Origin of the name Isle of Dogs  

How the Isle of Dogs came by its name, has never been satisfactorily explained and still remains a mystery today. Various suggestions have been made.

One theory is that it is a corruption of the "Isle of Ducks." Another theory is Henry VIII and Charles II when in residence at Greenwich, they used to hunt in Essex, but kennelled their hounds over the river, in order to save time and expense of ferrying them over when going hunting. Hence the name "The Isle of Dogs."  However the earliest known record of this name is on a map from 1588. 

It may simply have been a nickname of contempt, the writers Thomas Nashe and Ben Johnson co- wrote a play in 1597 called The Isle of Dogs, Nashe briefly took refuge in Great Yarmouth in the autumn of 1597 as the uproar caused by the play led to a warrant being issued for his arrest. The play is lost because it was instantly and ruthlessly suppressed, but whatever was in it so enraged the Privy Council that all the London theatres were closed in punishment, and Nashe forced to leave town so suddenly he lost all his papers and notebooks, seized at his lodgings.

Nashe  works were further suppressed by Archbishop Whitgift and Bishop Bancroft when they decreed that "all Nashe's books and Doctor Harvey's books be taken wheresoever they may be found and that none of their books bee ever printed hereafter."

Another suspiciously sentimental theory is made by Strype, an historian, who was born in Stepney in 1643, and closely in touch with the life of the place.

He says a man was murdered on the island by some person or persons unknown. A mystery it might have remained to the end of time but for the dead man's dog. 

The faithful dog refused to leave the body except at such time as it was forced to swim across the river for food. No one took much notice of this dog until one occasion, encountering a Greenwich waterman, the dog was noticed to take a violent dislike to him, snarling at him whenever it saw him. This  behaviour raising suspicion, the man was arrested and brought to trial, whereupon he admitted his guilt, and was duly and legally executed.

In the Middle Ages, the Isle of Dogs was known as Stepney Marsh and came within Stepney parish. In the middle of the marsh was a hamlet called Pomfret which  had fields, a windmill, manor house and chapel, first built in the late 12th Century by William of Pontefract. For a short period from 1448, when 500 acres were drained by the Bishop, of London, to 1529, when the embankment burst, the land was used for grazing.

This was one of two recorded cases where Island was inundated. The 1529 flooding was said to be due to neglect of some landowners to repair the embankment, the tide broke through and a "thousand acres were drowned." The identical spot is alleged to have been where Limehouse Basin now exists; the second flood occurred about 1660, and Mr. Samuel Pepys records that "he saw the great breach which the late high water made."  

Legal quays were established down stream from London Bridge from 1558 where all foreign good had to be landed so that duties could be imposed. By the 18th Century London had 1,400 feet of legal quays and a further 3,700 feet of sufferance wharves, mainly on the South Bank where lower value imported goods could be landed.   

By the late 18th Century, the Thames was so badly jammed up with ships that unloading cargos could be delayed for weeks on end. In 1794, 3,663 ships entered the pool of London from foreign waters with cargos to unload, most of them in the short summer season.

Delayed handing led to piracy and pilfering from ships and quays, especially the East and West India Companies cargos of sugar, rum, coffee and hardwoods.

Secure trading docks were the solution to the chaos on the Thames. Liverpool had developed the first such docks between 1710-1717 and by 1795 had built up an extensive system.

The Merchant companies were pressing for the development of enclosed docks on the Thames, but these moves were being resisted by the City of London Corporation who were keen to maintain their monopoly.  

John Perry constructed the first Dock on the north side of the Thames; this was opened in 1789 and known as the Brunswick Dock; it was especially built for the reception of East Indiamen,

The centre of the peninsula remained completely empty until the Millwall Docks and its wharves, chiefly for grain and timber, took a huge slice out of it in the 1860ís.

By the end of the 19th Century the range of industries was immense, from milling flour and oilseed and baking, to the iron and maritime trades and wharfage. Chemicals and engineering became especially important, but these declined after the Second World War. At the same time the successful industries relocated to new industrial estates, leaving mainly a rump of warehouses, depots and scrapyards, ill-favoured by communications once road became more important than river. 

Houses, inhabited almost entirely by dockers and industrial workers, crept over the farmland only slowly and included both average London terraces and mean rows of off-street cottages built by speculators.

By 1854 this polluted but respectable district, almost as isolated as it had been a century before, had a population of 5,000 at a density of about 10 per house. By 1901 there were 21,000 people, but even this local population did not supply sufficient workers for the docks and industries and many commuted from adjacent communities. The opening of the Greenwich foot tunnel in 1902 improved access to the Island from the South and drew many South Londoners to work on the Island.

By 1801 London was on the verge of a population explosion. The population of London had doubled in the 100 years since 1700

A view from Greenwich before the construction of the Royal Naval Hospital and the windmills which gave rise to the name Mill Wall on the Isle of Dogs

If Willey Reveley scheme had been adopted there would never have been a Millwall Football Club
Above: A view towards London from Greenwich by Jan Vorsterman circa 1680

 from around 500,000 to 1,114,000. The next 100 years would see the population grow to over 7,000,000.

The fifty years up to 1800 had seen massive changes in industry, trade and agriculture. The Industrial revolution combined with the trading opportunities of Empire coincided with the creation of a large urban workforce due to the depopulating effects on the countryside of the enclosure movement.

In London from Medieval times until the advent of the industrial revolution in many districts the poor lived cheek by jowl with the rich and often their employment was dependant directly upon them. Slowly the social fabric of London began to change. 

New business practices and the expansion of administration (both Government and Commerce) created the lower middle classes of clerks and book-keepers. Mechanisation in Industry led to de-skilling of the labour force as craftsmen found themselves superseded by machines. At the same time a new pool of skilled workers, Engineers, was created to maintained the machines.

Though the marsh was thoroughly drained in the 17th Century and grazing resumed, the Island kept a melancholy reputation. Windmills were built along the West flood bank, known from the late 18th Century as the Mill Wall. The first mill appeared towards the North end of the Isle in 1679 and by the 1740s there were twelve, chiefly of postmill type and run by millers from the South bank at Rotherhithe.


A view of London, taken from One Tree Hill, Greenwich Park (Circa 1752), shows, seven mills standing along the river bank at Millwall, and a copy of this print can be seen in the Poplar Library

At that date, there was inland only one farmhouse, Chapel House, perhaps developed from the medieval chapel, another house by the ferry to Greenwich, and a white-lead factory on the river close to Limehouse. A mast house was built at the South West inlet known as Drunken Dock circa 1766 and, by the time the enclosed docks opened in 1806, there was a scattering of industries along the river, including the Millwall Foundry. 

Below: The West India Dock and the City Canal and the unpopulated Isle of Dogs to the South.

and was on the site of the present East India (Export) Dock. Its success was immediate, proving the practicability of enclosed docks for ships and cargoes. 


The Thames pirates of those days were notorious; regular organised bands existed, under various names, as the Heavy Horsemen, the Night Plunderers, etc., and their robberies were rampant. It is said that of 37,000 persons employed on the river Thames at least 11,000 were thieves, and their annual booty amounted to half a million sterling. Mr. Perry's idea, therefore, was hailed with enthusiasm, and the West India Merchants subscribed £800,000 for a Dock on the Isle of Dogs in two days.  

However Planning permission was problem and it was nine years later before anything tangible was accomplished. In 1799 the Act authorising the construction of the West India Docks passed a cynical House of Commons.

The project had been held up while the House of Commons considered rival schemes including the one by Willey Reveley in 1796 to straighten the Thames and use the old curves as docks. It was finally rejected on the grounds that it would have been to difficult an engineering feat.

It is perhaps fortunate that Willey Reveley scheme was rejected or Millwall Football may never have been formed.

This newly enlarged workforce was more affluent than the previous generation and were mass producing  affordable consumer goods.  The links between manufacturer and customer became impersonal and indirect. Factories replaced workshops and cottage industries, the owners of businesses were less likely to know their employees by name. Goods were sold in shops rather than directly from the workshop as the first consumer society was created. 

To the uncomprehending outside world the implication of fundamental changes were not seen. Napoleon famously dismissed Britain as a National of Shop Keepers, not understanding the growing industrial superpower across the channel that could easily finance the Allies war efforts against the French despite the French economic sanctions against Britain in the form of the Continental System.

In the rapidly expanding city new districts sprang up where the classes became segregated, West End areas such as Mayfair, Bayswater and Bloomsbury becoming the preserve of the rich.

As in Georgian and Regency London, the great landed estates in the West end control development by specifying what kinds of buildings could be erected and how they were to be used, forbidding industrial and commercial uses, and sometimes employing gatekeepers to regulate access by non-residents.

View of the Proposed West India Docks and City Canal by W Daniell (1802)

The Docks: The Second Great Enclosure revolution.

The affect of enclosure in agriculture is well documented, but the enclosure of the docks was to lead to boom in trade which allowed large Urban populations to be supported.

After the building of the first stone bridge across the Thames at London Bridge, completed in 1209, the Pool of London was divided into two  parts. Below the bridge, although there was deep water anchorage, but only small craft could pass through the arches of the bridge.


It is recorded that James I (James VII of Scotland) 1603 - 1625 most parsimonious of the Stuarts, had threatened the people with new taxes and imposts, and declared he would remove the court from London. "May it please your Majesty," answered the Mayor, "there is one consolation for the merchants of London: you cannot take the Thames along with you." Tradition is silent as to what the King said in reply.


Taxation weighed heavily on the merchants under the Stuarts; to Tonnage and Poundage, James I added Impositions, a tax that aroused the Commons to protest. Tonnage weighed grievously on the Thames wine merchants, the tax being 1/6 to 3/- per ton, varying in the quality of the vintage; poundage was 7d. to 1/- on goods sold by weight. But notwithstanding these irksome taxes the East India wine merchants amassed great wealth, and their successors in the century following eagerly came forward to bear the cost of the proposed Docks. 


In 1802 William Pitt inaugurated the Import and Export Docks of the West India Docks; the cost was approximately £17,000 per acre, and the area covered exceeds fifty-five acres.  

Millwall Dock is at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs; it was opened in 1864; it cost about £7,000 per acre. 


The building of West India Docks transformed the North of the peninsula and development in a small way followed their opening. But it was the building of the East and West roads to the Greenwich ferry in 1812-15 (now East Ferry and Westferry Roads) that encouraged development over the rest, at that time divided between a number of landowners but two-thirds owned by William Mellish, one of the promoters of the West India Docks.

Industry was quickly established along the West bank of the peninsula. The large south west  sites were taken by shipbuilders, such as Sir William Fairbairn (Burrell's Wharf), but shipyards thrived only until the late 1860s when economic depression took hold.  The other smaller sites were constantly changing as new proprietors introduced new industries and amalgamated wharves. The East side was developed more comprehensively by William Cubitt from 1842, on land bought from Mellish's daughter. He masterminded the embankment of the river, leasing the wharves, laying out the roads and encouraging speculative builders; subsequently the same process of change and amalgamation occurred along the river on the West. 

Some landowners introduced forms of land use zoning: along the northern edge of Mayfair, between Grosvenor Square end Oxford Street, the Duke of Westminster promoted the construction of blocks of working-class 'model dwellings' as a kind of cordon sanitaire dividing the luxury houses in the heart of this estate and the commercial disorder of Oxford Street.

Rates of house building fluctuated much more than the rate of population growth. In general, builders over reacted to economic booms and slumps. In response to boom conditions they  would build too many houses too late, so that by the time the houses were ready for occupation, demand was on the wane, leaving a glut of unsaleable properties. When prosperity returned builders would react too slowly, and working-class families would be forced to take in lodgers to help pay increasing rents, or to double up with other families.

There were always more middle-class dwellings built than there were families to occupy them, hence to decline into seedy shabbiness of estates in Notting Hill, North Paddington and south of King's Cross. These large terraced houses were subdivided for occupancy by several working-class or lower middle-class families.

The new lower-middle-class of clerks, book-keepers and school teachers mostly found homes in suburbs and like Holloway and Camberwell, linked to the city by horse drawn trams and the new suburban railways. These suburbs, were a cut above respectable

Left: A Panorama of the River Thames by Smith circa 1845. Below the Greenwich Railway Viaduct.

working class districts, which were located close to major industrial zones - around the Great Eastern Railway works in Stratford for example of following the line of the London and Greenwich railway through Bermondsey and Deptford. London was not only developing into a large conurbation, but its population was been distributed into distinctive social areas by status and wealth.                              Continued......

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