stretch had been finished. The work was done by Cubitt & Company's workmen under the superintendence of Henry Worster, a bricklayer regularly employed at the Hospital. (fn. 8)

The river wall, standing on a 4ft-deep concrete foundation extending several feet front and back of the wall, rose in stages, diminishing from 5ft across at the bottom to 3ft at the top. It was faced with selected stocks bonded in alternate courses one, one-and-a-half and two bricks thick, the bulk of the structure being made up with rubble stone, hard rough burnt stocks and burrs or clinkers. This rubble work was laid in mortar and grouted with a lime and sharp-sand mix, cement being used for bedding and pointing the back face to a depth of half a brick. A concrete backing-wall was then cast, using the same six-parts-to-one Thames ballast and lime mix as the foundation, 6½ft thick most of the way up but narrowing to 4ft towards the top. (fn. 9)

Hoop-iron ties with cross-pieces were set in the wall 16in. apart, every 2½ft up from the first 4ft. Further reinforcement was provided by 1½-in. thick wroughtiron bolts running from timbers at the rear of the concrete backing wall through the entire wall to oak fender-piles of 10in. by 8in. section on the front. There were three such bolts to a fender. The top of the wall was finished with oak capping. (fn. 10)

On 12 November 1852, following a wet spell, a floodtide washed away or irreparably damaged nearly 350ft of the new wall. The key factor in the collapse seems to have been not simply defective construction but the fact that the ground was still at its natural level, near or below normal high tide, thus allowing a huge build-up of water once the river had risen over the wall. Advising immediate reinstatement, Hardwick urged that steps be taken to decide the future of the ground, opining that the best means of preventing a recurrence of the disaster would be to put the ground to use, so that the surface would be drained and properly consolidated. But nothing transpired, and the wall remained a ruin. (fn. 11)

Hardwick's Development Plan

It had been hoped that a use might be found for the site directly connected with the Hospital, but although it was the subject of 'anxious consideration' there was no progress until Hardwick took the initiative in July 1856. He proposed letting the ground along the south side of Manchester Road (the northern boundary of the estate) for building small houses similar to those then going up on the north side. Larger, semi-detached houses with gardens would be built on the north side of a road cutting through the middle of the estate, parallel to Manchester Road. South of this road the ground would be laid out with a plantation, in which yet larger, detached villas might be built. This was, argued Hardwick, the only remaining part of the Isle of Dogs available for such houses, which might be 'very desirable for the better Class of Persons, whose occupations may render their residence necessary in that locality'. (fn. 12)

Instead of rebuilding the wharf wall as before, Hardwick proposed to interrupt it with a slope 280ft long, faced in Kentish ragstone. The oak capping on the wharf wall would be replaced by a stone coping. Alongside would be a terrace walk for the tenants. He estimated the total cost of the works, including draining, turfing, planting and fencing, at nearly £4,000, well over a half of which would be accounted for by the stone slope. (fn. 13)

Agreement with Cubitt & Company

Hardwick's plan met with the Commissioners' approval, but there proved to be no takers and no advance was made until November 1858, when Hardwick reached agreement with Cubitt for him to take back and develop the land on a new lease, with covenants safeguarding the Hospital's environmental interests. Hardwick's scheme was modified to allow more intensive development including some wharves and factories as well as houses. Cubitt himself, however, soon pulled out of the proposed deal, exasperated by the Admiralty's insistence that it, as well as the Hospital Commissioners, should have power of veto over designs for buildings. He suggested that his partners take his place instead, which they did, though repeating his objection: the Admiralty backed down. (fn. 14)

The agreement with William Cubitt & Company signed in August 1859 provided for leases to be granted to the firm or its nominees for terms corresponding to the residue of the 1852 lease, and at rents together making up a sum equal to the rent of the 1852 lease. That sum having been secured, any further leases were to be issued at nominal rent only. (fn. 15)

A 50ft-wide road was to be made through the estate, leaving a 200ft-wide strip alongside the river. Most of this strip was to be fenced and planted, a portion at the east end with a 400ft length of riverfront being left for wharves. In the plantation up to five villas might be built, each to cost at least £1,000, the south fronts to be at least 150ft from the river. The wharves might be used only for wharfage (provided no offensive materials were handled), and any buildings proposed would be subject to the approval of the Hospital Commissioners or their architect. The river wall was to be reinstated or rebuilt as a slope. Houses or factories north of the central road were subject to a 40ft height-restriction (50ft for chimneys), and particularly noisy or smelly activities were banned. (fn. 16)

Development, c1861–5

In addition to the main road through the estate (Wharf Road, renamed Saunders Ness Road in 1937), three cross streets were formed: Barque Street, Ship (later Schooner) Street, and Brig Street. Only about 100 houses were built, parts of the estate remaining waste until after the Second World War. The first houses did not appear until 1862, and four years later the trade depression put a stop to further development for many years. Most of the houses were of two floors, with basements (in consequence of the low natural ground level). The houses in Manchester Road lacked basements; a few (Nos 84–90, even) were of three floors. (fn. 17) The only public house was the Princess of Wales at No. 84 Manchester Road, erected by Robert Gibbs in 1862 (see page 501). (fn. 18)

Although some houses were built by Cubitt & Company, most were the speculations of small-time builders, financed by advances from Cubitts and presumably supplied by them with building materials. Advances, which amounted to nearly the whole cost of building, had to be repaid before a lease was handed over. Being able to get together the money to repay the advance depended upon finding a buyer for the property or mortgaging another property. In consequence leases were often engrossed only to lie unsigned for months on end in the solicitor's office, while completed houses stood empty. Another result of this mode of development was that, in order for Cubitts to make enough profit, the ground rents were set high. At £5 a house this was a quarter of their annual value, very much higher than most comparable houses in Millwall. (fn. 19)

Such high rents can only have encouraged poor maintenance and hastened the degeneration of the properties. The case of Nos 4, 5 and 6 Ship Terrace (later Nos 108, 106 and 104 Manchester Road) illustrates the problem. Built by John Gibbs in 1862, they were sold by Gibbs's widow's husband to a Miss Richmond of Islington. By December 1867 (when the Isle of Dogs was deep in depression) she was unable to pay the ground rents. Expensive repairs had had to be made, tenants had decamped owing rent and two of the houses had been unoccupied for months. A year and a half later she was still in arrears, having had to lower the rents to an uneconomic level to get tenants. (fn. 20)

From the late 1860s there was no further housebuilding on the estate until 1882, when two rows of twostorey houses with basements were put up in Wharf Road. These were Nos 5–8 Wharf Road, later designated Nos 43–49 (odd) Saunders Ness Road, built by E. Early of Peckham, and Nos 1–10 College Row, later Nos 1–19 (odd) Saunders Ness Road, built by W. Buckland of Barque Street and Bromley. (fn. 21)

Isle of Dogs Police Station, No. 126 Manchester Road (demolished)

Built in 1865 on a 79-year lease for about £2,000, the station provided accommodation for a married sergeant (or inspector) and married constable, their families and six single constables, with up to three prisoners. It was designed by the police surveyor Charles Reeves. Typical of stations before the economies of the early 1880s – 'strong substantial structures of brickwork, with an elevation to some extent ornamental' - it had several characteristic defects (Plate 90b; fig. 197). (fn. 22)

To begin with, it was on a narrow-fronted street plot, without adequate space for separate entrances to the station and living quarters. Inside, the men's recreation or day room adjoined the noisy charge room, and was therefore generally abandoned in favour of the more peaceful mess: it was later used as an inspector's office. Other adverse criticisms made when the station was surveyed in 1881 included the absence of a bath, brush lockers and a parade room in the yard for the men to line up for duty or receive pay. (fn. 23)

Upstairs, the absence of a water supply and of gas lighting in the smaller bedrooms was noted, while bed space per man was felt to be over-generous. But it was the arrangement of the quarters that really gave cause for concern. (fn. 24)

As in a number of stations and section-houses, single and married quarters shared a staircase and landing, the door to the married quarters opening opposite that to the men's room: 'grave improprieties have naturally arisen from this mingling of occupation; and ... women often refuse to live in a police station on this very account.' The common landing was later partitioned, the door to the men's room blocked up and a new entrance provided. (fn. 25)

Figure 197:

Isle of Dogs Police Station, No. 126 ManchesterRoad, plans. Charles Reeves, architect, 1864–5. Demolished Key: 1 Day Room: 2 Charge Room: 3 Cell: 4 Mess Room: 5 Drying-Room: 6 Kitchen: 7 Women's WC:8 Cleaning-Room: 9 Men's WC and Urinals: 10 CoalStore: 11 Bedroom for six Constables: 12 Married Constable's Bedroom: 13 Married Constable's Sitting-Room:14 Box Room: 15 Sergeant's Sitting-Room: 16 Sergeant's Bedroom

A later addition was an iron ambulance-shed, which by the First World War had become a billiards room. The station was demolished c1973, a replacement at Nos 160–174 Manchester Road opening in 1981. (fn. 26)

The Plantation and the Villas on the Wharf

The plantation was designed for Cubitt & Company by the Scottish landscape gardener Robert Marnock (1800– 89), who was then in charge of the Royal Botanic Society's gardens in Regent's Park. His scheme, shown in a sketch plan dated October 1859, was to set an undulating belt of trees and shrubs along the back and sides of the ground, with large and small clumps scattered in front dividing it into five equal portions and partly screening the intended villas from the river. He proposed a variety of evergreen and deciduous trees, including acacia, mountain ash, beech, birch, Spanish and horse-chestnut, wychelm, silver fir, laburnum, lime, maple, oak, Austrian pine, Oriental plane and sycamore. Shrubs were to include Chinese arbor vitae, berberis, box, sweet-brier, broom, furze, laurel, lilac, privet and syringa. Although the ground was planted, the failure of the villa-building scheme ultimately led to the plantation being badly neglected. (fn. 27)

The fate of the villas on the wharf clearly demonstrates that in property location matters above all. For the prosperous businessman with interests on the Isle of Dogs a house in Greenwich or Blackheath was an obvious choice; the Isle of Dogs itself had nothing to offer. It was physically repellent and, as it had never supported a middle class, it had no infrastructure of good shops and amenities. The idea that an enclave of five new large houses could survive there was fanciful. (Senior dockcompany officials needing to live locally were, of course, provided with suitable residences.)

It was said in 1895 that only one villa was built 'and the foundations of another prepared'. (fn. 28) It is clear from photographs that a second villa was completed, but its history is obscure (fig. 196). This villa was somewhat the larger of the two, but it had a much shorter existence, being demolished by about 1870. (fn. c1) The longer-surviving house appears originally to have been called Thames House, later Dresden House or Hall, and eventually Osborne House. Occupied in 1871 by a seed-crusher, his wife, son and one servant (hardly a full house), it was uninhabited ten years later, but in 1890 was the home of an engineer from the Blackwall Iron Works, Joseph Jobling; he later moved to Wanstead, and in 1892 the house was 'in the occupation of a caretaker'. (fn. 29)

In 1895, Osborne House having been acquired with the plantation by the LCC, part of it was leased to Poplar Borough Council and opened as a branch library, the remainder being occupied by the caretaker of the new Island Gardens. The library closed on the opening of the new Cubitt Town branch in Strattondale Street in 1905 and was subsequently used mostly for storage. (fn. 30)

The Island Gardens

The question of making the derelict plantation into a municipal park was raised with the Metropolitan Board of Works and Poplar District Board of Works by the Director of Greenwich Hospital in 1885, an offer having been made to the Admiralty (fn. 1) for a lease of the site as a factory. (fn. 31)

Nothing came of this, but in 1889 the newly formed LCC recognized the importance of the site and opened negotiations for its purchase. The Admiralty and Cubitt & Company had already come to an agreement to share the proceeds from any new lease, and it was only the high price asked (£10,000) that deterred the LCC. A deputation from the LCC, including Will Crooks and the chairman of the Parks Committee, J. S. Fletcher, met the First Lord of the Admiralty in November 1892 - the first occasion on which the LCC appeared before a government official as petitioners. The ground, said Crooks, would be a 'little paradise' for local people. (fn. 32)

The purchase was eventually made in March 1895 for £6,500. Of this, £3,500 went to the trustees of Cubitt & Company and £3,000 to the Admiralty, which included Osborne House and its garden gratis. The freehold was acquired from Lady Margaret Charteris's trustees for £2,200. The Poplar District Board of Works contributed £3,500 of the total cost. (fn. 33)

Lieutenant-Colonel John J. Sexby, the chief officer of the LCC Parks Sub-Department, who designed the new park, wrote that on acquisition the ground was merely paddock and 'in a very rough condition'. Nothing appears to have been done with it by the Admiralty since the lease to Cubitt & Company, although the river wall had been fully restored, at a cost of £8,000. Laying out involved planting the north, west and east sides with trees and shrubs, as well as the formation of paths and drains, a riverside walk, areas where children could play and perform gymnastics, and the erection of a 'light and inexpensive' wooden bandstand (fig. 196). (fn. 34)

The Island Gardens were formally opened by Will Crooks on 3 August 1895. Since then, although the main planting — which includes plane trees, holly, almond, flowering cherry and thorn — has matured well, the gardens have lost a good deal of their late-Victorian flavour. Above all they no longer provide a striking contrast to mean streets, factories and wharves. The refreshment-house, with its giant teapot and steaming cuppa picked out in dark brick, (fn. 2) was built by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1979–80. (fn. 35) New gates and railings were installed in 1985 as part of a general scheme of improvements. (fn. 36)

The Riverside Wharves

The 400ft of riverside land reserved for wharves experienced a varied history. There were six main sites, roughly equal in size. The five western wharves were at first leased as two sites, each for 60-year terms, to a Lambeth slate merchant, Thomas Stirling, in 1864–5; the easternmost wharf, known as Durham Wharf, was used for some years by coal and stone merchants, but by the early 1870s had been absorbed into Cumberland Oil Mills. Stirling used the next wharf along, known as the Slate Wharf or Export Slate Wharf, until c 1905; after a brief period in the occupation of a firm of lamp-glass merchants, under the name Invicta Wharf, it too was annexed by Cumberland Oil Mills. (fn. 37)

Stirling made a number of attempts to let the rest of his ground, only to come up against the restrictive covenants. A proposed testing centre for ropes, chains and anchors came to nothing when Hardwick objected to an intended 32ft-high shed as being much too tall, and to the fixing of a steam-engine on the wharf. Another rejected scheme was that of Captain H. F. McKillop's Iron Ship Coating Company Ltd, which planned to manufacture a new kind of ships' anti-fouling composition, and flexible coffer-dams for examining and repairing ships while afloat. The scheme would have involved laying down a gridiron on the foreshore in front of Osborne House and erecting a kiln, mixing-house and various minor buildings on the wharf adjoining the garden. In the event the company found premises in Millwall away from the riverside, but went bankrupt soon after. (fn. 38)

Cumberland Oil Mills

Cumberland Oil Mills, adjoining the Greenwich Hospital Estate, were established in 1857 for the production of linseed oil and oilcake by Nicholay, Graham & Armstrong, who already owned mills in West Drayton, Middlesex. The main building, three storeys high with a jetty at the top, and about 50ft by 40ft, was built by Cubitt & Company to the design of one of the partners, William Rogers. It had been up several years when, without warning, one of the floors collapsed and four men were killed. The cause was probably gross overloading of the floor with sacks of seed, causing failure of the supporting iron corbels. (fn. 39)

Latterly occupied by British Oil & Cake Mills Ltd, the mills continued in operation until 1949, when seed-crushing gave way to linseed-oil refining. The works closed in 1964. Subsequently the premises were occupied for a few years by a steel-fabrications company and then by the Apex Rubber Company Ltd of Cubitt Town Wharf for warehousing. The main warehouse was demolished following a fire in 1972, and the remaining buildings - chiefly a range of brick sheds and a chimney shaft (Plate 87b) were cleared away in the late 1980s for the Cumberland Mills residential development (see page 699). (fn. 40)

Honduras (Lukach) and Jarrahdale Wharves

The wharf on the west side of the Slate Wharf was taken in 1865 by John Newton & Company, fire-brick, tile, cement and plaster merchants. It took the name of Honduras Wharf, one of two wharves at Bankside where the firm was based hitherto (it continued to occupy the other). Newtons and their successor, Ramsay & Company, in the same business, remained at the wharf until the early 1870s. By the mid-1880s Honduras Wharf had been united with the wharf to the west as an engineering works called the Ferry Iron Works. By 1890 the Ferry Iron Works had given up the old Honduras Wharf half of its site, which took on a new identity as Lukach Wharf, in the occupation of the Lawrence Automatic Gas Company Ltd, an ambitious and short-lived company formed to produce gas carburettors and gas-making plant. The wharf took its name from Joseph Harry Lukach, who was prominent in the setting up of the concern. (fn. 41)

The eastern half of the Ferry Iron Works was briefly known around 1890 as the Belgian Iron Wharf, but in the early 1890s was taken over by The Buoyancy Supply Syndicate Ltd for manufacturing various patent lifesaving appliances, buoyant garments and deck-lockers. The business had begun in Cambridge, where the patentee, Francis Wentworth Brewster, had been making rescue ladders, lifebelts and lifebuoys. He came to live in one of the houses in College View to be general manager and engineer at the works. The company, which was backed by a number of shipowners, shipbrokers and others, did not, however, long remain afloat. (fn. 42)

Lukach Wharf was afterwards occupied by The 'Arbey' Wood Wool Packing Company Ltd, which produced wood-wool, chips and shavings using machinery patented by a Parisian engineer, Louis Arbey. The wood-wool concern took over the former Belgian Iron Wharf in 1897. That was renamed Jarrahdale Wharf, and was presumably used for handling jarrah wood, which was imported to the West India Docks and was much used from the 1880s for paving and high-class joinery. After the collapse of Arbey's the two wharves were occupied for a few years by a wharfage and sawmilling subsidiary of Jarrahdale Jarrah Forests and Railways Ltd, which had timber-producing and other interests in Western Australia. Lukach and Jarrahdale Wharves were subsequently taken over by Sapon Ltd of Barrel Wharf. (fn. 43)

Barrel, Sapon or Luralda Wharf

Bryan Corcoran, Witt & Company occupied the wharf west of the future Jarrahdale Wharf as a millstonecutting yard from the late 1870s to the early 1890s, the westernmost wharf remaining vacant for most of this time. In 1897 both wharves were taken over by the Earl of Denbigh and Robert Baelz, a merchant, partners in the Thames Steam Cooperage Company. The next year the firm was incorporated as a limited company with a nominal capital of £25,000, and a large shed and chimney shaft were erected on the ground, which was renamed Barrel Wharf. The brick-and-timber shed had a corrugated-iron and glass roof. It was built by R. A. Lowe of Chislehurst. (fn. 44)

In 1900 an associated company, Sapon Ltd, was set up to manufacture Sapon, a washing-powder made from oatmeal. Among the main shareholders in the new venture, in addition to the barrel-making company, were Robert Macpherson, the manager of the cooperage, and Godfrey Bamberg, the inventor of Sapon. Sapon Ltd took over Barrel Wharf, and soon the adjoining Lukach and Jarrahdale Wharves as well, giving it a total river frontage of 260ft. The whole became known as Sapon Wharf, although the old name also persisted. The Admiralty's readiness to license soap-making on the site shows how its attitude had changed since Hardwick's day and the disposal of the troublesome plantation. (fn. 45)

By 1905 Sapon was proving a runaway success. Handled by several hundred wholesalers and bought direct by thousands of traders, it was supplied to the hotel and restaurant trades, railway companies, manufacturers, Cunard and other steamship lines. It was stocked by Harrods, Whiteleys, Spiers & Ponds, and the other leading department stores. In the next few years Sapon's range of cereal soap powders and hard soaps grew apace. 'Russian Tar' medicated soap was introduced. 'Flake' was developed for the Yorkshire woollen trade as a decontaminant and degreaser. The Admiralty became one of the most important customers, purchasing a special Sea Soap Powder for use at the Royal dockyards and stocking Sapon soap for sale on board ship. During the First World War almost the entire output of Sapon toilet soap was supplied to British Expeditionary Force canteens. (fn. 46)

In 1917 the company was reconstructed as Sapon Soaps Ltd, and after the war manufacturing subsidiaries were established in Canada and the USA (where the trade name 'Zap' was coined). Sapon soaps were also made under licence in France. The Wharf Road works remained the only British factory, though depots had been set up in Bradford and Edinburgh. 'Derbac', an insecticide soap (also available in liquid form for disinfecting floors and other tasks), was developed in the 1920s, selling to school clinics, child-welfare centres and medical institutions generally. A vast Derbac export field in undeveloped countries was envisaged, partly for typhus control. (fn. 47)

Despite this success, the company suffered badly from the post-war depression, and the head office had to be transferred from the City to Wharf Road. Exports were hit by exchange-rate fluctuations and home demand was affected by strikes in the textile industry. Internal dissension led to Macpherson's resignation as managing director in 1922, and a plan was laid to move the manufacturing to Liverpool and place it under the direct management of an old-established soap-maker, Peter Lunt & Company. Although the deal fell through, the days of the works were numbered. Creditors petitioned to have the company wound up and it went into receivership. The business was taken over in 1923 by Pure Products Ltd, set up for the purpose, principally by two Nottingham manufacturers of lace-making machines, Sir Ernest and John Jardine, who held debentures in Sapon Soaps through their company Nottingham Colwick Estates Ltd. Pure Products closed the works in 1924–5, transferring the manufacture of Sapon soaps to Nottingham. (fn. 48)

Parts of the premises were let in 1924 to the local wharfingers J. Calder & Company, which took over the whole site after the soapworks closed, storing mostly chemicals, including nicotine, petroleum jelly, sal ammoniac and sulphur. The buildings comprised the old cooperage, which had been used for soap packing; an old open-fronted shed with a corrugated-iron roof on the former Lukach Wharf, and the main soap factory, similar in construction to the packing shed. (fn. 49)

In the late 1920s the former soapworks were acquired by Luralda Ltd, manufacturers of tea chests, and renamed Luralda Wharf. Luralda, and later Sumacon Luralda Packaging Ltd, plywood importers, continued to occupy the wharf until the 1980s, when it was redeveloped for housing (see page 701). (fn. 50)

North Greenwich and Cubitt Town Station

In 1874 the western end of the estate, including houses in Manchester Road and Johnson Street, was acquired by the London and Blackwall Railway Company for the Millwall Extension Railway. A 10ft-high embankment was built to carry the lines, together with a coal bunker, engine shed and station, all timber-built, and a steamboat pier was added in 1877.

The pier was served by a steam ferry to and from Greenwich Pier, operated first by the Victoria Steamboat Association, and after 1897 by the Thames Steamboat Company. With a fare of one penny and a service every 20 minutes, the ferry proved popular with dock workers and others. During one week in August 1884 more than 16,000 passenger crossings were made. But with the opening of the LCC's free foot tunnel in August 1901 the service ceased to be viable and the pier was dismantled soon afterwards. (fn. 51)

Calder's Wharf

Part of the terminus site was let commercially, occupiers including the Unsinkable Boat Company in the 1890s and, in 1926, the wharfingers J. Calder & Company. After the station closed c1928, Calders took over the whole site, stowing chemicals and other goods in the open, underneath the old platform, and in a shed made out of the covered way which had led down to the pier. Later they were using the railway arches south of Manchester Road, and the disused subway leading from the old station to Wharf Road (see below). (fn. 52)

Calder's Wharf remained in use for wharfage until c1969, when a boathouse for the Poplar, Blackwall & District Rowing Club (which had been using the old covered-way shed) was built on the site. The architects were E. S. Boyer & Partners. (fn. 53)

The Greenwich Foot Tunnel

In 1896, as the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel was nearing completion, the LCC began to reconsider the question of further river crossings in east London. The two new schemes that were proposed were a road tunnel at Rotherhithe, and a pedestrian tunnel between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs to replace the existing privately owned toll-ferry. (fn. 54) The idea of an improved link between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs was not a new one; as early as 1811 there had been an abortive proposal for a tunnel, (fn. 55) and in 1877 an Act was passed empowering a private company to build such a subway. (fn. 56) Although these powers were extended by successive Acts until June 1890, no work on the tunnel had yet been done.

A new free crossing would benefit working people on both sides of the river. Communications were so unreliable that some employers on the Island refused to allow their foremen and timekeepers to live on the southern bank because of delays at the ferry during foggy weather. (fn. 57) The passenger steam-ferry from Greenwich Pier to North Greenwich Station was the only safe method of crossing the river at this point, but the penny toll amounted to an annual outlay of £2 12s - a considerable sum for the working men and women of the area. (fn. 58) A new tunnel would also allow the inhabitants of the built-up industrial areas of Millwall and Cubitt Town to visit the more salubrious surroundings of Greenwich Park and Blackheath for recreation. By June 1896 the LCC had accepted plans by Alexander Binnie (the LCC Engineer) for a cast-iron tunnel connecting Island Gardens with Greenwich. Parliamentary powers were received in 1897, (fn. 59) and in February 1899, after some delays in costing the project, the LCC finally accepted the tender of £109,500 from J. Cochrane & Son, of Victoria Street.

By June 1899 work was under way on the Poplar side of the river on a site selected for the northern entranceshaft, at the western end of Island Gardens. At first progress was slow, partly because heavy demands on the Victorian engineering industry caused delays in the delivery of machinery and materials. (fn. 60) However, by May 1900 the Poplar shaft had been fully sunk and by August tunnelling operations had commenced. From then on the rate of progress was exceptionally rapid, due mainly to the favourable nature of the subsoil (chiefly clay and coarse sand) and the experience gained from the earlier tunnelling work at Blackwall. From February 1901 the shield was progressing at an average of 10ft every working day, reaching the south shaft on 26 May. In only 36 weeks the tunnel had been driven from Poplar to Greenwich, which was regarded as an 'unprecedented achievement in sub-aqueous tunnelling'. (fn. 61) The work was carried out under the supervision of Maurice Fitzmaurice, the LCC's Chief Engineer, with W. C. Copperthwaite as resident engineer.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel Entrance Shaft, Island Gardens.

The shaft is a large cylindrical steel caisson 60ft deep and 43ft in external diameter, constructed of two steel skins with 4ft of Portland Cement Concrete sandwiched between them (fig. 198a). The skins were made of horizontal rings of steel plates rivetted together, with reinforcing plates at the bottom and around the tunnel opening. The steel framework was assembled in stages in the contractor's yard at Island Gardens and sunk gradually as the work progressed. The latter part of the sinking operation was performed in compressed air, with workmen excavating in a small air-tight chamber beneath the caisson.

The shaft is capped by a small circular red-brick building with square recessed panels (Plate 92b; fig. 198b). The building, which is listed Grade II, sits upon a granite plinth and has a moulded cornice and entrance porch of Stuart's Granolithic cement. (fn. 62) (fn. 3) Above the two doorways of the entrance porch a bronze tablet by J. W. Singer & Son commemorates the completion of the tunnel works in 1902. The lift shaft was covered by a hemispherical dome consisting of quarter-inch plate glass supported by a framework of steel ribs. (The glass had to be replaced in 1948 as a result of bomb damage during the Second World War.) Surmounting the dome is a cast-iron cupola decorated with Corinthian pilasters and details in steel plate and cast metal.

The interior of the entrance building was finished with a lining of white-glazed bricks, and the stairwell in the shaft lined with white-glazed tiles. Pedestrian access was provided by a 6ft-wide steel and cast-iron staircase designed to allow the central well of 20ft diameter to accommodate a passenger lift if required. By July 1901 the LCC had decided to install an electric lift in each shaft, and in November the tender of Easton & Company of Erith Iron Works, Kent, at £7,334 7s, was accepted. (fn. 64) The mahogany-panelled lifts were completed and installed by November 1902, although the lack of a sufficient electrical supply prevented them from becoming operational until 1904. (fn. 65)

Figure 198:

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, Island Gardens. Alexander Binnie, LCC Engineer, 1900–2 a Section looking east through the lift-shaft and lift-shaft building b North elevation of the lift-shaft building c Section through the tunnel showing construction

The shaft on the Greenwich bank is of identical construction, although slightly deeper (over 68ft from top to cutting edge).

The Tunnel.

The tunnel itself is constructed of 1,217ft of cast-iron rings. Each ring is 1ft 8in. thick and consists of eight separate segments and a key-piece (fig. 198c). The bolts used to hold together the cast-iron lining were fitted with lead washers to give an air-tight seal. The iron tubing is lined with 1ft of cement and faced with white-glazed tiles made and fixed by Wood & Company of Victoria Street. The floor is paved with York-stone flags, with a space beneath for service pipes. Ventilation is provided by a system of tubes and pipes, through which used air is exhausted by a fan and fresh air induced.

The external diameter of the tunnel is 12ft 9in., allowing for a footway 9ft wide, and a central headroom of 9ft 4½ in. reducing to 7ft 6in. at the sides. During bombing raids on 7–8 September 1940 part of the castiron lining was damaged near the Poplar entrance shaft, and this section was repaired with a new inner castiron lining 7ft 11in. in diameter (Plate 92d). (fn. 66) A free emergency ferry service was arranged by the Civil Defence Committee while repairs were carried out. (fn. 67)

At no point is the top of the tunnel less than 13ft from the river bed, and it drops from each shaft with a gradient of 1 in 15, the central portion being roughly level. This was done to comply with the Thames Conservators' request that enough room should remain to dredge a river channel 500ft wide and 48ft deep for trading vessels. (fn. 68)

The tunnelling shield used to excavate the tunnel was a 'box' or 'trap' shield specially designed to prevent any heavy break-in of water at the work-face from entering the tunnel. (Trap shields were also used on the Mersey and Woolwich Tunnels.) All the tunnelling work took place in compressed air. As at Blackwall, a scheme was introduced guaranteeing compensation for men injured while working in compressed air, and two local doctors, Messrs Leslie and Macmorran, were appointed Medical Officers to look after the men. (fn. 69)

Opening of the Tunnel.

The tunnel was opened to the public on 4 August 1902. The LCC had originally intended to open it formally, but much electrical work (including the tunnel lighting and the lifts) remained unfinished, and the idea of an opening ceremony was eventually abandoned. (fn. 70) By February 1905 over 9,000 people were using the tunnel weekly. The total cost of the work was £179,705, including over £58,000 for the acquisition of property and compensation for owners of ferry rights. (fn. 71) The success of the foot tunnel marked the end of the ferry services. In 1904 the LCC completed the purchase of ferry rights and associated freehold lands from the London and Blackwall and Great Eastern Railway Companies. (fn. 72)

Subway connecting the Foot Tunnel with the Great Eastern Railway Station at North Greenwich.

The Thames Tunnel (Greenwich to Millwall) Act of 1897 had authorized the LCC and the Great Eastern Railway Company (GER) to build a 'subway or other means of communication' connecting the Poplar entrance shaft with the GER's North Greenwich Station. Following negotiations between the LCC, GER and the Millwall Dock Company, in 1903 a subway was constructed between the tunnel and the station. (fn. 73) It was destroyed c1970 when Saunders Ness Road was extended westwards and the Poplar & Blackwall Rowing Club was built.

The Disposal of the Estate

With the old plantation taken over by the LCC, the Admiralty's need for the estate had gone, but it was not until 1922 that efforts were made to get rid of it. Profits were almost negligible, and the Charteris Estate had already begun disposing of its freeholds, selling the former Durham and Invicta Wharves to the occupiers, George Armstrong & Company Ltd of Cumberland Oil Mills - leaving the Admiralty still responsible for dilapidations on the site. The houses were 'entirely undesirable . . . held largely by poor lessees and occupied by bad tenants', and there seemed little prospect of getting rid of them. However, in 1925 the wharfinger and coal merchant James Calder made an offer of £400 for the property which was accepted. At the last minute Calder insisted on the assignment of the lease being made to a company, Cubitt Town Leases Ltd, on the grounds that he did not want to serve dilapidations notices under his own name on the various sub-lessees, with whom he had business and personal relations. In 1937 the Charteris Estate served notices to repair, which Calder largely ignored. The upshot was that, after the expiry of the Admiralty's lease, Cubitt Town Leases Ltd disappeared into liquidation, all its assets being taken by the Inland Revenue, and the Admiralty had to compensate the Charteris Estate to the tune of £1,700 for the loss of value of the estate on reversion. (fn. 74)

The houses escaped serious damage in the Second World War, but had been demolished by the early 1970s. The site is now occupied by George Green's School and Centre.

George Green's School and Centre

Visually and socially, George Green's Centre is a powerful presence in the southern Isle of Dogs. The site, on a sweep of road with Island Gardens and Greenwich Hospital as a backdrop, sets off the stark concrete-block building as no ordinary streetscape could do (Plate 90c).

Plans for a new mixed secondary school for 900 pupils, replacing the old George Green's School in East India Dock Road, were approved by the Inner London Education Authority in 1972. Additional funding from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets enabled the school to be combined with a major community centre for the district, incorporating social services and recreational facilities, and the Lansbury Adult Education Institute.

Designed by Sir Roger Walters and R. A. Dark, the building was officially opened in June 1977. Deliberately offset from the axis of Greenwich Hospital, it comprises two split-level blocks. One block, with a stepped-back front to Manchester Road, contains the main school accommodation. The other is a wing housing a social services suite, old people's day centre, youth club, toddlers' day nursery, and shared community-school facilities including a sports hall, gymnasium, activities hall, and theatre. The park front is also stepped back, in a series of terraces. (fn. 75)


  • 1. The Greenwich Hospital Commissioners' interest in the site had been transferred to the Admiralty under the Greenwich Hospital Act, 1865.
  • 2. The effect has now (1994) been spoiled by painting.
  • 3. Stuart's Granolithic was a compound of cement and finely ground granite produced by a local firm, Stuart's Granolithic Stone Company of Glengall Road (see page 444).
  • 4. PRO, ADM76/57.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. PRO, ADM71/56; ADM76/57.
  • 7. PRO, ADM76/57; ADM169/835.
  • 8. PRO, ADM67/101, p.246.
  • 9. PRO, ADM65/109, Specification of the works to be done in erecting the new Wall next the River Thames in the Poplar level... (June 1850).
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. PRO, ADM76/57.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. PRO, ADM 169/835.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. PRO, IR58/84624, 84627–8.
  • 18. PRO, ADM76/57; IR58/84628/1308.
  • 19. PRO, ADM76/57; ADM65/105.
  • 20. PRO, ADM71/11, f.213 and inserts, 237–8.
  • 21. DSR 1882/167–70, 543–8, 589–92.
  • 22. PRO, MEPO5/37; MEPO2/898, p.3.
  • 23. PRO, MEPO2/898: R.L.O.Pearson, A.B.McHardy and T.Bond, Report on the Condition of the Metropolitan Police Stations, 1881.
  • 24. McHardy and Bond, op.cit.
  • 25. Ibid, p.18: PRO, MEPO9/85.
  • 26. PRO, MEPO9/85; IR58/84627: Information supplied by Metropolitan Police.
  • 27. PRO, ADM65/110.
  • 28. J.J.Sexby, Opening of Island Gardens, Poplar by Mr W. Crooks, 1895, p.2.
  • 29. Census, 1871, 1881: PRO, ADM169/184: POD: Pop.804, Valuation List (South District): NMM, photographs C 7859/a.
  • 30. THLHL, photographs, 850.22 (1899): DA 1927: Goad, 1927 series, vol.G, key plan.
  • 31. Sexby, op.cit., p.1.
  • 32. PRO, ADM169/184.
  • 33. PRO, ADM169/184: Sexby, op.cit., pp.2–3: LCC Mins, 1894, pp.207, 566.
  • 34. LCC Mins, 1895, p.445: Sexby, op.cit., p.3.
  • 35. English Heritage, Register of Parks and Gardens of special historic interest, Part 17, G1052, (1988).
  • 36. THLHL, LBTH Technical Services report Island Gardens Improvements (2 Sept 1986).
  • 37. POD: RB: MDR 1864/9/204, 1865/7/487: PRO, ADM 169/835: MiD, TC Plan no.1100431.
  • 38. PRO, ADM76/57, Applications for Wharves etc; BT31/1036/1756C: POD.
  • 39. B, 23 Nov 1861, p.809.
  • 40. POD: The Mill-Stone, the magazine of The British Oil & Cake Mills Ltd/Loders & Nucoline Ltd, Sept 1964, p.360: ELA, 5 May 1972, p.48.
  • 41. POD: GLRO, MBW 2736: PRO, BT31/4014/25550.
  • 42. PRO, BT31/4900/32608.
  • 43. POD: PRO, BT31/4308/27989, /5013/3360, /6187/43838, /7645/54563, /8409/61164.
  • 44. POD: GLRO, MBW 2736: PRO, BT31/15936/56472: DSR 1898/54, 231.
  • 45. PRO, BT31/16496/67633.
  • 46. Ibid.
  • 47. PRO, BT31/23817/148426.
  • 48. PRO, BT31/23817/148426: Companies House, Pure Products Ltd file.
  • 49. GL, MSS 14,944/19, p.313, /20, p.626, /21, p.230.
  • 50. POD.
  • 51. Kentish Mail and Greenwich and Deptford Observer, 8 Aug 1902: MBW 2660, Poplar and Greenwich Ferry Roads, it. 18, p.1; LCC Mins, 1903, pp.402–3: PRO, RAIL227/127, para.1836.
  • 52. GL, MSS 14,944/21, p.108; /28, p.335: MiD, TC Plan no.1100465.
  • 53. POD: DA S/047104–9: LBTH Mins, 1969–70, pp.135, 155: GL, MS 14,944/43, p.285.
  • 54. LCC Mins, 1896, pp.538–9, 595–6.
  • 55. GLRO, MR/UP/43.
  • 56. 40 & 41 Vic, c.64.
  • 57. LCC Mins, 1896, p.598.
  • 58. Kentish Mail and Greenwich and Deptford Observer, 8 Aug 1902.
  • 59. 60 & 61 Vic, c.224.
  • 60. LCC, New Subway for foot passengers between Millwall and Greenwich, 1902, p.7.
  • 61. LCC Mins, 1901, pp.635–6.
  • 62. London Borough of Greenwich, Borough Engineer's Department, Drawing No.S1346/FT, FT1 4.5, 82543.
  • 63. BN, 8 May 1903, pp.645–6.
  • 64. LCC Mins, 1901, p.1417.
  • 65. LCC Mins, 1904, p.2992.
  • 66. London Borough of Greenwich, Borough Engineer's Department, folder of notes and cuttings 'Greenwich and Woolwich Foottunnels FT1 and FT2'.
  • 67. LCC/MIN/2760, p.691.
  • 68. W.C.Copperthwaite, 'The Greenwich Footway Tunnel', Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1901–1902, vol.CL, p.2.
  • 69. LCC Mins, 1897, p.94; 1900, pp.696–7.
  • 70. LCC Mins, 1902, p.1135.
  • 71. LCC, L.C.C. Bridges, 1914, pp.117–18.
  • 72. LCC/MIN/1280, p.313.
  • 73. LCC/MIN/1279, p.350: PRO, RAIL385:49:X/MO8642.
  • 74. PRO, ADM169/835.
  • 75. H.C.Wilks, George Green's School 1828–1978, 1979, pp.162–3: There is a good account of the building in Ron Ringshall et al., The Urban School: Buildings for Education in London 1870–1980, 1983, pp.176–9, 211–13.
  • c1. This date must be incorrect, as a photograph of 1887 clearly shows both villas still in existence. Source: The National Archives, ADM 195/47.