Prior to the 19th century, the district was largely marshland, and accessible only by boat, or a toll bridge. In 1809, an Act of Parliament was passed for the construction of the Barking Road
between the East India Docks
and Barking. A five span iron bridge was constructed in 1810 to carry the road across the River Lea at Bow Creek
. This bridge was damaged by a collision with a collier in March 1887 and replaced by the London County Council (LCC) in 1896. This bridge was in turn replaced in 1934, at a site to the north and today’s concrete flyover begun in smaller form in the 1960s, but successively modified to incorporate new road layouts for the upgraded A13 road and a feeder to the Limehouse Link tunnel, avoiding the Blackwall Tunnel
. The abutments of the old iron bridge have now been utilised for the Jubilee footbridge, linking the area to Leamouth, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, on the western bank of the Lea.
The area is thought to be named for the first Viceroy of India, Charles John Canning, who suppressed the Indian Mutiny about the time the district expanded. The population increased rapidly after the North London Line was built from Stratford to North Woolwich, in 1846. This was built to carry coal and goods from the docks; and when the passenger station was first built it was known as Barking Road
. Speculative builders constructed houses for the workers attracted by the new chemical industries established in the lower reaches of the River Lea, and for the nearby Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company
and Tate & Lyle refinery.
The opening of the Royal Victoria Dock in 1855 accelerated the development of the area creating employment and a need to house dock workers and their families. New settlements around the dock developed, starting with Hallsville, Canning Town and Woolwich, and later the areas now known as Custom House, Silvertown and West Silvertown. The new settlements lacked water supply and had no sewage system, leading to the spread of cholera and smallpox. The casual nature of employment at the docks meant poverty and squalid living conditions for many residents.
The industries around the dock were often unhealthy and dangerous. As trade unions and political activists fought for better living conditions and the dock area became the centre of numerous movements with Will Thorne, James Keir Hardie and other later becoming leading figures in the Labour Party. From the late 19th century, a large African mariner community was established in Canning Town as a result of new shipping links to the Caribbean and West Africa.