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Gone to the Dogs:  The Isle of Dogs, that is.

West India Docks, c.1935: Bananas being loaded onto rail trucks on the North Quay of the Export Dock.

I’ve always wanted to visit the Isle of Dogs, in all honesty more for its name than anything else, so when I got the opportunity to visit I was determined to discover some of history behind this curiously named part of London.

Canary Wharf situated on the Isle of Dogs is now a busy financial centre that is awash with skyscrapers, swish hotels and fine dining, but it has a long history that saw it once being a thriving port taking in sugar, rum, bananas and even elephants.  It derives its name from the fact that many of the imports which arrived there when it was a dock originated from the Canary Islands.  However, the origins of the name of the Isle of Dogs itself are steeped in mystery and no conclusive answers as to the roots of its name can be offered, indeed, it even caused the writer, Dickens to ponder over its heritage.

In Medieval times, the Isle of Dogs was known as Stepney Marsh or Stebunheath and in the 13th Century it was drained to support meadows and pasturelands.  It was a rather isolated place in these early days as it was just pastureland and cornfields that had been divided, drained and were accessed via tracks.  It was a rather quarantined place that was prone to flooding from the Thames that snakes around it. The East side of the island became an area where ships were often moored and repaired, whereas the rest of the island gained a reputation as a cold, damp and desolate place which led to the famous diarist Samuel Pepys describing it as the “unlucky Isle of Dogs.”

South West India Docks, 1968: Four elephants returning from a Chipperfield’s Circus tour of South Africa.

The islands dismal reputation was only heightened by the practice of hanging and gibbeting pirates at the southern tip of the island.  Gibbeting or “Hanging in chains ” as it was called was  a grisly practice and formed part of the justice system that believed murderers and other serious offenders should not have the benefit of a respectable burial.  Instead their bodies were either used for dissection or were put on public display to act as a deterrent. The gibbetting of pirates was done as a warning designed to dissuade other mariners who may have been tempted to stray up and down the Thames and to demonstrate the perils of becoming a pirate.  At one time a set of gallows stood at the bottom of the Island and it was a normal for those entering London by the river to witness the sight of rotting corpses of criminals along the Thames.  Thankfully things have changed and on my recent trip there was not a pirate’s corpse in sight, instead all I saw was floating bars and hordes of tourists.

It was not until the 18th century when the flood defences had been strengthened that windmills were built along the west of the island to harness the power of the strong winds for grinding corn; giving the area its name of Millwall. Even with the installation of windmills and a growing boat industry the island was very sparsely populated with most residents tending to be fishermen, herdsmen, farmers or millers. This all changed in the 19th Century when the West India Docks were built.

The building of the West India Docks was a huge undertaking and at the time, it was the largest and most costly building project in the world, costing the equivalent of £82 million in today’s money. It is still considered to be the country’s greatest civil engineering structure of its day.

West India Docks, 1900: North Quay viewed from the warehouse which is now the site of Hertsmere Road.

The huge challenge of creating the West India Docks, transformed the island from being a relatively unknown place of dubious reputation into a bustling industrial centre with the docks and shipbuilders yards forming the main industries.

The area continued to grow and thrive and by the end of the 19th century, the docks were energetic and tireless places.  Suddenly with the prospect of employment people began to move onto the island in large numbers. Manual workers at the docks were employed as casuals on a daily basis and would queue at the dock gates each morning for the ‘call-on’ when they would hope to be chosen for work. These men were often seeking work in the face of desolation, suffering malnutrition and desperate to work – if they were turned away it spelled more hunger and despair for them and their families, but if chosen the work was back-breaking. The work was not only tough and labour intensive but there was also the hazard of the abrasive sugar leaking from the sacks rubbing their necks, shoulders and hands raw; this problem was so great that it gave the quayside the old name of Blood Alley.

Looking at West India Quay as it is today, with the high tariff, Marriott hotel in the centre and West India Quay Docklands Light Railway station to the right, it is hard to imagine the docks and indeed the islands fierce past.  Now the bustle comes from the traffic and the blood, sweat and tears of the dock workers has faded into the pages of our history books.

With thriving docklands it is not surprising to learn that the island also housed dockside iron foundries which produced guns for the Royal Naval Fleets in the 18th and 19th centuries. When I learned that there was an historic public house, called, ‘The Gun ‘ ,and that it took its current name from the cannon which was fired to celebrate the opening of the West India Imports Dock s in 1802, I decided to have a look around.  From the outside The Gun looked like any other traditional London pub, but inside was a pleasant surprise, old world charm was mixed with white linen tablecloths and refinery.  This was nothing like the Queen Vic  off ‘Eastenders’, this was this was more fine dining than old London.

A look around  ‘The Gun’ and a chat with the floor manager, Barbara, revealed that the pub had a long association with smugglers landing contraband on the site and distributing their smuggled goods through a hidden tunnel. I was delighted to hear that to this day there is still a spy-hole in the secret circular staircase that was put there to watch out for ‘The Revenue Men’.  I wonder if any of those smugglers ended up in the hanging chains.

Over a very nice lunch that was thankfully not reminiscent of a meal that would have been enjoyed by the Dock and foundry workers that once frequented this hostelry;  I learned  that in the late eighteenth century Lord Horatio Nelson acquired a property a short distance away that is still known as Nelson’s House, and during his frequent visits to the docks to inspect the guns, he would  visit The Gun and conduct his private liaisons with  Lady Emma Hamilton in an upstairs room , now known as The River Room.

It seemed that this area was built to prosper and growth was particularly fast in the 19th Century. It was an area which enjoyed a unique existence based on the growth and prosperity of traditional port activities including ship repair, heavy engineering, food processing, warehousing and distribution.  The direct import of raw materials such as tobacco, timber, sugar and animal skins allowed industries to grow and thrive.

The success of the docks continued into the 20th Century, but its luck ran out when the Second World War struck.  The effects of war had a catastrophic effect on the island and the resident islanders. The relentless bombing of the Docks by the Germans resulted in much of it being destroyed, but in the spirit of true British endeavour the docks remained open and played a vital part in the war effort.

The war resulted in the whole of the East End being devastated. It struggled to pull through and any recovery was slow; overcrowding was rife and living conditions were very challenging and often grim.

Although the docks hung on in a bid to survive and continued to function in the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s, the shipping traffic fell as ships began to unload at the bigger docks further along the Thames. Once again the Isle of Dogs was faced with degeneration.  Salvation came in the creation of a Dockland Agency in the 1980′s which sought to find ways to regenerate the area. After a period of decline the Isle of Dogs emerged from a chrysalis and a new financial district called Canary Wharf emerged. New and trendy this new district challenged Central London and attracted big business. The Docklands  was desirable once again.  As I looked around the area, today I noted plenty of desirable residences and blocks of apartments dotted around the island and it seems that this area has had a lucky break.

Well I didn’t solve the riddle of why this island is called, Isle of Dogs, but I did find that there are hidden gems everywhere and that it is only a 20 minute ride from the centre of London.

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