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 XXII - Southern Blackwall
Blackwall developed southwards along the riverside in the seventeenth century, but in the early nineteenth century this development was divided into sections by the construction of the entrances to the West India Docks and the City Canal. One effect of the docks was that they prevented further development westwards, restricting it to a comparatively narrow strip between the dock company's land on the west and the river and Blackwall Yard to the east.
Canal Dockyard Area
The small area described here lies immediately to the south of the Blue Bridge, and consists of two pieces of ground separated by Manchester Road (at this point formerly called East Ferry Road) (fig. 223). The eastern portion, which presents a walled frontage to the road, was laid out as a dockyard in the first decade of the nineteenth century, but in 1994 is occupied by some derelict PLA houses awaiting redevelopment. The portion on the west side of Manchester Road has been considerably reduced in size since the early nineteenth century, when it was the site of a group of houses and gardens associated with the dockyard. It is now little more than a roadside strip occupied by a row of small houses built in the 1880s.
The whole of this area was once part of the large HallPreston estate, which extended northwards into Old Blackwall (see page 607). In 1799 the southern end of this estate was one of the properties purchased by the City Corporation for making the City Canal (see page 275). After the canal was finished, the Corporation leased and sold the surplus land on the south side of the Blackwall entrance to Thomas Pitcher, a shipbuilder at Northfleet, near Gravesend. Pitcher used the ground on the east side of Ferry Road to lay out a new dockyard, with two dry docks, and opposite, on the west side of the road, he built some small houses for his employees (Canal Row) and a large detached house for himself (Lawn House).
Pitcher's yard, renamed the Canal Dockyard by his successors, continued in operation until the 1920s, but before describing its history some consideration must be given to another, much earlier, yard in the vicinity.
Joel Gascoyne's plan of Stepney of 1703 shows a shipyard to the south of Coldharbour to which he gave the name 'Roults Yard' (fig. 1, page 3). (Gascoyne's orthography is defective: the proprietor's name was John Rolt.) The location and layout of the yard as depicted by Gascoyne looks remarkably similar to Pitcher's, and in 1853 the local historian William Cowper stated unequivocally that Pitcher's yard and the Canal Dockyard were the on-site successors to Rolt's. (fn. 8) In fact, they were in no way connected. Rolt's yard had disappeared altogether by the second half of the eighteenth century, and its site, which was to the north of the nineteenth-century yard, was swallowed up for the eastern entrance to the City Canal.
Rolt's yard had almost certainly been laid out in the late 1660s by Robert Browne, a Blackwall shipwright, who appears to have held the site on a 70–year lease expiring in the late 1730s. (fn. 9) It was dominated by two dry docks and its chief business presumably was shiprepairing rather than shipbuilding. At the time of Browne's death in 1686, Rolt was only 19 years old, and it is not known when or how he came to take over the yard. Possibly it was through his father-in-law, another local shipwright who had been an 'esteemed' friend of Robert Browne and was one of his executors. (fn. 10)
Rolt appears to have given up the yard about 1717, when he was on the point of leasing another yard in Limehouse, but that agreement was never executed. (fn. 11) At the time of his death in 1730 he had a small yard at Blackwall next to the Plough inn. (fn. 12)
After Rolt's departure, Browne's former yard seems to have remained untenanted until about 1724, when Browne's daughter, Anne Wilkins, assigned the lease to Richard Harris of Tower Hill, a freeman of the Stationers' Company and an 'eminent Trader to Africa and to the West Indies'. (fn. 13) When Harris died in 1734 his son Nicholas assigned the lease to another shipwright, Arthur Powis. (fn. 14)
In 1738 the Poplar Sewer Commissioners found the docks and wharfing in a neglected state with 'great danger of a breach there'. Powis was by then a bankrupt whose estate was in the hands of assignees, and Anne Wilkins and Nicholas Harris both denied liability: Wilkins because she no longer owned any property in Blackwall, and Harris because he had assigned the lease to Powis. The Commissioners therefore undertook the repairs themselves, intending to recover the costs from Powis's assignees. (fn. 15)
Between the late 1730s and the late 1740s the yard was apparently unoccupied, and from 1756 to 1769 the site was occupied by a glue house. There is no sign of the old dry docks on a plan of 1800, which shows buildings belonging to the cooper John Stewart on the site of Rolt's Yard. (fn. 16)
The Canal Dockyard: formerly Pitcher's Yard, 1806–1939
Thomas Pitcher, the man responsible for developing the early nineteenth-century dockyard, was a successful Thames shipbuilder whose yard at Northfleet, established in 1788, was one of the largest on the river. The Northfleet yard built both merchant ships for the East India trade, and warships for the navy; (fn. 17) the dockyard at Blackwall concentrated on repairing and refitting. At the time of the latter's development Pitcher was in partnership with the Blackwall shipbuilder William Wallis, who took the lead in securing the initial purchase of land from the City. But this partnership was short-lived, and in 1808 Wallis assigned his share in the premises to Pitcher. (fn. 18)
The land at Blackwall was acquired between 1806 and 1811. The first piece to be obtained — a freehold purchase costing £2,283 - became the southern half of the new dockyard, and it was here that Pitcher and Wallis excavated the two graving docks which were the yard's enduring feature. They gave a further £1,377 for a 35hp Boulton & Watt steam-engine and engine house standing on the site which had been used in the construction of the City Canal. The rest of Pitcher's holdings, on both sides of Ferry Road, were all leasehold, the leases being granted by the City. (The freehold subsequently passed to the West India Dock Company when it bought the City Canal in 1829.) The lease of the plot which formed the northern half of the yard was conditional on Pitcher spending £1,500 on building a slip or launch and providing a stone staircase down to the river for public use. (fn. 19) By 1814 the amenities also included a repairing slip. (fn. 20)
In its early years the yard employed about 100 men (rising to 131 in 1810), but the number fell drastically as competition from shipbuilders in India began seriously to affect the business of the Thames yards, and in April 1814, when the sole work at the yard was one ship under repair, the work-force numbered only 15 men. (fn. 21)
Thomas Pitcher (d.1837) retired in 1815, assigning the business to two of his eleven sons, Henry and William, whose partnership survived until 1832. William Pitcher (d.1860) then took over the yard and remained as proprietor until 1850, when he sold it privately to a local firm of shipowners, Joseph & Frederick Somes, having failed to sell it by auction in 1848. (fn. 22) On that occasion the auctioneers issued a detailed description of the property: two spacious dry docks for the reception of vessels of the largest class, wharf ways extensive for breaming ships' bottoms, layby for barges, space for building ships, mould loft, sawpits, engine-house, store-houses, joiner's shops, timber sheds, steam kiln, pitch and tar furnaces, landing crane, capstans, smiths' shop, coal and iron yards, counting-house, lodges, landing stairs and numerous useful appurtenances. (fn. 1)
Although these structures have long since been swept away, the much-repaired brick retaining wall on the north side of Stewart Street is a survival from William Pitcher's time. It contains ten iron tie-bars, some of which have shallow pyramidal heads embossed with the legend: 'Leiston Works 1844 / Springall's Patent / Made by Garrett & Sons'.
The purchasers of the yard, J. & F. Somes, gave £14,380 for the property and spent further large sums on alterations and improvements. These included lengthening the lower (north) dry dock (see below), rebuilding the boundary wall along Ferry Road in brick, and erecting a wooden mast-house with sail loft above. (fn. 24) In 1866 the yard was acquired by the Merchant Shipping Company Ltd, a company set up in 1864 - with members of the Somes family as the largest shareholders - to purchase the premises and carry on the business. Other shareholders included several architects and surveyors, among them J. R. and F. P. Cockerell. (fn. 25) In 1868 the company surrendered the leasehold property on the west side of Ferry Road - though they retained the use of some of the workmen's houses there - and they exchanged the lease of the northern part of the dockyard for a new lease of a smaller area, the north end of the yard being curtailed to allow for the widening of the pierhead at the South West India Dock Entrance. (fn. 26)
The Merchant Shipping Company's tenure lasted until 1886, when the yard was bought by the Dry Docks Corporation of London for £30,000. This firm was soon in difficulties, however, and in 1889 its assets were auctioned by the liquidator. (fn. 27) William Walker, a shipbuilder with an address in the City, agreed to buy the yard for £9,000, but in 1891 he sold it on to the Blackwall engineering firm of John Stewart & Sons for £13,500. (fn. 28) The firm was based at the Blackwall Iron Works in Folly Wall - to the south of the Canal Dockyard - where they made marine engines and boilers (see page 537). By 1891 their premises also included the riverside site adjoining the Canal Dockyard. The acquisition of the latter extended the firm's river frontage to about 1,000ft, broken only by the intrusion of the Prince of Wales public house.
In 1912 Stewart & Sons were in liquidation and their assets, including the Canal Dockyard, were purchased by the PLA. A reconstructed firm, John Stewart & Sons (1912) Ltd, arose from the ashes of the old, leased the Canal Dockyard from the PLA and continued in business as hull and engine repairers until 1923. The yard then closed. Within a few years it had been cleared and the two dry docks filled with spoil taken from the entrance to the South Dock of the West India Docks, which was rebuilt in 1927–8 as part of an improvement scheme. Under that scheme the northern end of Manchester Road was realigned to the east, over part of the old yard. The concrete and artificial-stone wall along the western side of the dockyard site was erected in 1928 following the re-routing of the road. (fn. 29) (The northern end of the old road survives as an access road in front of Nos 591–613 Manchester Road.)
The one constant feature of the yard between 1806 and 1927 was its two dry docks. Excavated by Thomas Pitcher and William Wallis in 1806, they were both originally of similar size, being about 230ft in length, with wooden sides and floors and wooden gates. (fn. 30) The City authorities allowed Pitcher and Wallis to lay a 4in.diameter cast-iron pipe across the site to bring water to the docks from the City Canal. When J. & F. Somes took over the yard they extended the lower (north) dock to 290ft, giving it a brick-lined rounded head. This was designed by Allen, Snooke & Stock of Tooley Street, architects, and built by James and George Munday. (fn. 31) By 1895 the lower dock had again been extended, to 295ft, and given a more pointed head. (fn. 32) As this brought the head very close to the boundary wall, a stretch of the wall was lowered to allow the dock to take large ships with high bows, as can be seen in the well-known photograph looking north along Manchester Road about 1919 (Plate 98a). The two docks were filled with rubble in 1927–8. On the riverside the blocked-up former entrances are still visible, between round-ended projections of brick and stone with wooden fenders (Plate 99c).
Canal Row and Lawn House
Canal Row was the name given to the terrace of six houses on the west side of Ferry Road, opposite the dockyard, which Pitcher built before 1813 as accommodation for some of his 'officers'. (fn. 33) (fn. 2) They were twostorey houses with attics and basements and two rooms on each floor; the 1848 sale notice describes them as 'neat residences for officers and foremen of the dockyard, with a garden to each'. (fn. 35) Pitcher's successors used them to house some of their employees until 1875. In 1861, when the Dockyard was in the hands of J. & F. Somes, the occupants were two shipwrights (one a foreman), a shipsmith, a ship-joiner, a boiler-smith and a sailmaker. (fn. 36)
Canal Row was demolished in 1877 for the widening of East Ferry Road, and the Merchant Shipping Company's workmen then living there moved to new houses provided by the East and West India Dock Company. Among the latter was a three-storey brick house, with a two-storey canted bay, erected in 1876 on the opposite side of East Ferry Road, at the north-west corner of the dockyard, and called Canal Villa, later No. 412 Manchester Road (Plates 98a, 99b). Designed by the dock company's surveyor, Augustus Manning, and built by B. E. Nightingale (whose tender was for £743), this house was assigned to the Merchant Shipping Company's foreman-shipwright. It was demolished about 1930. (fn. 37) The other replacements for Canal Row were on the east side of New (now Preston's) Road (see page 624).
The gardens of Canal Row backed on to the extensive pleasure grounds of the large detached house — later called Lawn House - built by Thomas Pitcher for his own occupation. Situated at the northern end of Pitcher's land on the west side of Ferry Road, it originally overlooked the City Canal and the Canal Quay, and was a prominent landmark until its demolition in 1941. The house was erected under a contract with the City dated June 1811, whereby Pitcher agreed to spend £500 on erecting brick buildings to be completed within two years. No doorway or opening was allowed on the north side, nor any projection which might impede the canal traffic, and the plans had to be approved by the surveyor to the City's Port Committee, James Mountague. (fn. 38) Building work seems to have been completed by 1812, but for some reason the lease, expiring in 1872, was not executed until 1818. (fn. 39)
No contemporary illustrations of the house are known. Later engravings and photographs show a brick building of two main storeys, and an attic storey contained within a slated mansard roof (fig. 224). In photographs the parapet and narrow bandcourse between the ground and first storeys, being apparently of stone, stand out against the darker brickwork of the walls. On the first floor the windows were set within shallow recessed arches. The dominating feature of the exterior, however, was the four tall chimney-stacks. The south front overlooked gardens and pleasure grounds which extended southwards behind the backs of the houses in Canal Row.
The Pitcher family occupied the house until the late 1840s. (fn. 40) In 1848 it was described as 'a spacious and very commodious modern Residence, adapted for a proprietor, acting manager or officers, with lawns and gardens stocked with fruit trees, coach house, stables, offices and yards'. (fn. 41) But the purchasers of Pitcher's yard, J. & F. Somes, evidently had no use for it and in 1853 they presented the house, rent-free, to the Sailors' Home Institution, a newly formed organization set up to establish moderately priced yet comfortable board-and-lodging houses for seamen 'of all types'. (fn. 42)
Under the energetic command of its founder and managing director, Captain (later Admiral) W. H. ('Nemesis') Hall, the Sailors' Home Institution aimed to provide more than just board and lodging. There were medical facilities, an information service about jobs and vacancies on merchant ships, savings banks (to encourage 'provident habits'), and reading-rooms, which it was hoped would keep the sailors out of 'low public houses'. In its first year the Institution established 11 homes. Several local firms supported its work, including Messrs Somes, the East and West India Dock Company, and the shipbuilders, Money Wigram & Sons. (fn. 43)
The conversion of Pitcher's old house into the Poplar Sailors' Home was carried out under Hall's superintendence in 1853–4, the official opening, which was 'somewhat expedited, in consequence of Captain Hall having volunteered to serve in the Baltic', taking place in February 1854. The Poplar home then contained 50 beds, but had room for double that number. As well as a dining-room, located in the main part of the house, there was a refreshment-room serving tea and coffee and basins of 'wholesome soup'. The refreshment-room and the 'comfortable' reading-room were both situated in what may have been a newly built range to the west of the house. Hall presented the reading-room with a copy of Nemesis in China, his own account of the war in which 'the gallant Captain took so distinguished a part'. (fn. 44)
For all its good intentions the Poplar Sailors' Home was a failure and soon closed. (fn. 45) The premises, renamed Lawn House, reverted to private occupation, being let in 1858 to William Arrowsmith, a prosperous steamship broker and shipowner. (fn. 46) In 1868 he surrendered his lease to the freeholder, the East and West India Dock Company, which in 1870 converted the house into two separate residences for its Principal Engineer and his foreman. In 1891 the occupants were both dockmasters. (fn. 47) Lawn House was demolished in 1941, having twice suffered severe bomb damage. (fn. 48) (fn. 3)
Glen Terrace: Nos 575–615 (odd) Manchester Road (Nos 575–577 demolished)
This row of houses on the west side of Manchester Road consisted originally of a uniform terrace of 17 houses (Nos 575–607) and four differently designed houses at the northern end (Nos 609–615). It was the product of two separate campaigns of development, in the early and late 1880s, but there is no tidy match between the breaks in chronology and design.
Following the demolition of Canal Row and the widening of the roadway in 1877, the dock company did not itself bring forward any plans to redevelop the site, and in 1880 they adopted a scheme for letting the ground on building leases presented to them by Bradshaw Brown, a surveyor and auctioneer with offices in Westferry Road and the City. (fn. 49) (fn. 4) As it turned out, there was virtually no demand for the building plots here, and only one house was erected under Brown's plan. This was No. 615, a plain flat-fronted house built in 1881 by H. G. Smith of Bromley, and leased to William Jabez Davis, coffee-house keeper, of Bromley Hall Road, Bromley, who opened another coffee house here, which he called the South Dock Coffee House. (fn. 51) It was originally only three storeys high, above the basement, and had a shop-front on the ground floor (Plate 98c). A fourth storey has been added since 1928. No. 615 continued to be occupied as a cafe (variously described as dining rooms or coffee rooms) until the early 1920s; in 1924–5 it was converted for occupation by a PLA police family. (fn. 52)
Undeterred by its failure to let the other plots, the dock company continued to advertise them through the 1880s. There were many enquiries but no takers. According to a report in 1887 the reason was that 'a higher price has been asked for land than could have been obtained in even the most prosperous days of the Isle of Dogs'. (fn. 53) After this the company gave up trying to let the ground, and it was sold to raise money to help pay for the costs of making Tilbury Docks. The purchaser, who offered £1,550 for the freehold, was William Warren, an estate agent in East India Dock Road, who immediately set about developing the site in association with George Larman, a builder from Plaistow. (fn. 5) In March 1888 Larman gave notice to the District Surveyor of his intention to build a row of 20 houses here. The work was completed in 1890. (fn. 55)
The new houses (with the earlier coffee house) were called Glen Terrace, after the Glen Shipping Line (McGregor, Gow & Company) which temporarily had occupied the site in the early 1880s, (fn. 6) and they were numbered 1–21, from north to south. A stone tablet with the name Glen Terrace was affixed to No. 21 (later No. 575). In 1891 the houses were renumbered as part of Manchester Road.
Part of the finance for the development was provided by the Orient Permanent Building Society, of which William Warren was a director. Established in 1880, with an office in East India Dock Road, the Society promoted the virtues and advantages of owner-occupancy in East London: 'their great contention was, and they believed it should be of all similar institutions, that borrowers should occupy their houses'. (fn. 57) A few individuals did borrow from the Society to buy houses in Glen Terrace, but most of the money that it put into the development was advanced to the builder, George Larman.
Larman originally intended to erect six three-storey houses with basements at the north end of the site adjoining the coffee house, and 14 slightly narrower twostorey houses with basements on the southern part of the site. In the event he built a uniform terrace of 17 twostorey houses over semi-basements (Nos 575–607); a pair of differently designed two-storey houses with shops (Nos 609 and 611); and one three-storey house, also with a shop (No. 613). The chronological sequence seems to be that No. 613 was built first (Plate 98c) - it was occupied before the end of 1888 - and that some of the houses in the uniform terrace were begun, and possibly completed, before work started on Nos 609 and 611. At No. 613 the first occupant was the proprietor of the adjoining coffee shop, then William Dickinson; the shops at Nos 609 and 611 were originally a tobacconist's and a boot-maker's respectively. The Inland Revenue's valuation survey of 1909–15 dismissed the shops here with the comment 'very poor business neighbourhood'. (fn. 58)
The remainder of Glen Terrace — the uniform range — was begun in 1888 and completed by 1890, when all the houses were occupied. The date 1889 was carved into the stone capitals of the piers shared by the porches at Nos 575 and 577 and Nos 587 and 589. Though not distinguished as architecture, the houses here are both larger and more elaborately elevated than most latenineteenth-century terraces in the area (Plate 98a, b; fig. 225), and were doubtless intended to appeal to the owneroccupier. (A contemporary development by Warren and Larman in Coldharbour, where the houses were let to weekly tenants, was much more modest.) It is not known who designed the houses, but a likely candidate must be Harry Hooper, a surveyor and estate agent in Westferry Road who was one of Warren's fellow directors on the board of the Orient Permanent Building Society. Hooper had earlier been a partner in an architectural practice (Hooper & Lewis) at the same address in Westferry Road, which was also Bradshaw Brown's.
In the uniform range (Nos 575–607) the houses are arranged as mirrored pairs, with one half of a pair (No. 607) at the north end. Built of brick, with stone dressings and slate roofs, the houses are two storeys high over raised basements, and have full-height square bays with gables, front areas with iron railings and steps up to the front doors. The stone dressings round the porches and the bay windows are decorated with carved foliage and individual heads, the latter showing a variety of headgear, including a top hat and a bowler. Several of the faces sport handlebar moustaches (Plate 99a). Because the ground level rises from south to north the ground floors at the south end of the terrace are much higher above the roadway than those to the north. Larman had intended to provide all the houses with back extensions, but nine were built without them.
Warren and Larman sold the houses as freeholds, the average price being about £350. But this attempt to extend owner-occupancy in Poplar was not particularly successful, as most buyers let their houses to tenants. (fn. 59) One of the few purchasers to live there was a ship's steward, John Mancar, who bought No. 601 in 1889. Another was a berthing master, James M. Smith, at No. 575. At the time of the 1891 census no fewer than nine houses in the uniform terrace were already in divided occupation. Not surprisingly, most heads of household were 'blue collar' workers, with just a sprinkling of 'white collar' occupations. (fn. 7) Four householders were able to employ a single servant each. They included James M. Smith at No. 575, one of the few houses still in single occupation. (fn. 60)
The original house at No. 599 was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War and the cleared site remained unoccupied until 1986–7, when a small mildly Post-Modern block of flats was built there. Nos 575 and 577 were demolished in 1991.
The Britannia Works Site
To the south and south-west of Glen Terrace a triangular piece of land was occupied between 1893 and 1922 by the Britannia Works of Messrs Lane & Neeve, sailcloth and sacking manufacturers of the Minories. Much of this site had formed the southern end of the garden of Lawn House. In 1876 it was leased by Messrs Money Wigram & Sons, shipowners of Blackwall Yard, who appear to have been responsible for erecting some industrial premises there which Lane & Neeve took over when they bought Wigram's lease in 1893. Lane & Neeve added a singlestorey drying-room in 1894. In 1899 the firm bought the freehold of the adjacent vacant site behind Nos 575–597 from Warren and Larman. After Lane & Neeve went into liquidation in 1922 the Britannia Works site was acquired by the PLA and had been cleared of buildings by 1937. (fn. 61)
The Former Dockyard Site
After the closure of John Stewart & Sons and the levelling of the yard nothing was done with the site until the 1940s. It was then used by the PLA for houses for assistant dockmasters and police officers (Plate 99c). Four pairs of semi-detached houses, with garages and gardens, were erected in 1946–8 and numbered 3–10 South West India Dock Entrance. (The intended Nos 1–2 were never built.) These are solidly built two-storey houses, traditional in style, with brick cavity walls and hipped tiled roofs. The large-pane metal-frame windows are a deviation from the original design, which shows small-pane Georgian-style windows. Nos 3–4 and 6 stand directly above the old dry docks and No. 5 partly so. A four-bedroom detached house and garage (No. 14) for the Dockmaster of the India and Millwall Dock (who was being moved out of Bridge House) was added in 1955 in the south-west corner of the site. It was built by Mowlems. (fn. 62)