The Normans are the first recorded settlers. William of Pontefract had an 80-acre estate on the Isle of Dogs (then called Stepney Marsh, later ‘The Island’) in the late 12th century, his lands boasting a chapel and a manor house.
And by the mid 14th century the manor and its farms were still intact, with quotes of labourers reaping the corn that grew there.
In the 15th century, when Poplar, Limehouse and Blackwall were beginning to industrialise, the Island stayed remote, maintaining its agricultural nature.
Fishing was important too, and the Marsh began to evolve as a quite different place from the rest of Stepney, with local people proudly referring to themselves as ‘of the marsh’.
But farming on Stebunheath (Stepney) Marsh suffered a setback in 1449. The old embankment wall had been neglected and the Thames broke through. The hamlet of Pontefract Manor fell into decline, and there is no evidence of corn growing after this point.
The farmland was pressed into new use, with the marshy pastures being used to hold and fatten cattle brought to London for slaughter. The laws of the time meant that slaughter was only allowed in two London locations – Stepney and Knightsbridge – at the east and west of London respectively, so the island became lucrative ground.
The island was now making connections south of the river. In the mid-1400s, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, created the park and mansion that became the foundation for Greenwich.
By the 1500s, there was a ferry running from the island to Greenwich and another to Deptford – setting off from what is now Deptford Ferry Road. In 1665, Samuel Pepys was catching the Deptford Ferry when he had the misfortune to be stranded because of a low tide.
He wrote: “We were fain to stay there, in the unlucky Isle of Doggs, in a chill place.”
The first rumblings of industrialisation came with the building of flour mills – a dozen were built on the western embankment of Stepney Marsh between 1679 and 1740, and the name Mill Wall was born.
By the end of the 18th century, some of the mills had converted to crushing oil seed, and the barges unloading the raw grain saw the start of the island’s history as a dock.
It was the rapid growth of London as a trading centre, together with the difficulty of getting ships in and out of the crowded and winding Thames, was to change the nature of the island forever.
Confronted by the risk of losing valuable business to Liverpool, the Corporation of London approved the building of London’s first wet docks for the loading, unloading and storage of cargoes.
The 1799 Act of Parliament allowed for the construction of the London Docks, at Wapping and the West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs.
The millers, cowherders and other rural folk who had largely escaped the bustle of London saw the new docks carve across their banks, ditches, meadows and lanes, cutting right across the neck of the old marsh and turning it into an island for real.
In 1800 the population of the island numbered 200, but by 1830 it had risen to 1,400.
Streets, an idea unknown on the island before, were quickly built in Millwall and Cubitt Town. Shops and pubs appeared.
Finally, with the building of Millwall Docks in the 1860s, all but a few scraps of isolated open land disappeared – the transformation from rural settlement to metropolitan London was complete.
Of course this meant a new population had to be drafted in, to work in the docks and shipyards. Migrants poured in from all over Britain and Ireland.
The island was a good place to be at the time, with the shipwrights enjoying a high status and good wages.
That abruptly changed in 1866, when a financial crisis hit the shipyards, closing many and throwing thousands out of work.
There is much documentation of the industry and firms which effected this transformation of the Isle of Dogs.
In 1811 it was reported that “some very extensive iron works have been lately established at Millwall, near the Canal and West India Docks, by Jukes, Coulson and Co [making] sheet and rod iron, for home consumption and exportation… anchors and mooring chains”.
Nearby, Sir Charles Price and Co had a mill for crushing rapeseed and linseed, a turpentine distillery and a manufactury of rosin.
Rope & cable makers
In 1817, Johnstone’s London Commercial Guide and Street Directory listed 32 businesses in Millwall. They included Samuel Brown, the chain cable maker; Ferguson and Todd, mastmakers; James Grellier, stone lime works; Joad and Curling, rope makers; and Greve, Grellier and Co, Roman cement makers.
The nautical links were obvious, with four mast makers, eight ship and barge builders, three ships chandlers, three timber merchants, an iron founder and a chart seller. Most were small businesses, all have now, of course, disappeared.
One of the bigger concerns was John Scott Russell’s engineering works. Latterly it took over the firms of those two great Scots engineers David Napier and William Fairbairn. Napier had pioneered steam-powered iron vessels from his Millwall yard; Fairbairn perfected tubular iron bridges.
The giant yard that Russell developed would be chiefly remembered for producing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s giant vessel The Great Eastern in 1858. This white elephant of a vessel proved too costly and cumbersome for transatlantic travel, and ended its days as a travelling exhibition and fun fair.
The collapse of shipbuilding saw the island’s second industrial revolution follow hard on the first.
From the 1860s on, and for the next hundred years, it would be docking that was the island’s business, with Millwall Docks opening in 1868.
New firms sprung up. Brown Lenox and Company, chain cable makers; Joseph Wetwoods, electrical and mechanical engineers; Locke Lancaster and Co, lead processors; and Duckhams Oil were just a few.
The 20th century saw a long and slow decline, of course. There were false dawns, but now the business of unloading ships is conducted down river, at Tilbury docks.
The industrial future of the island, meanwhile, seems to lie more in newsprint and money trading conducted in steel and glass towers – a long way from the river that first gave the Isle of Dogs its business and its jobs.
Copied from the defunct (2019) http://eastlondonhistory.com/ website.